Two years after Syria signed an agreement with the United States and Russia to dismantle its chemical weapons, the U.S. intelligence agencies and inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons have concluded that Syria has failed to fully and transparently account for its arsenal, developed new capabilities and still uses chemical attacks on the battle front, albeit in a limited way, without significant reaction from the international community. As the world prepares to sign a deal to rein in Iran's nuclear project, an even more dangerous form of WMD, we should take note of how ineffective the international oversight has been in Syria.
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The recent Wall Street Journal article “Mission to Purge Syria of Chemical Weapons Comes Up Short” offers an extremely worrying picture about the international operation to dismantle Syria’s chemical arsenal. According to the article, Syrian leaders lied from the beginning about the quantities and quality of the chemical arsenal. Inspectors were given access only to sites that the Assad regime had declared part of its chemical weapons program, and only with 48-hour notice. Inspectors discovered a fleet of mobile chemical-weapons production facilities housed in 18-wheeler trucks, unlike any other program seen before. At some sites, inspectors suspected the guards were members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps or an Iranian-backed militia wearing Syrian army uniforms. In addition, the Syrian regime added several research facilities to its official declaration of chemical weapons sites only a year later, in October 2014, including one in Damascus presented to inspectors in May 2014 as a civil research center.
Furthermore, the approach of the governments involved and the inspectors has been hesitant if not outright tolerant. The U.S. and other powers never exercised the right to demand access to undeclared sites because they “didn’t want a standoff with the regime.” U.S. intelligence agencies gave the regime an informal grade of B-plus for truthfulness, although many inspectors were skeptical about the Syrians’ claim that they had destroyed hundreds of tons of mustard agent before agreeing to the inspections. Members of the inspection teams didn’t push for answers to important issues, worried that it would compromise their “primary objective” of getting rid of the admitted 1,300 tons of chemicals. Meanwhile, earlier this year, American intelligence agencies tracked the regime’s increasing use of chlorine-filled bombs and the production of more effective such bombs by Syria’s scientists, the Journal states.
It is odd these agencies arrived so late at this conclusion while the international media published ample information about the regime's use of chlorine in the spring of 2014. At the time, I concluded that the Assad regime decided to use chlorine for minor chemical attacks (less lethal and impressive than mustard gas or sarin) in order to win tactical battles in strategic areas - the Damascus neighborhoods and northwestern Syria.
Contrary to its initial evaluation that the Assad regime destroyed all of its chemical weapons, in recent weeks the CIA “concluded that the intelligence picture had changed and that there was a growing body of evidence Mr. Assad kept caches of banned chemicals,” reports the Journal. U.S. intelligence suggests that Assad may be prepared to use chemical weapons if government strongholds like Aleppo or Latakia are threatened by Islamist fighters.
I presented my evaluation after the United States and Russia signed their agreement with Syria in September 2013, as I was the signing of the U.S.-Russian agreement in September 2013, as I was skeptical that a Syria still ruled by Bashar Assad and ever-conscious of the Alawite community's fragile future was ready to renounce its entire chemical arsenal, as the Russian-American plan proposed.
Days before that agreement was signed, the International Institute for Counter Terrorism in Herzliya published a comprehensive report “Syria's Chemical Weapons - The Terrorism Threat,” detailing Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities. The report identified in Syria 45-50 facilities and military bases involved in chemical warfare.
Brigadier-General Zaher al-Saket, a former chemical weapons chief in the Syrian army’s 5th division who defected to the opposition in April 2013, in a November 2013 interview offered intelligence that the Syrian president is evading the terms of a Russian-brokered deal to destroy the chemical weapons by transferring some of the stocks to his allies in Lebanon, and Iran. Gen. Saket warned of possible discrepancies between the 23 sites Syria had declared to the United Nations and its actual chemical arsenal.
The Assad regime’s enhanced use of chemical weapons emboldens rebel and terrorist groups in Syria to use the same methods. In June 2014, ISIS took control of the huge Iraqi Muthanna chemical base. Although the U.S. State Department played down the importance of the capture, suggesting that the facility contained "degraded chemical remnants difficult, if not impossible, to safely use for military purposes,” a CIA report from 2007 asserted that the precursor and agent production area at the complex was not completely destroyed during Desert Storm, portions of the mustard production and storage area survived and the precise nature of munitions stockpiles at the site remains unconfirmed.
Islamic State forces did employ some form of chemical agent, probably mustard gas, for the first time in July 2014 against the Kurdish Peoples' Protection Units (YPG) forces and civilians in Kobani. This year, the Kurdistan Region Security Council claimed ISIS used chlorine in a January 23 suicide truck bomb attack against peshmerga forces in northern Iraq. Lately it appears the Islamic State has manufactured rudimentary chemical warfare shells and attacked Kurdish positions in Iraq and Syria with them as many as three times.
If this is the record of the international community in dismantling and monitoring the chemical and nuclear facilities in Syria, how exactly it will do better in monitoring the vast Iranian nuclear infrastructure? Would indeed Iran, the cat guarding the milk, be responsible for collecting its own soil samples from suspected nuclear sites to turn over to the IAEA for inspection, as revealed during the first Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the nuclear deal?
Ely Karmon has been the Senior Research Scholar at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism at The Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya since 1997. He is also the Senior Research Fellow at The Institute for Policy and Strategy at IDC.