In-Depth: The Syrian “Red Line” and the Importance of Multilateral Action

The Chemical Weapons Red Line: a tedious response to the Syrian crisis and how international treaties should guide multilateral reaction

By Chris Brown, PhD Candidate

Inspectors from the United Nations (UN) are expected to report their findings on Saturday about whether chemical weapons (CW) were used in rocket attacks in Syria last week. Depending on the degradation rate and other properties of a chemical agent, if any, used in the attack, the UN investigation may also reveal what kind of weapon(s) was deployed. Sarin and VX nerve agents top the list of likely possibilities given the types of symptoms and number of casualties reported after the attacks. But determining if and which chemical agent(s) was used in Syria is only the beginning of what should be a far more complex investigation before any international action occurs. It is crucial to determine who used the agent, against whom, and what international legal obligations the user was bound by at the time of use. Only then can the international community establish a clear basis for action in Syria.

Popular opinion at present holds that Syrian President Bashar al-Asaad’s forces likely deployed CW against rebel groups and civilians. Despite the fact that the regime risks loss of power by inviting international intervention as a result of CW use, and that CW use would signal waning confidence in its forces’ ability to maintain control through conventional tactics; international opposition to the al-Asaad government, led largely by the U.S., maintains that the ruling government is to blame. “There is also very little doubt, and should be no doubt for anyone who approaches this logically, that the Syrian regime is responsible for the use of chemical weapons on August 21st outside of Damascus,” White House Spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday.[1] Claims that Syrian rebel forces have the know-how and motivation to launch CW attacks lose strength given that the alleged CW-containing rockets were fired on a rebel-controlled region of Damascus, where civilians in the area sympathize with opposition forces.[2]

Given the assumption that Syrian forces used CW against rebels, the international intolerance for the use of CW on moral grounds alone seems to compel some sort of action. But there is little legal footing on which to base an intervention under the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the primary international agreement aimed at preventing this kind of behavior by outlawing production, stockpiling and use of CW. Why? Syria never signed the treaty.

Other international agreements can and should be invoked in this situation, however. Despite not being a state party to the CWC, Syria has been a party to the Geneva Protocol since 1968.[3] The Geneva Protocol prohibits use of CW, but does not outlaw development and stockpiling, an omission that is commonly interpreted as prohibiting only first-use of CW in conflicts. Unless more conclusive evidence surfaces that rebel forces deployed CW against Syrian troops first, Syria is presumably in violation of its obligations under the Geneva Protocol, breaches of which are handled through the United Nations (UN) Security Council.

However, the formal channel of redress for Geneva Protocol violations pits the U.S. against China and, perhaps more importantly, Russia, a fairly reliable backer of the al-Asaad government. Despite the fact that Russian and Chinese participation in diplomatic efforts failed to stop alleged Syrian CW use several weeks before reports of other gas attacks in the spring leaves both states less than poised to veto U.N. security council authorization of action, Russia is reportedly bolstering its naval forces in the Mediterranean Sea. At best, this is a sign of solidarity with al-Asaad and surely an indicator that Obama and U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power will have no easy time securing the security council nod for military strikes against Syria.

Though some indirect options for continuing to support rebel forces in Syria remain viable—providing them with effective medical countermeasures and protective equipment against the state forces’ CW, for instance—direct military intervention (e.g., missile strikes) may be the only effective action left in the U.S. toolbox. However, direct U.S. action stands to produce a number of negative consequences that must be considered, including provocation of Syria’s allies, including Iran; and loss of support from Russia and China against other atrocities in the ongoing Syrian conflict. Moreover, the U.S. must be able to guarantee the stability of any new Syrian government and its ability to safely and securely handle whatever CW, biological weapons (BW), or other weapons of mass destruction may be in al-Asaad’s stockpile if and when he is ousted.

With either course of action—continued indirect support or new direct intervention—it is worth considering two additional tasks: first, at the outset of any new Syrian government, implementation of the same type of coercive diplomacy that was employed in dealing with Iraq’s BW programs in the early 1990s. The terms of the ceasefire with Iraq after the first Gulf War required Iraq to ratify the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention.[4] If the international community (or the U.S. alone) helps a new government ascend to power in Syria, or intervenes to defeat or subdue the al-Asaad regime, it would be wise to insist that Syria accede to the CWC. Second, Syria’s alleged acquisition or development from component chemicals of sarin gas may also warrant further investigation into the supplier of materials or foreign assistance. The CWC prohibits any export of Schedule 1 chemicals (including sarin and its methylphosphonyl difluoride precursor). A state party to the CWC guilty of helping Syria acquire or develop sarin would likely be in violation of the treaty and should face appropriate consequences.

Chris Brown is a PhD candidate in biodefense at George Mason University. He holds a Master of Public Health in biostatistics and epidemiology from the University of Nebraska Medical Center, and received his undergraduate degree in biology with a minor in Spanish from the University of Louisville. Contact him at cbrown12@gmu.edu or on Twitter @ckbrow07.


[1] Jay Carney, “Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jay Carney,” August 27, 2013, accessed August 28, 2013, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/08/27/press-briefing-press-secretary-jay-carney-8272013/.

[2] Eyder Peralta, “Is It Possible the Syrian Rebels (Not Assad) Used Chemical Weapons?,” National Public Radio, August 27, 2013, accessed August 28, 2013, http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2013/08/27/216172145/is-it-possible-the-syrian-rebels-not-assad-used-chemical-weapons.

[3] “Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare,” June 17, 1925, accessed May 1, 2013, http://www.icrc.org/applic/ihl/ihl.nsf/States.xsp?xp_viewStates=XPages_NORMStatesParties&xp_treatySelected=921B4414B13E58B8C12563CD002D693B/.

[4] “NTI Country Profiles, Iraq, Overview,” Nuclear Threat Initiative, December 2011, accessed May 1, 2013, http://www.nti.org/country-profiles/iraq/.

(image courtesy of Syria Freedom House/Flickr)

2 thoughts on “In-Depth: The Syrian “Red Line” and the Importance of Multilateral Action

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