A Strange Kind of Victory

Some pundits are celebrating the effort to get rid of Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons. But if this is progress, what does failure look like?


I’m slightly relieved to discover that Katrina vanden Heuvel considers the Nobel Peace Prize no real measure of success or international recognition. I couldn’t agree with her more.

In a short and silly op-ed for the Washington Post, the Nation magazine editor lamented that "progress" on decommissioning Syria’s chemical stockpiles has gone unheralded, despite the fact that Oslo recently conferred its annual award to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). She’s good enough to admit that this is because the progress is still "incomplete." She’s certainly right on that score. After all, the worst humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century — in which 40 percent of a national population is now in urgent need of foreign assistance and upwards of 100,000 people have been killed — continues unimpeded. (The photo above shows rebel fighters taking cover in Aleppo on Nov. 6.)

Vanden Heuvel believes we should give Syria more credit. "The diplomacy on Syria’s chemical weapons seems to be succeeding in part," vanden Heuvel writes, "because Russia put its power and prestige on the line, not only in offering a political lifeline to President Obama, but also in pressuring the Assad government to act decisively to give up its weapons and cooperate with the United Nations."

This is a fairy-tale view of recent history. In reality, Russia baited a trap for the United States and dressed it up as a convenient emergency hatch for President Obama to slip through in order to escape a disastrous and confused Syria policy that was entirely of his own making. Moreover, the deal vanden Heuvel lauds was rigged from the start and already shows signs of being played and manipulated by Damascus.

As Foreign Policy‘s Colum Lynch noted in his recent article on the UN Security Council resolution that authorized the destruction of Syria’s chemical stockpiles, the Kremlin made sure that its passage was contingent on so many provisos as to vitiate the entire agreement. For a start, there is no built-in mechanism for punishing the regime should it fail to comply with disarmament; first, a team of diplomats from the UN and the OPCW will have to confer to determine if any violations have occurred. And Russia ensured that these violations would have to be "indisputable and proved" and of a sufficient "gravity" to warrant follow-up action, namely a Chapter VII resolution that might authorize military force. Russia will no doubt have a say in what constitutes "indisputable and proved." Here vanden Heuvel might recall that Moscow continues to deny that Bashar al-Assad even used chemical weapons to gas people in his capital city. The Kremlin, in all its power and prestige, continues to rely on the word of conspiracist websites and a crackpot Carmelite nun to buttress its claim that the Aug. 21 sarin attacks on Ghouta were either staged or carried out by rebels who received the nerve agent from Saudi Arabia. Finally, the UNSC resolution did not refer a single member of the regime’s inner circle or military responsible for the atrocity to the International Criminal Court. Instead, it implicitly delegitimized the perpetrators as necessary partners in counter-proliferation, thus giving them a license to kill by any other means.

This is why Assad plans to run for "re-election" in 2014 and still classifies his opponents as "terrorists" slated for killing, not bartering with. It’s why he’s displayed a renewed confidence about his long-term survival odds in recent media interviews. It’s why Iran has "hundreds" of its own troops fighting — and dying — alongside those of the Syrian regime. And it’s why, according to a hangdog U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, Russia has upped its conventional arms sales to the regime, including sales of refurbished aircraft: "There are more deliveries. And in some cases they are, militarily, extremely significant," the U.S. State Department’s point man on Syria told the Senate last week.

So the anticlimactic reception attending these developments, which vanden Heuvel finds paltry, is actually quite the appropriate response to a mass murderer’s impunity.

She also relies on the headline-grabbing fact that "OPCW inspectors have successfully dismantled 21 out of 23 chemical weapons sites" and "secured the removal of weapons equipment from the two remaining sites that were too dangerous for them to reach." 

On the first point, there is a reason that the total decommissioning deadline was set for 2014, not two months after the resolution was inked. Eliminating stockpiles entails more than just dismantling facilities, which is why chemical weapons experts are deeply skeptical that this plan can ever be carried to completion. The architects of the plan, the United States and Russia, have spent decades under peaceful conditions trying to fully rid themselves of their stockpiles, and they’re still not done yet. "The really bad stuff — the precursor chemicals — you either have to develop a method to chemically neutralize it or you develop a high-tech incineration process where high temperatures actually cause these chemicals to decompose into their base elements," explains Dan Kaszeta, a former U.S. Army Chemical Corps officer. "So you have to build a factory to do it, or you have to take it to a preexisting factory to do it." Assad’s warplanes and artillery are quite busying destroying factories and much else, and good luck laying a foundation anywhere in Syria. As for shipping the precursors outside of the country — Albania is evidently a taker here — there are serious hazards in transport that not even the 40 armored trucks, metal crates, and water tanks the regime is requesting from the UN would be able to circumnavigate. "You’re only a bullet or a grenade away from a major catastrophe," Kaszeta said. He offered the example of the Nazi air raid on Bari, Italy, in 1943, in which 28 Allied cargo ships were bombed and sunk. One of the ships was carrying mustard gas, and the toxin’s release resulted in an excessive loss of life.

Furthermore, one of the two sites previously deemed too insecure to access was almost certainly the chemical facility in al-Safira, Aleppo. This district had been surrounded for months by rebel and jihadist fighters, but it recently fell to regime forces — after the Syrian Air Force dropped barrel bombs on the area round-the-clock for the past month. The price tag for the inspectors’ access to this site was high. Here’s a video of an older woman being pulled from the rubble, and here’s one showing what re
mains of the marketplace of al-Safira. Two field hospitals were powdered with TNT. Medicins san Frontieres said that 130,000 people fled the district since Oct. 8, many of them unable to access humanitarian aid. Does vanden Heuvel think this deserves one or two cheers for international diplomacy?

Finally, as reported by FP, Damascus has indicated that it isn’t quite ready to let go of all its accessories to WMD production. Foreign Minister Walid Moallem has asked the OPCW to prevent a dozen chemical facilities from being razed to the ground in order to convert them into civilian-use plants. Shall I be the first to suggest that the regime is probably up to no good here? The last tyrant to deploy a nerve agent against a population and then request to keep concomitant hardware for supposedly innocuous purposes was Saddam Hussein. Charles Duelfer, a member of the Iraq Survey Group, reminds us that Saddam’s chemical industry "was being rebuilt with the embedded option of producing chemical weapons at some point in the future." Not that Bashar al-Assad would ever go back on his word, of course. But then there’s the niggling little problem that, according to several U.S. intelligence officials, he has not actually declared all of his stockpiles to the OPCW. "They have done things recently that suggest Syria is not ready to get rid of all their chemical weapons," one such official told CNN yesterday. It’s worth recalling that, even before the Ghouta sarin deployment, there were many reports of Syria moving its chemical arms around the country.

We shouldn’t let this get in the way of vanden Heuvel’s celebratory mood, however. "Today, as envoys from the United States, Russia and the United Nations meet in Geneva to resurrect the long-delayed peace conference that was first proposed in May," she concludes, "they have the opportunity to build on the diplomatic progress of the past several weeks."

Yeah, well, here’s today’s Reuters headline: "U.S., Russia fail to agree Syria peace talks date." And here’s why Geneva 2 is another fairy tale. The United States hasn’t got a client on the ground in Syria that can plausibly be said to represent the bulk of the fighting forces ranged against Assad. The one group it could cajole into showing up — the Syrian Oppositional Coalition (SOC) — has said that Assad’s ouster is a necessary precondition for talks. (And the SOC has itself been repeatedly denounced by influential rebels as a bunch of feckless exiles.) Saudi Arabia has indicated its willingness to pursue its own strategy for winning the war while Washington jaw-jaws. Al Qaeda is currently emirate-building in northern Syria and growing more powerful with each passing day. Russia, meanwhile, insists that Iran should attend the conference, even as the IRGC embeds with the Syrian army and trains up sectarian militias to kill the rebels that the United States thinks are amenable to negotiating. Moscow also believes, judging from its media, that the Syrian opposition includes: Bashar’s uncle (Rifat al-Assad, the architect of the Hama massacre in 1982 who’s been living in Paris for the past three decades), ex-deputy prime minister Qadri Jamil (who has demanded — in Pravda, no less — war "reparations" from Turkey), and Haytham al-Manna, a member of the National Coordination Committee (who is seen as quite close to Tehran and who said, in October 2011, that peaceful protestors had been paid to take the streets).

If this is progress, Katrina, what does failure look like?

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