Destroying Syria’s chemical weapons still leaves questions unresolved

Looking back a year, to the early hours of Aug. 21, 2013, when a series of missiles with poison gas payloads landed in suburban Damascus, experts can’t help but note that the results of an international reaction to use of the lethal chemicals can be seen as both success and failure.

During the year since the attack in Ghouta killed hundreds, tasks that many feared would be impossible actually were accomplished: Syria’s known chemical weapons stockpile has been destroyed, despite a bloody and complicated civil war. But after figuring out that the attacks were chemically based, little else has been determined about the attacks. And while the international effort to disarm Syria included a hope to end or de-escalate that civil war, the past year has seen it escalate and fracture into a conflict that spawned the Islamic State and has now drawn much of Iraq into the fight.

Experts insist, however, that it is a mistake to overlook the positives of the Syrian effort. It was an international effort that got 15 countries, including the United States and Russia, to work together. Syria’s known stockpile of chemical weapons, which for more than a decade had been considered among the world’s most dangerous collections of weapons of mass destruction, is gone. In its absence comes the security that it will never fall into the hands of terrorists.

About a week ago, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons noted that the last known precursor chemicals mixed to make Syria’s deadly sarin gas had been destroyed. That destruction came aboard the U.S. Maritime Vessel Cape Ray, while it was afloat in the Mediterranean, and where it is still as it completes the destruction of the last of the mustard gas stockpile.

Ahmet Uzumcu, the chemical weapons organization’s director-general, addressed what has happened thus far in a statement this week: “This ends a crucial stage in the complex international maritime operation to remove and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile.”

That less than a year after the attack this statement is possible should not be undervalued.

Theodore Postol, a weapons and security expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, called it an amazing accomplishment. On the other hand, he noted, “As far as knowing what happened, our knowledge today is about where it was last September.”

And, he noted, it’s not simply a matter of assessing blame for a horrible attack. He said the administration of President Barack Obama had the United States on the edge of attacking another nation without much evidence.

“We could have attacked Syria in reprisal,” he said. “We could have done very grave damage, not just to Syria but to our own security.”

He noted that in the year since, far from calming down, the fighting in the region has intensified. The most worrying aspect of this fighting has been the strengthening of what is now called the Islamic State. The Islamic State today controls large patches of land in both Syria and Iraq, and it is notorious both for its brutality in executing captives but also for its intent on holding territory (something much different from terror organizations in the recent past).

“What we almost did matters, because what we almost did would have seriously weakened the Syrian regime,” Postol said. “We have to ask where we would be today if Syria had been weakened. (President Bashar) Assad’s Syria doesn’t deserve any support, but (the Islamic State) is the bigger threat. The actions we were planning could have handed them Syria.”

Such possibilities have actually rehabilitated Assad’s reputation with some Europeans.

Beyond the big picture questions, though, even details such as the death toll remain a question. It is believed that between 600 and 1,400 Syrians died in the attack. Some experts have noted that there were too many injured for the number of dead to have been below 1,000. Others have countered that the higher estimates of injured and dead could not possibly have been handled by Syrian hospitals in the region. So the counts are suspicious.

While U.S. officials remain convinced, and frequently state, that the weapons were unleashed by the Syrian government, there is little public evidence that is the case. In fact, the case for laying the blame of this chemical weapons attack on Syria remains a basic logic puzzle: Sarin gas was used in rockets. Rebels groups are not known to possess sarin, but they might have. The Syrian government is known to possess these things. Syria, therefore, is most likely at fault.

There is more to the discussion, and quite a lot of talk about hexamine, which the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has determined the Syrians used in sarin production. Jean Pascal Zanders is a longtime chemical weapons policy expert with the European Union who now writes a blog called The Trench. He recently wrote that hexamine was most likely used because it both increases the purity of the gas, therefore increasing its lethality, and stabilizes sarin, meaning it can be loaded into weapons some time before use. As he wrote earlier this month: “The insight also raises fresh questions about the curious White House claim last August that the United States had observed Syrian preparations for three days prior to the Ghouta attacks.”

But, as he added in an interview, “determining who was behind the attacks only comes at the termination of this civil war, and sadly disposing of the weapons had no effect on that.”

The intensity of the reaction stemmed from the nature of the weapons themselves. Sarin is a neurotoxin considered so terrifying that it’s only been used a few times in human history, most notably by Saddam Hussein beginning in the 1980s, first against Iran and then against Kurds in Iraq in 1988.

Still, as Ralf Trapp, an original member of the chemical weapons organization and a former secretary of the group’s scientific advisory board, noted, destroying those weapons was still vital.

“Today it looks as if the world chose the right path after this horrible day,” he said, though noting that there were costs. “It did re-legitimize the Syrian government. Still, targeted strikes wouldn’t have changed anything, at least not for the better.”