Chemical Weapons, Syria and the International Response to WMDs

The debate over Syria’s possible use of chemical weapons has been dominating the headlines. Were deadly nerve agents used? If so by whom? Was the use intentional? These questions are important since President Obama has intimated that, if confirmed, the use of chemical weapons could change U.S. policy toward the Syrian civil war. The specifics of what the United States would do differently are unclear. What is clear, though, is that the use of chemical weapons characteristically changes the way we perceive the conflict. It is, as Obama stated, a “game changer.”

Chemical weapons are part of a very small club of armaments known as “weapons of mass destruction” or WMDs. The term bundles together nuclear, chemical and biological weapons because of their potential to cause mass casualties and death – in the tens of thousands and more. For the most part, use of WMDs has been deemed illegitimate by the international community. In fact, there are nearly universal treaties against either possessing or using chemical and biological weapons. Over 170 states are a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). These pacts require signatory nations declare any chemical or biological stocks they may have and destroy those weapons. Pretty straightforward – provide the world a list of what you have, and agree to destroy it by a certain time.

Agreements alone, however, aren’t enough. Where the rubber really hits the road is in carrying out the terms of the agreements. For example, while the Biological Weapons Convention is sweeping in its reach, disputes over verification have hamstrung its effectiveness. One of the most outstanding examples of this problem is Russia. Evidence suggests that Russia has large stocks of old biological agents that it has neither declared and nor allowed outside inspectors to see. With the Chemical Weapons Convention, verification is somewhat easier, and declarations are stronger, but the schedule for destroying these stocks is behind. This lack of action holds little consequence for the delinquent nations.

Treaties must be more than paper shields; they need real life follow-through. Syria is a clear example of the limits that treaties face in practice. Syria is one of only eight states that are not a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention. The international community has long suspected that Damascus holds chemical weapons capacity and stocks. With a civil war raging, these horrible weapons could be used by the regime, captured by the rebels and used, or simply vanish in the fog of war and end up who knows where.

The global community could have done more to bring Syria into line before the current crisis erupted. The treaty was there, and international pressure from nations like Russia could have been used to force Syria to fall into line. But instead, the global community neglected to follow through.

Unfortunately the global norm against nuclear weapons is even weaker. Though there are treaties to limit the spread of these weapons, and commitments by those who have them to “agree to negotiate” nuclear reductions, achieving a true ban eliminating the possession or use of nuclear weapons has been a much more difficult challenge. Many states still see nuclear weapons as assets to their security rather than as illegitimate, militarily unusable weapons like chemical and biological weapons. This lack of commitment may seem academic, but it could lead to tragic real-world consequences.

Imagine a “nuclear Syria” scenario. It isn’t hard – Pakistan and North Korea could easily become real-world examples. Suppose either state experiences internal conflict, a coup or sudden regime crisis. Each has nuclear weapons and materials of unknown location or status. Neither is currently part of the Nonproliferation Treaty system, nor are they under any kind of formal inspection or monitoring regime.

In each case – chemical, biological and nuclear – there are existing agreements about limiting and ridding the world of their existence. In no case is the system perfect. But the foundations are in place, the norms are strong and growing. As Syria demonstrates, it doesn’t pay to wait until there is a crisis to build on these foundations and to make the treaties we have as effective and wide-spread as possible.

A continued effort to strengthen these treaties with clear and agreeable verification tools is essential. Nations who are parties to these treaties must spend more effort on actually destroying the weapons before there is a crisis. Enforcement, including real consequences for noncompliance, must be swift and impactful. Finally, states that continue to act outside of the treaty structure and global norms should feel a pinch from the international community that compels them to join the rest of the world in turning its back on these horrible weapons. Action is not always easy, but for too long has been neglected in the overall effort to rid the world of WMDs.

Syria stands as a stark lesson of the risks of inaction. We must learn from this episode and take steps to make sure our next lesson is not a nuclear one. 

Photo: Green Cross Switzerland