The Search for Assad’s Chemical Weapons: Lessons from Libya and Iraq

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Sana / Reuters

Syrian President Bashar Assad during an interview with a German newspaper in Damascus, on June 17, 2013.

So, a Middle East strongman says he is ready to give up his chemical weapons, albeit under intense pressure from Western leaders, and the threat of being bombed. Can the West believe him?

In recent years, that question was asked not only of Bashar Assad, but of two other leaders in the region: Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. And having watched the diplomatic wrangling over the past week, some experts believe clues to how to wrest Assad of his weapons of mass destruction could lie in the experiences of those two countries—Iraq and Libya—which, just like Syria today, had presidents whom Western politicians deeply distrusted.

First, Iraq: After a Western-led military assault drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait in 1991, in the first Gulf War, U.N. inspection teams moved in to track down and destroy Saddam’s huge stockpile of chemical weapons, in a process that lasted about six years. When leaked intelligence revealed that Saddam had hidden some weapons systems from the inspectors, weapons teams returned to destroy the remaining arsenal. Despite bitter wrangling with Saddam, who proved obstructionist, the U.N. program finally worked. By the time the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, Saddam had no WMD—contrary to the claims then U.S. President George W. Bush made in pushing for war. “It was clear after the war that there was nothing left,” says Rolf Ekeus, who was director of the U.N. Special Commission for Iraq, or Unscom, which carried out the elimination program. The process, he told TIME, “was a major success.”

Ekeus, who’s now retired, believes Iraq could serve as a useful roadmap for Syria, as the U.S. and Russia try to thrash out a compromise to disarm Assad of his WMD. Now retired from decades as a diplomat, he envisions the formation of a team of engineers, weapons experts and other specialists from around the world, which he dubs “Unscom II,” that would be authorized by the U.N. Security Council resolution under the U.N. Charter’s Article 7. That clause gives member states the right to use military force if Syria does not comply. Although Russia has rejected that idea, Ekeus believes the resolution should avoid specifically mentioning military force, while implicitly retaining it as an option, in order to force Assad to abide by the weapons destruction protocol. Until now, a U.N. resolution in that form has seemed to have little chance of passing, since Russia has vowed to reject anything that includes a threat of force. But if worded more subtly, it could serve to disarm Assad’s WMD—something Russia seems to favor. “It is an elegant compromise,” he says. “Otherwise, if Syria is allowed to give up its weapons voluntarily, how can we trust that they will do it?”

Even if Assad agrees to allow international weapons teams to scour his country, it remains unclear how inspectors will operate amid a raging civil war. Both sides might need to hold fire in areas where weapons are being hunted down and stored, and creating destruction facilities like the U.N. built in Iraq in the 1990s, could be immensely complicated in a country where the battle is shifting areas of control.  “A whole series of assurances will need to be made on both sides,” says Ian Anthony, director of the arms control and nonproliferation program for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, or Sipri, which tracks weapons supplies. “And that will have to happen under conditions where nobody trusts anybody else.”

In fact, there is good reason for Western leaders to distrust Assad’s statement that he wants to abandon his chemical weapons, based on another recent experience: Libya.

Just as Assad did on Thursday, Gaddafi declared in 2004 that he was ready to give up his chemical weapons, as one precondition for the U.S. and E.U. lifting crippling economic sanctions against Libya, and because he feared that the U.S. could mount another Iraq-style invasion to oust him from power. Western leaders took Gaddafi at his word. U.S. weapons inspectors helped to eliminate some chemical weapons in Libya. But there were no Unscom-type weapons teams, and Libya was largely left to conduct its own destruction program.

That proved to be a grave mistake. Although Libya destroyed about 15 tons of sulphur mustard in 2010, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, or OPCW, the U.N.-affiliated organization that oversees WMD elimination programs, believed that Gaddafi had hidden away about 9.5 tons of mustard gas. The arsenal was almost impossible to find in the vast, desert country, and repeated OPCW inspections turned up nothing. It was only in September, 2011, a month before Gaddafi was killed, that Libyan rebels stumbled on the stockpile in a remote desert town in the South. “It was more surprising that Gaddafi was trusted than that he didn’t tell the U.S. and E.U. the truth about his chemical weapons,” Anthony says. “If leaders make a false declaration, it creates huge headaches and undermines the process.”

The U.S. is highly unlikely to trust Assad as much as they did Gaddafi. And the better example could be Iraq, where there were years of painstaking and contentious weapons inspections—but where chemical weapons were finally eliminated. In Syria, “there are similarities with Iraq,” Ekeus says. “The most important similarity with Iraq is that Syria has offered to give up its weapons.” Despite the daunting hurdles, he says, that’s a start.

12 comments
Sibir_Russia
Sibir_Russia

Syrian opposition receives chemical weapons from Turkey 

A prosecutor of the city of Adana in the south of Turkey accused Syrian and Turkish citizens of an attempt to buy ten tones of chemicals for producing chemical weapons in May. The prosecution believes that the suspects have links to the al-Nusra front and the Ahrar al-Sham group opposing the Syrian government, Turkish local media report.

Five Turks, who were the assistants of Haitam Kassap, a Syrian citizen accused of buying chemical weapons, are reported to have been released soon after the arrest. Officials explained that chemicals found during the search weren’t chemical weapons. The prosecution, in its turn, in a 132-page document, prepared for the court, demanded to sentence the Syrian and five Turkish citizens to 25 and 15 years in prison respectively.

The prosecutor paid special attention to the term “terrorism”. He enumerated terror attacks carried out by al-Qaeda on the Turkish territory from 2003 to 2010, saying that terrorists targeted diplomatic missions and commercial organizations from the US, UK and Israel.

The document also says that radical Salafis groups set up a channel for carrying out terrorist attacks in Turkey. The prosecutor gave examples of calls spread by the groups which incited military actions in Syria and Egypt. The document also mentioned that the al-Nusra front sought ways to perpetrate attacks.

Besides, the al-Nusra front and Ahrar al-Sham group were said to have tried to buy large amounts of sarin nerve gas, which affects the nervous system, and chemical substances used in manufacturing poisons.

The prosecution believes that the suspects have links to Syrian groups close to al-Qaeda and their leaders. In conclusion the prosecution noted that 15 tonnes of chemical weapons could kill all the living creatures within 62.5 km. Judging by telephone calls made by the suspects, in all they ordered ten tones of chemicals.

“The claim that the suspects didn’t know about the possibility of producing sarin nerve gas from the chemicals they tried to buy is not true which was established when they were testifying,” the document says.


Read more: http://voiceofrussia.com/2013_09_13/Syrian-opposition-receives-chemical-weapons-from-Turkey-8490/

Haridasan_N
Haridasan_N

@TIME a new world order,where putin teaches lessons to obama and obama agree, thus a war is averted.good.

badbusiness
badbusiness

@TIME Since 1940, the Blue Grass Army Depot in Kentucky has been housing chemical weapons.

alhajigodwin
alhajigodwin

@TIME, hoping that the report by the UN Secretary General will duly establish the fact that there was chemical weapon truely.

neal_dimarco
neal_dimarco

@TIME No need to look for it. Just capture Assad. Thru him, his WMDs will be exposed!

BeanCube
BeanCube

Sicked and tired of those Jewish and Arab Zionist extremists hijacking our military overseas. We've heard from British that those war profiteers are selling possibly military chemicals with good profits through International corporations to both sides in Syria. We better set up some awards for info leaks regarding these criminals hiding inside international business corporations.

abedabbas
abedabbas

@BeanCube When the USA works honestly for peace in the Middle East and enforce UN resolutions we won't need and weapons.