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.
National Journal
Marina Koren
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Marina Koren
Sept. 10, 2013, 12:29 p.m.

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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