A framework to destroy all of Syria's chemical weapons has been set by the U.S. and Russia, averting — for the time being — a U.S.-led military strike on Syria.
Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have said they will seek a U.N. Security Council resolution that will punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with sanctions if he fails to allow the chemical weapons to be destroyed.
"There can be no games," Kerry said. "No room for avoidance or anything less than full compliance."
Lavrov called the agreements a "decision based on consensus and compromise and professionalism."
Inspectors must be on the ground by November and destruction or removal of the chemical weapons must be completed by mid-2014.
"We have committed to a standard that says, verify and verify," he said.
The framework reached between the U.S. and Russia demands that they inventory, isolate and eventually destroy Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles – no easy task as experts widely disagree on the quantity and location of Syria's chemical weapons.
According to previous assessments, Syria has anywhere between 500-1000 metric tons of chemical weapons that could be in as few as 5-6 sites, or as many as 100.
Following the U.S.-Russia deal, Kerry said that their teams of experts had reached a "shared assessment" of the weapon, and the outlines of a plan for how to confront them.
U.S. officials have already expressed hope that the deal of chemical weapons could lead to a broader cooperation, one that could eventually see serious diplomatic actions taken to end Syria's two and a half year civil war.
For now, however, they are daunted by the schedule set out in the "Framework for elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons," a four-page document with technical annexes that outline the procedure that will be taken for, "expeditious destruction of the Syrian chemical weapons program and stringent verification."
One U.S. official familiar with the document told Buzzfeed that the framework called for all chemical weapons sites to be inspected and equipment for producing chemical weapons to be destroyed by the end of November.
In the next stage, chemical weapons will be gathered in one centralized location – likely near the port and military base of Tartous where Russian officials already have a presence – and facilities will be built on site to destroy the munitions.
"That is the plan as it stands now. Of course, we will have to accommodate if changes on the ground happen, said the U.S. official.
Earlier this week, Paul Walker, director of environmental security and sustainability at Global Green and an expert on chemical weapons, told Buzzfeed that that process could be "difficult and costly."
"On a scale of 1 to 10 of difficulty, I'd say it was a 10," said Walker.
He said that by his estimates, it would take up to four years and $2 billion to safely destroy all of Syria's chemical weapons. Yet the deal reached by the US and Russia hopes to have the task done by mid- 2014.
Walker said that in the U.S., the remaining chemical agents used for weapons are sitting around well-organized in massive barrels that "basically look like beer kegs," and which can safely be destroyed in a chemical process. But if the chemical agents have been weaponized — which definitely seems to be the case in Syria — they first have to be separated from the "live agent" or explosive.
That task usually involved not just a robot, but a massive secure structure in which the robot can complete its work without exposing humans. The robot has to have a liquid furnace to burn the agent and a separate furnace to burn the weapon. Another option is to "drain" the weapon. That involves using hot water and an additional caustic chemical that reacts with the chemical agent to destroy it.
In addition to all the unknowns, there's also the question of whether all the interested parties would cooperate in the midst of a civil war that has killed more than 100,000 Syrians.
Syrian rebels, especially Islamist groups that operate among the rebels, could decide to attack inspectors or those dismantling the chemical weapons. Fighting between the Syrian army and the rebels could come close to areas where chemical weapons are being held and accidentally set them off. Or the Syrian regime itself could begin a long and complicated cat-and-mouse game with the international community to hide and maintain their chemical weapons program.
Sheera Frenkel is a cybersecurity correspondent for BuzzFeed News based in San Francisco. She has reported from Israel, Egypt, Jordan and across the Middle East. Her secure PGP fingerprint is 4A53 A35C 06BE 5339 E9B6 D54E 73A6 0F6A E252 A50F
Contact Sheera Frenkel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.