With an assist from Moscow, Damascus could dodge sanctions for gassing its own people.
The Obama administration has throttled back its diplomatic push to make Syria destroy all of its stockpiles of chlorine and barrel bombs on the premise that the Syrian regime used them in attacks against opposition-controlled towns, according to diplomatic sources.
For the past month, the United States has tried to muster support for a resolution condemning Syria’s use of chemical weapons before the executive council of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), an international watchdog. The United States sought to strip Damascus of its voting rights at the agency if it failed to permit greater international scrutiny of its suspected chemical weapons activities.
Faced with pushback from Russia and developing countries, however, Washington withdrew the measure this week, diplomatic sources say. In its place, the United States on Friday backed a watered-down, compromise measure put forward by Spain that condemns the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government and the Islamic State, and instructs the chemical weapons watchdog to carry out inspections at sites, including Syrian airports, that are linked to chemical weapons activities. But the measure stops short of imposing any penalties on Damascus, or requiring it declare its stockpiles of chlorine and barrel bombs.
U.S. and European officials said they had hoped for a tougher response, but that today’s vote marked an important advance in efforts to hold perpetrators to account for using chemical weapons, especially given political straitjackets at U.N. headquarters in Turtle Bay.
Friday’s decision gives the chemical watchdog agency a mandate to conduct twice-yearly inspections at two facilities — in Barzah and Jamrayah — where the OPCW has found traces of undeclared nerve agents, including sarin and VX. Syria claims the labs played no role in Syria’s once-secret chemical weapons program. But the United States and the OPCW are convinced that they have.
“The United States supports the draft Spanish decision,” a State Department official told Foreign Policy. “While the United States would have preferred an even stronger statement against those responsible for chemical weapon use in Syria, the Spanish draft offers the best chance of being adopted in the executive council.”
Brits back it as well. “This decision confirms that the Assad regime and Daesh are responsible for using abhorrent chemical weapons against civilians,” British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said in a statement issued after the vote.
“There is a clear determination across the international community to hold those who have used these heinous weapons to account. The UK will continue to work with international partners to secure justice for victims, and to prevent the use of chemical weapons by anyone, anywhere.”
The setback is likely to pose an early test for President-elect Donald Trump over how forcefully his administration will uphold international norms regarding the use of chemical weapons by Syria, the only signatory to the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention to have used chemical weapons since the treaty came into force.
During his campaign, Trump stressed the need to cooperate with Syria — and its Russian backers — to redouble the fight against the Islamic State, which has also been accused of using chemical weapons.
Syria has carried out chemical weapons attacks since 2012, the United States and Europe say, when government aircraft killed seven people in Homs with poisonous gas. Following the threat of retaliatory U.S. airstrikes in 2013, Syria agreed to dismantle its decades-old chemical weapons program under international supervision and join the Chemical Weapons Convention. Since then, the bulk of Syria’s declared chemical weapons program — including more than 1,300 metric tons of sulfur mustard and other chemical weapons precursors — have been destroyed.
But there is mounting evidence that Syria may have secretly preserved some elements of its weapons program, and that it has continued to weaponize chemicals like chlorine which are not prohibited under the nonproliferation pact. A team of experts from the U.N. and OPCW recently concluded that Syria has used chemical weapons in the opposition-held towns of Talmenes, Sarmin, and Qmenas in 2014 and 2015.
The United States has talked with Russia about expanding the inspectors’ mandate. Russia has questioned the utility of the investigations, and says it would like to see the team shift its focus to pursuing chemical weapons use by terrorist organizations in Syria and beyond. But Russia has made it clear it sees no need to impose sanctions on Syria in the U.N. Security Council. The Russian defense ministry, meanwhile, claims it has evidence that Syria terrorist groups have used chemical weapons in Aleppo.
Last month, the U.S. Ambassador to the OPCW, Kenneth Ward, argued that Syria’s confirmed use of chlorine bombs crossed a red line of sorts.
“Having been found to have used chlorine as a chemical weapon, Syria is now required under the [Chemical Weapons] Convention to declare and destroy all chlorine stocks and any other stocks of toxic chemicals,” he said. “Syria must also declare and destroy all associated munitions such as barrel bombs as well as the equipment and facilities used to produce these chemical weapons.”
He also pushed for the passage of a draft decision that would require Syria to submit to inspections of sites suspected of links to chemical weapons, including heliports, chemical facilities, and barrel bomb factories, or lose its voting rights and other privileges at the chemical weapons watchdog. The U.S. proposal would have also required Syria to declare all of its stocks of toxic industrial chemicals, including chlorine, or munitions capable of delivering chemical weapons, within 30 days.
Russia blocked the resolution from being adopted by consensus, forcing the Americans to put it to a vote. Russia, however, has signaled it will veto any effort in the Security Council to impose sanctions on Syria for using chemical weapons.
In The Hague, meanwhile, Washington encountered resistance from developing countries, which argue that the U.N. Security Council is the appropriate venue to levy penalties on a member state. In an effort to bridge the gap, Washington withdrew its draft and made way for a Spanish resolution that condemns Syria’s chemical weapons activities, but stops short of threatening penalties.
That resolution was adopted Friday by at least 28 votes in favor, according to diplomats. Russia, China, Sudan, and Iran voted against it, and nine countries abstained, according to Reuters.
Despite the blow to their initial plans, U.S. officials say they remain committed to holding all perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks accountable. But time may be running out for the Obama administration to secure support at the U.N. for tough punitive measures. In the meantime, U.S. officials say, they hope they can at least secure an extended term of life for the inspectors to keep doing their work.
The goal, a State Deptartment official said, is “to send a clear message that the use of chemical weapons will not be tolerated.”
Photo credit: NIGEL TREBLIN/Getty Images
Correction, Nov. 11, 2016: Syria is the first member of the Chemical Weapons Convention to use chemical weapons since the treaty entered into force in 1997. An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Syria was the first signatory of the treaty to have weaponized chemicals.