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Nearly three years ago, the government of Syria agreed to give up or destroy its chemical weapons stockpiles and programs. While the deal was hailed as an important step in disarming an odious regime, the agreement was controversial — not because of its outcome, but because it substituted for military action that U.S. President Barack Obama had threatened against the Damascus government if it used those weapons in the civil war it was fighting. In recent weeks, however, it has become apparent that Syria did not give up all those weapons, and has used them on the battlefield again. What was once derided as indecision on the part of the U.S. president now looks like outright failure and raises serious questions about U.S. credibility as well as the reliability of verification provisions in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

The crisis began in late fall 2012, when there were reports of chemical weapons attacks in Syria. It was not clear who was responsible for using those weapons. While Syria was believed to have the world’s third-largest stockpile of chemical weapons, rebel forces had attacked a chemical weapons plant and stolen 200 tons of chlorine gas.

Obama warned the Syrian government in 2012 that “a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.” Implicit in that statement was a threat that such behavior would force armed U.S. intervention in the conflict. Yet despite evidence showing that the Damascus government was responsible for many of the chemical attacks that claimed hundreds of lives and devastated many others, Obama stayed his hand.

Rather than follow through on the threat of military action, the United States, along with Russia and other parties, made a deal with the Syrian government under which it would dismantle and give up its chemical weapons stockpile and join the CWC. The agreement led to the destruction of 1,200 tons of chemical agents. And, Obama insisted, it saved more lives than would have been possible using military attacks.

Obama was heavily criticized for damaging U.S. credibility. After drawing a red line, the critics argued, failure to follow through would invite other challenges to U.S. authority and power. Perhaps even more worrisome were doubts among U.S. allies that inaction threatened to create.

In a lengthy discussion of his thinking, Obama earlier this year exulted in breaking out of the “Washington playbook” that he believes holds U.S. decision-making in an iron grip. “The playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses. Where America is directly threatened, the playbook works. But the playbook can also be a trap that can lead to bad decisions.” For Obama, Syria looks like one of those traps. The U.S. public opposed military involvement (and Congress refused to authorize action); the nature of the opposition forces was (and is) unclear, making it hard to tell good guys from bad; there was no clear guide as to what the limited use of force Obama envisioned would accomplish nor when it would end; and there was the possibility of conflict with Russia, which backs the Syrian government.

Unfortunately, however, a positive assessment of staying his hand requires that Syria have complied with the agreement, and the evidence in recent weeks looks increasingly like it did not. Reports from U.N.-affiliated agencies, including one from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the body charged with enforcing the CWC, have concluded that Syria is continuing to develop chemical weapons and has used chlorine gas on the battlefield. (One report charges the Islamic State group with using sulfur mustard gas as well.) The OPCW report is said to conclude that most of 122 chemical samples taken at “multiple locations” in Syria “indicate potentially undeclared chemical weapons-related activities.” Moreover, many of Syria’s explanations “are not scientifically or technically plausible, and … the presence of several undeclared chemical warfare agents is still to be clarified.” A U.S. government spokesperson charged that “it is now impossible to deny that the Syrian regime has repeatedly used industrial chlorine as a weapon against its own people.”

These conclusions pose daunting challenges to the Obama administration and the rest of the world. After insisting that the agreement with Damascus meant that it had “got 100 percent of the chemical weapons out” of Syria, Washington must explain both how Syria cheated and how American credibility and that of the OPCW can be restored. Damascus must pay a price for its deception. The OPCW must explain how it got its initial conclusions wrong and how that mistake will not be made again.

The rest of the world must also hold Syria accountable for its failure to honor the terms of the agreement. That will be difficult for many reasons, not least of which is the protection afforded Damascus by Russia, its patron, which has a veto over any U.N. Security Council action. Moscow may well prefer to protect its client, but it is playing an active role in the Syrian civil war, and that makes it a target for the rebels — some of whom, Russia likes to insist, have chemical weapons as well. Reinforcing the global taboo against such use will ultimately serve Russian interests.

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