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After the Missile Strikes: Toward More Effective Responses to Chemical Weapons Use and an End to the Syrian Conflict
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Statement from Tom Countryman, Chair of the Board,
and Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director

For Immediate Release: April 14, 2018 (Updated*)

Media Contacts: Daryl G. Kimball, executive director, 202-277-3478 (cell); Thomas Countryman, chair of the board, 301-312-3445 (cell)

As the Arms Control Association has long-argued, Syria’s continued use of chemical weapons against its own people, including the April 7 chlorine attack in Douma, is reprehensible, it is a clear violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, it is a war crime, and it cannot be tolerated.

It is vitally important that the international community respond in a manner that effectively deters further use of such weapons and reinforces the nearly universal norm against such inhumane and indiscriminate attacks. The erosion of the taboo against chemical weapons use can lead to further, more significant use of these or other mass destruction weapons in the future.

Today’s military strikes by the U.S., UK and France against Syrian regime targets associated with chemical weapons research and production followed efforts to reach agreement at the UN Security Council to investigate and hold perpetrators accountable. They were intended to provide a strong response to the reprehensible actions of the Syrian government and to degrade Syria’s chemical weapons capacity.

Military force cannot be the only means of responding to these atrocities, and, so far, it has not been an effective means of deterring the further use of chemical weapons in Syria. Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s latest strike in response to Syrian chemical weapons use is not embedded within a broader U.S. strategy to deter further chemical weapons use, protect Syrian civilians caught in the horrible Syrian civil war, and bring a political resolution to the seven-year misery of the people of Syria.

We are deeply concerned that the latest U.S., UK, and French military operation was taken without specific authorization by the U.S. Congress, and with (apparently) little consultation with Congress. The sweeping claim that the President can take military action under only his own authority raises Constitutional questions, and causes concern about the potential for the President to initiate military action in other theaters, including against North Korea in ways that could lead to the use of nuclear weapons.

It is important to note that President Donald Trump's April 13 statement that “We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents," creates the potential for further strikes and an expanded U.S. role in Syrian conflict, and the risk of a direct confrontation with Russia. If President Trump intends to continue military action in Syria in response to further chemical weapons use or in retaliation to Russian actions, he must go to Congress to request legal authorization for the use of military force.

Although this military strike, unlike the April 2017 U.S. strike, was executed in cooperation with France and the UK, we remain concerned that it was inconsistent with international law. The UN Charter prohibits “the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” This portion of the UN Charter has three exceptions, none of which apply in this case: Syria has not consented to the strikes; the U.N. Security Council has not authorized the strikes; and the United States is not acting in self-defense.

Though U.S. military planners say they took care to design the strikes in Syria so as to avoid casualties among the substantial Russian military presence in Syria, there remains a risk of Russian casualties which could lead to an escalation of hostilities in Syria or elsewhere. Given the combustible rhetoric emanating from both the White House and the Kremlin, such an escalation could lead to direct, unintended and dangerous confrontation between U.S. and Russian forces.

At one point Russia, the United States and other members of the Security Council worked together, particularly in 2013-2014, to approve investigations into chemical weapons use in Syria, to force Syria to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and to remove and eliminate its stockpile of chemical weapons, precursors and production equipment. Under the auspices of the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), and with the support of more than 20 nations, the 2014 operation successfully removed and destroyed 1300 tons of chemical weapons, significantly reducing options for the regime to use its most advanced chemical weapons, and reducing the risk to Syrian civilians.

After the UN-OPCW removal operation, and to no one’s surprise, Syria has violated its CWC commitments by repeatedly using chlorine and in some cases Sarin. Since 2015, Russia has used its veto to block efforts to block credible investigation of these attacks. As a result, there is no longer a UN mechanism with the independence, technical expertise, and mandate to promptly identify responsibility for these chemical weapons attacks.

We urge:

  • the governments of the United States, the UK, and France, and other responsible states to provide as much detail as possible to demonstrate - beyond challenge - the Syrian government’s responsibility for the latest chemical weapons attacks in Douma and elsewhere in Syria.
  • all states, including Russia and Syria, to fully support the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ Fact-Finding Mission, which is now in Syria to investigate and provide their independent assessment of the chemical weapons attacks for the international community.
  • members of the United Nations Security Council must redouble efforts to reconstitute an investigative mechanism that would be empowered to ascribe responsibility for such attacks. If this does not succeed, we strongly encourage the UN secretary-general to activate, under his existing authorities, an independent UN mechanism to attribute responsibility for chemical attacks in Syria. Previous UN Secretaries General have created similar inquiries.
  • A like-minded coalition of states should announce the commitment of resources to assemble a strong case, to be submitted to the International Criminal Court, charging the Syrian leadership with war crimes. Perpetrators of these chemical weapons crimes, and other war crimes committed in the Syrian civil war, can and should be held to account to make clear to the world that the use of chemical weapons and the targeting of civilians with other types of munitions will not be tolerated.

There is no purely military solution to the human tragedy of Syria. Now is the moment for the United States, and all concerned nations, to recommit to a concerted political and diplomatic effort to deter future such abominations, and to refrain from the most dangerous military options.

*This statement was updated at 2pm EDT, April 14

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Posted: April 14, 2018