Last week, the Obama Administration revealed, “Syria has shipped just 4 percent of so-called Priority One chemicals, which were supposed to be completely removed from the country by the end of 2013. About the same percentage of less-deadly Priority Two chemicals have been shipped to date.”
It further accused the Bashar al-Assad regime of dragging its feet and obstructing efforts to destroy the weapons and related equipment, which under the agreed Framework for Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons, were to be completely eliminated in the first half of 2014.
This should not have come as a surprise. Transporting and destroying chemical weapons is a complicated exercise. Even the U.S., which has ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention and committed to destroying its arsenal, has not met its time line due to the difficulties of disposing of chemical weapons. Simply as a logistical exercise, expecting Syria, which is currently in civil war, to meet its short time line was optimistic to say the least.
But there are other motivations for Syria to obfuscate. Assad is in a struggle to maintain control of Syria. By agreeing to destroy his chemical weapons, he successfully forestalled U.S. airstrikes that President Obama threatened to launch last August in response to a chemical weapons attack attributed to Assad’s forces.
Perversely, the agreement in effect establishes a partnership between the U.S. and Assad, because the Obama Administration needs Assad—a despot known for human rights abuses and extensive support for terrorism—in power and cooperative in order to destroy his chemical weapons. Assad will seek to maintain this situation as long as possible to maximize his leverage in peace talks and to keep the U.S. minimally involved in Syria as he seeks to defeat his rivals.
Moreover, as long as the process continues, Assad can maintain his chemical weapons arsenal. There was never any guarantee that Syria declared all of its chemical weapons. Indeed, CNN reported in November that U.S. intelligence believes that Syria did not fully declare its chemical weapons stockpile. This would hardly be unprecedented. For instance, Libya was considered cooperative in declaring and destroying its chemical weapons program, but, after Muammar Qadhafi was ousted, the interim Libyan government revealed that it had identified previously undeclared chemical weapons. These undeclared weapons were finally destroyed last week—10 years after the process began in 2004.
As observed in a Heritage paper written when the framework was first announced, “[E]ven under ideal circumstances and assuming willing compliance, it will be years before Syria would likely eliminate all of its chemical weapons.” Circumstances are far from ideal, and Syria’s commitment is doubtful. Expect more delays in the future.