Parallels
2:27 am
Sat April 26, 2014

Syria Gives Up Chemical Weapons ... But A War Rages On

Originally published on Sat April 26, 2014 8:30 am

Sunday is the deadline for Syrian President Bashar Assad to hand over his government's chemical weapons stockpile, and he will have surrendered the vast majority of his declared arsenal.

Some call this a triumph. Others say Assad used the deal to buy time for brutal offensives in the civil war raging through the country. Western governments are investigating reports of more chemical attacks, although Russian officials said Friday that Assad's forces did not use chemical weapons.

The deal was hammered out last year after a chemical attack outside Damascus killed hundreds, including children. The war had already claimed tens of thousands of civilians, yet the world was horrified by footage of children struggling to breathe, then giving up.

Assad blamed the opposition for the attack, but presented no real evidence; American investigators said the president's forces did it. For a while, it even seemed the U.S. would strike, but instead they forged the chemical weapons amnesty.

Under the deal, Assad agreed to give up 1,300 tons of dangerous chemicals, or precursor materials.

"All of this is unprecedented on various levels — it's never been done to disarm a country of any category of weapons, much less strategic weapons, in the middle of a war, of a hot war," says Michael Luhan of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is overseeing the handover.

He says that the regime is on track to hand over the stockpile it's declared, despite delays. So far, about 90 percent of the declared materials have been taken out of the country by boat.

But others point out that since the deal was struck, tens of thousands more civilians have died. A regime assault on the city of Aleppo with crude barrel bombs has leveled whole neighborhoods. And although Western governments say Assad must go, his forces are now winning the war.

"I do think it was smart of Assad, and he did in a sense rejuvenate himself to a certain degree," says Joshua Landis, of the University of Oklahoma, who is an expert on Syria. "He made a crucial deal with the United States, which made him a partner in this — and it benefited Assad tremendously."

Landis says that Assad's supporters were terrified the U.S. was going to attack. When the chemical weapons deal was struck, that fear disappeared.

"The United States did not bomb, Saudi Arabia was furious, the rebels felt completely downcast, and Assad could continue on, bombing with impunity in Syria," Landis says. "It was very clear, from the beginning of the civil war and talking to Syrian government people, that their one calculation at the beginning of this war was that if the U.S., if F-16s do not come over the horizon, Assad can prevail."

Recently, there have even been questions about whether chemical attacks have stopped. French and American officials say they are investigating allegations of small-scale chlorine gas attacks.

Chlorine is used in industrial processes, and was not covered in the agreement to ship chemical weapons out of the country.

Activists, doctors and political opposition members say there have been at least seven occasions in the past six weeks when gas has been used. Regime and rebels acknowledge some of the instances but blame each other.

The influential blog Brown Moses provides detailed analysis of the Syrian war and is often cited by human rights groups. It reported that in an attack earlier this month, activists say gas was dropped from a helicopter — which only the Syrian government has. The government has denied the reports.

And some think that the regime has not declared or given up all of Syria's supply of chemical weapons.

"There are potentially about 200 tons of precursor chemical weapons, or potentially chemical weapons themselves, that are potentially missing from the declared stockpile," says Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a chemical weapons expert who works on Syria. "So either the regime has kept some back, which is I think is very likely, and/or opposition groups have obtained some."

Thus far the opposition hasn't been able to prove that the regime is behind recent attacks. And Syria's staunch ally Russia, which was instrumental in negotiating the deal, said Friday that the accusations against government forces are "fabricated."

But even as vast quantities of chemicals are safely on ships heading away from Syria, the suffering in the country continues. Next week, the U.N. Security Council plans to review a report that the regime has flagrantly violated international law by not allowing aid to rebel-held areas.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Tomorrow is the deadline for Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, to complete the handover of his country's chemical weapons. More than 90 percent are reportedly removed an inspectors seem confident that Syrians will finish the job on time.

Some have declared victory, but others say Assad has used the chemical weapons deal to buy time to launch brutal offensives in its civil war. And now Western governments are investigating reports of recent chemical attacks. NPR's Alice Fordham reports on the controversy.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: The deal was hammered out last year after a chemical attack outside Damascus killed hundreds, including children. Even after more than two years of war and the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians, the world was horrified by footage of children struggling to breathe then giving up. Assad blamed the opposite position, but presented little evidence. And American investigators insist the president's forces did it. For a while, it even seemed the U.S. would strike. But instead, they forged the chemical weapons amnesty. Some call it a triumph.

MICHAEL LUHAN: All of this is unprecedented on various levels. It's never been done to disarm a country of any category of weapons, much less strategic weapons, in the middle of a war, of a hot war.

FORDHAM: Michael Luhan there, from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which oversees the handover. He says that the regime is on track to hand over the stockpile it's declared despite delays. But others point out that since the deal was struck, tens of thousands more civilians have died. A regime assault on the city of Aleppo with crude barrel bombs has leveled whole neighborhoods. And although Western governments say Assad must go, his forces are now winning the war. Joshua Landis, from the University of Oklahoma, is an expert in Syrian politics.

JOSHUA LANDIS: Well, I do think it was smart of Assad, and he did, in a sense, rejuvenate himself to a certain degree. You know, he made a crucial deal with the United States, which made him a partner in this. And it benefited Assad tremendously.

FORDHAM: Landis says that Assad's supporters were terrified the U.S. was going to attack. When the chemical weapons deal was struck, that fear disappeared.

LANDIS: The United States did not bomb, Saudi Arabia was furious, the rebels felt completely downcast, and Assad could continue on bombing with impunity in Syria. It was very clear, from the beginning of the civil war and talking to Syrian government people, that their one calculation at the beginning of this war was that if United States - if F-16s did not come over the horizon, Assad can prevail.

FORDHAM: Recently, there have even been questions about whether chemical attacks have stopped. French and American officials say they're investigating allegations of small-scale chlorine gas attacks. Chlorine is commonly use in industrial processes and was not covered in the agreement to ship weapons out of the country. And some think that not all of Syria's supply of chemical weapons were declared or given up by the regime.

DE BRETTON-GORDON: There's potentially about 200 tons of precursor chemicals, or potentially chemical weapons themselves, that are potentially missing from the declared stockpile. And so either the regime have kept some back, which I think is very likely, and/or opposition groups have obtained some.

FORDHAM: Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a chemical weapons expert who works on Syria. Thus far, the opposition hasn't been able to prove that the regime is behind recent attacks. And Syria's staunch ally Russia, which was instrumental in negotiating the deal, said yesterday that the accusations against government forces are fabricated.

So now even as vast quantities of chemicals are safely on ships heading away from Syria, the suffering in the country continues. The UN Security Council plans next week to review a report that the regime has flagrantly violated international law by not allowing aid to rebel-held areas. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.