WASHINGTON — The rockets were filled with military-grade nerve gas and labeled with Cyrillic lettering. They were fired from a weapon issued to the Syrian military and launched from areas controlled by Bashar Assad's forces.
A United Nations-organized probe, released Monday, undermined claims by officials in Moscow that Syria's opposition, and not its regime, was responsible in late August for the world's worst chemical weapons attack in 25 years. But officials in Washington and allied capitals have not used their conclusions to denounce the Russians, because they are presently asking Russia for a big favor — to destroy Syrian chemicals on its own soil.
Speaking in New York after the report was presented to the U.N. Security Council, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, noted that "some countries" had not accepted the West's view of how the attack had unfolded — and who was to blame. But neither she, nor the British and French ambassadors, assailed Moscow directly.
The reason — spoken in private by U.S. and allied officials but only hinted at publicly — is that Russia is virtually the only nation that can haul the immense Syrian chemical arsenal away and destroy it on its own territory, particularly within the ambitiously short time frame suggested by the recent U.S.-Russian agreement in Geneva. The agreement suggests the task be completed by the middle of 2014.
Russia's involvement is by no means certain. But it is a live — and increasingly large — possibility, the officials say.
"Removal may indeed turn out to be an important way to do this, if feasible, under [international] . . . supervision," a senior State Department official confirmed to reporters in Geneva Saturday, on condition of anonymity. "Russia is certainly one option. . . . We have discussed it, but we have to do the technical work now to look at each of these."
In fact, Washington has been asking the Russians for months to do just that, according to U.S. and allied officials, but until now Moscow has shown little enthusiasm for the task. The officials, speaking on condition they not be named, said U.S. studies have shown that Russia has both the skills and industrial capacity to meet the challenges of destroying the Syrian arsenal, which has been estimated at between 1,000 and 1,300 tons of deadly sarin, mustard, and VX nerve gas — equivalent to at least 239,000 gallons, some in vats, some in munitions, some in bunkers.
The United States, Britain and France have had their eyes on a particular Russian chemical weapons demilitarization plant for some time as a safe destination for the Syrian arsenal. It's located at Shchuchye, 1,000 miles southeast of Moscow, where its employees have been destroying Russia's own stocks of VX and sarin since 2009. The plant was constructed over a decade with $1 billion in funding from the United States, plus additional cash from Canada, the Czech Republic, the European Union, Italy, Norway, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and Russia's own budget.
Western governments favor moving the Syrian chemicals out of the country aboard ships destined for Russia because they don't trust Assad's regime to destroy the arsenal in place — a process that would take years. So they're eager to get the chemicals out of Syria quickly, perhaps after first neutralizing some of their components at their current sites. U.S. officials have said those storage sites may currently number around a dozen or so, although the total number of sites involved in the Syrian program — including munitions and chemical factories — has been pegged at around 45.
Russia's participation remains key because two other countries quietly approached by Washington this year as potential hosts for newly constructed demilitarization plants — Turkey and Jordan — have both expressed reservations, several officials said on condition they not be named.
Donald Mahley, a former Army officer who was the first U.S. ambassador to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) — the group that oversees chemical demilitarization around the globe — and who helped negotiate the planned destruction of Libya's chemical arsenal in 2004, said the Russian plant could probably eliminate the entire Syrian arsenal in six months to a year. He said that transporting the weapons there — possibly using the Russian military-controlled port facilities at Tartus, in Syria — should also be feasible, noting that in 1985, the United States successfully moved a more dangerous type of its own chemical armaments from storage bunkers in West Germany to a Pacific island destruction facility, without incident.
"Schemes to destroy the stuff in country are a lot more complicated than they look," Mahley said, citing his experience in Libya, where the former regime's arsenal has still not been destroyed, nearly a decade after that country committed to doing so. A plant in the Libyan desert, built by Italians, has periodically experienced mechanical troubles, and its operation was halted during the political tumult there.
U.S. and allied officials say that even before the chemicals are removed from their storage sites, some can be rendered useless as weapons by hydrolysis — adding water and other chemicals — and by burning the less toxic, alcohol-based component of sarin. "Each of these is far less technically complex than destroying the agent itself," a U.S. official told reporters in Geneva.
Mahley compared the task of transporting the resulting liquid to shipping nuclear waste, as opposed to nuclear warheads. "It would not be a vaporizing chemical" that could kill in minute quantities, he said, but "it would really make you unhappy if you got a gram splashed on your arm."
According to a description of the Russian plant by the Parsons Corporation, its U.S.-based designer, the facility "can process small- and medium-sized rocket and tube artillery . . . small rocket and tube artillery munitions and large rocket and missile warheads." Automated machinery drills holes in filled shells, drains them, and neutralizes them by adding a chemical reagent. The waste is then mixed with asphalt and packed in drums for long-term storage.
The plant might have to undergo minor engineering modifications to handle the particular Russian shells. Under the Western proposal, Syria's arsenal would be destroyed there under OPCW inspection. U.S. officials say the mid-2014 deadline to complete the task is really more of a target, given the complexities of organizing the multinational effort. "We believe it is possible," one said. "I think the Russians are a little less ready to say it is possible."
While the West's preference — namely, fast removal of the stocks to Russia — is clear, according to various officials, Russia has yet to be fully convinced. So a joint study with Moscow is underway, a U.S. official said in Geneva, of the "cost, feasibility, safety, and, above all, speed" of that idea and some alternatives.
"We require further discussions within our government and between the two governments, then ultimately also with OPCW and other partners before getting to a final decision," the official said in Geneva. A colleague there said the "most likely" outcome is "some hybrid" of in-country and out-of-country destruction activities, alluding to neutralizing certain components prior to shipping them out.