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Was the effort to remove Syria's chemical weapons a failure?

Weapons inspectors handle a dummy chemical munition during a press demonstration.
Weapons inspectors handle a dummy chemical munition during a press demonstration.
Nigel Treblin/Getty

The CIA believes that Syria may have kept some of its chemical weapons after all, unnamed US officials told Wall Street Journal. That would overturn the CIA's earlier conclusion that the US-negotiated international effort in 2013 had succeeded in removing Syria's entire chemical arsenal.

The Journal's investigation recounts the often frustrating mission to remove the chemical weapons in riveting detail. Please do read the entire thing. Here is the key point:

In recent weeks, the CIA concluded that the intelligence picture had changed and that there was a growing body of evidence Mr. Assad kept caches of banned chemicals, according to U.S. officials.

Inspectors and U.S. officials say recent battlefield gains by Islamic State militants and rival al Qaeda-linked fighters have made it even more urgent to determine what Syria held back from last year’s mass disposal, and where it might be hidden. A new intelligence assessment says Mr. Assad may be poised to use his secret chemical reserves to defend regime strongholds. Another danger is that he could lose control of the chemicals, or give them to Hezbollah.

It's worth pausing for an important caveat that this CIA assessment isn't any more conclusive or verifiable than its earlier assessment that the stockpile had been completely destroyed. As the Journal story correctly suggests, because the operation was conducted in cooperation with Bashar al-Assad's regime, it had the power to hold something back. Still, the apparent change in the CIA's view is significant and worth taking seriously.

The effort did in fact, per the Journal, remove "1,300 metric tons of weapons-grade chemicals, including ingredients for nerve agents sarin and VX, and destroyed production and mixing equipment and munitions." That we know for sure. But does this revelation mean that the operation was a failure? What does it mean that Assad has held on to some chemical weapons? And what lessons does this have for the Iran nuclear deal — another arms control agreement with a hostile dictatorship?

How did Syria get away with maybe cheating on this?

Bashar al-Assad (Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)

Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. (Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)

There was always a possibility that Syria might cheat — one that international inspectors and US officials acknowledge in the story as a necessary trade-off. They needed cooperation from the Assad regime to get access to facilities and to the people in charge of the chemical weapons program, particularly given that they were in the middle of a war zone. They worked to independently verify regime claims and call out lies, of course, but at some point the regime could at least influence the removal process.

The only way to ever be absolutely sure about removing all Syrian chemical weapons would have been to launch a full military invasion of Syria to forcibly search and secure all possible facilities. Even that might have missed clandestine sites such as Syria's mobile production facilities, which were hidden inside disguised 18-wheeler trucks.

Indeed, there has always been reason to suspect that Syria would have risked holding back some chemical weapons, and not just because of the dishonest nature of the Assad regime. Syria is thought to have developed its chemical weapons program primarily as a deterrent against nuclear-armed Israel. That strategic impetus still exists, so it seems predictable that Assad would at least want to keep some on hand.

The Journal's sources point out another reason Assad may have held back, despite the risk of being bombed for doing so. The regime has long been suspected of planning for a "doomsday scenario" in which it loses the Syrian civil war but retreats to coastal regions dominated by sectarian groups that are generally allied with the regime. It is possible that Assad wants a chemical reserve to defend these areas, should his regime have to fall back to them.

Does this mean the effort to remove Syria's chemical weapons was a failure?

obama iraq isis SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty

(SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty)

On some level, of course, yes: If the goal was to remove all of Syria's chemical weapons, but not all of Syria's chemical weapons were removed, than that would constitute a failure. But there are gradations of success and failure, particularly in the messy world of international conflict issues and arms control.

It is worth recalling the purpose of removing Syria's chemical weapons:

  1. To stop Assad from continuing to use chemical weapons against his own people
  2. To maintain the international norm against using chemical weapons
  3. To fully disarm Syria, a dangerous rogue state, of its chemical weapons

Though we will not know for sure until after Assad is gone and there can be a full accounting, at the moment it appears that the effort has accomplished the first two but may have failed at the third.

Assad, though he continues to do monstrous things in the civil war, has been halted in using sarin or other officially designated chemical weapons. And the world has seen that using chemical weapons, as Assad did, will not be tolerated. Two out of three is not bad. And those 1,300 tons of chemical weapons, as well as the other elements destroyed in the international effort, are a concrete accomplishment that remains worth celebrating.

One important question in evaluating the program's success is whether Assad has held on to chemical weapons only for the last-resort scenarios described above, or whether he is planning to continue using them against Syrian rebels and Syrian civilians. Either is bad, of course. But if it is the latter, and we see Assad return to using sarin or other such weapons in the war, then that would be a far more meaningful failure, as it would suggest that Assad was not really deterred from using chemical weapons.

Ultimately, only time will tell the degree to which the effort to remove Syria's chemical weapons succeeded or failed. That may not be a satisfying slam-dunk of a conclusion for or against, particularly given that many analysts and writers are now using the Syrian chemical weapons deal as a way to argue about merits of the Iran nuclear deal. But this is how it works: uncertain, messy, and with lots of trade-offs.

What does this mean for the Iran nuclear deal?

khamenei sentences

Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gives a speech in Tehran, Iran, on July 8, 2014. (Leader.ir - Pool/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Directly, nothing. But there are lessons worth drawing.

There are some parallels with the Iran nuclear deal. Much of whether the Iran deal works will depend on the degree to which Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei continues to see adhering to the deal as in his interests. That is ultimately unknowable, even if the terms are shaped to give him very strong incentives to comply. And, as with Syria, there are real trade-offs in the Iran deal — for example, inspectors require up to 24 days' advance notice before entering certain facilities that are not declared nuclear sites — because that is how negotiations by definition work.

But there are crucially important differences between the Syria chemical weapons deal and the Iran nuclear deal. By their nature, chemical weapons programs are more difficult to track. You can have a little bit of chemical weaponry. But when it comes to a nuclear program that could produce a bomb, you can't really do it with just a few little fragments: You need a large architecture with several different kinds of facilities.

As the inspectors found in Syria, chemical weapons can be developed in labs built on disguised trucks — not something that's easy to find. That is not the case with nuclear programs, which require very large, stationary facilities. Nuclear programs also require nuclear fuel: either uranium, of which Iran has only two mines, or plutonium, for which Iran has only one plant. The nuclear deal grants the world highly invasive inspections and monitoring over both, making it far more difficult for Iran to cheat.

Those inspections and monitoring are the key difference here. But it would also be foolish to overlook the fact that Syria is still a war zone, and one where the world just has very little visibility into the Assad regime's behavior. Iran, on the other hand, is internally peaceful and stable, albeit under a regime run by hostile extremists, and will be under very invasive inspections for up to 25 years. That makes it very hard for Iran to cheat, whereas for Assad it is unfortunately a good deal easier.