Assad’s Chemical Weapons Could Wind Up in Russia

One reason why Western officials are being so nice to Moscow: They want Russia to destroy Syria's deadly arsenal on its own soil.


The rockets were filled with military-grade nerve gas and labeled with Cyrillic lettering. They were fired from a weapon issued to the Syrian military and launched from areas controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

A United Nations-organized probe, released Monday, Sept. 16, undermined claims by officials in Moscow that Syria’s opposition, and not its regime, was responsible in late August for the world’s worst chemical weapons attack in 25 years. But officials in Washington and allied capitals have not used their conclusions to denounce the Russians, because they are presently asking Russia for a big favor — to destroy Syrian chemicals on its own soil.

Speaking in New York after the report was presented to the U.N. Security Council, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, noted that "some countries" had not accepted the West’s view of how the attack had unfolded — and who was to blame. But neither she, nor the British and French ambassadors, assailed Moscow directly.

The reason — spoken in private by U.S. and allied officials but only hinted at publicly — is that Russia is virtually the only nation that can haul the immense Syrian chemical arsenal away and destroy it on its own territory, particularly within the ambitiously short time frame suggested by the recent U.S.-Russian agreement in Geneva. The agreement suggests the task be completed by the middle of 2014.

Russia’s involvement is by no means certain. But it is a live — and increasingly large — possibility, the officials say.

"Removal may indeed turn out to be an important way to do this, if feasible, under [international] … supervision," a senior State Department official confirmed to reporters in Geneva on Sept. 14, on condition of anonymity. "Russia is certainly one option.… We have discussed it, but we have to do the technical work now to look at each of these."

In fact, Washington has been asking the Russians for months to do just that, according to U.S. and allied officials, but until now Moscow has shown little enthusiasm for the task. The officials, speaking on condition they not be named, said U.S. studies have shown that Russia has both the skills and industrial capacity to meet the challenges of destroying the Syrian arsenal, which has been estimated at between 1,000 and 1,300 tons of deadly sarin, mustard, and VX nerve gas — equivalent to at least 239,000 gallons, some in vats, some in munitions, some in bunkers.

The United States, Britain, and France have had their eyes on a particular Russian chemical weapons demilitarization plant for some time as a safe destination for the Syrian arsenal. It’s located at Shchuchye, 1,000 miles southeast of Moscow, where its employees have been destroying Russia’s own stocks of VX and sarin since 2009. The plant was constructed over a decade with $1 billion in funding from the United States, plus additional cash from Canada, the Czech Republic, the European Union, Italy, Norway, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and Russia’s own budget.

Western governments favor moving the Syrian chemicals out of the country aboard ships destined for Russia because they don’t trust Assad’s regime to destroy the arsenal in place — a process that would take years. So they’re eager to get the chemicals out of Syria quickly, perhaps after first neutralizing some of their components at their current sites. U.S. officials have said those storage sites may currently number around a dozen or so, although the total number of sites involved in the Syrian program — including munitions and chemical factories — has been pegged at around 45.

Russia’s participation remains key because two other countries quietly approached by Washington this year as potential hosts for newly constructed demilitarization plants — Turkey and Jordan — have both expressed reservations, several officials said on condition they not be named.

Donald A. Mahley, a former Army officer who was the first U.S. ambassador to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) — the group that oversees chemical demilitarization around the globe — and who helped negotiate the planned destruction of Libya’s chemical arsenal in 2004, said the Russian plant could probably eliminate the entire Syrian arsenal in six months to a year. He said that transporting the weapons there — possibly using the Russian military-controlled port facilities at Tartus, in Syria — should also be feasible, noting that in 1985, the United States successfully moved a more dangerous type of its own chemical armaments from storage bunkers in West Germany to a Pacific island destruction facility, without incident.

"Schemes to destroy the stuff in country are a lot more complicated than they look," Mahley said, citing his experience in Libya, where the former regime’s arsenal has still not been destroyed, nearly a decade after that country committed to doing so. A plant in the Libyan desert, built by Italians, has periodically experienced mechanical troubles, and its operation was halted during the political tumult there.

U.S. and allied officials say that even before the chemicals are removed from their storage sites, some can be rendered useless as weapons by hydrolysis — adding water and other chemicals — and by burning the less toxic, alcohol-based component of sarin. "Each of these is far less technically complex than destroying the agent itself," a U.S. official told reporters in Geneva.

Mahley compared the task of transporting the resulting liquid to shipping nuclear waste, as opposed to nuclear warheads. "It would not be a vaporizing chemical" that could kill in minute quantities, he said, but "it would really make you unhappy if you got a gram splashed on your arm."

According to a description of the Russian plant by the Parsons Corporation, its U.S.-based designer, the facility "can process small- and medium-sized rocket and tube artillery, … small rocket and tube artillery munitions and large rocket and missile warheads." Automated machinery drills holes in filled shells, drains them, and neutralizes them by adding a chemical reagent. The waste is then mixed with asphalt and packed in drums for long-term storage.

The plant might have to undergo minor engineering modifications to handle the particular Russian shells. Under the Western proposal, Syria’s arsenal would be destroyed there under OPCW inspection. U.S. officials say the mid-2014 deadline to complete the task is really more of a target, given the complexities of organizing the multinational effort. "We believe it is possible," one said. "I think the Russians are a little less ready to say it is possible."

While the West’s preference — namely, fast removal of the stocks to Russia — is clear, according to various officials, Russia has yet to be fully convinced. So a joint study with Moscow is underway, a U.S. official said in Geneva, of the "cost, feasibility, safety, and, above all, speed" of that idea and some alternatives.

"We require further discussions within our government and between the two governments, then ultimately also with OPCW and other partners before getting to a final decision," the official said in Geneva. A colleague there said the "most likely" outcome is "some hybrid" of in-country and out-of-country destruction activities, alluding to neutralizing certain components prior to shipping them out.

Although Russia has been depicted in commentary as reaping rich public relations benefits from the Geneva agreement, the new U.N. report made Russia’s past claims that the rebels were likely behind the August chemical attack look embarrassing. In making clear that deadly sarin liquid — detected in blood, urine, and hair samples collected from victims, along with rocket fragments — was delivered from the air, the report effectively ruled out any possibility that rebel forces had obtained and detonated the munitions on the ground.

By asserting that the chemical was used on "a relatively large scale" and deposited by dedicated, carefully made munitions, it also undermined any chance that the rebels somehow cobbled together their own versions of the weapons to perpetrate a hoax on the international community.

Western officials said, moreover, that rocket trajectories detailed in the report were consistent with previous intelligence reporting that the weapons were launched from areas controlled by military forces allied with the Syrian regime.

The report, in short, piled newly incriminating evidence atop claims by U.S. and allied Western officials in the past two weeks that Syrian forces had prepared for the attack by distributing gas masks shortly beforehand and — more sensitively — that Syrian military units had discussed the attack in advance in communications intercepted by foreign intelligence services. It represented an authoritative, independent judgment that this time, unlike in Iraq, U.S. and allied specialists had done their work properly.

"The information provided in that report that the sarin nerve agent was delivered on rockets" — surface-to-surface rockets possessed only by the Assad regime — "I think makes clear responsibility and reinforces the position that we’ve taken now for some time," said White House spokesman Jay Carney.

When Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin insisted on the opportunity to question the report’s principal author after hearing about it from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Ake Sellstrom — a former Swedish military scientist who had helped inspect weapons programs in Iraq before becoming the chief investigator in Syria — delivered more uncomfortable news. He told Churkin and the other Security Council diplomats that tests had demonstrated the sarin was of much higher quality than Saddam Hussein ever produced, a circumstance that Western officials said rendered its covert production by the Syrian rebels impossible.

Churkin, in comments to reporters immediately after the presentation, pleaded for additional time to study the report.

R. Jeffrey Smith is the Managing Editor for National Security at the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative newsroom, and a former editor and correspondent for The Washington Post who won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting in 2006.

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