Bombing Syria not enough: how to deter future chemical attacks

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On Saturday the British, French and US militaries claimed to have destroyed three chemical-weapons sites in Syria. This was done in response to the horrible atrocities allegedly conducted by the Bashar al-Assad regime, in gross violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

While last weekend’s missile strikes mark a positive step toward weakening Syria’s capacity to use chemical weapons, this is clearly not enough. If there is no concrete plan for bringing Syria back into compliance of the CWC, these missile strikes will be largely meaningless, because they will have served no other purpose than to satisfy the West’s moral outrage.

Over the past 50 or so years, the West has played a central role in building a truly global rules-based order. Contrary to popular belief, it not only dealt with the Euro-Atlantic region by negotiating agreements such as the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 or the Conventional Forces Treaty of 1990, just to name two, but worked on scores of international treaties that would be signed by virtually all participants of the international system.

For example, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and the Biological Weapons Convention have been signed by 190 and 180 states respectively. And while not all of these arms-control, disarmament and non-proliferation treaties have met with equal success, it goes beyond saying that they made the world a much safer place.

However, the problem is that over the past couple of decades, and particularly the last 10 years, we have seen a rapid deterioration of a great number of these international arrangements. Such countries as North Korea and Iran have been hell-bent on acquiring nuclear capabilities and in turn have weakened the NPT.

By invading Ukraine and occupying Crimea, Russia not only violated the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, but also Articles 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6 of the Helsinki Final Act. Furthermore, by testing and deploying a prohibited intermediate-range cruise missile, Russia violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987.

And the list goes on and on.

Most recently, both Syria and Russia have ignored the CWC. The Syrian regime has been accused of repetitively employing chemical weapons against scores of innocent men, women and children. Moscow has allegedly used a nerve agent belonging to the Novichok family to try to murder a former double agent and his daughter in England.

If countries continually violate agreements that they had signed without penalty, a pattern is established that not only diminishes their value, but also leads to the erosion of the entire practice of arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation

Agreements only work if participants can be relied upon to fulfill their responsibilities. That is the whole point of negotiating them. If countries continually violate agreements that they had signed without penalty, a pattern is established that not only diminishes their value, but also leads to the erosion of the entire practice of arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation. Why negotiate something that ultimately will be abandoned anyway?

Most worrying, given the current pace of the faltering of international agreements, we might soon be living in a world where notations of legitimacy, fair play and openness will be relics of a bygone era.

Therefore, the alleged Syrian and Russian breaches of the CWC must be handled with utmost seriousness. It is not enough to take seemingly one-off punitive measures such as the expulsion of diplomats in the case of Russia, or the bombing of chemical-weapons facilities, in the Syrian example. The greater goal is to bring these two countries back into full compliance with the CWC, so as to prevent the needless suffering of more people.

If we in the West really care about norms and institutions to the extent that we preach to others, then we need to take bold steps in order to preserve and to reinforce the existing global rules-based order. And given the international outrage that was sparked by the recent alleged use of chemical weapons, there will hardly be a better opportunity than to start with the CWC.

The first step toward bringing both Syria and Russia back into compliance of the CWC would involve the establishment of a coalition of countries, which together with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, would be willing to combine sanctions with a thorough verification regime.

Furthermore, in order to maximize the chances of success, this leading group ought to engage with a wide spectrum of international actors so as to dispel any fears that this is not a unilateral moral crusade, but a genuine attempt to outlaw a group of weapons of mass destruction.

Last, given their institutional know-how and an unparalleled access to a cross-cutting stakeholder community, multinational organizations such as the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization should be involved as well.

Ultimately, the bombing of Syrian storage and production facilities and the expulsion of Russian diplomats should be the first and not the last step in addressing the illicit use of chemical weapons. The main goal is to bring them back to CWC compliance and to prevent the further erosion of other arms-control, disarmament and non-proliferation agreements.

Given that the fate of the global rules-based order is at stake, apathy or half-hearted measures are something we simply cannot afford.

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