The Tragic Reality of the Syria Deal


Michael Zoorob

In what began as an ad lib comment by John Kerry — that Assad surrender his chemical weapons to the international community, or else! — and culminated in a Russian-brokered deal to do just that, Syria has now agreed to join the UN Convention on Chemical Weapons, an international treaty requiring states to declare and ultimately destroy their stockpiles of chemical weapons. Remarkably, the threat of US military intervention that seemed imminent not a week ago now seems to have passed, though Washington maintains that military action is not completely off the table.

The United States and Russia announced earlier today that, under their deal, the Assad regime would provide the international community with a full account of their chemical weapons stockpiles within the next seven days. Syria would allow for UN inspectors of these stockpiles by no later than November. Ultimately, Syria’s weapons would be shipped to Russia, where they would be dismantled.

This move is likely little consolation to the families of the 1400 Syrians who were allegedly gassed to death (though this number is likely exaggerated). Nor is it much consolation to the families of the more than a hundred thousand Syrians who have died in the conflict.

But it’s enough for a beleaguered Obama to taper off support for a military strike, having garnered little support at home or abroad for a “strategic-strike” to degrade Assad’s chemical weapons capabilities.

In recent weeks, Obama has continually touted the need to uphold international norms. In one representative example, he posed the question to “every member of Congress and every member of the global community: What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?  What’s the purpose of the international system that we’ve built if a prohibition on the use of chemical weapons that has been agreed to by the governments of 98 percent of the world’s people and approved overwhelmingly by the Congress of the United States is not enforced?”

Apparently, signing the UN Chemical Weapons Convention is sufficient price for Assad to pay for “gassing hundreds of children to death in plain sight.” Crisis averted.

In any case, we almost went to war with Assad over what the Obama administration argued was a norm-breaking use of chemical weapons. And so, I think, two, related questions arise: What are the odds that Syria is going to adhere to its new treaty obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention? And: What good is the international system we’re supposedly fighting to uphold?

Regarding the first question: odds are, in a word, bad, unless the international community is willing to enforce the treaty provisions with teeth over the long-haul. After all, for example, Syria has been party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights since 1969, which enshrines such virtues as the right to life, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, electoral rights and rights to due process and a fair trial. Respect for these rights has not been a reality for the Syrian people, who have suffered from oppressive dictatorship for about the last half-century, as much under Hafez-al Assad as under his son Bashir, the current President.

I don’t see why we should expect more diligent compliance with chemical weapons, so long as Assad or a similarly undemocratic ruler is in power and (crucially) non-compliance is in his interests. Considering the general lack of global will to intervene in Syria even after the apparent use of chemical weapons, it’s not obvious that states will continue to enforce this norm either.

The track-records of human rights treaties generally also isn’t great — perhaps for precisely the same reason, that  no one is willing to enforce their provisions. Quantitative studies  of human rights treaties tend to show that they have little effect on state behavior and that, in certain authoritarian regimes, states may even aggravate their human rights abuses following the ratification of human rights treaties. It is speculated that authoritarian regimes may sign human rights treaties to deflect international criticism of their human rights records, giving them greater license to mistreat their populations.

In light of these observations, it’s strange on first glance that chemical weapons have been used so infrequently. When they have been used in the past, the international community hasn’t done much in response. Recently declassified documents show that not only did the US neglect to punish Sadaam Hussein for using chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq War, it gave the Iraqis intelligence about Iranian positions with full knowledge that they would be used to gas people to death.

Interestingly, of the 27,000 Iranians who were gassed, only 262 died. This highlights what I think is a more credible reason why chemical weapons are so rarely employed: They aren’t very good at killing people.

Maybe this is the very reason why Assad seems so willing to give up his chemical weapons. They may not mean much to him anyway, and the symbolic gesture of signing a chemical weapons ban is enough to placate the international community, giving him free reign to massacre Syrians with tried-and-trusted shrapnel and shells. What a tragic reality that is.

[image credit:]