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NUCLEAR, BIOLOGICAL AND CHEMICAL WEAPONS

October 18, 2013: The U.S. believes it has a way to quickly destroy Syrian chemical weapons. Syria has about a thousand tons of this stuff and the U.S. has recently developed FDHS (Field Deployable Hydrolysis System). This is a portable system that can be flown in and set up in less than a week. After that fewer than 50 personnel, operating in shifts, use the FDHS to destroy 5-25 tons of chemicals a day. In theory, that means the Syrian stockpile could be destroyed in 3-4 months. The FDHS operates by mixing chemical agents with water and (depending on the chemical weapon) reagents like sodium hydroxide and sodium hypochlorite and then heating the mixture to create harmless (as chemical weapons) byproducts.

UN chemical weapons inspectors in Syria recently found conclusive evidence that sarin nerve gas was used by Syrian forces against pro-rebel civilians on August 21st. Russia then proposed a deal where Syria would agree to surrender its chemical weapons in return for a Western guarantee that it would not intervene to help the rebels. Syria then agreed to this and asked for at least a billion dollars and a year to allow the chemical weapons to be destroyed under UN supervision. It usually takes more than a year to bring in the special equipment used to incinerate nerve gas and other chemical weapons. The Syrians are not being allowed to destroy their chemical weapons and have allowed the UN to bring in inspectors and equipment to verify where the chemical weapons are and destroy them. There’s no word yet if the UN will use FDHS and whether Syria will allow that.

In contrast, Libya still has not destroyed all the chemical weapons it began getting rid of in 2003. At least these weapons are now guarded, and many of them are so old and decrepit that any terrorists trying to move them would probably die while doing so (as the corroded containers broke and released the poisonous substances). The Syrian chemical weapons are in somewhat better shape but not by much. The Libyans were supposed to have completed destruction of its chemical weapons by 2016, but that has been delayed by the 2011 uprising and the subsequent unrest (which is still going on).

The effort to destroy the Syrian chemical stockpile could learn from the Libyan experience, or not. Syria appears to have 700 tons of nerve gas (sarin). Nerve gas was first used in combat during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88). Syria also has 300 tons of mustard gas, which was first used in World War I. The Syrian chemical weapons are stored at 16 bases and 4 manufacturing plants. UN inspectors have visited 5 storage sites so far. The UN has authorized a force of 100 chemical weapons inspectors and 60 are already in Syria. The UN plan is to destroy the production plants and chemical warheads and bombs (that have not been filled with chemicals yet) by November 1st. This will be done using tools and bulldozers to literally pull apart and smash stuff. The UN has authorized a plan that is supposed to destroy all Syrian chemical weapons within 9 months. This is theoretically possible but subject to interference by the Assad forces or even the rebels (who have some of the chemical weapons storage sites under siege). While getting rid of the chemical weapons is a good idea, it does not mean Syria will no longer have chemical weapons. The Assads know that once they defeat the rebels they can rebuild the plants that manufacture the nerve and mustard gas and rebuild their pre-rebellion stocks in a few years.

 


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