September 8, 2017 | Policy Brief

The Assad Regime’s Chemical Weapons Problem

September 8, 2017 | Policy Brief

The Assad Regime’s Chemical Weapons Problem

Israeli warplanes struck a suspected chemical weapons facility yesterday morning in northwest Syria. Local observers said the airstrikes also targeted an adjacent military site where Iranian and Hezbollah personnel had previously been spotted.

The strike comes on the heels of a new report, issued by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, which presented formidable evidence that the Assad regime’s air force perpetrated a chemical weapons attack that claimed at least 83 lives on April 4 in the town of Khan Shaykhun.

An initial report from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) announced its “incontrovertible” finding that victims had been exposed to sarin gas; however, the OPCW did not assess who was responsible for the attack. The new report from the UN commission is unequivocal, describing the attack in a detailed narrative based on interviews with dozens of eyewitnesses as well as “satellite imagery, photographs of bomb remnants,” and related evidence.

The Assad regime has a long record of using chemical weapons against its own population, including 20 attacks documented by the UN commission over the past four years. And the attacks continue. According to the UN report, “In the first week of July, government forces used chlorine against [rebel] fighters in Damascus on three occasions.” The use of chlorine as a weapon is a war crime and a violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, although possession of chlorine is allowed because of its industrial uses. Far less toxic than sarin, the use of chlorine tends to arouse less concern.

Nonetheless, the Assad regime’s stockpiling and use of chemical weapons represents a deliberate violation of the 2013 agreement to eliminate its arsenal. In the summer of 2014, Secretary of State John Kerry described the agreement as a success, saying “we struck a deal that got 100% of the chemical weapons out.” Kerry even praised Russia for its role in negotiating and implementing the agreement. In his State of the Union address that year, President Barack Obama explained that “American diplomacy, backed by the threat of force, is why Syria’s chemical weapons are being eliminated.”

True, the prospect of U.S. military intervention may have brought Russia and Syria to the negotiating table in 2013. Yet Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad understood that they were only negotiating a fig-leaf agreement, designed to placate Obama’s unwillingness to enforce his own “red line.” As a result, Syria still has chemical weapons, which Iran could direct Assad or another client, such as Hezbollah, to use.

The continuing threat posed by chemical weapons in the hands of the Iranian axis demonstrates the folly of relying on unverifiable and unenforceable agreements with rogue states as a means of protecting U.S. national security. Only constant vigilance, combined with credible threats to apply both force and sanctions, can ensure the viability of agreements with states that have long records of deception and noncompliance. American leaders should bear this lesson in mind as they consider how to address the shortcomings of previous agreements not just with Syria, but with Iran, Russia, and North Korea as well.

David Adesnik is the director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @adesnik.

Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD.


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