NEW YORK, New York — The United Nations Security Council is poised, after weeks of negotiation, to pass a legally binding resolution laying out a process for removing Syria’s chemical weapons from the country, in a huge win for all sides of the debate.
After the United States and Russia agreed to a framework for removing Syria’s chemical weapons, forestalling a series of limited military strikes from the U.S. to punish Syria for launching those weapons in August, it seemed like it would be a simple diplomatic matter, allowing the U.N. to move on quickly to the heavy lift that actually implementing it on the ground would be. Instead, the process became bogged down in debates over precisely what the framework meant in terms of demanding compliance from Syria.
The United States, along with France and the United Kingdom, insisted that any resolution make clear that it was acting under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, which outlines the measures that Council can authorize in the event of non-compliance. But Russia balked. One of the provisions of Chapter VII is Article 42, which can approve the use of force. For the longest time, it seemed the two sides were at an impasse, as Washington continued to insist that any measure be binding while Moscow hedged against anything that could be viewed as automatically green-lighting U.S. strikes should they see Syria as failing to comply.
What the two sides agreed to as a compromise in the draft resolution agreed to on Thursday is elegant in its simplicity and tremendously important for future resolutions. Rather than the preferred language of “Acting under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter” to indicate its binding nature, the draft resolution instead reads “Underscoring that Member States are obligated under Article 25 […] to accept and carry out the Council’s decisions.” Which is true and plain as can be within the Charter.
The use of that language clearly managed to win over the Russians and Chinese and allow for a much stronger resolution than would otherwise be expected given the high stakes. In particular, the draft makes judicious use of some of the strongest phrasing available to the Council — such as “Demands,” “Decides,” and “shall” — that give the decisions made heft under international law and indicates commitments that the international community doesn’t just recommend but fully requires Syria to follow through on.
The demands placed on Syria are quite extensive as Damascus, for example, shall:
cooperate fully with the [Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons] OPCW and the United Nations, including by complying with their relevant recommendations, by accepting personnel designated by the OPCW or the United Nations, by providing for and ensuring the security of activities undertaken by these personnel, by providing these personnel with immediate and unfettered access to and the right to inspect, in discharging their functions, any and all sites, and by allowing immediate and unfettered access to individuals that the OPCW has grounds to believe to be of importance for the purpose of its mandate, and decides that all parties in Syria shall cooperate fully in this regard
The language used throughout the resolution does not, as some have pointed out, allow for the automatic reprisals against Syria should it use chemical weapons in the future, which many wanted. Instead, the end makes clear that any violation would require a second resolution under Chapter VII to approve of any repercussions. It also includes portions that refer obliquely to the possibility that it was the Syrian opposition that carried out the chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21 that killed hundreds of civilians — a possibility that Russia still actively promotes, despite ample evidence to the contrary.
That, however, matters less than one would think due to the resolution’s wording. There is some ambiguity baked in as to whether it will be the OPCW’s Executive Council who has to determine that Syria is in non-compliance or if its Director-General could do so unilaterally, or if the Council could decide so on its own based on the numerous items that Syria could foreseeably be in violation of. It also has the not to be overlooked factor of locking in Moscow to ensuring that its ally actually follow through with the requirements it’s being asked to fulfill, which in turn could actually increase the leverage of the U.S. in the event of a further breach from Syria that would surely embarrass Russia.
Some observers are lamenting the lack of referral of Syria to the International Criminal Court, which only the Security Council can do as Damascus isn’t a party to the Court’s founding treaty. It is certainly true that launching the effort to hold war criminals accountable sooner rather than later is always a worthy idea. However, as the administration argued, a lengthy legal process would not necessarily prevent Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s regime from using chemical weapons as effectively as taking away his ability to launch them would. Also, it was clear from the beginning that Russia was unwilling to accept such a measure at this time, leaving the provision dead in the water from the beginning. All told, the resolution as drafted is far and away better than it very likely could have been. It’s certainly worlds better than the (very real) possibility of no resolution at all.
In any case, the matter is a done deal now that the Permanent Five members of the Council — Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom, and United States — have agreed to it. While it’s entirely possible the other ten non-permanent members of the body could vote against it, depriving it of the nine votes needed for passage, they have never done so over the P-5’s unified decision. According to British U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, the OPCW could approve its decision on Syria on Friday afternoon, clearing the way for Council adoption Friday night. From there, the hard part — actually putting the people on the ground to get the chemical agents out safely — is set to begin.