The problem with destroying chemical weapons

(CBS News) WASHINGTON -- In the pursuit of a diplomatic solution to the Syria crisis, Russia had proposed that Syria relinquishes its chemical weapons to avert a U.S. strike over its alleged chemical weapons attack on a Damascus suburb on August 21. But even if the Syrians do allow the inspectors to do their work, finding and disposing of all those weapons won't be easy.

The U.S. and Russia know exactly what it takes to get rid of chemical weapons. They've both spent the past 16 years dismantling their own massive stockpiles under the terms of a treaty banning chemical weapons. Syria didn't sign that treaty, so it is has spent those same years adding to its own stockpiles, which now total an estimated 1,000 tons of chemical agents.

Steve Bucci who spent part of his career in Special Forces tracking Syria's chemical weapons, says knowing the exact location of those weapons is at best imperfect.
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"Syria is considered by most experts as a chemical weapons superpower," said Steve Bucci, who spent part of his career in Special Forces tracking Syria's chemical weapons.

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"They've got a lot of it," he said. "It's weaponized for the most part and it's useful, so it's not just stuff sitting in laboratories or in storage sites. They're already in artillery shells, rocket warheads, air-droppable munitions."

The U.S. has spent $26.5 billion building incinerators in eight states and on one remote Pacific island where chemical weapons were stored. So far, 27,000 tons of chemical agent have been destroyed. Translate that to Syria's stockpile and it would cost about $1 billion to destroy. The Pentagon, of course, knew where all its chemical weapons were stored, but that's not the case in Syria.

Map where chemical weapons are believed to be in Syria
Nuclear Threat Initiative

"I would say our knowledge of the exact location of these weapons is at best imperfect at this point," said Bucci.

In Iraq, U.N. weapons inspectors spent years ranging over the country in search of chemical weapons, constantly ending up in confrontations with Iraqi officials.

As with Iraq, Syria would have to declare exactly how many chemical weapons it has and where they are stored. That would be the first sign it intends to cooperate with the United Nations and is not just playing for time.

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.