Column: Syria minus sarin

careyOn Sept. 16, UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon declared that he “condemns in the strongest possible terms the use of chemical weapons and believes that this act is a war crime and grave violation of the 1925 Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare and other relevant rules of customary inter­-
national law.”

He was referring to the Aug. 21 poison gas attack that reportedly killed or maimed hundreds of Syrian civilians. Syria is a party to the 1925 protocol, but has only just now joined the more recent Chemical
Weapons Convention.

Mr. Ban added that, “The international community has a moral responsibility to hold accountable those responsible and for ensuring that chemical weapons can never re-emerge as an instrument of warfare.”

He thanked the members of the mission that had just reported its findings, “including the dedicated teams of experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons [created by the Chemical Weapons Convention that now binds Syria] and the World Health Organization.”

Also on the 16th, U.S. Am­bassador Samantha Power noted that, “action moves now to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague and here in New York. The United States and Russia are presenting a draft decision to the OPCW, which calls for special measures for stringent verification and an accelerated timeline for destruction.

“[I]f we can make progress in the first instance at the OPCW and then here at the Security Council, it is critical that Assad would be losing his chemical weapons program. And this is a weapon that he has used multiple times over the last year, and it has provided him–it is no secret–not only with the ability to slaughter civilians, but also with a tactical
military advantage…”

United Nations Week will follow what occurs in the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. But even if the OPCW, together with the Putin/Lavrov-Obama/Kerry plan succeeds in ridding Syria of all poison gas, where are we then? Will that mark the end of the Syrian civil war with its ghastly atrocities?

Syria without government-controlled poison gas might well resemble Syria just before the massive gas attack of Aug. 21. The situation, as it was then, may show what the situation could be just after the removal of all poison gas.

What it was like just before the Aug. 21 attack is described in detail in the report issued on Aug. 16 by the independent international commission of inquiry on Syria, A/HRC/24/46. It may tell us where Syria would likely be when and if present plans succeed in ending the use of poison gas there.

The report’s summary reads as follows: “The Syrian Arab Republic is a battlefield. Its cities and towns suffer relentless shelling and sieges. Massacres are perpetrated with impunity. An untold number of Syrians have disappeared. The present report covers investigations conducted from May [15] to July [15], 2013. Its findings are based on 258 interviews and other collected evidence.

“Government and pro-government forces have continued to conduct widespread attacks on the civilian population, committing murder, torture, rape and enforced disappearance as crimes against humanity. They have laid siege to neighborhoods and subjected them to indiscriminate shelling. Government forces have committed gross violations of human rights and the war crimes of torture, hostage-taking, murder, execution without due process, rape, attacking protected objects and pillage.

“Anti-government armed groups have committed war crimes, including murder, execution without due process, torture, hostage-taking and attacking protected objects. They have besieged and indiscriminately shelled civilian neighborhoods.

“Anti-government and Kurdish armed groups have recruited and used child soldiers in

“The perpetrators of these violations and crimes, on all sides, act in defiance of international law. They do not fear accountability. Referral to
justice is imperative.

“There is no military solution to this conflict. Those who supply arms create but an illusion of victory. A political solution founded upon tenets of the Geneva communiqué is the only path to peace.”

Participants in the June 30, 2012, Geneva communiqué, calling themselves the Action Group for Syria, were the UN Secretary-General, the League of Arab States, the Foreign Ministers of China, France, Russia, the UK, the U.S., Turkey, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, the EU and the Joint Special Envoy of the UN and the League of Arab States.

The sectarian aspect of the Syrian tragedy is illustrated in paragraphs 19 and 20 of the commission’s report:

“Regional allies continued to provide military and financial support to the government. Hizbullah now fights alongside government forces; young Iraqi Shiites are travelling to the Syrian Arab Republic to fight for the government. The government’s currency crisis has been temporarily stemmed by the extension of a $3.6 billion credit line from the Islamic Republic of Iran. A loan from the Russian Federation is reportedly under discussion, while pro-conflict arms deals between Moscow and Damascus continue to
be honored.

“Influential Sunni clerics from several Arab states, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, called on Sunnis to join the jihad against the government of the Syrian Arab Republic and its supporters. Appeals, echoing an earlier call made by Al-Qaida leader Zawahiri, urged that money and weapons be provided to anti-government armed groups.”

With religious zeal at work on both sides in Syria, it seems unlikely that a return to pre-poison gas times would do much to lessen the agony of the country. This seems especially so in view of some of the other findings of the UN Commission
of Inquiry.

Unfortunately, ridding Syria of poison gas will not end the atrocities committed by other means. For that, there is only the bargaining table, where the question is who will be sitting there and with what means of persuasion.