The Wall Street Journal has an eye-opening expose today about how Syria failed to comply with its obligations under the agreement with the United States to get rid of all of its chemical weapons. Reporters David Entous and Naftali Bendavid write, “One year after the West celebrated the removal of Syria’s arsenal as a foreign-policy success, U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that the regime didn’t give up all of the chemical weapons it was supposed to.” Indeed, Bashar Assad continues to drop chemical weapons, specifically chlorine bombs.
How did this happen? The reasons are instructive in light of the administration’s argument that Iran will be forced to comply with the nuclear deal. The article notes:
The Syrians laid out the ground rules. Inspectors could visit only sites Syria had declared, and only with 48-hour notice. Anything else was off-limits, unless the regime extended an invitation.
“We had no choice but to cooperate with them,” said Mr. Cairns [the leader of the UN inspection team]. “The huge specter of security would have hampered us had we gone in there very aggressively or tried to do things unilaterally.”
The U.S. and other powers had the right to demand access to undeclared sites if they had evidence they were part of the chemical-weapons program. But that right was never exercised, in part, inspectors and Western officials say, because their governments didn’t want a standoff with the regime.
This is how inspections operate in reality — and it’s not the way that Secretary of State John Kerry claims in touting the effectiveness of sanctions. In reality, inspectors are at the mercy of their hosts who, after all, control the country and can use force if necessary to prevent the inspectors from going where they are not wanted. Advocates of the Iran deal suggest that it includes a way to force inspections of undeclared nuclear sites — but that will take a minimum of 24 days and probably longer. That’s a lot longer than the 48-hour inspections that the Syrians allowed and even those weren’t enough.
What happens if the Iranians block the inspectors? Advocates of the deal like to pretend this would lead to “snapback” sanctions. In the real world, however, neither the inspectors nor the U.S. government is going to blow up the accord — which is what would happen if sanctions were re-imposed — over what may or may not be a violation on the part of the Iranians. Both the inspectors and the U.S. government are far more likely to overlook supposedly minor violations, or to allow the Iranians to “rectify” them ex post facto, while telling themselves that it’s for the greater good because being overly confrontational will destroy the entire agreement.
The Syrian precedent clearly shows how Iran, Assad’s sponsor, can cheat on its arms control obligations. And even if it’s caught, as Syria has been caught, what will happen? The Syrian example suggests the answer is: Nothing. Even though the Obama administration is well aware that Assad has not gotten rid of all of his chemical weapons and that indeed he continues to use them, there have been no repercussions for Syria. Does anyone imagine that the U.S. will be any quicker to confront Iran, a far more powerful regime than Assad’s, and one that will get stronger still once the bans on conventional weapons and missile sales are lifted?