Preventing the Use of Syrian Chemical Weapons

Assad's threat to violate the Geneva Protocol calls for a UN inspection of weapons sites.

A Syrian government spokesperson recently acknowledged indirectly that Syria possesses chemical weapons. He declared that the current regime never would use unconventional weapons against the Syrian people but that it reserved the right to do so against foreign forces attempting to intervene in the country’s current armed crisis.

Much has been written since about the implications of this statement, such as whether these weapons are safeguarded adequately should the Bashar al-Assad regime lose control over the sites in which they are stored, and, if control is lost, whether terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Al Qaeda would be able to break in and acquire chemical and, possibly, biological weapons. These undoubtedly are weighty issues, but here I present ideas on how the international community might act to learn more about Syrian chemical- and biological-weapons sites, determine if they are secure and create an international presence that might make their use less likely.

Syria is not a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention prohibiting the development, possession and manufacture of chemical arms. However, since 1968, Syria has been a party to the Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of War, better known as the Geneva Protocol. This forbids nations from using chemical (and biological) weapons against other nations.

The fundamental questions in the current situation are: What might be done to restrain a nation that threatens to violate the protocol, as Syrian officials have just done? Until there are indications of an actual violation, must the international community stand by and wait for the crime to occur before acting?

Customary international law recognizes that in cases where the use of force against a state is imminent, the target country has the right to use force against that threat preemptively rather than suffer the actual attack. This principle also should be applied to authorize aggressive diplomatic intervention to preempt the imminent violation of a vital treaty. With Syria repeatedly declaring that insurgent forces are, in fact, foreign terrorist elements, the Assad regime’s declaration of last week in effect creates an imminent threat of chemical-weapon use—and of violation of the Geneva Protocol.

Between 1982 and 1992, the UN General Assembly or Security Council asked the secretary-general to investigate alleged uses of chemical weapons that violated of the Geneva Protocol twelve times. He had been empowered by resolutions that dealt with how and under what circumstances to investigate alleged violations of the Geneva Protocol, the Biological Weapons Convention and “customary international law.” Accordingly, the secretary-general assembled investigative teams and dispatched them to sites where the alleged violation had occurred. Although for technical reasons some of the investigations were inconclusive, others were successful in helping defuse tense situations. The secretary-general still is empowered to undertake an investigation on his own initiative or in response to a request by a UN member.

Alleged violations of the Geneva Protocol are most likely to be addressed by the secretary-general activating an investigation on his own. But given that Syria shares borders with Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey—all Geneva Protocol parties—any of them could demand an investigation of Syria’s possible violation of the treaty. If a preemptive investigation of imminent use were considered to be embedded within the secretary-general’s existing authority, any of these countries also could demand such an investigation today. The goal would be to determine whether Syria had taken steps to prepare its chemical arsenal for imminent use by filling and otherwise readying munitions, deploying them to weapon systems (artillery batteries and missile-launch areas) near areas of conflict, and sending specially trained and equipped troops to such locations. A finding of such preparations could trigger UN sanctions or establish a de facto legal basis for the use of military force to destroy Syrian chemical capabilities.

As demonstrated in the in the past, the secretary-general is capable of quickly assembling an investigative team, possibly calling on chemical expertise residing in the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague.

How would the Assad regime react to a UN team arriving at Syria’s border and demanding access to its secret chemical and biological sites? Obviously, the regime has two options: allow entry or refuse it. There is a precedent for the regime choosing to admit inspectors. On April 21, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) established the UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) to “monitor a cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties and to monitor and support the full implementation of the six-point proposal” that had been developed by Kofi Annan. With Syria’s permission, the UNSMIS was allowed to deploy “up to 300 unarmed military observers as well as an appropriate civilian component.”