Daryl G. Kimball
Executive Director, Arms Control Association
August 28, 2013
The deadly war for control of Syria has taken a gruesome turn for the worse with the heinous attack against civilian populations on the outskirts of Damascus on August 21. The available evidence, including credible reports from Doctors Without Borders, strongly suggests that the many injuries and deaths reported were the result of a major chemical weapons attack. In this instance, the use of chemicals was more significant and the casualties were greater than earlier suspected episodes involving chemical munitions–and more brazen given that UN inspectors had just arrived in Damascus.
The use of chemical weapons violates the established and widely accepted norms and practices prohibitions of the international community. It is essential that responsible leaders and governments fully support the ongoing United Nations chemical weapons inspection mission, review the evidence collected regarding the August 21 attack, and present that information before taking multilateral action designed to hold those individuals and entities who perpetrated these attacks accountable.
Such action is necessary in order to help deter any further use of chemical weapons in Syria–by either government forces or rebels forces–and to reinforce the global norms and conventions against the use of chemical weapons and to prevent other types of indiscriminate attacks and war crimes against civilians populations elsewhere.
The evidence available also strongly suggests that the forces of the government of Bashar al-Assad had the means and the motivation to use chemical weapons on August 21 as they seek to gain the upper hand against entrenched rebel positions outside Damascus. In July 2012, the Syrian government publicly acknowledged the existence of its chemical arsenal for the first time. Assad’s forces are believed to possess (and are responsible for maintaining control over) hundreds of tons of blister agents, including mustard gas, and nerve agents, including sarin and VX. Its stockpile is deliverable by aerial bombs, ballistic missiles, and artillery rockets.
Syria is bound by the Geneva Protocol of 1925 not to use chemical agents in warfare and is but one of seven countries that has not yet joined the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) banning all development, production, and deployment of deadly chemical arms. The use of chemical weapons is considered a war crime under the Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). The UN Security Council can refer such war crimes to the ICC even if the persons responsible are citizens of a state that has not ratified the ICC statute.
Through the the CWC, all states resolve “for the sake of all mankind, to exclude completely the possibility of the use of chemical weapons, through the implementation of the provisions of this Convention, thereby complementing the obligations assumed under the Geneva Protocol of 1925.”
As Ahmet Üzümcü, the Director General of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, noted in an 2012 interview, the CWC and CWC states parties have an overall mandate for “the elimination of chemical weapons universally from the world and prevention of their use.” He notes that this goal applies to states-parties and states that are not parties to the CWC.
U.S. and other global leaders have condemned the August 21 attacks and have justifiably said that they will seek multilateral action to hold those who launch the August 21 attack accountable. As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said August 26: “all peoples and all nations who believe in the cause of our common humanity must stand up to assure that there is accountability for the use of chemical weapons so that it never happens again.”
Noting that the “Islamic Republic of Iran is itself victim of chemical weapons,” President Hassan Rouhani said August 27 via Twitter that “Iran gives notice to international community to use all its might to prevent use of chemical weapons anywhere in the world, esp. in #Syria.”
Senior U.S. officials have made it clear that United States, acting together with other states will soon launch cruise missile strikes against select Assad leadership and military targets related to chemical weapons delivery for the purpose of trying to deter and dissuade Assad from launching further major chemical attacks. On August 26, Secretary of State Kerry said the administration would present the intelligence community’s assessment, which should be carefully reviewed by Congress and other governments and the public.
Media reports suggest that likely U.S. military targets do not include chemical weapons storage sites–and for good reason: even “precision” airstrikes cannot reliably or safely destroy the Syria’s actual CW stockpiles because there is imperfect intelligence on all possible storage locations, and attempts to destroy the depots could cause widespread civilian casualties and/or undermine the security of the sites and risk that the chemical agents fall into the hands of extremist rebel groups or government militias.
As President Barack Obama, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, and other Western and regional leaders prepare to act, they should seek a UN mandate to respond protect civilians from chemical attacks and take into account the results of the UN inspection team to provide further legitimacy and support for limited military strikes.
Unfortunately, Assad’s ally and major military supplier, Russia, would likely exercise its Security Council veto power despite the overwhelming evidence of a chemical attack and Russia’s responsibility to help prevent chemical weapons use. The United States and other leaders must clearly explain their case for taking military action in order to help protect civilians from future chemical attacks in Syria or elsewhere by anyone and to uphold international rules prohibiting the use of the most indiscriminate and deadly types of weapons.
As the Obama administration has noted, there is no military solution to the war in Syria, only a political solution. The President must continue to make it clear that any military action he might pursue is for the sole purpose of deterring Assad from using chemical weapons again and is not a pretext for tilting the conflict in favor of the poorly organized and divided rebel forces. He should make it clear that any limited missile strikes are not a prelude for deeper U.S. involvement, which would not likely make a significant difference in the outcome, could lead to an escalation of hostilities, and/or provoke the Assad regime to use chemical weapons on a more massive scale, possibly against Syria’s neighbors.
Assad’s allies in Russia, as well as in Iran–which itself suffered from chemical warfare during the 1980-1988 conflict with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq–can help reinforce the taboo against chemical weapons use by threatening to withdraw all forms of support if it is determined that Assad’s forces used chemical weapons on August 21 or if Assad’s forces use of chemical weapons in the future.
The use of chemical weapons is an atrocity. All states should assist in bringing those individuals found to be responsible for ordering their use before the International Criminal Court.
The war in Syria, which has killed more than 100,000 and dismembered a nation, is a human disaster of growing proportions. The events of the past week underscore the need for all parties to redouble their efforts to seek a political solution, aid the affected civilian populations, and suspend foreign supplies of arms and ammunition to the Assad regime and to rebel forces, which is only helping to fuel further death and destruction, facilitate other war crimes, and produce a flood of refugees and widespread suffering.
Syria’s chemical weapons cannot be allowed to create an even more dangerous and deadly situation for Syria’s people and its neighbors. The United States and countries in the region with interests in Syria must overcome their differences to help prevent the further use and spread of Syria’s deadly arsenals.