Why Did Syria Still Have Chemical Weapons?

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U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley holds up photos of victims of the Syrian chemical attack, during a meeting of the United Nations Security Council at U.N. headquarters, April 5, 2017, in New York City. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Late on Thursday night, Donald Trump launched the first military strike of his presidency, hitting a Syrian government air base with 59 missiles. It was the same air base from which Syria had dispatched a chemical-weapons attack against its own people earlier this week. Foreign-policy experts are only now beginning to debate whether the U.S. is at war with Syria; what happens next remains totally unclear. However, one thing is certain: Syria’s chemical weapons were supposed to be gone as of 2014, thanks to a removal plan the U.S. and Russia had brokered with the United Nations. For an explanation, we spoke with Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Washington, D.C.–based Arms Control Association, immediately after the attack was announced.

What are your early thoughts and questions about President Trump choosing to launch a missile strike on Syria as a response to Assad’s apparent use of chemical weapons?
One reaction is that it’s absolutely stunning how Donald Trump’s view of the use of chemical weapons in Syria and the drawing of red lines has altered in such a short time. A week ago, he and his team signaled that the removal of Bashar al-Assad was not a high priority for the United States. That may have even given Assad a green light to launch this attack. But now, just days later, Trump has said this is unacceptable, and has decided — apparently without a broader, longer-term plan for how this should play out, he has launched this missile strike. It’s not clear from the statements I have read, from the president or the Pentagon, what the purpose of the attack was. Was it simply to deter further chemical-weapons use? Was it to destroy chemical-weapons stockpiles that might still exist? Was it to strike the one particular airfield where we think an earlier chemical-weapons strike was launched?

The other thing that’s striking is that in 2013, President Obama sought congressional authorization for the use of military force. Donald Trump has not. He consulted members of Congress as the strike was happening, and it’s not clear whether this is the last cruise-missile strike.

Finally, there have been many atrocities in the Syrian civil war — chemical weapons among the worst. But will President Trump now seek to retaliate militarily to every atrocity? We are now, in some ways, on the hook — he’s on the hook — to respond to the other atrocities that will certainly continue. I mean, Assad is certainly not going to stop killing civilians; he’s not going to stop bombing hospitals; and Russia is not going to stop cooperating. These are questions that I think the administration needs to try to answer in the days ahead. If they don’t have the answers, they need to find them fast.

Do you have any sense of where we go from here?
We’re in uncharted territory here. This could go in a lot of different directions. What were the results on the ground? Were there any Russian, Syrian, or Hezbollah personnel killed? What does Russia do in response? What does Assad do in response? We’ll have to see. There’s a risk of escalation. The expectation of further punitive military strikes will still be there, on Trump.

But the other interesting question is, how does the rest of the international community respond? The U.N. Security Council was in the process of trying to come to some agreement on a path forward. I think it’s unfortunate that President Trump did not let that process play out, because he cannot claim that that process was exhausted — that this was a measure of last resort, which he only pursued when other options were exhausted. So it will be interesting to see how and whether the U.N. Security Council picks up this debate. I think this strike will shatter the possibility for any agreements on the council.

You mean the possibility of Russia and China signing on, in particular.
Yeah. All day I was following the debate, and I think what they were heading toward was U.N. investigators going in, verifying exactly what happened, and providing an independent assessment — rather than just one government undertaking this — and then coming back to discuss and decide what an appropriate response should be. Now, it might have been that Russia would have blocked any ‘appropriate’ response, but if that were the case, then if Trump had wanted to pursue military action, it would have been more justifiable. As it is, he has difficulty claiming that was the case.

There were reports in 2014 that we had removed all the chemical weapons from Syria. But then U.S. government officials, among others, have said more recently that it wasn’t true — Assad still had chemical weapons in his possession. Could you explain why the initial accounts were wrong?
First of all, prior to the civil war, it was well known that Syria had a large, clandestine chemical-weapons arsenal. They had not joined the chemical-weapons convention, which prohibits the possession, manufacture, and use of chemical weapons. There were a number of small-scale incidents of chemical-weapons use — beginning in 2012, in various parts of Syria — that were starting to raise suspicions that Assad was using his arsenal against the rebels. And then there was the massive sarin-gas attack on the outskirts of Damascus in 2013.

That led, of course, to the threat of cruise-missile strikes on a more massive scale by Barack Obama. His threat forced the hands of the Russians, who told Assad, “Look, the only way that we can avoid U.S. military strikes is if you agree to hand over your chemical-weapons arsenal” — which is what they did. So 1,300 tons of chemical weapons — sarin, mustard gas, and all the precursor chemicals — were verifiably removed.

But after that, there were questions raised time and again at the meetings of the enforcement group: Did Assad provide a complete declaration of his stockpile? Did he retain some capacity to produce? And obviously, the answer here is that he did retain some capacity. Either he did not make a complete declaration, or he manufactured some precursor chemicals to make sarin in the two or three years after this operation was over. We also have to remember that there were chlorine barrel-bomb attacks by Syrian-army helicopters in various places over the past two or three years. The U.N. Security Council debated and debated how to respond. Just in February, the Russians and the Chinese vetoed strong actions that the rest of the council wanted to take to stop those attacks.

So this, in many ways, is shocking, but it’s not surprising. I see this as the failure of Russia, in particular, to enforce its own principles, its own standards, with its client regime. Because it was Russia and the United States who partnered to force Assad to — we thought — eliminate his chemical-weapons stockpile. So that’s my best explanation for why we’re seeing this now.

Russia helped broker the deal, but the groups responsible for actually carrying it out were the U.N. and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is based in the Netherlands, right?
Correct — with the support of Russia and the United States and other countries, who supplied technology and equipment to make it happen.

So after that big haul in 2014, did we become lax in the monitoring? What happened there?
Well, it is very difficult to verify the absence of chemical-weapons-production capacity, and it’s very hard to verify that the OPCW was told about the complete stockpile, and that they got the whole stockpile. It wasn’t for lax monitoring, because the secretary-general of the OPCW warned its member states that Syria had not provided information in some key areas. They were denying access to one particular known chemical-weapons site, which happened to be in a contested area. So there were warnings. The U.S. government also assessed that the Syrian declaration was not complete. So we knew there was a possibility that Assad had held back some portion; and if he was going to hold back some portion, it was likely that he was going to hold back the most deadly portion, which is the nerve agents — the sarin gas. That’s what was used earlier this week. The purpose of this past attack, apparently, was to shock and awe and demoralize the civilian population and the regime to the point where they give up. It does not have great military value, but it is literally a mass-terror weapon, designed to basically overwhelm and demoralize the opposition.

They’re going for a psychological effect — which is the definition of terrorism, actually.
Exactly.

When you say Russia failed, what do you mean? What should they have done that they didn’t do?
What Russia has been doing since the massive international operation to remove the chemical-weapons stockpile is, Russia has shielded the Assad regime from any subsequent attacks involving chlorine. Even in the past two or three days, they have been coming up with extraordinary excuses for why this was not Assad’s fault. I think the smarter move for Russia would have been to allow the council to take unified action against any further chemical-weapons use, and to basically draw the line with their own client state and say, “This is just not allowed.”

I mean, Russia has been providing enormous military support and assistance for Assad. They did not have to tolerate this; they did not have to make excuses. It has further undermined Russia’s credibility as a responsible international actor. They have continued to deny, in the face of reality and evidence from independent investigators, that Syrian-army helicopters are dropping barrel bombs with chlorine gas in them.

You’re saying Russia has a relationship with Assad that no one else has, which gives them unique leverage to make sure the agreement is enforced, and they weren’t using it.
Yeah. And they did more than that — they actively shielded Assad from blame, when it was clear that he continued to use chlorine barrel bombs and sarin gas.

Even up to this very afternoon.
Yes.

When the agreement was made in 2013, it sounded pretty sound. There were mechanisms to help ensure Assad wasn’t holding out on us. But if it left Assad with ways to squirrel away his deadliest weapons, then it seems in hindsight like quite a poor agreement, doesn’t it?
It’s a fair question, but I would respectfully differ. The arrangement was remarkable in 2013, in that, without a shot being fired, the world’s second-largest chemical-weapons arsenal was removed — but for, we now know, a small quantity. And that was always a risk. But today, the region faces a far lesser threat from Syrian chemical weapons than it did in 2013. I think the real failure is not so much with that agreement but with the follow-up enforcement by the U.N. Security Council. And once again, that council is hobbled by the veto. A single member of the council can veto an action, and it has been Russia, and in some cases China, shielding Assad: not just on chemical weapons, but on bombing civilian areas, not cooperating with diplomatic overtures.

I’m sure that in the coming days and weeks, we’ll hear people criticizing, or reassessing, the Iran nuclear deal in light of our experience with Syria. They’ll be saying, “We tried this peaceful removal process and these accountability mechanisms, and look where it got us.” How would you respond to a remark like that?
I can see why the question would come up, but these are two very different things. In 2013, in Syria, there was a clear incident where the government used a prohibited weapon against its own people — a terrible weapon. The Iran nuclear deal was an agreement to limit Iran’s capacity to acquire enough material to make a nuclear weapon, and so far, that agreement is working extremely well. Iran is complying with the terms of the agreement. There are arguments about whether the United States is complying with our commitment to lift the sanctions, but this is not like the Syria situation, in which there have been repeated documented incidents in which the Syrian government was violating the terms of the overall 2013 agreement. They retained some chemical weapons and were using them.

The problem, fundamentally, comes back to the fact that — unlike the 2013 agreement, when the U.S. and Russia were cooperating — now they’re not cooperating. Therein lies the reason there has been a failure to prevent Assad from continuing to use chemical weapons. It requires leadership from the key countries, and when you don’t have Russian cooperation, it’s very hard to enforce the rules. We have to put blame where blame belongs, which is not with the agreement that got 1,300 tons of chemical weapons out of Syria. It’s with the Kremlin, which failed to enforce that agreement with its client government.

Why Did Syria Still Have Chemical Weapons?