President Obama said on April 28, in Manila: “we’re getting chemical weapons out of Syria without having initiated a strike.” This was by way of defending not launching airstrikes to punish the Assad regime after the massive gas attack near Damascus last August. Put aside the clear evidence that the regime has simply switched the using chlorine gas. This seemed dubious on its own terms. Under the deal orchestrated by the Russians, Assad became a partner in disarmament; as soon as that process comes to an end, the Western interest in keeping Assad’s regime in place is eliminated. And so it proved.
The next day, the U.S. representative to OPCW, Robert P. Mikulak, testified in The Hague that “twelve chemical weapons production facilities declared by Syria remain structurally intact,” and this was so because of the regime’s “intransigence and refusal to even discuss the matter with other delegations over the past weeks.”
The maintenance of the production facilities is particularly importance because it means that even if the stockpiles were removed, they could be reproduced. It is this facilities-vs.-stockpiles distinction, or lack of, that still confuses people about Iraq: it is said Saddam Hussein had no WMD because there were not drums of chemicals lying around but to have the dual-use facilities, the teams of scientists, the technical know-how, and be three-to-five weeks from the production of such stockpiles is to be armed with WMD. It can be argued that exactly in this window before the dictator can drown invading forces in such weapons is the best time to take him out.
As it happens, Assad has not surrendered the stockpiles either. On April 25, Reuters reported that British, French, and American intelligence had concluded that Assad “ha[s] not declared everything,” and the quantity of concealed material is “substantial”. Another Western official cited in that piece noted that a “large batch of a sarin precursor” had gone missing, the regime’s “unverified claims to have destroyed most of its mustard gas stocks before the U.N.-OPCW mission arrived,” and “other anomalies”.
Just hours before the midnight April 27/28 deadline for the surrender of the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons of mass destruction (CWMD), the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ (OPCW) head Sigrid Kaag testified that there was still 7.5% of the 1,300 metric tons of chemical agents and precursors that the regime declared remaining in the country. Kaag believed that the means of combining those elements to make sophisticated WMD like VX and sarin had been destroyed; Mikulak was inform him he was mistaken less than thirty-six hours later.
Past As Prologue: The Iraq Experience
This is easily-recognisable as the pattern of Saddam’s Iraq—and now theocratic Iran—in bamboozling and defying these “inspection” regimes. The Saddam regime’s first declaration in April 1991 flatly denied it had a nuclear program, only admitting to it in July 1991, after being caught red-handed and having fired shots at U.N. inspectors. Even after that, Saddam continued to run a vast apparatus of deception.
Dr. Mahdi Obeidi, one of Saddam’s chief nuclear physicists, describes a scene from December 1991 at Rashdiya. Already the building had been “completely transformed” and cleaned for the inspections that June. But, evidently acting on intelligence, the inspectors were back and took a soil sample from around the facility. Here is what happened next:
I … ordered the former centrifuge laboratory stripped of its walls and roof, right down to its frame, as well as the excavation of a foot and a half of topsoil from underneath and around the building, extending a hundred feet on the downwind side where traces of uranium might have blown.
“Within a week,” I said … “we will fill in the hole with fresh soil and build an exact replica facility out of new materials.” …
[T]he order seemed impossible. But they quickly realized the only other option would be to take responsibility for breaching the concealment plan. The consequences for our lives and those of our families didn’t bear thinking about.
Here you get a glimpse of what totalitarianism looks like. Two weeks later, looking smug, the U.N. conducted another surprise inspection, evidently thinking they had caught the regime, and of course their results came back negative.
In February 1992, Obeidi was given the documentation and prototypes of the centrifuges by Qusay Hussein to hide in his own garden, which the inspectors never did find; we only know about them because Dr. Obeidi turned them over to the Americans after the Saddam fell. In 1995, the defection of Hussein Kamel disclosed a previously-unknown, advanced biological weapons program that four years of inspections had not discovered. Entire ministries of this most complete Police State were devoted to deceiving inspectors, who were bribed, their ranks penetrated by the secret police, and Iraqi scientists were interviewed only under the watch of the regime. Right to the very end Saddam was trying for weapons that violated the U.N. rules. Mutatis mutandis, this is Syria at present.
Assad Retains Banned Weapons
The Daily Beast two days ago brought further evidence on the CWMD front:
Concerns are growing among Western intelligence services that Syria still has a significant and undeclared arsenal of chemical weapons, including crude chlorine-filled bombs, secret stockpiles of sophisticated nerve gasses or their components—and the scientific know-how to rebuild a larger-scale, higher-grade chemical weapons effort once the Bashar al-Assad regime has escaped the international spotlight. …
“We know about the programs, we know about the people, and we know about the munitions,” an American intelligence official told The Daily Beast. “But the production quantity of materials? That’s the area where we’re the haziest. … We have conflicting information and we don’t know what to trust.”
There is no excuse for not seeing this coming.
Had the regime actually conceded under a threat of force to this inspection program—and that threat of force remained believable should the regime begin not to comply—one might have some reason to believe that the Assad regime was acting in good faith, out of fear, which is the only time it has ever acted in good faith. But this is not the case.
President Obama telegraphed to all concerned that he did not want to strike at the dictatorship and took the first offer to avoid doing so—a Kremlin-orchestrated scheme to relegitimise the dictator and give him carte blanche to murder with conventional weapons that demoralised and nearly destroyed the moderate rebellion. This was a defeat, not a victory, and it made the United States look—and be—weak.
The use of chemical weapons in Syria by the regime has increased since this “deal” was worked out last September, notably the recent chlorine attacks over Hama and Idlib. In these conditions of total impunity it was quite obvious the regime and its State sponsors in Russia and Iran would help it keep alive a chemical weapons program both because all these States defy American wishes as a matter of course and it leaves the regime a weapon that can at least be used to terrorise if not exactly as much of a strategic instrument.
A Successful Model in Libya?
Even if one believed the threat-of-force-had-Assad-give-up-the-CWMD point, there would be reason for scepticism, namely Libya, probably the most successful recent effort at counter-proliferation, with the regime compelled by a believable threat of force after Saddam’s ouster.
Yet, as the New York Times reported in February, between early 2004 and the onset of the rebellion in Libya in early 2011, only half of Muammar el-Qaddafi’s actual stockpile of CWMD had been destroyed:
Libyan officials … surprised Western inspectors by announcing the discovery in November 2011 and February 2012 of two hidden caches of mustard, or nearly two tons, that had not been declared by Colonel Qaddafi’s government. That brought the total declared amount of chemical to 26.3 tons. Unlike the majority of Libya’s mustard agents, which were stored in large, bulky containers, the new caches were already armed and loaded into 517 artillery shells, 45 plastic sleeves for rocket launchings and eight 500-pound bombs.
The chances that Western inspectors would have found these caches, or that Qaddafi would have ceded them, are zero.
Moreover, this is what happened after Qaddafi fell:
Since November , Libyan contractors trained in Germany and Sweden have worked in bulky hazmat suits at a tightly guarded site in a remote corner of the Libyan desert, 400 miles southeast of Tripoli … The last artillery shell was destroyed on Jan. 26, officials said.
Thus, under a government earnestly working to destroy these menacing stockpiles, it took three years to get less than two tons of CWMD out of Libya.
In Syria, there is a situation of all-out war with a regime that is anything-but determined to cede its weaponry, and far larger stockpiles in play.
Syria and Biological Weapons of Mass Destruction
The Daily Beast however brings even worse news:
[T]here’s also lingering unease about the Assad regime’s biological weapons program that … American officials confess they just don’t have the resources to track down. … Current and former U.S. officials all say they’re convinced Assad has some sort of biological weapons program … [but] [t]he ongoing removal and destruction of Assad’s chemical weapons has monopolized all of the WMD-hunters’ attention. … A spokesman for the U.N.’s Biological Weapons Convention implementation support unit based in Geneva says … “Nobody has raised anything specific about biologic weapons in Syria, certainly not in any official context here,” he added.”
The Israelis are worried about Assad’s BWMD. The Daily Beast quotes Dany Shoham at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies:
The biological warfare agents that are believed to have been developed by Syria include virulent pathogens, such as anthrax germs, and the lethal biological toxins botulinum and ricin. Western estimations suggest that Syria has significant quantities of these biological warfare agents, although the evidence for this is inconclusive.
Shoham adds that “Syrian possession of the smallpox virus is likely,” though officially this virus is extinct, with stocks held only in Washington and Moscow.
On January 29, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said:
We judge that some elements of Syria’s biological warfare program might have advanced beyond the research and development stage and might be capable of limited agent production, based on the duration of its longstanding program.
to the best of our knowledge, Syria has not successfully weaponized biological agents in an effective delivery system, but it possesses conventional weapon systems that could be modified for biological-agent delivery.
An intelligence agent spoken to by The Daily Beast is more sceptical. While Assad made some progress on weaponising ricin, his scientists “never got past R&D phase for anything else,” says this man. About five years ago, the regime made the switch from developing “botanicals” like ricin to “microbial” weapons like anthrax. “They still haven’t settled on anything—they’re researching agents, and whether they can mass-produce them. It’s the very early kernel of a BW program,” the intelligence officer says, adding that U.S. counter-proliferation has basically worked in this respect: “I think we’ve blocked anything above what goes on a lab bench.”
Maybe. But it only underlines the point: nobody really knows.
The only real solution, as the Libya case—with South Africa, Ukraine, and Iraq before it—shows, is the removal of dictatorial governments that dabble in illegal weapons of mass destruction and their replacement with democratic systems. Libya, South Africa, Ukraine, and Iraq are now certifiably disarmed; there will never be a way to say that of Syria while Bashar al-Assad or any of his lieutenants remain in power.