Last week, the U.S. government announced that it had completed destruction of Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpile. This complex process was carried out as part of a joint United Nations-Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (UN-OPCW) mission and involved coordination between American, British, Chinese, Danish, Italian, and Norwegian governments. The disarmament process involved neutralizing 581 metric tonnes of DF, a binary precursor for sarin gas, and 19.8 metric tonnes of ready-to-use sulfur mustard (HD) in order to meet the requirements of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).
Unfortunately, things got messy. As one example, the process required the transport of chemical agents from facilities located primarily in Damascus and Homs to the port of Latakia in order for them to be shipped onward. Sounds straightforward, but at the end of 2013 most of this road, which cuts across the region of Qalamoun, was controlled by opposition forces. As such, the need to meet their new chemical weapon destruction commitments provided a convenient reason for government forces to launch a full-fledged military offensive in Qalamoun last November. This caused thousands to flee the region, while other horrific stories emerged such as the killing of children in Nabek village and, ironically, rumours of gas attacks. In addition, there are still valid concerns over undeclared stockpiles and production facilities that need to be dismantled.
When Syria joined the CWC last September shortly after the chemical attacks in Ghouta—one instance of several in the country—many were critical of the move. The country’s president Bashar al-Assad did not come willingly to the table, signing only after the United States began to talk of airstrikes. Still, his ultimate willingness to sign the convention, whatever the motivations, re-affirmed Assad’s as Syria’s only legally recognized government and gave legal legitimacy to his brutal regime. As one survivor of Assad’s chemical attack writes, “the worst sadness of my life did not come the day my friends died. It came three weeks later…I learned from that speech that the United States would make a deal with Russia to rid Syria of its chemical weapons, instead of striking at Assad for his atrocities. I had to translate this news into Arabic for my friends—we cried harder than we had on August 21, because we knew that Assad now had a green light to kill all the Syrians he wanted, so long as he did not use sarin gas.”
Indeed, that seems to be the plan. In fact, only around 1 percent of the estimated casualties in Syria have been from chemical weapons. One report has shown that explosive weapons have been responsible for half of all the civilian deaths in Syria since fighting began. This prompted several UN entities, including UNICEF, OCHA and others, to call for an end to their use in populated areas. The reported deployment of other types of weapons has also caused concern in the Syrian conflict. Fuel-air explosives, also known as “vacuum bombs,” disperse an aerosol cloud of fuel ignited by a detonator to produce an explosion more powerful than other conventional high-explosive weapons of the same size. They are considered indiscriminate weapons and can cause wide-spread damage in populated areas. The use of cluster munitions, banned by international law, has similarly been well-documented by groups like Human Rights Watch.
This is not to say that removing Assad’s declared chemical weapons wasn’t a good thing. Quite the contrary—thankfully, those weapons will no longer be around to use. Sadly, it also represents the only thing remotely resembling a diplomatic success story in the three-and-a-half-year Syrian crisis. At the same time, however, it offers cold comfort. Political efforts to resolve the civil war and stem the use of other weapons cannot be allowed to be continually neglected.
Allison Pytlak is a Master's student in International Relations at The City College of New York.