Chemical weapons are easy to make. The technology for mass production goes back to World War I. However, they are difficult to store because they can deteriorate over time, and they are even more difficult to get rid of.
The U.S. military for decades has wrestled, not always wisely, with the question of how to destroy such weapons. The simplest and most effective method — incinerators built closest to the site where the weapons are stored — runs into intractable local and political problems.
Nobody wants nerve gas destroyed in their backyard. The military had planned to destroy short-range nerve-gas rockets at an incinerator built for that purpose at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal. But in a decision that went all the way to the White House, the rockets were encased in concrete, secretly shipped by rail across the country and loaded aboard two surplus freighters, which were scuttled in 6,000 feet of water miles out in the Atlantic in the 1970s.
There they presumably still sit, according to an investigation decades later by the Newport News (Va.) Daily Press, along with 64 million pounds of nerve and mustard agents and 400,000 chemical-filled bombs, land mines and rockets tossed overboard by the military.
This primitive form of disposal has since been outlawed in the United States. But the weapons are still down there, something the “Drill, baby, drill!” crowd might want to keep in mind. It is doubtful that the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad is similarly enlightened ecologically.
The United States, even acting alone, could bomb Assad’s stocks of chemical weapons, but that would almost inevitably set off a catastrophic release of lethal gases with huge loss of civilian life.
According to USA Today, since we first convinced ourselves that Saddam Hussein had massive stocks of such weapons, the U.S. military has been trying with little success to develop a device that would both destroy the weapons, be they bombs or rockets, and neutralize their contents.
The most effective way of eliminating Assad’s stocks is to have experts dismantle them. Ideally, that would be part of a negotiated settlement that saw the departure of Assad and the elimination of his chemical weapons.
Another choice is a series of raids by special-ops troops, a fading alternative now that Britain has opted out. Meanwhile, the Syrian people remain at the mercy of a leader who has shown no compunction against killing them in an especially painful and grotesque way. It is only a matter of time before the rebels are capable of doing likewise.