Iraq, Libya loom over UN's chemical arms quest in Syria

Deceptions and turmoil of past missions could help diplomats seekingto track down Assad's weapons of mass destruction, experts say

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 June, 2016, 12:45pm

When Muammar Gaddafi renounced chemical weapons in 2003, the Libyan dictator surprised sceptics by moving quickly to eliminate his country's toxic arsenal. He signed international treaties, built a disposal facility and allowed inspectors to oversee the destruction of tonnes of mustard gas.

But Gaddafi's public break with weapons of mass destruction was not all that it seemed. Only after his death in 2011 did investigators learn that he had retained a large stash of chemical weapons. In a hillside bunker deep in Libya's southeastern desert, Gaddafi had tucked away hundreds of battle-ready warheads loaded with deadly sulphur mustard.

The story of Gaddafi's deception now looms over nascent efforts to devise a plan for destroying the chemical arsenal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, another strongman who, in a stunning reversal, agreed in principle last week to give up his stockpile.

Arms control experts say the experience of Libya and other former chemical weapons states such as Iraq could be instructive - in ways good and bad - as diplomats map out a path for finding, securing and destroying Syria's estimated 1,000 tonnes of chemical agents. Many also fear that clearing Syria of its chemical weapons could prove to be uniquely challenging, in part because the inspectors would be dropped into a war zone.

"Never has there been an experience like this one," said Daryl Kimball, director of the Arms Control Association, a Washington-based non-profit group. "With Syria, you have a country that did not even acknowledge having chemical weapons until recently. It had no intention of giving up its arsenal until there was a threat of military force. The schedules are being accelerated. And there's a civil war going on."

The task of eliminating weapons as dangerous as sarin or VX can be onerous even in the best of circumstances. The United States, which agreed 20 years ago to eliminate its vast, cold war-era stockpile, still has not completed the task despite spending billions of dollars on state-of-the-art incinerators. Russia, too, is years behind schedule in eliminating an arsenal that once contained 40,000 tonnes of toxic compounds.

Yet weapons experts point to the successes in Iraq after the 1991 Gulf war and, ultimately, in Libya - two countries in which inspections teams overcame obstacles on their way to destroying large chemical arsenals. Iraq's weapons programmes were scrutinised by two separate UN-appointed inspections regimes, one from 1991 to 1997 and another from 2002 to early 2003, before US forces invaded the country in part because of a belief that Iraq still retained weapons of mass destruction.

In what was perhaps a preview of events in Syria, weapons officials in Iraq managed to complete the task in spite of local hostility and widespread chaos in a country shattered by war, said Charles Duelfer, a leader of the Iraq Survey Group, which searched for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq after the 2003 invasion. The group found and secured a small quantity of abandoned and damaged chemical weapons but uncovered no evidence of ongoing programmes.

"Because we had bombed the hell out of the place, the Iraqis didn't even know what their inventory was," Duelfer said. By contrast, "in Syria, it will be up to the government to do a lot of the heavy lifting, including providing protection for the inspectors".

While many details for the Syrian operation have not yet been finalised, ultimate responsibility will likely fall to a UN team, which will include officials of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

The agency maintains permanent teams of inspectors and experts in the science of destroying chemical weapons. It was tapped in 2004 to oversee the dismantling of Libya's chemical stockpile, which at the time was estimated to include nearly 25 tonnes of mustard gas in addition to ordnance, manufacturing facilities and 1,400 tonnes of chemical precursors. The agency's teams already had verified the destruction of half of Gaddafi's arsenal when their work was halted by the outbreak of civil war in early 2011.

Up to that point, both the Gaddafi government and the UN agency teams were generally given high marks for their work. The Libyan government's co-operation seemed genuine, reflecting the will of the autocratic and eccentric Gaddafi, who appeared to believe that his public repentance would end his country's isolation from the West.

In contrast to Syria, the task in Libya was a professional, unhurried affair, well-suited for management by international bureaucrats, according to scholars and weapons experts.

But the Libyan experience also exposed a key weakness: the inspectors had limited authority and means to investigate cheating and no legal tools for holding non-compliant countries to account. While UN-appointed inspectors in Iraq were empowered in 1991 to pursue tips, including intelligence from Western governments, the relatively toothless inspectors in Libya were restricted in their ability to search for any hidden sites that might exist.

Indeed, one did: Gaddafi's secret cache was discovered by opposition forces in a desert bunker just after his overthrow and death in October 2011.

US Secretary of State John Kerry appeared to acknowledge that the UN agency's usual powers would have to be broadened in Syria. He said on Saturday that inspection teams would have an "immediate and unfettered right to inspect any and all sites" inside Syria.

"We have committed to a standard that says, 'verify and verify'," Kerry said.