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.
Of course, Assad may have already begun secreting away what he wants to hide from the inspectors. But his minions undoubtedly recognize that they can legally thwart the OPCW’s tight deadlines for destroying stockpiles and production facilities. For instance, Syria could keep inspectors away from certain areas of production facilities if it declares to the OPCW that those sites have nothing to do with chemical weapons. Syria can also short-circuit inspections by accusing inspectors of interfering with a facility’s regular operations or of jeopardizing its operational safety. Assad could also refuse to turn over records by asserting their irrelevance to his chemical weapons capabilities; he could demand negotiated agreements to govern the terms of inspections at each declared chemical weapons site; he might even have the gall to file a request to convert his poison gas production facilities into benign factories. Assad is likely to cooperate in some situations but use such tactics in others. In this way, Assad will foster hope that he is disarming even as he maneuvers to retain a minimal chemical weapons capability -- one that he could draw from in a last-ditch effort to hold on to power. Under similar circumstances, the former Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi stashed away mustard gas munitions while relinquishing most of his chemical cache.
Assad can even turn to his advantage the convention’s much-vaunted “challenge inspection” provisions, which stipulate that, at any time, the OPCW can inspect any facility where cheating is suspected. If the OPCW’s chief reports Syrian foul play during the disarmament process, the organization’s 41-member executive council must meet within 24 hours, and three-quarters of the council must authorize a challenge inspection. If approved, another two days could pass before inspectors are able to establish a perimeter around the site in question. Assad could then stall the inspectors for days through negotiations over access to said site. In other words, nearly a week could pass before an inspector sets foot inside to pursue possible noncompliance. OPCW inspectors will do their best, but they are bound by rules that give Assad plenty of time to move assets he wants to keep or to destroy evidence of noncompliance.
If this story sounds familiar, it is because it comes right out of the playbook of the former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. On June 28, 1991, Saddam rushed uranium-enrichment equipment -- electromagnetic isotope separators called calutrons -- out the back entrance of an army depot in Al Fallujah as inspectors called at the front gate. Saddam also ensured that personnel at all of his weapons facilities were ready to move or destroy key evidence, including weapons cookbooks, within 15 minutes of an inspection team’s arrival. Among many other cat-and-mouse tactics that Saddam used in an attempt to preserve his weapons of mass destruction, he filed a deluge of incomplete and inaccurate declarations about WMD programs and buried prohibited weapons.