Syria’s Chemical Weapons Disposal: the Worldwide NIMBY Problem

One of the U.S.'s staunchest NATO allies doesn't want to host the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons. Will anyone?

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When the international plan to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons was first being negotiated, few Americans would have imagined its success could hinge on the nation of Albania. Yet with a November 15 deadline looming for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to work out a detailed plan with Damascus to empty Syria of its stockpile, negotiators pinned their hopes on Albania to serve as host for the weapons’ destruction. But Friday, Albania became the latest country asked for that help to, in effect say, “Not in my backyard.”

Finding a country willing to take the weapons has been an ongoing problem. In October, Norway declined, citing “time constraints and external factors, such as capacities, regulatory requirements,” according to a statement from the Foreign Ministry. Denmark and Sweden offered to help transport the weapons, and this week, Norway’s foreign minister offered to send a civilian cargo shop and a Navy frigate to pick up the weapons and transport them somewhere else.

U.S. and OPCW officials hoped Albania would be the destination, and it’s not surprising they expected cooperation. Most Americans may know little about Albania beyond its role in the 1997 satirical political comedy Wag the Dog, in which Washington spin-doctors stage a fake war in Albania to distract from a presidential scandal. But in reality, Albania is one of the U.S.’s staunchest NATO allies; the country supported American efforts after 9/11, including granting asylum to released Guantanamo detainees.

Negotiations on the chemical weapons front reportedly got as far as discussions of economic incentives. But thousands of Albanians protested the proposal outside government offices in the capital Tirana. One of the protest organizers, Sazan Guri of the Alliance Against Waste Imports, told Radio Free Europe that he is very pro-American, but his goal was to spread the message: “We are not a dustbin.” On Friday, Prime Minister Edi Rama, who has barely been in office two months, gave a nationally-televised address where he rejected the request to accept the weapons. “It is impossible for Albania to get involved in this operation,” he said. “We lack the necessary capacities to get involved in this operation.”

So the question remains: Will any country play host to the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons? No new candidates have been mentioned, and given the generally negative response so far, it’s unclear if anyone will. All politics is inherently local, and issues ranging from where to build nuclear power plants or public housing – and even where to destroy another country’s chemical weapons – spark what political scientists call the NIMBY factor: Not in My Backyard.

There isn’t a country on Earth where hosting the chemical weapons destruction will be politically popular, and under the current plan, there isn’t much time to find one. The U.S.-Russian agreement calls for all chemical weapons and materials to be out of Syria by December 31.