Destroying Syria’s chemical weapons

Asmall team of chemical weapons specialists entered Syria last week and began the critical task of dismantling that country’s chemical weapons program and stockpiles. Fulfilling that assignment will not be easy.

There are no doubt compelling rationalizations — in the minds of the Syrian leadership — to have such an arsenal. And a civil war continues to be fought, creating an environment that makes implementation of the team’s task, no matter what Syrian intent, extremely difficult.

The successful completion of this mission is vital, however, as the ghastly films of the chemical weapons attacks earlier this year make appallingly clear.

There have been several allegations that chemical weapons have been used in the Syrian civil war, the most recent incident occurring Aug. 21 in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. Some 1,400 people died. The grisly evidence of that attack — almost universally attributed to the government of Syrian President Bashir Assad, a charge it denies, — raised the specter of Western military strikes against Syria, a threat that prompted diplomats and the Damascus government to negotiate the destruction of its chemical weapons arms and infrastructure.

Ultimately the United Nations Security Council agreed to a program that would result in “the expeditious destruction of the Syrian Arab Republic’s chemical-weapons program and stringent verification thereof.”

As a first step in that process, nearly two dozen representatives from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) entered Syria on Oct. 1, driving from Beirut, Lebanon, because the road from the Damascus airport to the city center was considered too dangerous.

By Nov. 1, the inspection team, “using every means possible,” is to have overseen the destruction of the Syrian government’s ability to manufacture chemical weapons.

By the middle of 2014, the OPCW is supposed to have found, destroyed, dismantled or delivered into safekeeping Syria’s entire stock chemical-weapons agents and precursors, an arsenal that could be as large as 1,000 tons.

The task is, in the words of one inspector, “Herculean.” Nevertheless, OPCW Director General Ahmet Uzumcu considers the assignment “doable.”

The Syrian civil war is the most daunting obstacle. Destruction of chemical weapons will always be difficult. But that job has never been done in the midst of a violent conflict.

The inspectors will depend on the Syrian Army for protection as they go about their jobs. This poses problems of its own: Opposition forces may not discriminate between Syrian government units — units protecting chemical weapons inspectors and units without them — and the OPCW personnel may attract the attention of the rebels, as they will be signaling the presence of chemical munitions.

Opposition forces affiliated with al-Qaida would like nothing more than to acquire such weapons.

The second key challenge is ensuring that the Syrian government identifies all its weapons stocks. Reportedly Damascus has acknowledged 19 chemical weapons sites, a little more than one-third of the sites that Western intelligence agencies believe exist. Again, being dependent on the Syrian military for protection means that the inspectors will have little ability to challenge their hosts and guards if they feel they are not being given the entire picture.

Syria did not acquire chemical weapons to use against its own citizens. Those arms were intended to threaten Israel. Mr. Assad may believe that he can hide some stores as a hedge against its nuclear-armed neighbor.

The final problem is that the chemical weapons deal keeps Mr. Assad in power. It legitimizes him as a negotiating partner with the West, undercutting its previous insistence that he must go. The deal has infuriated the rebels, convincing them they must fight to the bloody end. Sadly Mr. Assad has shown no compunction against using every possible means to defeat his enemies.

The deal negotiated at the United Nations will do nothing to halt the horrific destruction he has visited upon the opposition by conventional means. The humanitarian disaster, with millions of Syrians uprooted and forced to flee, will continue.

Nevertheless, bringing Syria into the Chemical Weapons Convention — under the U.N. deal it becomes a member on Oct. 14 — is a valuable step forward. In addition to the elimination of its weapons, their components and the program infrastructure, Syria will have to account for how it acquired its arms, agents and any other assistance. This will be helpful in identifying and closing loopholes in the international regulatory regime.

Seven other countries remain outside the Chemical Weapons Convention. Four — Angola, South Africa, South Sudan and Myanmar — have not made it a priority. That thinking is understandable given the onerous reporting requirements.

Japan can help them overcome those difficulties, providing both money and training to help ensure that they do not become inadvertent participants in the chemical weapons trade.

Other holdouts may be harder to convince. North Korea has resisted inclusion in most arms control treaties and violated the ones it has signed. Egypt and Israel could use the Syrian case as an excuse to move forward on their own.

The final example is Taiwan, and while its relationship to any international arms control regime is problematic, creative solutions can be found. The deal with Syria is one such example of creative diplomacy.