ON MY MIND: Deadly loopholes

The Syrian civil war continues to rage and there is no end of sight.

March 16, 2015 22:25
4 minute read.

AN ISIS member rides on a rocket launcher in Raqqa in Syria two months ago. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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The Syrian people are still suffering the deadly consequences of the incomplete international agreement with Syrian President Bashar Assad to eradicate his country’s chemical weapons.

“Despite having acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Assad regime has again demonstrated its brutality by turning to chlorine as another barbaric weapon in its arsenal against the Syrian people,” said US Ambassador Samantha Power on March 6, as the UN Security Council adopted a resolution condemning the government’s use of chlorine in Syria’s four-year-old conflict.

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Syria was compelled to join the CWC in September 2013 as part of an agreement to identify its large inventory of chemical weapons and to export them for destruction. The accord with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) came after the regime’s sarin gas attack a month earlier killed hundreds of innocent Syrians in a Damascus suburb, provoking worldwide outrage. A US threat to retaliate militarily was averted after Russia, Assad’s ally, suggested to the White House to negotiate and pressed Assad to agree to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile and production facilities. The agreement was heralded at the time by all involved as a landmark achievement.

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But even as Syria’s chemical weapons were being destroyed on a US ship in the Mediterranean Sea, it came to light that one weapon of mass destruction, chlorine gas, had been deliberately left off the list that Assad submitted to the OPCW. The chlorine gas was used four times in 2014 alone – in April, May, August and September, the OPCW reported in December.

Addressing the OPCW at its headquarters in The Hague, US Undersecretary of State Rose Gottemoeller said, “There is compelling evidence that Syria continues to use chemical weapons systematically and repeatedly.”

CBS News reported in December that Gottemoeller also expressed “serious concerns” about whether the OPCW has been able “to verify” whether Syria has come clean on identifying all elements of its chemical weapons program. The OPCW had announced last June that Syria’s chemical weapons had been exported and destroyed.

The OPCW revelations in December led to the Security Council resolution, an attempt to close a major loophole in the original chemical weapon agreement with Syria. But as Syria began in January to destroy the 12 chemical weapons production facilities the regime has identified, there is ample skepticism that all will be eliminated this year. “Chemical weapons capabilities may very well remain in the hands of the Syrian government,” said Gottemoeller.

The Syrian chemical weapons saga is another warning sign regarding Assad’s main regional ally, Iran. US Secretary of State John Kerry, leading the P5+1 negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program, speaks optimistically about meeting the current deadline to achieve an agreement. However, whether that agreement will effectively guarantee that Tehran, even if it has the research knowledge, would not be able to develop and test a nuclear weapon, is very much in doubt.

Like the lingering questions about Syria’s chemical weapons, skepticism concerning Iran is justified. The biggest reason to be suspicious comes from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN nuclear watchdog, which has repeatedly raised questions about what it calls the “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear program. IAEA Director Yukiya Amano has challenged Iran’s professed willingness to cooperate, and pointed out again this month that a dozen IAEA questions to Iran regarding its nuclear program remain unanswered.

Amano’s warning is not new, but it is astonishingly disturbing that Washington and the rest of the P5+1 are not backing him up as they move toward a “framework agreement” with Iran by the end of this month and a permanent agreement in June.

There was a time when the negotiations with Iran depended on Tehran complying in full with the IAEA.

There was a time when the UN Security Council and the P5+1 demanded that Iran end its enrichment of uranium. There was a time when the thousands of centrifuges were supposed to be reduced to hundreds.

There was a time when ironclad assurances were expected to be developed and enforced to make sure that Iran’s nuclear program would indeed be purely for civilian purposes.

Syrian and Iranian leaders are not nice people. More than 200,000 Syrians have died in the war that Assad’s forces initiated in March 2011, and the conflict has spawned the largest refugee crisis since World War II. Iran, meanwhile, continues to support Hezbollah, Hamas and other terror groups across the region, and meddles in the internal affairs and conflicts in Syria and other neighboring countries. Carnage and destruction can be traced back to Tehran.

Now is the time to apply pressure on the brake pedal, to proceed with caution, and not accelerate completion of the Iran nuclear talks. The Syria lesson is clear. Any loophole in a nuclear agreement with Iran could be deadly.

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