Now that President Barack Obama has stepped back from asking Congress for authorization to bomb Syria in retaliation for its sarin gas attack that killed more than 1,400 civilians last month, diplomacy and chemistry are on the table. Here are some questions we're asking about the Syrian weapons stockpile and the process that will likely be used to make it go away.
Q. How many chemical weapons does Syria have and where are they?
A. Syria is described as having the third largest stockpile of chemical weapons -- after the U.S. and Russia -- in the world. While there is no publicly available count of the weapons, including the armaments for dispersing them, Secretary of State John Kerry recently described the cache as about 1,000 metric tons of assorted chemical agents, binary components, including finished sulfur, mustard, and components for sarin and VX toxins. Kerry said most of the components aren't in mixed form and may now be hidden in tanks.
According to researchers, U.S. disarmament groups and weapons of mass destruction experts have identified more than 40 potential Syrian chemical weapons manufacturing and storage facilities, but only about half of those locations are believed to be active.
According to GlobalSecurity.org., chemical weapons production facilities in Syria are located at or near legitimate oil refineries or fertilizer plants in Al Safir, Hama, Homs, Latakia and Palmyra and chemical weapons storage facilities are located in Furqlus, Khan and Masyaf.
Q. Who would be in charge of getting rid of the chemical weapons, once identified?
A. That is just one of a series of thorny issues that U.S., Russian, Chinese and other diplomats have barely started to address. First up is an international resolution, presumably under the umbrella of the United Nations, establishing the rules for locating, securing and, much later, removing the toxins and munitions. Already, the U.S. and Russia disagree about a fundamental issue: The U.S. wants a clause that will permit military strikes if the inspection rules aren't followed, while Russia calls such language a deal breaker.
Then the question will be who will make up the weapons inspection teams and who will command them. Russia, a longtime ally of Syria, is likely to take a leading role, which may not sit well with other countries, particularly the U.S.
Even more important is who will be in charge of protecting the teams, which could prove daunting given the raging civil war -- unless there is a sustainable ceasefire. After Sergio de Mello, the UN's envoy in Iraq, and 14 others were killed in 2003 when the UN's headquarters was bombed in Baghdad, the UN has been quick to pull its personnel when conditions become unstable.
In fact, the UN's chief weapons inspector, Ake Sellstrom, and his team had been in Syria investigating the Aug. 21 sarin gas attack but withdrew last week after his personnel came under fire. His team or others from the United Nations, perhaps supplemented by experts from other countries, could get the assignment. At issue will be how the inspectors are protected which has not so far been widely discussed.
What the UN will likely want to avoid is the roundly panned performance of two UN entities -- UNSCOM, or United Nations Special Commission, and UNMOVIC, United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission -- charged with ridding Iraq of chemical and biological weapons after the Persian Gulf War.
Though they disposed of 38,500 chemical weapons and munitions, 690 tons of chemical agents, and 3,000 tons of equipment, it took years, and, in the end, was determined to be incomplete.
Q. Can we be confident that Syria's declaration would be complete and accurate?
A. There's no telling what goes on in the mind of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, but if the Russians, who are signatories to the Chemical Weapons Convention, are providing the good offices underscoring Syria's willingness to give up its stockpiles, it appears likely that action will be taken, although some foot-dragging should be expected. Given that Assad never admitted even having the weapons before Tuesday, that view may be seen as naïve.
Q. What would be the timetable?
A. Secretary of State John Kerry made clear that the U.S. insists any deal to secure Syria's chemical weapons would be verifiable, but also that it would need to take place soon. "We're not waiting for long," he told a House panel Tuesday. A draft Security Council resolution circulated by France would give Syria 15 days to declare where its weapons are located and to open the sites. The disposal of the chemical weapons, even under the ideal conditions which won't exist as a civil war rages, would take years to accomplish.
Q. Why is it so hard to rid the world of chemical weapons?
A. As Williams explains it, some of the chemical weapons stored at the Blue Grass Depot were mustard gasses shipped there for storage in 1944.
The U.S. had an estimated 30,000 metric tons of the stuff at the height of the Cold War; now, after a half-dozen years of destroying them, about 5,500 tons remain, with those expected to be gone by 2020. Russia had about 40,000, and is about half way through disposing of them, but no precise timetable exists.
There have been several international attempts to do away with such weapons, beginning in 1899 at The Hague. A 1925 Geneva Convention banned them after their use in World War I. In 1997, the UN Chemical Weapons Convention took effect. Just five countries have not signed it: Egypt, South Sudan, Angola, North Korea -- and Syria.