The Nobel Committee’s Albatross: Chemical Weapons in Syria

Published November 19, 2016

The Syrian government faces a burning condemnation from the international community, after the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) released a November 11 statement exposing the regime’s treaty-violating use of chemical weapons. Two thirds of the
OPCW’s 41 members voted to release the statement, largely informed by a recently published report. In glaring detail, the report detailed three separate chemical attacks carried out in March and April 2015 by government forces against civilian targets with the help of squadrons
of helicopters and chlorine barrel bombs. Evidence shows that the Islamic State also used Sulphur mustard gas against civilian targets, although the gravity of the terrorist organization’s use of such weapons unfortunately comes as less of a surprise to investigators. Instigating an apocalyptic game of finger-pointing, the Russian Defense Ministry issued counter statement, alleging Syrian rebel’s use of chemical agents, chlorine gas and white
phosphorous, in battles on the southwest edge of Aleppo.

Chemical weapons are the bogeyman haunting the dreams of diplomats working to end the Syrian conflict. The international community has already twice accused the Syrian government of deliberate and devastating use of chemical weapons since its 2013 pledge to rid itself of them entirely. On September 10, 2013, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, under threat of American intervention, acknowledged to the world that his nation possessed chemical weapons, and he declared Syria’s intent to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). This announcement proceeded two chemical weapons attacks on August 21, 2013, in Damascus’ suburbs of eastern and western Ghouta, where surface-to-surface rocket systems delivered payloads of the nerve agent Sarin to civilian targets. Parties scrambled to lay blame on the other side, from Western governments to Assad, from his regime down to the loosely organized rebel groups.

Two years after signing the CWC, Syria has become the first and only signatory nation to have used chemical weapons since the treaty came into effect in 1997.The treaty prohibits the production and use of chemical weapons, and calls for the destruction of chemical weapons production facilities, and all chemical weapons. It has thus far successfully eradicated 90 percent of the world’s declared stockpile of chemical weapons and 57 percent of the world’s declared chemical munitions. However, its achievements on paper says little about its practical success in halting unstable governments’ use of chemical agents against their own people. With the lingering memory of the Halabja chemical attack of 1988, when Saddam Hussein intentionally killed thousands of Iraqi Kurds, this bodes poorly for local populations’ faith in the resolution’s ability to do much of anything.

Unfortunately, the prognosis looks grim. So far the only measures that have affected change are American threats of military intervention. However, amid UN Security Council tensions with Russia and China, the U.S. has played down more aggressive efforts to hold the Syrian government accountable for alleged chemical weapons use and has instead opted to back the statement published last week. With an incoming administration that promises to drastically alter foreign policy in Syria and cooperate with Russia, Assad likely has an opportunity to escape unscathed from crimes that should have generated crippling international backlash. Additionally, Russia’s accusations that the Syrian opposition has used chemical weapons presents another equally depressing opportunity for Assad to play the chemical blame game, shifting responsibility for any future attacks on whomever he chooses. The scientific evidence of watchdog investigations carries little weight against the diplomatic backing of Russia.

Moving forward, the U.S.-backed coalition in Syria needs to present a more unified and aggressive response, condemning the attacks and increasing pressure to completely eradicate chemical weapon stockpiles in Syria. The disheartening fact, regrettably, is that this won’t be the last time chemical weapons will be used in this conflict. Although the OPCW won the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize for its work towards ridding the world of chemical weapons, it still has a long, long way to go.

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