In defending President Barack Obama's decision not to enforce his chemical weapons “red line” against Syria in 2013, Obama and other former officials repeatedly pointed to a U.S.-Russia agreement to remove Syrian stockpiles as proof that the president got results without resorting to a military response.
While it's true that some 1,300 tons of Syria's declared chemical weapons and precursors were removed under the agreement, serious concerns always existed that not all such armaments or production facilities were declared and destroyed or otherwise made unusable.
Those concerns, aired publicly and privately by United Nations and other officials almost since the deal was struck in September 2013 in Geneva, gained credence last week when President Donald Trump ordered missile strikes on a Syrian air base in retaliation for the most recent chemical weapons attack blamed on the Syrian government.
Obama administration officials, starting with the president himself, often used nuanced words in declaring the 2013 deal a success. At times, they qualified their proclamations by referring only to the removal of Syria's “declared” or “known” stocks. Other times they have been less careful, as was Obama in a “60 Minutes” interview just five days before he left office earlier this year.
Obama: “I think it was important for me as president of the United States to send a message that in fact there is something different about chemical weapons,” he told the CBS program when asked about criticism of his decision not to follow through with airstrikes he had threatened. Regardless of how that played in Washington, “what is true is Assad got rid of his chemical weapons.”
The Facts: Obama's comments glossed over doubts expressed by his own national security team and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons that Syria had truly abandoned its stocks or ability to produce more. When that group announced in June 2014 that the program to eliminate the stockpiles had been completed, Secretary of State John Kerry lauded the result using a subtle caveat: “With this step, 100 percent of the declared chemicals are out of war-torn Syria.”
Kerry also noted the continued attacks with chlorine gas, which is not an internationally banned substance but isn't supposed to be used in weapons. Chlorine was not included in the 2013 agreement. He added that “the international community has questions with regard to Syria's declaration that must be adequately answered.”
Those questions were never addressed and Kerry's caution was well founded. Less than three months later, Kerry issued another statement in response to chlorine attacks that pointed again to “deep concerns regarding the accuracy and completeness of Syria's declaration.” This, he said, “raises especially troubling concerns that continued chemical attacks on the Syrian people by the regime could occur.”
And in February 2016, James R. Clapper Jr., the national intelligence director, told Congress that “we assess that Syria has not declared all the elements of its chemical weapons program.”
In an April 2016 report to Congress, the State Department went further, saying Syria was “in violation” of the Chemical Weapons Convention and “may retain chemical weapons as defined by the” treaty.
Even so, in a January 16 National Public Radio interview, Obama's former national security adviser, Susan Rice, portrayed the 2013 agreement as a success. She said the Obama administration had found a solution “that actually removed the chemical weapons that were known from Syria, in a way that the use of force would never have accomplished.”
Between June 2014, when the destruction and removal program was completed and January 30 of this year, the U.N. Human Rights Council's commission on Syria documented at least 13 instances of chemical weapons attacks in Syria, all believed to have used chlorine. Western experts say sarin, a nerve agent, was used in the attack last week that killed more than 80 people.