The World

Is It Possible the Syrians Don’t Know Where All of Their Chemical Weapons Are?

People sunbath atop of decrepit communist era bunkers on the shore in Qerret beach on July 13, 2011. During its self-imposed isolation under the communist regime, Albania built half a million bunkers all over its territory to protect itself from an invasion that never came.

Photo by GENT SHKULLAKU/AFP/Getty Images

The recently Nobel Prize-awarded Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons has reported that the Syrian regime has been relatively cooperative so far with international weapons inspectors. This makes some sense. The inspections buy Bashar al-Assad’s government time to conduct his war without much international interference.

But at an event in Washington last night hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, chemical weapons specialist Michael Moodie raised another possible issue that might come up for the inspectors. Even if Syrian authorities do cooperate, in the midst of the chaos of war, it’s possible they may have lost track of where some of the chemical weapons or precursor chemicals are.

Paul Walker of Green Cross International, who I’ve interviewed on this blog before, noted that there is some precedent for this in past cases of chemical weapons destruction, notably Albania, which signed the chemical weapons convention back in 1993.

The Washington Post reported on the story back in 2005:

In the mid-1970s, U.S. and Albanian officials now believe, [the late Communist dictator Enver] Hoxha arranged the purchase of several hundred canisters of lethal military chemicals to be used in weapons against invading armies. The chemicals included yperite, or sulfur mustard, one of the chemicals used by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to slaughter thousands of Kurdish civilians in the 1980s, as well as lewisite and adamsite, which are based on arsenic.

This deadly stockpile was hidden in one of Hoxha’s bunkers, then forgotten after Hoxha died in 1985. The communist regime fell in 1991. The current Albanian government’s surprise discovery of the canisters, acknowledged to U.S. and U.N. officials several months ago, has also led to the disclosure of the country that apparently supplied the chemicals: China.

Albanian officials recently allowed a reporter from The Washington Post to view the stockpile, a move that comes as there are ongoing efforts by the fledgling democracy to renounce the country’s past and bolster its international standing. While the stockpile is small compared with the vast chemical weapons holdings of Russia and the United States, it is worrisome to U.S. officials because of what it represents: one of scores of undocumented or poorly secured weapons caches worldwide that could be exploited by terrorists with deadly effect.

Similarly, the Libyan government “discovered” some new chemical weapons after the downfall of the Qaddafi regime, though it seems quite possible that Muammar al-Qaddafi had deliberately hidden those.

I should point out that the experts on the panel last night, which also included Chen Kane of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, were relatively optimistic that even if not completely destroyed by the mid-2014 deadline, the inspectors should be able to at least remove the possibility that Assad will use chemical weapons on his people again. On the other hand, history has taught us we might still be in for some surprises.