Syria and U.S. credibility

Initiative to eliminate Syria’s chemical arsenal advances


The initiative to eliminate Syria’s chemical arsenal has advanced another step with the arrival in Damascus of the first team of inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

The previously obscure agency, based at the Hague and charged with implementing the Chemical Weapons Convention, has adopted a plan under which Syria’s capacity to produce chemical munitions would be destroyed by Nov. 1, and its bombs and precursors eliminated within eight months.

The quick action by the OPCW is the latest of several encouraging developments in the Obama Administration’s joint effort with Russia. The United Nations Security Council has passed a resolution mandating the elimination of the Syrian stockpile, albeit without an explicit enforcement mechanism. The regime of Bashar Assad delivered a declaration of its stockpile that officials say was broadly in keeping with outside assessments, if not necessarily complete.

There remain grounds for concern about whether the plan can succeed, and about the collateral damage caused by the Obama Administration’s embrace of it. Many experts are skeptical the timetable can be met: The OPCW has only 150 inspectors on staff.

Of more concern is the possibility that the Assad regime will try to deceive inspectors and save parts of its arsenal. It reportedly has moved chemical weapons around ever since President Obama threatened air strikes last month.

The OPCW is not well prepared to respond to noncooperation. If a government alleges that not all sites or weapons have been declared, the agency would have little recourse other than to refer the matter to its inspector general and 41-nation executive council.

Russia says it will not support U.N. action against Syria unless, as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov put it, violations are “serious enough to merit punishment” and “proven by 100 percent.” That sounds like an invitation to cheat.

Eliminating Syria’s chemical arsenal, one of the world’s largest, would be important in its own right and would lessen the dangers of the civil war. But it would not end that war, or the slaughter of civilians by the Assad regime.

On the contrary, the Obama Administration’s decision to partner with Russia rather than carry out military strikes appears to have been a final straw for a number of Syrian rebel factions. They have broken with their Western-backed leaders and joined an Islamic alliance that includes a faction of al-Qaeda. Unless reversed, that would make the prospect of a political settlement to the war, which Mr. Obama promised to pursue, more remote than ever.

Mr. Obama, who dismissed the conflict as “someone else’s civil war” in his U.N. address last week, may have traded U.S. influence over the outcome for a chance to eliminate a chemical weapons stockpile. If so, his administration has a much larger stake than any international agency in accomplishing the disarmament.

— Washington Post