Syria: A defining moment for chemical weapons?

By Oliver Meier | August 30, 2013

“Any chemical or biological weapons will never be used, I repeat, will never be used in the Syrian crisis, no matter what the internal developments in this crisis are,” then-Syrian foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said at a news conference on July 23 last year. “All varieties of these weapons are stored and secured by the Syrian armed forces and under its direct supervision, and will not be used unless Syria is subjected to external aggression.”

Thirteen months later, this statement appears cynical, at the least. There is no doubt that chemical weapons, including nerve agents, were used on a large scale on August 21 in the suburbs of Damascus. The sheer number of first-hand reports, in addition to information from other sources, created a coherent picture that allows no other explanation. Hundreds apparently have been killed, thousands have possibly been injured. The scale of the attack, its targets, and the fact that it occurred in several locations and in conjunction with a conventional offensive by government forces, all seem to suggest the Syrian armed forces were responsible, though an independent assessment will only be possible after the inspection team dispatched by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon delivers its report.

A strong and united international reaction to this massive use of chemical weapons could help deter their future use in Syria itself. But there can be no doubt: The attack in August is a historic event with wider implications. Its impact on the role of chemical weapons in international security in general will depend primarily on the responses. Looking beyond the current crisis, failure to respond to the attacks could undermine the taboo against chemical weapons.

The attack evokes memories of the last major instance when chemical weapons were used in an internal conflict, a quarter of a century ago. On the morning of March 16, 1988, Iraqi forces launched a conventional attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja to repel Iranian insurgents and also strike terror among the Kurdish resistance. In the afternoon, Iraqi bombers dropped chemical munitions, killing between 3,000 and 5,000 people, the vast majority civilians. The failure of the international community to adequately react at the time had “a deeply corrosive effect on the legal, political and moral norms constraining the spread of chemical weapons,” wrote the late Jonathan Tucker, a chemical and biological weapons expert, in his seminal book War of Nerves. Chemical weapons suddenly became attractive again to other countries. Thus, Iran, Egypt, and Syria all expanded their chemical warfare capabilities in the late 1980s, Tucker notes.

How can the international community reduce the risks stemming from Syrian chemical weapons stocks? What can be done to decrease the likelihood of a chemical weapons comeback following the most recent attacks?

First, a unified response by the international community is essential. The strength of international norms depends primarily on great-power support. So far, such a unified response is sorely lacking. Judgments about how to react to the use of chemical weapons appear to be tainted by preferences about the shape of a post-war Syria. This has already damaged the international chemical weapons legal regime. For example, discussion of how to react to allegations of chemical weapons use proved divisive at the April 2013 Chemical Weapons Convention Review Conference, even though Syria is not a convention member.

Second, the future use of chemical weapons must be deterred. US President Barack Obama justified a possible military response by saying that it could be a “shot across the bow saying, stop doing this.” Another way to deter future use is to highlight the fact that using chemical weapons is a war crime. Those responsible need to be held accountable, and their crimes must be referred to the International Criminal Court. Because such a referral would need United Nations Security Council approval, unity among its permanent members on this point is also essential.

Third, the international community needs clarity about the circumstances of chemical weapons use. In the words of a UN spokesperson, the UN inspectors need to “get to the bottom” of the attacks and establish what happened on August 21. Only on the basis of such an independent and objective report can the Security Council authorize coercive measures. That major powers with stakes in the conflict prejudged the outcome of the inspections, advancing their contradictory interpretations of who was responsible, has greatly complicated the inspectors’ job. By the same token, it is cause for cautious optimism that at the time of this writing, there appears to be an agreement among the Security Council members to wait for the inspectors’ report before discussing a resolution that could authorize the use of force.

Fourth, the international community urgently needs to increase assistance to the civilian population in Syria and refugees in neighboring countries. Protection against chemical weapons is possible, and it should be a priority to provide protective kits and antidotes to Syrians. The Chemical Weapons Convention contains provisions for offering assistance and protection to those under threat. Neighboring states that are members—notably, Jordan—can thus request help under the convention.

Fifth, preparations for the day after should commence in the background. Once the conflict is over, the international community will have to find ways to quickly secure and destroy chemical weapons stocks in Syria, if it wants to reduce the threat of those weapons falling into the hands of non-state actors. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has more than 15 years of experience in monitoring the destruction of chemical weapons and should be mandated now to prepare and coordinate future destruction efforts in Syria. If and when peace talks resume, Syrian accession to the convention should be an integral part of a negotiated agreement. A peace accord tolerating chemical weapons possession by Syria would be unsustainable and further undermine the norm against them.

Sixth, the long-term consequences of chemical weapons use in Syria need to be considered for the international legal regime. Before the August 21 attacks happened, University of Sussex chemical weapons expert Julian Perry Robinson pointed out that “if the allegations are true, Syria is engaged in a form of chemical warfare whose purpose and methods … are at variance with concepts underpinning the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention.” If confirmed, the recent Syrian attacks would call into question “the continuing fitness” of some of the treaty’s provisions, specifically those set by Cold War notions of “militarily significant’ quantities” of chemical weapons, Robinson warns. The attacks constitute the first serious test of the United Nations secretary general’s mechanism to investigate the alleged use of chemical and biological weapons. How that mechanism works—or doesn’t work—will have great meaning for the future of chemical (and biological) arms control.

The use of chemical weapons in Syria has already created unbelievable human suffering. If the international community fails to act together now, even worse atrocities may follow. The first aim should be to prevent any further use of chemical weapons in Syria, but it is equally important to revitalize the worldwide taboo against these armaments. If we fail, the war in Syria may one day be regarded as the beginning of the end of the universal prohibition of chemical weapons. If we succeed, the norm against chemical weapons can emerge strengthened. That strategic, long-term goal should be far more important than short-term geopolitical gains. 

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Topics: Biosecurity, Opinion

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