In light of the latest dispatches from Syria, we ran a short post on Monday recalling my argument, from back in the early autumn of 2013, that the Syrian government had never given an honest declaration of its chemical weapons stock to the OPCW. The excerpt the guys in the machine room pulled out was not bad—it made the main points: The Syrians lied; the deal therefore held zero military significance; we would end up as hazmat collectors for the Syrians; and we would stupidly foot the bill.
All of this has now been proven true, as the original Reuters dispatch and now today’s New York Times attest. But I pounded on this point back then several times because, to my surprise, no one else was willing to say any of this—not even dyed-in-the-wool congressional Republican skeptics of Administration policy. The best and also the most comprehensive account I hurled forth, I think, was not that contained in Monday’s excerpt but this language from May 13, 2014:
…the Syrians never declared, from the start, all their stockpiles and fabrication sites. They declared 26. There are at least thirty, and according to Israeli estimates there were around 50, although some were in isolated areas and have since been consolidated or moved during the civil war. As I wrote when this whole thing started, the Syrian government has lied to every U.S. administration since that of Dwight Eisenhower, and it is lying to the Obama Administration.
A little background may make what has been happening a bit clearer. Syria’s chemical weapons program goes back to the mid-1970s, and really got going with Soviet help in the 1980s. The Soviets taught the Syrians the know-how, and Russians have continued to do so because the Syrians have been unable to institutionalize the technical knowledge among themselves. Precursors for nerve gas, which are industrial chemicals made in often large amounts and available commercially, are, like Sarin itself, moderately unstable and deteriorate over time, and so must be restocked. (One of them, for example, is a chemical used to leach bauxite ore to produce alumina.) Over a more than 40-year period, most of Syria’s old chemical stocks of precursors became worthless for military purposes, but still toxic. The Syrians never bothered to invest in capabilities to denature the toxins, so they just piled up. We essentially have played the role of hazmat garbage collectors, paying out of our own pocket to get rid of all this useless stuff—hundreds of tons of it—but leaving the newer and better materials off the books and in regime hands (possibly now in Latakia province). The result is that while the effort marginally reduces the danger of Islamist crazies getting their hands on the precursors, it has absolutely zero effect on the Syrian chemical war order of battle.
Could it be that the U.S. government has not known this all along? I find it hard to believe. . . . Yet, as best I can tell, it was only three days ago that the very first statement by a U.S. government official about this problem emerged. Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, let loose on May 9 that “we remain skeptical” as to whether the Syrian government “has revealed the full extent of its stockpiles.” This statement was reported in the May 10 Khaleej Times, but not in any American newspaper that I saw. Just a day latter, in a Washington Post interview, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said: “It is true and positive that step by step, they got rid of them. Today the work is about 90 percent done. Provided that they did not hide anything from us.” Unfortunately, the interviewer, the estimable Lally Weymouth, failed to understand the significance of Fabius’s afterthought or to follow up on it.
Certainly the President has never raised the inconvenient possibility. He said at the end of April that 87 percent of Syria’s chemical weapons had been removed, and “the fact that we didn’t have to fire a missile to get that accomplished is not a failure to uphold international norms, it’s a success.” Really, do tell.
Which brings me to my purpose, which is not (just) to remind readers of my prescience, such as it may be. It is to show how the Syrian chemical weapons “success” should, and I think will, shadow the P5+1 negotiations with Iran.
On several occasions the President and his Secretary of State lauded the achievements of the chemical weapons deal with Syria, via Russia. It suited them to do so because it has tended to erase, or at least to blur, the unnerving memory of the infamous “non-strike” event in Syria. It allows the narrative that the threat to use force, even in “an incredibly small” way, to recall Kerry’s madcap remark at the time, resulted in a diplomatic achievement via arms control with real security policy benefits. It did not. It resulted in the U.S. government’s backing down on account of being successfully lied to and hoodwinked by a small cabal of weaker parties; the only security policy benefits accrued to our enemies.
Worse, it arguably led all three major revisionist powers—Iran, Russia, and China—to ratchet up their risk-taking. Having taken the measure of the man in the White House, the Iranian regime increased its meddling in the Arab world, let General Soleiman out of the shadows to go strolling along the Golan Heights, and presaged the Houthi takeover of Yemen. The Chinese declared a new air defense identification zone and started earth-moving activities in the South China Sea. The Russians annexed Crimea and invaded Ukraine with little green men.
With the P5+1 interim accord and then, more recently, the framework agreement with Iran, precisely the same kinds of claims have been put forward: keeping “all options on the table” is leading to a diplomatic achievement via arms control with real security policy benefits. It is not. Whether the negotiations lead to a sealed and signed deal come June or, still in my view more likely, not, their actual impact on strategic reality will be nil or close to it. The more U.S. leaders wrap their illusions in boasts about their own sagacity, the more troublemakers worldwide will start sharpening their knives. And if there is a deal and the Iranians subsequently cheat their way around the lies they told regarding verification and other issues, we will witness a replay of the past few days’ Syria news.
The collapse of the Administration’s narrative over Syria now casts a dark shadow over its narrative concerning Iran, and is certain to further constrict its political maneuverability with the Congress. It would be the truly clueless Senator, even a Democrat, who could fail to see the point here. After all, the Democrats just screwed the President over fast-track in trade negotiations. They seem to be in a nervy mood. Is the White House worried? It ought to be.