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.