FPI Bulletin: U.S. Must Halt Assad’s Chemical Shell Game

May 12, 2014

As Syrian Opposition Coalition president Ahmed Jarba and other leaders of the anti-Assad movement meet with senior U.S. officials in Washington this week, serious questions loom about whether the Assad regime—a state sponsor of terrorism that is Iran’s closest ally in the Arab world—is fully complying with the September 2013 framework negotiated by the United States and Russia to eliminate Syrian chemical weapons.

First, Assad is now months behind his original deadline for entirely turning over the chemical weapons stockpile that he’s declared.  The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is the international body that’s working with the United Nations to help oversee and implement the U.S.-Russian plan to eliminate chemical weapons in Syria.  Under the OPCW’s original schedule, the Assad regime was legally required to remove all chemical weapons from Syrian territory by February 2014. 

Even though Damascus submitted to the OPCW a revised timeline to extend the deadline to the end of April 2014, however, it’s not just yet again behind schedule.  Rather, the Assad regime reportedly is now withholding nearly 8 percent of its declared chemical arsenal—some 27 tons of sarin precursor chemicals—as leverage in its bid to keep control over a network of storage facilities for chemical weapons.  Sarin was the chemical used by the Syrian dictatorship in an August 2013 attack on a Damascus suburb that killed over 1400 people.

Second, the Assad regime may not have declared its entire stockpile of chemical weapons.  The Daily Beast recently reported that U.S. and Western intelligence agencies believe that the Syrian dictatorship still has a “significant and undeclared arsenal of chemical weapons,” and may seek to reconstitute its arsenal once it has “escaped the international spotlight.”  Diplomats have reportedly discussed discrepancies between the Assad regime’s original declaration and the quantities that it has shipped out so far.  Indeed, U.S. intelligence officials warned as early as November 2013 that the dictatorship in Damascus was attempting to hide some of its chemical stockpile. 

In a tacit admission that its September 2013 declaration was incomplete, the Assad regime subsequently submitted a revised list of its stockpile.  As Reuters recently reported, U.S. and Western officials are worried that the Assad regime has retained the ability to deploy chemical weapons.  They also are concerned that a large batch of a sarin precursor chemical has gone missing, and that the dictatorship’s claim to have destroyed most of its mustard gas stocks remained unverified.

Third, the Assad regime is continuing with chemical attacks in violation of the U.S.-Russian framework to eliminate Syrian chemical weapons.  A senior official in the Israel Defense Forces alleged on Thursday that “[f]rom the day that he signed the deal, [Assad] has used chemical weapons over thirty times, and in every case citizens were killed.”  Although the dictatorship’s forces used the chemical sarin on August 2013 and in prior smaller-scale attacks, it appears that they have used chlorine in more recent incidents. 

The OPCW recently said that the Assad regime should have included its stockpile of dual-use chorine chemicals in its September 2013 arsenal declaration.  As State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki noted, the use of any toxic chemical with intent to kill is explicitly prohibited under the Chemical Weapons Convention, which the government in Damascus joined as part of the U.S.-Russian plan for eliminating Syrian chemical weapons.

The Assad regime’s failure to fully declare the extent of its chemical arsenal already echoes controversies that followed the U.S.-backed chemical disarmament program in Libya.  Even though Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi voluntarily renounced chemical weapons in December 2003, formally joined the Chemical Weapons Convention in February 2004, and allowed international inspectors to eliminate his stockpiles, inspectors later discovered that Gaddafi had egregiously cheated on his agreement.  As the Washington Post reported in September 2013:  “Gaddafi’s public break with weapons of mass destruction was not all that it seemed.  Only after his death in 2011 did investigators learn that he had retained a large stash of chemical weapons.  In a hillside bunker deep in Libya’s southeastern desert, Gaddafi had tucked away hundreds of battle-ready warheads loaded with deadly sulfur mustard.”

While the Obama administration has not made clear how it will seek to verify the completeness of Assad’s chemical weapons declarations, this issue has repercussions beyond the Syria debate.  It is yet another reminder of how easy it is to cheat on agreements for arms control and disarmament that lack watertight provisions for effective verification and credible enforcement.  As diplomats from the United States and other world powers meet with their Iranian counterparts to resume negotiations for a comprehensive nuclear deal, they should learn from the shortcomings of the U.S.-Russian plan for Assad’s chemical weapons.

The failures of international efforts to eliminate the Syrian dictatorship’s chemical arsenal—fully, verifiably, and on schedule—deserve much more attention than they have received from the Obama administration, Congress, and the international community so far.  If the Assad regime’s chemical weapons capabilities are not completely removed and destroyed—and if Assad himself is not held accountable for his military’s continuing chemical attacks—then American credibility and core national security interests around the world will be dealt yet another serious blow.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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