WASHINGTON — Three decades after the United States started destroying its own chemical weapons, the nation's stockpile stands at more than 3,000 tons — about three times what the United States now says Syrian President Bashar Assad controls.
Taken together, the remaining U.S. arsenal weighs about as much as three dozen Boeing 737s loaded for takeoff. While the United States has made significant progress, eradicating 90 percent of the 31,500 tons it once possessed, the military doesn't expect to complete destruction until 2023.
Like other countries, the United States has found that it isn't easy to comply with the Chemical Weapons Convention that banned such weaponry.
Now, as the United States and others push Syria to surrender its arsenal, the steep challenges that have hindered America's efforts illustrate the daunting task of securing and ultimately dismantling Assad's stockpiles in the middle of a civil war.
The United States has long since missed its original 2007 deadline, which was extended to 2012, then missed again. Russia is behind schedule too.
"Under ideal conditions, complete Syrian cooperation and having a country that's ready, willing and able to receive the material, it's theoretically possible," said Greg Koblenz, a chemical weapons expert at George Mason University. "In the middle of a very brutal civil war, it's highly implausible."
The Syrian regime has more than 1,000 tons of sulfur, mustard gas and the ingredients for sarin and the nerve agent VX, Secretary of State John Kerry told Congress.
Under a tenuous diplomatic deal being coordinated by Russia, which holds the world's largest remaining chemical weapons stockpile, Syria would join the Chemical Weapons Convention, declare its stockpiles and hand them over to the international community for destruction.
It's unclear how that colossal task could be carried out when there's distrust of Syria in the international community, uncertainty about the weapons' locations and ongoing fighting between Assad's forces and rebels. The White House says it will require extensive verification to ensure that stall tactics aren't disguised as legitimate holdups.
"All of this is a slow process," said Dieter Rothbacher, a former U.N. chemical weapons inspector who has worked in Iraq, Russia and the United States.
The process is complex.
The two basic methods — chemical neutralization and incineration — both require specialized facilities. Using incineration, chemicals must be heated to thousands of degrees. Decades-old storage containers can be leaky and tough to handle. Destruction produces highly hazardous waste that must be carefully stored. And assembled weapons, like those chemicals already loaded into rockets and packed with explosives, pose their own dangers.
U.N. inspectors' report due soon
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon said Friday he believes there will be "an overwhelming report" from U.N. inspectors that chemical weapons were used in an attack in Syria on Aug. 21, but he did not say who was responsible. The U.N. inspectors have a mandate to determine whether chemical weapons were used — and if so, which agent — not to establish who was responsible. But the report could point to the perpetrators, the Associated Press reported, citing two U.N. diplomats who said that inspectors collected many samples from the attack and also interviewed doctors and witnesses. Ake Sellstrom, the chief chemical weapons inspector, told the AP that he would deliver his report to Ban in New York this weekend.
Negotiators for U.S., Russia optimistic
American and Russian negotiators meeting in Geneva moved closer to an agreement that would seek to ultimately strip Syria of its chemical weapons. After a second day of marathon talks in Geneva between Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov of Russia, both sides expressed optimism. A significant sign of movement at the U.N. came when the Obama administration effectively took force off the table in discussions over the shape of a Security Council resolution governing any deal with Syria. Although Obama reserved the right to order a U.S. military strike without U.N. backing if Syria reneges on its commitments, senior officials said he understood that Russia would never allow a Security Council resolution authorizing force.