United States intelligence agencies have confirmed that Syria’s President, Bashad al-Assad, remains in possession of chemical weapons, The Times of Israel reported today.
In 2013, Assad capitulated to international demands that he relinquish Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal after his regime used sarin gas against civilians in Damascus. According to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons last month, of the 1,300 metric tons of Syria’s declared chemical weapons, only 16 metric tons of hydrogen fluoride remained, and was due to be destroyed at a facility in Port Arthur in Texas.
The Times referenced a report (Google link) in The Wall Street Journal, which cited American intelligence reports that the Assad regime still holds “caches of even deadlier nerve agents.” U.S. officials are concerned that Assad will either channel these weapons to terrorist groups, such as Hezbollah, or that the weapons will be captured by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) if his regime falls.
The experience in Syria could be indicative of the limitations international inspectors face when operating in autocratic states, according to the Times:
The report comes hot on the heels of the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, under which international inspectors will not be granted “anytime, anywhere” access to suspect sites, but will merely be allowed to request access to all facilities, if they can provide proof of violations and are unsatisfied with Iran’s explanation. Altogether, the procedure put in place could take up to 24 days. Top Iranian officials in past days have made clear that there will be no access to military sites.
The Journal reported that during the 2013 inspections of Assad’s chemical laboratory sites, international inspectors only had access to sites that were approved by Assad, or which he declared as chemical weapons labs. Inspectors did not ask for further access to suspicious sites because they feared the regime would stop cooperating and bar them from conducting any inspections. In addition, the inspectors feared retaliation from Syrian officials who were overseeing their personal safety.
Because the regime was responsible for providing security, it had an effective veto over inspectors’ movements. The team decided it couldn’t afford to antagonize its hosts, explains one of the inspectors, or it “would lose all access to all sites.”
The Journal added that despite having the right to request access to more sites, the U.S. and other powers never exercised it “because their governments didn’t want a standoff with the regime.” One inspector said that such a decision was made because “it was a question of priorities.”
According to the Journal:
The Syrians laid out the ground rules. Inspectors could visit only sites Syria had declared, and only with 48-hour notice. Anything else was off-limits, unless the regime extended an invitation.
“We had no choice but to cooperate with them,” said Mr. Cairns. “The huge specter of security would have hampered us had we gone in there very aggressively or tried to do things unilaterally.”
The intelligence reports confirm fears expressed last year by the United Nations and American ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, that Syria had not destroyed all of its chemical weapons. Earlier this year, Iran blocked an effort to issue even a “mildly worded” condemnation of Syria for its use of chemical weapons.
In April, an editorial in The Wall Street Journal noted that efforts to condemn Syria’s continued use of chemical weapons were blocked by Russia, one of the P5+1 nations that concluded a nuclear deal with Iran. Two months ago, UN inspectors found traces of deadly nerve agents at a previously undeclared site in Syria.
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