The Syrian Civil War is arguably the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War, with over a half million killed, wounded or missing, and half of Syria’s 22 million population displaced from their homes. Syria’s largest uprising has devolved into a regionalized civil war that has ravaged the country.
President Bashar ul Assad’s actions would have remained obscured from the world had it not been for the use of chemical weapons during this conflict. The use of chemical warfare agents gave the western countries an incentive to jump into the conflict, especially USA, which already felt left out after the Russians were invited by the Syrian Government to help them out in the crises. The initial use of CWAs was reported in Dec 2013. Since then, OPCW Fact Finding Missions sent by the UN sponsored resolutions have ascertained that Chemical Weapons have been blatantly used by the warring sections.
A recent incident was confirmed via activists and medics, in which dozens of people died when government aircrafts dropped bombs filled with toxic chemicals on Douma on Saturday. The international Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has sent monitors to Douma to gather evidence. The western countries have claimed, through their sources, of having “proof” of the Syrian government attacking citizens in Douma with chemical weapons. France, UK, and USA have agreed “on the need to take action” in Syria to “deter the further use of chemical weapons”. On the other side, both Russia and Syria denied accusations regarding the chemical attack. Moscow’s UN envoy said that the possibility of a war between Russia and the US cannot be excluded. The immediate priority is to avert the danger of war.
Since Saturday’s attack in Douma, there has been a sustained military buildup in the eastern Mediterranean. A French frigate, British Royal Navy submarines laden with cruise missiles, and the USS Donald Cook: an American destroyer equipped with Tomahawk cruise missiles, have all moved into strike range. Syria is the largest battlefield of today and the biggest generator of sectarianism the world has ever seen, with deep implications for the future boundaries of the Middle East and the spread of terrorism. The ongoing diplomatic conflict between Syria and US allied with western powers will significantly increase the suffering of the Syrian masses if the situation escalates, resulting in US strike and Russian retaliation. It is a decisive moment in contemporary history which could test the peace-keeping effectiveness of international organizations like UN. The trigger happy US approach had not yielded any results in 2014 when the CWAs were used by both sides in the conflict. Without authentic and genuine confirmation by the OPCW, these type of tactics can result in a backlash and further aggravate the situation. The UN must realize that quick and decisive action towards chemical disarmament is essential and has to further boost its mechanism for forestalling and controlling the spread of chemical threats. International and multilateral legal approaches towards chemical disarmament are indispensable. The world should realize that with sufficient political will, consensus can be reached even in the midst of an intractable conflict.
At the United Nations’ front, the UN Security Council has failed to adopt any of two competing resolutions that would have established a mechanism to investigate use of such weapons in Syria, as well as another concerning a fact-finding mission in the war-torn country. If one of the two mechanisms proposed in the draft had been approved, it could have filled the vacuum left by the OPCW-UN Joint Investigation Mechanism (JIM) with its mandate having expired last November. The OPCW which has the technical capabilities to identify and confirm the use of CWAs is closely monitoring the incident and has made a preliminary analysis of reports of the alleged use of chemical weapons immediately after they were used. While the OPCW had always worked quietly as a technical agency, in Syria it was called upon to engage in a highly political environment, putting its reputation and consensus-based working methods at stake. Arguably, the OPCW’s mission in Syria will shape the organization’s future – for better or for worse – depending on whether the crisis will galvanize or intensify political differences among the OPCW’s States Parties. However, in reality, these debates have become intertwined, making it absolutely crucial for the OPCW to offer clear and convincing answers on both accounts. In case of the OPCW, there is a need to think creatively, and a willingness to operate, investigate, inspect and monitor the destruction of Syria’s CW programme without guiding legal and political precedents. The OPCW had to quickly find its place in a complex multilateral setting, with building a productive partnership with the UN as a first priority to tackle Syria’s CW challenge. There is a requirement of strong leadership within the OPCW, but it appears that it has also stretched its “human resources” far beyond existing capabilities. Staff members have to improvise and develop skills, focusing on getting the job done in Syria which also implies that routine verification activities should not be plagued by delays and cancellations. There is a need to further improve the [OPCW] Secretariat’s human resource management system to prepare for contingencies as complex and demanding as the “Syria mission.” It will be crucial to clarify whether the CWC offers a sufficient legal basis for CW disarmament missions, even under politically charged and dangerous security circumstances, and development of standard operating procedures to engage, own parameters of investigation. Improvement in information flow, management & protection, health, safety, and security procedures are also necessary. There is a need for enhancement in OPCW’s capacity to quickly develop novel approaches to handle the analysis and clarification of Syria’s CW declaration, notably by establishing the least politicized and dangerous circumstances. Given the rapid technical and technological changes, this also implies that the OPCW should acquire new specialized equipment for operations in conflict areas, as well as up-to-date communications systems. Although the Fact Finding Mission (FFM) lacks a formal hook within the CWC, it has been developed on the basis of agreements between the OPCW and the Syrian government, which is clearly possible in future cases if there is the political will to do so. All these innovations raise the bigger question of whether the OPCW has the right tools to be effective, and also whether the organization makes sufficient and effective use of the tools that are already available to it. It is worthwhile to note that political interference in the highly refined verification mechanism of the OPCW would result in undermining its credibility and effectiveness, thus resulting in it becoming a stooge for the western countries.