Event Summary and Analysis for “The Implications of Chemical Weapons Use in Syria”

by Wardah Amir, Graduate Student in the Security Policy Studies Program, The George Washington University

On September 14 2013, a deal was reached between the United States and Russia which set a deadline for the destruction of the declared Syrian chemical weapons stockpile. While the original deadline set by the deal was not met, on June 23 2014 the last of Syria’s declared chemical weapons had been successfully removed out of the country amidst its civil war. Despite these efforts, chemical weapons were continuously used in the Syrian Arab Republic. In April this year, Douma fell victim to yet another chemical attack. Roughly 40 to 70 lives were lost.

In an event held at the IISS (The International Institute for Strategic Studies) on October 3 2018, Mallory Stewart (former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Emerging Security Challenges and Defense Policy in the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance at the US Department of State), Dr Ariel (Eli) Levite (Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace), and Dr Aaron Stein (Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East) sat down for a discussion moderated by Mark Fitzpatrick (Executive Director of the IISS–Americas).

The speakers analyzed the success of the 2013 U.S.-Russia deal. Here are some reasons why the deal is believed to be a net positive- First, it resulted in the Syrian Arab Republic becoming a State Party to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and requiring the elimination of its declared chemical weapons program. Second, a binding deadline was assigned for the destruction of the Syrian chemical weapons stockpile with oversight of the destruction process by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

On the contrary, the deal is also thought to have failed for multiple reasons. First, the framework failed to stop the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic. Second, due to these instances of use it was made clear that not all chemical weapons had been eliminated. Third, the focus of the deal may have been limited in scope since it only addressed chemical weapons, not taking into account other forms of weapons that have been used against civilians in Syria, such as cluster bombs. Finally, the implementation of the deal has fallen short, which undermines the norms established under the Chemical Weapons Convention.

The norm against the use of chemical weapons in the Middle East is not as robust as it should be. Over the past few decades, chemical weapons have been used by governments in the Middle East against their own people and across borders, such as in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria. Such use is no longer limited to governments in possession of a stockpile as chemical weapons are also being used by non-state actors such as the Islamic State in Iraq.

The 2013 deal would not have been possible without Russian cooperation. At the time U.S.-Russian interests overlapped on eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons program. Unfortunately, U.S. and Russian cooperation did not last long enough to hold users of chemical weapons in Syria accountable. While the OPCW Executive Council believes in working towards accountability, Russia’s unwillingness is shown by its failure to cooperate.

The deal was proof that international cooperation could help achieve results. The framework inevitably led to the creation of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission, the Declaration Assessment Team, and the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism.  Without Russian cooperation, or the active participation of the international community on addressing chemical weapons use, results will be harder to achieve.

Russia is primarily responsible for the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime due to its role in enabling the Syrian regime in its possession and use of chemical weapons. However, the only country that can stop the Assad regime is also Russia – by ceasing to support the Syrian government’s violations of the CWC.

While the 2013 deal would not have happened without Russian cooperation, the current environment has changed drastically since 2013. A country that was once cooperating in developing a framework for the elimination of Syrian chemical weapons program, is now accused of using a Novichok nerve agent on another country’s territory. Following the Novichok attack in the United Kingdom, cooperation with Russia seems highly unlikely. At a time when international cooperation and the norms established under the CWC are in jeopardy, granting the OPCW new attribution powers is a step in the right direction. The international community must recognize the OPCW as an impartial technical body. It’s new role in attribution is an essential step towards accountability. Only then can consequences be created for users of chemical weapons and only then will there be reinforcement of the norm.

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