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Experts optimistic Nov. 1 deadline can be met for ending Syria’s chemical threat

Syria’s ability to wage war with nerve agents could be eliminated within a month, even if the total destruction of its chemical weapons program takes much longer, chemical weapons experts say.

Officials familiar with the international agreement to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons for weeks have described the plan’s mid-2014 deadline as “very ambitious,” noting that similar efforts in nations including the United States and Russia have taken years.

But experts say the ability to end President Bashar Assad’s capability to use chemical weapons, especially the sarin nerve agent that United Nations investigators say was deployed Aug. 21 in Damascus suburbs, is hardly complicated and could be completed by a Nov. 1 deadline set in a plan published Friday by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the world body that monitors the ban on chemical weapons.

That’s because the Syrian military is thought likely to keep the chemicals that are combined to make the nerve agents sarin and VX, two-thirds of Syria’s arsenal, separate until shortly before they are to be loaded into rockets or artillery shells to be deployed. Once combined, the chemicals result in a mixture that is unstable and dangerous to handle. But before they are mixed, the chemicals generally are far less dangerous.

The equipment needed to mix those chemicals is easily destroyed, said Ralf Trapp, a chemical threat consultant who was among the original staffers who set up the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. “You can drills holes, cut pipes and flanges, remove wiring, crush computer boards, fill tanks with concrete,” he noted.

Disposal of the separated chemicals also is relatively easy, he said. One, an alcohol, “can simply be poured out onto the desert to evaporate without any risk,” he said.

OPCW inspectors are expected to arrive in Syria Tuesday to begin the task of verifying a lengthy Syrian declaration of its chemical weapons program that includes the kinds of weapons it has, the quantities of those weapons, and the locations where they are stored.

The organization has not detailed precisely how the inspectors will go about their work, which could be hampered by that country’s raging civil war, but it said it intended within 30 days to have inspected all of the chemical weapons facilities that Syria included in a lengthy declaration of its program filed with the group Sept. 19.

But the most important deadline that the organization’s executive board gave the Syrian government last week is “not later than 1 November 2013” for “the destruction of chemical weapons production and mixing/filling equipment” – a goal that if met would make it next to impossible for Syria to make use of so-called precursor chemicals to create chemical weapons.

Richard Guthrie, a former project leader of the Chemical and Biological Warfare Project at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, called that fact “the key thing about the priority for 1 November.”

“Destruction of the mixing equipment would make the precursors unusable as ingredients for the nerve agent,” he wrote in an email.

Jean Pascal Zanders, a leading chemical weapons policy expert whose blog The Trench is devoted to the topic, said the ease with which the mixing equipment could be rendered useless and many of the precursor chemicals destroyed make him “very optimist about that side of the plan.”

“If the inspectors arrive as planned, the Syrian chemical warfare threat should be eliminated by November,” he said.

Zanders said a steam roller or explosives could make short work of the equipment. Trapp said that while the Syrian arsenal, at an estimated 1,000 metric tons, is considered among the world’s largest, it is small enough to suggest that Syria has relatively few machines dedicated to preparing the weapons for use – “as many as tens of production machines” would be a surprise, he said. “Given the size of their arsenal, it is more likely to be a small number,” he said.

“They could, of course, resort to very crude methods of mixing, but with inspectors present this would be very easily detected,” Zanders said.

Still, the experts noted that the longer-term goal of destroying all precursor chemicals as well as weapons that could deliver chemical weapons is a more difficult task.

“It’s difficult to say how well the entire program can be carried out before we have even started,” Zanders said. “There are still great risks, the investigative team will be asked to work in a war zone, more and more rebels appear to be moving towards the extreme Islamist elements, and it is not known whether such elements have an interest in negotiating for the safety of inspectors. Much is still unknown.”

Guthrie noted that, in the end, it isn’t meeting deadlines that really matters.

“The timetable is ambitious, but it needs to be to maintain political focus,” he said. “In a year’s time, or even a decade’s time, the key criterion that will be remembered will be whether chemical weapons were used again in Syria. Whether their destruction occurred by 1 November or 30 November will be far less important.”

Guthrie said he favored a quick timetable, even if some deadlines get missed.

“If the timetable were not so ambitious there would be more room for delays to be introduced,” he said. “Better to have an ambitious timetable that may achieve its ultimate goals a little late than what looks at first glance like a more realistic timetable that is then subject to delays.”