A Chance to Stop Syria and Russia From Using Chemical Weapons
Moscow and Damascus have evaded all accountability, but Biden can build a coalition to change that.
This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, detailing key administration policies as they get drafted—and the people who will put them into practice.
The battle for the future of nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction is underway within an obscure but important international organization based in The Hague. The looming showdown at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) will determine whether the world returns to the norm of zero chemical weapons use or if countries follow Russia’s example of poisoning dissidents and Syria’s of gassing its own citizens.
So far, Moscow and its client regime in Damascus have successfully delayed the work of the OPCW, and they are determined to stop any effort to impose consequences for their misconduct.
In February, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted: “We must preserve international law against the use of chemical weapons—or we risk normalizing their use,” adding that Russia and Syria must have “no impunity.” The OPCW is a sluggish organization, however, and unless the United States builds a coalition against impunity for Moscow and Damascus, this is likely to remain the norm.
As we know by now, Russia uses chemical weapons as part of an assassination program targeting enemies of the state. In 2018, Moscow’s operatives used a Novichok nerve agent, a group of toxins developed by the Soviet chemical weapons program, against Sergei Skripal, a Russian intelligence officer who had worked for Britain and defected there. While Skripal survived, an innocent mother of three died later from the poison.
The United States and European countries imposed sanctions against Russia, and with Moscow’s feigned enthusiasm, the OPCW added Novichok substances to the list of chemicals banned by the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. But the tepid response did not include the basic demand that Moscow account for its remaining chemical weapons, production capabilities, and facilities.
Russia has learned that the costs for using chemical weapons are tolerable. Moscow next used chemical weapons in August 2020 against Alexey Navalny, a prominent challenger to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Navalny fell ill in Russia and was eventually medevacked to Berlin. Multiple independent laboratories, as well as the OPCW, confirmed that Russia used a Novichok agent again. Despite the proof, the Kremlin issued more denials.
Three OPCW meetings have occurred since Navalny’s poisoning, with member states issuing strong condemnations of Moscow but making no effort to hold it accountable.
Meanwhile, the United Nations and the OPCW have meticulously documented Syria’s chemical weapons use. The United States also found in 2018 that the regime had employed chemical weapons at least 50 times since the beginning of the civil war seven years prior. Yet Damascus and Moscow continue to deny this fact.
Last summer, the OPCW’s 41-member policymaking body, the Executive Council, issued an ultimatum to Damascus: comply with the Chemical Weapons Convention within 90 days or face suspension from the OPCW. But the deadline passed without action.
What explains the lackluster response to Russia’s and Syria’s chemical weapons use?
One major problem is that OPCW officials do not have the authority to initiate probes of suspicious facilities and activities—either a member state must agree or other member states could direct the OPCW to do so. To escape penalties, Moscow exploits these rules and the hesitancy of some countries to get involved in what they perceive as great-power politics. Members know they could be the target of Moscow’s retribution if they do not vote the Kremlin’s way.
However, Washington now has an opportunity to assemble a coalition to enact penalties against Russia and Syria in order to deter future chemical weapons use.
At the Conference of the States Parties later this month—a gathering of all 193 OPCW member states—the United States should lead efforts to formally suspend Damascus, an action that requires a two-thirds vote. Under the Trump administration, at the Conference of the States Parties late last year, the United States and 45 other countries started the ball rolling by circulating a draft decision to that effect.
Washington may have an uphill battle. According to an analysis of more than two years of OPCW voting data by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (for which we both work), achieving a two-thirds majority is daunting when countries abstain or vote with Moscow. Fifty-nine countries have regularly or semiregularly voted for Russia or sat on the fence to Moscow’s ultimate advantage. This could once again stop or delay decisions.
The Biden administration will need to expend the effort to gather the votes required to sideline Syria, and it doesn’t have a moment to lose. Blinken and U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan can help wrangle votes by making phone calls to countries that have not yet voiced support for suspending Syria. They should request support, in particular, from states that tend to abstain yet have significant trade, economic, development, military, or security relations with the United States.
On Russia, Washington should push for an OPCW investigation at the July Executive Council meeting and require Moscow to declare its ongoing chemical weapons program within 90 days, mirroring the council’s 90-day deadline for Syria to demonstrate compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention.
According to our analysis of past OPCW votes, countries that vote pro-Moscow or abstain in the Executive Council can also prevent Washington and its allies from reaching a two-thirds majority. For example, 18 countries currently on the Executive Council often vote or abstain in Moscow’s favor—more than the 14 votes needed in the council to block decisions. Thankfully, membership in the Executive Council rotates, meaning a blocking majority is not always present.
But even if the United States cannot corral the needed votes this time, pursuing these actions would force countries to be on the record regarding their failure to hold Russia and Syria accountable. This would set an important precedent that Washington will not allow members to stay on the sidelines on these important issues. Even if the United States loses the vote, it will lay the foundation for future success.
If Moscow and Damascus won’t abide by the international chemical weapons rules they signed up to, states should move to suspend their OPCW voting rights. An OPCW without Syria and Russia might even be a good thing.
Anthony Ruggiero is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Twitter: @NatSecAnthony