How Much Will It Cost to Destroy Syria's Chemical Weapons?

It may cost billions, but it's worth it.

U.N. chemical weapons experts prepare before collecting samples from one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack in Damascus' suburb of Zamalka. (Bassam Khabieh/Reuters)

Isolating and destroying Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons is, finally, within reach. But of course, any complex international endeavor involves price tags—monetary and otherwise.

Estimating the dollar cost of destroying the roughly 1,000 tons of Syrian chemical weapons in the middle of a civil war is challenging. But it’s possible to come up with a ballpark estimate.

First, let’s look at what the U.S. spent destroying its chemical weapons stockpile using incineration and neutralization processes, which both seasoned chemists and Breaking Bad fans should appreciate. The U.S. Army’s Chemical Materials Agency oversaw the destruction of just over 28,364 tons of chemical weapons—nearly 90 percent of the U.S. stockpile—for an estimated cost of $28 billion. That’s about $1 billion per 1,000 tons.

The remaining 10 percent of the stockpile—3,136 tons—will be eliminated by 2023. The U.S. Army’s Chemical Weapons Alternative program, which is managing the destruction, estimates it will cost $10.6 billion, or about $3 billion per thousand tons.

Second, remember that chemical weapons destruction is not just a domestic pursuit. Overseas, the United States has spent $13 billion since 1992 on the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program (CTR), which works with former Soviet states on securing and dismantling nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. $1 billion of this went to just one project—the Shchuch’ye Russia chemical weapons destruction facility—which has since eliminated more than 2,365 metric tons of chemical weapons.

Of course, all of this is stunningly inexpensive when compared to the cost of going to war. We spent at one point $10 billion per month during the Iraq War, which was fought over the illusion of WMDs. And in Syria, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey said, "Thousands of special operations forces and other ground forces would be needed to assault and secure critical sites…Costs could also average well over $1 billion per month." So destroying all of Syria’s actual chemical weapons for something in the neighborhood of a few billion dollars would be a fantastic financial bargain.

And it might not even cost us that much. The Syrian foreign minister recently agreed that Syria would both give up their chemical weapons and sign the Chemical Weapons Convention. That treaty requires “each State Party shall meet the costs of destruction of chemical weapons it is obliged to destroy.” It’s not clear if the international community will be comfortable with Assad destroying his own weapons. But if the chemical weapons are transported elsewhere for destruction, Assad will be responsible for buying their ticket out.

Even if American taxpayers aren’t legally on the hook to pay for anything, some of the costs may bleed into the U.S. side of the ledger. But, compared to the alternatives, it will be well worth the investment, because destroying Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, thereby keeping them out of the hands of terrorists, will fulfill a core security interest of the United States.

Beyond the money, there are plenty of questions that remain unanswered: what will be destroyed in-country, and what will have to be taken out of Syria for destruction? Can 1,000 tons of chemical weapons be airlifted? Taken over-land through a civil war? Taken out via cargo ships?

Secretary of State Kerry and his Russian counterpart are currently working with their top chemical weapons experts to try to solve these sticky logistical problems. And the U.S. has some experience destroying chemical weapons in hard-to-reach areas. For example, the CTR program eliminated 16 tons of chemical weapons from Albania by building a disposal facility in Germany and shipping the entire building into Albania. Former Defense Secretary William Perry wisely called this program “defense by other means.”

While the effort to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons will be tricky, this plan does lock the Russians and Syrians onto a path to eliminating the greatest U.S. national security concern in the Syrian conflict—chemical weapons. And it does so with no cost in American lives, and relatively little cost in American treasure.