By Borzou Daragahi
September 11, 2013
Western leaders were sceptical when the Libyan leader Mu’ammar Gaddafi offered to open up his nation’s chemical and nuclear weapons sites for inspections in 2003. Months later, when CIA and MI6 operatives were scouring weapons sites and interviewing scientists, there were no longer any doubts about the ruler’s willingness to dismantle his weapons of mass destruction programme.
Many in 2007 were also sceptical about Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s assurances that an alleged nuclear site destroyed by Israeli air strikes in the country’s eastern province of Deir Ezzour was nothing more than an unused military facility. He granted the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors access to the site, but only nearly a year after it was bombed by Israelis and subsequently bulldozed and dismantled.
The Damascus regime is apparently agreeing to open up and dismantle its chemical weapons sites following an alleged gas attack on August 21 on civilians near the capital. But the contrast between the Libyan and Syrian paths on weapons of mass destruction suggests the huge gap between the west’s and Damascus’s expectations in the weeks ahead, and the meagre chances for a resolution of the crisis.
Spooked by the US toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime over its non-existent weapons of mass destruction, Libya’s strongman in 2003 worried about what the newly triumphant administration in Washington would do over his very real nuclear and chemical arms programmes. His economy was in shambles, and apart from a few corrupt African leaders dependent on his handouts, he had few allies.
Syria is facing a US worn out by a decade of military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan and an administration reluctant to become further entangled in the region. Though Mr Assad’s economy is a disaster, in Russia, China, Iran, Iraq and the Lebanese group Hizbollah he finds powerful and wealthy allies who can supply him with weapons, troops financial credits and diplomatic cover.
Western observers were stunned by Libya’s openness about its programme. Within weeks of a deal, western intelligence agents were allowed into the country and spent hours with Libyan scientists “who were prepared to disclose all aspects of their WMD programmes”, according to a 2009 assessment by a former weapons inspector. US and British experts visited, collected environmental samples and took pictures at secret weapons sites, laboratories and factories, including facilities they had not known about.
In contrast, weapons inspectors attempting to clear up questions about Syria’s nuclear programme were given the runaround for years. “Syria has not co-operated with the agency since June 2008 in connection with the unresolved issues related to the Deir Ezzour site and the other three locations allegedly functionally related to it,” an IAEA report concluded in November 2010. “As a consequence, the agency has not been able to make progress towards resolving the outstanding issues related to those sites.”
Western officials moved quickly in Libya. Over the course of 2004, western technical experts in Libya were allowed to read thousands of pages of documents to come up with verifiable ways and dismantling strategies. Sensitive documents and the most potentially volatile substances were put on to aircraft and quickly taken out of the country.
But the Syrian regime rarely does anything quickly and has a history of obstinately waiting out international pressure. The IAEA’s board voted in 2011 to slap Syria with a non-compliance ruling and referred the matter to the UN Security Council, where it has languished in what could be a preview of the diplomatic tangle about to unfold over the Damascus regime’s chemical weapons stockpile.
Moreover, Libya was a geostrategic cul-de-sac. Syria’s security infrastructure is deeply integrated into that of its primary regional ally, Iran, which will probably press Damascus not to accept efforts by western officials to interview military scientists or inspect sites and documents lest they penetrate the regime’s inner workings too closely. UN monitors attempting to police a doomed internationally-brokered ceasefire in Syria last year also chafed against the machinations of the secretive regime.
The international community has embraced Syria’s offer to open its weapons sites as a way to avoid war. But the western notion of transparency, grounded in the Libyan experience, will clash with the Syrian regime’s vision of consistently stalling and manipulating international watchdogs.