Responding to the Banned Use of Chemical Weapons: When All Else Fails

Posted in: International Law

Bashar al-Assad was trained as a medical doctor, but he quickly learned the methods of barbaric dictators. His chemical massacre in the spring of 2017 was the worst since he used chemical weapons in the summer of 2013. After the 2013 killings, President Obama, Assad, and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed that Syria would destroy his chemical weapons (weapons that Assad, before his 2013 attack, claimed did not exist).

We were told in 2014, and repeatedly since then, that the United States was very confident that it presided over the destruction of all of Assad’s chemical weapons. Secretary of State Kerry, for example, said, “We struck a deal where we got 100 percent of the chemical weapons out.” It turns out that the facts did not support such naive confidence. As Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham presciently predicted when Secretary Kerry and President Obama announced the Syrian inspections in 2013, “It requires a willful suspension of disbelief to see this agreement as anything other than the start of a diplomatic blind alley.”

Surprisingly, some politicians are still touting the 2013-14 effort as successful. On April 11, 2017, Tucker Carlson interviewed a congressman from California who insisted, even today, that the prior administration had destroyed 95 percent of Assad’s chemical weapons. When asked how he knew that, the congressman responded that American destroyed 2,600,000 pounds of chemical weapons, including sarin gas. Carlson then asked the obvious follow-up question: how do you know that 2,600,000 pounds were equivalent to 95 percent of the total when you did not know then (and we still do not know now) what was total amount? The congressman responded that the 2,600,000 pounds were “weighable” by international authorities. OK, we can weigh what we destroy but that does not tell us how much is left. How do you know that you destroyed 95 percent, when all you know is the weight of what you destroyed—not the weight of all the chemical weapons before destruction? The congressman responded by not answering the question.

In order to solve the equation, 95 percent of X is Y pounds; we have to know what is the weight of X. The congressman assumed that X equals 2.6 million pounds divided by .95, but we do not know that now and we did not know that then. Nor did we know how quickly Assad could make more.

Experience should teach us to be modest in our ability to detect storage of chemical weapons. In 1994, long before President Obama’s failed effort of 2013-14 to rid Assad of chemical weapons, CIA Director R. James Woolsey said, “The chemical-weapons problem is so difficult from an intelligence perspective that I cannot state that we have high confidence in our ability to detect noncompliance, especially on a small scale.” A decade earlier, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush said, “plants for producing chemical weapons are difficult to distinguish from plants producing chemicals for industry and, in fact, some chemicals with peaceful utility are structurally similar to some chemicals that are used in warfare. So verification is particularly difficult with chemical weapons.”

Our experience should teach us humility and restraint in estimating our ability to ferret out chemical weapons production and storage. Consider the U.N. experience with Iraq shortly after the first Iraq War. The United States, under President George H.W. Bush, and the American allies, had defeated Iraq. That led to an arms inspection of Iraq under the umbrella of the United Nations Special Commission (“UNSCOM”). It was the most intrusive, systematic, and rigorous inspection in modern times. UNSCOM had unprecedented access to Iraq for years.

The UNSCOM inspection was in time of peace. Iraq had lost the war. In contrast, the 2013-14 inspection of Syria was going on while Syria was in the midst of its civil war—a civil war continuing to this day. It does not take a leap of faith to conclude that the Iraqi arms inspection at a time of peace is easier than the Syrian inspection in a time of war. As intrusive the 2013-14 Syrian inspection was, it was not as intrusive as the inspection of a defeated nation by the victors in war.

Yet the United Nations did not uncover significant information about Iraq’s chemical weapons capability from its very intrusive on-site inspectors. We know this fact because we later uncovered significant information from defectors.

Yes, Iraq was able to conceal this significant information from U.N. inspectors until the defection of a key soldier. The defection of Hussein Kamel prompted Baghdad to turn over 100 boxes of information about its chemical and biological weapons’ program. The U.N. did not know about this information, and it never would have come to light had there been no defection. Kamel later returned to Iraq where he was killed by relatives.

Now, let us add the fact that it is not that difficult to manufacture many chemical weapons. Anyone can use a garage or bedroom to manufacture or store them. General William Burns, when he was the head of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, warned, “chemical weapons can be manufactured in almost anyone’s garage, as long as you have a little high school chemistry behind you.”

For example, in 1995, Japan was not able to prevent a religious cult from producing and using sarin in its poison gas attack in the Tokyo subways. The cult made these chemical weapons in a small, undistinguished room—not a high-tech lab. This attack killed a dozen people, severely injured 50 more, and caused temporary vision problems for almost 5,000 others.

We all wish that no one had ever invented poison gas, sarin, or other chemical weapons, but that evil has escaped Pandora’s Box. Experience suggests that inspections, even those much more intrusive than what President Obama used in Syria in 2013-14, are doomed to failure. When dictators like Assad use chemical weapons, world condemnation will not stop them. Inspections will not slow them. Threats will not impede them.

This April attack may have had another purpose in in addition to causing painful death to the men, women, and children. It may have also been a test us to see what the United States will do. We know the attack followed eight incidents since the beginning of this year involving Syrian use of chemical weapons, according to the United Nations report. As one news story began, “The suspected sarin gas attack in Syria last week revealed one of the worst-kept secrets in international diplomacy: A 2013 deal brokered by Russia and the U.S. failed to cripple the Assad regime’s ability to make or use chemical weapons.”

If the attack was a test, the United States passed it. Using chemical weapons is a crime against humanity, and the only method left may be the one that President Trump used—drone missiles aimed at destroying the capacity to use chemical weapons. If Assad does not respond, civilized nations should take other actions, such as more drone missiles to degrade his airstrips or target the planes that deliver their deadly cargo.

Comments are closed.