The Cable

Cleaning Up Assad's Chemical Weapons Is The New Mideast Gold Rush

Giulano Porcari has spent the past decade shuttling back and forth from his native Italy to Libya, where his company has a multi-million dollar contract to destroy the country's stockpiles of chemical weapons. He would love to do the same type of work in Syria, where the quantities of armaments -- and the money companies like his could potentially earn for eradicating them -- are exponentially larger. So, though, are the risks.

"Of course I would love to get a contract in Syria -- it's the same work we did in Libya, just a lot more of it," he said by phone from Italy. "But at the present time it's too dangerous. Do you think I want to be shot at? No thank you."

Syria's apparent willingness to put its chemical weapons under international supervision and eventually destroy them has been seen as a win for Russia, which proposed the deal. The Obama administration, meanwhile it being alternately hailed as pulling off a last-minute solution to the crisis -- or chided for getting caught flat-footed by Moscow's diplomatic maneuvering.

The actual work of eliminating Syria's armaments won't be done by the U.S. or Russia, however. It will be done by companies like Porcari's firm, Sipsa, which could make enormous amounts of money for their efforts. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in an interview with Fox News, said that destroying his stockpiles will take at least one year and cost roughly $1 billion.

"I think it is a very complicated operation technically and it needs a lot, a lot of money," he said.

The size of that potential windfall could spark a global gold rush as companies from around the world flood into Damascus hoping to get some of the work.

"I've had discussions with a few contractors already and they're salivating at the prospect of working in Syria," said Paul Walker, an expert in arms control and nonproliferation at Green Cross International. "There are not that many countries that need this type of work."

Once Assad disclosed his sites, contractors would have to separate the chemical substances themselves from the warheads of his rockets, artillery shells or missiles that had been designed to carry them to their targets. Next would come the physical destruction of the chemical weapons themselves, which could be done two ways. The first involves spraying the chemicals themselves into specialized furnaces and then burning them at around 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit for one or two seconds. Nerve agents like sarin can also be rendered largely harmless by the addition of liquid sodium hydroxide, while mustard gas can be made safe with alkaline water.

Walker, who was one of the first Americans to visit Russia's chemical weapons facilities in the 1990s, said that he would expect giant U.S. firms like Bechtel and Parsons to bid for any Syria-related contracts, particularly if the destruction work was funded by Washington. The companies declined to comment.

The firms might have a hard time winning the work, however, given the depth of the anti-U.S. feelings in the Assad government. Instead, Walker said, Russian companies -- which have been destroying their own countries' weapons stockpiles for decades - could wind up with the business.

Those contracts have the potential to be enormously lucrative. Assad's chemical weapons stockpiles are thought to be disbursed across as many as 50 separate sites. Given the danger of trying to move the weapons in the middle of an active conflict, many non-proliferation experts say that new facilities would need to be built at each chemical weapons facility to destroy all of the toxic substances. Building, staffing and running that many new facilities would be so expensive that foreign companies could earn even more money than Assad has estimated.. Private security firms, which would be hired to protect both international monitors and contractors like Porcari, also stand to earn large sums of money if the destruction work goes forward.

There is one major caveat, though. Working in Syria would be extremely dangerous, and absent a peace deal some contractors might decide that the risks to their personnel outweigh the money they would earn by destroying chemical weapons in the midst of a bloody civil war. Porcari, for instance, says he wouldn't go to Syria while its civil war was still raging.

Even if the fighting subsides, moreover, the logistics of the destruction work would be daunting. Take Libya, where Porcari's firm has been working for years. The government of then-Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi declared that it possessed chemical weapons in 2004 and promised to get rid of them. It hired Sipsa to build an incinerator at Rabta, its largest stockpile of mustard gas. A key part of the machinery broke down shortly after the plant went into use, however, and Porcari said he wasn't able to send in a replacement before the country erupted in civil war in 2011. More than a year passed before the company finally managed to put in the new piece of equipment.

The delay has slowed Libya's destruction efforts significantly. Nine years after vowing to get rid of its weapons, Libya has destroyed barely half of its total mustard gas stockpile and just 40% of its stores of chemical weapons precursor elements.

Walker and other non-proliferation experts believe that destroying Syria's stockpiles will be much harder than in Libya, and much more expensive. Companies that accept the risks of working in an active warzone stand to be very richly rewarded. The success of the international effort to force Assad to get rid of his chemical weapons will depend, in large part, on how many firms are willing to roll the dice.

Simon Denyer/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The Cable

U.S. Doesn't Say Much as Russia Violates Georgia's Turf

On September 17, three days after the announcement of a U.S.-Russian agreement to end Syria's chemical weapons program, Moscow made a small but significant move that ordinarily would have irritated Washington. The Russian military began all-but-annexing a tiny chunk of territory for Georgia's separatist region of South Ossetia.

That Russia would again violate its 2008 ceasefire agreement with Georgia, which requires Russian forces to go back to positions held prior to the outbreak of hostilities, did not surprise regional experts and U.S. lawmakers. But Washington's relative silence in the face of the violation did.

The U.S., arguably Georgia's strongest ally in the West, has issued no formal statements from Washington. The European Union, on the other hand, is publicly raising objections to the process of "erecting fences and other physical obstacles along the administrative boundary lines with South Ossetia." And on Wednesday, NATO's special representative for the Caucasus James Appathurai said "this violates the agreement and makes political progress more difficult." The State Department did not respond to a request for comment by The Cable on a formal response to the developments although a Georgian official notes that U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Richard Norland did say the incursions were "in violation of international law" on Thursday.

The muted reaction "is unusual," Ariel Cohen, a senior research fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the Heritage Foundation, said. "But it would be consistent with the U.S. engaging Russia on Syria right now."

The relative quiet is troubling some Georgian officials, who are afraid that their issues are about to get shoved aside as the American and Russian government try to work through an agreement to rid Syria of chemical weapons.

Reports of Russian troops building barbed-wire fences along the border of Ditsi emerged on Tuesday as a group journalists attempting to travel into South Ossetia witnessed the wiring of fences. Georgians accuse the troops of trying to annex as much as 500 square meters of Georgian-controlled territory and committing acts of violence against local residents, while Russia maintains that its troops are there to maintain peace in a country still recovering from its five day war with Georgia in 2008. It's not a lot of territory, of course. But Cohen said the transgression warrants a response from the State Department.

"The principle of territorial integrity is an important principle of U.S. foreign policy, which cannot tolerate countries encroaching and deciding borders unilaterally," he told The Cable. "Moreover, if European countries are objecting, then Washington needs to be singing from the same sheet of music."

Of course, the dispute is not just about Georgia. Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov agreed to the Syria framework which could take a decade or more to complete given the intense logistical difficulties involved.  Analysts have already hailed the Russian-brokered agreement as a sly maneuver by President Vladimir Putin to avoid a U.S. military strike and bog down the U.S. in the painstaking process of arms control verification and disposal. Proponents of the deal say U.S. diplomats were nimble in responding to an opportunity that punishes Assad for using chemical weapons and doesn't further entangle the U.S. into the messy conflict.

Regardless, Russia continues to cement its influence in the Middle East and among its former Soviet neighbors. Some in Congress are beginning to notice. As of late, Russia has pressured former Soviet states into declining agreements with the European Union ahead of the EU's Eastern Partnership Summit. It's also pressuring Ukraine, Armenia and Moldova into joining its own customs union, which Eliot Engel, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee spoke out against yesterday.

"I am calling on the State Department to speak out strongly against recent attempts by Russia to prevent Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, and others from strengthening their economic and political ties with Europe," Engel said in a statement. "Russia's campaign of intimidation and pressure blatantly violates the fundamental sovereignty and independence of these countries.  Each nation has the right to form its own partnerships, in keeping with its interests and values."

The developments raise the question as to whether the U.S. can successfully compartmentalize its diplomatic issues with Russia as it relies on Moscow to keep pressure on Assad to give up his chemical weapons.