Preventing the Use of Syrian Chemical Weapons

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.”

Although UNSMIS withdrew its personnel from Syria on June 15 because of safety concerns, on July 20, the UNSC extended its mandate and noted that it could re-enter Syria as the situation allowed. That an investigative team sanctioned by the UN would be allowed to enter Syria is not so farfetched. As for the opposition Free Syrian Army, its July 25 declaration includes a promise to be responsible: “We realize the dangers posed by the stock of chemical and biological weapons in Syria, and we vow to preserve these dangerous substances as soon as we possess them.” In view of the UN team’s mission, it is unlikely that Assad’s opposition would interfere.

The team dispatched by the secretary-general would be quite small, probably not exceeding ten persons. As far as is known, chemical- and biological-weapons storage sites are located away from population centers and therefore unlikely to be affected by fighting; they also are guarded by elite Syrian forces. Even if the team were not allowed to perform a thorough investigation of the contents of sites, it would be in a position to evaluate whether they are indeed as secure as the Assad regime claims or if there are reasons for concern about their security being breached by outside forces. If the first is found, already authorized military observers might remain on or near the site to ensure that security remains high.

If Assad regime forbids the team from entering, it is clear that the international community, preferably led by the UNSC, would have to take whatever steps are needed to ensure that chemical- and biological-weapon sites are secure and their contents cannot be used—whether against the Syrian population, forces lawfully dispatched by the UNSC or a regional organization acting in accord with a UNSC resolution. It is doubtful that such a mission has yet been worked out at the UNSC; at most it is being discussed. But in view of the real threats posed by the Syrian chemical arsenal, it is time for the UNSC to commence realistic planning for international intervention in Syria. This is particularly important in order to forestall unilateral preemptive action by one of Syria’s neighbors, which likely would lead to a wider regional conflict.

Raymond A. Zilinskas directs the Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies. He is a former United Nations Special Commission biological inspector in Iraq.

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