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Should Assad’s Chemical Weapons Be Destroyed In-Country?

Plans to remove the Syrian government’s chemical weapons cache by transporting them from Damascus to ships off the coast of Latakia province have missed deadlines throughout December and January. .

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

Assad officials blame security concerns for the delays, as convoys carrying the weapons from the capital must skirt active battle areas and defend themselves from attack. Some experts now say it might be more expedient for the weapons to be destroyed in Syria itself.

We asked Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, OBE, chief operating officer of UK-based CBRN consultancy SecureBio, to weigh in on the feasibility of changing the plans, and whether Assad is using the delays as a stalling tactic.

Syria Deeply: What do you make of the missed deadlines?

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon: The whole chemical weapons issue is a complete diversion in my opinion. The international community is being held hostage to it. The regime is playing it absolutely brilliantly. It’s held everybody’s attention since April of last year. Since the chemical attack on Ghouta on Aug. 21, 62,000 people have died in Syria, as the regime has fixated the international community on chemical weapons.

It’s a key bargaining chip. If we stick to the current timeline of moving five percent of the weapons out of Syria per month, we’ll have another 19 months of activity before it’s all going to be out. So the plan is failing to meet any deadline and prolonging the agony for the Syrian people.

SDHow much has been moved out at this point?

HDGAbout 45 tonnes thus far including yesterday’s shipment. There is  only 30 tons of chemical weapons in the form of mustard gas. There are about 600 tons of A-precursors and 700 tons of B-precursors, and you need to mix them to get the likes of sarin  and mustard gas.

At SecureBio, we’ve been helping train doctors in Syria on how to treat the effects of the chemical weapons, because people are still dying from the after-effects. There’s one doctor I speak to regularly in the Ghouta area who was one of the surviving doctors. The eight others in his hospital died from secondary contamination.

We had a shipment of 15 tons in early January and 15 in late January. Yesterday there was an announcement of a third shipment, around the same size. So now we’ve passed all the deadlines and at most we’ve got 5 percent of the stuff out.

SDWhy is this the case?

HDGThe opposition are not supporting this venture. These convoys have been attacked. The al-Qaida affiliates are especially keen to get their hands on chemical and biological weapons.

The second thing is that for the Syrian army to move these chemicals is a massive military undertaking. They are having to commit huge numbers of tanks, soldiers and aircraft. And it’s taking away from their other operations. So they’re saying, why should we do this when we’re trying to fight a war against terrorists elsewhere? The shipments that have come out already have come from areas relatively close to Latakia, which has led people to say that they might have already been in Latakia anyway.

Now the regime are saying that they want to armor the containers carrying the chemicals, and they’re saying that could take another 30 to 60 days. The Russians already gave them 25 trucks to move the stuff. So I think they’re just playing for time.

SDWhat could be a feasible alternative?

HDGSyria was one of the top producers of pharmaceuticals in the Middle East before the war, so I’m sure there are tons of materials in Syria. One of them, Isoproponal, which is a sarin precursor, has been 93 percent destroyed in Syria, because it’s volatile and people thought it was too dangerous to move it somewhere else for destruction.  And hence I believe we should look at destroying the rest in Syria.  After all there is only 30 tonnes of chemical weapons, so they should be destroyed in Syria and the rest left as they are in effect only toxic chemicals.  I conducted a covert operation to destroy about 50 tonnes of very toxic chemicals under fire from the Taliban in Afghanistan a few years ago, so I know it can be done.

If we stick to the current plan, we could still be here in a year, because it’s not in the regime’s interest to move it, and it’s a key bargaining chip. The international Chemical Weapons Convention details that chemicals weapons should be destroyed in the country that owns them, and should not be moved out. The international community thought that avoiding that legal loophole would be more expedient, but now it looks like it would likely be more expedient to destroy the chemical weapons in the country.

I have suggested to officials from the British government and military that they should be looking at different options of destruction in Syria. If the situation changes, is your plan working, or do you need to adjust it? That’s generally a tenet of British, U.S. and Russian military planning.  But there’s an inertia now, given the slowness, that has set in. We’ve reached the point where the situation has changed so much that, in my opinion, we must revise the plan rather than reinforce failure.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is spearheading this operation, is not fully configured to operate in war zones under fire and needs additional support if the Nobel Peace Prize winner is to achieve its mission. All 1300 tons should have been out by February 5 and but only 5 percent is out, and in my book that’s a plan that should be reviewed and changed. There are substances that have been developed that you can mix with the mustard gas to [nullify it] on site; you don’t necessarily need a boat and a sophisticated hydraulic system to destroy these weapons.

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