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From Condemnation to Accountability: Chemical Attack in Khan Shaykhun

Ambassador Nikki Haley at the UN Security Council session on Syria.
Photo from UN TV

Monday, reports emerged that over 70 civilians died in what appears to be a chemical weapon attack in the town of Khan Shaykhun located in the province of Idlib. Early indicators have led weapons experts to believe the Syrian government perpetrated the attack using a nerve agent, but the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is already investigating the incident so more clarity should develop in the coming weeks and months. If confirmed, this latest incident would demonstrate that the Syrian government has not been deterred by repeated international intervention and would be a flagrant violation of international law and Syria’s obligations under the September 2013 Framework for the Elimination of Chemical Weapons.

Under international law, there is no excuse for the use of chemical weapons in any type of conflict. This is a principle for which there are several international instruments and which so many states have adopted that it is considered customary international law. In 2013, Syria acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) as part of a US-Russia brokered agreement on the destruction of Syria’s stockpile. The agreement followed reports that the government had used sarin gas in Ghoutta, killing as high as 1400 people. The CWC obligates Syria to cease all production of chemical weapons, destroy chemical weapon production facilities and stockpiles, and give the OPCW inspection rights.

Since 2013, the OPCW has exercised its investigatory powers, alongside the United Nations, through a OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM). The UN Security Council created the JIM in 2015 to identify individuals and entities responsible for chemical weapon attacks in Syria. In August 2016, the JIM issued a report accusing the Syrian air force of using chlorine gas in two attacks in 2014 and 2015. Similarly, the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) issued a report in March 2017 detailing the atrocities in Aleppo and accused the Syrian air force of numerous aerial attacks that dropped chlorine gas on civilian areas of Eastern Aleppo.

Reports by the JIM and the COI indicate that the Syrian government has repeatedly failed to comply with its obligations under both the 2013 framework and the CWC. The latest attack in Khan Shaykhoun, however, is the most flagrant reported violation since 2013. As usual, the government denies the allegations, but the UN Security Council met on Wednesday, and the UK, France, and United States delivered harsh statements against Syria as well as Russia. Both the UK and US threatened to take unilateral action if Russia vetoes another resolution on Syria in the Security Council, but it is still unclear what type of action either country would consider appropriate under the circumstances.

Over the past three years, the Syrian government has engaged in population transfers and swaps that have aimed to push rebel groups as well as civilians to Idlib Province as part of a suspected effort to consolidate control in government-held territories. President Bashar al-Assad has publicly stated that this will enable Syria to cluster the opposition near Turkey’s border, making it easier to clear the country. Now that the military’s gains have furthered this goal, Idlib is at risk of bearing the full force of Syria and Russia’s military might. Civilians will be caught in the middle and casualties will likely spike. In many ways, the chemical attack in Khan Skaykhun can be viewed as a test of the international community’s tolerance for increased brutality as the Syrian military gears up for an Idlib offensive.

Through its actions, the Syrian government has demonstrated that it has no respect for the international frameworks in place. Yesterday, the European Union began gathering in Brussels for an international conference to discuss funding for humanitarian and reconstruction efforts in Syria. Given the scale of destruction, such efforts will be of the utmost importance if Syrians are ever to recover from this conflict. But in an atmosphere of ongoing fighting and mounting civilian casualties, the EU conference is premature. Without a nationwide ceasefire and political agreement, any funds towards rebuilding the country will inherently legitimize the Syrian government’s atrocities. And when those atrocities include the use of chemical weapons, the international community cannot afford to send the wrong signals.

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