United Nations inspectors have concluded that there is “clear and convincing evidence” that chemical weapons were used against civilians in Syria on August 21. Their report, presented to the U.N. Security Council this morning by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, does not blame the Assad regime directly, but leaves little doubt that it’s responsible.
“The environmental, chemical and medical samples we have collected provided clear and convincing evidence that surface-to-surface rockets containing the nerve agent sarin were used,” said the report. There is no evidence anywhere to suggest the rebels fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have such rockets or possess sarin, which is a relatively sophisticated nerve agent.
The remarks to the Security Council by the normally reserved Ban verged on outrage and despair. “This is the most significant confirmed use of chemical weapons against civilians since Saddam Hussein used them in Halabja in 1988,” he said. “The international community has pledged to prevent any such horror from recurring, yet it has happened again.”
“The results are overwhelming and indisputable. The facts speak for themselves,” said the secretary-general, calling the use of sarin—which appeared in the blood of 85 percent of the people tested—a “despicable crime” and a “war crime.”
Certainly the report is an important part of the diplomatic case against the Syrian government. The Obama administration has threatened, and continues to threaten, unilateral military action against Syria to prevent it from further use of chemical weapons. But after weeks of mounting international tensions, a domestic battle for Congressional and public support that Obama appeared almost certain to lose, the crisis veered sharply toward negotiation.
On Saturday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reached a surprise breakthrough agreement to identify, remove, and destroy Assad’s chemical arsenal. The Syrians, who previously denied that they had chemical weapons, have expressed tentative agreement.
But the accord will not have the force of international law until the Security Council formally approves it. Tough negotiations lie ahead on the general framework, and as Syria complies, or not, with each stage of its chemical disarmament, there may be new questions raised about whether the United Nations will sanction military action for noncompliance.
These diplomatic moves appear likely to keep Assad in office for several more months.
The Geneva agreement and the draft resolution worked on by the United States, France, and Britain alludes to Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, which allows for the imposition of sanctions up to and including military force. But the Russians are on record saying they will oppose such measures.
Without chemical weapons, Assad will be deprived of the most terrifying and potentially effective part of his arsenal. But Syrian opposition forces and those in the United States who support them, including Sen. John McCain, have expressed great disappointment. These diplomatic moves appear likely to keep Assad in office for several more months, at least. They do nothing to stop him from using his air force and artillery to wage ruthless attacks on rebels, dissidents, and whatever civilians get in the way. There are also reports that he’s getting reinforcements from Iran and from Shiite volunteers arriving from other countries to fight what has become an increasingly sectarian war.
Meanwhile, the supposed calendar for complete removal of Assad’s arsenal—the middle of next year—matches the schedule that Assad and the Russians have put forth many times for some sort of transition, whether real or cosmetic.
“The Lavrov-Kerry agreement fits neatly into the Russian-Iranian-Syrian timetable that has Assad staying firmly in office until the next Syrian elections mid-2014,” says Raghida Dergham, a columnist for the Arabic daily Al Hayat who covers the United Nations closely. “This agreement rehabilitated Bashar al-Assad as head of government and made him a necessary partner rather than a head of a regime that must go.”
The use of chemical weapons may be a despicable war crime, but there is no sign yet that Assad will be treated as a criminal.