Syria’s Chemical Weapons: Drawing the Humanitarian Line

On August 21, missiles loaded with the chemical agent Sarin were launched at Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, Syria. Nearly 1,500 people were killed in the attack, and U.S. President Barack Obama threatened limited military strikes on Syrian government installations in response to the use of chemical weapons. During a press conference on September 9, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry commented that a strike could potentially be avoided if Syria was to relinquish its arson chemical weapons. That afternoon, the Russian government approached Syria with a proposal to place the weapons under international control with the aim of destroying them. The Syrian government agreed to the initial proposal, and, following negotiations between the United States and Russia, the Syrian government agreed to eliminate its stockpile of chemical weapons by mid-2014.

With the mounting humanitarian crisis in Syria, questions remain about whether, and to what extent, the developments of the last few weeks have altered the landscape of the Syrian conflict, in which at least 100,000 people have died and 6.2 million have been displaced.

Chemical Weapons Deal Some analysts initially speculated that the chemical weapons agreement was a stroke of luck for the United States, where there was little popular support for the proposed strike on Syria, resulting from an off-the-cuff remark by Kerry. However, Dan Tschirgi, professor of political science, pointed out that the Obama administration pursued a strategy of flexibility in handling the situation. “I have little doubt that the U.S. position on chemical weapons was produced by a larger ‘strategy’ –– or better said, ‘orientation’ — in Obama’s Washington that aimed to be ready to capitalize on any opportunity to work toward a U.S.-Russian meeting of minds on the Syrian issue,” he said. “My view finds strong support from Secretary of State John Kerry, who revealed that his remarks –– in which he raised the possibility of Syria turning over its chemical weapons to the international community, and then immediately ridiculed the idea as utterly impossible –– were a carefully planned diplomatic signal to Russia. The Obama administration’s ‘orientation’ required flexibility and a willingness to take decisive action in response to sudden opportunities.” The proposal made by Russia saw Syria turning an initial inventory of its chemical weapons to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, with the aim of limiting those weapons and preventing their use. Hani Sayed, professor of law and director of the international human rights law program, expressed deep concern about the message sent by the Russian-brokered agreement. “The use of weapons of mass destruction is horrible, and the scale of deaths that happened in Ghouta on August 21 is unprecedented in the Syrian situation,” he said. “But the regime was following a policy of mass destruction way before it started using weapons of mass destruction. Cities and villages have been decimated, more than 100,000 people are dead in military operations, not to mention those who have died from torture. So, for many Syrians, the use of chemical weapons is not surprising and it is not qualitatively different from everything else that was going on. What made chemical weapons such an important issue was that the United States said that it was a red line. So what does that mean? Does it mean killing people without chemical weapons is okay? And what does it mean now that there is a chemical weapons agreement between Russia and Syria?” In spite of the chemical weapons deal, Bashar Al Assad and his Russian allies continue to reject the accusation that the Syrian regime launched the attack on Ghouta, which was described by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon as a “despicable war crime” and “the most significant confirmed use of chemical weapons against civilians since Saddam Hussein used them in Halabja in 1988.” Sayed describes Al Assad and Russia’s claim as “a pure lie,” pointing to the results of the UN investigation into the attack, which concluded that surface-to-surface rockets containing chemicals, including the nerve agent Sarin, were used in this large-scale assault, killing more than 1,000 civilians and 400 children. According to Reuters, the report has also shown that quality of the Sarin used was higher than that used by Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war. The report does not say, however, who launched the attack –– the government or the rebels. “The United Nations can’t say explicitly who used the weapons because of the terms of reference of the investigation committee,” Sayed explained. “In order to enter Syria, every investigation committee has to reach an agreement with the Syrian government about the terms of reference. In this case, the terms the Syrian government agreed on were simply specifying whether chemical weapons had been used, not investigating who used them.” But the report said much more than the simple fact that chemical weapons were used, Sayed affirmed. “The report was successful in identifying the type of weapon used and the most likely trajectory of it, including the point of origin,” he said. “It’s undeniable that this information puts the launch site at an area that is controlled by the regime. In fact, it is a stronghold of the regime. So anyone who reads the report carefully will reach the conclusion that the regime was responsible for launching those chemical weapons. Even though the report did not say in so many words that the government used these weapons, the facts that it revealed make it unquestionable that the regime launched the missiles.” International Intervention: Drawing the Line The United States had long warned that the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime was a “red line,” which would force it to take action. Sayed explained that, “while there is a very clear legal prohibition against the use of chemical weapons, this idea of a ‘red line’ is a policy decision. The international law that regulates the use of force has some very clear-cut prohibitions, and one of those is the use of weapons of mass destruction, including chemical weapons, but the idea of using it as a marker of when something has to be done is a policy decision. It has nothing to do, at least on the surface, with the legal prohibition. It was not a red line when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against Kurds in Halabja.” Whether the United States would have had justification under international law to strike Syria in response to alleged chemical weapons use is a contentious issue. “The rule,” Sayed noted, “is that state sovereignty is inviolate, that states cannot use force against other states or intervene in their sphere of sovereignty or total jurisdiction, but in the case where the intervention is necessary to avert a humanitarian catastrophe, then some lawyers and states argue that there is a rule for ‘humanitarian intervention.’ However, many countries suspect that humanitarian intervention is always used for ulterior motives.” The popular debate about foreign intervention in Syria is based on the false assumption that the United States and other international powers are not already involved in the conflict, Sayed argued. “It is important to correct this fallacy, which was aired during the debate about whether there should be a strike, that launching a strike is an intervention in Syrian affairs and not launching a strike is not an intervention in Syrian affairs,” he said. “There is a fallacy in this argument because foreign intervention in Syrian affairs existed from day one. Russia is actively involved, and so is Iran, which sends soldiers to participate in battles. The United States, France, the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia –– everyone was already intervening in Syria. So in terms of intervention, with or without a U.S., strike it still exists. A U.S. strike would just have changed the means of intervention.” Agreeing, Waleed Kazziha, professor of political science, argued that the conflict is not a two-sided war between the government and rebel forces. “Everyone is trying to pile onto the Syrian conflict all the issues they can think of,” affirmed Kazziha. “It is not just a domestic conflict between an authoritarian ruler and a democratic opposition. It is three wars in one, between international, regional and Syrian forces, superimposed upon each other, and the higher [international and regional] levels empower the lower [domestic] level.” The multifaceted nature of the conflict is one of the reasons a resolution is so elusive, Kazziha noted. “The issue of Syria does not stand alone,” he said. “It has extensions in other areas, and the regional powers would need some satisfaction in order to come on board with a political solution. The Saudis are threatened by Syrian influence in the region, and the Gulf nations would like to see more pressure on Iran, as would Israel. The regional powers have leverage because the international powers are weaker than they used to be. The Saudis, the Iranians, Bashar Al Assad — they can all stand their ground and ask what is in it for them if a political agreement is to be reached.” Sayed, on the other hand, emphasized that, “What is happening in Syira is not a civil war, it is not war on terrorism and it is not a covert operation by the United States or the West to weaken Iran. It is a revolution, the struggle of Syrian men and women for freedom and dignity.” In light of the actions of the international community, both in previous weeks and throughout the conflict, Sayed opines that the situation in Syria has further revealed the flaws in the way this community deals with humanitarian disasters and atrocities. “The Syrian revolution confronted the international community with the fundamental question of what we should do in this situation,” he said. “Every single time we confront issues like this, we do not have the tools to think about it or the policy in place to do anything. The question is: What needs to be done? This is the most important question that we should ask from our governments, and we should ask ourselves how we would influence our governments.” Sayed added, “When there was the problem of apartheid in South Africa, the international community did a lot that didn’t involve military strikes, and was more than just imposing sanctions. We must try to imagine the possibility of a popular, cosmopolitan solidarity that is far beyond simply giving charity to an NGO –– a more substantive political solidarity that allows us to break this vicious cycle that characterizes the attitude of the international community toward the Syrian situation and other mass atrocities.” The Way Forward What the chemical weapons deal means with regard to the future of the Syrian conflict is unclear. For Sayed, it means that Al Assad has a license to kill, albeit without chemical weapons, and that a political solution is virtually impossible. “The effect of this agreement on the battleground is that it gives Al Assad an international license to continue mass destruction without using chemical weapons,” he said. “It is an authorization for Al Assad to continue using force against his people, and there is no prospect for a political solution while Al Assad is pursuing a policy of mass destruction.” Kazziha, on the other hand, argued that the Syrian pledge to surrender the chemical weapons could “indicate the beginning of a political solution.” In his view, the major international players involved in the conflict, Russia and the United States, are ready to diminish their involvement, leading to their willingness to negotiate to forge the deal, which may see Syria relinquishing its chemical weapons arsenal. “Obama has an incentive to disengage in the Syrian conflict,” he said. “The United States has been a reluctant player from the beginning, but disengagement means losing face because of the statements he has made, so he wants to make some gains. A political solution is mutually beneficial for both the United States and Russia at this point because it would allow both powers to disengage. The further deterioration of the situation in Syria would mean becoming deeper involved in a quagmire that they cannot control.” The chemical weapons negotiations could also be an avenue to examine possible political solutions, according to Kazziha. “It will take some time,” he said, “but the agreement between two international powers, Russia and the United States, could lead to disengagement on the international level and eventual disengagement by regional powers. If the regional powers who are involved in the Syrian conflict, including Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey, fall in line with the international powers with regard to the need for a political solution, the domestic forces within Syria will feel disempowered from the loss of international and regional support, and will begin to pursue a political solution as well. Now we have to watch how the regional players are persuaded to disengage by the international level. If this is successful, we could even see a ceasefire between the regime and the Free Syrian Army.” Kazziha was quick to point out, however, no matter how the situation on the ground is resolved, no one side could eliminate the other. “Whatever happens on the domestic level, there isn’t one party in Syria that has dominance,” he explained. “There are those who support the regime, and there is great fragmentation inside Syria. It is hard to imagine Al Assad or the forces behind him disappearing. Even if Al Assad doesn’t run in the 2014 elections, his group has a social, economic and military presence. The Syrian army and Alawite officers cannot be eliminated from any potential compromise. The Baathists will be party to whatever compromise happens, but they will not necessarily be the dominant force.” Sayed, however, ruled out the possibility of a political solution, saying, “A political solution in the current conditions is irresponsible from a policy point of view and unethical as a matter of principle. The regime and its apparatus have no future in the politics of Syria. A compromise with the regime will bring festering long term fragility, not peace. The regime weapons are pointed at civilians, and no one who is involved in the struggle will agree to negotiate with a thug pointing a gun at the head of everyone they love.” Meanwhile, Tschirgi is somewhat optimistic about the possibility of compromise and negotiation between international powers. “I am cautiously hopeful that the United States and Russia will continue to work together toward a solution,” he said. “The Syrian conflict could easily prove uncomfortably dangerous for both parties, which would give each side grounds for moving jointly to end it. In a sense, the Syrian situation is therefore a race, one that pits both common sense and humanistic values against the development of some unknown danger that will seriously threaten great power interests. Which will ‘win’ the race is the real question of the day.”