Some Nagging Questions Left Unanswered in the Syrian WMD Story

Some Nagging Questions Left Unanswered in the Syrian WMD Story

The Washington Post has a feel-good story about how the Obama administration coordinated with global partners to remove and destroy a very large cache of Syria’s chemical munitions. With the administration struggling to cope with crises at home and abroad, this story offers a rare foreign-policy success — rarer still, one that involves dogged and creative staff work. After months of stories about sloppy staff work, the administration can be excused for praising itself for how the Syrian case showed it could, as National Security Council staffer Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall put it, "…be inventive, entrepreneurial, collaborative, seize the initiative, and be relentless about getting it done. This is one we can be proud of." 

This is indeed a moment for the loyal opposition to concede that we were too pessimistic about the prospects for successfully implementing the Syrian chemical weapons deal. I know I was, and I was persuaded by the pessimistic assessment of other experts. As the Washington Post story makes clear, this was an enormously complex operation that stalled at several points along the way and could have easily broken down altogether. It is a remarkable achievement that the administration accomplished what it accomplished.

But what exactly did the administration accomplish and at what cost? Here the Washington Post story is frustratingly incomplete, for there are four important questions left hanging that are left unasked and unanswered:  

1. How much of Syria’s WMD arsenal remains?

The agreement got Assad to admit that he had chemical weapons — a noteworthy achievement in its own right since he had been pretending otherwise — and got Assad to agree to dispose of all of the weapons it declared. Although Assad further surprised skeptics by declaring an arsenal close to the size Western experts had estimated, it is far from clear that the declaration was full and complete. Proving the negative is hard to do, and we should be chastened by the memory that an important part of the Iraq WMD intelligence fiasco was the difficulty of proving that Iraq had not hidden away other stockpiles that it had not declared. Yet is it plausible that Assad actually declared 100 percent of his arsenal and in the space of nine months went from having one of the world’s largest stockpiles to having nothing? The Post story leaves a tantalizing clue that this is not the case, but does not develop the idea any further: "The OPCW mission will continue in Syria, making sure that all remnants of the chemical program are gone." We can say with certainty only that the Obama administration succeeded in pruning the Syrian WMD arsenal. What the "remnants" might look like is an open question.

2. What should be done about Syria’s chemical attacks, which coincided with the program to prune the stockpile? 

The catalyst for the confrontation with Syria was Obama’s red line, which concerned not Assad’s possession of WMD but rather Assad’s use of the arsenal. Unfortunately, even as Assad was offering uneven cooperation with the stockpile removal, he was continuing to use the remaining arsenal in repeated attacks. Does the removal of the last of the declared arsenal amount to sufficient punishment, or will the administration hold Assad accountable for repeatedly crossing the president’s red line? Should it?

3. What price was paid for Assad’s compliance? 

The administration has claimed that it paid no price for removing the arsenal (beyond the in-kind financial costs of transporting and destroying the weapons, costs that are rightly considered negligible compared to the stakes). In the administration’s telling, Assad made all of the concessions, and he did so in a desperate attempt to forestall imminent U.S. airstrikes. As many others and I have shown, this interpretation simply does not fit the facts of the case. Syria and Russia made their "concession" when the threat of airstrikes was receding. The player desperate for a deal was President Obama, who was on the brink of a congressional rebuke that would have made airstrikes very unlikely — as if the president’s own manifest reluctance to order the strikes didn’t already make them a remote prospect anyway. Why would Syria offer up a significant portion of their arsenal to forestall airstrikes that were unlikely to happen anyway? Because in doing so Assad could buy regime survival, forcing the administration to partner with Assad and giving him the whip hand to frustrate all other elements of Western efforts to influence the outcome of the Syrian civil war. Here the skeptics of the deal have proven far more prescient. As they predicted, Assad is in a far stronger position vis-à-vis the rebels and vis-à-vis Western diplomatic initiatives than he was a year ago. Perhaps this was a price worth paying, but we can only make that assessment if we consider the costs and benefits carefully, something that the Post story does not attempt to do. 

4. What are the broader geopolitical consequences of the Syrian episode? 

As Mike Green has shown, the Obama administration also paid a heavy price in terms of global reputation when it backed down from its confrontation with Assad. While most of the world would join in celebrating the pruning of Assad’s chemical arsenal, few global leaders accept the White House talking points on how the episode underscores the steely resolve of the president. If the Syrian crisis did undermine the president’s reputation for resolve, how has that shaped the myriad crises that have arisen in the past nine months?

It is right and proper to celebrate a tactical success, but before we can declare it a strategic success we have to ask and answer some tough questions that the triumphalist account does not consider.