If your takeaway from the reports on Friday's air strikes on Syria's chemical weapons facilities by US, French, and British forces was that President Bashar al-Assad's ability to conduct future chemical strikes had been eliminated, you'd be wrong. In an analysis titled, "A Hard Lesson in Syria: Assad Can Still Gas His Own People," the New York Times outlines four reasons why this is so, and the Wall Street Journal adds a fifth:
- Though the Pentagon characterized the strike's three targets as "fundamental components of the regime's chemical weapons warfare infrastructure," it's possible that is only true in a historical sense. In the wake of the strikes, there have been no reports of casualties at the targeted facilities—the Barzeh research and development center, the Him Shinshar storage facility, and a bunker—nor any reports of gas leakage, suggesting the sites could have been abandoned or only in light use.
- The Times takes a historical view, to 2014, when Syria agreed to hand over its "declared" stockpiles of chemical weapons. Then-Secretary of State John Kerry said "we got 100% of the chemical weapons out," and some 600 metric tons of chemical agents were destroyed by the US. The takeaway: "Mr. Assad has learned a lot about how to hide his stockpiles from inspectors."
- And not everything is in hiding: The Journal cites a UN report from early 2018 that names at least two suspected chemical weapons facilities that weren't taken out on Saturday. The Pentagon reportedly limited the strikes to targets where civilians wouldn't be affected.
- Even if the destroyed facilities were key, it's not that hard to rebuild them elsewhere, at least when it comes to making chlorine or sarin, which can be produced in basic facilities.
- And in terms of chlorine, it's a big challenge. It's essential in the Middle East for water purification, making it both legal and lethal. Though chemical weapons treaties ban the use of chlorine as a poison, they do not make it illegal to possess. How Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, puts it: "For me, the big story is chlorine; it’s not sarin. ... You either have to deter the regime from using it by imposing significant costs, or you have to get rid of the regime. But there is no way you can get rid of the capability."
Head to the Times
for the full analysis.
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