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Will Syria Yield to the Chemical Weapons Ban?

Interviewee: Lori Esposito Murray, Adjunct Senior Fellow
Interviewer: Zachary Laub, Senior Copy Editor/Writer
April 7, 2017

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The U.S. cruise missile strike on a Syrian airfield suspected of launching a chemical weapons attack was described as a matter of “vital national security” by President Donald J. Trump. Though unilateral, the attack has drawn international support and can be justified as enforcing the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), says CFR’s Lori Esposito Murray, a veteran arms control official and former special advisor to the president on the CWC.

Since Syria is a signatory to the 192-member CWC, the aftermath of the most recent chemical attack is far different than that of the 2013 sarin attack, says Murray. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad now faces “not just more international pressure, but legal pressure,” Murray says, “and it provides an even stronger international legal basis for [Trump’s] action.”

A civil defence member breathes through an oxygen mask, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan SheikhounA civil defense member after a suspected gas attack in northern Idlib. (Ammar Abdullah/Reuters)

What do you think will be the consequences of the attack on the Syrian airfield?

It was a targeted attack to degrade Syria’s chemical weapons ability, and a tactically proportionate response to Assad’s chemical weapons attack in Idlib. The Trump administration stated it had high confidence that the Syrian government, under the leadership of Assad, carried out the attack using sarin. It targeted the airfield from which, we believe, the Syrian aircraft involved in the chemical weapons attack launched.

But the strike does have a larger purpose, in terms of trying to deter the Assad regime from carrying out a chemical weapons attack again. The attack and the president’s subsequent statement  sent a strong signal that the United States would not tolerate Assad violating international law—the CWC—and international norms that date to the end of World War I. The administration has been careful to make clear that this isn't a change in U.S. military strategy in Syria, but a response to a specific action Assad took. It then puts the ball in Assad's court. 

The strike will also have a larger impact on political and diplomatic efforts regarding the future of Syria. Assad's position has been deeply damaged. This week began with the Trump administration saying it was a reality that Assad will remain in power and that the United States would no longer focus its energies on getting rid of him. The Trump administration has since made a large leap, attacking Syria and then saying it no longer believes that Assad has a role in the country’s future. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will be in Moscow next week. The next several days and weeks will be important in determining whether the United States can leverage the strike for broader political momentum aimed at resolving the civil war.

Is unilateral U.S. action like this itself a breach of international norms or law?

President Trump’s statement indicated that he believes international norms and law underpin the attack, particularly given the CWC. When Assad used chemical weapons in 2013, Syria was not yet party to the CWC, so he was violating an international norm but not the convention. The violation has become stronger now that Syria is a party to the CWC. There is not just more international pressure, but also more legal pressure on Assad.

There seems to be little debate that a nerve agent was used. How do officials make such a determination?

First and foremost, officials make their determinations based on intelligence, but the information that comes from the area of crisis—photos, videos, eyewitness accounts—are important in terms of raising the global public profile of the attack and providing more robust and tangible information to support the charges that the attack occurred. In the late 1980s, photos of chemical attacks in Halabja, Iraq, put Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons use on the map. That horrendous act further turned global opinion against Saddam and helped jump-start negotiations for the CWC. Now, in this digital age, it’s much faster and there’s a lot more volume, as we saw within hours of the attack in Syria.

There are several ways to verify that those photos are accurate. That includes interviewing survivors and getting information from first responders and medical staff where the attack is thought to have occurred. Sampling from victims, both survivors and the deceased, and the environment also provides evidence. 

Now that Syria is part of the CWC, its treaty organization, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), has established a formal Fact-Finding Mission working both in Syria and outside it to gather information and samples. Some of the attack’s victims have crossed over into Turkey, so you can get eyewitness information and sampling, including blood work, from victims getting care outside of Syria.

Once chemical weapons use is determined, the next step is trying to verify who did the attack. There’s a group called the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), set up by a 2015 UN Security Council resolution, to identify the perpetrators of the attacks in Syria. It is jointly managed by the OPCW and UN, and has verified the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons since 2013.

What data will those investigators be looking for to determine attribution?

Eyewitness reports are important to determine where the aircraft was seen, what type of aircraft it was, and its timing, as well as, what the explosion was like and whether it happened because a facility was hit or because of munitions dropped from the aircraft. Samples from the area can help validate not only the chemical weapons used but who the perpetrator was.

Russia has claimed that Assad’s forces carried out an air strike with conventional weapons that hit a chemical weapons cache held by extremists. Is that plausible?

That scenario is being dismissed out of hand by the U.S., Britain, and France among others. While investigations are underway, indicators challenging the Russian assertion include that there appeared to be no fire, which would have occurred if a storage facility was bombed. Also, it is questioned whether the extremists could have had this type of chemical weapon or the capability to make it.

The U.S., Britain, and France all had high confidence in their intelligence, in addition to the reports from the area of conflict that the whole world has seen. The Pentagon has released photographs of the Syrian aircraft they believe carried the chemical weapons that struck Idlib. Turkey reported the chemical used was sarin, based on autopsies, blood samples, and symptoms of victims who had crossed the border.

Given the ongoing use of chemical weapons since Syria’s accession to the CWC, how effective have its mechanisms been?

The OPCW’s mission has been validated. In 2013, when the worst chemical weapons attack happened, outside of Damascus—1,300–1,500 victims lost their lives—Syria wasn't yet a part of the CWC, so the OPCW had no role to play. Putin pulled out of a hat what became the resolution to that crisis, which was Syria joining the CWC. That has opened up a lot of mechanisms: Syria had to declare its facilities and then destroy its chemical weapons within a short period of time. There has always been a concern that Syria did not declare all its chemical weapons. Russia is the guarantor of that agreement, which has raised the administration’s ire, as well as that of the global community. But Syria’s accession set up a mechanism for the OPCW to monitor its compliance and report publicly on it. During 2014–2015, the OPCW and UN’s Joint Investigative Mechanism determined that the Syrian government used chlorine in at least three attacks and that the Islamic State used sulfur mustard in an attack.

What has been the international response to the U.S. attack?

The international response, except for mainly Iran and Russia, has been favorable to the [U.S.] attack, in part because there is no question of how the world sees not only the use, but also the possession of these weapons. It is outlawed. The CWC, which bans the production, development, and use of chemical weapons, is one of the most successful multilateral arms control conventions. It’s actually a disarmament convention: 95 percent of the declared chemical weapons stockpiles in the world have been destroyed since it entered into force in 1997. It’s the most recognized international arms control agreement, with 192 member states. Only Egypt, North Korea, and South Sudan are not members. Israel has signed but not ratified it.

That isolates Russia and puts more pressure on its position in terms of whether Assad stays in power. Though the response from the Kremlin spokesman was harsh, [Foreign Minister Sergey] Lavrov sent a more nuanced message, saying "I hope this provocation will not lead to irreparable damage" in U.S.-Russian relations. We are again at a turning point in terms of Assad’s role and Russia’s positioning; international opinion may irreversibly turn away from Assad. The U.S. has moved dramatically in five days. This may force Russia to recalculate, opening up different options for a post-Assad Syria.

With regard to weapons of mass destruction, we started this week with two of the most broadly supported pillars of the international arms control regime, the CWC and the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), collapsing, one under siege by Assad and the other by [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-un. The U.S. response in Syria has resuscitated the CWC as an important global norm. Hopefully after [Trump’s] meetings with Chinese President Xi [Jinping], we will be able to say the same about the NPT.

This interview had been edited and condensed.

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