Why you should care
What could be more important than ending (or at least reducing) terrorism?
Nothing like it had ever been tried before. Stores of deadly chemical weapons, including mustard gas and 600 metric tons of a chemical precursor for sarin, were transported across warring front lines in Syria in 2013 and early 2014, in immediate danger of falling into the hands of jihadists or being blown to pieces. Improbably, the mission worked: Syria’s chemicals are now being neutralized by the U.S. Navy’s Field Deployable Hydrolysis Systems in the Mediterranean Sea.
Getting Syria to give up its chemical weapons and sign the Chemical Weapons Convention has been hailed as a major diplomatic achievement. It’s also raised an intriguing possibility: If a vicious authoritarian regime can hand over its chemical weapons during an open war, why couldn’t North Korea be convinced to give up its stocks — or even ISIS its presumed stocks? It might sound far-fetched, but the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons says the Syrian precedent could be a model. “There has been a lessons-learned process to assess … how the mission might be replicated, in some form or another,” said Michael Luhan, a spokesman for the organization, although he wouldn’t go into any details.
To be sure, the circumstances of the Syrian handover would be difficult to contrive. The nation faced imminent air strikes in September 2013, after it was blamed for a chemical attack that killed 1,429 people. In apparently off-the-cuff remarks, Secretary of State John Kerry suggested air strikes would be averted if Syria gave up its arsenal. Moscow pounced on the opportunity, and within hours Damascus had agreed not only to the idea but also to sign the CWC. The OPCW seized its chance, and while coordinating with U.N. officials in Damascus, it found Syrian authorities receptive. OPCW chemical weapons inspectors were on the ground within weeks. (This week, without laying blame, an OPCW report found that chemical weapons were again used in eastern Syria last year.)
People say that Islamic State is quite different from previous groups … but that is what we say every time we meet a new group.
Jonathan Powell, British diplomat and author
That September 2013 series of events may seem a fluke, but an overriding lesson remains: Negotiations, the core of disarmament, are not always as impossible as they may appear. That might even go for North Korea, which has never admitted to having chemical weapons but is thought to produce 20 different chemical agents for use in weapons, according to the website 38 North, and has the largest stocks in the world after the U.S. and Russia. Observers say that in a war situation, which Pyongyang regularly threatens on the United States and neighboring South Korea, it could deploy chemical attacks as a precursor to a full assault on the South.
According to Joseph Bermudez, an expert on North Korea’s military programs, speaking to North Korea about reducing its chemical weapons inventory and using the Syria example would be “useful” but unlikely to lead anywhere. “It would be an extremely difficult hurdle to overcome to first have them admit to a chemical weapons program and stockpile and then to discuss the means by which to dispose of it,” he said. North Korea remains one of six countries not to have signed the CWC, too.
But negotiations between it and the international community — even America — are not unheard of. In 1994, negotiations over the former’s nuclear program resulted in the easing of sanctions that led to improved access for inspectors, and since 1996 the release of at least nine Americans has been secured, including two just last November.
It’s not just with rogue states that a Syria-type solution may work. It’s with terrorist group ISIS as well, which some believe has captured chemical materials that could be weaponized. Diplomats and analysts believe the would-be caliphate might be around for a decade to come. Though public negotiating with terrorists has long been a no-go for Western governments, governments often do negotiate behind the scenes. In October, Turkey secured the release of dozens of diplomatic staff and truck drivers abducted by ISIS in Mosul, Iraq, last June. ISIS elements were also willing, for a time at least, to negotiate the release of Western hostages that ultimately failed for separate reasons.
“People say that Islamic State is quite different from previous groups … but that is what we say every time we meet a new group,” wrote Jonathan Powell, a British diplomat and author of Talking to Terrorists: How to End Armed Conflicts. Powell noted that governments often open up “secret channels to terrorist groups” via intelligence services, which lay the groundwork for negotiations.
As the world’s second largest holder of chemical weapons at around 40,000 tons declared and at least 15,000 more thought to be held in secret, Russia is another key chemical weapons concern. The country “agreed many years ago to get rid of its CW [and] is spending much money on it,” said Dan Kaszeta of Strongpoint Security, a U.K.-based consultancy. But it’s hugely expensive, and demilitarization remains incomplete. Meanwhile, ties between Russia and the West are at their lowest ebb since the Cold War, and the proposition of reenacting the Syria case may be remote.
Yet, the handover of Syria’s chemicals couldn’t have worked without Russia’s direct involvement. The OPCW and Moscow have regularly hailed each other’s efforts on the Syria project, meaning the OPCW is in a unique position to act as a go-between for Washington, Moscow, Damascus and even Tehran. Analysts say lining up these foes could be crucial to getting deadly chemicals out of the hands of ISIS.
As for ISIS? No country has emerged to influence ISIS the way Russia does Syria, and today chances of the jihadist group signing up to the CWC are unthinkable and unpractical because the U.N. Security Council’s mandate for weapons destruction applies only to states. However, history is a great educator: After more than a decade of fighting the Taliban, the United States succeeded in bringing it to the negotiating table in 2013. The event just underscored what might make the Syrian experiment a precedent, not just adventurous thinking: We are living in an era of continual geopolitical surprises. Some are even good.