Doctors treat a victim of an a possible chemical attack at a village in Syria

Doctors treat a victim of an a possible chemical attack at a village in Syria SANA/AP

Will Attacking Syria Prevent More Chemical Weapons Attacks?

An inadequate response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria will only increase the risk that the world's most dangerous weapons will be used to commit further atrocities. By Daryl G. Kimball

There are no international laws against war itself, but there are rules about how wars can and cannot be conducted. The use of chemical weapons clearly violates the established and widely accepted norms of the international community. Each time such rules are broken and there is an inadequate response, the risk that the some of the world's most dangerous weapons will be used to commit further atrocities increases.

The major chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus on Aug. 21 that killed hundreds and injured many more requires a definitive, strong response from the United States and the international community in order to guard against the further use of chemical weapons by the Bashar al Assad regime or anyone else, anywhere. The scope of any strike, if approved, should be limited to deterring further use and degrading the regime's ability to deliver chemical weapons inside Syria or against neighboring countries.

The growing evidence available strongly suggests that only the Syrian government forces had the means to use chemical weapons in the Aug. 21 attack as they seek to gain the upper hand against entrenched rebel positions in strategic areas outside Damascus. In the coming days, the results of the United Nations inspection team’s findings in Syria will likely confirm some kind of widespread CW use and the forthcoming U.S. intelligence community assessment will provide further details and possibly confirm Syrian government responsibility for the attack.

Even without a clear U.N. Security Council mandate, there is a legal (and moral) basis to take proportionate military action to deter and disrupt the further use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime against innocent civilians under the doctrine of humanitarian intervention.

The failure of the United States in the 1980s to condemn and try to stop the use of chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein against Iran undoubtedly emboldened him and opened the door to further attacks at the time. Such inaction cannot be repeated again in Syria. Doing so increases the risk that Assad uses chemical weapons again. 

Secretary of State John Kerry was right when he said on Monday that "all peoples and all nations who believe in the cause of our common humanity must stand up to assure that there is accountability for the use of chemical weapons so that it never happens again."

Holding the line against further chemical weapons use is a core U.S. and international security interest because chemical weapons produce horrible indiscriminate effects, especially against civilians, and because the erosion of the taboo against chemical weapons use can lead to further, more significant use of these or other mass destruction weapons in the future.

Syria is bound by the Geneva Protocol of 1925 not to use chemical agents in warfare and is but one of seven countries that have not yet joined the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention banning all development, production and deployment of deadly chemicals. The use of chemical weapons is a war crime under the Statute of the International Criminal Court. The U.N. Security Council can refer such war crimes to the ICC even if the persons responsible are citizens of a state that has not ratified the ICC statute. 

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Through the CWC, all states -- even Russia -- resolved "for the sake of all mankind, to exclude completely the possibility of the use of chemical weapons, through the implementation of the provisions of this Convention, thereby complementing the obligations assumed under the Geneva Protocol of 1925." This goal applies to states-parties and states that are not parties to the CWC. There are seven states that have not yet ratified the treaty, including known chemical weapons possessors North Korea and Syria.

All the available evidence must be presented and reviewed before the United States, the U.K. and other states pursue multilateral action designed to hold those individuals and entities who perpetrated these attacks accountable. 

Obama must carefully calibrate any military response. Any cruise missile barrage must be designed to make Assad and his military commanders recognize that the marginal utility of using chemical weapons again on the battlefield is not worth the high cost of punitive military measures the United States and others will inflict. Obama must ensure that the strikes are not and do no appear to be an attempt to tip the balance of the war or to destroy the regime itself -- a move that could provoke a wider regional war or even the use of chemical weapons by Assad outside Syria's borders.

Consequently, any cruise missile strikes should focus on select Assad leadership and military targets, and in particular, the sites and assets related to chemical weapons delivery, including scud missiles, aircraft, Russian-supplied helicopters, and heavy artillery and rockets, all of which are thought to be capable of carrying Syria's chemical munitions.

This will help degrade, but not eliminate, Syria's chemical potential. The target list should not and cannot include chemical weapons storage sites themselves. Even "precision" airstrikes cannot reliably or safely destroy the Syria's actual chemical stockpiles because there is imperfect intelligence on all possible storage locations, and attempts to destroy the depots could cause widespread civilian casualties and/or undermine the security of the sites and risk that the chemical agents fall into the hands of extremist rebel groups or government militias. 

Likewise, inserting foreign ground forces into Syria for the purpose of securing the dozen or so sites where Assad stores or produces chemical weapons would put those soldiers at very high risk. And doing so probably makes it more likely that Assad actually uses his chemical weapons. Assaults on the storage sites by the United States or rebel forces could also compromise their security of the material, which unfortunately depends on Syrian government personnel who are undoubtedly already undermanned and under duress.

As the Obama administration has noted, there is no military solution to the war in Syria, only a political solution. As Obama suggested on Wednesday, any U.S. strike should be "tailored and limited" and directed at preventing the further use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians. 

Even that approach carries risks, but Syria's chemical weapons cannot be allowed to create an even more dangerous and deadly situation for Syria's people and its neighbors. 

Daryl G. Kimball is the executive director of the independent, Washington, D.C.-based Arms Control Association.