(CNSNews.com) – The Obama administration’s assertions about the surrender and destruction of President Bashar al-Assad’s stockpile of chemical weapons are back under the microscope following last week’s toxic gas attack on a town in northwestern Syria.
In 2015, President Obama said he had not gone ahead with promised military action against the regime after a deadly sarin gas attack near Damascus in 2013, “because Assad gave up his chemical weapons.”
“And I don’t think that there are a lot of folks in the region who are disappointed that Assad is no longer in possession of one of the biggest stockpiles of chemical weapons of any country on Earth,” he said. “Those have been eliminated.”
The April 4 attack in Khan Sheikhun, which cost the lives of more than 80 people and may again have involved sarin gas, triggered the first direct U.S. military action ever against the regime that has ruled Syria for 47 years.
Defense Secretary James Mattis said Monday the firing of 59 cruise missiles from two U.S. Navy destroyers in the Mediterranean was intended to “show the United States will not passively stand by while [President Bashar] Assad murders innocent people with chemical weapons, which are prohibited by international law and which were declared destroyed.”
His reference to the weapons having been “declared destroyed” relates to a deal brokered by Moscow in 2013 under which Assad agreed to hand over all declared chemical weapons stocks for destruction. That agreement followed an earlier deadly chemical weapons attack, in Ghouta near Damascus, also blamed by the West on the Assad regime.
The process, supervised by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), involved the shipping of the lethal materials on Scandinavian cargo vessels to Italy. From there, some were destroyed on MV Cape Ray, a U.S. container ship modified to neutralize the agents at sea, and others were destroyed at commercial land-based facilities in Britain, the U.S. and Finland.
The OPCW later reported – as it has done in monthly update reports ever since – that all of the chemical weapons “declared” by the regime and removed from the country in 2014 had been destroyed.
A joint OPCW-U.N. investigation team later reported on evidence that the regime used chlorine as a weapon in 2014 and 2015, and that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) terrorist group used sulphur mustard gas in 2015.
(Since chlorine has peaceful applications it is not generally listed as a chemical weapon, but according to the OPCW, “a toxic or precursor chemical [such as chlorine or hydrogen cyanide] may be defined as a chemical weapon depending on its intended purpose.”)
Syria and its Russian and Iranian allies insist that “all” the chemical weapons were handed over and destroyed – and therefore that any subsequent use inside Syria must be attributed to anti-Assad rebels.
But some former officials of the Obama administration have also been accused of misleading on the matter.
Former national security advisor Susan Rice was awarded four Pinocchios by the Washington Post’s “Fact checker” column on Monday for saying in an NPR interview in January, “We were able to get the Syrian government to voluntarily and verifiably give up its chemical weapons stockpile.”
As reported earlier, former deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes in a tweet Monday referred to “all” of Syria’s chemical weapons having been removed and “destroyed through diplomacy.”
‘Syria has not declared all the elements of its chemical weapons program’
The Obama administration portrayed the deal struck with Russia as a diplomatic coup, far more effective in dealing with the problem of chemical weapons use in Syria than limited military strikes against the regime would ever have been.
As early as 2014, then-Secretary of State John Kerry said in a television interview he had “struck a deal [with the Russians] where we got 100 percent of the chemical weapons out.”
(Elsewhere in the same interview, Kerry used slightly different wording, referring to “100 percent of the declared chemical weapons.”)
President Obama himself, defending himself later against criticism for not going ahead with pledged military action after Assad violated his “red line,” also implied the agreement had removed all of the chemical weapons from Assad’s grasp.
“We positioned ourselves to be willing to take military action,” he told reporters in May 2015. “The reason we did not was because Assad gave up his chemical weapons. That’s not speculation on our part; that, in fact, has been confirmed by the organization internationally that is charged with eliminating chemical weapons.”
“And I don’t think that there are a lot of folks in the region who are disappointed that Assad is no longer in possession of one of the biggest stockpiles of chemical weapons of any country on Earth,” Obama added. “Those have been eliminated.”
Three months before Obama’s comments, then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper had said in the intelligence community’s 2015 worldwide threat assessment that the U.S. and its allies were still working with the OPCW to “verify the completeness and accuracy” of the regime’s chemical weapons declaration.
By the time his next annual report came out, in Feb. 2016, Clapper said the intelligence community now assessed “that Syria has not declared all the elements of its chemical weapons program to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).”
“Despite the creation of a specialized team and months of work by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to address gaps and inconsistencies in Syria’s declaration, numerous issues remain unresolved,” the report said.
Tony Blinken, who was deputy national security advisor at the time of the Syria chemical weapons agreement and later served as deputy secretary of state, told the New York Times this week, “We always knew we had not gotten everything, that the Syrians had not been fully forthcoming in their [chemical weapons] declaration.”