The Obama Administration puts a lot of stock into negotiating with hostile regimes. Consider its seemingly endless negotiations with Iran over that nation’s illicit nuclear weapons program. But even as those negotiations drag on, Iran’s ally Syria has systematically violated the 2013 agreement it negotiated with the administration.
In that agreement, codified in a U.N. Security Council resolution, Syria promised to give up its chemical weapons. Yet last Friday, Reuters reported that international inspectors have found traces of sarin and VX nerve agent at Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Agency, a government facility that western intelligence agencies assess was involved in developing chemical and biological weapons.
The inspectors, from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, also are investigating numerous reports of the use of chlorine gas in “barrel bombs” delivered by the Assad regime’s helicopters. Damascus has denied all the charges. It also continues to block inspectors from accessing some of the attacked areas.
Under the 2013 agreement, once hailed by the Obama Administration as a diplomatic triumph, Syria pledged to destroy its chemical weapons—permanently and completely. These reports indicate that Syria never lived up to the bargain.
The U.S. State Department has been looking into reports of chlorine gas attacks since at least April 2014. But the administration is slow-walking its investigation, just as it delayed its response to previous allegations of chemical weapons use in 2012-2013.
The inconvenient truth is that the rogue regime in Syria never intended to live up to the 2013 arms control agreement. It agreed to the arrangement, brokered by its Russian ally, to escape the threat of U.S. air strikes. At the time, American military action seemed a real possibility, since Syria had willfully violated President Obama’s “red line” against chemical weapons use.
Syria’s Assad regime followed the same deceptive diplomatic game plan used by rogue regimes in North Korea and Libya to defuse international pressure by going through the motions of disarming. The North Koreans had signed the 1994 Agreed Framework, then proceeded to violate it, eventually testing a nuclear weapon in 2006.
Under a 2003 agreement, Libya declared—and supposedly destroyed—its chemical weapons program. The North African dictatorship was considered cooperative… until Muammar Qadhafi was overthrown in 2011. Then, the interim Libyan government revealed that it had identified previously undeclared chemical weapons that had been hidden by the Qadhafi regime. These undeclared weapons were finally destroyed in February 2014 —10 years after the process began in 2004.
The Obama Administration cannot afford to continue turning a blind eye to the Assad regime’s use of chlorine gas and other chemical weapons against its own people. Such ostrich-like behavior amounts to an abject abandonment of President Obama’s “red line” against Syria’s use of chemical weapons. Worse, it emboldens Assad to step up his use of those illegal weapons.
Continued inaction also would send a dangerous signal to Iran: that the United States has no appetite for confronting and punishing Tehran should it decide to violate terms of the pending nuclear agreement.
Israel, Saudi Arabia and other U.S. allies already are dismayed that President Obama failed to enforce his own red line against Syria’s use of chemical weapons, which undermined U.S. credibility in the eyes of friends as well as enemies. They are understandably concerned that the administration also will take a soft line on Iranian nuclear violations.
Taking a harder line against Syrian chemical warfare violations would reassure nervous allies, and underscore to Iran, that any violations of a nuclear deal will be vigorously investigated and penalized.
The President should stop ignoring Syrian chemical warfare violations and announce that Washington will push for action at the U.N. Security Council to investigate and penalize the regime’s chemical crimes with sanctions or the possible use of force. Such action is likely to be opposed and watered down by Moscow, but that is a consequence of signing a dubious arms control agreement lacking strong verification and enforcement provisions with a rogue regime.
The President should keep this in mind and reject signing any nuclear agreement with Iran that lacks provisions for substantial dismantling of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, robust verification requirements, anytime-anywhere inspections and heavy sanctions applied immediately in the event of Iranian cheating.
President Obama’s record already includes a failed chemical weapons agreement with Syria. It would be even more dangerous and counterproductive to add a flawed nuclear agreement with Iran to that legacy.
James Phillips is the Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs in The Heritage Foundation's Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies.