The world’s chemical weapons watchdog this week announced a landmark in the fight against weapons of mass destruction: Syria became the first country to voluntarily surrender its entire stockpile of declared chemical weapons agents in the midst of a civil war.
So why, then, is the world so reluctant to call it a victory and move on? Even as they applauded the chemical weapons milestone, U.S. and European officials made it clear they would continue to closely monitor Syria’s chemical weapons program. "It should not be lost on anyone that our work is not finished," Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday.
There are three reasons for the West’s caution. First, President Bashar al-Assad is widely believed to be taking advantage of a loophole in his agreement to rid Syria of chemical weapons by using chlorine gas on the battlefield (chlorine, which is widely available commercially, isn’t considered to be a chemical weapon but its use as such is banned under international law because it is a toxic substance). Western officials also allege that Syria is refusing its obligation to destroy chemical warfare production and storage facilities. The United States, Britain, and France, meanwhile, informed the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) months ago that they suspect that Syria has failed to declare secret stockpiles, raising the possibility that Damascus still possesses chemical weapons, according to Security Council diplomats.
"The regime’s history of lies and obstruction make it impossible to take its claims at face value," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Monday.
The British diplomat’s remarks were reminiscent of an earlier era, when U.S. and British officials leveled similar accusations — later proven false — against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi dictator’s alleged mendacity — as well as his efforts to limit the access of U.N. inspectors — served as a justification for maintaining sanctions on Iraq for well over a decade after it had already largely dismantled and destroyed its weapons of mass destruction program, and it later served as a pretext for the 2003 American invasion of Iraq.
Syrian diplomats noticed those similarities as well.
Last year, Syria’s U.N. ambassador, Bashar al-Jaafari, said that Western efforts to deploy chemical weapons inspectors to Syria were designed to give Western powers an excuse for a never-ending search for Syrian armaments that could fuel efforts to overthrow the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Assad’s alleged use of sarin, a deadly nerve agent, in an August 21 attack on the town of Al-Ghouta that killed about 1,400 of his own people brought the Obama administration to the brink of ordering airstrikes against Syrian targets. Instead, Russia helped broker a deal under which Assad pledged to turn his chemical weapons over to the international community for destruction by the middle of 2014 in exchange for Washington halting its plans for a military intervention.
While the agreement has succeeded in eliminating Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpiles, several of its facilities have yet to be destroyed, which means the overall program is running several months behind schedule.
More ominously, Syria has found dangerous loopholes that could further undermine the effectiveness of the deal.
For instance, Syria is not required to account for its stores of chlorine, a commercially available substance that Assad has allegedly used as a chemical weapon. An OPCW fact-finding mission recently concluded that "toxic chemicals, most likely pulmonary irritating agents such as chlorine, have been used in a systematic manner in a number of attacks."
The United States has blamed Syria, with Robert Mikulak, the American representative to the OPCW, arguing earlier this month that "the systematic nature of the attacks, the intended targets and other publicly available information all point to one likely perpetrator — the Syrian government."
"Who else would benefit?" he asked. "Who else could carry out such systematic attacks?"
Syria has strenuously denied accusations that it has used chlorine gas on the battlefield.
Questions about Syria’s potential use of chlorine gas have been playing out as the last consignment of 1,300 metric tons of declared chemical precursors and nerve agents — including sarin and mustard gas — were packed and loaded Monday onto a Danish ship, the Ark Futura, in the Syrian port of Latakia.
Some of the most toxic agents will be transported to an Italian port, where they will be loaded onto the American Navy vessel, the MV Cape Ray. Once at sea, they will treated using a chemical process — known as hydrolysis — that bombards the most lethal agents with massive amounts of water and other chemicals. The diluted chemical waste will be shipped to facilities in Britain, Germany, Finland, and the United States for incineration.
Damascus will miss its June 30 deadline for fully eliminating its chemical weapons program and still needs to destroy all of its chemical weapons facilities and to answer some outstanding questions about its overall program.
Still, Ahmet Üzümcü, the Turkish director general of the OPCW, said that Damascus had completely turned over its chemical weapons stockpiles and said that Syria’s cooperation has been "commensurate with the requirements" of the international community. Üzümcü said it could be another three to four months before the actual chemicals themselves will be destroyed, while other analysts say it’s unlikely that the total destruction of Syria’s chemical warfare program — including all of its facilities — will be completed before the second quarter of 2015.
Üzümcü also said his agency would continue to examine claims of chlorine’s use, noting that while the possession of chlorine is legal, its use as a chemical warfare agent is prohibited under the Chemical Weapons Convention.
The debate over the future of Syria’s chemical weapons program is playing out behind closed doors in The Hague, where the United States and Russia are locked in discussions over what to do in the months ahead if the OPCW declares its work effectively over.
Russia wants the U.N. Security Council to step aside and leave the OPCW — which has a tradition of working consensually with governments — in charge of monitoring Syria for any signs it seeks to go back on its word. Syria, according to the Russian argument, should be treated like any other country that has sought the agency’s support in scrapping its weapons program.
But the United States and European powers argue that Syria is a special case, given its distinction as the first country to use chemical weapons against its own people in 25 years. They want the U.N. Security Council, which has the authority to compel countries to abide by its demands, to remain at the center of any future efforts to ensure the total elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons.
There are also a number of other unanswered questions surrounding Syria’s program.
In March 2013 — several months before it agreed to scrap its entire chemical weapons program — Syria claimed to have destroyed about 200 metric tons of mustard gas in three sites in Syria, said Jean Pascal Zanders, an expert on chemical weapons who writes an influential blog called The Trench. He said that the OPCW established a special team to verify precisely what Syria had destroyed.
Syria, meanwhile, has resisted calls for the destruction of a dozen former chemical weapons facilities, including tunnels and production and storage facilities, according to Security
For instance, Syria has maintained it has the right under the Chemical Weapons Convention to spare its chemical weapons storage facilities from the wrecking ball. It argues that it should be allowed to preserve parts of the facilities for use in commercial enterprises.
But the United States and other key Western powers insist that Syria destroy it entirely and fill the tunnels with cement so they can never be used to produce chemical weapons in the future.
"We must ensure the destruction of all of Syria’s chemical weapons production facilities," Samantha Power, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, said Monday. "We cannot waver in our resolve to make sure Syria’s chemical weapons program is fully and finally dismantled and eliminated so these weapons can no longer threaten the Syrian people or the rest of the international community."