State Dep’t Sees Syria’s Surrender of Chemical Weapons As a Punishment for Using Them

By Patrick Goodenough | June 24, 2014 | 4:15 AM EDT

Containers carrying deadly chemical weapons handed over to Western powers by the Syrian regime are photographed on a Danish cargo ship in Cyprus coastal waters on May 13, 2014. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)

( – As the last of Syria’s declared chemical weapons were handed over, the Obama administration maintained Monday that the Assad regime had reaped consequences for its use of the deadly agents to kill more than 1,400 Syrians. But when asked what price Syria had paid, the administration pointed only to the arsenal’s surrender.

Asked what consequences Syria had suffered in the end for having used chemical weapons (CW) on its citizens last August, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf replied, “they have lost their entire declared stockpile of them.”

“So your view is that their choice to give them up is a consequence?” a reporter asked.

“Yes, absolutely, I do,” Harf said.

The reporter compared that to someone using a gun to kill someone, then giving up the weapon under pressure. While he had surrendered the gun, he said, “is that a punishment?”

“That gun can never be used ever again to harm anyone else,” Harf interjected.

Asked again whether that amounted to a consequence for the regime, she again replied in the affirmative.

“Yes, I think that the Syrians gave up a weapon that they liked having in their arsenal and clearly showed themselves willing to use,” she said.

In the days after the deadly Aug. 21 attack near Damascus, President Obama signaled his intention to order punitive airstrikes against President Bashar Assad’s regime, in response to the first known use of the outlawed weapons since Iraq’s Saddam Hussein employed them to kill thousands of Kurds in 1988.

Secretary of State John Kerry led the effort to win public and congressional backing for such action, and both he and Obama warned that failure to exact consequences on Assad would send a message of weakness to others, like Iran.

“If we won’t enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules?” Obama asked on August 31, the day he first announced he would seek congressional authorization for military action.

Then, at a time when the administration was struggling to get support on Capitol Hill for the airstrikes, Russia stepped in with a proposal that its ally in Damascus surrender the CW stockpile. The deal was duly struck and enshrined in a U.N. Security Council resolution, and Obama shelved the military action plan.

Speaking in Baghdad on Monday, Kerry hailed the handover of the final eight percent of the 1,300 tons of declared CW stocks, saying it marked “a major accomplishment on a strategic level,” although he also conceded there was more work to do.

Syrian slow-walking of the Russian-brokered agreement meant the June 30 deadline for the agents’ actual destruction – on a U.S. container ship tasked with neutralizing the chemicals at sea off the coast of Italy – will not be met. The regime also hindered efforts to destroy 12 CW production facilities, a step which under the agreement should have been completed by mid-March but has yet to take place.

Moreover, U.N. investigators are yet to get to the bottom of the suspected use by the regime in recent months of chlorine gas, which was not among the declared chemical weapons. And administration officials have voiced concerns that Assad may not have declared all his CW in the first place. Harf said Monday it was “certainly possible” that the regime still possessed some CW it had failed to declare.

Still, Kerry welcomed the handover of the final CWs of those declared.

“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,” he said in a statement.

Obama’s decision to back away from the planned airstrikes drew strong reactions, both at home and in the region – particular from those who had hoped the U.S. action would speed up the regime’s downfall and an end to a long and deadly war.

Influential Saudi prince Turki al-Faisal called the CW agreement a charade, “designed not only to give Mr. Obama an opportunity to back down, but also to help Assad to butcher his people.”

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates called the episode “one of the sad stories of the president’s foreign policy,” while former CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden said the incident had left him embarrassed, and had “cost in so many ways.”

Reinforcing the notion that the CW deal had in fact bolstered Assad, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told a congressional committee in February that Assad “is actually in a strengthened position than when we discussed this last year by virtue of his agreement to remove the chemical weapons.”

Kerry at the time disputed that argument.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow