Consistency and determination is needed on chemical weapons

By Simon Barrow
September 11, 2013

This morning (11 September 2013) President Obama broadcast an address to the US nation ( It contained no new evidence, information or argument, but continued to maintain that "it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike."

Mr Obama publicly acknowledged the Russian initiated possibility of a negotiated settlement bringing Syrian chemical stocks under international control as a prelude to their destruction. Elsewhere, US state department functionaries have been quoted as taking it "with a pinch of salt". But the president seems to recognise that this route offers at least a chance of getting himself off the dangerous looking hook created by the 'red line' he himself drew. In his speech, delivered at the White House, he asked Congressional leaders to postpone a vote to authorise the use of force while he pursued what he described as "this diplomatic path," even while making a case for a punitive strike.

What of the facts behind the threats? Mr Obama said that the Syrian government was clearly responsible for the use of chemical weapons that killed more than 1,000 people last month. The usual figure cited as fact in the media, in advance of the UN expert inspection report, is Mr Kerry's 1,400 plus. Others suggest 700 or 350-400. Circumstantial and intelligence evidence is uncertain and uneven, but definitely points in the direction of the appalling attacks on 21 August around Damascus coming from regime areas. A report from the New York-based Human Rights Watch is the latest to blame Syrian government forces for carrying out the attacks. Who authorised them and for what purposes, on the very same day that inspectors arrived in the country, remains unclear.

Much of the classified and unrevealed intelligence comes from Mossad in Israel, which has a clear motive in seeking US military action against what it sees as the axis of Syria, Hezbollah and ultimately Iran. There are contradictions between the relatively sketchy public reports issued by the UK, France and US. German and Turkish intelligence suggests that it may not have been Assad who authorised the illegal use of chemicals.

Russian and Iranian claims are propagandistic in a different direction – though there are indeed indications that at least some opposition forces in Syria may also be able to access chemical agents. Crucially, no clear and verifiable evidence has been placed before the UN Security Council or the International Criminal Court. We may know more when the UN inspectors report publicly, though probably not about exactly who lies behind the attacks, which the Assad regime, predictably, denies.

That is what can be determined. Is it enough to justify risky military action outside the approval of the UNSC and outside international law (since the Responsibility to Protect clearly requires action consistent with the obligations of the UN charter)? The publics in the West do not think so. The Pope and the vast majority of world church and faith leaders do not think so. The Germans do not think so. The UK parliament does not think so. The democratic, nonviolent opposition within Syria does not think so. The majority of the best-informed legal minds do not think so. Mr Obama is having great difficulty persuading politicians on all sides to think so. This is as far from an international consensus as you could imagine on such a vital, precipitous issue.

None of that was not mentioned in Mr Obama's presentation. There was also no admission or acknowledgement that the US itself unleashed chemical weapons (Agent Orange) on an industrial scale in Vietnam. That it used white phosphorous and depleted uranium in Iraq and Afghanistan. That it overlooked and indeed colluded with Iraq's terrible use of chemical weapons against Iran – it is undeniable that the US provided military intelligence to help Saddam Hussein target Iranian troops. Or that it has equipped opposition groups in Syrian to handle chemical agents, supposedly to seize them from the regime, but with other damaging potential.

Of course, nothing that the US or its allies do can or should be used to justify or mitigate the quite disgraceful crimes that sections of the Syrian military are likely to have committed – just a small part of the brutal regime's assault on its opponents (many of whom have also committed atrocities) that forms part of what is in some respects a revolution, in other respects a multi-channel civil war, and in yet further aspects a proxy war involving US, Russian, Iranian, Israeli, Saudi and Gulf State interests. It is precisely the combination of uncertainty and complexity in this situation that makes precipitous Western military intervention so unwise and dangerous from a purely pragmatic, political, strategic – let alone moral or humanitarian – perspective.

Meanwhile, there are facts that we can ascertain with some certainty and which need to be acted upon urgently. One is that the use of chemical weapons is a criminal act and can and should be treated as such. Another is that the legal avenues for doing this have not yet been exploited, alongside concrete disarmament and demilitarisation efforts. A third is that the entire world community is now focused on Assad and his actions, exerting enormous political pressure. Last but not least, there is the continuing plight of the civilian population – seven million displaced or refugees – which requires the most urgent possible response.

As Professor Mary Kaldor has eloquently argued (, "Bringing all the international actors together on the issue of chemical weapons might provide a basis for a consensus on humanitarian issues. There is never going to be agreement on geo-political issues, so if the Geneva II talks that the special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is trying to get going focus on a political settlement, it is unlikely they will succeed. Rather the talks should focus on humanitarian issues; how to stop the killing of civilians and how to protect people."

How? "First of all," says Kaldor, who is professor of global governance at the LSE and a military specialist, "the chemical attacks should be referred to the ICC. Syria is not a signatory to the ICC so it would require UN Security Council authorisation. But supporting this might be easier for Russia and China, who are both signatories to the CWC, than a resolution authorising military intervention. Russia is a signatory to the ICC and although it has opposed referral of Syria to the ICC in the past, the current context might change things. China opposed the Rome statute at the time but has since signalled support for the court. The US unsigned the Rome treaty and is opposed to the ICC but was persuaded to abstain in 2005 when the situation in Darfur was referred to the ICC. Iran, although not currently a member of the Security Council might also support this course of action because of deep Iranian antipathy to the use of chemical weapons after the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. In contrast to the UN inspectors, whose mandate is to establish whether chemical weapons have been used, the ICC could ask the Prosecutor to investigate who is responsible for the attacks."

She concludes: "[T]his is a moment to take the initiative to move towards a rights-based law-governed world just as those of us living in the United States and Europe take for granted within our own societies."

That is precisely what President Obama should, but did not, argue in his broadcast to the US nation. It has to be the loud, clear voice of civil society actors right now - those who wish all parties in the region and beyond to live up to their rhetoric and responsibilities, not just some. Above all, the chance for action furnished by the unlikely source of the Russians, whose own failings have been well illustrated by Euro MEP Jean Lambert recently (, should not be wasted or allowed to grind to a potentially catastrophic military dead end by wrangling in the UN, and by reluctance to face reality and truth within sections of the US administration.

Other recent Syria-related articles by the same author:

* The line from 9/11 to Syria needs to be broken -

* Calculating the odds: will Obama lose the Syria vote? -

* Game-changing: Syria, tough reality and alternatives to military adventurism -

* US and UK dossiers leave confusion over Syrian chemical weapons -

* Commons Syria vote: a significant moment, but what next? -

* Spinning us along the path to military intervention -

* Syria: what lies behind the clamour for military strikes? -


(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. Follow him on Twitter: @simonbarrow More on Syria from Ekklesia here:

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