Reportedly, Syria’s President Bashar Assad made a joke the other day that this year’s Nobel Peace Prize “should have been mine.” Whether he really said that is unclear. The report came from a pro-Damascus newspaper in Lebanon, Al Akhbar. Agence France-Presse picked up the story, but noted that Al Akhbar did not actually say when Assad produced this quip. Nor, if Assad actually did say it, would I rush to assume that he meant it as a joke. Dictators — particularly those who kill people in large numbers — have a way of persuading themselves that what they are doing is noble and necessary work. It would be no surprise to discover that Assad really does believe he deserves a Nobel Peace Prize.
But whether or not Assad actually said it, either as a joke or some sort of entitlement manifesto from an alternate universe, the truth is that in some ways the Norwegian Nobel Committee did indeed award its prize to Assad. Not by name, and surely not by intention. This year’s official winner is the outfit whose inspectors, along with United Nations personnel, are now tasked to unburden Assad of his poison gas arsenal: the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
But what is the OPCW, really? Based in The Hague, and created to implement the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) that entered into force in 1997, the OPCW has been depicted in most media coverage as a champion of good works; the world’s leading chemical weapons watchdog. It has an annual budget of about $100 million (22% of that supplied by the U.S.) and a staff of 450, working out of a distinctive semi-circular building in the Dutch capital of The Hague. In most media coverage since Friday’s Nobel Peace Prize announcement, the OPCW has been summed up simply as a body diligently ridding the world of chemical weapons, with various factoids thrown in about the how many inspections it has done, in how many countries, and who belongs to this organization. With Syria’s accession this week, the CWC has 190 State Parties, including 187 UN member states, plus the Holy See, plus two Pacific island territories off New Zealand with a total combined population of 14,000 (who, you may be relieved to know, have agreed not to acquire chemical weapons, or to give them up if they discover they have any). There has also been the list of the six holdouts, in which the democratic state of Israel (which has signed but not ratified the CWC) stands out as an anomaly against the other five: Egypt, Angola, South Sudan, Burma and one of the motherlodes of Syria’s chemical weapons program, North Korea.
A closer look at the OPCW provides at least one broad hint as to why Israel would not be eager to join this gang. The OPCW is a diplomatic romper room for Syria’s intimate ally and fellow terrorist-sponsoring state, Iran. Iran spends a significant portion of its time at the OPCW denouncing Israel (which Tehran’s envoys call “the Zionist entity”) and demanding that the “international community” pressure Israel to join the CWC and place itself under the OPCW regime. Iran has enjoyed a seat on the OPCW’s executive council every year since 1998; sits on all three of its main subsidiary bodies, including its budget advisory committee (you pay, Iran plays); and serves as a vice-chair of the OPCW’s General Conference. Iran has hosted OPCW training sessions, and the OPCW sees no problem with employing Iranian nationals as weapons inspectors, which it has in fact done.
This alone should have given the Nobel judges second thoughts about the OPCW. But the kicker is, according to assessments of the U.S. government, Iran has been in violation of the CWC since it joined, in 1997. Any state that joins is required to provide a full declaration of its chemical weapons facilities and stockpiles. Tehran said it had already destroyed such stuff, and had nothing to declare. The U.S. government believes this to be a lie. But the OPCW only inspects what a member state declares — so Iran gets to have its OPCW membership and cheat on the Chemical Weapons Convention too. The same goes for Russia, main author of the Syrian chemical weapons disarmament deal that just won the OPCW the Nobel Peace Prize. The U.S. government believes Russia never declared all its facilities or its entire chemical weapons stockpile. But as the OPCW conducts business, undeclared chemical weapons are not normally their department.
In other words, the Nobel Peace Prize has just gone to a multilateral outfit that bestows a good housekeeping seal on alleged violators of the Chemical Weapons Convention, and chief among them are two of Assad’s best pals, Russia and Iran. In that sense, this prize is a gift to Assad.
More directly, however, this prize dignifies above all surrounding considerations the hope that OPCW inspectors will now be instrumental in removing Assad’s chemical arsenal. Even that much is premature, and, as PJMedia’s Jonathan Spyer reports, not remotely assured. The further problem is that this OPCW endeavor in Syria comes at the cost of a Russia-brokered U.S.-Russian deal, translated into a UN resolution, which goes far to ensure that if Assad gives up his chemical weapons, he will have an enhanced chance of remaining in power. Less than two months ago, Assad in the Western “narrative” of Syria’s war was the villain, a bloodstained tyrant who had to go, a despot who by gassing his own people had invited U.S. military attack. Then along came the deal, and with the agreement to give up his chemical weapons, Assad has received praise from the American secretary of State, and is on his way to being restored as the internationally accepted ruler of Syria (somebody phone Vogue!).
Whichever brand of poison one might favor as the lesser evil in this war — Assad, or what is by-now the jihadi-heavy opposition — the Assad chemical weapons deal sends a terrible message to other ruthless regimes. That unfortunate message is: If you don’t have chemical weapons, you’d be prudent to get some. If you run into trouble, they can be used as bargaining chips — traded away for international concessions that help keep you in power. Horrify the world by using a chemical arsenal. Placate the world by agreeing to give it up. And you will be praised and allowed to carry on with more conventional butchery in relative peace. That is a ghastly set of incentives to introduce into the 21st century world order.
OK, but what about the horror of chemical weapons, and the courage of OPCW inspectors now braving the Syrian war zone? Some of those inspectors may well deserve a prize, even if the OPCW itself does not. But the time for that is not now. The time for that is when the Assad regime is gone. If the aim is truly to discourage the acquisition or use of chemical weapons, the rule needs to be that any ruler who uses them is toast. That has not been the message here. As it now stands, Assad himself benefits from this Nobel Prize.