That mistrust is multiplied by a rebel opposition that in part is at least as untrustworthy. Recent reports place the number of al Qaida members or sympathizers in the rebellion at up to 40 percent of its fighters. While experts note that categorizing this rebellion is a difficult business, no one denies that the substantial percentage of fighters with anti-Western perspectives is worrying.
“The war will go on while the destruction of this arsenal is undertaken,” said David Butter, a Syria expert at the British research center Chatham House. “While it’s fair to say the greatest hurdles are likely to be placed by the regime, there are growing concerns even among the rebels about the more radical elements, which have recently been targeting aid workers and journalists, and see any Western target as fair game. Security will have to be considered at every step.”
The Syrian arsenal is scattered around a large and dangerous country. A U.S. official familiar with the Syrian program, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss it publicly, estimated that Assad has spread his weapons and production facilities to 45 sites.
That presents unique challenges, Trapp said. One of them is the sheer number of experienced and qualified people who’ll be needed to go into a very dangerous situation to make this work.
Trapp estimated that the group will need 10 inspectors to examine smaller Syrian facilities and that larger facilities could require as many as 20. To get the job done in a year, he said, “It’s obvious that these efforts will have to run parallel to each other.”
If the U.S. estimate is correct, that would require a minimum of 450 inspectors.
“I can’t imagine that this effort will require hundreds of inspectors,” Trapp said. “But it will require a lot of qualified people from a great variety of places.”
The costs also are expected to be high, especially as the world is insisting that the process be quick. In an interview this week with Fox News, Assad said the cost would be $1 billion. That’s far more than the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has available. Its 2012 budget was $95 million, and the largest donor nation is the United States, at $19 million.
Stephen Long, an international security expert at the University of Richmond, said the expectation that Syria’s disarmament could be completed by the middle of next year, as the U.S. and Russia agreed, made it difficult to see how it could be done.
“The shape of this investigation is being driven by politics, more than the end goal or the safety of the inspectors or what is realistic,” he said. “On one hand, we don’t know how cooperative Assad will be. On the other, the rebels see this deal as legitimizing Assad in the international community, and therefore as the West having sold them out. I have a hard time seeing this being a successful process.”
Hannah Allam contributed to this article from Washington.