Huge Advance in Chemical Weapons Arms Control

The MV Cape Ray at Portsmouth, Virginia. The MV Cape Ray at Portsmouth, Virginia.

By Greg Thielmann

It was exactly one year ago that Syrian government forces unleashed poison gas attacks on an opposition-held suburb of Damascus, killing hundreds of innocent civilians. At the time, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad controlled the world's second largest operational arsenal of chemical weapons, even though he did not acknowledge it. Shortly after the attacks, however, his government admitted holding some 1,300 metric tons of mustard agent and nerve gas precursor chemicals, chemical weapons manufacturing sites, and delivery systems.

Today, Syria is a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which outlaws all development, possession, and use of poison gas; all of Syria's declared arsenal has been removed from the country; and 86 percent of it has already been neutralized or incinerated. The prevention of further use of the most deadly chemical weapons on a large scale by the Syrian regime constitutes a stunning and underappreciated achievement.

A Taboo Is Strengthened

Poison gas was introduced by Germany onto the World War I battlefield almost a century ago. The tens of thousands of deaths on both sides resulting from its extensive use and the long-term suffering of surviving victims led to a widely supported international ban on chemical weapons use in the form of the "1925 Protocol." The taboo on chemical weapons has been sufficiently strong to prevent its use in most of the wars conducted since.

However, some three decades back, the world witnessed the sustained, large-scale use of banned chemical weapons in Iraq's 8-year war against Iran. The regime of Saddam Hussein, which had started the war by invading Iran, employed a variety of poison gases in attacks on Iranian soldiers and civilians alike, killing tens of thousands. Saddam also ordered the use of nerve gas against his own citizens – most notoriously in the March 1988 attack on the Kurdish city of Halabja. To their shame, the United States and some other Western powers were not only silent in the face of these atrocities; they assisted the military of the Iraqi perpetrators.

By the time Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, several other countries were still assessed to have active inventories of chemical weapons. The biggest holders by far were the Soviet Union and the United States. North Korea, Syria, Israel, Egypt, Libya, and Yugoslavia were also suspected of maintaining operational chemical weapons. In accordance with the cease-fire terms imposed on Iraq following the expulsion of Saddam's troops from Kuwait by an international coalition in 1991, Iraq began the destruction of its chemical weapons arsenal.

When the CWC entered into force in 1997, most of the countries with chemical weapons had already begun to eliminate their arsenals. After Libya's accession to the convention in 2004, only Syria and North Korea were believed to have held large, operational chemical weapons stockpiles.

The progress made in recent years on eliminating chemical weapons and the recent dramatic chapter has not been adequately appreciated by the public – perhaps because what has happened runs counter to many of the narratives dominating news coverage.

Red Lines: Although his domestic critics judge President Barack Obama's Syria policies to have been feckless, he actually enforced the red line he had drawn with regard to Syria's use of chemical weapons.

Following the August 21, 2013 Sarin gas attack, President Obama threatened to launch a cruise missile attack on Syria's military assets. However unpopular this course of action was with the American public and the U.S. Congress, however discombobulated the White House-State Department policy coordination process appeared, the threat was taken seriously in Moscow and Damascus.

Russia wanted to avoid the serious danger to its interests that direct U.S. military action against Assad's regime could pose. Syria wanted to retain Russian and Iranian financial assistance, to keep vital imports of weaponry flowing and maintain the diplomatic protection provided by Russia's veto power in the UN General Assembly. Assad was thus convinced to agree to the U.S. and Russian-brokered plan to remove and eliminate his chemical weapons.

Russia and Iran: Particularly during the last year, neither Russia nor Iran has been seen as supportive of U.S. policy in the Middle East. Yet it is inconceivable that Assad would have surrendered a valuable tool for intimidating his own people and his only possible means to counter Israel's nuclear weapons without strong and continuing pressure from his vital allies, Russia and Iran. That pressure continued during a period of great strain between Moscow and the West over Ukraine and contentious negotiations between Tehran and the West over Iran's nuclear program.

America's role in the world: America's supposed global decline has been a common theme of pundits and the press in recent months, who argue that: the United States now "leads from behind" (if at all); the American people are weary of international involvements; U.S. diplomatic efforts to control nuclear proliferation in the Middle East are doomed; and international organizations are impotent to enforce the policies that Washington seeks to promote.

Yet, it was the United States, which provided the political-military pressure that persuaded Syria to give up its chemical weapons; it was a U.S. ship with U.S. equipment and expertise that made possible the never-before-attempted feat of neutralizing the most potent chemical weapon agents at sea.

The CWC's implementing organization, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), and the United Nations successfully organized and staffed the teams that entered a war zone to oversee enforcement of Syria's CWC obligations. In the process, they secured vital assistance from Italy, Norway, Denmark, Germany, Finland, and the United Kingdom to safely transport Syria's chemical stockpile and dispose of toxic residues. And now, a new impetus has been given to the CWC holdouts in the Middle East, Israel and Egypt, to become parties to the convention.

Tragically, a year after Assad's horrendous Sarin gas attacks on his own people, the Syrian civil war rages on.

Even as the removal of Syria's CWC-listed chemical weapons was underway, Syrian military forces have used improvised chlorine-laced barrel bombs dropped from helicopters against targets inside Syria that kill civilians. The use of chlorine in this manner is a clear violation of the CWC. But Assad's capacity to launch large-scale, much more deadly chemical weapons attacks against Syrian civilians is close to zero.

Also, due to the successful mission to remove Assad's chemical weapons arsenal, the threat of the Syrian government's chemicals weapons falling into the hands of extremist groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria--and the threat of a chemical attack against Syria's neighbors--has been eliminated.

Globally, the taboo against possession and large-scale use of chemical weapons is stronger in the wake of the Syrian chemical weapons elimination mission. More countries are members of the CWC than of the Biological Weapons Convention, and more countries have foresworn chemical weapons than are non-nuclear-weapon state members of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Pressure on the few remaining CWC hold-outs is stronger than ever. With Syria's accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention last fall, all countries in the world but six are now officially committed to the treaty's ban on development, production, possession, and use of poison gas. Only one, North Korea, is suspected to still hold large inventories of operational CW. The world has traveled a huge distance in the last quarter-century to rid itself of one of the most universally reviled categories of weapons ever invented.