Outside the marginals

A commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010, 2015 & 2017 elections

Enforcing the Chemical Weapons Convention

Leaving aside the fact that Syria is not a party to this convention, just how do you enforce such a convention?

We are still being told that “something must be done“.

John Kerry (US) Secretary of State said (my emboldening):

So the primary question is really no longer: What do we know? The question is: What are we – we collectively – what are we in the world going to do about it?  …

It matters because if we choose to live in a world where a thug and a murderer like Bashar al-Assad can gas thousands of his own people with impunity, even after the United States and our allies said no, and then the world does nothing about it, there will be no end to the test of our resolve and the dangers that will flow from those others who believe that they can do as they will.  …

And history would judge us all extraordinarily harshly if we turned a blind eye to a dictator’s wanton use of weapons of mass destruction against all warnings, against all common understanding of decency.  …

we have a President who does what he says that he will do. And he has said very clearly that whatever decision he makes in Syria, it will bear no resemblance to Afghanistan, Iraq, or even Libya. It will not involve any boots on the ground. It will not be open-ended. And it will not assume responsibility for a civil war that is already well underway. The President has been clear: Any action that he might decide to take will be a limited and tailored response to ensure that a despot’s brutal and flagrant use of chemical weapons is held accountable

US Department of State 30 August 2013 Statement on Syria

So, what does this actually mean in terms of action?

  • A single bombing attack (or strike with missiles) on some target in Syria “to punish Assad” (a limited and tailored response)? I don’t think such a punishment will stop him – nor will seeing that happen deter the likes of Iran or North Korea.
  • Kidnap Assad in order to bring him to The Hague?  (ensure that a despot’s brutal and flagrant use of chemical weapons is held accountable). I can’t see how they can do this without “boots on the ground” – and it dangerously breaches the convention that you don’t go personally after regime leaders (for fear of foreign assassins on the streets of Washington and Whitehall)
  • Kill Assad by a missile or bombing attack? (ensure that a despot’s brutal and flagrant use of chemical weapons is held accountable – but without the prospect of a trial – lynch law). What then happens to Syria? The US was very confident about other countries rebelling during the Arab Spring, but is not necessarily equally confident about the replacement regimes lead by the Muslim Brotherhood or other more dangerous groups.  Hold on to nurse for fear of something worse? It is uncomfortable, but sometimes it is truly “better the [literal] devil you know”.
  • Seize the chemical weapon stocks? This is the most defendable action, but involves “boots on the ground”. Seizing the stocks – not easy, even if you know where they are – clearly stops Assad from using Chemical Weapons – at least for a while.

Unless someone is prepared to take action that will stop this “dictator’s wanton use of weapons of mass destruction”, they are just grandstanding and risking making the situation worse. For a super-power to threaten to use stand-off weapons without actually showing how it will stop the use of illegal weapons strikes me as bullying. To “huff and puff” without being willing to put “boots on the ground” to actually seize or disable these weapons strikes me as cowardice.


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