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Is Syria Setting Itself Up for International Prosecution? Is Syria Setting Itself Up for International Prosecution?

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Is Syria Setting Itself Up for International Prosecution?

By agreeing to give up its chemical weapons, the Syrian government could be opening the door for legal punishment.


Syrian President Bashar al-Assad walks past a French honor guard in Paris in 2010.(AP Photo/Remy de la Mauviniere)

The latest in a string of developments bordering on action-film-style pacing is a stunner: The Syrian government is ready to reveal its chemical weapons—that it denied it even possessed as recently as Sunday—and hand them over to the international community to be destroyed.

Russia Today reports that Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem says the country is ready to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention—a 1993 arms agreement that outlaws the production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons—which 189 countries, including the United States, have signed. The announcement comes on the heels of a proposal by Russia on Monday, triggered by a seemingly offhand remark by Secretary of State John Kerry, that Syria put its chemical weapons under international control to avoid U.S. military aggression. In an interview with a Lebanon-based channel, Muallem said:


We are ready to fulfill our obligations in compliance with this treaty, including through the provision of information about our chemical weapons. We will open our storage sites, and cease production. We are ready to open these facilities to Russia, other countries and the United Nations.

France is currently working on a resolution to put before the United Nations Security Council that demands the inspection, confiscation, and destruction of Syria's chemical-weapons stockpile. Should Syria agree to and then later violate the agreement, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said there would be "very serious consequences."

If Syria signs on to the CWC and publicizes its storage sites, a flood of U.N. inspectors will likely enter the country to inspect the stockpile. Although not everyone in the international community is convinced, U.S. officials say they've already got enough evidence to say that Assad was behind the Aug. 21 attacks that killed more than 1,400 civilians. If that's true, and future investigations start to sway the public to that claim, what will happen to Assad?


Fabius says the Syrian president would have to resign, at the very least. "We can't imagine that someone who was responsible for 110,000 dead, it is said, can stay in power forever."

With all the talk of preserving international norms when it comes to chemical-weapons use, it's tough to imagine a potential Assad resignation will be anywhere near enough for those involved. The Syrian National Coalition, the opposition to the Assad regime, voiced this sentiment in a statement on Tuesday: "Crimes against humanity cannot be dropped by giving political concessions or by handing over the weapons used in these crimes." It's unlikely world powers, especially the U.S., will set such a precedent that suggests the act of owning up is enough to escape justice when it comes to chemical weapons.

The CWC outlines that the use of chemical weapons is prohibited in all circumstances, including in non-international armed conflicts. The agreement could keep Syria's chemical-weapons program in check, but there are no provisions about punishment of the leaders who built the program. The Rome Statute, the treaty that established the International Criminal Court, lists "employing asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and all analogous liquids, materials or devices" as a violation of international law. Syria isn't party to the ICC (neither is the U.S.), but Assad could be charged if the U.N. Security Council successfully refers his case to the court. Slate points out that Russia and China will make such a move difficult, but the U.S. and France may still put up a fight.

For world powers, it's too early to start thinking about what to do with Assad if the U.N. steps in—especially since talks about concrete language from Russia on a resolution have already hit a snag. France's draft resolution, supported by the U.S., is set to be under Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter, making it enforceable with military action. According to the AP, President Vladimir Putin said the plan to take away Syria's chemical weapons will only work if "the American side and those who support the U.S.A, in this sense, reject the use of force."

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