A sailor in Rota, Spain stands besides the MV Cape Ray, the American ship that will be used to neutralize Syria's chemical weapons stockpile, on April 10, 2014.
A sailor in Rota, Spain stands besides the MV Cape Ray, the American ship that will be used to neutralize Syria's chemical weapons stockpile, on April 10, 2014. // Alfonso Perez/AP

A Victory in the Battle Against Mass Destruction

Some very good news has come from a very bad part of the world today. Syria’s operational chemical weapons arsenal is no more. Officials in the Syrian port of Latakia loaded the very last shipment of the declared stockpile onto a Danish freighter and sent them off for destruction at sea.

A sprawling complex that for decades produced weapons capable of killing millions has, in 9 months and to the surprise of many, been systematically dismantled and virtually eliminated.

There are lingering questions and concerns – including possible undeclared weapons and facilities still to be destroyed – but the United States, using a negotiated agreement, an international network of inspectors, the involvement of some 30 nations, and an initial threat of the use of force, has just wiped out one of the two largest remaining chemical weapon arsenals in the world. North Korea is likely the only nation left with operational stockpile on this scale.

As Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defense Programs Andrew Weber tweeted out this morning, “100% of Syria’s declared CW stockpile is now out of Assad’s bloody hands.”

Secretary of State John Kerry added that, “Today, the international maritime task force completed the critical mission of removing the last 8 percent of declared chemical weapons precursors from Syria… This unprecedented mission, deploying unique American capabilities, will ensure that they will not be used against the Syrian people or against us, our allies, or our partners, in the region or beyond.”

Many people said this could never be done. They blasted President Barack Obama’s September decision not to bomb Syria and to negotiate an agreement instead with Russia and Syria to eliminate the weapons.

Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., called the deal “a loser,” claiming that by not attacking Syria we were now “depending on the good will of the Russian people.” It is “a very, very big gamble,” he said.

Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer denounced the deal as “epic incompetence” and predicted, “It has about zero chance of disarming Damascus.” He decried the very idea of negotiating with authoritarian governments as the illusion of “international norms, parchment treaties and the other niceties of the liberal imagination.”

Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., issued a joint statement with McCain warning, “It requires a willful suspension of disbelief to see this agreement as anything other than the start of a diplomatic blind alley, and the Obama Administration is being led into it by [Syrian President] Bashar Assad and [Russian President] Vladimir Putin.” 

On June 23, just before the the last weapons went out to sea, The Washington Post attacked Obama’s effort, claiming, “Mr. Assad’s regime is making a mockery of a once promising and ambitious effort at chemical weapons disarmament.”

They were wrong.  Inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, or OPCW, destroyed all of Syria’s known chemical weapons production, mixing and filling facilities; destroyed scores of munitions such as missile warheads and aerial bombs; destroyed in country 120 tons of isopropanol, a chemical used to make sarin nerve gas; and secured and shipped out of the country the remaining 1300 tons of sarin, mustard gas and other precursors chemicals.

Not a single person died in this effort. It is a ringing endorsement of the network of treaties banning chemical, nuclear and biological weapons, and the international agencies that we have set up to enforce them.

There is a reason why the OPCW won the Nobel Peace Prize last year: they get things done. In this case, they got the job done during the middle of a vicious civil war. These inspectors deserve our praise and thanks.

Analyst Kingston Reif summarized the logic for the deal compared to the alternatives earlier this month in an article for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist:

“By ridding Syria of nearly all of its chemical weapons, the US-Russia deal has been more effective and less risky than airstrikes likely would have been in reducing the Syrian chemical threat. As US National Security Advisor Susan Rice said in May, ‘there are no number of airstrikes that might have been contemplated that would have done what has been accomplished, which is [that] now 92.5 percent of the declared chemical weapons are out of the country.’

“In addition, airstrikes might have backfired by causing Assad to launch additional chemical attacks, including against Israel, or retaliate using terrorist proxies such as Hezbollah. Strikes could have also led to greater US involvement in the civil war and threatened negotiations with Syria’s close ally Iran over curtailing the latter’s nuclear program.”

In Washington, where attacks get more attention than praise, where defeats generate more comment than victories, were the media thrives on controversy not consensus, it will be easy to note this good news from Syria and quickly move on. 

But the significance of this achievement cannot be overstated. Syria had enough chemical agents to kill every man, woman and child in the Middle East. The destruction of these hideous weapons, so quickly and during a war where inspectors came under fire, is nothing short of remarkable.  

Yes, the war in Syria will go on. Yes, it has merged with the sectarian conflict in Iraq.  Yes, tens of thousands have died in these conflicts and more will. But we have now successfully eliminated the possibility that hundreds of thousands could die, that ISIS or other terrorist groups could gain control of these weapons and use them in the region or against us. This is a major victory. We are safer for it.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu understands the importance of this moment. In January, even before the final weapons were removed, he ordered Israel to stop issuing gas masks to civilians, a practice that had gone on since 1991. Israeli defense officials judged that there was a “significant decline in the threat of chemical weapons being fired at Israel.” Netanyahu told Bloomberg News reporter Jeffrey Goldberg in May, “I think this is the one ray of light in a very dark region.”

Here is what happens next.

The Danish ship Ark Futura that is transporting the last of the confiscated chemical agents from Syria will transfer them to the U.S. vessel M.V. Cape Ray in international waters just south of Italy. The Cape Ray will then sail into the open Mediterranean.  There it will begin pumping the chemicals into the two Field Deployable Hydrolysis Systems resting in its cargo hold.

After processing, the resulting chemical mixture will be rendered inert, equivalent to industrial waste. Drums of this solution will be transferred to facilities in the U.K. and Germany for incineration. Another 500 tons of chemical precursors (hydrochloric acid and ethylene glycol) will be transported by Danish freighters to Finland and Port Arthur, Texas, for disposal.

There is still cause for concern. Syria has destroyed most but not yet all of its former production facilities as required by the agreement. Syria may have held back some of its chemical weapons. And even with its deadliest weapons now gone — the nerve agents that can kill with one drop — the Assad regime appears to be now adding chemical irritants such as chlorine to its “barrel bombs,” increasing the terror of its attacks on civilians. This will require continued inspections and diligent international commitment.

Nonetheless, what has been accomplished in Syria today is remarkable. OPCW Director-General said, in his statement today, “Never before has an entire arsenal of a category of weapons of mass destruction been removed from a country experiencing a state of internal armed conflict.”

Whereas once dozens of major nations believed chemical weapons essential to their military defense, most have now destroyed their arsenals under the provisions of the Chemical Weapons Convention negotiated by President George H.W. Bush in 1992.  We are down to one major arsenal and a few nations suspected of some chemical weapons capability. 

No nation admits to having these weapons any more. What was once a source of national pride is now considered beyond the pale. Where once the United States led the world in producing the most sophisticated chemical weapons, we now lead the world in destroying them.

The destruction of Syria’s operational chemical arsenal has made all inhabitants of the Middle East safer, including some of our closest allies. It has helped prove that even in the direst of circumstances it is possible to negotiate the elimination of some of the deadliest weapons ever invented.

We should pause for a moment and savor this victory.

Joe Cirincione is president of Ploughshares Fund and the author of Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It Is Too Late. Geoffrey Wilson is a research assistant at Ploughshares Fund.