|US President Barack Obama at a meeting last week. (AFP)
Sept. 15: When Muammar Gaddafi had to convince the world 10 years ago that he was serious about giving up his chemical weapons, he dragged warheads and bombs into the desert and flattened them with bulldozers.
When Saddam Hussein, defeated in the Persian Gulf war of 1991, had to demonstrate that he was giving up his chemical arsenal, Iraqis protected by little more than tattered clothes over their faces poured some of the agents into ditches and set them on fire — to the shock of inspectors watching in heavy “moon suits”.
Weapons experts and diplomats say that if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is serious about complying with the landmark agreement announced in Geneva yesterday, he will have to take similarly dramatic action in the coming weeks.
Anything short of an immediate demonstration of willingness, they say, will be a sign that Assad is seeking to drag out the process, betting that time is on his side as memories fade of the attack that is said to have killed more than 1,400 people and prompted a military standoff with the US.
The benchmarks laid out in the Geneva agreement seek to capitalise on the momentum by imposing quick deadlines, including a requirement that Syria submit a complete list of its chemical weapons, and storage and production facilities within a week.
The agreement calls for the destruction of chemical agent mixing equipment by November and, perhaps most ambitious, for Syria to completely rid itself of chemical weapons and production facilities in less than a year.
Experts say speed is of the essence.
But the destruction of chemical agents is a painstaking process that, to be done safely and securely, can easily take decades.
Assad, however, also knows that Hussein and Gaddafi were both deposed and ultimately executed years after giving up their weapons.
“The history does not exactly create an incentive,” an administration official said.
Yesterday, Assad had yet to make a public statement endorsing the agreement, which was negotiated by the US and Russia, Syria’s main international patron. While he is expected to sign on to the plan, so far, he has equivocated.
One American military official estimated that Assad had already shot off about half his arsenal of missiles, but that more were arriving, including from Iran.
Iraq after the Gulf War is a prime example of the quick-and-dirty approach. The chemical arsenal was destroyed, and at fire-sale prices compared with the costly American approach, said Charles A. Duelfer, a top UN official in the elimination of Iraq’s chemical arsenal.
But the rapid work gave way to gradual obstruction. Hussein grew increasingly hostile to UN arms inspectors, and by late 1998, seven years after the gulf war ended, the US fired hundreds of cruise missiles at Iraq in an unsuccessful bid to force Baghdad to get serious. That effort largely failed, and the absence of inspectors led the CIA and other intelligence agencies to make projections about how quickly Hussein was rebuilding his arsenals.
Libya was a different case. Months after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Gaddafi contacted Britain and said he wanted to give up all of his unconventional weapons — from the nuclear centrifuges he had bought from the founder of the Pakistani nuclear program to his chemical arms.
He struck the deal with American and British officials, with the understanding that they would lift economic sanctions. In short, he had a motive for giving up his weapons that Assad, amid a civil war and a fight for the survival of his government, cannot even contemplate.
Even so, Libya is left with thousands of pounds of mustard blister agents that it is still working to destroy