Behind Syria's calculations on missing chemical weapons deadline

Syria claims safety concerns, but critics of the chemical weapons deal say President Assad is feeling empowered – and may be stockpiling weapons in a regime stronghold.

Bilal Hussein/AP
A convoy of inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons prepared to cross into Syria from Lebanon in October just before the group began its work of finding, collecting, and destroying Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles.

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Syria has missed today's deadline for giving up another portion of its entire chemical weapons arsenal, raising alarm that President Bashar al-Assad will renege on the agreement that curbed a potential US military strike last summer.

Syria delivered the most dangerous components – sarin, mustard, and VX gases – in early January, about a week after the deadline. It was supposed to hand over the "less dangerous" components today. 

"They're not going to make that timeline either," Michael Luhan, a spokesman for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), told USA Today. The mission to dismantle Syria's chemical weapons program, which is led by the OPCW, "has reached a kind of a stasis at the moment."

The OPCW has little recourse if Syria flouts the agreement. It is tasked only with cataloging and destroying the weapons turned over, and cannot conduct investigations of its own, The Christian Science Monitor reported this fall. 

Last week, OPCW director Gen. Ahmet Üzümcü cited concern about the slow pace. “While the two shipments [of chemicals] this month represent a start, the need for the process to pick up pace is obvious,” he said. “Ways and means must be found to establish continuity and predictability of shipments to assure States Parties that the programme, while delayed, is not deferred.”

The US has scoffed at the Syrian regime's security concerns, USA Today reports. 

Syrian officials have cited safety concerns for the delay and issued a list of items to preserve convoys of trucks as they transport hundreds of tons of material cross-country in the midst of civil war. They've asked for armored troop carriers and armored sleeves to fit around shipping containers loaded with canisters of chemicals.

The State Department has dismissed the Syrian request as foot dragging.

"The regime has every tool they need in order to deliver on their promise of moving the chemical weapons to the port at Latakia," said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki. "That is the step they need to take."

Russian officials said they are working with the Syrian regime to develop a new timetable for removing or destroying the weapons, and there is no reason to be worried. "I would not dramatize the disarmament issue," Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov told RIA Novosti, according to Agence France-Presse. "Literally yesterday the Syrians announced that they are planning to move out a large amount of chemical substances in February."

"Many nuances were not known before, so it is quite logical that there are changes," he said.

"As far as the deadlines, everything is going rather well," he said.

"There are difficulties that have to do with the need to ensure the security of this operation."

The missed deadline has unleashed a chorus of "I told you so's." The chemical weapons agreement was met with skepticism and even condemnation at the time. 

James Clapper, director of national intelligence, said Wednesday at a House of Representatives intelligence committee hearing that the chemical weapons agreement had allowed President Assad to grow stronger, The New York Times reports.

President Obama has hailed the agreement as a significant diplomatic breakthrough, and during his State of the Union address last week he cited it as an example of how his foreign policy had been effective.

But many experts say that the agreement may ultimately work to Mr. Assad’s advantage, as it prompted the Obama administration to withdraw its threat to carry out cruise missile attacks, has built up the Syrian government credibility on the world stage and has allowed it to play for time.  

A chemical weapons deal based on trust was never going to succeed because Assad is far from trustworthy, writes David Schenker, director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He cites the Syrian leader's continued smuggling of oil to Saddam Hussein's Iraq, despite promises to the US to stop, as well as broken promises to stop assisting Palestinian militant groups and shut down the "jihadi pipeline" to Iraq during the war there, as evidence of Assad's "prodigious track record of reneging on promises and violating international agreements."

Not surprisingly, the accuracy of Syria's inventory declaration to the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is already in question. According to the OPCW, for example, the Assad regime declared "approximately 1,000 metric tons" of binary chemical weapons precursors, a number that seems too oddly coincident with Secretary Kerry's earlier formulation that Syria "has "about a thousand metric tons" of these agents. (Is it possible that U.S. intelligence assessments are so precise?) Likewise, according to non-proliferation experts, given the size and scope of the CW program, the fact that the Assad regime declared absolutely no filled chemical munitions is a glaring red flag.

At present, it is too soon to tell whether the Assad regime is violating its chemical weapons commitments. After having killed so many Syrians with conventional armaments, it's difficult to see why the Assad regime would see a need to retain a residual chemical arsenal. Perhaps over the past 13 years, Bashar has come to understand that there is no cost associated with cheating.

Shortly after the agreement was reached to steal Assad's chemical arsenal out of Syria, Secretary of State Kerry sought to preempt critics of the deal. "We're not just going to trust and verify," he assured, "We're going to verify, and verify, and verify." Alas, because the Chemical Weapons Convention provides signatories the right to manage access to facilities and does not mandate intrusive inspections, verification is at best a relative term. And then, of course, there is the matter of Assad's penchant for lying.

At the kickoff of the Geneva II peace conference on January 22, Syrian foreign minister Walid Moualem told U.N. secretary general Ban Ki Moon, "Syria always keeps its promises." Western governments should know better. When it comes to keeping international obligations, Syria's Bashar Assad regime seldom keeps its promises. Given the absence of consequences for pursuing nuclear and deploying chemical weapons, the inescapable takeaway for Assad is that when it comes to dictators and WMD, the old aphorism that "winners never cheat and cheaters never win" doesn't apply.

Assad may be holding onto weapons for his Plan B: defending a regime statelet in the event that Syria is partitioned in an agreement. Citing unnamed Israeli and Russian sources, The Sunday Times reported on Feb. 2 (paywall) that Assad is stockpiling weapons, including biological and chemical ones.

One source told the Times, “Syria has given up only about 4 percent of its chemical weapons arsenal, will miss this week’s deadline to send all toxic agents abroad for destruction, and probably will miss the June 30 deadline when the entire 1,300 tons of lethal chemical weapons were due to be destroyed."

Assad is believed to be gathering some of the weaponry in the heartland of his Alawite sect, along the Mediterranean coast. The Alawites, a Shiite sect, make up only about 12 percent of Syria's population, but include the Assad family, as well as many other key members of the regime. 

"This region is now totally fortified and isolated from the rest of Syria,” an Israeli military intelligence source told the Times. “The most advanced weapons manufactured in Syria and imported from Russia are kept there.”

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