What Are The Arms Control Implications Of Syria’s Chemical Weapons Deal?

on October 07 2013 8:50 AM
Syria chemical weapons team in Damascus
U.N. chemical weapons inspectors leave their hotel in Damascus on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013. Reuters

The unanimous vote by the United Nations Security Council on Sept. 27 for a resolution requiring Syria to give up its chemical weapons is a triumph for arms control over the use of force in dealing with international conflicts. More precisely, it is a triumph of arms control backed by the credible use of force that accounts for this peaceful outcome.

If Syria takes the next step and cedes control over its entire chemical weapons stockpile to the U.N., this episode in history will tell the story of how an international humanitarian crisis concerning the indiscriminate slaughter of innocents led to a major advance in 21st century arms control. In addition, this development will presumably lead the United States to take military strikes against Syria off the table.

Those who argue that arms control is a Cold War relic may think otherwise if Syrian President Bashar Assad lives up to his declared intention to give up his chemical weapons. Such an action by Assad would bolster the rhetoric surrounding the need to uphold international norms with action in ways that are almost uniquely supportive of the integrity of arms control.

Our chemical and biological weapons control regimes are the most fragile of weapons-related norms, due to the difficulty in constraining and monitoring the transfer of the ingredients used to make these weapons. Many of these ingredients are also used to produce lawful and beneficial products – such as fertilizers, medicines and cosmetics – making it difficult to enforce international agreements that limit their stockpiling and use.

Unlike nuclear and conventional weapons treaties, the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Biological Weapons Convention -- international treaties outlawing these weapons of mass destruction -- are either self-verifiable (via state reporting of stockpiles for the Chemical Weapons Convention) or non-verifiable (for the Biological Weapons Convention). In other words, each nation signing the agreements is to a large extent responsible for enforcing its own compliance.

What the UN Security Council action accomplishes is upholding the integrity of these easily violated agreements by showing a zero-tolerance policy for their gross violation. The U.N. is now on record as forcefully taking a stand against the stockpiling and use of these weapons as soon as evidence of their use – particularly against civilians – is displayed prominently.

Although consequences for non-compliance are not specified, the Security Council resolution on Syria comes with the promise of U.N. action should Assad fail to turn over his chemical weapons stockpile to the international community.

Justifications for the Security Council resolution also include the fact that it would prevent Assad from using chemical weapons again (on his own people or others), and that it could lower the likelihood of chemical weapons falling into the hands of terrorist groups. These goals are in America’s national security interests.

While the Security Council action has already lowered the pitch of the crisis at hand, the two alternatives -- missile strikes and international control of Syria's chemical stockpile -- are poised to accomplish two very different ends.

Of course, depriving Assad of chemical weapons won’t stop him from killing his citizens with bombs, bullets, rockets and other conventional weapons. Barring any further action, the Syrian civil war will continue. Grieving survivors will draw no comfort knowing their loved ones died by conventional rather than chemical weapons.

By taking missile strikes off the table, the U.S. would certainly find itself pulling back from the hard line it took several weeks ago in response to Assad’s use of poison gas to kill nearly 1,500 Syrian civilians -- including more than 400 children -- Aug. 21 near Damascus. This would essentially leave the mass killing unpunished, forsaking retribution for goals of longer-term peace and stability. The latter, however, is what arms control is good at: codifying the control over and elimination of weapons to reduce both imminent and long-term threats.

On the plus side, if Syria accepts and lives up to the terms of the Security Council resolution, Assad would be incapable of staging another attack with deadly chemical weapons. In addition, other rogue nations will now be less likely to use such weapons. And the U.N. is now on record as taking a firm position that supports the notion that arms control agreements can and must continue to play an important and significant role.

A successful outcome in this regard also signals that arms control can play an effective role as an instrument for international affairs in the 21st century. It may help to again reset U.S. relations with Russia, and may bode well for a potential deal with Iran on its nuclear program.

It is perhaps no coincidence that just hours before the U.N Security Council vote on Syria, U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke by phone in the first U.S.-Iranian presidential conversation since 1979.

Amy J. Nelson is a research fellow at the Stimson Center and SIPRI North America.

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