On My Mind: Syria's Chemical Weapons

"The OPCW won the Nobel Peace Prize, but Assad got a reprieve from any firm action against his regime, an extension on his license to kill."

UN chemical inspectors in Syria 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Abdullah)
UN chemical inspectors in Syria 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Abdullah)
Will the Cape Ray, the US vessel designated to receive and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons, suffer a fate similar to the Mobro 4000? Nicknamed the “gar-barge,” the Mobro sailed for 122 days seeking to unload its landfill-destined cargo, but was turned away at ports along the Eastern seaboard of the US and as far away as Belize. No one wanted New York’s garbage in 1987.
Today, there are no takers for Syria’s chemical arsenal. That’s the main obstacle to fully implementing the understanding reached several months ago when, in response to Secretary of State John Kerry’ s challenge for Damascus to export its vast supply of chemical weapons, President Bashar Assad committed to give up the entire inventory.
At the time, it was considered a remarkable breakthrough in addressing Syria’s increasingly ruthless civil war. For world powers that could not agree on a common approach to the crisis, that had seen Russia and China block any meaningful UN action, there was unanimous outrage over the August 21 chemical weapons attack that left some 1,400 dead near Damascus.
The agreement to shut down Syria’s chemical weapons program and to join the international, UN-affiliated watchdog – the Organization for Protection of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) – constituted an acknowledgment by Assad himself that his country had such weapons of mass destruction. But he denied and, with the support of Moscow and other governments, continues to deny any responsibility for the August attack or any other such attacks identified by the UN. Of course, the UN did not assign blame.
When, per schedule, the Assad regime delivered a list of sites in Syria for manufacturing chemical weapons, and then the OPCW confirmed that those facilities were rendered inoperable, Assad received much praise for his cooperation. But that was the easy part of the bargain. What to do with the vast supply of live chemical weapons, estimated at more than 1,000 tons, is the much bigger challenge.
Five days after Secretary Kerry, at a September 9 London press conference, called on Assad to export all of Syria’s chemical weapons for destruction, the US and Russia announced an agreement to eliminate them by mid-2014. Assad had relented, perhaps due to prodding by Moscow and Tehran, but he did so knowing that his continued cooperation on eliminating his country’s chemical weapons would be a lifeline for him and his regime.
Thanks to Kerry’s proposition for Assad, the US is now responsible for ensuring the full implementation of the agreement. The live weapons, if all accounted for, need somehow to be transported to the Syrian port of Latakia for export to an as-yet undetermined location.
Meanwhile, as the details of this evolving plan are worked out, the war continues raging in Syria, and Assad’s forces continue to kill with impunity. Are they aggressively seizing control of key highways to open a path to transport chemical weapons to Latakia? Or is this an excuse to step up brutal violence against the regime’s opponents, while world powers look the other way?
Rebuffed by Albania, Washington’s first choice to import and destroy the weapons, the US has found no other country both able and willing to accept the task. Thus, the US is considering gathering them on the Cape Ray, which will be parked somewhere in the Mediterranean and outfitted with special equipment to eradicate the weapons. But this kind of operation has never before been attempted on the high seas and, furthermore, the final destination for the waste collected on the Cape Ray remains uncertain.
Environmentalists, scientists and chemical weapons experts are already raising serious concerns. The December 31 deadline to begin exporting Syria’s chemical weapons looms.
The Mobro episode 26 years ago kick-started the highly successful recycling movement. Perhaps the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons will further spur the global effort to eradicate them. However, will the accord on Syria’s chemical weapons prompt a serious process of reconciliation and peace for that beleaguered country? Not likely so long as Assad continues to use all the conventional weaponry available to attack his own people.
With more than 125,000 dead, millions of refugees, a polio outbreak and other healthcare crises, a school system shut down and widespread destruction, the Syrian people are suffering terribly. The OPCW won the Nobel Peace Prize, but Assad got a reprieve from any firm action against his regime, an extension on his license to kill.
The US and other nations have fallen silent. Instead of calling for Assad’s removal, some US officials now say that, if not actually a potential partner, he may worth talking to. For Syrians still struggling to survive, the prospect is appalling.
Kenneth Bandler is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.