Monday, July 22

Weren’t Syria’s Chemical Weapons Destroyed It’s Complicated



When the Syrian government carried out a gruesome chemical attack on civilians this week, many people had a question: Didn’t the Obama administration, working with Russia and international experts, destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stocks in 2014?

In his State of the Union address that year, President Barack Obama declared, American diplomacy, backed by the threat of force, is why Syria’s chemical weapons are being eliminated.

Months later, in July, on NBC’s Meet the Press, Secretary of State John Kerry essentially declared the mission accomplished: We struck a deal where we got 100 percent of the chemical weapons out.

But, as became obvious when a Syrian attack on Tuesday killed more than 80 people, the truth was more complicated. Here is a primer on the history of Syria’s chemical stockpile, the effort to eliminate it and experts’ views on the new attack.

When did Syrian forces first use chemical weapons, and how did the United States respond?

Scattered reports of chemical attacks have been made since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011, but a large-scale attack in August 2013 with United Nations inspectors already on the ground got the world’s attention. Mr. Obama said he intended to carry out a limited military strike to uphold the international ban on chemical weapons and deter further attacks. Then he decided to seek authorization from Congress first.

But congressional support for strikes was lukewarm. Russia, seeking to head off American military retaliation, proposed an international effort to document and destroy Syria’s chemical stocks. Mr. Obama, facing possible defeat in Congress, accepted.

Who did the work to find and eliminate the chemical weapons?

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons sent a team to Syria. Established in 1997 and based in The Hague, the organization is charged with enforcing the Chemical Weapons Convention that bans such arms. As of last fall, it reported that 67,098 metric tons of chemical agents, or 90 percent of the world’s declared stockpile of 72,304 metric tons, had been verifiably destroyed.

How did the process work?

First, the Syrian government issued a declaration ostensibly listing its stock of chemical weapons, though some American officials and independent experts were skeptical about whether it was complete. Teams from the O.P.C.W. visited 21 weapon-making sites to confirm that Syria had dismantled or destroyed its equipment; two other sites were considered too dangerous to visit because of fighting, but inspectors believed that they, too, had been taken apart.

The weapons, and chemicals used to make them, were diluted to make the material less dangerous to transport and then loaded onto a Danish ship in the Syrian port of Latakia. That ship, under the protection of Russia and China, delivered the chemicals to an American Navy vessel, the Cape Ray, where the chemicals were neutralized. More shipments followed, and in January 2016, the O.P.C.W. announced that the last of the Syrian stocks had been destroyed.

So did that eliminate the threat?

Not entirely, though by all accounts, it removed lethal weapons that could have caused slaughter and suffering on a huge scale. Even as the O.P.C.W. completed its mission, new reports emerged of scattered attacks in Syria using chlorine and other suspected chemicals.

Obama administration officials say that they always believed Mr. Assad might be withholding at least small chemical supplies, and that in public statements, Mr. Kerry and others tried to refer to the elimination of Syria’s declared stocks, a nuance often lost in news reports. American officials repeatedly returned to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons with intelligence reports on remaining chemical stocks, pressing for further action.

Despite the failure to completely eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons, Obama administration officials and outside experts considered the program fundamentally a success. We strongly believed it was better to get 1,300 tons of chemical weapons out of the hands of the Syrian regime, or let them fall into the hands of ISIL, Jonathan Finer, who was Mr. Kerry’s chief of staff and is now a fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard, said, using another name for the Islamic State.

Where did the nerve agent used in the attack this week come from?

Two possibilities are receiving attention: that the agent, sarin, was in stocks Mr. Assad hid from inspectors, or that weapons specialists in the Syrian government manufactured a new supply. While it is not simple to make sarin, it is possible in a small lab that could be easily hidden in a basement, out of sight of inspectors and foreign spy satellites.

Why did the Syrian government decide to carry out this massacre?

One underlying factor in Syria’s latest attack may have been perceived signals of apathy from Russia and the United States. Russia proposed and participated in the destruction of weapons stocks, but since 2015, Russian officials, who have long supported Mr. Assad, have repeatedly denied or obfuscated evidence of new chemical attacks by the government.

And President Trump, who publicly opposed American military action after the 2013 attack, had strongly suggested that his main concern in Syria was defeating the Islamic State, not restraining the government.

Some 500,000 people have died in the Syrian civil war. Why do the hundreds killed by chemical weapons get so much attention?

Some peace activists have asked that very question, suggesting that the disproportionate news coverage is illogical. But Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, an advocacy group in Washington, said that since the horrors of World War I, an international consensus has put chemical weapons in a special category. They’re indiscriminate weapons, and they kill in a particularly horrific way, Mr. Kimball said. They’re taboo.