"Boots on the ground will be necessary. The question is: ‘Where will they come from?’” former United Nations weapons inspector Raymond Zilinskas told RIA Novosti.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are set to meet Thursday in Geneva for two days of talks about a Russian plan to place Syria’s chemical arsenal under international control amid calls by Washington for military action to punish Syrian President Bashar Assad for his government’s alleged use of chemical weapons.
US President Barack Obama on Tuesday reiterated in an address to the war-weary American public that US troops would not be sent to Syria, and White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday the Obama administration does "not envision boots on the ground” to deal with Syria’s chemical stockpiles.
"The process by which chemical weapons would be identified, verified, secured and removed from Assad’s control is obviously a complicated one that will be discussed in Geneva,” Carney said.
But experts say such an operation in the middle of an armed conflict would be unprecedented in the century-old history of chemical weapons, meaning significant resources and manpower would likely be needed to prevent the deadly compounds from being stolen or released by a range of competing factions in the two-year-old Syrian civil war.
Should a deal be struck based on the Russian plan, security operations could involve multinational peacekeeping forces, including from the League of Arab States, or even Assad’s own forces, experts said.
"Even with the cooperation of the [Assad] regime, you have plenty of competitors in that space right now who might see it as a target of opportunity,” said Mike Kuhlman, chief scientist for national security at Battelle, an Ohio-based company that worked on the disposal of US chemical weapons stockpiles.
Syria this week acknowledged for the first time that it possesses chemical weapons, a move the Obama administration says came about because of Washington’s military threat in response to an apparent Aug. 21 chemical attack outside Damascus that it claims was carried out by Assad’s government.
But until the size and the location of Syria’s chemical arsenal becomes clear, it is impossible to predict accurately the size of the security force and technical personnel needed to bring the weapons under international control and destroy them, said Jean Pascal Zanders, a Belgian arms control expert.
"The number of troops would depend on how many sites there are and whether those munitions are scattered over several places,” Zanders told RIA Novosti.
The US Department of Defense told the Obama administration last year that a military effort to secure Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal would require some 75,000 troops, The New York Times reported in November.
Ideally, Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal would be consolidated at a single site to allow for more concentrated security measures, Zanders said. But if they are currently stored in disparate locations, transporting the deadly agents could prove perilous.
"The security around a convoy that would be needed would be substantial,” Kuhlman said. "It’s really not even a matter of whether someone needs to steal the contents of a truck. Simply blowing it up en route might accomplish one’s aims. And that’s almost impossible to prevent if you have actors willing to sacrifice themselves in the process.”
In terms of volume, the United States and Russia have by far the most experience in eliminating chemical weapons.
The United States has destroyed 90 percent of its declared Cold War-era stockpiles, though it still has more than 3,000 tons (2,721 metric tons) of mustard gas and blister and nerve agents slated for elimination. Russia, meanwhile, has destroyed more than 76 percent of the some 40,000 metric tons of chemical agents it says it inherited from the Soviet military, a senior Russian official said this week.
Most of the actual US work is carried out by a handful of private contractors with technical expertise in incinerating or neutralizing chemical weapons, Kuhlman said.
Given the number of international private contractors with expertise in destroying chemical weapons and the possible deployment of multinational security units, a Russian plan to eliminate Syria’s arsenal will not necessarily force Obama to renege on his promise to keep US troops out Syria, said Gwyn Winfield, editorial director at CBRNe World, a publication covering nonconventional weapons.
"I think it could be done without American boots on the ground,” he said.