BEIRUT – Russia's proposal to place Syria's chemical weapons stockpile under international control for dismantling would involve a lengthy and complicated operation made more difficult by a deep lack of trust — not to mention the lack of an inventory.
Syria is believed by experts to have 1,000 tons of chemical warfare agents scattered over several dozen sites across the country, and just getting them transferred while fighting rages presents a logistical and security nightmare.
Very few details are known so far about the plan announced Monday by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, part of a flurry of diplomatic activity aimed at averting U.S.-led military strikes in retaliation for a deadly Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack near Damascus.
Syria swiftly accepted, and the initiative was endorsed in quick succession by Britain, France and the U.S. as an idea worth exploring. Russia, Syria's most powerful ally, says it is now working with Damascus to come up with a detailed plan of action.
But the process is rife with challenges, taking place to the backdrop of a raging civil war and an opaque regime that until now has never formally confirmed that it has chemical weapons. Lack of trust between the regime's chief supporters and opponents in the international community is likely to complicate the operation.
"This situation falls outside anything that we've known so far," said Jean Pascal Zanders, an independent chemical weapons consultant and disarmament expert.
President Bashar Assad's regime is said to have one of the world's largest stockpiles of chemical weapons, including mustard gas and the nerve gas sarin. There have been longstanding concerns that the embattled leader might unleash them on a larger scale, transfer some of them to the militant Lebanese Hezbollah group, or that the chemical agents could fall into the hands of al-Qaida militants among the rebels.
Many are skeptical that the Syrian regime would follow through on its commitments. The government has typically accepted last-minute deals with the international community to buy time, then argued over the details or fell back on its promises. Most recently, Syria called for an immediate U.N. investigation into an alleged chemical attack near Aleppo in March. Negotiations then dragged on until August before a deal was struck.
"The devil is in the details," said Ralf Trapp, a disarmament consultant who worked for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons from 1997 to 2006. "Neither side (of the Syria conflict) has a reputation for sticking to deals for long periods of time."
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, known by its acronym OPCW, will likely work, along with the U.N., on a framework for implementing the deal.
The OPCW is the implementing authority for the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the development, production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons. The convention requires all parties to the treaty to declare and to destroy whatever chemical weapons they may possess under the international verification of the OPCW.
Syria is not a signatory, meaning the process would have to start from scratch. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said Tuesday that his government will declare its chemical weapons arsenal and sign the convention.
The long road toward securing Syria's chemical weapons arsenal would begin with the Syrian government's preparing a detailed, comprehensive declaration of what it possesses, including details on production methodology and precursors for chemical agents.
The OPCW and the U.N. would also have to create a legal structure to prepare and then implement the dismantling program, according to experts.
Even then, Zanders said, "any failure on (the part of) the Syrian government would immediately destroy the confidence of the international community and probably split it again in the type of discussion which we have seen recently."
Following that, inspectors, most likely from the OPCW, would go to the country for verification, but only after getting assurances from both the government and the rebels that engineers and technicians can operate safely.
"It would be an enormous effort. The challenges are great, not just technical but also political and emotional. But if people want to do it, it can be done of course," Zanders said.
Still, Zanders said the process could take a year, if not more.
Eli Carmon, a counterterrorism expert at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center, a private Israeli university, told Israel Radio on Tuesday that transferring out chemical weapons and destroying them is "impossible in the short term."
"There is great difficulty to take control of this arsenal, to check how large it is, how and where to transfer it, and how to destroy it," Carmon said.
Dany Shoham, an expert on chemical and biological weapons at the Israel-based Bar Ilan University's Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, said chemical weapons agents could be removed by air or by sea in a carefully coordinated mission. Those carrying out the mission would have to ensure that the weapons are not stolen and that there is no threat of an explosion or leak.
According to a report released Sunday by the Israeli institute, Syria's chemical weapons are stored in some 50 different cities, mostly near the Turkish border in northern Syria.
The report said that Syria began to produce its own chemical weapons in 1973 as a deterrence to Israel, and intensified production after the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty was signed in 1979. Since 2009, Syria has been amassing a larger chemical weapons arsenal and engineering more complex chemical compounds, the report said.
According to the report and multiple other experts, Syria is believed to have mustard, sarin and nerve agents such as VX, along with aerial bombs, artillery shells, rockets and ballistic missiles that can deliver chemical weapons.
Trapp said he presumed the arsenal was well kept. "This was the crown jewel of the Syrian army," he said. "I presume that a lot of investment has gone into the stockpile and that it is probably well managed."
Destruction of the arsenal is also problematic, requiring a secure destruction facility to be developed and commissioned. Experts say nerve gas has to be disposed of properly in locations with high temperatures and controls to keep gas from escaping to minimize the risk of accidentally gassing other people.
One option reportedly being considered is moving the stockpile to a Russian naval base in Tartous, a regime stronghold on the Mediterranean, for destruction. But some say that may not be feasible.
"It is unlikely that the site would be able to house such quantities alone," said Karl Dewey, a weapons analyst at IHS Jane's CBRN Intelligence Centre. "At a minimum any site would need to be secure and free from the fear of attack."
Another option is moving the weapons out of the country to a destruction facility. Analysts say there are only two countries, the United States and Russia, that have facilities that can deal with such amounts.
Experts spoke of two relatively recent and somewhat comparable precedents.
One is the disarmament of Iraq after the Gulf War by the U.N. Special Commission.
"The difference was this was a defeated country and you could operate under totally different conditions," Trapp said. "Here we are in the middle of a civil war, and so you will need all the cooperation of all sides of the conflict in Syria. Otherwise it won't work."
In the other case, Libya declared in 2003 it had 25 metric tons of sulfur mustard and 1,400 metric tons of precursor chemicals used to make chemical weapons. It also declared more than 3,500 unfilled aerial bombs designed for use with chemical warfare agents such as sulfur mustard, and three chemical weapons production facilities.
At the time, the late Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi was trying to shed his image as an international outcast and restore relations with Western governments, and in 2004 underscored his commitment to dismantle his weapons by using bulldozers to crush 3,300 unloaded aerial bombs that could have been used to deliver chemical weapons.
Libya destroyed nearly 13.5 metric tons (15 tons) of sulfur mustard in 2010, about 54 percent of its stockpile. The OPCW had inspectors in Libya up until February 2011 verifying the destruction process but left as the anti-Gadhafi rebellion gathered intensity.
Regional affairs expert Efraim Inbar cautioned that Assad, who has denied using chemical weapons, may not reveal all of his stockpiles and could even continue to produce new chemical weapons.
"I don't think supervision of weapons is ever 100 percent," said Inbar, who directs the Begin-Sadat Center. "You can always cheat."
Daniel Estrin and Tia Goldberg in Jerusalem, Lori Hinnant in Paris and Mike Corder at The Hague contributed to this report.