Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

The UN Resolution on Syria’s Chemical Weapons

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On 27 September the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2118 that demands the eradication of Syria's chemical weapons by mid-2014.  It was based on a deal agreed to by the US and Russia in Geneva, following the August 21 sarin nerve gas attack on a Damascus suburb that killed over 1,400 people, which the US, Australia and others believe was ordered by the Assad regime. Following this diplomatic breakthrough that averted a potential US military strike on Syria for its use of chemical weapons, the Resolution is being hailed by many commentators as a win for diplomacy and the rule of international law. But while the Resolution is a welcome development because it has the potential to significantly reduce Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons, it is important to consider the costs of the Resolution.

Firstly, the Resolution has no teeth - it cannot be enforced in the event that Syria decides not to comply. The Resolution merely states that "in the event of non-compliance with this resolution including unauthorised transfer of chemical weapons, or any use of chemical weapons by anyone in the Syrian Arab Republic, to impose measures under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter" - to clarify, it is only under Chapter VII that military intervention and sanctions can be made. However, to "impose measures" would actually require an additional step, in the form of another UN Security Council Resolution, it goes without saying that any such resolution would likely be vetoed by Russia.

Given that there is no enforcement power, it is likely that Syria will keep some of its chemical weapons and/or distribute them to allied terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, and across borders to Iraq and Lebanon if it has not done so already. Nevertheless, some commentators argue that the UN framework will still allow for most of Syria's chemical weapons to be destroyed, because according to some estimates a limited military strike would have only been able to destroy a small amount of Syria's chemical weapons.

Secondly, while it is important to maintain an international norm against the use of chemical weapons, most of the more than 110,000 people killed in Syria have died from conventional weapons, and this limited Resolution will do nothing to end the conflict.  As Philippe Bolopion of Human Rights Watch said, "If the killing of civilians by conventional weapons continues unabated, the chemical weapons resolution will be remembered as an effort to draw red lines, not save civilian lives."

Moreover, there are reports that Russia will provide Syria with advanced conventional weapons in exchange for agreeing to the UN Resolution, and if this is true, it may secure the Assad regime's ability to win the civil war. In addition, Syria is reported to have a large stock-pile of biological weapons, and the Resolution does not include a requirement that Syria's biological weapons be destroyed.

Assad also appears unfazed by the Resolution to destroy his chemical weapons according to an interview with Lebanese writer Elie Shalhoub, reported in Hezbollah media Al-Manar:

"Shalhoub reported that the Syrian president was satisfied by the US-Russia joint deal concerning destroying Damascus' chemical weapons.
 He quoted Assad as saying: ‘We have 1000 tons of chemical weapons that we already consider a burden. Getting rid of this weapon costs a lot and takes years as it raises environmental challenges and problems. Let they come and take it (chemical weapon).'

... Asked by the Lebanese writer whether it is a strategic loss for Syria to lose its chemical weapon, Assad said: 'We had produced our chemical weapon, during the eighties of the last century, in a bid to deter Israel. However it is no more deterrent and today we have weapons that are more important and sophisticated through which we can paralyze Israel in seconds.'"

Thirdly, contrary for calls for Assad "to go" by world leaders including US President Obama, the resolution creates a Western interest in keeping Assad in power in order to implement the UN Resolution. The Resolution also arguably undermines the Syrian opposition by stating that, "the only solution to the current crisis in the Syria Arab Republic is through an inclusive and Syrian-led political process based on the Geneva Comminque of 30 June 2012..."

There are also other issues with the Resolution - which condemns the August 21 chemical weapon attack and says that "those responsible for any use of chemical weapons must be held accountable", but it does not blame the Assad regime for the attack, and does not provide a mechanism for assuring accountability.  Russia reportedly rejected the suggestion to refer the matter to the International Criminal Court.

Ultimately, it appears the UN Resolution was a compromise between US, Russian and Syrian interests that enabled all three to walk away as winners, as Julie Ioffe discussed in the New Republic:

"The Americans can say that they have enforced their red line against chemical weapons and have done so without using force or doing so unilaterally (‘Putin understands that Obama doesn't want to use force is Syria, but feels obligated to do so,' says Lukyanov. ‘This resolution gives the Americans the chance to step away from a war they didn't want to fight.') It also saves them from being seen as the country that continues to gut the United Nations.

The Russians can also say that they have upheld international norms protecting national sovereignty and insuring against unilateral military action...

Most important, the Russians emerge from this latest scuffle as the world's master diplomats and, finally, as America's geopolitical equals... Reserving the right to veto any future consequences for Assad's potential violations of Resolution 2118 allows Russia to maintain this equal footing...

Assad also wins in all of this, precisely because Russia is seems committed to making this plan work and therefore making Assad get rid of his weapons. If Assad complies and turns over his chemical weapons to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (the body charged by the resolution to determine the mechanics of the purge), the Americans don't strike Syria and Assad can stay in power and continue fighting the war... As long as Assad complies with Resolution 2118, in other words, he takes away the need for American intervention. And as long as he does that, he can and should keep fighting to crush the rebels."

Similarly, Dr. Rodger Shanahan and Anthony Bubalo from the Lowy Institute, argue that the UN Resolution is consistent with a Western approach to Syria marked by "half measures, indecision and contradiction". They write:

"Acting on its own, the West cannot bring the Syrian conflict to an end. Most of the policy options that the West has had in Syria have been poor ones. But it is also true that the West has played a weak hand badly. Even the agreement on chemical weapons reflects this. It was not the result of some well-thought out plan to use the threat of force to make diplomatic gains. Rather, it reflected an expedient meeting point between Washington's unwillingness to take military action and Moscow's uncertainty about w here the US threat of even limited military action might lead.

The agreement is consistent with a Western approach to Syria marked by half-measures, indecision and contradiction. It has called for the President Bashar al-Assad's removal from power, but has not been prepared to mount the decisive military intervention necessary to make its rhetoric a reality. It has pursued diplomacy, but limited its options by making Assad's removal from power a prerequisite for the start of negotiations. It has gradually and warily armed parts of the opposition, but only to levels that guarantee the conflict will continue rather than end in the opposition's favour. Having few good policy options, the West has largely adopted a reactive approach. In effect, it has been allowing Syria to bleed out. Policy has been left to the mercy of events on the ground."

Shanahan and Bubalo argue that the task now for the West is to "build on this deal and forge new agreements providing for humanitarian access and protection and for a durable ceasefire." On October 2, the UN Security Council made some progress in this regard by adopting a Presidential Statement that urged the Syrian government to facilitate "safe and unhindered humanitarian access to people in need through the most effective ways, including across conflict lines and, where appropriate, across borders from neighboring countries." Australian Ambassador to the UN Gary Quinlan drafted the statement with Luxembourg envoy Sylvie Lucas. Sadly, a Presidential Statement is not considered legally binding by many countries.

While UN Resolution 2118 is binding and brings some welcome developments, namely the potential destruction of most of Syria's stock-pile of chemical weapons, claims that the Resolution heralds a new era for UN diplomacy appear naive at best. The Resolution was ultimately a compromised position, and as with all compromises, sacrifices were made that must not be ignored.

Sharyn Mittelman