As the United Nations prepares to release its long-awaited report on whether chemical weapons were used in Syria, a diplomatic deal between the U.S. and Russia will hinge on whether an obscure body within the U.N. system says Syria is living up to its promises.
Early Saturday morning, the United States and Russia announced that they had come to an agreement on how to remove Syria’s chemical weapons from the country, a diplomatic breakthrough few would have predicted two weeks ago. Under the deal’s framework, the two countries agreed to the amount of chemical weapons that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has in his stockpile and that they would cooperate in various international forums to get those weapons out of Syria by the middle of next year.
Late last week, Syria turned over documents to the U.N. affirming that it had signed on to the Chemical Weapons Convention, a move that will enter into force on Oct. 14 according to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. In doing so, Syria has made itself subject to the authority of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), a body composed of all the states that have signed the treaty banning chemical weapons.
While OPCW’s trained chemical weapons inspectors will be doing the work on the ground to aid in removing the chemical agents and their precursors, they won’t be the ones to decide whether Syria is cooperating fully. Instead, that responsibility falls on the Executive Council, a 41-member panel that makes the political decisions of the organization.
As part of the deal, the U.S. and Russia agreed to the outlines of a draft decision of the OPCW, laying out special procedures for how to handle the Syrian issue. Within that document will be a section “obliging the Executive Council, in cases of non-compliance with the Convention, to bring the issues directly to the attention of the UN General Assembly and the UN Security Council,” according to the framework. This matters because once it reaches the Security Council, the U.S. and Russia also agreed that “in the event of non-compliance, including unauthorized transfer, or any use of chemical weapons by anyone in Syria, the UN Security Council should impose measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.”
To date, the Executive Council has primarily operated on the principle of consensus, rather than actually taking votes, having only been forced to tally a procedural vote once. Given Russia’s pledge to support measures under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter — which can include economic sanctions and even the use of force — should Syria be found in non-compliance, the OPCW’s decision will carry a great deal of weight. As such, Syria may test the limits of the camaraderie the panel has previously shown, as any determination that Syria is shirking its responsibilities is sure to be contentious given the high stakes.
In the event that push comes to shove, a two-thirds majority is required to punch through a substantive decision. The body’s current membership list shows that any vote would likely be close as Syria has both allies and enemies serving on the panel. In the end, the loose alliance of the Europe, Gulf states, and the U.S. may be forced to yet again come to a diplomatic showdown with Russia and China over Syria, this time with the possibility of a U.S.-led bombing strike to punish Damascus still on the table.