In the wake of President Trump’s cruise-missile strike against Syria for apparent use of sarin nerve agent against civilians, many readers have asked The Fact Checker to examine this quote by former national security adviser Susan E. Rice. We had not fact-checked it previously, but it certainly raises questions.
Our colleagues at PolitiFact have already removed from its website a fact check that had rated this 2014 statement by then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry as mostly true: “We got 100 percent of the chemical weapons out.”
Rice’s comments were a bit more nuanced than Kerry’s but still are problematic. Let’s take a look.
In her NPR interview, Rice acknowledged that the Syrian civil war was the administration’s biggest disappointment but she pointed to the removal of chemical weapons from Syria as an achievement. President Barack Obama scrubbed a planned attack on Syrian facilities — which planners believed would have left two-thirds of Syria’s chemical weapons intact — in exchange for a diplomatic solution that was to result in the removal of all chemical weapons.
Rice said: “We were able to find a solution that didn’t necessitate the use of force that actually removed the chemical weapons that were known from Syria, in a way that the use of force would never have accomplished. … We were able to get the Syrian government to voluntarily and verifiably give up its chemical weapons stockpile.”
But almost a year before Rice made those comments, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. had told Congress that Syria had continued to use chemical weapons, such as chlorine, against its own people:
“We assess that Syria has not declared all the elements of its chemical weapons program to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Despite the creation of a specialized team and months of work by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to address gaps and inconsistencies in Syria’s declaration, numerous issues remain unresolved. Moreover, we continue to judge that the Syrian regime has used chemicals as a means of warfare since accession to the CWC in 2013. The OPCW Fact-Finding Mission has concluded that chlorine had been used on Syrian opposition forces in multiple incidents in 2014 and 2015. Helicopters — which only the Syrian regime possesses — were used in several of these attacks.”
Just four days before Rice’s comments, the Treasury Department sanctioned Syrian officials for use of chlorine in warfare. “The Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own people is a heinous act that violates the long-standing global norm against the production and use of chemical weapons,” said Adam J. Szubin, acting undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence. “Today’s action is a critical part of the international community’s effort to hold the Syrian regime accountable for violating the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and UN Security Council Resolution 2118.”
An associate of Rice pointed to the phrase “known” in her comments: “We were able to find a solution that didn’t necessitate the use of force that actually removed the chemical weapons that were known from Syria.” More technically, this refers to Syria’s “declared” chemical weapons.
Before the deal was struck on Syria’s chemical weapons, French intelligence estimated that Syria possessed more than 1,000 metric tons of chemical warfare agents and precursor chemicals, including mustard blister agent, sarin nerve agent, and VX nerve agent. Ultimately, Syria declared more than 1,300 tons of those materials and they were removed through the efforts of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
“The last of the remaining chemicals identified for removal from Syria were loaded this afternoon aboard the Danish ship Ark Futura,” Ahmet Üzümcü, the director-general of the OPCW, announced in June 2014. “The ship made its last call at the port of Latakia in what has been a long and patient campaign in support of this international endeavor. Removing the stockpile of precursor and other chemicals has been a fundamental condition in the program to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons program.”
Obama, in a statement at the time, said: “Today we mark an important achievement in our ongoing effort to counter the spread of weapons of mass destruction by eliminating Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpile.” But he added: “Serious questions remain with respect to the omissions and discrepancies in Syria’s declaration to the OPCW and about continued allegations of use.”
Generally, Kerry and other Obama officials were careful to slip in the phrase “declared” or “known” when discussing the removal of chemical weapons from Syria — although Kerry certainly flubbed it when he said “100 percent,” suggesting every weapon was removed.
So what about Syrian attacks involving chlorine? This is a so-called dual-use chemical with industrial uses, under the OPCW classification, and so it was not part of the deal with Syria. As for the recent sarin attack, either Syria held back some material or it created some new material since 2014, even though production facilities were supposed to be eliminated.
In 2015, Kerry slammed Syria for using chlorine in attacks against citizens, although Obama drew criticism for saying chlorine “historically has not been listed as a chemical weapon, but when it is used in this fashion, can be considered a prohibited use of that particular chemical.” Meanwhile, OPCW in 2015 and 2016 reported finding traces of sarin and VX nerve agent at Syrian facilities that had not been declared to inspectors or previously visited.
In July 2016, six months before Rice’s remarks, the OPCW director-general declared the agency “was not able to resolve all identified gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies in Syria’s declaration and therefore could not fully verify that Syria had submitted a declaration that could be considered accurate and complete in accordance with the Chemical Weapons Convention.”
“The majority of 122 samples taken at ‘multiple locations’ in Syria ‘indicate potentially undeclared chemical weapons-related activities,” said a confidential two-page summary by Üzümcü obtained by Foreign Policy magazine. “Many of Syria’s explanations for the presence of undeclared agents, he added, ‘are not scientifically or technically plausible, and … the presence of several undeclared chemical warfare agents is still to be clarified.'”
Kerry’s “exit memo” to Obama, released 11 days before Rice’s remarks on NPR, acknowledged that Syria continued to use “undeclared” chemical weapons. “Removing these weapons from Syria ensured that they could not be used — by the Assad regime or by terrorist groups like ISIL — but unfortunately other undeclared chemical weapons continue to be used ruthlessly on the Syrian people,” Kerry wrote. “While we have made progress, we cannot and will not rest until the Syrian people can no longer be gassed and terrorized by these vicious weapons.”
The Pinocchio Test
The removal of vast quantities of chemical weapons from Syria’s soil was indeed an achievement. When Obama contemplated attacking Syria, a major problem with his plan was that most of the chemical weapons would not have been destroyed.
But the Obama administration had a tendency to oversell what was accomplished, perhaps because Obama received so much criticism for not following through on an attack if Syria crossed what Obama had called “a red line.” We have a reasonable-person test here at The Fact Checker, and it’s doubtful many NPR listeners realized that “known” was code for the fact that Rice only was referring to chemical weapons stocks declared by Syria — or that chlorine weapons were not covered by the agreement.
The reality is that there were continued chemical-weapons attacks by Syria — and that U.S. and international officials had good evidence that Syria had not been completely forthcoming in its declaration and possibly retained sarin and VX nerve agent. Yet Rice said: “We were able to get the Syrian government to voluntarily and verifiably give up its chemical weapons stockpile.” She did not explain that Syria’s declaration was believed to be incomplete and thus was not fully verified — and that the Syrian government still attacked citizens with chemical weapons not covered by the 2013 agreement. That tipped her wordsmithing toward a Four.
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