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What might be expected in monitoring Syria: lessons from past Middle East weapons inspections

By Dore Gold 
web posted September 23, 2013

The announcement on September 14 that the U.S. and Russia have reached an agreement on the elimination of Syria's chemical weapons would not be the first attempt to launch an ambitious process to gain control of the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) of rogue regimes in the Middle East.

In fact, after inspectors previously have sought to prohibit weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Iran, and Libya, the world has accumulated hands-on experience in Middle East arms control that should be carefully studied in order to anticipate the difficulties the international community is likely to confront in the Syrian case.

There have been a number of attempts in recent days to look at these past arms control experiences. But there is no uniform view as to whether the lessons of Iraq and Libya can be applied to Syria. For example, an analysis in the Financial Times asserted: "Libya Offers No Model for Ending Syria's Chemical Arms Threat." It contrasted the relative openness of the Libyan regime to Western intelligence agencies, once Muammar Qaddafi decided to disclose his WMD programs, with the closed environment in Syria when international agencies sought to probe its non-conventional capabilities.

The Washington Post featured a completely different approach that it entitled "Lessons from Iraq, Libya Loom Large as Diplomats Ponder Syrian Weapons Probe." It quotes weapons experts who point to the successes of the West in both Iraq and Libya in destroying large weapons arsenals. Regardless of the unique circumstances in each of these cases of WMD disarmament, there are certain problems that weapons inspectors have had to deal with over the years that are common in all of these situations:

Efforts to Prevent the Establishment of a Baseline of Weapons Quantities

The removal of Iraq's WMD arsenal, including its chemical weapons, was a direct result of the victory of the U.S.-led coalition in the 1991 Gulf War that was waged in the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The terms of the cease-fire that ended that conflict appear in UN Security Council Resolution 687, adopted on April 3, 1991. Resolution 687 demanded that Iraq accept the destruction of all chemical and biological weapons. It prohibited Iraq from developing nuclear weapons as well. Significantly, Resolution 687 also dealt with the delivery systems of chemical weapons. It called for the elimination of all Iraqi missiles with a range over 150 kilometers.

A key provision in Resolution 687 was a requirement that Iraq submit within 15 days of the adoption of the resolution a declaration on the locations, amounts, and types of chemical and biological weapons it possessed. These were supposed to be "full, final and complete" declarations. Yet Iraq delayed fulfilling this most basic requirement not for days or weeks but for years.

In fact, there were still no full, final and complete declarations seven years later in 1998.3 On November 8, 2002, the UN adopted Resolution 1441, which called again on Iraq to submit a "currently accurate, full, and complete declaration" of all elements of its prohibited weapons programs, thereby repeating the essential, but unfulfilled demand of Resolution 687 from eleven years earlier.

True, Iraq itself destroyed 700 tons of bulk chemical agents and 3,600 tons of precursor chemicals for manufacturing chemical weapons But the quantities of chemical agents that Iraq eventually destroyed had no meaning unless they were measured against the amounts that Iraq possessed to begin with. Leaving the baseline of its chemical weapons vague, Iraq could maintain hidden reserves of such weapons, either hiding them or transferring them to another country. At one point, Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz confirmed that Iraq even destroyed many prohibited weapons – like missile warheads – in order to hide the real size and extent of its WMD program. For example, Iraq wanted the world to believe that it had no manufacturing capability to produce VX nerve agent – a claim UN inspectors eventually disproved.

Thus, compliance with the most basic requirement of the UN resolutions on eliminating a key component of Iraq's WMD, its chemical weapons arsenal, proved elusive. Secretary of State John Kerry announced in Geneva, Switzerland, on September 14 that he had reached an agreement with the Russians according to which Syria had one week to provide a "comprehensive listing" of its chemical weapons. The record of Iraqi behavior makes Syrian compliance with this demand today extremely difficult to imagine.

Efforts to Conceal Evidence and Hamper Inspections

As a signatory of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Iran was to cooperate with the inspection regime established by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). But over the years a favorite Iranian tactic was to make such inspections more difficult and to take advantage of the delay in any IAEA visit to tamper with the evidence at a suspected site.

This was the case with the Kalaye site where the IAEA suspected the Iranians had a pilot enrichment facility. Tehran refused to grant permission for inspectors to have access to the site and delayed an inspection from February to August 2003. When the inspection was finally conducted, the main suspected building had been cleaned and repainted.

Another prominent disputed Iranian site involving the IAEA was the Lavizan-Shian facility, where Tehran succeeded in postponing any inspection for a month, from March to April 2004. In the meantime, the Iranians razed six building and dug up the earth around them to a depth of 1 to 2 meters, making it more difficult for inspectors to take soil samples.

In the Iraqi case, prior to inspections by the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM), states that were friendly to the regime in Baghdad would frequently tip off the Iraqi authorities, who would get to the suspected site before the UN. During the 1990s, Saddam Hussein used a unit known as the "Special Republican Guard" to cleanse sites and conceal evidence of residual chemical capabilities.

Trying to Neutralize the Threat of Force

The threat of the use of force was in the background of all Middle East arms control breakthroughs with rogue regimes in the last twenty years. As already noted, UN Security Council Resolution 687 that called for the disarmament of Iraq from WMD was also the cease-fire resolution that ended the Gulf War.

Implicit in Resolution 687 was the threat that if Saddam Hussein failed to comply with its disarmament clauses, the U.S. and its coalition partners could resume military operations. After all, Resolution 687 was adopted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which meant that the Security Council had enforcement powers in the event it was violated, which it could exercise by itself or through UN member states. As Iraq considered what to do, the threat of the resumption of hostilities was always present.

Back in 1991, Russia fully backed the U.S.-led coalition and allowed for the language that appeared in Resolution 687. Fifteen years later the Russian role in drafting UN resolutions on the use of force against rogue regimes changed. Thus when the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1696, on July 31, 2006, and demanded that Iran halt its uranium enrichment program, it made only reference to a watered-down version of Chapter VII: The resolution was adopted under Article 40 of Chapter VII, but not under Article 42, which contained the threat to use force.

The Russian ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, explained at the time that the new resolution on Iran "ruled out the use of military force." With this modified Russian position, it has become more difficult to maintain pressure on states like Syria or Iran that defy binding UN resolutions or international norms. Russia is unlikely to change course on Syria and back the use of force in the event that the Syrian regime fails to comply with its obligations under a new UN Security Council Resolution.

As a matter of fact, in 2011, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev criticized NATO for taking UN Security Council Resolution 1973, establishing a no-fly zone for humanitarian purposes over Libya, and using it to authorize ground operations against Muammar Qaddafi. To this day, Moscow feels it was deceived by the West.


In summary, many analysts are looking back to past experiences of the West with Iraq and Libya in order to anticipate just how the dismantling of Syria's chemical weapons arsenal will work. Many have already pointed to some of the obstacles that will be faced. For example, while Syria's chemical arsenal is concentrated in government-held areas, access routes to suspected sites will require weapons inspectors to move through territories held by opposition groups.

Based on past experience, it may be expected that over time, the political conditions that led to the U.S.-Russian agreement are likely to erode. Like other Middle Eastern rogue states, Syria will not have an interest to fully disclose the extent of its chemical arsenal, whether or not it decides to clandestinely transfer part of that arsenal to Iraq or Lebanon, as some have suggested.

Deception and concealment have always been part of the arms control process among these states and there is no reason to assume that Syria will be different. Finally, there is always a problem that arises when the threat to use force dissipates. Russia and Syria itself are likely to use diplomacy to make that very process happen. ESR

Dr. Dore Gold, President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, served as Israel's Ambassador to the United Nations (1997-1999). He is the author of the best-selling books: The Fight for Jerusalem: Radical Islam, the West, and the Future of the Holy City (Regnery, 2007), and The Rise of Nuclear Iran: How Tehran Defies the West (Regnery, 2009). 






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