As the off-again, on-again talks between President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un finally seem to be approaching, another brutal American adversary with a penchant for banned weapons—Bashar Assad of Syria—has all but vanished from the headlines and the cable news chyrons. It was less than two months ago that chlorine bombs possibly mixed with a nerve agent rained down on the Damascus suburb of Douma, killing more than 40 people and injuring hundreds, and triggering missile strikes on Syrian military targets. And then the world moved on. With tweets and leaks setting the frenetic pace of the daily news agenda, Syria is ancient history.
The Douma chemical attack on April 7 was a part of a depressingly predictable cycle in a conflict in which no horror has been spared. Assad has used chemical weapons dozens of times—possibly as many as 200—in a war that has killed hundreds of thousands of civilians with conventional weapons. Time and again, outrage, condemnation and threats follow. Trump’s furious reaction stood out for his blunt criticism of Assad’s allies and his allies, Russia and Iran. “President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price…” he wrote on Twitter. Yet only twice—last year and again in May—has rhetoric translated into a military response.
To be sure, there are few good options in the brutal conflict that began during the Arab Spring in 2011. Assad’s flagrant disregard of his obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention, the 192-nation treaty he joined in 2013 that bans chemical weapons, is just one of many humanitarian failures in the war.
But Trump fortunately has a potential source of leverage over Syria’s chemical weapons: the talks with Kim Jong Un, which appear to be back on track. North Korea, which is not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, has long supported Syria’s weapons program with expertise, technology and equipment. Although North Korea denies that is the case, at least one Syrian defector had described North Korea’s support, and details of transactions between the two countries were included in a recent U.N. report. And on Monday, North Korean state media reported that Assad plans to visit Kim Jong Un—potentially making him the first head of state to meet Kim inside North Korea.
North Korea isn’t just a proliferator; the regime considers chemical weapons a crucial part of its arsenal. Artillery regiments deployed along the Demilitarized Zone dividing the Korean Peninsula have chemical weapons aimed at South Korea that could unleash staggering casualties in Seoul. Last year, the regime advertised its ability to export chemical warfare and flout international norms when the regime was accused of using the nerve agent VX to assassinate Kim’s estranged half brother in Kuala Lumpur.
A little over a week ago, it seemed the nuclear summit was off. Trump canceled the talks after a North Korean official called Vice President Mike Pence “ignorant” and “stupid” for suggesting a “Libya solution” for North Korea’s program—giving up nuclear arms in exchange for dropping sanctions—and another official threatened to pull out over similar comments from National Security Advisory John Bolton.
But after days of rapid-fire negotiation, it appears the talks are likely to proceed. North Korea’s nuclear program will rightfully dominate the summit, but the meeting represents a rare opportunity to address chemical arms as well. Rather than relying on military strikes against Syria and potentially igniting a calamitous conflict involving Russia and Iran, Trump could use the summit to address all of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction, including its chemical proliferation and support for Assad’s program.
“I think it’s fair to say that if it doesn’t, in the end the negotiation will not be a success,” Middle East expert Dennis Ross, distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who has served presidents from both parties, told me. A phone call between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Trump suggests that indeed, other weapons of mass destruction will be on the table as well. A White House summary of the call both specified that the U.S. and Japan had a “shared imperative of achieving the complete and permanent dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and ballistic missile programs.”
Syria and North Korea are not the only threats to the Chemical Weapons Convention. In an incident with chilling symmetry to the VX killing, Russia, which is a convention signatory, is almost certainly behind the attempted assassination of Sergei V. Skripal in Salisbury, England, with the nerve agent novichok. (A vigorous online effort to disprove the attack as a “false flag” sham notwithstanding.) Tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions followed, but there have been no new sanctions against Russia.
That attack represents the first use of a chemical weapon in Europe since the Nazis used Zyklon B to murder Jews in World War II, and the first offensive deployment on the continent since World War I. Russia has denied that the attack in Douma even took place, an absurdly Orwellian argument that has taken root in the fecund spaces of the internet. Many arms experts see the April 14 airstrikes as a stern rebuke to Russia as well as Syria.
It is a perilous moment. Beyond the immediate crises in Syria and Salisbury, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is dangerously fragile. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the treaty’s compliance and oversight body, is admirably carrying out its difficult mission, but the OPCW is underfunded and understaffed, and increasingly riven by discord among state parties, according to arms experts. Moreover, Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, could well undermine other treaties like the CWC if the U.S. is seen as an unreliable treaty partner, and make it harder to strike a deal with Kim in North Korea.
If the dangerous situation today isn’t persuasive, look to history. Today’s fragile ban is a direct descendent of failed treaties intended to prevent gas warfare dating to before World War I. After Germany broke the taboo around chemical weapons in 1915, as well as the treaties forbidding them, all of the major combatants tumbled into a chemical arms race, including the United States, as I documented in my book Hellfire Boys. It took almost 80 years to stuff the furies of chemical warfare back into their bottle. Now, the taboo that has been in place since the end of World War I is fraying once more, disarmament experts warn.
While the April 15 airstrikes led by the U.S. carried the ring of decisiveness and strength and could deter future attacks, they will likely have little influence on Syria’s ongoing violations of the Chemical Weapons Convention. In addition, some critics of the retaliatory airstrikes have rightfully questioned the logic in responding to an individual attack when Assad has used chemical weapons so frequently without triggering a sustained U.S. military response. Sadly, Assad’s well-documented brutality is not the only factor in the calculus for action, and comparing conventional and chemical warfare—applying a hierarchy of cruelty, if you will—provides little clarity. Rather, the impetus for action hinges on the application of international law and a broader threat of proliferation beyond Syria.
That pressure could come from Pyongyang, Syria’s chemical weapons patron. In April, Kim said North Korea would halt nuclear tests and missile launches, and after meeting with South Korea, agreed to “complete denuclearization.” That could open the door to stopping chemical warfare proliferation, too. With so much pressure upon the Chemical Weapons Convention, President Trump has a window to try to clamp off the chemical pipeline between North Korea and Syria. It would not be easy, and nor would it stop Syria’s bloody war or hold Assad accountable for his crimes. But it might slow or stop the spread of noxious weapons beyond North Korea’s borders.
“I think that if Trump would miss an opportunity if he didn’t try to expand on that to cover WDMs more broadly,” Kelsey Davenport, director for non-proliferation policy at the DC-based Arms Control Association, told me. “I absolutely think the United States should press that opportunity.”
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