Plan to rid Syria of chemical arms: brute force, chemistry

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WASHINGTON -- The United States and its partners are planning a series of rapid steps to dismantle Syria's chemical weapons program, a strategy that is intended to guard against backsliding by President Bashar Assad and limit the time that international experts need to work in the country, according to senior U.S. officials.

A major step is to be taken in early November when equipment for mixing chemicals and filling warheads and bombs with poison gas is to be destroyed by the Syrians under international supervision. That move can be carried out by equipment as simple as sledgehammers and bulldozers.

But a major centerpiece of the disarmament effort will be a mobile and highly sophisticated system developed by the Pentagon that would probably be set up near Syria to neutralize large quantities of chemicals that would be transported out of the country.

The system, known as the Field Deployable Hydrolysis System, is designed to convert chemical agents into compounds that cannot be used for military purposes by mixing them with water and other chemicals and then heating them. The system would be used to neutralize the large quantities of "precursor" chemicals that could be used by the Syrian government to make poison gas and thus replenish its chemical weapons arsenal.

A senior State Department official said that the use of the mobile system would provide an "early demonstration" that steps were being taken to shrink Mr. Assad's chemical program and would make it easier to meet the mid-2014 target for its elimination.

"It will reduce the possibility that the Syrian regime can change its mind," added the State Department official, who asked not to be identified because the plan for eliminating Syria's poison gas program was still being finalized. "And finally, very importantly, it will greatly reduce the size and duration of the international footprint in Syria."

The basic plan for eliminating Syria's chemical weapons program was outlined last month in a framework agreement between U.S. and Russian officials and has been refined in consultation with experts at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, an international watchdog group.

While the plan has been endorsed by the U.N. Security Council and has broad international support, its goal is unprecedented: the elimination of a nation's chemical weapons, agents and equipment on an accelerated schedule in the middle of a civil war.

International inspectors who recently arrived in Syria have received good cooperation from the Assad government, officials say. The effort has also been helped by the Syrian government's moves to consolidate its chemical weapons and stocks at sites under its control and by the fact that much of its arsenal is still in bulk form.

Still, experts inside and outside government acknowledge that formidable challenges remain and that the disarmament effort will depend heavily on the cooperation of the Syrian military, and on Russia's willingness to use its leverage with the Syrian authorities.

U.S. officials say that while the Syrian government's preliminary inventory of its chemical weapons program, presented last month to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, was more extensive than some experts anticipated, it was not complete. A more formal -- and, U.S. officials hope, more comprehensive -- declaration is to be submitted by Syria later this month.

Amy Smithson, an expert on chemical weapons at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said that the plan to remove and neutralize bulk agents quickly made sense because the militant group Hezbollah and al-Qaida were "on the prowl in Syria."

But she cautioned that Mr. Assad did not have a "cooperative track record with international nuclear inspectors and may even now be busily hiding some of the man-portable chemical weapons."

U.S. officials say that Syria's chemical weapons include sarin, VX, mustard gas and even ricin.

The basic strategy behind the international disarmament plan is to destroy chemical bombs and warheads where they are or at nearby locations in Syria.

This would limit the need to transport them, which could expose them to theft by some of the many groups fighting in Syria.

Equipment for producing chemical agents is to be destroyed by Nov. 1. International inspectors believe that Syria has 25 production facilities, eight of which are mobile.



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