After two years of paralysis in the face of the growing humanitarian catastrophe engulfing Syria, the UN Security Council finally took centre-stage last Friday. Resolution 2118 that was adopted unanimously on 27 September at ministerial level broke new ground in the Council’s history. For the first time, the fifteen-member body agreed ‘that the use of chemical weapons anywhere constitutes a threat to international peace and security.’ The significance of this language is that as the body responsible for maintaining ‘international peace and security’, such a determination is a prior condition for the Council activating the use of coercive enforcement measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.
Although UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, described the passing of the resolution as a ‘historic’ moment, a sentiment echoed by Security Council members speaking after the vote, it is important to insert some caveats here. The Security Council has failed to act in the face of past violations of the international norm – some might say taboo – against the use of chemical weapons. The most notorious case is Iraq’s use of poison gas against the Kurds at Halabja in March 1988. In this sense, Resolution 2118 is highly significant because the Security Council is acting to uphold the norm in the face of the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The resolution does not take a position on where culpability lies for their appalling use on the 21 August that led to the horrific deaths of hundreds of civilians, since the United States and Russia remain divided on this question. Nor crucially, despite the language of ‘international peace and security’, does the resolution fall under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. The United States, the United Kingdom, and France sought a Chapter VII resolution that would have strengthened the legal basis for any future military action against the government of President Al-Assad, but the Russian government would not have accepted any resolution that was adopted under Chapter VII. As Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister and formerly its UN Ambassador emphasized, ‘The resolution does not fall under Chapter VII of the Charter….and does not allow for any automatic use of coercive measures of enforcement’.
In addition, it is highly questionable how far the Russian government would have accepted Resolution 2118 had Syria not shown a willingness to comply with the US-Russian disarmament process that laid the groundwork for the resolution. In the weeks prior to the adoption of the resolution, Syria joined the Chemical Weapons Convention and Lavrov drew attention, when speaking after the vote in the Council, to Damascus having already provided the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) with an inventory of its chemical capabilities. He also considered that the Syrian government could be trusted to act ‘in good faith with the international inspectors’ from OPCW who have the highly demanding challenge of placing Syria’s chemical arsenal under international control, leading to its eventual destruction. Russian pressure on Syria is a major factor in Damascus’s willingness to cooperate, but the fact of Syrian consent made it much easier for Russia, and indeed other members of the Council sensitive about upholding the principle of sovereignty, to accept the resolution.
The real test of how far the Council is prepared to enforce the norm against the use of chemical weapons, and impose disarmament of its chemical arsenal on Syria, will come if the Syrian government fails to comply with Resolution 2118. The most blatant violation would be further uses of chemical weapons that could be unambiguously attributed to the government of Al-Assad. But as the UN’s experience of disarming Iraq of its WMD in the 1990s showed, governments can play cat and mouse games as they seek to deceive the inspectors as to their real intentions and capabilities. The most the Russian government would concede in the negotiations over the drafting of the resolution was the following wording: ‘in the event of non-compliance with this resolution, including unauthorized transfer of chemical weapons, or any use of chemical weapons by anyone in the Syrian Arab Republic, to impose measures under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter’. As we have seen, the Russian foreign minister was explicit in his view that any use of coercive measures to enforce the resolution would require a new UN mandate adopted under Chapter VII.
The Russian government has been determined to avoid a situation, such as happened with Iraq in 2003, and indeed Kosovo in March 1999, where the United States could claim the authority of existing Chapter VII resolutions to use force against Syria without explicit Security Council authorization. In contrast, the United States has wanted to leave the door open as to how far it would require a new resolution to take coercive measures, including the use of force, in the event that Syria fails to comply. Speaking after the vote in the Council, US Secretary of State John Kerry said, ‘should the regime fail to act, there will be consequences’.
Resolution 2118 became possible, in part, because the US and Russian governments were able to subordinate their backing for opposed sides in the brutal civil war to the common interest of preventing any future use of chemical weapons on the territory of Syria. The other key motivating factor on the Russian side was the imperative to restrict Washington’s military options whilst demonstrating that they could be responsive to the international outcry over the use of chemical weapons in Syria. From the Obama administration’s perspective, the resolution rescued it from military action that looked increasingly unpalatable given the lack of support from a key ally in the United Kingdom, and the impact this was likely to have on Congressional approval for the use of force.
The concern is that US-Russian common interest will weaken if there are disagreements over whether Syria is complying, and crucially, even if the Council agrees that Damascus is not acting in good faith, how far this justifies the use of force. The Council agreed in both Kosovo in 1999 and Iraq in 2003 that governments were not complying with prior resolutions that had been adopted under Chapter VII (but which did not authorize the use of force), but profoundly disagreed that this justified the use of force. In this case, disagreements over Syria’s lack of compliance, and the international community has no experience of trying to disarm a state of its WMD in the middle of a brutal civil war, will sharpen if Moscow is suspected of conniving in President Al-Assad’s deception. At which point, the military option could well come back on the table, and this time the Obama administration would have an existing UN resolution (albeit one not adopted under Chapter VII) to bolster its case with Congress.
The worry is that the two powers, whose backing of different sides has prevented any de-escalation of the Syrian conflict for the past two years, whilst thousands have perished, might fall back into a competitive mindset. This brings with it the prospect of yet more violence if the Obama administration decides to follow through on its threats to ‘deter and degrade’ Syria’s chemical weapon capabilities. And if this happens, the prospect for saving humans in Syria will be bleak.
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Professor Nicholas J. Wheeler is co-lead on the Saving Humans theme and Director of the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security at the University of Birmingham.