“We were able to get the Syrian government to voluntarily and verifiably give up its chemical weapons stockpile.”
As late as January of this year, former Obama national security advisor Susan Rice claimed the Obama administration successfully eradicated chemical weapons from Syria’s arsenal without using force.
Here we are less than four months and a brutal sarin bomb later and Rice’s claim has been proved more than just a little bit false.
During an interview with NPR on January 16, 2017, Rice said:
“We were able to find a solution that didn’t necessitate the use of force that actually removed the chemical weapons that were known from Syria, in a way that the use of force would never have accomplished. Our aim in contemplating the use of force following the use of chemical weapons in August of 2013 was not to intervene in the civil war, not to become involved in the combat between Assad and the opposition, but to deal with the threat of chemical weapons by virtue of the diplomacy that we did with Russia and with the Security Council. We were able to get the Syrian government to voluntarily and verifiably give up its chemical weapons stockpile.”
“Voluntarily and verifiably,” you say?
In rating Rice’s claims, the Washington Post pointed out that just four days before the NPR interview, “the Treasury Department sanctioned Syrian officials for use of chlorine in warfare.”
Nevertheless, she persisted.
Glenn Kessler explained at the WaPo (lengthy, but necessary):
Before the deal was struck on Syria’s chemical weapons, French intelligence estimated that Syria possessed more than 1,000 metric tons of chemical warfare agents and precursor chemicals, including mustard blister agent, sarin nerve agent, and VX nerve agent. Ultimately, Syria declared more than 1,300 tons of those materials and they were removed through the efforts of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
“The last of the remaining chemicals identified for removal from Syria were loaded this afternoon aboard the Danish ship Ark Futura,” Ahmet Üzümcü, the director-general of the OPCW, announced in June 2014. “The ship made its last call at the port of Latakia in what has been a long and patient campaign in support of this international endeavor. Removing the stockpile of precursor and other chemicals has been a fundamental condition in the program to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons program.”
Obama, in a statement at the time, said: “Today we mark an important achievement in our ongoing effort to counter the spread of weapons of mass destruction by eliminating Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpile.” But he added: “Serious questions remain with respect to the omissions and discrepancies in Syria’s declaration to the OPCW and about continued allegations of use.”
Generally, Kerry and other Obama officials were careful to slip in the phrase “declared” or “known” when discussing the removal of chemical weapons from Syria — although Kerry certainly flubbed it when he said “100 percent,” suggesting every weapon was removed.
So what about Syrian attacks involving chlorine? This is a so-called dual-use chemical with industrial uses, under the OPCW classification, and so it was not part of the deal with Syria. As for the recent sarin attack, either Syria held back some material or it created some new material since 2014, even though production facilities were supposed to be eliminated.
In 2015, Kerry slammed Syria for using chlorine in attacks against citizens, although Obama drew criticism for saying chlorine “historically has not been listed as a chemical weapon, but when it is used in this fashion, can be considered a prohibited use of that particular chemical.” Meanwhile, OPCW in 2015 and 2016 reported finding traces of sarin and VX nerve agent at Syrian facilities that had not been declared to inspectors or previously visited.
In July 2016, six months before Rice’s remarks, the OPCW director-general declared the agency “was not able to resolve all identified gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies in Syria’s declaration and therefore could not fully verify that Syria had submitted a declaration that could be considered accurate and complete in accordance with the Chemical Weapons Convention.”
“The majority of 122 samples taken at ‘multiple locations’ in Syria ‘indicate potentially undeclared chemical weapons-related activities,” said a confidential two-page summary by Üzümcü obtained by Foreign Policy magazine. “Many of Syria’s explanations for the presence of undeclared agents, he added, ‘are not scientifically or technically plausible, and … the presence of several undeclared chemical warfare agents is still to be clarified.’”
Kerry’s “exit memo” to Obama, released 11 days before Rice’s remarks on NPR, acknowledged that Syria continued to use “undeclared” chemical weapons. “Removing these weapons from Syria ensured that they could not be used — by the Assad regime or by terrorist groups like ISIL — but unfortunately other undeclared chemical weapons continue to be used ruthlessly on the Syrian people,” Kerry wrote. “While we have made progress, we cannot and will not rest until the Syrian people can no longer be gassed and terrorized by these vicious weapons.”
In explaining why Kessler gave Rice’s claims a whole four Pinocchios, he wrote:
…the Obama administration had a tendency to oversell what was accomplished, perhaps because Obama received so much criticism for not following through on an attack if Syria crossed what Obama had called “a red line.” We have a reasonable-person test here at The Fact Checker, and it’s doubtful many NPR listeners realized that “known” was code for the fact that Rice only was referring to chemical weapons stocks declared by Syria — or that chlorine weapons were not covered by the agreement.
Obama’s administration knew Syria was conducting extra-legal chemical weapons tests and chose to toot their “diplomacy in action” horn rather than expose the underhanded workings of Assad. In that light, four Pinocchios is generous.
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