By Mallory Stewart
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the entry into force of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). This multilateral treaty bans the use, development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, or retention of chemical weapons. With 192 member states, it is one of the most widely adhered to treaties under international law. According to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (the OPCW), the international organization set up by the CWC to implement the convention — as of last October, 67,098 metric tons (90% of the world’s declared stockpiles) have been verifiably eliminated, and 4.97 million (just over 57%) of the world’s declared chemical munitions and containers have been verifiably destroyed. And the destruction and verification process continues daily.
But the CWC faces a serious threat: it has been repeatedly breached by a State Party with no significant consequences. And this is not just a threat to the CWC — the unrepentant and unpunished violations of this treaty slowly but steadily threaten the legitimacy and continued strength of all international law. In the face of repeated confirmations of Syria’s use of chemicals as weapons, we have seen Russia and Iran and others shield Syria from any consequences. Military and socioeconomic alliances cannot be allowed to so blatantly cancel out international legal obligations and norms. If we hope to have strong treaties and international norms for the indefinite future, than all governments must act to prevent the continuing diminishment and disregard for the CWC.
Syria’s Repeated Use of Chemical Weapons
On August 21, 2013, Syria launched the first large-scale sarin attack during strikes against an opposition-controlled suburb of Damascus. As a result of that attack, over 1400 civilians were killed, including a high number of women and children, and many more were gravely and permanently injured. To side-step the U.S. government threats of military action in response to this attack, Syria became a State Party to the CWC in the fall of 2013. At that time, Syria acknowledged that it had an extensive chemical weapons program, a fact that it had denied repeatedly for decades. With resources and support from the U.S. government and the international community, 1300 metric tons of chemical weapons and precursors that Syria declared under the CWC were safely removed from Syrian President Assad’s control and destroyed subject to international verification requirements. Equally importantly, the United States spearheaded the legal framework that required accountability under international law for any future or continuing violations of the CWC through numerous U.N. Security Council Resolutions about the use of CW in Syria (UNSCRs 2118, 2209, 2235).
On April 4, 2017, however, the armed forces of Syria again dropped sarin gas, this time on the opposition-controlled town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib Province, Syria. That use of chemical weapons resulted in the suffocation and death of over 85 people, including over 20 children. This was the second documented time Assad used sarin gas in a large-scale attack on his own people. A few days after Assad’s latest use of sarin, the United States launched a targeted strike at the airbase in Syria from which the sarin attack was launched.
The strike was a good signal to send, and perhaps it will deter Syria’s use of sarin in the future. But the credible allegations of the Assad regime’s use of chlorine as a weapon have continued since 2014 and throughout this conflict (weaponized chlorine is one of the oldest chemical weapons in history — its use as a weapon is a fundamental violation of the CWC, and yet it is now allegedly being repeatedly used by Syria with no consequences). Perhaps the international community has been numbed by the extraordinary inhumanity and depravity of the Syrian war. Perhaps the rise of terrorism in the region and the extreme horror inflicted by those terrorists has allowed Assad to employ inhumane tactics and illegal weapons with a certain amount of impunity. Perhaps the disinformation and denial of Assad’s tactics by Russia and Iran has allowed the world not to focus on Syria’s use of chemical weapons, but this lack of focus has to end. Even after the highly trained scientists at the OPCW and a U.N. panel of politically-neutral experts have confirmed that Syria has repeatedly used chlorine as a chemical weapon — Syria’s allies have refused to acknowledge Assad’s guilt. Those countries will not uphold international law if it means a diminishment in their military and socio-economic alliances, and they have effectively used a disinformation campaign to prevent the rest of the world from taking action.
Next Steps on Accountability
So now what? We have already established attribution for Syria’s repeated use of chemical weapons, we have already proposed accountability measures in the United Nations that were blocked by Russia and others. Over the past several years, the U.S. government and our allies have repeatedly pushed for collective diplomatic and legal accountability in the OPCW and the United Nations, none of which was successful. We have engaged in extensive peace talks and political transition discussions, with no good outcomes. Russia and Turkey have brokered ceasefires, which haven’t held. The moment has come for those international organizations and countries that work within and value international legal and political structures to come together to save the CWC, but also and more importantly, to protect the Syrian people from the repeated use of chemical weapons. That is the significant catch to any lofty international law efforts: upholding the CWC has become entangled with accountability for the Assad regime and the broader war on terrorism in the region. That is why we must find a way to end the Syrian conflict, preserve the governmental structure in Syria, while also upholding the norm against CW-use.
If there is anything to salvage from the failure to deter Assad from using chemical weapons, it may be that as a result of our years of diplomacy and investigations we have finally exposed the true nature of Bashar al-Assad for the world to see. He is no longer a legitimate leader, and he can have no part in the peace process. As many countries as possible should impose their own sanctions on the Syrian government for its confirmed use of chlorine as a weapon. These sanctions should be aimed at preventing Syria from acquiring military equipment or CW precursors, and they should be extended to any country that assists President Assad’s forces. There is a significant military coalition fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and that coalition must continue to protect the Syrian people from terrorists. But Assad’s government does not need more weaponry when it has repeatedly acted illegally. Concurrent with world sanctions on the Assad government, peace talks should continue with the legitimate opposition parties at the table, and with reputable members of the present Syrian government, but there should be an understanding that Assad and those generals implicated in the use of CW must be removed if the Syrian government hopes to regain any legitimacy.
But what about Russia? Syria has said it will only allow Russian peacekeepers on its territory, and it will only comply with a Russian-led peace process. Russia is thus poised to lead the Syrian political solution, but it must make a choice. The international community must make it clear that if Russia wishes to keep its standing as a legitimate world power, it must stop protecting the Assad regime from accountability. This is what Russia agreed to when it agreed to U.N. Security Council Resolutions 2118, 2209, 2235, demanding accountability for CW use in Syria. This is what the world expected when the United States and Russia committed to take responsibility for eliminating Assad’s CW program.
Admittedly, the arguments that have been made for Russia to make the right choice thus far have fallen on deaf ears. Russia apparently greatly values its military base in Syria and its economic relationship with the Assad regime. This relationship must become toxic. The U.S. government and others could work to ensure that Russia keeps its military presence, if not in Syria, then nearby but only if Russia makes the right choice. If Russia decides to continue to protect Assad in the face of his confirmed and repeated uses of CW, if Russia decides to continue to supply arms to Syria and to support Assad’s forces in the face of their inhumane targeting of innocent civilians, then Russia must be recognized to also be in violation of the CWC. In protecting and assisting Assad, Russia will have violated its commitment as a State Party to the CWC never to “assist, encourage or induce, in any way, anyone to engage in any activity prohibited to a State Party under [the CWC].” Article 1(d).
I realize that much of the above seems impossible to achieve. The U.S. government had hoped that if it established attribution for the CW uses, the world would demand and be able to achieve accountability in the U.N. system. That didn’t happen. The U.N. panel of experts (agreed upon by the Security Council — including Russia and China) found that Assad’s forces had repeatedly used chlorine as a weapon. But all efforts to achieve accountability have been blocked by Russia and others. While the loss of life, sheer inhumanity, and heartbreak of the Syrian conflict are overwhelming, the risks in this struggle for accountability are bigger even than the Syrian conflict. The CWC has thrived for twenty years. It cannot be allowed to disintegrate now, because if it does — it may take with it the strength and longevity of all international law.
Mallory Stewart is a nonresident fellow in the WMD, Nonproliferation, and Security program at the Stimson Center.