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Children killed by chemical weapons in Ghouta, Damascus, Syria.

Children lie among the dead outside of Damascus, Syria, on August 21 shortly after they succumbed to chemical weapon poisoning.

Photograph from Erbin News/Demotix

Brian Clark Howard

National Geographic

Published September 12, 2013

In a bid to avoid a U.S. strike against Syria, Russia is trying to broker a deal in which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would surrender all his chemical weapons to international authorities. If that happens, the road to safely destroying the weapons will be long, and some experts question whether it can even be done at all.

The plan to take over Assad's stores of chemical weapons has not yet been approved, but leaders in the U.S., Great Britain, and France have said they are looking into the proposal, which is also receiving consideration at the United Nations. President Obama had already called on Congress to approve strikes against targets in Syria after Assad's regime crossed a "red line" by allegedly using chemical weapons in recent weeks.

Still, the removal of chemical weapons "would be nearly impossible to actually carry out," warned national security expert Yochi Dreazen on the Foreign Policy blog. Complications and dangers from the ongoing civil war and the scope of necessary remediation efforts are daunting, he warns. On top of that, Congressional leaders are raising questions about the cost and scope of the potential deal.

But Cheryl Rofer told National Geographic that she believes it would be possible to safely dismantle Syria's chemical arsenal. Rofer is a retired chemist, writer, and blogger who worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where she helped the U.S. Army dispose of chemical weapons in the early 1990s.

Chemical weapons were successfully remediated in Iraq in the early 1990s, Rofer pointed out. "It is in process in Libya," she added. "It was somewhat interrupted by the recent revolution there, but basically it was working fairly well."

(See "Chemical Warfare, From Rome to Syria.")

Steps to Disarmament

According to Rofer, the first step to successfully getting rid of Syria's weapons would require a ceasefire. "None of what needs to be done can be done while people are shooting at each other," she wrote today. (Still, Rofer noted that it is unclear whether rebels in the country will actually agree to lay down their guns in order to let inspectors into the country.)

Next, Syria would need to sign the international Chemical Weapons Convention. That would allow the Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to get involved.

Assad would then need to make a written declaration of all holdings of chemical weapons and their precursors. Rofer notes that only the regime knows where all those dangerous materials are, although facilities have been reported in Hama, Homs, and al-Safira in the Aleppo region, and there are suspected sites in Latakia and Palmyra.

Next, Rofer says international troops would be needed to secure the known chemical weapons sites, probably on the order of tens of thousands, especially if a true ceasefire doesn't come about. While standard troops would be needed to stand guard, weapons specialists would be required to address the actual munitions. The U.S., Russia, and Great Britain all possess the skills needed, she noted.

The specialists would contain any leaking weapons and transfer them to centralized locations, where they would most likely be incinerated. "Also possible but less desirable would be to transport the materials to Russia, which has the closest secure disposal facilities," she wrote.

The entire disposal process would likely take around a decade, Rofer noted.

(See "Why Are Chemical Weapon Attacks Different?")

Not Like Burning Leaves

Destroying chemical weapons "isn't simply burning the leaves in your backyard," Mike Kuhlman, a scientist with the Columbus, Ohio-based security contractor Battelle, told Foreign Policy. The magazine noted that the U.S. program for destroying its own chemical weapons is expected to last until 2023 and ultimately cost $35 billion, even though Congress ordered it nearly 30 years ago.

Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, a California Republican who chairs the armed services committee, has said, "Is there any discussion who's going to pay for [dismantling Syria's weapons]? Generally, when the international community does something, we're the ones that end up paying for it."

Kuhlman told Foreign Policy that Assad is thought to have far fewer chemical weapons than the U.S. has, but he disagreed with Rofer's plan to centralize the Syrian weapons before they are destroyed. Since a ceasefire seems unlikely, transport would be too risky.

Instead, Kuhlman told the magazine that disposal would have to happen at each weapons site, either in newly erected facilities or in mobile units brought in from the U.S. (which have never been tested in a war zone).

How Chemical Weapons Are Broken Down

In the U.S., much of the dangerous work of dismantling chemical weapons is done by robots. Whether robots could be sent to Syria is unclear, but in the U.S., the machines carefully take apart weapons to separate their components. The Pentagon has acknowledged that there have been accidental explosions during dismantling, often setting the process back several months to allow time for cleanup.

Once separated, weapons materials are sent to one of three kinds of furnaces: an incinerator for the liquid chemical agents (which burns at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit), a rotary-kiln furnace for destroying explosives and propellants, and a metal-parts furnace to get rid of shells.

Gases and residues are scrubbed by pollution-control devices. Those machines create brine, which is then evaporated. The resulting salts are packed in drums and buried in secure locations, along with any scrap metal and other toxic waste residue that results.

(See "Pictures: Syria's Lost Generation.")

Nerve agents like sarin, which Assad is thought to have used in recent weeks, can also be rendered largely harmless by mixing them with hot water and liquid sodium hydroxide. Mustard gas can be made inert by mixing it with alkaline water. The resulting liquid is then typically incinerated or run through a sewage treatment plant.

In the U.S., some facilities have been switching to such chemical-based treatment in response to protests from surrounding communities, who think the process sounds safer than straight incineration. Representatives from the U.S. Army told Time that there have been no confirmed cases of poisoning from dismantling of American chemical weapons, but that doesn't mean everyone likes living downwind from cleanup operations.

Until the 1980s, chemical weapons were often dumped at sea, buried, or detonated in open fields, but international convention rules now prohibit such environmental exposures.

Follow Brian Clark Howard on Twitter and Google+.

3 comments
Fathima Amanat
Fathima Amanat

I find it so upsetting that children of this age has to suffer in such a grusome way for the problems of others, they had done nothing wrong and had lived happier lives with less that what we had.... but now they are left with nothing...

Tatjana Benak
Tatjana Benak

@Fathima Amanat does that help you sleep at night? not me because there are still children there that need mothers, us. WE are mothers.

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