Syria Is a Chemical Weapons Free-for-All. Happy Holidays.
The Islamic State is gassing civilians, Assad is dropping chlorine from helicopters, and Washington is sleeping off its Thanksgiving hangover.
It’s no secret that the Barack Obama administration doesn’t have much to show for its efforts in Syria. About the only thing that has gone right is the lucky break when Syria agreed to abandon its chemical weapons after the president had gone to comical lengths to avoid enforcing his own ad libbed red line.
Well, about that. A new report, released last week while you were probably thinking about cranberry sauce instead of mustard gas, makes for a gloomy holiday read.
Earlier this year, following a series of allegations about continuing chemical weapons use in the Syrian civil war, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) dispatched a fact-finding mission to Syria. The resulting report found, well, facts. And those facts make me want to reach for a glass of holiday cheer, on the rocks. You may not have heard about the report itself, in part because it was the characterization of the U.S. Representative to the OPCW that made headlines: “The sad reality,” Rafael Foley said, “is that chemical weapons use is becoming routine in the Syrian civil war.”
What the report found was that there is truth to two specific allegations of chemical weapons use. The two incidents are very different from one another, but together they illustrate how the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict has evolved since the Bashar al-Assad regime gassed the Damascus neighborhood of Ghouta in August 2013. These recent incidents don’t mean the successful removal of 1,300 tons of chemical agents used to make Sarin and mustard gas from Syria was pointless. But they do underscore, in the most gruesome way possible, how limited such diplomatic achievements can be when an underlying conflict continues to rage on.
The first incident occurred near the Syrian town of Marea. The awful details of the attack have already been reported in the New York Times by C. J. Chivers, who has done so much to report on chemical weapons issues in Iraq and Syria. A chemical mortar hit a home. The agent — sulfur mustard — burned three family members and killed an infant. Unlike the attack against Ghouta, it seems the shell was fired by Islamic State militants.
Where did the insurgents get the mustard? There are any number of possibilities. The simplest explanation is that it may have been captured from the Syrian government. After all, no one thinks Assad gave up everything in his stockpile even though that was what he was required to do.
That shouldn’t be a surprise. Usually there is something bad still lying around, overlooked or tucked away for a rainy day. Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi joined the Chemical Weapons Convention, as part of the George W. Bush administration’s biggest — yeah, okay, only — diplomatic victory. After Qaddafi was deposed, rebels informed the OPCW that they had discovered his regime still possessed 9.5 tons of undeclared sulfur mustard, despite the Colonel’s many promises to the contrary to his newfound neoconservative buddies. But hey, what’s 10 tons of mustard gas among friends?
There is evidence that, as you would expect, the Syrian regime preserved some elements of its program. And it’s easy to imagine there were stockpiles in areas now controlled by insurgents that Damascus decided were better left unmentioned.
But Syria isn’t the only possible source. Most experts used to think that Iraq’s pre-1991 chemical weapons stockpiles were too old to be effective. But we’ve since learned that Iraq’s mustard was quite stable; and thanks to Chivers, we know pre-1991 U.S. assessments may have underestimated the quality of other agents produced by Iraq. And let’s just say that if you cross reference areas of Iraq where Islamic State is in control today with Iraq’s pre-1991 chemical munitions sites, like the Al Muthanna State Establishment, this news won’t leave you feeling very festive.
Hell, it is even possible that chemical weapons are from Libya. The New York Times — Chivers again — has reported on a “complex and active multinational effort, financed largely by Qatar, to transport arms from Libya to Syria’s opposition fighters.” If there were any chemical munitions left in Libya, they might well be among those shipments.
The worst-case scenario would be that the Islamic State is manufacturing mustard gas itself. A U.S. official recently made that claim to the BBC. I don’t know if that is true, but sulfur mustard isn’t that fancy — nineteenth century chemists had already understood it was pretty nasty in their day. While the Islamic State’s ideology is explicitly medieval, that doesn’t mean it won’t avail itself of modern scientific advancements; and the university in Islamic State-controlled Mosul is known to have had a pretty sweet chemistry set.
The second incident mentioned by the OPCW’s report is actually a series of attacks by the Syrian government that occurred over a period of months. Having lost their stockpiles of Sarin and mustard, the Syrian regime has resorted to filling barrels with chlorine, creating an improvised chemical weapon that can be dropped from a helicopter. The fact-finding mission documented series of so-called “barrel bomb” attacks in Idlib governorate carried out between March and May 2015; the OPCW has also documented many other uses of these barrel bombs since early 2014.
The good news, such as it is, is that the Syrian regime no longer has access to large stockpiles of more lethal Sarin and VX and that those stockpiles cannot fall into the hands of the Islamic State. The bad news is that Syria’s accession to the OPCW deal was only a start toward dealing with the problem of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war. Improvised or not, the Syrian government is still using prohibited chemical weapons — though admittedly far less effective ones than before. Now the Islamic State appears to be getting into the chem weapons business, though with what supply we do not know. Whatever disaster was averted by Syria’s accession to the OPCW in the deal brokered after Ghouta, there is still a crisis unfolding in Syria.
Removing the majority of chemical weapons stockpiles was good, but it was far from enough. One major oversight was that the United States and its partners did nothing to establish deterrence after Assad flagrantly crossed the infamous “red line” against the use of chemical weapons. After the massacre at Ghouta, I channeled my inner Max Boot and argued for a very limited air campaign against Syria’s chemical weapons infrastructure and the unit that launched the attack. Instead, we forced Assad to give up the really nasty stuff, while sparing the military units that were involved in the atrocity. The lesson they took from that seems to be to stick to just moderately nasty chemical weapons and Obama will keep looking the other way.
If the president is unwilling to do more on behalf of the opposition in Syria, then at least he should make a virtue of his reluctance. There is a strong argument that the United States should be willing to strike Syrian military units involved in the use of chemical weapons, including the improvised barrel bombs. Obama may not be willing to topple Assad, but every Syrian unit commander should know he will be held accountable for using chemical weapons. While eventually that means landing in the dock at The Hague, for now a cruise missile at the crack of dawn will do. The Islamic State, on the other hand, is likely immune to such deterrent threats, but they are not resistant to punishment. The United States should work to identify any facilities or stockpiles associated with their nascent chemical capabilities and target them as part of the ongoing air campaign. I’ll leave picking targets to the planning staff at the Wall Street Journal. (As an academic, I don’t want to get into the habit of proposing we bomb university campuses.)
I realize, of course, that targeting the military units responsible for using chemical weapons is only a half measure. At best, it will mean they will find other, less efficient ways to murder large numbers of people. The real solution to the problem of sides using chemical weapons in the civil war is to stop the civil war. But, as I have written before, this seems unlikely. Assad won’t shuffle off into exile. He can’t win, but Russia seems unwilling to let him fall. And Obama seems unwilling or unable to do anything to change that calculus. And so the war grinds on, with the opposition groups pinned between Assad and the Islamic State, both of whom are glad to use every tool at their disposal, including chemical weapons, to destroy anyone in between. It’s no wonder that millions of Syrians have fled their homes.
I often hear people wondering what the use is of banning chemical weapons when so many other awful things are happening in Syria. And maybe it is an arbitrary line to pick — chemical weapons use compared to all the other travesties committed by the Assad regime and now the Islamic State. But at some point you have to say enough. For me, it’s chemical weapons. And who knows, maybe good things will happen if we show a little spine. But doing nothing seems unconscionable, particularly now that the Obama administration admits that chemical weapons use has become routine.
That’s a remarkable statement when you think about it. After Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons, the president warned of “consequences” if Assad did not follow through. Now, two year later, a U.S. official can characterize the use of chemical weapons in Syria as routine, without so much as delaying a turkey pardon.
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