The United States said Monday that it had completed the destruction of the deadliest chemical weapons in Syria's arsenal, a rare foreign policy achievement for President Obama at a time when the Middle East is embroiled in violence and political turmoil. The announcement comes a year after President Bashar al-Assad of Syria used sarin gas to kill more than 1,000 people in a Damascus suburb, crossing what Mr. Obama had called a "red line" that would force the United States to respond. Facing the prospect of an American military intervention, the Syrian government agreed to a deal brokered by the United States and Russia, promising to destroy its chemical weapons program by the middle of this year.
It's been nearly a year since President Obama, poised to launch a military strike in Syria, saw an unexpected breakthrough: the Assad government agreed to give up its chemical weapons and join the international Convention on Chemical Weapons. As we talked about in June, the international framework included an agreement from Russia, arguably Syria's most powerful ally, to help enforce the deal.
For much of the Beltway, this is still characterized as a failure for the Obama administration. It's never been altogether clear to me why that is.
Away from the political chatter, however, efforts have been ongoing to ensure Syrian cooperation with its obligations under the diplomatic framework. As the New York Times reports, the process has gone exceptionally well.
The announcement came ahead of schedule. President Obama said in a statement that the news "advances our collective goal to ensure that the Assad regime cannot use its chemical arsenal against the Syrian people and sends a clear message that the use of these abhorrent weapons has consequences and will not be tolerated by the international community."
Kate Brannen added, "Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called Navy Capt. Richard Dromerhauser aboard the U.S. container ship MV Cape Ray Monday morning, Aug. 18, to congratulate his crew on finishing their work weeks ahead of schedule, according to the Pentagon. It was the first time the United States ever attempted to destroy chemical weapons at sea."
This is no small victory.
I'm reminded of a recent quote from Ahmet Uzumcu, director general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons: "Never before has an entire arsenal of a category of weapons of mass destruction been removed from a country experiencing a state of internal armed conflict. And this has been accomplished within very demanding and tight time frames."
When Obama and U.S. coalition partners reached this agreement, critics assumed the framework would fail and the president would be humiliated by the inevitable failure. As it turns out, the opposite has happened -- the Obama administration's policy has worked.
I don't want to overstate the case, because it comes with caveats. Syria's declared chemical weapons have been destroyed, safely and ahead of schedule. Questions remain, however, about possible hidden weapons that the Assad regime may still have.
That said, the U.S. and its partners have nevertheless taken a huge step in ridding Syria of its chemical weapons. It seems almost inappropriate in some circles to acknowledge Obama's foreign policy successes, especially in the Middle East, especially when the U.S. military didn't have to fire a shot, but this is an accomplishment Americans can feel good about.