The Wall Street Journal’s revelations Friday about the West’s efforts to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons constitute a harbinger of what the international community can expect vis-a-vis the Iranian nuclear program. It’s a taste of how Tehran will conduct itself with the West.
The newspaper paints a detailed picture of the holes in the West’s ability to dismantle Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons program. Simply put, most of the chemicals intended for use as weapons were destroyed, as were most of the chemical weapons themselves. The strong suspicion is, however, not only that Assad retains chemical weapons — according to the report, Assad tucked away “caches of even deadlier nerve agents” than the ones relinquished — but that he is also still secretly producing them.
The dismal saga starts with a passionate American president who drew a red line at the possibility of the Syrian regime using chemical weapons. The Syrian president was not impressed. He believed that the US administration and its leader were bluffing, and therefore, when it was “necessary,” he used short-range rockets to deliver sarin gas in an attack in the Damascus suburbs in August 2013.
It turned out that President Assad was correct in his estimation. President Obama did not want to attack Syria for a variety of reasons (some of them good ones). Still, Obama did show enough determination to force Assad to give up his chemical weapons. In theory, at least.
Ostensibly, this was the best outcome imaginable — even if Obama’s credibility took a hit.
Members of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) began implementing the Russian-mediated agreement to remove Assad’s chemical weapons, operating a range of facilities in Syria, where there were allegedly 1,300 tons of materials for chemical warfare. But here too problems started, an investigation by the Journal’s Adam Entous showed.
According to conversations Entous and his colleagues had with the US government, intelligence community and OPCW members, the only facilities inspected were ones that had been declared by the Syrian regime. Even the figure for the amount of chemical warfare materials — 1,300 tons — was provided by the regime. The information provided by Assad was deemed at the time to be highly reliable. This amount was destroyed and 23 facilities inspected. But from the outset, the inspectors were unable to operate in any facilities that the Syrian regime did not want them to visit.
Under the agreement, inspectors could only visit facilities after giving 48 hours’ notice, and only in line with security considerations. In other words, they needed advance permission from the Syrians. In some instances, if the area due to be visited was not deemed “safe enough” in the assessment of the Syrian regime, the inspectors could not go there.
This meant that inspectors had to make do with photographs and videos “proving” that certain facilities had been emptied of chemical materials. And this is where still other problems cropped up. Members of the OPCW suspect that Assad and his associates continued to produce chemical weapons in various facilities belonging to Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC), facilities that did not appear on the list of 23 sites.
Just last October, the regime added to the list some new facilities, including some from the SSRC, which the West had at least already known about. OPCW inspectors had anticipated disclosures about mobile laboratories for the production of chemical weapons, operating from massive trucks, including 18-wheeler semi-trailers. These trucks were innocuous from the outside, and bore advertising for companies in Hungary.
The Syrians reported to the OPCW the existence of 100 Scud missiles armed with chemical warheads and 1,100 bombs for aerial attacks on Israel. Some of those weapons were destroyed by the regime — at least according to Assad’s aides — and others were handed over to the OPCW. But the inspectors and the intelligence community were well aware that the regime had short-range rockets, like those used in Damascus in August 2013, which it had not divulged. And those same rockets carried sarin gas.
Furthermore, the Journal report revealed, there is a strong suspicion that the regime is hiding quantities of mustard and sarin gases. For example, the regime reported that it had just 20 tons of mustard gas, which had already been installed in various weaponry, despite the suspicions of Western intelligence agencies that Assad had hundreds of tons. So Syria’s initial reports now seem unreliable, and it is widely believed that the Syrian regime is holding far larger quantities.
Ultimately, the OPCW and the West preferred to continue dismantling what the Syrians had reported, so that they could at least claim that achievement. The agreement thus did improve the situation. But did it completely stop the Assad regime having chemical weapons or producing them? All too evidently not.
In Israel, the talk for some time has been that the threat of Syrian chemical weapons has declined, but still exists. Israel’s concern is that Assad kept some chemical weapons that could now fall into the hands of Islamic State or be transferred to Hezbollah.
With all of this in mind, one can only imagine the Iranian response, as the deal signed with the P5+1 powers last week is implemented, when inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency seek access to suspicious sites. The complex formulations of the deal will give the Iranians 24 days’ notice of any visit; if that were not problematic enough, some Iranian officials are already ruling out such visits altogether.
On Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry’s testimony to Congress was marked by the grilling he faced over the question of whether a separate IAEA-Iran deal allows the regime to self-inspect — the allegation that, rather than IAEA inspectors visiting, Iran will hand over soil samples from its suspect facility in Parchin.
It might be amusing if it wasn’t tragic. And the belated revelations of the holes in the Syrian process only underline the yawning flaws in this one.