Last week, buried beneath banner headlines blaring about Obamacare hearings, National Security Agency surveillance revelations and the Boston Red Sox’ World Series win, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) quietly reported that Syria “has completed the functional destruction of critical equipment for all of its declared chemical weapons production facilities and mixing/filling plants, rendering them inoperable.”
On the heels of winning the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize, the unglamorous but undeniably effective OPCW, using saws, sledgehammers and cutting torches in the middle of a war zone, defied predictions by meeting the Nov. 1 deadline to disable Syria’s chemical weapons program. The bombshell was that there was no bombshell — at least, not of the unconscionable chemical kind.
This wasn’t just a vindication of President Obama’s decision to work with Russia on a non-military solution to the Syrian weapons crisis (and a well-deserved slap in the face to neoconservatives like Bill Kristol, who compared the president of the United States to Groucho Marx, “doing farcical pratfalls as he followed down Neville Chamberlain’s tragic path.”) It was also a success for international organizations like the United Nations and the OPCW, and, indeed, for diplomacy itself.
That the story made few waves was all the more surprising considering that when Secretary of State John Kerry first — and, as was widely presumed, mistakenly — suggested this path to disarmament, the perceived gaffe was thoroughly covered, parsed and even parodied.
Critics lambasted the Obama administration for backing away from its threat to use military force to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for likely launching a deadly chemical attack against his own people. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, echoed the sentiments of many when he said the United States, and President Obama, were “being led by the nose” by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But the manner in which we arrived at this moment seems to obscure the legitimate success we ought to celebrate. There remains, of course, difficult work ahead. The OPCW must meet a Nov. 15 deadline to destroy more than 1,000 metric tons of weapons stockpiles, even as fierce fighting continues in many of the parts of Syria where the weapons are located. Syria’s foreign minister requested that some weapons factories be spared , calling into question the country’s genuine commitment to disarmament. And the country’s deadly civil war continues unabated.
Still, even with these caveats, what the OPCW accomplished is no small victory. It’s a meaningful step toward meeting what has long been a major U.S. foreign policy goal – eliminating weapons of mass destruction.
After all, we invaded Iraq in 2003 under the guise of pursuing and destroying Saddam Hussein’s alleged stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. We engaged in years of economic sanctions, intelligence gathering and strategic talks to persuade Libya to give up its weapons stockpile. North Korea remains a global pariah, heavily sanctioned by the West, because of its nuclear weapons program. And Iran has been subjected to punishing sanctions for its presumed effort to develop a nuclear weapons capability.
In Syria, there have been no “Mission Accomplished” banners unfurled, no victory laps of any kind, underscoring — appropriately — the fragile and incomplete nature of this progress. And yet, it is progress all the same. Twenty heroic OPCW inspectors have successfully dismantled 21 out of 23 chemical weapons sites. They also secured the removal of weapons equipment from the two remaining sites that were too dangerous for them to reach.
The policy lesson is clear: when the United States has worked through the Security Council and other U.N. agencies, it has succeeded in ridding the region — including in Iraq in the 1990s and Libya in 2003-04 — of most weapons of mass destruction (except, of course, those possessed by Israel.) While the threat of American military force may have played a role in each case, the effectiveness of the U.N.’s inspection and disarmament capabilities is indisputable and will remain essential as the world seeks to remove weapons of mass destruction from areas of likely conflict.
But as encouraging as these signs may be, we cannot forget that Syria’s humanitarian crisis continues to worsen. Thousands of men, women and children are dead, millions more are displaced, and every day brings increasingly horrific accounts of violence, rape and torture. This is all the more reason to look at how diplomacy should be applied in seeking a negotiated solution to the civil war.
The diplomacy on Syria’s chemical weapons seems to be succeeding in part because Russia put its power and prestige on the line, not only in offering a political lifeline to President Obama, but also in pressuring the Assad government to act decisively to give up its weapons and cooperate with the United Nations. Now, the United States must use its own power and influence to encourage the main supporters and suppliers of the rebels — Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and others — to agree to participate in peace talks in Geneva without conditions.
Today, as envoys from the United States, Russia and the United Nations meet in Geneva to resurrect the long-delayed peace conference that was first proposed in May, they have the opportunity to build on the diplomatic progress of the past several weeks. The Syrian rebels — understandably — have been divided over whether to attend. But if the OPCW’s success has taught us anything, it’s that diplomacy is the only path to a lasting peace. Arriving at it, however, will take the courage to see the futility of what is now an internationally fueled civil war.