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Cleaning Up Assad’s Chemical Weapons Is The New Mideast Gold Rush

Cleaning Up Assad’s Chemical Weapons Is The New Mideast Gold Rush

Giulano Porcari has spent the past decade shuttling back and forth from his native Italy to Libya, where his company has a multi-million dollar contract to destroy the country’s stockpiles of chemical weapons. He would love to do the same type of work in Syria, where the quantities of armaments — and the money companies like his could potentially earn for eradicating them — are exponentially larger. So, though, are the risks.

"Of course I would love to get a contract in Syria — it’s the same work we did in Libya, just a lot more of it," he said by phone from Italy. "But at the present time it’s too dangerous. Do you think I want to be shot at? No thank you."

Syria’s apparent willingness to put its chemical weapons under international supervision and eventually destroy them has been seen as a win for Russia, which proposed the deal. The Obama administration, meanwhile it being alternately hailed as pulling off a last-minute solution to the crisis — or chided for getting caught flat-footed by Moscow’s diplomatic maneuvering.

The actual work of eliminating Syria’s armaments won’t be done by the U.S. or Russia, however. It will be done by companies like Porcari’s firm, Sipsa, which could make enormous amounts of money for their efforts. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in an interview with Fox News, said that destroying his stockpiles will take at least one year and cost roughly $1 billion.

"I think it is a very complicated operation technically and it needs a lot, a lot of money," he said.

The size of that potential windfall could spark a global gold rush as companies from around the world flood into Damascus hoping to get some of the work.

"I’ve had discussions with a few contractors already and they’re salivating at the prospect of working in Syria," said Paul Walker, an expert in arms control and nonproliferation at Green Cross International. "There are not that many countries that need this type of work."

Once Assad disclosed his sites, contractors would have to separate the chemical substances themselves from the warheads of his rockets, artillery shells or missiles that had been designed to carry them to their targets. Next would come the physical destruction of the chemical weapons themselves, which could be done two ways. The first involves spraying the chemicals themselves into specialized furnaces and then burning them at around 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit for one or two seconds. Nerve agents like sarin can also be rendered largely harmless by the addition of liquid sodium hydroxide, while mustard gas can be made safe with alkaline water.

Walker, who was one of the first Americans to visit Russia’s chemical weapons facilities in the 1990s, said that he would expect giant U.S. firms like Bechtel and Parsons to bid for any Syria-related contracts, particularly if the destruction work was funded by Washington. The companies declined to comment.

The firms might have a hard time winning the work, however, given the depth of the anti-U.S. feelings in the Assad government. Instead, Walker said, Russian companies — which have been destroying their own countries’ weapons stockpiles for decades – could wind up with the business.

Those contracts have the potential to be enormously lucrative. Assad’s chemical weapons stockpiles are thought to be disbursed across as many as 50 separate sites. Given the danger of trying to move the weapons in the middle of an active conflict, many non-proliferation experts say that new facilities would need to be built at each chemical weapons facility to destroy all of the toxic substances. Building, staffing and running that many new facilities would be so expensive that foreign companies could earn even more money than Assad has estimated.. Private security firms, which would be hired to protect both international monitors and contractors like Porcari, also stand to earn large sums of money if the destruction work goes forward.

There is one major caveat, though. Working in Syria would be extremely dangerous, and absent a peace deal some contractors might decide that the risks to their personnel outweigh the money they would earn by destroying chemical weapons in the midst of a bloody civil war. Porcari, for instance, says he wouldn’t go to Syria while its civil war was still raging.

Even if the fighting subsides, moreover, the logistics of the destruction work would be daunting. Take Libya, where Porcari’s firm has been working for years. The government of then-Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi declared that it possessed chemical weapons in 2004 and promised to get rid of them. It hired Sipsa to build an incinerator at Rabta, its largest stockpile of mustard gas. A key part of the machinery broke down shortly after the plant went into use, however, and Porcari said he wasn’t able to send in a replacement before the country erupted in civil war in 2011. More than a year passed before the company finally managed to put in the new piece of equipment.

The delay has slowed Libya’s destruction efforts significantly. Nine years after vowing to get rid of its weapons, Libya has destroyed barely half of its total mustard gas stockpile and just 40% of its stores of chemical weapons precursor elements.

Walker and other non-proliferation experts believe that destroying Syria’s stockpiles will be much harder than in Libya, and much more expensive. Companies that accept the risks of working in an active warzone stand to be very richly rewarded. The success of the international effort to force Assad to get rid of his chemical weapons will depend, in large part, on how many firms are willing to roll the dice.