October 6, 2013

Chemical Disarmament of Syria: Problems and Prospects. Part 2

The Independent Analytical Center for Geopolitical Studies “Borysfen Intel” affords ground to the analysts generation for expressing their point of view regarding the political, economic, security, information situation in Ukraine and in the world in general, according to their personal geopolitical studies and analyses.


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Andrey Pospelov, Candidate of historical sciences, Professor of the Department of Modern and Contemporary History of Odessa I.Mechnikov National University.

Chemical Disarmament of Syria: Problems and Prospects. Part 1

How to disarm?

Theoretical options for liquidation of chemical weapons of SAR

So, on the 10th of September 2013, Syria agreed to liquidate its chemical arsenal. While with the answers to questions such as “when to destroy?” and “what to destroy?” there is no problem, no one so far knows the answer to the question “where and how to destroy?“

September 19, 2013 in an interview with Fox News, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad confirmed his earlier (September 12) statement that Syria would destroy its chemical weapons aresenal without any additional conditions. According to him, the complete destruction of the nation's chemical weapons will cost about 1 billion US dollars. These works, according to Assad, can be completed within a year. He also pointed out that Syria was ready to transfer chemical weapons “to the country that dares to accept it.”

However, on the same day, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that he could not guarantee by Syrian authorities of the agreements on giving up chemical weapons, but recent events allowed him to hope. “Will it be possible to bring everything to the end, I'm not 100 % sure, but what we have seen so far in the last days, inspires confidence that it will be done. So far, everything looks so that Syria agreed to our proposal and is ready to act in accordance with the plan that is being developed by the international community at the United Nations”.

At this, at least, Moscow is sure that it will be Russia who will be managing the disposal of the Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles will address precisely Russia. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made it clear on the 19th of September. However, none of the officials of the Russian Federation, the United States or the EU has told how the Syrian chemical weapons will be liquidated. After all, never before did the international community solve such a problem in the situation of the domestic armed conflict. Decontamination of chemical arsenals was done either in peacetime or after the end of the war (that is, in peace).

Destruction of chemical weapons in the world http://inosmi.ru/

Today are known three tested technologies for destruction of chemical weapons (chemical, thermal and biological), and three examples of its liquidation. The first is connected with the destruction at the end of the First World War of German and Austrian chemical weapons and decontamination of the territory of the West Front (mainly Belgium) from the consequences of its application.

Second, beginning in 1997 and continuing today, demonstrates how Russia and the United States get rid of their chemical legacy of the “cold war” (40000 and 31500 tons of CWA respectively).

Third, perhaps the most appropriate in the Syrian situation, is associated with the destruction of Iraq's chemical weapons after the Gulf War in 1991.

Thermal technology for destruction of chemical weapons http://www.myshared.ru/

In 1920s, chemical munitions filled mostly with mustard gas, chlorine and phosgene would be taken apart and the CWA burned at the plants of probably most advanced at the time German chemical industry. Shells of chemical munitions were melted in special shops of German steel mills. A substantial portion of chemical shells and bombs, including outdated English and French ones, was simply buried in the places of intense battles (mainly in Belgium), where there was no civilian population, or drowned in the waters of the North Sea. Such methods, in spite of its simplicity and effectiveness by terms, turned out to be environmentally harmful, and the effects were felt up to 1990s. That is why such a principle — “we are destroying what we can and what we cannot has to be drowned or buried” — today is out of the question. It is out of the question because then chemical weapon was liquidated by its producers. This means that the defeated Germany still had all the necessary facilities and associated personnel for the fast recovery of the national chemical arsenal. The Third Reich used them later, but in new geopolitical realities. We should not forget that it was in the process of liquidation of Kaiser's chemical weapons, that (as a result of mistakes and coincidences) sarin and tabun were developed.

For Syria, at first glance, the most acceptable is the Iraqi experience.

Firstly, by 1991, the Iraqi chemical weapons arsenal was the largest in the region — 341 thousand different chemical munitions and more than a half thousand tons of the CWA.

Secondly, it, by many parameters of ammunition and used CWA, is similar to the Syrian one(being at this much bigger and more complicated by kinds of ammunition and types of toxic substances).

Thirdly, out of political considerations, it had to be destroyed immediately. On this insisted, in the first place, the Government of Iraq, trying to get rid of its chemical weapons within one year.

Fourthly, during the Gulf War, some of the chemical weapons, tanks and warehouses for their storage were damaged and therefore constituted a serious threat to the environment.

And finally, fifthly, it was in Iraq that at least two known techniques of neutralization of chemical weapons (thermal and chemical) and their local derivatives were used.

In particular, mustard gas and tabun were burned in two special, capable to burn 10 tons per day, furnaces at the sites near the cities of Samarra and Al - Muthanna. Sarin and its precursor GF were rendered harmless by hydrolysis with alkali, with stirring in a specially designed reactor. Emptied shells were treated from inside and on the outside, tested for harmlessness, and then mechanically made ​​ unfit for combat use.

Ammunition that it was not safe to transport to Al Muthanna or to drill and empty was destroyed on the spot. We mean by it 122 mm shells with sarin, stored in Khamisan. The danger increased due to the possible instability of the solid fuel. The applied method of destruction was a combination of destruction of ammunition by explosion with the high-temperature combustion in the fuel - air “fiery furnace“(fireball). The process of burning was remote-controlled. It was assumed that the toxic substances were being destroyed completely and did not get into the atmosphere.

But the Iraqi experience cannot be called successful in all aspects. First of all, because the destruction of Iraq's chemical weapons was taking place against the background of incidents, environment was being polluted. Besides, it was carried out by the standards of the UN, not of the countries that officially have large stockpiles of chemical weapons. UN standards are not so strict as the U.S. ones, and those in some cases are milder than Russia's formally existing standards. Besides, a significant part of Iraq's CWA components were buried, and not always reliably, and this fact already now and in the nearest future threatens with environmental problems.

Russian plant for destruction of chemical weapons in Pochep, Bryansk region http://www.spetsstroy.ru/

In this situation the Russian or American experience of liquidation of chemical weapons, or experience any other industrialized country.

In the Russian Federation for the destruction of the world's largest Soviet chemical weapons arsenal had been built 7 special businesses: Gornyi village (Saratov region, exploitation was completed in 2012), the town of Kambarka (Udmurt Republic, exploitation was finished in 2012), the village of Kez (Udmurt Republic, — being constructed), the village of Maradykovo (Kirov region, in exploitation since 2006), the town of Shchuchye (Kurgan region, in exploitation since 2009 ), the village of Leonidovka (Penza region, has been working since 2008), the town of Pochel (Bryansk region, working since 2008). The latter is the largest in Europe. It has 3 automated lines and operates clock-round. The complete liquidation of the Russian (Soviet) chemical weapons should be completed in 2015.

The world's largest facility for destruction of chemical weapons on Johnston Atoll, USA http://en.wikipedia.org/

Similar processes occur in the United States, where by 2013 up to 90 % of all U.S. chemical weapons had been destructed. Completely the chemical arsenal of the United States will be liquidated in 2021

In the United States, on the atoll Johnston has been built the world's largest Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System (JACADS) (operating since 1986). However, stocks of chemical weapons are destroyed mainly in the areas of storage in specially designed facilities (factories) — in Anniston (Alabama), Pine Bluff (Arkansas), Newport (Indiana), Umatilla (OR), Lexington Bluegrass (Kentucky), Tooele (Utah), and at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.

Locations storage of stocks of chemical weapons, the United States http://en.academic.ru/

In the USA, they mainly use the thermal destruction method (burning). By the way, the United States give the largest funding to profile companies, including Russia, and thus are one of the leaders in the development of means of destruction of chemical weapons. In particular, at the beginning of September 2013, the operation of a mobile plant for disposal of chemical weapons FDHS was demonstrated. It was developed at order of the Ministry of Defense by Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (ECBC) of the U.S. Army in Maryland (though, practically the facility is not in use yet).

Designed and actively put into practice in Russia and the United States techniques and technologies for destruction of chemical weapons and the CWA are very safe and environmentally friendly. The standards of this process are the highest in the world, as well as the training of the staff. Moreover, stocks of chemical weapons are destroyed at specially created or converted factories and this, with very high reliability, excludes re-creation of the CWA and equipping ammunition with them. All these facts speak in favor of Russia and the United States as the countries where Syrian chemical weapons should be destructed.

However, the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons at the territory of the largest military states is getting complicated due to the need to transport the chemical weapons to the places of destruction. At this, the main difficulty lies not so much in transportation of chemical weapons from Syria to Russian or American plants, but in the fact that these stocks would be reliably monitored and protected at the territory of Syria itself, where are active armed and not always controlled by external forces or by known international agreements, organizations and groups.

Under these conditions, the number of international forces responsible for the liquidation of chemical weapons of SAR in that country may exceed 10,000 people (representatives of Russia, the U.S. and the EU, and possibly of other countries, such as China and Iran) —specialists of radiation, chemical and biological protection, possibly — special forces. Besides, these professionals will operate in extremely difficult conditions. Not so much because they will be working in the country where the civil war is on. More dangerous are the events at the world's political arena. For example, the leaders of Russia and the United States are quite biased to the participants of the Syrian drama, each in their own way determining the responsible for the use of chemical weapons in the SAR. For example, while Washington denies the rebels having it, Moscow sticks to the version of the official Damascus: these stocks belong to opposition.

The United States and its Western allies in this tragic situation support the rebels not only de facto, but also cover them politically, denying that they have chemical weapons, included. All this raises doubts about Syria's being able to destroy its chemical weapons, because due to the lack of political consensus, at any time the process can be stopped and the situation around the SAR once again will get heated up.

In this case, the most successful choice would be some third economically developed and politically respected in the region country, ready to take responsibility for the liquidation of the chemical weapons arsenal of Syria. Ukraine in this case is in many respects a suitable variant. Moreover, it is actually ready for this.

Thus, President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych, speaking at a meeting “Ukraine and the world in the era of changes: factors of success”, touched upon the problem of chemical disarmament of SAR. According to him, a positive signal is that the recently events in Syria have started to develop peacefully, through political settlement, and it is very important to maintain this trend.

- I would like to offer participation of our experts, Ukrainian technologies for the destruction of chemical weapons in Syria. We have the experience, we have patented by Ukraine mobile units, which in practice have proved to be effective. And we are ready together with experts to use them for the speedy destruction of chemical weapons in Syria, said Viktor Yanukovych in his speech. — Ukraine has a chemical troops’ battalion of true world-level professionals. At one time, these guys were sent to Kuwait and Iraq — there was a threat that these countries would use chemical weapons. The battalion was in full readiness, but, fortunately, chemical weapon was not used. Despite this, the guys got a great experience. I think they will cope brilliantly in Syria too, if necessary.

How can the situation develop?

Despite the popular quite positive opinion, Syria's chemical disarmament in many ways is the “double-edged sword “or “task with many unknowns”. We do very much want to believe that if not by the middle of 2014, as agreed in Geneva, perhaps much later, but another country of the explosive region of the world will get rid of weapons of mass destruction.

However, the development of the political component of the current situation around the SAR and the lessons of history, alas, do not give a reason for optimism. And the main reason is the policy of double standards of the leading powers.

Russian base in the Mediterranean Sea —
point of logistics of the Navy in Tartus

Moscow, as the initiator of the chemical disarmament of Syria, supporting the position of the official Damascus, is very slow in strengthening bilateral relations, at least in the version of the tacit resuscitation of the 1970-1980 's Soviet-Syrian alliance. At this, in the SAR is deployed the only Russian base in the Mediterranean Sea — point of logistics of the Navy in Tartus.

In the political sphere Russia very often agrees with the official Washington's point of view on the situation in the Middle East. The fact that the Geneva Lavrov - Kerry agreements were actually signed on the basis of the U.S. data and conditions, is the clearest evidence of this. The situation around Iraq in 2003 and in 2011 around Libya, clearly demonstrated Russia's not just military, but, above all, foreign policy impotence. And therefore so far we have no reason to hope that in the case with Syria, Moscow will act more harshly, defending not so much Syrian, as its own, interests.

At the same time, Washington is extremely biased to the current Syrian leadership and personally to President Bashar al-Assad. American leaders in their wish to punish the Syrian “dictator” forget that he is the democratically elected president with Western mentality and education, and a supporter of the Western way of life. That is why he is a reformer (as evidenced, at least, by his steps inside the country before the civil war). Moreover, in the United States they prefer to ignore the repeated appeals of Bashar al-Assad to leaders of the opposition (which they support morally, politically and even financially) with a proposal to negotiate and settle the internal armed conflict in a peaceful way (by now there have been 26 such calls).Leaders of opposition groups have not reacted to any of them!

Washington seems to be biased to B. Assad's government's proposals, who at least twice have announced their willingness to completely get rid of the arsenal of chemical munitions. And this has been done in extremely difficult and potentially dangerous for the country conditions of not only the civil war, but in a situation of permanent confrontation with Israel — a neighbor with nuclear weapons!

In this situation the forecast of the development of the Syrian situation by the Libyan scenario is obvious. Already on the 15th September, 2013 the National Coalition of opposition and revolutionary forces of Syria, appealed to the international community to prohibit Bashar al-Assad to use combat aircrafts and ballistic missiles in cities. Rebels also demand that the government troops' using tanks and other heavy weapons in populated areas should be banned. According to the opposition, these measures, together with the destruction of the chemical weapons will allegedly stop mass killing of Syrians.

Single-stage solid-propellant ballistic missile "Fateh-110" ("The Conqueror", the Syrian designation M600) http://en.wikipedia.org/

Although there has been no response to this appeal of official Washington (as of September 25), further linking of the liquidation of chemical weapons to means of their delivery — ballistic missiles — is quite predictable. As well as facilities for their production, taking into account the production in SAR on the Iranian license of guided tactical missiles “Fateh -110 “(Fateh- 110, Syrian designation M600 ) with a flight range of 250 km.

As for the combat aviation, stringent requirements of the USA and NATO in no case should be excluded in the future. If this happens, the West will first of all insist on the introduction of the “flight free zone” over the territory of Syria for the Syrian military aviation. What the result of it was in the recent (of 2011) civil war in Libya is well known.

In case of the situation developing exactly by such a scenario, the Syrian military and political leadership and their ally Russia will face a most difficult choice. Each of these countries will have its own choice, and each one will be not easy in its own way.

The fact is that the current military situation in Syria has strategic parity in the conditions of absence of a solid front line. Rebels have a trump card — a certain social base, foreign aid  with financial, material and human resources, as well as the USA and its allies' political support. The drawback is the absence of heavy weapons that rebels are trying to compensate by a variety of “ersatzes.” On the contrary, the  trump card of the government troops is a broad, though not stable due to political and ideological realities social base, a considerable fleet of armored vehicles which Syrian troops actively, and in the whole adequately to the circumstances, successfully use in populated areas, and aviation.

Combat use of the Syrian Air Force

It should be noted that the use by the military commandment of SAR of aviation in the Syrian civil war is a measure justified not only by the military, but also largely by humanist considerations. Again, in the absence of a solid front line, aviation is both, a means of countering the power of the rebels, and a means of supporting normal life of a number of towns and blocked garrisons. Moreover, the Syrian military leadership is not interested not in mass but in  point-use of combat and transport aircrafts as evidenced by the list of losses of flight personnel: almost all of them are  senior officers.

Interestingly, similar forced forms of use of aviation took place during the civil war in Southern Rhodesia (1965-1980) and in the conflict in Western Sahara (1976-1991) on the part of Morocco. But at that time the West criticized neither the government of Ian Smith nor of King Hassan II. But then, in those years there was a “cold war “, although it did not prevent the United States, Britain and their NATO allies'  “betraying” the white regime in Southern Rhodesia.

In the current situation around Syria, if the United States and West support the requirements of the rebels (and this option is quite natural, though, it is likely to happen either after chemical disarmament of SAR or in case of stopping the process for political reasons), the Syrian leadership will be forced to either accept these requirements, or to reject them completely. The first option with a probability close to 100 % will lead to the defeat of the Syrian leadership, headed by President Bashar al-Assad in the civil war that is why it will turn out totally unacceptable. The second option will reanimate the situation of August 21 - September 10, 2013, but with nearly one hundred percent probability of the U.S., Turkey and other NATO allies’ military operations against SAR. We exclude a support to these actions by Israel as there are no obvious reasons for its committing an aggression against Syria (although the IDF incursion into Lebanon had obviously the aim of causing if not defeat, then at least serious damage to “Hezbollah”).

In this situation Moscow will also have to make a choice. Its direct or indirect supporting SAR will significantly worsen the situation in the region, and most importantly — will lead to an escalation of relations with the West and especially with the United States of America. Such a scenario could mean reanimation of the “cold war”, albeit at a very limited scale. However, Russia is not ready for it, either technically or politically. But from a moral and, paradoxically, from the material point of view, a new confrontation with the West is very real, though unlikely (all depends on the political will of the Russian leaders). Therefore, a more natural option can only Moscow's standard political demarches with no specific military- political and economic activities. And here, no matter how the situation around Syria develops, Russia may actually lose its influence credibility in the Middle East, and the present Russian leadership, headed by President Vladimir Putin may lose its authority within the country as well.

Disappointing summing up

No doubt, the Russian initiative to establish international control of the chemical arsenal of SAR with its further liquidation is, of course, a useful idea. At least in the sense that it if does not stop, then at least significantly postpones ambitious internationalization of the Syrian internal political conflict. And here it does not matter, how this internationalization would be realized— in the form of a full-scale invasion of the anti-Syrian coalition, or as a short missile strike on the territory of the Arab state.

What does matter is the fact that behind the political decision to liquidate the Syrian chemical arsenal so far there is nothing but encouraging promises. As mentioned above, so far no one has voiced where and how Syrian chemical weapons will be liquidated, nor has been given a clear answer to a more important question — how to control and ensure integrity of the process in the situation of the going on since March 2011 civil war. It is also not clear how to make Syrian rebels hand over the chemical weapons they have (even if very few), not to mention involving their forces in the process of liquidation of those weapons and chemical warfare agents. All this makes one suggest that the country is if not on the verge of humanitarian and environmental catastrophe, then on the doorstep to a great tragedy.

And not only that.

The complexity and danger of the situation lies in the fact that Russia and the United States have actually diametrically opposed views on the Syrian military and political drama. And this fact alone speaks of ephemerality of hopes for the total liquidation of the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal and removal of potential danger in the situation around SAR. That is why the threat of internationalization of the Syrian internal political-military conflict has only been postponed indefinitely.