The crumbling deal on Syria's chemical weapons
Anyone who still thinks Assad will meet his obligations should study how Libya's disarmament went in 2004.

Reuters

A Free Syrian Army medical group conducts a training on how to cope with chemical weapons attacks in Aleppo December 25, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • Anyone who still thinks Assad will meet his obligations should study how Libya's disarmament went in 2004.

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  • The possibility that Syria is using chlorine gas is not the most disturbing factor.

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  • This is not "smart power" as the administration likes to call it.

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Last week, Pentagon officials were predicting that Syria would soon complete its removal of chemical weapons under an agreement brokered by the U.S. and Russia. This week it seems that U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has acknowledged for the first time that Syria will miss the June 30 deadline for their destruction, according to news agency reports of a letter sent to the Security Council.

One reason given for the delay is logistics. But Syria has been missing deadlines ever since the agreement was signed last September. And if anyone is still inclined to predict the successful elimination of Syria's chemical weapons, they should study the experience of chemical weapons disarmament in Libya.

After the liberation of Iraq, and shortly after Saddam Hussein was captured in December 2003, the Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi announced that he was prepared to give up all of his weapons of mass destruction. His chemical weapons had long been an object of international concern and contention. Yet he also revealed for the first time that Libya was in the early stages of a nuclear-weapons development program, something which U.S. intelligence had only just begun to learn about.

Gadhafi's pledge to give up weapons of mass destruction was hailed at the time as a major breakthrough for nonproliferation. In June 2004, Libya acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention and agreed to destroy its stockpile of chemical weapons and precursors, chemicals which are used to produce the lethal agents. The destruction was then carried out with assistance from the U.S., Britain and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons—the same organization in charge of supervising the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons today.

When the Gadhafi regime fell, however, it turned out that the nonproliferation success was not as complete as had been imagined. The new authorities in Libya revealed that there were two large storage sites for chemical weapons that had not been disclosed in Gadhafi's original declaration.

The two tons of mustard gas in these hidden caches constituted less than 10% of the previously declared total of 24 tons. But subsequent news reports said they were the only ones Libya had that were actually armed and ready for use. Unlike the majority of Libya's mustard agents, which were stored in large, bulky containers, the undeclared caches were already loaded into 517 artillery shells, 45 plastic sleeves for rocket launchings, and eight 500-pound bombs, according to the Defense Department.

Earlier this month on C-Span, National Security Adviser Susan Rice said that, "with 92.5% of the declared chemical weapons out of the country" we have accomplished more than any "number of airstrikes that might have been contemplated would have done." Yet much more important than what's been removed is what's still left, and it seems likely that more remains than just what was declared by Syria last year. For one thing, it appears that the regime is now using chlorine gas as a kind of poor man's chemical weapon even though, as Time reported on May 23, it has made no declaration about its chlorine stocks. Chlorine as such is not a prohibited substance, since it has many civilian uses. But its use as a weapon is prohibited by the Chemical Weapons Convention that Syria joined in 2013.

The possibility that Syria is using chlorine gas is not the most disturbing factor. The experience with Libya demonstrates that there is no reason to be confident that Syria has even declared its entire stockpile of its more lethal weapons, such as sarin.

Meanwhile, Syrians continue to be killed by the regime's conventional weapons. The focus on Syria's chemical weapons was undoubtedly intended by the regime of Bashar Assad and its Russian backers to divert attention from the appalling numbers of people killed by tanks, helicopters, aircraft with barrel bombs, and SCUD missiles. According to the count kept by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the most widely cited source for Syrian casualty figures, the total number of Syrians killed since the start of the uprising as of May 19 is more than 160,000, of which roughly 54,000 are estimated to be civilians, including 6,000 women and 9,000 children. Of that total, roughly 42,000 have died since the chemical-weapons agreement was concluded last year.

Syria's chemical weapons would constitute a serious danger in the event of a wider Middle East war and eliminating them—or even just substantially reducing them—would be an unequivocally worthwhile achievement, if it were not done at such a terrible cost. But not only has the chemical-weapons agreement distracted attention from the continuing killing by "conventional" means. Fear of upsetting the Assad regime and thus the agreement has given the Obama administration an additional excuse for denying members of the Syrian opposition the means to defend themselves and their countrymen. (At West Point this week, the president hinted vaguely that he wants to work with Congress to "ramp up" support for the Syrian opposition. Yet there are reports that Pentagon leaders are arguing against proceeding with such support before the chemical-weapons arsenal has been removed.)

Obama administration officials like to talk about what's been destroyed in Syria. In her C-Span appearance before the Women's Foreign Policy Group in Washington this month, Ambassador Rice said that "my Israeli colleagues and counterparts . . thanked us profusely for our approach and our success in helping to get the chemical weapons out," and no doubt they did. Yet when Syrians hear Ms. Rice boast that "the credible threat of the use of force" made the Assad regime acknowledge that "they had these weapons, [and] pack them up and ship them out," they must be asking: Why was that same credible threat of military force not used to stop the indiscriminate killing by the regime's air-delivered weapons, the ones that are the most likely to kill civilians and the principal means of delivering chemical weapons?

This is not "smart power" as the administration likes to call it. It has left Bashar Assad free to keep killing citizens with impunity and millions of Syrians embittered—along with millions more across the Arab world who sympathize with their plight—and it has emboldened authoritarian rulers to act aggressively from Ukraine to the South China Sea.

Mr. Wolfowitz, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has served as deputy U.S. secretary of defense and U.S. ambassador to Indonesia

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