The United States and its Western allies have temporarily shelved their plan to attack Syria. On Tuesday night, U.S. President Barack Obama announced his request to “postpone” a Congressional vote on authorising military force. His decision came after a day of intense diplomatic activity, triggered by Russia’s proposal to place Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal under international inspection and control.
Moscow’s initiative — engineered by its astute Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov — was eagerly accepted by the White House after it had become clear that U.S. legislators were going to turn down Mr. Obama’s request to bomb Syria. Mr. Lavrov’s masterstroke not only thwarted an imminent attack, but also allowed the Obama administration to wriggle out of the knot it had tied itself into. For its part, the Bashar al-Assad regime has shown approval of this proposal and has even promised to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention, which requires state parties to stop producing and gradually destroy their toxic munitions.
Nevertheless, the cloud of Western military intervention still hangs over Syria. As the United Nations Security Council prepares to thrash out a plan for placing Mr. Assad’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) under lock and key, the devil will certainly be in the details. Removing chemical weapons from the equation in Syria’s civil war will do little to alleviate its grave humanitarian crisis; that said, complying with U.N. attempts to monitor and verify stockpiles will signal an act of good faith from Damascus and leave the door open for a political resolution to the conflict. U.N. monitoring also allows Western allies of the U.S. to buy some time to organise a “Geneva-II” conference for this purpose.
The West is expected to argue that no attempt at WMD verification will be effective unless the Security Council promises to follow up with punitive measures in the event of Syria’s non-compliance. To this end, the Council would have to “legislate” under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, which contemplates a range of responses from diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions to the use of force. A Chapter VII resolution would also indicate that the conflict in Syria is now a “threat to international peace and security”, a term that in practise has become a legal trigger for use of force under the Charter. With France and the U.S. aggressively pushing for military intervention, this can be a slippery slope. If Syria does a volte face and refuses to cooperate with the U.N. on WMD verification, its allies like Russia will be left red-faced, with no option but to tacitly support a foreign attack. For this reason, Moscow will resist introducing or supporting a Security Council resolution that invokes Chapter VII measures. In fact, when it became clear on Tuesday that France would introduce exactly such a proposal at the Council, Russia withdrew its request to hold consultations.
Lesson from history
History offers enough reasons for Russia — and others who have backed its initiative, like China, India and Germany — not to hitch their wagon to a U.N. inspection plan. In 1991, the Council authorised the creation of a U.N. Special Commission (Unscom) for monitoring and ensuring the destruction of Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons after the Gulf War. Resolution 687, which set up Unscom under Chapter VII of the Charter, solicited Saddam Hussein’s “unconditional” agreement to destroy WMDs. UNSCR 687 also imposed rigorous economic sanctions on Iraq, and allowed Council members to take “appropriate steps” to see they were not breached.
Despite the idiosyncratic and biased leadership of Australian diplomat Richard Butler, Unscom is widely acknowledged as a rare, successful multilateral attempt to disarm a sovereign regime of WMDs. The Commission and the U.N. Security Council had the full support of the international community, which had been repulsed by Saddam’s wanton aggression toward Kuwait. During the next four years, the Commission painstakingly uncovered and destroyed massive caches of neuro-biological and chemical agents in Iraq. But all of the Commission’s efforts virtually came to naught with the attack against Iraq in 1998 by the U.S. and the United Kingdom, without authorisation by the U.N. Security Council.
The events leading up to Operation Desert Fox in 1998 offer an illuminating guide for the Security Council, as it deliberates setting up an inspection team for Syria. By the end of U.S. President George H.W. Bush’s term, and during the Clinton presidency, Iraqi opposition groups had begun to lobby influential policymakers in Washington D.C. to attack the Saddam Hussein regime. After nearly half a decade of crippling sanctions, especially on its oil industry, Iraq’s economy was in shambles and its vaunted military a mere shadow of itself. Opposition groups seized the opportunity to successfully convince an enthusiastic U.S. establishment that an airstrike was in order. Ahead of the bombings themselves, the West fuelled allegations that Iraq had not been in compliance with several UNSC Resolutions, including UNSCR 687.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, which had been collaborating with Unscom to search for nuclear weapons in Iraq, poured cold water on such claims and confirmed Iraq’s cooperation in disarmament efforts. On the other hand, the Unscom, which by then had become sufficiently malleable for the West to doctor its lines, returned with a contradictory finding. “[In] the absence of full cooperation by Iraq, it must regrettably be recorded against that the commission is not able to conduct the substantive disarmament work mandated to it by the Security Council”, reported Mr. Butler, who was then Unscom chief. Mr. Butler’s letter dated December 15, 1998 to the U.N. Secretary-General was ammunition enough for the West to bomb Iraq: Operation Desert Fox commenced within a single day of the letter, without providing any opportunity for the Security Council to deliberate Unscom’s findings.
Wary of this precedent, Russia and China will likely oppose the introduction of any punitive measures against the Syrian regime at the Security Council. This is not just about military intervention in Syria: any U.N.-blessed economic sanctions or diplomatic nose-thumbing at Syria will further weaken and isolate Bashar al-Assad, providing Syrian opposition groups a bargaining chip for greater political goodies at the Geneva-II conference. Memories from the disastrous NATO intervention in Libya — also endorsed under Chapter VII of the Charter — are no doubt fresh in the Council’s memory. India, which has traditionally abstained from Resolutions that invoke Chapter VII, is no longer a Council member but has offered it support for the Russian proposal. What, in principle, looks like a path out of further militarisation of the Syrian crisis, is actually riddled with legal and political landmines. The international community would do well to tread carefully.