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Mission Impossible in Syria

I live near an enormous former stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. It isn’t walking distance from my house, but I can drive there between breakfast and lunch without exceeding the speed limit.

From 1962 to 2011, the US Army stored nearly four thousand tons of VX, Sarin, and HD blister agent (commonly known as mustard gas) at the Umatilla Chemical Depot along the Columbia River two and a half hours east of Portland, Oregon.

In 1993 the US signed a treaty forbidding the production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons, and eleven years later, in 2004, the Army was finally ready to begin destroying Oregon’s stockpile.

They did it by incinerating the chemical agents in a 2,700 degree furnace. And they did it in a thinly populated part of the peaceful Pacific Northwest under the complete control of the United States Army.

It still took them eight years. Toxic munitions must be destroyed very slowly and very carefully. A single drop of this stuff will kill you, and the facility is located right on the Columbia River which runs through Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington. And though Umatilla County is fairly remote, the Los Angeles Times reported that “disaster scenarios suggested that a major earthquake at the facility, followed by fire, could send a plume of poisonous residue as far as Portland, Seattle or Spokane.”

If you live in the Midwest, you may be used to hearing the blaring sound of air raid sirens when the local authorities test the tornado warning systems. We have a similar setup on the Oregon coast to warn residents and tourists of an incoming tsunami if a Hawaiian volcano falls into the Pacific or if the Cascadian Subduction Zone ruptures. And in three counties in Eastern Oregon, yet another one of those systems was set up in case something at the Umatilla death trap exploded.

So people who live in that area felt a sense of relief when the Army finally finished destroying the stockpiles on October 25, 2011.

The Chemical Weapons Convention was drafted in New York and Paris. The United States signed it in 1993.

Syria agreed to sign it three days ago. A plan is now being put together to rid Syria of its chemical weapons

Considering all of the above, which I’ve been all too familiar with for many years now, you can color me more than a little bit skeptical.

The whole thing was Vladimir Putin’s idea. Not because he cares a whit about chemical weapons or how many people are horribly killed by them, but because he needs to stick up for his one Arab ally and he needs to stick his thumb in America’s eye. 

Barack Obama likes the idea, though, because it means he doesn’t have to do anything about Syria even though Bashar al-Assad crossed the “red line” and used poison gas against humans. Assad likewise likes the idea because, now that the international pressure is off, he can kill another 100,000 humans with conventional weapons and the only people who will say boo about it are human rights organizations and journalists.

Disposing of VX and mustard gas was slow and dangerous work in Oregon. I can only imagine how much more difficult the job will be in a Middle Eastern country that’s ripping its own guts out while Al Qaeda and Hezbollah are loose and running wild.

For those reasons alone, I imagine it is impossible. As Jeffrey Goldberg added, “Assad is a lying, murdering terrorist, and lying, murdering terrorists aren’t, generally speaking, reliable partners, except for other lying, murdering terrorists.”

Let’s say, though, just for the sake of discussion, that the process goes just as smoothly in Syria as it did in Oregon, that it will take precisely the same amount of time to destroy Assad’s arsenal, and that they (whoever they are) can get started tomorrow.

They won’t finish until 2021. Because that’s how long it took down the road from my house.

But there’s no chance destroying this stuff will happen as swiftly and smoothly in Syria as it did in Oregon. That wouldn’t be good enough anyway. It would need to happen more swiftly and smoothly. And the only thing that happens more swiftly and smoothly in Syria than in Oregon is the deployment of car bombs.

I suppose Syria’s thousand tons of chemical weapons could be driven to the airport (!) and flown out, but the only country I can think of that would want guardianship of Assad’s weapons of mass destruction is Iran (unless Lebanon’s Hezbollahland counts as a country), and I doubt many would allow flights containing Assad’s arsenal over their air space.

Furthermore, I doubt a single high-level person involved in this international performance will ever even try to make it work. Because it’s damn near impossible and everyone knows it. It doesn’t matter, though, because this is about face-saving status quo maintenance.

Everybody at the top wins. Putin doesn’t want to lose his one Arab ally, and now he doesn’t have to. Obama never did want to bomb Syria, and now he doesn’t have to. Assad does not want to stop bombing Syria, and now he doesn’t have to.

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