By Farnaz Alimehri
The international community has known for quite some time that both the Syrian government and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have used chemical weapons in Syria. The worst, and most obvious case that comes to mind is the sarin attack in Ghouta on August 21, 2013. The chemical weapons attack in Ghouta prompted the international community, through the United Nations and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), to act. Through the compliance of the Syrian government and with help from the OPCW, Syria destroyed its declared chemical weapons stockpiles in January 2016.[i] Despite removal of Syria’s known stockpile, however, chemical weapons attacks continue in Syria.
Nearly three years later, on August 30, 2016 the OPCW United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) released it’s third report to the Security Council identifying persons responsible for three out of nine chemicals weapons attacks in Syria, becoming possibly the first time any legal attribution has been made against those who have used chemical weapons in Syria.[ii] The Syrian Armed Forces were found responsible for the attacks in Talmenes on April 21, 2014, and Sarmin on March 16, 2014, while ISIL was incriminated for the attack in Marea on August 21, 2015.[iii] Three other cases are pending, and the JIM Leadership Panel has deferred attribution of these attacks to the next report. For the last three cases, the Leadership Panel did not have enough evidence to identify to the “greatest extent feasible” those involved.[iv]
Aside from the actual chemical weapons use in Syria, one of the more concerning outcomes of the JIM report is the international community’s divided response on how to resolve the issue of chemical weapons use in Syria. Following the release of the report, the Russian Ambassador to the United Kingdom published a statement discrediting the findings of the JIM, claiming, “the accusation against Damascus is mostly based on the testimonies of the ‘witnesses’ handpicked by the opposition NGO’s, and the assumption that nobody but the government forces in Syria have access to aircraft, which could be used to drop barrel bombs filled with chlorine.”[v] Meanwhile, Samantha Power, the US Permanent Representative to the United Nations, released a statement urging all States in the Security Council to take action. She stated “Members of the Security Council cannot claim ignorance of the devastating, inhumane effects of [chemical] weapons.”[vi]
While the international community has remained divided in the past in the month that has passed since the JIM report was published, 1,173 civilians were killed in Syria, the majority of them killed by government and Russian forces.[vii] And while many of fatalities were due to conventional weapons and bombings, the Syrian government continues to use chlorine gas against civilians.[viii] The conflict in Syria is one of the greatest tragedies the international community has faced since the dissolution of the former Republic of Yugoslavia. It is a disturbing example of the failure of international response, and the normalization of chemical weapons use in its absence.
The findings of the latest JIM report give the international community the evidence it needs to call for action to be taken against those who have committed war crimes in Syria. While the world remains divided on how to defeat ISIL, constructive measures have been proposed to prevent continued destruction of Syria and future use of more chemical weapons by the Syrian government. At the moment, the Security Council is trying to pass a resolution on Syria. The French drafted a resolution which proposed an end to airstrikes in Aleppo, a northern city in Syria that has been subject to many chlorine barrel bomb attacks by the Syrian regime.[ix] The French resolution imposes not only a ceasefire, but it also calls for a no-fly zone in Aleppo, which goes further than other ceasefire measures proposed (such as the previous ceasefire agreement which was violated in September 2016) and assures that civilians are not the target of airstrikes and chemical barrel bombs dropped by the Syrian government’s aircraft.[x]
Despite the positive impact that could come from this French resolution, the draft only garnered 11 votes, and is threatened by a Russian veto. Russia presented a counter resolution calling for a ceasefire that allows for humanitarian assistance into besieged cities, but it does not mention a halt to bombings.[xi] This resolution also failed to pass. New Zealand is currently drafting its own resolution, another proposition for a ceasefire, but is consulting with other countries to gain more votes.[xii] Though a resolution with a ceasefire is likely to pass in the oncoming days, this measure does not accomplish enough for this conflict unless aircrafts are grounded in Aleppo. A no-fly zone must be imposed for the Syrian government as well as all other parties involved. As long as the Syrian government and Russia have the ability to use airstrikes, civilians will die in Syria.
[i] “Destruction of Syrian Chemical Weapons Completed”, Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, January 04, 2016, https://www.opcw.org/news/article/destruction-of-syrian-chemical-weapons-completed/.
[ii] “Joint Investigative Mechanism Presents Its Third Report to Security Council,” United Nations, DC/3651, August 30, 2016, http://www.un.org/press/en/2016/dc3651.doc.htm.
[v] Dr. Alexander Yakovenko, “Russian Position on OPCW-UN JIM report on Syria,” RT, October 5, 2016,https://www.rt.com/op-edge/361650-chemical-weapons-syria-assad/.
[vi] “Statement on the Report of the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism on the Use of Chemical Weapons in Syria,” U.S. Mission to the United Nations, August 24, 2016.http://usun.state.gov/remarks/7406.
[vii] “Death Count in Syria” I Am Syria, 2 October 2016. http://www.iamsyria.org/death-tolls.html.
[viii] Tim Hume, Kareem Khadder, and Bharati Naik, “7 Killed As Scene of Alleged Aleppo Chlorine Attack Targeted Again,” CNN, September 7, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/09/07/middleeast/syria-aleppo-chlorine-attack/.
[x] Angela Dewan, Joshua Berlinger, and Tim Hume, “Syrian airstrikes kill 23; Russia. US allege violations,”CNN, September 15, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/09/15/middleeast/syria-ceasefire/.
[xi] “Russia: UN Syria Resolution Protected ‘Terrorists’,” Al Jazeera, October 9, 2016,http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/10/russia-syria-resolution-protected-terrorists-161009142453226.html.
This article originally appeared in the Georgetown Security Studies Review.