A Phony Farewell to Arms

Why Assad Won't Have to Part with Poison Gas

In this handout photograph distributed by Syria's national news agency, SANA, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad meets Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov in Damascus, September 18, 2013. (SANA / Reuters)

Today, inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) are due to arrive in Damascus, Syria, where they will begin the exceptionally difficult process of destroying Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons capability. The inspectors are going in on the heels of a unanimous UN Security Council resolution that banks on Assad’s cooperation with the disarmament process. (Assad gassed civilians in the suburbs of Damascus with the nerve agent sarin as recently as August 21, after which Russia may have read him the riot act. This development, combined with U.S. gunboat diplomacy and the recent UN investigative report exposing Syrian gas use, may explain why Assad joined the Chemical Weapons Convention and indicated his willingness to give up his stockpile.)

Yet barring a miraculous personality change, Assad should not be expected to lay down his chemical arms meekly. Less than a month ago, he staunchly denied possessing chemical weapons, postponed a UN investigation for months, attempted to obliterate evidence of recent sarin attacks through repeated conventional bombing of the sites where gassing took place, and turned his snipers on UN investigators.

The Security Council and the OPCW both state that Assad should grant the inspectors “unfettered access.” But neither has established any inspection requirements more onerous than the Chemical Weapons Convention’s standard procedures. The convention’s verification regime was largely designed for a collaborative disarmament process; it balances the rights of the inspectors against those of the inspected states, which are allowed some control over how much access they give inspectors. Thus, Assad can leverage Syria’s rights under the convention to hold on to some of his chemical weapons capabilities.

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