How can the inspectors' movement be assured in the midst of a civil war?
For seven years the weapons inspectors of the U.N. Special Commission trawled through Iraq looking for chemical weapons at some 120 facilities. They had sweeping powers including "unrestricted freedom of movement without advance notice in Iraq;" the "right to unimpeded access to any site or facility for the purpose of the on-site inspection;" and the "right to request, receive, examine, and copy any record data, or information...relevant to" its work.
UNSCOM was dealing with a recalcitrant and obstructive regime that did its best to mislead the U.N., but at least they were not trying to work during a war.
In Syria, how difficult would it be for inspectors to cross from government to rebel-held areas? How difficult would it be for them to make "surprise" inspections to make sure chemical weapons were not being moved or hidden? It took months for terms to be reached before the most recent U.N. inspection team was admitted to Syria, and it was at first permitted access to just three sites (before the August 21 attack, after which the inspectors were allowed into the Damascus suburb where the incident took place.)
How current is intelligence about the nature and location of Syria's chemical weapons stocks?
Several of the sites where supplies for chemical weapons were allegedly held have been surrounded or seized by rebels. Had those supplies been removed to safer places? And how do inspectors get in to check? Is there one team working in rebel-held areas and another in parts held by the regime?
Are chemical weapons still stored mainly as precursors? Or has part of Syria's arsenal already been deployed (if not used) in short-range missiles or artillery shells? There have been some indications, according to U.S. sources, that the regime has consolidated its chemical weapons stockpile in fewer places to better safeguard it. Senior U.S. military officials have been saying since early this year that the Syrian government has been moving its stocks of sarin and mustard gas.
It is very difficult for outsiders, even Israel and the United States, to be sure of what the Syrian regime is doing and what its intentions are. Intercepts and satellite imagery offer clues, and Israel has already carried out bombing raids against convoys said to be carrying weapons to the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, an ally of the Assad regime. But U.S. officials acknowledge that it's hard to keep track of the hundreds of military sites in Syria
Hezbollah units are now established inside Syria and were involved in the summer battle for control of the town of Qusayr. So it's more than tracking the movement of trucks from known Syrian military facilities to areas along the Syrian-Lebanese border where Hezbollah is well-established.
But one Israeli specialist in chemical weapons says moving weaponized chemical agents around is far from easy.
"There are many ways to know it with monitoring," according to Ely Karmon, a senior research scholar at the IICT. He told CNN they are "difficult to transport, you need specialists to ensure they don't leak or explode along the way. And Hezbollah has no knowledge (of chemical weapons) so should they perhaps involve the Iranians or Syrian technicians?"
How can such a huge amount of material be safely moved out of a war zone?
Transporting hundreds of tons of chemicals through a country ravaged by war, where the rebels are a patchwork of militias and major routes are not under the government's control, is a huge logistical challenge. Convoys would need to be guarded, airports secured and/or border crossings secured. But who does the guarding? Syrian troops? Unlikely unless supervised by an international. U.S. troops? No one is floating that idea.
Alternatively, sites within Syria where chemical weapons precursors could be safely destroyed would have to be identified and guarded. This appears to be the preferred option of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon.
"I am considering urging the Security Council to demand the immediate transfer of Syria's chemical weapons and chemical precursor stocks to places inside Syria where they can be safely stored and destroyed," he told reporters in New York Monday.
While chemical weapons stocks are relatively secure within army bases and research facilities, there is a greater risk once they are moved that they might fall into the wrong hands -- such as the jihadist groups active among Syria's rebels. However, Syria's chemical weapons are binary weapons, meaning that they are stored as separate ingredients that would have to be combined before becoming lethal. Using them would not be easy for militia groups.
What sort of time limit is feasible for such an operation, and who decides whether the Syrian regime is cooperating fully?
These are huge unanswered questions. The UNSCOM inspectors had to challenge Iraqi officials repeatedly with detailed documentary evidence that not all Iraq's chemical weapons had been declared. There were countless reports to the U.N. Security Council and 12 UNSC resolutions between 1991 and 1996 in support of its work.
Karmon estimates that the whole process in Syria could take three to four years and argues it would be impossible without a cease-fire, with the two sides retreating to allow inspectors to do their work. Given the stakes on the battlefield that Syria has become, that seems unlikely.
What's to stop the Assad regime starting over, especially if it sees a tactical advantage in using such weapons?
In 1989, then-CIA Director William Webster said Syria had begun producing chemical agents in the early 1980s. So Syria has some 30 years of experience in making chemical weapons and has built a network of suppliers all over the world. Defecting military officers have said that Iranian experts have helped develop Syria develop its arsenal and the missiles to deliver chemical weapons (despite Iran itself being targeted by chemical weapons during its war with Iraq.)
Starting a new chemical weapons program would not be technically difficult and could be done discreetly if on a limited scale. It might also be tempting for a regime whose conventional military strength is being eroded. Military analysts point out that Syria began developing chemical weapons capability decades ago to counter Israel's conventional military superiority. That superiority is even greater today than it was, and the Assad regime may one day again see possession of chemical weapons as critical to its survival.