Use of CW in Syria: A View from London

by Peter Jenkins

For the last week the British government has given every sign of being in a dreadful muddle over how to react to the suspicion that chemical weapons (CW) were used in the suburbs of Damascus early on 21 August.

Two words that ought to have featured prominently in ministerial statements, “due process”, were entirely absent. Instead, Messrs William Hague and David Cameron spoke at times as though the UK and its Western allies were fully entitled to act as judge, jury and executioner.

I hope I won’t offend US readers if I say that Europeans half expect that sort of mentality from US leaders. We look on the US as a country in which habits formed in the Wild West in the nineteenth century resurface from time to time. But from our own European politicians, schooled by centuries of intra-European conflict, we look for more measured and cautious responses.

Reinforcing the impression of indifference to international legality, British ministers seemed hopelessly confused about how the precipitate use of force that they were advocating could be justified, and about what it was supposed to achieve.

At one moment President Bashar al-Assad had to be “punished”; at another the West had to “retaliate” for his use of CW (although so far Western nationals are not reported to be among the victims).

Some statements suggested that the West should act to uphold an international norm against the use of CW, others that the West had to act in order to protect Syria’s population from further CW attacks (although none of the military measures reportedly under consideration can come close to delivering “protection”).

Mercifully, as of 29 August, it looks as though Messrs Hague and Cameron are at last starting to come to their senses, sobered perhaps by parliamentary resistance to signing a blank cheque for a resort to force and by opinion polls suggesting that the British public is opposed to force by a margin of more than two to one.

To those of us who are familiar with the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) this pantomime has been puzzling.

Syria is one of (only) seven states that have not ratified the CWC. The rational way to proceed, however, is to treat Syria, mutatis mutandis, as though it were a CWC party, since the norm enshrined in the CWC dates back to 1925 and is, effectively, a global norm, a norm that no state can reasonably reject (unlike the so-called “right to protect”, propagated by Mr. Blair and others, which is far from being universally accepted).

The relevant provisions of the CWC can be summarised as follows:

– CWC parties are entitled to request “challenge inspections” to clarify possible instances of non-compliance with the Convention’s prohibitions, and to have this inspection conducted “without delay”;

– The inspection team will produce a report which contains factual findings as well as an assessment of the cooperation extended by the inspected party;

– The inspected party has a right to comment on that report and to have its comments submitted to other parties;

– The parties shall then meet to decide whether non-compliance has occurred, and whether further action may be necessary “to redress the situation and to ensure compliance”.

Note the emphasis on giving the inspected party a right to comment before parties come to conclusions about what the inspection report implies. This could be especially important in the Syrian case if, as leaked signal intelligence implies, a Syrian army unit used CW last week against the wishes of the Syrian Ministry of Defence.

Note, too, the emphasis on redressing the situation. What matters in Syria now, if the UN inspectors report that government CW were used last week, is that the government take steps to ensure that this never happens again. Ideally, the UN Security Council (acting, so to speak, on behalf of CWC parties in this instance) can persuade the Syrian government to adhere to the CWC and destroy its CW stocks under international supervision. There will be no resistance to that outcome from Russia, Iran or China, all fervent supporters of the CWC.

Note, finally, the absence of any reference in the CWC to the “punishing” of non-compliance. That is consistent with a view that it is inappropriate for sovereign states to treat one another like common criminals (a view to which the West eagerly subscribes when the non-compliant state is Israel). Of course, if the Syrian government wishes to punish the commander(s) of any unit(s) found to have been responsible for last week’s outrage, this is another matter.

By giving priority to “due process” and “redressing the situation” Western leaders have an opportunity to set a good precedent for the handling of future challenges to global norms.


Peter Jenkins

Peter Jenkins was a British career diplomat for 33 years, following studies at the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard. He served in Vienna (twice), Washington, Paris, Brasilia and Geneva. He specialized in global economic and security issues. His last assignment (2001-06) was that of UK Ambassador to the IAEA and UN (Vienna). Since 2006 he has represented the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership, advised the Director of IIASA and set up a partnership, The Ambassador Partnership llp, with former diplomatic colleagues, to offer the corporate sector dispute resolution and solutions to cross-border problems. He was an associate fellow of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy from 2010 to 2012. He writes and speaks on nuclear and trade policy issues.



  1. All the ballyhoo about whether CW were used and by whom, appears as usual, “KABUKI” from the West point of view. As for the rebels, well, from what is told, they seem to come from many outside countries, just as those from the west. As for who is the better statesman, there is none. Meddling in a country that’s engaged in a civil war, which should be between that countries citizens, not the complex mix that exist today. Besides, if the western powers didn’t stick their collective hands in it, another ongoing disaster could be prevented, instead of the civilian population taking the brunt, such as in Iraq, Libya, Yemen today.

  2. .. you didn’t let me finish. .. I do hope that the great thought
    taken before the Iraq invasions doesn’t prevail. We should be
    attending to our gardens, and a future for grandchildren,
    rather than indulging in, as you say, 19th Century
    cowboy maneuvers.

    You can tell the stupidity from the language –
    “Punish” … When did that ever work?

  3. Maybe, just maybe, Cameron and Hagues’ defeat will lead through Peter Jenkins’ ‘road-directions’ to Geneva 2 which is where a possible solution exists.

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