Webcast Recap

Charles Duelfer, former Director of the Iraq Survey Group and former Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, discussed the practical challenges of implementing the U.S.-Russian agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons.

On September 27, the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center and the Los Alamos National Laboratory held a meeting on “Challenges of Chemical Weapons Disarmament in Syria” with Duelfer, who talked about the chemical weapons agreement that calls on the Assad regime to provide an inventory of its weapons stockpile and agree to a timetable for their removal and ultimate destruction. Robert Litwak, Vice President for Scholars and Academic Relations at the Wilson Center, moderated the event. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, provided opening remarks.

Litwak began by noting the timeliness of the topic of discussion because the UN Security Council is set to vote on a resolution, brokered by the United States and Russia, to eliminate Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons. U.S. officials have stated that the UN resolution will be binding and enforceable under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter.

Duelfer first addressed the events of the Ghouta chemical attack and caused the deaths of over 1000 civilians. He noted how quickly the international community responded to the events, and how the response changed from a military one, to a political one, particularly in the last two weeks. On September 10, Obama delivered an address to the nation to make the case for a military strike against the Syrian government, saying the purpose of the strike would be to degrade Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities and to deter future chemical attacks. Duelfer noted that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov proposed a feasible, non-military solution for Syria to hand over its chemical weapons to UN weapons inspectors. The burden of proof would be on the Syrian government, which Duelfer noted would act as an incentive for Assad, because it would bolster the international legitimacy of his regime.

Referencing the chemical weapons destruction program in Iraq in the early 1990s, Duelfer explained that the operation in Syria would be easier because it has not been subjected to an external military attack. Additionally, the bulk of the destruction of chemical weapons in Iraq took place in the first 18 months of the operation (between 1992 and 1994), which sets an optimistic precedent for a potentially expedited timeline in Syria. For example, a milestone that could be achieved within 3 months would be to get rid of materials that are used in chemical weapons, and destroy key equipment to prevent more chemical weapons from being produced. Duelfer suggested that the most difficult part of the process would be guaranteeing the safety of the inspectors, and preventing attacks from insurgent groups. Duelfer believes that this will also fulfill the U.S. objectives to “degrade and deter,” but this plan has a much higher probability of success than a military strike.

Duelfer said there is a tension between negotiating with the Assad government, thereby legitimizing it, and pushing for regime change. However, he argued that this would still provide a better outcome than a military strike. He also explained that moving chemical weapons to another country to destroy them would not be too difficult; it is possible that there are already facilities within Syria with destruction capabilities, which would simplify the process. Duelfer cautioned that while this political solution may be a positive step for the Assad government, the regime may still have biological weapons capabilities.

By Samaa Ahmed, Middle East Program

Speakers

  • Charles Duelfer

    Former Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar and Former Deputy Executive Chairman of the UN Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM), 1993-2000