Syria met the first deadline of its pledge to surrender its chemical weapons arsenal on Friday, delivering its initial disclosure to the headquarters of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague, Netherlands, by the time limit that Russia and the United States had set last weekend.
In a statement on its website, the organization said it had received the filing but it revealed nothing else, except that the disclosure “is now being examined by the Technical Secretariat,” the group’s experts.
Reaction from the U.S. State Department, which has voiced skepticism that Syria would abide by the U.S.-Russia deal, was muted. When she was asked whether it was an encouraging sign that Syria had submitted the document on time, spokeswoman Marie Harf said she didn’t want “to get ahead of the process.”
“But you are right that there has been a document submitted,” she said, adding, “We’ve said all along that we need to see forward momentum within these timelines that we’ve set up in the framework.”
By the book, once Syria is accepted as a member of the organization, it would have 10 years to destroy its arsenal, with the chance of a five-year extension. In Syria’s case, the timeline is expected to be closer to a single year, a task that Ahmet Uzumcu, the head of the organization, said in a statement this week was an “onerous responsibility that the world is placing on our shoulders.”
Other experts said that while the timeline was too short for the task being undertaken, the beginning of the process was a good sign.
“The most important thing is that this job is started, and that progress is made,” said Ralf Trapp, a chemical weapons consultant who was an original member of the preparatory commission that became the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in 1997 and who worked for the body until 2006. “If you can’t be optimistic about this job in Syria now, you’ve lost before you begin. So I choose to believe.”
Experts agree that the organization has had difficult tasks before. It was overseeing the destruction of Libya’s chemical arsenal when the revolt against Moammar Gadhafi broke out. After Gadhafi’s regime collapsed, the new Libyan government found and declared a previously unknown stash of mustard gas, which has yet to be fully destroyed.
Since its formation under the Chemical Weapons Convention, the organization has overseen the whittling of the world’s store of chemical weapons and ingredients from 71,196 metric tons to 13,456 metric tons, as of July 31. Stockpiles have been identified and destroyed or are being destroyed in Albania, India, Iraq, Libya, Russia and the United States.
The organization’s usual role – inspect, advise and verify the voluntary destruction of an arsenal during peacetime – can be complicated. But Syria is particularly so, because of the civil war raging there. Experts see a list of complications that is daunting.
To start with, the Syrian arsenal was just announced, and it represents about 7 percent of the global arsenal. It’s large and deadly.
It’s under the control of what’s considered an untrustworthy regime, and the Western world thinks poorly of its leader, President Bashar Assad. Much of the world thinks he’s used chemical weapons against the rebels in the two-and-a-half-year-old civil war.
That mistrust is multiplied by a rebel opposition that in part is at least as untrustworthy. Recent reports place the number of al Qaida members or sympathizers in the rebellion at up to 40 percent of its fighters. While experts note that categorizing this rebellion is a difficult business, no one denies that the substantial percentage of fighters with anti-Western perspectives is worrying.
“The war will go on while the destruction of this arsenal is undertaken,” said David Butter, a Syria expert at the British research center Chatham House. “While it’s fair to say the greatest hurdles are likely to be placed by the regime, there are growing concerns even among the rebels about the more radical elements, which have recently been targeting aid workers and journalists, and see any Western target as fair game. Security will have to be considered at every step.”
The Syrian arsenal is scattered around a large and dangerous country. A U.S. official familiar with the Syrian program, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss it publicly, estimated that Assad has spread his weapons and production facilities to 45 sites.
That presents unique challenges, Trapp said. One of them is the sheer number of experienced and qualified people who’ll be needed to go into a very dangerous situation to make this work.
Trapp estimated that the group will need 10 inspectors to examine smaller Syrian facilities and that larger facilities could require as many as 20. To get the job done in a year, he said, “It’s obvious that these efforts will have to run parallel to each other.”
If the U.S. estimate is correct, that would require a minimum of 450 inspectors.
“I can’t imagine that this effort will require hundreds of inspectors,” Trapp said. “But it will require a lot of qualified people from a great variety of places.”
The costs also are expected to be high, especially as the world is insisting that the process be quick. In an interview this week with Fox News, Assad said the cost would be $1 billion. That’s far more than the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has available. Its 2012 budget was $95 million, and the largest donor nation is the United States, at $19 million.
Stephen Long, an international security expert at the University of Richmond, said the expectation that Syria’s disarmament could be completed by the middle of next year, as the U.S. and Russia agreed, made it difficult to see how it could be done.
“The shape of this investigation is being driven by politics, more than the end goal or the safety of the inspectors or what is realistic,” he said. “On one hand, we don’t know how cooperative Assad will be. On the other, the rebels see this deal as legitimizing Assad in the international community, and therefore as the West having sold them out. I have a hard time seeing this being a successful process.”