Chemical Weapons In Syria – What Next?

(Photo: Reuters)

Yesterday’s announcement by the Obama administration that U.S. intelligence agencies have assessed “with varying degrees of confidence” that the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad has used sarin nerve agent “on a small scale” should significantly change the calculations behind America’s Syria policy. Syria, while not party to the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention that bans the development, production, possession and transfer of chemical weapons, is party to the 1925 Geneva Protocol banning their use in warfare. The Assad regime’s use of sarin, if verified, would place it in direct violation of international law as well as international norms against chemical weapons use.

As the White House emphasized yesterday, it’s important that the United States and its allies obtain all the facts in this case. The Bush administration’s false claims about Saddam Hussein’s WMD still burden American foreign policy, requiring U.S. claims to meet a higher evidentiary threshold. Nonetheless, as I and my CAP colleagues argue, there are several major steps the Obama administration can take to hold the Assad regime accountable for its likely use of chemical weapons.

First, the United States can call an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council. This meeting should serve two purposes: force Russia to stop diplomatically shielding the Assad regime’s unacceptable behavior and pressure the Assad regime to allow a previously formed U.N. inspection team, idling in Cyprus for more than month now, into Syria to provide independent verification of chemical weapons use claims made by the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Israel.

Second, the U.S. should involve NATO and regional partners in planning any response to further attempts by the Assad regime to cross President Obama’s redline on chemical weapons use. Action will require precision planning, definitive American leadership and direction, and the participation of a broad alliance prepared to preclude any further Assad regime chemical-weapons use by destroying appropriate military targets, including delivery systems, logistics, and applicable command and control. The focus should remain on punishing or preventing chemical weapons use while avoiding involvement in Syria’s civil war to the extent possible. Any planning already in motion should be accelerated.

Finally, the United States should push for NATO to begin planning a major refugee relief operation in Jordan. That country has already come under heavy social and financial strains due to hosting hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, and the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees is running out of money to help. NATO should be ready to assist in relieving these strains with a major multinational military relief effort that would involve the alliance’s airlift, ground transportation, medical assistance, and security capabilities.

The revelations of the Assad regime’s likely chemical weapons use once again illustrate that there are no good policy options in Syria. A military stalemate between the regime and rebels makes a political settlement unlikely, while a worsening humanitarian crisis strains key U.S. allies in the region. However, the United States can take important steps forward by making an all-out diplomatic effort in the U.N. Security Council to further investigate the Assad regime’s likely chemical weapons use and solidifying and accelerating NATO planning on relevant issues.


Peter Juul is a Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress.