Destroying Syria’s chemical weapons: Who wins, who loses?

At a roundtable discussion this past weekend in the Aegean town where Herodotus was born, history-making events, on the scale of those he recorded, provoked sharp debate. At its annual roundtable in Bodrum, the Istanbul-based Edam Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies had invited me to co-lead a discussion on Syria. While I addressed the regional and global implications of the chemical weapons (CW) destruction plan, Al Arabiya’s senior roving correspondent, Rima Maktabi, spoke about the destruction of the country and the ongoing tragedy engulfing the Syrian people.

Looking at it from a non-proliferation perspective, I noted the extraordinarily positive developments of the past month: Putin pulled a rabbit out of his hat in getting Bashar al-Assad to agree to give up his chemical weapons, the United States and Russia quickly hammered out an inspection and elimination plan, the Security Council unanimously endorsed it, Assad’s initial declaration was more thorough than expected and destruction began a week ago with the full cooperation of the Syrian government.

There are huge hurdles ahead, given the tightly compressed timetable, the hostile environment and the untrustworthy partner. Like Saddam Hussein, Assad can be expected to cheat the inspectors, and like Muammar Qaddafi, he may well try to keep some CW stocks hidden for a rainy day. But so far, the destruction process is off to a very good start.


By happy coincidence, I was addressing the CW topic the day after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan temporarily fell to second place among world-famous Turkish personalities. The top honor now is accorded to Ahmet Uzumcu, head of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Having toiled in relative obscurity to make the use and possession of chemical weapons an international taboo, the 14-year-old organization deserved the recognition. But as with U.S. president Barack Obama’s Nobel Prize five years ago, selection of the OPCW for the honor was more in anticipation of good deeds to come. By June 30, 2014, Syria’s chemical weapons are to be no more.

Training rebels created options, and setting the red line against CW use was the first step in what became a successful employment of coercive diplomacy

Mark Fitzpatrick

At the Bodrum roundtable, the Saturday morning debate centered on what’s in it for Syria. One anguished participant decried the Nobel selection for the way it moved the focus off the plight of the Syrian people. The CW destruction plan and Obama’s failure to intervene sent a strong message, one Turkish participant said, that it is ok for tyrants to kill their own people, as long as they don’t do so with sarin gas. I disagreed, but I acknowledged that Assad’s forces have used conventional weapons to kill maybe 100 times the number that was slaughtered with chemical weapons.

Channeling the plaintive questions she hears from some Syrians, Maktabi said some Syrians and Arabs in the region think Obama shouldn’t have set red lines he didn’t intend to enforce, and shouldn’t have raised expectations for support of rebels that would not be honored.

Those are tough questions, but I pushed back. Training rebels created options, and setting the red line against CW use was the first step in what became a successful employment of coercive diplomacy. If it works – and granted, there are many reasons to be skeptical – the benefits will be far-reaching. Moscow, Tehran and Damascus will not be the only beneficiaries. Obama will get a much-needed foreign-policy victory and humanity will be better off as chemical weapons gradually cease to exist. I delve into this more in an article in the next edition of Survival. Giving diplomacy a chance over the CW issue may also enhance prospects for the diplomacy aimed at ending the Syrian civil war.
This article was first published in the IISS blog on Oct. 15, 2013.

This article was first published in the IISS blog on Oct. 15, 2013.


Mark Fitzpatrick directs the IISS Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Program. Mr. Fitzpatrick's research focus includes nuclear proliferation concerns and preventing nuclear danger in the emerging ‘nuclear renaissance’. He is the author of The Iranian Nuclear Crisis: Avoiding worst-case outcomes (IISS Adelphi Paper 398, 2008) and has written articles on non-proliferation in the Financial Times, International Herald Tribune, Survival, and other publications.

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