We Can Stop Syria by Using Lessons From Iraq

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Op-Ed Washington Post
The Syria crisis presents a great opportunity. If an international effort successfully disarms Syria's chemical arsenal, and that success is recognized, the positive repercussions would be felt far beyond the Middle East.
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A little-known truth about the Iraq war has much to tell us — positive and negative — about the prospects of dealing diplomatically with Syria’s chemical weapons. The inspections carried out by the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) were anything but the fool’s mission pooh-poohed by the Bush administration. In fact, they were a striking international success.

The story most Americans remember is that Saddam Hussein turned out not to have nuclear, chemical, biological and missile programs. He had had them, all right, but U.N. inspectors had found and largely dismantled them before the war. From 1991 to 1998, the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM) and the IAEA discovered and eliminated most, if not all, of Iraq’s unconventional weapons and production facilities, and they destroyed most of its chemical and biological weapons agents. Iraq’s most secret program — its biological weapons effort — was discovered through painstaking detection. Covert transactions among Iraq and more than 500 companies from 40 countries were uncovered one by one, and a mechanism was put in place to block banned imports. In the lead-up to the war, while national intelligence services were getting the story wrong, U.N. inspectors knew pretty much what was there and where to look for it.

Inspections were not a matter of running around searching for needles in a haystack. They involved conducting lengthy interviews, building relationships with key individuals, assembling a story from person to person, carrying out technical analysis, sifting records and physical visits. Sanctions, procurement investigations and export-import controls were all essential.

Any international operation in Syria must be adequately funded. It must not be, as happened with inspections in Iraq, nickeled-and-dimed and its budget simply subtracted from participating agencies. In its seven years, UNSCOM’s annual budget was $25 million to $30 million. In 15 months after the war, a U.S. survey team spent $900 million — and came up empty-handed. If an international effort is mounted, it must be done right. It will still come at a cost equal to hours of a war.

The biggest mistake made after Iraq can’t now be rectified: the failure to recognize success by creating a permanent U.N. inspections and monitoring body. Once again an effort will have to be created from scratch rather than deployed from a trained, standing organization. Inspections are not a magic bullet against proliferation, but they are an obvious part of a layered defense. Intelligence from a distance can never do what a physical presence, armed with an international writ, can do, and international regimes without serious enforcement too easily become a joke.

A similar success could be carried out and sustained indefinitely in Syria if the operation were to build on the lessons of Iraq.

United political backing is a necessity from the beginning. Although the inspection teams in Iraq, particularly in the early years, were poorly equipped, penetrated by Iraqi spying and blatantly obstructed on the ground, their greatest weakness lay in New York. Hussein played the major powers against each other in the United Nations until political support was so eroded that inspections were forced to halt in 1998. Presumably, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad would seek to do the same. The U.N. Security Council must not again allow the rules of procedure to tilt in favor of the miscreant and against its own agents, and it must recognize that the political accord behind the operation is as important as technology and expertise on the ground. Most of all, that means being clear that this is an effort to corral chemical weapons, not to resolve a civil war.

Stable, two-way communication between the international inspections and many national intelligence agencies also is essential. The arrangements must protect the information provided, prevent misuse by governments and allow feedback at both ends as discoveries are made. In his speech to the U.N. General Assembly in 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell pointed to pictures of “signature items” in satellite photos that he said were chemical weapons decontamination vehicles. Inspectors who had visited the sites insisted the vehicles were water trucks. How much of the 30 million-page archive produced by the inspectors did U.S. analysts study before the war?

Part of what has made Americans unwilling to take military action in Syria is the obvious discrepancy between what President Obama describes as a global threat and a unilateral U.S. response — perhaps with a few others holding our coats. Because weapons of mass destruction are a global threat, success can never be achieved if the rest of the world views controlling them as a U.S. responsibility or that of a handful of major powers. The Syria crisis, then, presents a great opportunity: If an international effort disarms Syria’s chemical arsenal, and that success is recognized and built upon in ways that success in Iraq was not, the positive repercussions would be felt far beyond the Middle East.

The work will be frustrating and slow. Assad will not cooperate any more than Saddam Hussein did. But as long as he is deterred from using the weapons while the effort is underway, there is no rush. The goal need not be perfection — as it would not be from a military strike. How much better off is the world if just 90 percent of Syria’s weapons are disposed of? The continuing fighting will make things tough for inspectors, but the chemical weapons will be in the regime’s safest, best-guarded places. Technically, this can be done. Politically, it could be a winner.

This article was originally published in the Washington Post.

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About the Middle East Program

The Carnegie Middle East Program combines in-depth local knowledge with incisive comparative analysis to examine economic, sociopolitical, and strategic interests in the Arab world. Through detailed country studies and the exploration of key crosscutting themes, the Carnegie Middle East Program, in coordination with the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, provides analysis and recommendations in both English and Arabic that are deeply informed by knowledge and views from the region. The program has special expertise in political reform and Islamist participation in pluralistic politics.


Comments (4)

  • fasteddie
    what about Israel's vast chemical weapons arsenal?
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  • HD Jopp
    Many thanks for this article remebering the work done in Iraq by IAEA and UNSCOM. May be one should also remeber the good working together of the people inside the inspection teams and in New York. Many states, not only the US, RUS, UK and F, send highly skilled people to fight against the tricks of Iraqi officials. but also the pressure of national intelligence like CIA, DIA and others.
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  • Javed Mir
    --of mass destruction are a global threat--

    But the mother of these weapons is USA itself!
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  • Jim Terral
    This article is an excellent reminder of what may be the most important information about going to war in Iraq. However, is it correct to conclude from the success of inspections that the biggest mistake made after Iraq was "the failure to recognize success by creating a permanent U.N. inspections and monitoring body"? Many who followed that sorry soap opera episode by episode felt that the biggest mistake was believing anything Bush and his administration said in the first place. Lies from beginning to end; the fools were those who believed that a President of the the US is somehow married--or even loosely connected to the truth. With that sober caveat in mind, yet another question demands an answer. We may be able to stop Syria by using lessons learned from Iraq, but how do we stop the United States?
    Reply to this post

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Source http://carnegieendowment.org/2013/09/13/we-can-stop-syria-by-using-lessons-from-iraq/gn63

Syria in Crisis

In Fact



of the Chinese general public

believe their country should share a global leadership role.


of Indian parliamentarians

have criminal cases pending against them.


charter schools in the United States

are linked to Turkey’s Gülen movement.


thousand tons of chemical weapons

are in North Korea’s possession.


of import tariffs

among Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru have been eliminated.


trillion a year

is unaccounted for in official Chinese income statistics.


of GDP in oil-exporting Arab countries

comes from the mining sector.


of Europeans and Turks

are opposed to intervention in Syria.


of Russian exports to China

are hydrocarbons; machinery accounts for less than 1%.


of undiscovered oil

is in the Arctic.


U.S. government shutdowns

occurred between 1976 and 1996.


of Ukrainians

want an “international economic union” with the EU.


million electric bicycles

are used in Chinese cities.


of the world’s energy supply

is consumed by cities.


of today’s oils

require unconventional extraction techniques.


of the world's population

will reside in cities by 2050.


of Syria’s population

is expected to be displaced by the end of 2013.


of the U.S. economy

is consumed by healthcare.


of Brazilian protesters

learned about a massive rally via Facebook or Twitter.


million cases pending

in India’s judicial system.

1 in 3


now needs urgent assistance.


political parties

contested India’s last national elections.


of Egypt's labor force

works in the private sector.


of oil consumed in the United States

is for the transportation sector.


of Chechnya’s pre-1994 population

has fled to different parts of the world.


of oil consumed in China

was from foreign sources in 2012.


billion in goods and services

traded between the United States and China in 2012.


billion in foreign investment and oil revenue

have been lost by Iran because of its nuclear program.


increase in China’s GDP per capita

between 1972 and today.


billion have been spent

to complete the Bushehr nuclear reactor in Iran.


of Iran’s electricity needs

is all the Bushehr nuclear reactor provides.



were imprisoned in Turkey as of August 2012 according to the OSCE.

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