In a Google + Hangout event Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made it clear Washington believes the Assad regime controls access to sites where chemical weapons are held, "and so we believe they need to show us a completely verifiable, completely accountable, and ongoing verifiable process by which we know we have all of the weapons, access to all sites in question, unlimited access investigation."
But much of the chemical arsenal in Syria appears to be stored and developed at "dual-use" facilities, which the regime will want to protect from prying eyes. For example, the Centre d'Etude et Recherche Scientifique in Damascus develops chemical and biological agents, according to western experts. But it is also thought to be at the heart of other military and scientific research. In a report earlier this year, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a non-proliferation group, described the CERS as "the best-equipped research center in Syria, possessing better technical capacity and equipment than the four Syrian universities."
Similarly, a site at Jamraya north of Damascus is thought to contain both chemical weapons and other programs.
How much of complex sites like these would be open to unfettered access?
Chemical weapons are often known as the "poor man's nuclear weapon" because they are relatively cheap to produce. This poses another problem. Fertilizer plants and oil refineries have been identified in academic studies as being linked to Assad's chemical weapons program. They also will need to be inspected.
How can the inspectors' movement be assured in the midst of a civil war?
For seven years the weapons inspectors of the U.N. Special Commission trawled through Iraq looking for chemical weapons at some 120 facilities. They had sweeping powers including "unrestricted freedom of movement without advance notice in Iraq;" the "right to unimpeded access to any site or facility for the purpose of the on-site inspection;" and the "right to request, receive, examine, and copy any record data, or information...relevant to" its work.
UNSCOM was dealing with a recalcitrant and obstructive regime that did its best to mislead the U.N., but at least they were not trying to work during a war.
In Syria, how difficult would it be for inspectors to cross from government to rebel-held areas? How difficult would it be for them to make "surprise" inspections to make sure chemical weapons were not being moved or hidden? It took months for terms to be reached before the most recent U.N. inspection team was admitted to Syria, and it was at first permitted access to just three sites (before the August 21 attack, after which the inspectors were allowed into the Damascus suburb where the incident took place.)
How current is intelligence about the nature and location of Syria's chemical weapons stocks?
Several of the sites where supplies for chemical weapons were allegedly held have been surrounded or seized by rebels. Had those supplies been removed to safer places? And how do inspectors get in to check? Is there one team working in rebel-held areas and another in parts held by the regime?
Are chemical weapons still stored mainly as precursors? Or has part of Syria's arsenal already been deployed (if not used) in short-range missiles or artillery shells? There have been some indications, according to U.S. sources, that the regime has consolidated its chemical weapons stockpile in fewer places to better safeguard it. Senior U.S. military officials have been saying since early this year that the Syrian government has been moving its stocks of sarin and mustard gas.
It is very difficult for outsiders, even Israel and the United States, to be sure of what the Syrian regime is doing and what its intentions are. Intercepts and satellite imagery offer clues, and Israel has already carried out bombing raids against convoys said to be carrying weapons to the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, an ally of the Assad regime. But U.S. officials acknowledge that it's hard to keep track of the hundreds of military sites in Syria
Hezbollah units are now established inside Syria and were involved in the summer battle for control of the town of Qusayr. So it's more than tracking the movement of trucks from known Syrian military facilities to areas along the Syrian-Lebanese border where Hezbollah is well-established.
But one Israeli specialist in chemical weapons says moving weaponized chemical agents around is far from easy.
"There are many ways to know it with monitoring," according to Ely Karmon, a senior research scholar at the IICT. He told CNN they are "difficult to transport, you need specialists to ensure they don't leak or explode along the way. And Hezbollah has no knowledge (of chemical weapons) so should they perhaps involve the Iranians or Syrian technicians?"
How can such a huge amount of material be safely moved out of a war zone?
Transporting hundreds of tons of chemicals through a country ravaged by war, where the rebels are a patchwork of militias and major routes are not under the government's control, is a huge logistical challenge. Convoys would need to be guarded, airports secured and/or border crossings secured. But who does the guarding? Syrian troops? Unlikely unless supervised by an international. U.S. troops? No one is floating that idea.
Alternatively, sites within Syria where chemical weapons precursors could be safely destroyed would have to be identified and guarded. This appears to be the preferred option of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon.
"I am considering urging the Security Council to demand the immediate transfer of Syria's chemical weapons and chemical precursor stocks to places inside Syria where they can be safely stored and destroyed," he told reporters in New York Monday.