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News Opinion Editorial

Mission accomplished [Editorial]

The announcement this week that scientists from Aberdeen Proving Ground have successfully completed the destruction of Syria's most dangerous chemical weapons has left the whole world breathing a little easier. If nothing else it ensures these cruel instruments of mass destruction will never be used against the U.S. or its allies — or against the Syrian people, who have been the main victims of the country's four-year civil war, which already has claimed more than 100,000 lives.

Make no mistake: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad didn't turn over his country's chemical weapons to international inspectors last year out of any humanitarian impulse. He did so under threat of imminent U.S. airstrikes after he used them to attack opponents of his regime near Damascus. That attack, which left hundreds of civilians dead, including scores children, sparked an international outcry that alarmed even his strongest backer, Russian President Vladimir Putin. Realizing the U.S. strikes had the potential to fatally weaken Mr. Assad's hold on power, Mr. Putin cobbled together a hastily arranged agreement with the Obama administration that allowed Mr. Assad to voluntarily give up his chemical arsenal in exchange for a U.S. promise not to intervene militarily.

Though President Barack Obama was harshly criticized at the time for failing to enforce his so-called "red line" against Syria's use of chemical weapons — and for appearing in need of saving by Mr. Putin — in retrospect it seems clear that the U.S. gained more than it lost from that devil's bargain. There was never any assurance that U.S. strikes would have dislodged Mr. Asaad from office or even that they would have succeeded in destroying most of the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal scattered among hidden bunkers and ammunition dumps across the country. By contrast, in accepting the Russian initiative Mr. Obama effectively achieved his principal foreign policy objective at the time — ensuring that Mr. Assad never again used chemical weapons against his own citizens — without firing a shot.

The jury is still out on the larger question of whether the Obama administration's reluctance to engage more directly in Syria allowed the conflict there to spread to the point where it now menaces the stability of the entire region. Did the U.S. miss a crucial opportunity to arm the moderate opposition in Syria out of an overabundance of caution that the weapons it supplied might eventually fall into the hands of Islamist militants affiliated with al-Qaida? Did Mr. Obama's stand-offish policies actually empower the most radical elements of the Syrian opposition and feed the rise of extremist groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which now threatens both countries?

There are good arguments to be made on both sides of that debate, but here's something else that also needs to be taken into account: If the chemical weapons the APG personnel finished destroying this week had remained in Syria, chances are that sooner or later they would have fallen into the hands of ISIS or some similar group. ISIS has proven adept at looting government arsenals in the territories it controls and using the weapons it captures to launch further attacks. And unlike Mr. Assad's government in Damascus, it has expressed an explicit intention to strike at the U.S. and its allies around the world with every means available to it, including weapons of mass destruction.

Had ISIS or its offshoots possessed chemical weapons during its recent offensive into northern Iraq they surely would have used them to wipe out groups like the ethnic Yazidis, members of a religious minority who fled the militants' advance to seek refuge on Mount Sinjar. It would also have given ISIS an overwhelming military advantage against the peshmerga militias defending the semiautonomous Kurdish region in northeastern Iraq, our staunchest allies in the region. Ultimately, an ISIS armed with chemical weapons would constitute a global threat of unimaginable proportions.

With the destruction of Syria's weapons the world thankfully has taken a step back from that nightmare scenario. The APG scientists and engineers who carried out the first-ever shipboard destruction of chemical weapons at sea deserve the public's gratitude not only for ridding the world of some particularly nasty implements of war but for establishing a model for future disarmament initiatives. The new technologies developed for their historic mission have the potential to save millions of people around the world untold suffering and grief. But that can only happen if the world's leaders possess the diplomatic and political foresight to seize the opportunity they represent.

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Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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