“That prize should have been given to me,” joked Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad shortly after the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on 11 October. The guests gathered in his palace in Damascus presumably laughed, out of courtesy to their host, but they all knew that giving up Syria’s chemical weapons hadn’t been Assad’s idea at all.
“Since 2003, Syria has demanded that the countries in the region dismantle their weapons of mass destruction, and the chemical weapons were meant to be a bargaining chip in Syria’s hands in exchange for Israel dismantling its nuclear arsenal,” the Syrian president continued. “Today the price (of the bargaining chip) has changed, and we have agreed to give up our chemical weapons to remove the threat of the US attacking us.”
He’s really doing it, too. Sixty out of a planned hundred OPCW inspectors are already in Syria, and they have made no complaints about a lack of cooperation by Damascus. By the end of this month they will have completed their initial verification visits and confirmed that Syria’s account of its chemical weapons and facilities is accurate and conceals nothing.
Significantly, the inspectors have so far found no bombs, shells or missiles that are actually filled with poison gas, which suggests that Syria’s chemical weapons were in a very low state of readiness. It also greatly eases the next phase of the OPCW’s task, the destruction of the actual chemicals, since it is a tricky and dangerous business to extract the liquefied poison gas from a projectile that also contains the explosives to disperse it when it lands.
Syria has an estimated 1,000 metric tonnes of toxic chemicals: around 300 tonnes of sulfur mustard, a blistering agent, and about 700 tonnes of the nerve agents sarin and VX. But if none of it is “weaponised” (loaded into projectiles), and much of the nerve agent is in “precursor” form, as separate, less toxic components, then OPCW’s goal of finishing the job by mid-2014 seems feasible. Even if it has to be done in the midst of a civil war.
It’s quite clear that Assad did not plan all this. His forces (or somebody else’s) used poison gas in Damascus, though the attack was pointless in military terms. President Barack Obama was trapped by his previous loose talk about an American “red line” into threatening to bomb Syria. And the Russians got Obama off the hook (and saved Assad from a severe pounding) by “persuading” the Syrian leader to renounce his chemical weapons.
But what has Assad really lost? “The chemical weapons, which have lost their deterrent value over the past few years, were meant to be used only after Israel used its nuclear weapons,” he says, but it was never a very credible deterrent. Israel’s unstoppable nuclear weapons could annihilate Syria, whereas the very effective Israeli civil defence organisation would have made mass casualties unlikely even in a worst-case Syrian gas attack.
In any case, Syria’s chemical weapons have indeed now lost whatever deterrent value they ever had, for Israel has acquired good anti-missile defences that would shoot down most incoming Syrian missiles. Syria actually stopped producing new chemical weapons in 1997, Assad said, because they had lost their military usefulness.
After that, they were only a low-value “bargaining chip” to be put on the table in the improbable event of region-wide negotiations on eliminating all weapons of mass destruction. (Poison gas is not remotely comparable to nuclear weapons in its destructiveness, but it is technically “WMD”.) But Assad is a very lucky man. He discovered belatedly that his bargaining chip could be traded for something else: immunity from American attack.
So everybody wins. Obama escapes from the new Middle Eastern war that he dreaded. Moscow gets huge diplomatic credit for coming up with the formula that averted that war, and saves its Syrian client as well. Assad regains a measure of respectability by nobly relinquishing his useless chemical weapons. And the OPCW gets the Nobel Peace Prize.
The only losers are the Syrian people on both sides of a dreadful civil war, which looks set to drag on indefinitely.