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For good reason, Syria, Russia and chemical weapons are all buzzwords that have dominated newspapers the past month. Given the tremendous humanitarian problems and strained domestic and international relationships, this should be the case. As a media consumer, I find there is an issue with the dramatic nature of this news coverage — there seems to be a rather sensationalist approach to the reporting. The concerns aired in the unsleeping 24-hour news cycle all make the discourse melodramatic. Discussion of a loss in U.S. hegemony, American un-exceptionalism, strained U.S.-Russian diplomatic relationships and implications of Iranian misinterpretation of U.S. intentions are all major issues that have managed to draw attention to an important world of political theory, but in the process, these issues have mostly drowned out very important discourse on some of the more practical elements of what it means to get rid of Syrian chemical weapons.
There seems to be a dearth of discussion on the pragmatic nature of removing stockpiles of material. It is estimated that Syria has more than 1,000,000 pounds of chemical weapons; how is that going to be thoroughly and permanently removed? In all the discussion of who exerts an increasing amount of influence in “the region,” how is it that fundamental questions of operation are obscured from the public eye?
All the colorful media coverage and fast-paced decision-making should not obscure the important fact that the magnitude of the discussed operations in Syria is formidable (not that it shouldn’t be carried out). According to political analysis website Stratfor, getting rid of million(s) of pounds of hazardous weaponry will take years, and the operation might not be thorough enough to get rid of all the material and certainly won’t eliminate the possibility that these weapons are used in the short term.
According to National Public Radio, standard procedure for chemical weapons disposal involves complete incineration of all of the components. The incineration of these weapons should not be understood to be a simple task; it is a long and technical process that involves separating the chemical agent from its container or munitions and destroying it, then cautiously destroying anything that contains the hazardous material, including unexploded artillery packaging. This process is extremely laborious because much of the weaponry is decades old and may have suffered decay and is often unstable.
When there was discussion of a potential U.S./Israeli invasion into Iran, there was abundant discourse about the quantity and impenetrability of the nuclear sites. There was discourse about the type of machinery necessary to undertake the operations as well as ample discussion of Iranian capability timelines. All of these practical and important elements are shockingly quiet in the current discussion of Syria.
Would it be preferable to put the collection and movement of chemical weapons in the hands of the Syrians? The weapons could be transported to a single location for assessment and destruction, which would minimize the number of U.S. (and ally) specialists on the ground and allow for them to be concentrated in a single location. On the other hand, however, this implies a certain trust of Assad, of which he is undeserving. How would the United States be able to fully verify that the material was brought from the disparate stockpiles? Also, some of the sites have been taken over by rebel forces — are we to believe that they would cooperate?
Another side of this debate should entertain the idea of boots on the ground — that Americans and allies be sent to the known storage, research and production locations in order to protect them from both the rebels and the Assad regime. In a brief to the U.S. Congress, plans crafted by the U.S. DoD estimated that at least 75,000 ground troops would be needed for this option (excluding the number of personnel and assets required to support the ground force in maneuver). This option is thorough and trustworthy, but I don’t believe a war-fatigued America would take too kindly to this route. Also, given the dispersed nature of this approach, there would need to be many more chemical weapons specialists on the ground. Personnel would be disseminated over a large area in the middle of a dangerous combat zone. Even under ideal conditions, this process would likely take years to accomplish, and the costs would be high.
Clearly, I have not exhausted the potential methods of carrying out the removal of chemical weapons from Syria, but, interestingly, neither have political pundits and other news sources.
I believe it is important to note that whatever type of action is pursued, destruction of the stockpiles cannot be ensured fully. There will always be personnel at risk, and there will always be the chance that chemical weapons will still be used despite the efforts underway. The process will be expensive and will take years to realistically accomplish. While it may not be the most sensational side of the Syrian discussion, it is still important for this form of discourse to be prevalent in today’s news outlets.
Aaron Applbaum is a Wilson School major from Oakland, Calif. He can be reached at email@example.com.