The campaign to eliminate all weapons of mass destruction – nuclear, chemical and biological – has made enormous progress, but the recent use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government has undermined the international ban on the use of these weapons.
In response to Syria’s firing these hideous weapons that have killed upwards of 1,400 people, President Obama has asked Congress to authorize limited military action against Syrian military assets. The President’s request raises the important question of how the world – and the United States – should react to the use of weapons of mass destruction.
The first use of chemical warfare occurred in Ypres, Belgium in 1915. Total casualties on all sides from chemical warfare in World War I are estimated at 1.3 million. World condemnation of the indiscriminate killing and lingering effects of poison gases used in World War I led to the Geneva Protocol of 1925, which prohibited the use in war of “poisonous, asphyxiating or other gases.”
In 1998, Syria acceded to the Geneva Protocol. While the original interpretation of the Protocol referred to war, subsequent interpretations by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in 1995 and by the International Committee of the Red Cross in 2005 concluded that there is now “a general consensus in the international community on the principle that the use of chemical weapons is also prohibited in internal armed conflicts.”
None of the belligerents used chemical weapons during World War II, but in the lead-up to the war, these weapons were used by Italy against Ethiopia in 1935 and by Japan against China in the late 1930’s.
Iraq made extensive use of chemical weapons against Iran and its own Kurdish people in the 1980’s.
Chemical Weapons Convention
The Chemical Weapons Convention, which was signed in 1993 by the George Herbert Walker Bush administration and entered into force in 1997, has now been ratified by 189 nations and signed by two others. Only five countries have not signed the treaty, including Syria, Egypt and North Korea. The countries agreeing to the Convention have declared 71,196 tons of chemical agent. Almost 80 percent of that total has been destroyed. The United States has destroyed about 90 percent of its stockpile of chemical munitions, but it, like Russia, is behind schedule.
The treaty has been enforced by a strong verification system under the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. There have been over 2,600 inspections of chemical weapons sites and another 1,800 inspections of industrial sites in 86 countries.
Syrian civil war
The civil war in Syria has led to the deaths of an estimated 100,000 people and the creation of millions of refugees who have fled to neighboring countries. What has made the government’s chemical weapons attack that killed upwards of 1,400 people so gruesome and different from the other carnage is the government’s ignoring a long-standing international ban on the use of poison gas weapons. The fear is that if this attack is not met with a strong international or American response, the Syrian government, and other countries, may feel freer to use chemical weapons again and in larger attacks. The fear on the other side is that any U.S. military attack could lead to a wider war and greater American military involvement at the expense of a political and diplomatic solution.
One dilemma for the United States is that any United Nations Security Council or Arab League endorsements of a military response appear blocked by countries such as Russia and China and some Arab countries. Some experts have warned that a unilateral attack on Syria by the United States, like the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, could violate international law, even though it might be seen as a national security or moral necessity.
It should come as no surprise that a question of whether to bomb another country would divide those who are genuinely concerned about what has happened in Syria and prompts major soul-searching as to how best to respond to deter and ultimately eliminate the usage and threat of all weapons of mass destruction.
Council for a Livable World considers the following to be key questions for Members of Congress as they consider this critical vote:
1) Is the intelligence good on alleged Syrian use of chemical weapons? Are the sources of information reliable? Is the intelligence analysis thorough and thoughtful, or does it rely upon “cherry picking,” guesswork or unbuttressed statements interpreting the data? Members of Congress should read the classified information and make up their own minds, rather than relying on others to tell them what to think.
2) Is a military strike the only realistic option? A better approach, were it feasible, would be to secure Russia’s agreement to cease the supply of arms and supplies to Assad’s regime and to enact a U.N. Security Council or General Assembly resolution backing that up. Members of Congress should press on this point unless or until they are convinced that Russian intransigence truly makes such diplomatic options untenable.
3) Will a military strike achieve results that justify accepting the attendant risks, costs, and collateral damage? This is one of the hardest criterion for the Administration and Congress to satisfy and develop a consensus. Cratering airbase runways is a waste of resources; they can be repaired within days. Bombing chemical weapons stocks carries a real risk of causing unjustifiable harm to civilians. That leaves such targets as delivery systems, C3 (command, control and communications – e.g., airbase control towers, radars, military communications installations, ports that handle military shipments, and regional or national headquarters), and targets of economic or political importance to the regime (e.g., secret police headquarters or places with conspicuous regime symbols).
4) Are the interests of the Syrian people being kept in mind, rather than just those of U.S. forces? Any limitation regarding “boots on the ground” ought to allow for the possibility of special forces operations for humanitarian purposes, including to disable or remove chemical or biological weapons. The likelihood of such an operation being feasible appears to be quite low, but Congress should not forestall such an effort if a realistic opportunity presents itself.
5) The Senate Foreign Relations Committee adopted a bill that bans the deployment of us forces in Syria and limits the scope and duration of U.S. military operations. in addition it, adopted language offered by Senators McCain (R-AZ) and Coons (D-DE) that appears to expand the U.S. military response to chemical weapons use by adding as policy objectives changing “the momentum on the battlefield in Syria so as to create favorable conditions for a negotiated settlement that ends the conflict and leads to a democratic government in Syria” and “degrade[ing] the capabilities of the Assad regime to use weapons of mass destruction while upgrading the lethal and non-lethal military capabilities of vetted elements of Syrian opposition forces, including the Free Syrian Army.” If the full Senate adopts this position, would it lead to a major expansion of the U.S. military response?
Above all, Members of Congress must remain mindful of the gravity and importance of their decision. We are talking about war or peace, the efficacy of military enforcement of the laws of war, the credibility of the existing non-proliferation regimes and treaties and the implications for years to come of a failure to enforce those norms. The last thing this country needs is for such issues to be decided on the basis of “politics as usual,” party affiliation, or one’s like or dislike of the President or the Congress.
A late-breaking development may provide the Administration a way out of its dilemma. At a news conference in London on Monday, September 8, Secretary of State John Kerry was asked if there was anything Assad could do to avert a military strike by the United States. “He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week — turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow the full and total accounting,” Mr. Kerry said.
The Russian Foreign Minister then issued a statement calling on Syria to agree to put its chemical weapons under international control and join the Chemical Weapons Convention. The Syrian Foreign Minister, who was in Moscow, stated that Syria welcomed the Russian initiative, although he did not indicate that Syria would agree to the proposal. President Obama acknowledged that the idea “could potentially be a significant break-through.”
This solution could be effective and avoid any U.S. military strike if the UN Security Council passes a resolution that:
1. Requires Syria to make public its chemical weapons program and place it under international control under a very tight timetable and dismantle it as expeditiously as possible.
2. Requires Syria to sign and ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention
3. Denounces any use of chemical weapons in Syria or elsewhere
4. Calls upon all other states who have not yet signed and ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention to do so immediately.