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For Syria’s Chemical Weapons Plants, It’s One Down, 11 to Go

The effort to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons is quietly moving forward.

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The fighting in Syria’s civil war has gotten worse, a U.S.-led air campaign has intensified, and refugees have continued to stream out of the country, but the agreement to destroy Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons has proven to remarkably durable — and surprisingly effective.

On Jan. 31 that agreement reached a milestone of its implementation: The destruction of the first of Syria’s 12 chemical weapons production facilities was completed, according to a statement from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

According to the group, work continues on the planned destruction of the 11 other structures. Some 98 percent of the chemical weapons declared by Syria have now been destroyed. Assad’s brutality hasn’t abated in the slightest, however: the regime has continued to kill tens of thousands of people, in part through the use of cheap, easy-to-assemble barrel bombs.

“I welcome the destruction of the first facility, which had been delayed due to some technical reasons,” OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü said in the statement. “I am hopeful that remaining destruction activities will proceed according to the plan.”

The agreement to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons prevented the launching of U.S. airstrikes against the regime of Bashar al-Assad after it carried out attacks on its own population using its formidable stocks of such weaponry. President Barack Obama had said a chemical attack would cross a “red line” and prompt an American military response. Instead. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Secretary of State John Kerry hammered together an agreement under which Assad would eliminate his weapons stores in exchange for the U.S. staying out of the civil war.

The United States has been dragged into the conflict anyway — but on the other side, effectively fighting with Assad with air strikes against the Islamic State, the strongman’s main battlefield foe. The U.S. entry into the conflict coincided with a brutal campaign of beheadings by the Islamic State, which has executed several hostages, including, most recently, the Japanese journalist Kenji Goto.

By intervening in the conflict against the Islamic State, critics of the administration argue that the U.S. has in essence reinforced Assad’s hold on power. Moreover, these critics argue, the agreement to destroy his chemical weapons only increased the need to keep Assad in office. In order to carry out the agreement to destroy the weapons, the OPCW needs a reliable partner, and it has arguably found one in Assad, who appears to be mostly going along with the plan to eliminate his stocks of sarin, mustard, and similar weapons.

As the internecine war in Syria continues, it’s arguably one of the few pieces of good news.

JM LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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