How to Dismantle a Chemical Bomb

Lessons for the United Nations in Syria

U.N. chemical weapons experts in Damascus, August 29, 2013. Mohamed Abdullah / Courtesy Reuters

On September 14, 2013, the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the development, production, storage, and use of poison gas, welcomed its 190th member. The milestone shows just how far the world has come on chemical weapons.

To appreciate the change, it is worth remembering that, throughout the 1980–88 Iran-Iraq War, Saddam Hussein’s regime used poison gas repeatedly, including to slaughter thousands of civilians in an attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja in March 1988. Beyond a few rhetorical complaints, the world turned a blind eye. This time around, within a month of poison-tipped rockets falling on a Damascus suburb and killing 1,400 civilians, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced a joint framework for chemical disarmament in Syria and Damascus acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention. In short, the outcry and action after the August 21 attacks indicate that 2013 is not 1988.

The U.S.-Russian agreement is an important first step, but many make-or-break moments remain. As Kerry introduced the deal, he announced that the United States and Russia had agreed that Syria’s chemical stockpile comprises roughly 1,000 metric tons of the blister agent mustard gas, the nerve agent sarin, and the precursor chemicals used to make other agents. He voiced Washington’s belief that the chemicals weapons program involves 45 sites, indicating a large array of deployment locations and to several research, development, production, and storage sites. (The Russian delegation was silent on this particular matter.) Compared with the massive 32,000-metric-ton and 40,000-metric-ton arsenals that the United States and the Soviet Union produced during the Cold War, Syria’s is rather small. Still, its dispersal across a country embroiled in conflict will make disarmament tremendously challenging.

The U.S.-Russian framework is premised on a highly compressed version of the Chemical Weapons Convention’s timelines for the declaration and destruction of weapons, as well as on an adjusted version of the treaty’s inspection procedures for declared sites. The convention’s inspectorate in The Hague, called the Organization

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