Syria; Chemical Weapons Disposal

Odd how tense things were a few weeks ago but now the media and politicians have moved on; it's as if the 800lb gorilla never showed up to rain on everyone's parade in the first place. Unfortunately, that much is now beyond reasonable doubt and he's still lurking out there. The issues aren't going away anytime soon no matter how much it would suit Washington.

The percieved relaxation in tension across the political and media environment, and reflected in global markets, is predicated on the agreement by Syria to list and subsequently dispose of its chemical weapons by mid 2014. It is perhaps useful to remember though, that this will very likely take years in practice. Further, it is worth noting that in reality, the manouvering of Russia to outwit and reposition itself against the United States in an effort to regain lost ground since the Cold War is hardly lost on the United States and it's allies.

The preferred method of disposal then is incineration which is a complicated technical process involving the separation of the delivery munitions from the toxic payload. This is made more laborious the older and more unstable the components are. Moreover, it is unlikely to be conducted on site. More probably the munitions will be moved to specialist international disposal sites, of which there are few, and delivering 1,000 tons of chemical and biological weapons to any given embarkation point is expensive, time consuming and requires many specialists, not to mention the security risks of movement in the midst of a civil war.

Destroying them within Syria is an option but would take many, many thousands of men to provide security for the operation in the midst of a civil war. The US DoD estimate up to 75,000 which would probably make Obama choke on his cornflakes. It is possible that destruction could be left to the Syrians with foreign technical help under the watch of UN inspectors. One estimate puts the number of inspectors required at 2,000 and all of those would need close protection. Of course, this option is also fraught with the risk that not all weapons will be recovered and the security of the weapons could easily be compromised during what would anyway, be a long operation.

In summary then, the Syrian chemical weapons problem is not going away. We’re now into a long term phase of negotiated disposal, (to be conducted amidst a civil war). It will be costly in time and money and be fraught with political risk at every level.

Mr Cameron, please note.