Logistics of Chemical Weapon Destruction

The destruction of Syria's stockpiles will be slow and laborious even if all goes according to script.


William J. Broad and David E. Sanger have a page 1 report in today’s NYT (“If History Is Any Measure, The Clock Is Ticking“) detailing just how laborious the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons will be even if all goes according to script.

When Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi had to convince the world 10 years ago that he was serious about giving up his chemical weapons, he dragged warheads and bombs into the desert and flattened them with bulldozers.

When Saddam Hussein, defeated in the Persian Gulf war of 1991, had to demonstrate that he was giving up his chemical arsenal, Iraqis protected by little more than tattered cloths over their faces poured some of the agents into ditches and set them on fire — to the shock of inspectors watching in heavy “moon suits.”

Weapons experts and diplomats say that if President Bashar al-Assad is serious about complying with the landmark agreement announced in Geneva on Saturday, he will have to take similarly dramatic action in the coming weeks. Anything short of an immediate demonstration of willingness, they say, will be a sign that Mr. Assad is seeking to drag out the process, betting that time is on his side as memories fade of the attack that is said to have killed more than 1,400 people and prompted a military standoff with the United States.

The benchmarks laid out in the Geneva agreement seek to capitalize on the momentum by imposing quick deadlines, including a requirement that Syria submit a complete list of its chemical weapons, and storage and production facilities within a week. The agreement also requires “immediate and unfettered” access to chemical weapons sites by international inspectors.

The agreement calls for the destruction of chemical agent mixing equipment by November and, perhaps most ambitious, for Syria to completely rid itself of chemical weapons and production facilities in less than a year, a timetable that would set a speed record and one that many experts doubt could be completed even with Syria’s full cooperation.

Indeed, Libya’s chemical stockpiles remain rather large despite active compliance. Indeed, the United States has been working on dismantling its own stockpiles for going on three decades and is nowhere close to finished. Further, “Even in the cases of Iraq and Libya, which cooperated in the destruction of their stockpiles, small stashes of chemical weapons have been found years later, apparently not out of any intentional deception but because they were simply forgotten.”

At the core of the debate over how to test Mr. Assad are two conflicting strategies to getting rid of chemical arms: the slow, safe and costly, versus the quick and dirty. When the United States had to get rid of Nazi Germany’s chemical weapons, it dumped them into the Baltic Sea; Japan’s ended up in the Pacific.

But the United States’ effort to get rid of its own stockpile has now taken 28 years and $35 billion — and it is not yet over. Over the years, the United States has led the world in developing special furnaces that scrub out dangerous waste products, and it has created methods to react the material with water and other chemicals to permanently undo the toxic structures. It has built seven destruction plants across the world, including at Johnston Atoll in the Pacific and the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, and it is in the process of building two more, at Richmond, Ky., and Pueblo, Colo.

Mr. Obama has made it clear to his staff that no one has time for a painstakingly slow process in Syria, and the Geneva agreement reflects that urgency.

Iraq after the gulf war is a prime example of the quick-and-dirty approach. The chemical arsenal was destroyed, and at fire-sale prices compared with the costly American approach, said Charles A. Duelfer, a top United Nations official in the elimination of Iraq’s chemical arsenal.

“We gathered stuff from all over and destroyed it for under $10 million,” he recalled in an interview. Some leaky munitions were too dangerous to move, Mr. Duelfer said. “So we’d dig a pit, put in diesel fuel, and blow the stuff up.”

Raymond A. Zilinskas, a senior scientist at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and a former United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq, said chemical experts would get up early to beat the desert heat, donning full-body protective suits that protected them from hazardous fumes at sites where lethal toxins were being incinerated in open pits.

“They’d supervise the Iraqis,” he said of the United Nations inspectors. But the local workers themselves, he added, wore sandals and “put rags over their faces.”

None of this is a complaint about the process. Presuming the Russians and the threat of Western air strikes keep Assad motivated, getting him to sign the CWC and beginning the process of destroying his chemical weapons is a win. But it’s not going to happen overnight.

There’s also a countervailing pressure on Assad. What immediately came to mind after reading the opening sentences of the report is that both Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi were both ultimately attacked by the United States and killed by their own people despite active compliance. So, while he’s apparently motivated to do what’s necessary to avert US strikes in the near term, he’s got a powerful incentive to hedge his bets.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. steve says:

    Chem weapons wouldnt be especially effective in hedging against a US attack. For that Assad needs nukes.


  2. c.red says:

    This is still a win for the US no matter what. Even if the process takes a long time, or Assad holds some chemical weapons back, they have implicitly agreed to never use them again. As soon as they do the UN is more or less compelled to intervene, so there will be a strike next time. I’m pretty certain even the Russians would have a hard time justifying a veto at that point.

    Best for Assad would be to get all chemical weapons out of the country as quickly as possible and make it someone else’s problem.

  3. Raider says:

    And just like Libya and Iraq, you can believe that the plan is still in motion by the western horde to topple the Assad regime. The chemical weapons subject is just another form of the noose being tightened around Assad’s neck. I had to walk out the room when the antichrist Obama began feigning concern for the children and people of Syria being gassed by chemical weapons. Let’s face it, it was the Syrian rebels, sponsored by the CIA who really set off the gas.

    Take note of this however. Syria is a very old nation with a very rich history, and throughout all of her history Damascus has never been destroyed. Isaiah chapter 17 spoke of the future destruction of Damascus and we are heading towards those times of the fulfillment of that prophecy. When you see the destruction of Damascus, know also that the return of Christ is also very near,

    God loves you all.

  4. Mr. Prosser says:

    @c.red: I agree with you but; Question: Who loads these weapons or chemicals on whose ships and who transports them to where?

  5. steve says:

    Confirming Raider’s hypothesis, it turns out 666 children were killed in the gas attack. Clearly the mark of Obama.


  6. C. Clavin says:

    I love it…a zealot calls the President the anti-Christ.
    So very Christian.
    God loves you all…but not people that Raider has political differences with.

  7. Raider says:

    @ C. Clavin

    Obama is what he is, and he is the antichrist. That’s the truth. I do not sling words around and apply them carelessly. Haven’t you ever, even just for a moment asked yourself how a man with no real or meaningful history and a man with absolutely no qualifications to be president, became president?

    After 5 years, it is obvious that Obama, like no other president before him, is deliberately driving America over a cliff to her destruction. Haven’t you asked yourself yet, how can this be allowed to happen?

  8. michael reynolds says:


    I was just sitting here on my deck looking across the bay to San Francisco, and I couldn’t help but notice a distinct lack of destruction. So I have to assume it’s still coming. So my question is: should I buy a new car? I’m driving a 2008, and I can get another year out f it, but beyond that the repair costs start mounting. So, can you narrow down the date of the apocalypse?

  9. michael reynolds says:

    Oh, also, will there be a rapture thing happening? Because once all the Christians beam up to heaven car prices should drop substantially. Sadly I doubt local real estate will be much affected – not all that many hardcore Christians around here.

  10. wr says:

    @Raider: Trolls can be amusing, but if you are anywhere as disturbed as you come across this is beyond entertainment. You need serious help before you climb that clock tower with your sniper rifle.

    There are many mental health resources available online. Please look for one fast.

  11. wr says:

    @Raider: “Haven’t you ever, even just for a moment asked yourself how a man with no real or meaningful history and a man with absolutely no qualifications to be president, became president?”

    Every minute of every day — from January 2001 – January 2009. It never occurred to me that Bush was Satan. I thought only Iranians thought that.

  12. c.red says:

    @Mr. Prosser:

    The terms of the final UN agreement will most likely spell out those details, but there are plenty of candidates. Russia seems to be the obvious candidate and there is no real problem with them having more chemical weapons because they already have plenty. China is another, less desirable in my opinion, candidate. Logistics can be worked out, even during a civil war.

    I think the big part was getting an agreement that they will give them up. It signals that chemical weapons are not acceptable and even Syria agrees (even if it is under duress), it makes the expense of stockpiling and maintaining chemical weapons even less desirable if they can never be used.

  13. C. Clavin says:

    Obama is what he is, and he is the antichrist. That’s the truth. I do not sling words around and apply them carelessly


    No Qualifications??? He beat McCain and Romney. In America those are the only qualifications necessary. Why do you hate America?

  14. C. Clavin says:

    So…the anti-Crist wants to get health care for everyone…and Christians want the less fortunate to be without. Obama is clearly evil incarnate. 666 indeed.
    Obama has rid the world of such evil-doers as Al-Alaki, OBL, Ghaddafi…and now taken chemical weapons from Assad. Christians must be opposed to the actions of the anti-Christ…ipso facto…they wish he hadn’t.
    Obama pulled the economy out of its death spiral and saved the Auto Industry and the Financial Industry without nationalizing either. That devious anti-Christ. How dare he destroy something by saving it? Truly the work of the Devil Spawn.
    Americans are more free today in great part due to the anti-Christ…free to serve the country they love…free to marry who they love. Freer to become citizens. Freer to live their lives withou danger of bankruptcy due to illness. How dare he work such evil in the face of The Lord.

    God must be really p’oed at this Obama guy.

  15. rudderpedals says:

    raider’s sabbath greetings brought to you by the barely suppressed psychopathic projectionist’s association.

  16. anjin-san says:

    @ C. Clavin

    We need a new handle for Obama for guys like Raider. Maybe… “The Dark One”

  17. jukeboxgrad says:

    20% of Republicans think Obama is the anti-Christ. Link.

  18. Grewgills says:


  19. Davebo says:

    Don’t feed the trolls. But since that includes JIm and Doug I guess I’ve broken my own rule here.

  20. Rafer Janders says:


    Haven’t you ever, even just for a moment asked yourself how a man with no real or meaningful history and a man with absolutely no qualifications to be president, became president?

    Sure, of course I did, we all did, but Bush v. Gore was 13 years ago. It’s time to move on.

  21. Rob in CT says:

    Hey, so far so good. Bombs are not raining down, but the chemical weapons are off the table anyway. If this works out – and it’s starting to look like it will – the red line held, with only the threat of force. If things do go accordingly to plan, that’s about as good an outcome as one could have hoped for.

  22. Rob in CT says:

    From the start, anybody with a glimmer of intelligence understood there were no good options for a US President in regard to Syria. Given that, this (assuming, yes, that it actually happens) is basically a home run.

    No, it’s not going to prevent more slaughter in the civil war. But that wasn’t on the table. No good options, remember?

    I’m less interested than most OTB posters about maintaining a red line vis-a-vis chemical weapons, but it’s hard to argue it has zero value. Of course it has some value. And if it gets upheld via nothing but threats? That’s great.

    I see the last thread entailed a long argument about luck. Sure, there was luck here. But to their credit, both the Obama administration and Putin & Co. muddled through and reached at decent outcome. Would other leaders have been so lucky? Would they have siezed the opportunities available? I don’t know, and neither do any of you, though our most recent counter-example (Bush II in Iraq II) didn’t go down that way at all.

    Finally, the political angle: whether he really wanted to or not, Obama went to Congress, admitted that the situation was not a immediate threat to our national security, and asked them to weigh in. That’s a nice precedent, and hopefully it outweighs the way he handled Libya when it’s time for another US President to handle something like this. We can probably thank the Brits for helping to make it happen, so hurrah for Parliament. Taking the matter to Congress showed some fault lines in both parties over military intervention in non-critical (to US/allies) matters. It may have further isolated and weakened the Neocons in the GOP, which would be lovely if true. Again, this may have been driven by luck. I’ll take it nonetheless.

  23. Barry says:

    “Further, “Even in the cases of Iraq and Libya, which cooperated in the destruction of their stockpiles, small stashes of chemical weapons have been found years later, apparently not out of any intentional deception but because they were simply forgotten.””

    Bullsh*t. Nothing was found in Iraq which Bush/Cheney were willing to put in front of the public, which means nothing was found. In the case of Libya, I’ve seen nothing mentioned in any reputable public forum.

  24. JohnMcC says:

    Obviously it will be a laborious and lengthy process to de-commission the Syrian chemical weapons. It requires setting up an entire industrial process to neutralize the compounds that when combined would form ‘gas! gas! gas!’ It will probably involve lots of logistical work as we either bring the neutralization process to the gas or the gas to the process. No surprise there.

    The biggest reason it will be a long process is that as long as UN technical people are rushing to and fro solving these problems, Assaad will be safe from American bombardment and very likely those parts of the country that have chemical stockpiles will be off-limits to the insurgents (at least for offensive operations). So from Damascus’ point of view there is definitely no hurry.

    This is a big step in saving the lives of the Assad family, I expect.

    And a way of displaying how small nation’s dictators should be happy to become clients of larger powers. As Dr Joyner reminded us, Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein had no protector. They died. Assad had the backing of Mr Putin’s gov’t and that made all the difference.

    As a parenthetical, how long would the Kim dynasty last — nukes and all — if the PRC decides China would be better off without them? My guess: less than a year.

  25. grumpy realist says:

    @Raider: Tell me, are you really a religious fruitcake or do you just play one on the internets?

    If I ever had someone who believed as you do in front of me for a security clearance, I’d bounce your ass so fast your head would spin.