Syria’s chemical weapons? That’s just small change

History offers a cautionary tale about ridding Syria of poison gases

By Becca Clemons

Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON – In April 1997, after nearly five years of bitter controversy and delay, the U.S. Senate voted to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention five days before it went into force around the globe.

Arms control advocates hailed the ambitious treaty, under which the United States, Russia and 187 other nations ultimately agreed to a ban on the production, sale and use of poison gas, as well as an international inspection system to prevent cheating.

Sixteen years later, Washington and Moscow have spent tens of billions of dollars, blown repeated deadlines, and still have not destroyed thousands of tons of poison gases, as the treaty required. The two nations are still the world’s largest repositories of chemical weapons.

That history offers a cautionary tale as Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov agreed Saturday in Geneva to use the treaty’s provisions to impound and ultimately neutralize or destroy about 1,100 metric tons of mustard, VX and sarin gas in Syria, which is believed to hold the world’s third-largest stockpile.

Even if Syria cooperates, experts warn, there will be immense difficulties in trying to eliminate chemical agents, production facilities, precursor chemicals and munitions in at least 40 sites, all amid the chaos of Syria’s civil war.

“One thousand tons is a serious quantity,” said a senior State Department official who briefed reporters on Kerry’s mission on the condition he not be identified. “It presents serious challenges not just because of the composition of the stocks, but because of the … production equipment, mixing equipment and delivery equipment.”

Kerry said Saturday that Syrian President Bashar Assad would be given one week to submit a full inventory of his stockpiles. That document is expected to provide a key test of whether Assad is serious about giving up his illicit arms. U.S. and Russian technical teams already have shared their assessments of Syria’s chemical programs and stockpiles to create a template for comparison.

“The inspection process relies to the great extent on the cooperation of the country,” said Faiza Patel, a former senior policy officer at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the international body responsible for monitoring compliance with the treaty. “If you don’t have a complete declaration, then you’re obviously not bringing everything under international control that you want to.”

U.S. officials have said that a secretive Syrian military element known as Unit 450 controls the production, storage and use of Assad’s chemical weapons, and that U.S. and Israeli intelligence have tracked the weapons’ movements from base to base. The unit reportedly answers directly to Assad.

The issue erupted after a horrific chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21 in rebel-held neighborhoods on the outskirts of Damascus. U.S. officials say Assad’s military fired the gas-filled rockets, killing more than 1,400 people, including hundreds of children. Assad has denied that his forces were responsible.

Germany was the first country to use poison gas on a major scale at Ypres in 1915, when it opened canisters of chlorine gas. The French soon responded with phosgene, another choking gas. By the end of the war, chemical attacks had caused 85,000 deaths and 1.1 million casualties.

In 1925, 16 major nations signed the Geneva Protocol and pledged never to use poison gas in warfare again. Yet chemical attacks continued for decades in Russia, Ethiopia and elsewhere. Japan used mustard gas extensively against Chinese troops during World War II.

The United States first produced and used chemical munitions after it entered World War I, building laboratories and testing sites on a farm near Washington. At the end of the war, the remains were buried, or poured into pits, and the Army Corps of Engineers is still digging up and trying to safely dispose of hazardous material from what is now a residential neighborhood and university campus.

During the Vietnam War, the U.S. sprayed chemical defoliants to destroy vegetation and food crops. U.S. officials said Agent Orange and other herbicides were not antipersonnel weapons, but the spraying later was linked to birth defects and other public health problems.

The U.S. continued to produce chemical warfare agents until bunkers swelled with more than 40,000 tons of poison. President Nixon ordered a production halt in 1969, and after the end of the Cold War, the United States and Russia shared information about their stockpiles and agreed to monitor destruction of the weapons.

In 1990, the Army began destroying or disabling its toxic arsenals at a specially built incinerator on Johnston Atoll in the central Pacific. Six other sites were later used. Some had separate furnaces for chemical agents, explosives and metal casings, and the leftover ash and residue was deemed so hazardous that it required careful handling.

But the United States still had 31,500 tons of aging chemical agents in millions of artillery rounds, mortar shells, rockets, containers and sprayers when the Senate ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997.

The convention required all member nations to destroy their chemical weapons within a decade. It offered a single possible five-year extension to 2012. The United States and Russia both failed to meet the deadlines.

The U.S. still has about 3,000 tons, and experts say it may take another decade to destroy it all because of the environmental and health risks involved. Political concerns and rising costs have caused delays in moving the munitions and building disposal facilities in populated areas.

“Local residents were not wildly enthusiastic about having weapons incinerators in their backyards,” said Gary Samore, who served as White House coordinator for weapons of mass destruction during President Obama’s first term.

It didn’t help that munitions now more than 40 years old began to rust and leak, said Milton Leitenberg, a chemical and biological weapons expert at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland.

“There were routine leaks,” Leitenberg said. “Not serious, the agent never went off the site, it never killed anybody. But there were leaks.”


America’s chemical weapons now are stored in two locations. Both will destroy their stockpiles mainly through hydrolysis, which dilutes and breaks down the chemical compounds. For mustard gas, technicians use microorganisms to help consume the diluted material.

The Blue Grass Army Depot near Richmond, Ky., is building a facility to destroy 523 tons of sarin and VX nerve gas, as well as mustard gas, that fills projectiles, warheads and rockets. The U.S. Army Pueblo Chemical Depot near Pueblo, Colo., will destroy about 2,600 tons of mustard gas.

Russia is even further behind schedule.

At the end of 2011, Russia still had not eliminated about 17,600 tons of chemical agents, or 40 percent of its total former stockpile, according to an annual report released late last year by the treaty compliance group, which is based in the Netherlands.

In April, Russia’s deputy minister of industry and trade, G.V. Kalamanov, told the group in a statement that Russia “is consistently and unremittingly increasing the rates and capacities of chemical weapons destruction.”

(c)2013 Tribune Co.