WASHINGTON — Three decades after the United States started destroying its own chemical weapons, the nation’s stockpile stands at more than 3,000 tons — about three times what the U.S. now says Syrian President Bashar Assad controls.
Taken together, the remaining U.S. arsenal weighs about as much as three dozen Boeing 737s loaded for takeoff. And while the U.S. has made significant progress, eradicating 90 percent of the 31,500 tons it once possessed, the military doesn’t expect to complete destruction until 2023.
Deadlines have come and gone, and been extended. And, like other countries, the United States has found that complying with the Chemical Weapons Convention that banned such weaponry isn’t easy to do.
Now, as the U.S. and others push Syria to surrender its arsenal, the steep challenges that have hindered America’s efforts for a generation illustrate the daunting task of securing and ultimately dismantling Assad’s stockpiles in the middle of a civil war.
Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov were meeting over two days with chemical weapons experts in Geneva to discuss how to do exactly that. They hoped to emerge with the outlines of a plan.
Although the death toll in Syria from conventional weapons has surpassed 100,000, it wasn’t until the U.S. said it determined that Assad’s government had used chemical weapons on a large scale that President Barack Obama seriously threatened military action.
That’s because chemical weapons, Obama says, are different.
“Men, women, children lying in rows, killed by poison gas. Others foaming at the mouth, gasping for breath,” Obama told the nation Tuesday night, describing the Aug. 21 attack that the U.S. says killed more than 1,400 Syrians, including hundreds of children. “On that terrible night, the world saw in gruesome detail the terrible nature of chemical weapons, and why the overwhelming majority of humanity has declared them off-limits.”