Syria chemical weapons deal in difficulties
Feb 7, 2014
February 7, 2014
Number 02/14 #01
This Update is focussed on growing signs the Russia-brokered deal signed between Syria and the West last September may be faltering – after the Geneva conference on Syria last week failed to achieve any substantive progress. It also includes other material on the Syrian foreign policy problem.
We lead with a Washington Post editorial, complete with links, remonstrating with policymakers to do more about Syrian stalling on meeting its chemical weapons obligations. For the paper’s summary of the chemical weapons crisis and the need for strong action to end it, CLICK HERE. Similar comment appears in a Wall Street Journal editorial.
Next up, Washington Institute scholar David Schenker looks at some more details of the chemical weapons problem, and provides some background by reviewing past Syrian behaviour. Schenker notes repeated cases over decades where Syria made commitments to the US or the international community and then violated these with impunity – on oil smuggling, on closing terrorist offices, on allowing jihadists to reach Iraq from Syria, and with respect to the secret nuclear facility at al-Kibar. For the rest of Schenker’s analysis, CLICK HERE. Also highlighting Syria’s history of cheating as background to the current difficulties is American foreign policy expert Walter Russell Mead, while security expert Max Boot further explains why many are sceptical the deal will ever be carried out.
Finally, former senior US diplomat James Jeffrey offers a critique of the US Administration’s current “minimalist” approach to Syria, arguing that the Adminstration’s assumptions – that eventually the regime will agree to a diplomatic resolution and the problem can be contained and managed until then – are incorrect. For this complete analysis, CLICK HERE. Additional critiques of US Syria policy come from Lee Smith, who believes the US Administration is now moving toward preferring an Assad regime victory, and Jonathan Tobin.
Readers may also be interested in:
- A report that Assad may be hoarding chemical weapons in the Alawite region in case the country ends up partitioned.
- Allegations that the Syrian government is targeting doctors who treat those affiliated with the opposition.
- Leading Israeli journalist Ehud Yaari – who is expected to visit Australia shortly as a guest of AIJAC – explores Israel’s increasing role in providing aid to southern Syria.
- American academic Prof. Rene Louis Beres contends that the situation in Syria has some worrying implications for a future Palestinian state.
- AIJAC mourns the passing of renowned Middle East analyst and colleague Professor Barry Rubin. Remembrances of his remarkable life and intellectual achievements come from colleagues, friends and students including Washington Institute head Robert Satloff, Ron Radosh, Lee Smith, Roger Simon and Patrick Poole. The moving poem Prof. Rubin asked to be read at his funeral is here.
- Isi Leibler comments on the most recent controversy over remarks by US Secretary of State John Kerry warning Israel that boycotts will follow if a peace deal with the Palestinians is not reached. Also offering interesting comments on this controversy are leading American academic Prof. Michael Curtis, Israeli blogger and journalist Shmuel Rosner and Times of Israel editor David Horovitz.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- Jamie Hyams on Israeli lawyers, international law and West Bank settlements.
- Sharyn Mittelman on how “anti-establishment” marchers in France ended up shouting “Jews out of France.”
- Ahron Shapiro notes an Israeli education system getting good publicity for helping Indigenous children in Australia.
- Or Avi-Guy, in an article in the Australian, discusses Iran’s poor human rights record, and the lack of any evidence that it is improving under the supposed “reformist” new President Rouhani.
PRESIDENT OBAMA boasted in his State of the Union address last week that “American diplomacy, backed by the threat of force, is why Syria’s chemical weapons are being eliminated.” In theory, the statement is correct, but in practice, the landmark effort to destroy an entire stockpile of dangerous chemical weapons has stalled. If the effort cannot be put back on track, it will raise anew the question of whether Mr. Obama is still serious about his “threat of force.”
No one should be surprised that the international effort is behind schedule. The original deadline to remove all so-called Priority One chemicals, the most dangerous, by Dec. 31, and all Priority Two chemicals by Feb. 5, was terribly ambitious for an operation that is complex even in peacetime and doubly difficult in the midst of a civil war. The chemicals must be transported to the coast, then by sea to a destruction facility on board a U.S. vessel, the MV Cape Ray, and neutralized safely.
But the effort has stalled. Syria has failed to fulfill its part of the deal, moving only 4 percent of the chemicals to the port at Latakia. According to a statement made Wednesday by the United States to the executive council of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in the Hague, Syrian President Bashir al-Assad is, in effect, slow-walking the chemicals in order to obtain more security equipment. U.S. Ambassador Robert P. Mikulak told the council that Syria has demanded “armored jackets for shipping containers, electronic countermeasures, and detectors for improvised explosive devices.” He said the demands are “without merit” and “display a ‘bargaining mentality’ rather than a security mentality.”
Mr. Assad’s gambit is unacceptable. The chemical weapons removal was the direct outgrowth of the use of poison gas to kill more than 1,400 people last year, including women and children. The evidence pointed directly at Mr. Assad’s forces for use of the chemical weapons. Further delay by Syria in the movement of these deadly substances to the coast will only compound Mr. Assad’s complicity in the grave crime of the original attack.
Mr. Mikulak also pointed out that Syria now seems to be trying to avert efforts to destroy seven hardened aircraft hangars and five underground structures. Syria has offered to weld the doors shut, which can be quickly undone. The United States has insisted, correctly, on more destructive measures that cannot be reversed.
We thought that chemical weapons demilitarization in Syria was a worthy, if risky, cause. Now, just months later, it appears that Mr. Assad is playing games. This cannot be tolerated. Mr. Obama has been noticeably adverse to direct U.S. military action in Syria, but if Syria continues to treat the chemical weapons as a bargaining chip, the threat must be made real, and used if necessary. Russia, Syria’s patron, claimed Friday that Mr. Assad is “acting in good faith.” Rather than provide such cover, it ought to swiftly persuade Mr. Assad to quit this reckless game of chicken.
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Weekly Standard, January 30, 2014
The regime’s long history of reneging on promises and legal obligations does not bode well for full implementation of the chemical weapons deal.
Tuesday, during the State of the Union Address, President Obama boasted that “American diplomacy, backed by the threat of force, is why Syria’s chemical weapons are being eliminated.” The assertion was premature. In early January, Syria’s Bashar Assad regime indeed started the process of transferring its chemical weapons arsenal abroad. To date it’s destroyed only 5 percent of its unconventional arsenal and it’s unlikely Damascus will finish the job. Despite international commitments to the contrary, precedent suggests that Assad will retain a residual supply for future contingencies.
Like North Korea and Libya — which famously violated international obligations on weapons of mass destruction — there is good reason to believe that Syria will cheat on its own agreement with the United Nations to fully dispose of its chemical weapons arsenal.
Three years into a popular uprising that has left 130,000 dead, in August Assad gassed nearly 1,500 men, women, and children with Sarin. Facing international pressure, in September Damascus signed the Chemical Weapons Convention and allowed the U.N. to start a process of cataloguing, removing, and destroying CW facilities, weapons, and precursor chemicals.
A month later, Secretary Kerry praised Syrian “compliance” and called the disarmament a “credit to the Assad regime.” But the honeymoon won’t last. In just 13 years in power, Syria under Bashar Assad has established a prodigious track record of reneging on promises and violating international agreements.
Assad’s subterfuge started three years after coming to power, when in February 2003 then Secretary of State Colin Powell travelled to Damascus and secured a commitment from Assad to stop smuggling some 150,000 barrels of oil per day from Saddam’s Iraq. Syria never halted the imports, a violation of trust that later prompted Secretary Powell to say, “I will always have that lying in my background software and on my hard drive.”
Undeterred, months later Secretary Powell returned to Syria and cajoled Assad to shutter the offices and restrict the communications of Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Powell reportedly called President Bush, awakening him in the middle of the night to inform him of his diplomatic achievement. Alas, as with the earlier oil pipeline promise, this Assad undertaking also proved insincere and the terrorist headquarters remained open for business.
Later that year following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Assad regime moved thousands of al Qaeda insurgents bent on killing American soldiers and Iraqi civilians across the border. During bilateral security talks with the U.S., Damascus vowed to secure the frontier but the jihadi pipeline never dried up.
To be sure, these deceptions complicated Washington’s Middle East policy. But while Syria’s misdeeds and Assad’s lies were annoying, they didn’t rise to the level of strategic concern — until 2007. That year, Israel launched an airstrike against a target in northwestern Syria that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) later confirmed was a nuclear weapons facility.
The facility at Al Kibar had been built in contravention not only of Syria’s Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations, but also in violation of the Comprehensive Nuclear Safeguards Agreement to which Damascus is a signatory.
Syria’s egregious breach of its nuclear commitments and the regime’s subsequent obstruction of the IAEA investigation do not bode well for the international effort to denude Syria of its chemical weapons capabilities.
Not surprisingly, the accuracy of Syria’s inventory declaration to the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is already in question. According to the OPCW, for example, the Assad regime declared “approximately 1,000 metric tons” of binary chemical weapons precursors, a number that seems too oddly coincident with Secretary Kerry’s earlier formulation that that Syria “has “about a thousand metric tons” of these agents. (Is it possible that U.S. intelligence assessments are so precise?) Likewise, according to non-proliferation experts, given the size and scope of the CW program, the fact that the Assad regime declared absolutely no filled chemical munitions is a glaring red flag.
At present, it is too soon to tell whether the Assad regime is violating its chemical weapons commitments. After having killed so many Syrians with conventional armaments, it’s difficult to see why the Assad regime would see a need to retain a residual chemical arsenal. Perhaps over the past 13 years, Bashar has come to understand that there is no cost associated with cheating.
Indeed, objectively speaking, the use of chemical weapons has changed the dynamic on the ground in Syria and in the international community, effectively strengthening the Assad regime. Not only did the regime avoid a promised U.S. military strike, as UN Special Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi noted in October, the chemical weapons deal transformed Assad from a “pariah” into a “partner.”
In the coming months — even as Damascus continues its genocidal war against its political opponents — more blandishments are sure to be lavished on Assad. The regime will be praised for fulfilling its commitments, and the rebels may even be condemned for undermining security and delaying the disarmament process. And eventually, the U.N. — and the Obama administration — will pronounce Syria free of chemical weapons.
Shortly after the agreement was reached to steal Assad’s chemical arsenal out of Syria, Secretary of State Kerry sought to preempt critics of the deal. “We’re not just going to trust and verify,” he assured, “We’re going to verify, and verify, and verify.” Alas, because the Chemical Weapons Convention provides signatories the right to manage access to facilities and does not mandate intrusive inspections, verification is at best a relative term. And then, of course, there is the matter of Assad’s penchant for lying.
At the kickoff of the Geneva II peace conference on January 22, Syrian foreign minister Walid Moualem told U.N. secretary general Ban Ki Moon, “Syria always keeps its promises.” Western governments should know better. When it comes to keeping international obligations, Syria’s Bashar Assad regime seldom keeps its promises. Given the absence of consequences for pursuing nuclear and deploying chemical weapons, the inescapable takeaway for Assad is that when it comes to dictators and WMD, the old aphorism that “winners never cheat and cheaters never win” doesn’t apply.
David Schenker is the Aufzien Fellow and director of the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute.
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Policy Watch, February 4, 2014
The Obama administration seems to be understating the risks of minimalist engagement in Syria and overstating the risks of greater involvement, despite the achievable, worthwhile goals of military assistance and limited use of force.
The conjuncture of Syria-related events over the past two weeks does not bode well for the Obama administration’s limited engagement strategy. Some argue that the talks in Montreux and Geneva isolated the Assad regime even more, presented the opposition in a positive light, and might produce progress down the road despite the discouraging short-term outcome. Yet at a time of newly reported regime atrocities, continued inter-rebel fighting, and other problematic developments, there is no evident plan to push Damascus and its supporters to accept even humanitarian actions, let alone a real ceasefire.
The administration’s mindset seems to be based on two assumptions: first, that Bashar al-Assad, Moscow, and Tehran will eventually realize “there is no military solution,” and second, that the conflict can be managed until then by U.S.-led efforts to ease “symptoms” (e.g., chemical weapons, refugees, al-Qaeda offshoots), contain regional spillover, and address other challenges to America’s global security role. Suggesting a more activist policy conjures up the specter of a Libya-like quagmire, empowering powerful al-Qaeda franchises, or, per the administration, launching a new “war.”
The administration’s minimalist approach is understandable if one truly believes that it has worked for the past two years. But both of the above assumptions are questionable. The truculence of Assad’s negotiating team in Switzerland, the unwavering support proffered by Iran and Russia, the recent regime violations of last year’s chemical agreement, and the continued waves of Srebrenica-level horrors — from the February 1 barrel-bombing of civilians in Aleppo to a new report alleging Assad’s forces have tortured 11,000 prisoners to death — together suggest that the war will continue and the damage to any rational world order will grow. Assad and his friends do not appear to believe that there is no military solution. For some of them (Assad and Hezbollah), the conflict is existential; for others (Iran and Russia), it is strategically critical, and they are doing all they can to achieve at least a messy Chechnya-level victory. After all, while insurgencies are difficult to totally defeat, they can be seriously weakened and contained, as seen in Turkey, Sri Lanka, Iraq, and to some degree Afghanistan. If that is the direction the Syrian conflict is going, then Washington will eventually face a de facto military victory in the very center of the Middle East by an Assad rump state, Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia, on top of the humanitarian tragedy and attrition of U.S. global prestige.
This outcome would call into question the core role the United States has taken in the region since its strategic military and diplomatic engagement began with the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Some observers have argued that the Obama administration — the first “post-imperial presidency since before World War II,” as Robert Kaplan recently described it — might not be troubled by such a turn of events. Perhaps, but that is certainly not what the administration proclaimed to the world and the American people in the largely traditional, still-engaged Middle East policy laid out by the president in his September UN General Assembly speech. A quasi-victory by Assad would place that policy at extreme risk.
In addition to seemingly understating the risks of minimalist engagement in Syria, the administration has also overstated the risks of serious engagement. To be sure, one can sympathize with this view given the precedent of Iraq and Afghanistan. Nevertheless, this administration, like all since 1945, has successfully conducted several military operations short of war — in Libya, against al-Qaeda, against Somali pirates, and against targeted foes in Iraq in 2011 — without sliding down a “slippery slope” or incurring significant casualties, costs, or public outcry. Why not against Syria?
CONSIDERING THE USE OF FORCE
Even the most limited military engagements carry risk, and operating in Syria would pose specific military challenges. But the risks become acceptable when one acknowledges two things: first, that doing almost nothing is the more dangerous option, as argued above; and second, that military action in Syria has an achievable goal. That goal is not an American military victory per se, but rather “supporting diplomacy” by convincing Damascus, Tehran, and Moscow that Washington will do what is necessary to prevent Assad from achieving military victory. The Syrian conflict will not end in a way that is acceptable to U.S. national interests unless Assad and his allies are pressured to the point of realizing that a negotiated compromise is better than continuing the war.
In theory, this should not be a difficult leap for the White House, especially given the president’s State of the Union reminder that other diplomatic successes — on Iran’s nuclear program and Syria’s chemical weapons — came about only because of U.S. military threats. Yet the administration seems almost frozen in opposition to using force, however limited, and camouflages this stance by arguing that any military action would be tantamount to waging war on an Iraq scale.
In reality, the United States could take several steps to assist the Syrian opposition militarily with only limited direct involvement. These efforts could begin with a more rapid, larger-scale arming of anyone effectively fighting Assad this side of al-Qaeda, avoiding radical affiliates such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Washington could also bolster the air-defense capabilities of trusted opposition factions, providing them with various MANPAD missile systems and/or taking direct action against regime aircraft and missiles. This could be supplemented by symbolic U.S. military steps analogous to past operations over Bosnia, such as airdrops of food to Homs now that the regime has refused to negotiate relief columns.
As for the administration’s understandable concern about the Syrian air-defense network, U.S. forces have successfully operated against similar Russian-equipped networks in Kosovo, Iraq, and Libya, while Israel has conducted limited air operations in Syria itself. Aside from directly suppressing the network, the United States also has an extraordinary ability to threaten key Syrian military equities if American aircraft are threatened. As in any counterinsurgency, the regime’s conventional force is highly dependent on command and communications, mobility, firepower, and airpower, which in turn rely on relatively soft targets such as fuel depots, refineries, airfields, ammunition dumps, electrical infrastructure, radars, radio transmitters, and headquarters, often concentrated to better fend off insurgent raids. U.S. standoff weapons could wreak havoc against these targets if necessary.
Again, any military operation has risks, and the specific details of what would work in Syria must be left to professionals. But once the U.S. military is given an achievable, politically backed mission, it is well equipped and experienced to come up with solutions. In this case, the mission would center on generating enough pushback against the Syrian military to facilitate two diplomatic efforts: first, convincing the opposition and regional supporters to get behind a common policy led by the United States, which would now have “skin in the game”; second, using this renewed military credibility and regional alliance to convince Damascus, Iran, and Russia that they must begin negotiating seriously. The United States would not get everything it wants out of such negotiations, but it would get much more than is likely to emerge from the current effort.
Ambassador James F. Jeffrey is the Philip Solondz Distinguished Visiting Fellow at The Washington Institute.