06/12/2014 - 11:53

The promise of the Syrian chemical weapons plan

Kingston Reif

Kingston Reif

Reif is the director of nuclear nonproliferation at the...

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Last summer, as a Moscow-brokered deal to disarm Syria of chemical weapons took shape, a headline in Foreign Policy blared, “There's Almost No Chance Russia's Plan for Syria's Chemical Weapons Will Work.” The accompanying story was typical of many at the time suggesting that the emerging plan was a fool’s errand, that it distracted attention from the deadly battles Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was waging with conventional weapons, and that US participation signaled weakness and lack of resolve in Washington.

In the wake of the Syrian government’s large-scale use of the nerve agent sarin against unprotected civilians last August, the United States and Russia concluded a last-ditch diplomatic agreement forcing Damascus to join the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and verifiably eliminate or remove all chemical weapons material and equipment by June 30. With that deadline approaching, now is a good time to judge the deal’s effectiveness. Is the doom and gloom that characterized (and continues to characterize) much of the commentary on the agreement still warranted? The answer is “no”—with disclaimers. It’s true that Syria has yet to ship out all of its chemicals, that questions remain about whether Damascus is hiding additional prohibited materials, and that the civil war continues to rage with no end in sight. And yet: Progress in implementing the deal has been extraordinary given the circumstances, and the unprecedented international effort has more effectively reduced the threat from Syria’s chemical weapons than the alternative Washington considered—punitive cruise missile strikes.

So far, 92.5 percent of Syria’s declared chemical weapons (a total of 1,290 metric tons) has been destroyed or shipped to the port of Latakia for transport out of the country. In addition, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)—the implementing agency for the CWC—has verified the destruction of Syria’s chemical-weapons-making equipment.

But the plan is behind schedule. The regime has missed multiple deadlines to remove all of its chemicals, which in turn will make it impossible to destroy the arsenal by June 30 as mandated by the deal. Some argue that Assad is holding on to his last batch of chemicals as bargaining chips. Syria’s failure to destroy or ship out 100 percent of the declared stockpile would constitute a clear violation of the agreement and justify strong international condemnation and UN Security Council action under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.

Further complicating matters are questions about whether Syria declared all of its chemical weapons facilities, equipment, and materials to the OPCW. The United States and other Western governments have raised concerns about the completeness of Syria’s declaration, and OPCW officials have visited Damascus in recent weeks in an attempt to clear up alleged omissions and discrepancies. The United States has also accused Syria of stalling on destroying its chemical weapons production sites, though it has disabled the equipment that mixes sarin and mustard precursor ingredients and fills munitions with poison gas. Moreover, allegations of additional chemical attacks inside Syria raise questions as to whether Assad is truly committed to ending his use of the weapons. Recent reports allege that the Assad regime has targeted the opposition with chlorine gas, a chemical not covered by the CWC given its numerous commercial and industrial uses, including pool chlorination. While chlorine is not a banned substance, using it as a weapon is a violation of the CWC—though rockets and missiles armed with sarin warheads are far more deadly than rudimentary chlorine barrel bombs.

These setbacks and concerns are serious and can't be ignored. On balance, however, what has been achieved so far—the near elimination of one of the two largest operational chemical weapons arsenals in the world, in the midst of the chaos of a civil war no less—is remarkable.

Despite repeated and largely unjustifiable Syrian foot-dragging, it seems more likely than not that the remaining 100 metric tons of declared chemicals—which have been packed in containers and are ready for shipment—will be removed in the coming weeks or months. A key reason is that Russia, which appears to have taken the threatened US cruise missile strikes seriously, is invested in the success of the deal. Though the United States and Russia are at odds over Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine and continued support for Assad, Russia has put pressure on Syria to remove its chemicals. Bilateral diplomatic cooperation between Washington and Moscow remains an important tool for reducing WMD threats.

The deal has also significantly reduced the chemical weapons threat to US allies in the region. Just ask Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who hasn’t exactly been a supporter of President Obama’s Middle East policy. In a recent interview with Bloomberg News reporter Jeffrey Goldberg, he said:

I think this is the one ray of light in a very dark region. It’s not complete yet. We are concerned that they may not have declared all of their capacity. But what has been removed has been removed. We’re talking about 90 percent. We appreciate the effort that has been made and the results that have been achieved.

The neutralization of Syria’s chemical weapons would be a major step toward a Middle East free of WMD. As Mideast nations continue to bicker over the agenda for a long-postponed conference to discuss banning chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, the successful elimination of the Syrian arsenal would help demonstrate that a ban is possible. Furthermore, it could be used as leverage to pressure holdouts Egypt and Israel to ratify the CWC.  

By ridding Syria of nearly all of its chemical weapons, the US-Russia deal has been more effective and less risky than airstrikes likely would have been in reducing the Syrian chemical threat. As US National Security Advisor Susan Rice said in May, “there are no number of airstrikes that might have been contemplated that would have done what has been accomplished, which is [that] now 92.5 percent of the declared chemical weapons are out of the country.” In addition, airstrikes might have backfired by causing Assad to launch additional chemical attacks, including against Israel, or retaliate using terrorist proxies such as Hezbollah. Strikes could have also led to greater US involvement in the civil war and threatened negotiations with Syria’s close ally Iran over curtailing the latter’s nuclear program.

Some observers continue to argue that the deal has made it easier for Assad to continue his war against the Syrian opposition using conventional weapons. But the purpose of the contemplated US airstrikes was not to stop the civil war but to punish Assad for using chemical weapons and degrade and deter his ability to launch future attacks. Nonetheless, might airstrikes have boosted the morale of the rebels and hastened the downfall of Assad? Maybe, but it seems unlikely that the small and limited airstrikes that were being proposed at the time would have dramatically altered the course of the conflict. 

The continued slaughter in Syria does raise an important question about why the use of chemical weapons should be viewed differently than brutality perpetrated via other means. There isn’t an easy answer to this question, but the international norms that have been established against particularly heinous weapons are worth upholding, even if they only make a small dent in the odious face of war. Sigrid Kaag, the incredible woman overseeing the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, put it this way: “We can never be happy knowing people are dying… I feel only relief knowing that we are, in some way, helping.” 

The most oft-repeated criticism of the US response is that in allowing Assad to cross the “red line” that President Obama drew against chemical weapons use, Washington’s credibility and resolve to make good on threats is now in question. This charge is unconvincing. It ignores the fact that Israel, the closest US ally in the region, strongly supports the deal. Meanwhile, Iran, the biggest US adversary in the region, has agreed to verifiably constrain its nuclear program despite the alleged display of American weakness in Syria. While some US allies in East Asia have expressed concern about US steadfastness, Syria is not an accurate bellwether for the American commitment to them, since Washington is obliged by treaty to come to the assistance of countries such as Japan and South Korea if they are attacked. Indeed, the Obama administration has taken many tangible steps recently to assure allies in Asia of the American commitment to their security.  

The removal and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons is far from over. Formidable obstacles remain, including ensuring that Assad is not hiding undeclared materials. But we shouldn’t lose sight of what has been achieved or forget that we are another torturous step closer to eliminating the scourge of chemical weapons.