What Iraq taught us about the coming hunt for Assad's chemical weapons
Experience suggests disarming Syria will be difficult, but not impossible
On Saturday, the United States and Russia announced the framework of an agreement to take control of Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons. Obama applauded the deal hashed out by Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, as "an important concrete step toward the goal of moving Syria's chemical weapons under international control." On the face of things, it looks like a major win for diplomacy over military action.
But the devil is in the details. The logistics of the deal involve first taking stock of Syria's arsenal — Syria reportedly has a week to detail its inventory — before ultimately destroying it. Inspectors from the U.N. and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are slated to fly to the country by November to assess the stockpile and begin the process of dismantling it. Kerry has called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to grant "immediate and unfettered" access to them.
Diplomats, however, previously expressed skepticism about locating all of Assad's arsenal of sarin nerve agent, mustard gas, and other illegal poisons. One reason for their pessimism is the fact that intelligence services have reported that the secretive Syrian military unit in charge of Assad's chemical weapons has been moving the banned poison gases and other munitions to as many as 50 sites to make them harder for the U.S. to hunt down.
Another reason, though, is the international community's track record in Iraq.
After a U.S.-led coalition booted Saddam Hussein's forces out of Kuwait in 1991, U.N. inspectors were sent in to find and destroy the regime's huge stockpile of chemical weapons, which it had used to kill thousands of Iraqi Kurds and Iranian soldiers in the late 1980s. One of the main lessons from that effort, notes Tim Lister at CNN, is that finding an obstructionist regime's secret weapons is a real "game of cat and mouse."
In Iraq, Lister says, the inspectors constantly got conflicting information from the Iraqi regime and Western intelligence services. Even after the inspection teams thought they had found and destroyed Saddam's entire chemical stockpile, including 40,000 chemical munitions and hundreds of thousands of gallons of chemical precursors, they had to return when leaked intelligence revealed that the Iraqi regime had managed to hide some of the weapons.
Then, in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the U.S. invaded Iraq, claiming that intelligence proved Saddam Hussein still had banned weapons squirreled away somewhere. Of course, notes Vivienne Walt at TIME, Iraq had no WMD, proving that years of painstaking weapons inspections can actually work, no matter how frustrating they may seem.
The experience also showed, however, that it's hard to ever be sure you've succeeded — especially when you're dealing with a Middle East strongman who has had time to stash poisons where it will be difficult to find them. The experience of Iraq proved that the threat of force — something Russia insists it won't allow — will be important to make sure Syria complies, Rolf Ekeus, who was director of the U.N. Special Commission for Iraq, tells TIME. "Otherwise," he says, "if Syria is allowed to give up its weapons voluntarily, how can we trust that they will do it?"
When the deal was announced on Saturday, President Obama didn't take force off the table, saying, "There are consequences should the Assad regime not comply with the framework agreed today. And, if diplomacy fails, the United States remains prepared to act." And the actions of another infamous regime — that of the late Moammar Gadhafi in Libya — serve as a cautionary tale about what can happen if the world lets down its guard.
Eager to avoid Saddam Hussein's fate, Gadhafi declared in 2004 that he would give up his chemical weapons. The U.S. sent inspectors to help start destroying them, but there was no U.N. mission to follow through, and Libya essentially was left to finish the job. Big mistake, points out Yochi Dreazen at Foreign Policy, as the world learned when an interim government replaced Gadhafi after rebels killed him in 2011:
Tripoli declared its possession of the weapons in January 2004 and voluntarily promised to get rid of them. In November 2011, the Libyan government abruptly declared that it had found a "previously undeclared chemical weapons stockpile" that included several hundred munitions loaded with mustard gas. The destruction of those weapons was halted because of a technical malfunction at the disposal facility and is still not complete. Nine years after vowing to get rid of its weapons, Libya has destroyed barely half of its total mustard gas stockpile and just 40 percent of its stores of chemical weapons precursor elements. [Foreign Policy]
These lessons indicate the mission ahead could be a long one, despite the mid-2014 deadline for destroying Assad's arsenal. Many of the weapons sites are in areas where Syrian forces are fighting with rebels, which also raises the sense of urgency, because it increases the chances that the weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists.