Relying on a hostile government to secure its widespread cache of chemical weapons, especially in a war zone with rapidly shifting front lines, is difficult, hard to verify and would take more time than the White House would likely want to give, according to CIA operatives and military personnel who specialized in weapons of mass destruction.
On Tuesday night, U.S. President Barack Obama said in a televised speech that he has opted to pause his efforts to seek congressional approval to attack Syria after President Bashar Assad’s vow to turn over his supply of chemical weapons to international authorities for destruction.
Hours before the speech, which offered no details about Assad’s apparent agreement other than to state it was the first time he has admitted possessing chemical weapons like sarin, experts contacted by The Tampa Tribune expressed doubt that such a plan would work in an acceptable time frame.
“It is unrealistic and unenforceable,” Charles Faddis wrote in an email to the Tribune on Tuesday.
Faddis, retired head of the CIA’s terrorist weapons of mass destruction unit, said plans to remove Assad’s chemical weapons are unverifiable.
“There is no way on Earth we will ever know whether we have been given everything,” said Faddis, whose most recent novel, “Caffa,” deals with a fictional WMD attack on the United States. “There is no way on Earth we will ever be able to put our hands on all of their munitions. We are simply being dragged into a morass.”
The White House and Pentagon, which blame the Assad regime for an Aug. 21 domestic attack they say killed more than 1,400, argue that the Syrian government possesses about 1,000 metric tons of chemical weapons.
After Obama called for “limited” military operations to degrade Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons and deter him from doing so again, the Assad government agreed to turn over those weapons so they can be destroyed.
Appearing as a witness before the House Armed Services Committee, which was meeting Tuesday to hear the administration’s rationale for a request for military force, Secretary of State John Kerry made it clear that any plan to remove Assad’s chemical weapons be acted upon quickly and not be a delaying tactic.
But the logistics of moving dangerous chemical weapons, and their precursor components, could take a long time, according to Paul Evancoe, a retired Navy SEAL who later served as the director for Special Operations in the Office of the Coordinator for Counter-Terrorism at the U.S. Department of State and then headed the Office of Emergency Response, which has worldwide nuclear and radiological accident and nuclear terrorism incident response responsibility.
The Syrians “have two main (chemical weapons) facilities that would require simultaneous operations,” said Evancoe. “I suspect you’re looking at several hundred specially trained and equipped workers and guards total, and it would take months.”
Syria’s raging civil war, which has killed more than 100,000 and has seen brutality by the government and rebels, greatly complicates a chemical weapons handoff, Evancoe said.
“The real question that needs to be asked is just how an international team of inspectors is going to be able to effectively monitor Syria’s chemical weapon facilities in the midst of a war?” he asked rhetorically in an email. “Answer: They’re not going to be effective.”
A lengthy process also concerns John Alan Irvin, who retired in 2007 after a decade as a CIA operations officer with experience in the counter-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
“The biggest problem with the proposal, in my opinion, is that negotiations for implementing it could drag on and on,” Irvin said in an email Tuesday. “On the plus side, that would establish positive control of the chemical weapons (Assad would keep hold of them) and probably prevent use of them as long as negotiations were ongoing (using them would halt negotiations and invite a U.S. attack). On the other hand, as long as Assad has them he can use them and if he wins he gets to keep them.”
But if the rebels win before the weapons are fully secured and destroyed, that also creates concerns, said Irvin.
“If he loses before the U.N. gets involved and removes them from the country, they could fall into the hands of the rebels, not all of whom we trust,” Irvin said.
Despite his doubts, Irvin said there is an upside to having the United Nations involved in the effort to destroy Assad’s chemical weapons. The international body would likely rely on the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, he said.
”The OPCW can bring together the expertise to safely remove and/or destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles,” Irvin said. “It can act pretty rapidly if given the mission, but it has to have the U.N. behind it putting pressure on Syria to comply.”
Still, even that has limits, said Irvin.
“One of the problems, of course, is that (the OPCW) probably can’t do a country survey (civil war going on and all that) to make sure it has all of Syria’s stockpile, so it has to go on their word,” said Irvin. “But at the same time, you’d have the intelligence services of several countries all keeping an eye on Syria, so it would be problematic for Assad to choose to try to deceive the OPCW.
For Irvin, speed is the bottom line.
“The most important thing, in my opinion, is that it happen as fast as possible; one, to get the WMD out of country before anyone can use them (Assad or the rebels, should they get hold of any), and two, to prevent it from becoming an exercise in delay and obfuscation,” he said. “For that to happen, the U.S. should do a diplomatic full-court press at the U.N.”
That has a couple of benefits, said Irvin.
“When it goes from military strikes to international pressure, that frees up countries that have no domestic support for military action to alternatively put significant diplomatic pressure on all parties to comply with any agreement,” he said. “Even the most pacifist diplomat or politician from the most pacifist country can still stand up at the U.N. and demand Syria comply with any U.N. agreement.”
From the perspective of a White House that has urged military action, there’s another good reason to having the United Nations involved, Irvin said.
“When you get the U.N. involved, it provides the opportunity for international pressure,” he said. “Also, since it would be a U.N. solution, if Syria backs out or appears to just be playing the international community, that actually lends more support to taking military action.”