By Curtis Ward
No civilized society should tolerate or ignore crimes against humanity. The use of chemical weapons, internationally outlawed, is a war crime. The chemical weapon attack which took place on April 4, 2017 at the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in Syria was carried out by aircraft. As at this writing, no evidence has been offered proving Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s responsibility for the chemical weapons attack which killed more than 80 people, almost half of them children. However, the fact that Assad had used chemical weapons in the past, in particular in 2013, verified by the United Nations Security Council, left little doubt in most minds of his guilt.
I am not here arguing guilt or innocence. It’s difficult to argue innocence given Assad’s record of killing hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians using conventional and chemical weapons. Assad has the capability and the inclination. While Assad’s guilt in this particular crime is still to be proven, ultimately, he, his associates, and Syrian top military brass will face international justice for this heinous act and other war crimes already perpetrated against the Syrian people
Television images of children gasping for breath shook us to the core. I wanted the international community to respond collectively within the framework of international law; and the widely accepted principle, the “responsibility to protect” would provide sound rationale for collective response. No impunity for perpetrators of crimes against humanity. If proven, the Syrian government violated some of the most sacred international norms. At the same time, the U.S., or any other government, cannot take it upon itself to take military action against another sovereign state, no matter the egregious nature of that government’s actions without legal authority. To do so is also a violation of international law. Such unauthorized action threatens world order and contributes to a lawless global construct.
The appropriate response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons is clearly established by UNSC resolution 2118 (2003) which was agreed by all 15 Council members, including, in particular, the U.S. and Russia. The resolution provides for evidence to be provided to the UN Security Council that chemical weapons had been used and identifying the perpetrators. Most importantly, the UNSC decided, “in the event of non-compliance with this resolution, including unauthorized transfer of chemical weapons, or any use of chemical weapons by anyone in the Syrian Arab Republic, to impose measures under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter.”
Among the measures available to the UNSC is authorization of military force under Chapter VII, Article 42 of the UN Charter to enforce its decisions to maintain or restore international peace and security. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov correctly stated to the UNSC that SCR 2118 does not fall under Chapter VII of the UN Charter and does not allow for any automatic use of coercive measures of enforcement. Further, that “any violations … as (to) the use of chemical weapons by any party will be carefully investigated by the Security Council, which will stand ready to take action under Chapter VII of the Charter. The actions taken will be commensurate with any violations, which will have to be 100 per cent proved.”
Then U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said there would be consequences if the Syrian regime failed to comply with SCR 2118, and, specifically, “in the event of non-compliance, the Council will impose measures under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations.”
The UN Security Council convened an emergency meeting to discuss and take action on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, but before any evidence was provided, or before any investigation could take place, or any authorization given for the use of military force, the U.S. acted. Why?
Both the United States and Russia had committed to future UNSC action in the event of any violation by the Assad government. However, within three days after reports of the use of chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun, President Donald Trump acted unilaterally by firing 59 tomahawk missiles with intent to destroy a Syrian airfield. President Trump’s action against Syria without the imprimatur of the UNSC is a clear violation of international law.
In order for the UN Security Council to act effectively and responsibly in the maintenance of international peace and security, the international community must be able to have trust and confidence that the super powers will abide by international law and international norms; not violate them.
If evidence was presented to the UNSC that Assad was in violation of SCR 2118, it would have triggered a Chapter VII response from the Council. Russia would be shamed and embarrassed by its failure to ensure that all chemical weapons were removed from Syria; guarantees given to the international community. A betrayed Putin may wish to teach Assad a lesson, by agreeing on tough UNSC measures. Or would he?
Russia’s first response to the images of the children of Khan Sheikhoun was denial of Assad’s responsibility; if not Syria then who? If Putin has evidence implicating others possessing, having the capability, and using chemical weapons in Syria, why not identify the culprits to the UNSC? Russian military advisers are embedded with the Syrian military so that shouldn’t be difficult.
Embarrassed or betrayed, Putin’s Russia either lacked the competence to carry out its responsibility, or Putin was deceived by his ally Assad. It may be a bit of both. Time will tell.
What then of President Donald Trump’s unilateral response? The U.S. does not have the legal authority to attack a sovereign country unless that country poses a direct and imminent threat to the U.S. Only the UNSC has the legal authority under Chapter VII, Article 42 of the UN Charter to approve the use of military force against a sovereign country which threatens international peace and security, including preventing acts of genocide.
Putin’s initial muted response to Donald Trump’s military attack on Syria may very well be the response of a “friend” feinting geopolitical accommodation to help Trump divert attention from his domestic conundrum. Without a real strategy, however, Putin may find the future trajectory of Trump’s “policies” disquieting. Trump’s motives in launching a military attack against a Syrian airfield are yet to be fully understood. There is no plausible explanation other than a distraction from domestic issues plaguing his administration, including possible complicity in Russia’s interference in the U.S. political process. It could back fire, if Trump is emboldened to take further action in Syria in direct conflict with Russia’s objectives.
There are troubling questions on Trump’s policies and objectives. If so profoundly moved by the sight of dead or dying Syrian children, how then has he been so unsympathetic to the plight of Syrian refugees? This is a president who seeks to ban Muslims, including Syrian children refugees, from the United States.
It is unsettling that Trump’s military action against Syria was triggered by an emotional reaction to visions of children dying in Syria. This is not strategic policy. It is a scary realization when there is no expectation the United States will act with any degree of deliberation or rationality. That threatens global stability; a threat to international peace and security.
If you are shocked by Trump’s intemperate response to Assad’s atrocities, you should be even more shocked that so many Republican and some Democratic politicians, as well as media personalities view Trump’s action as a manifestation of a strong president. Deemed presidential for attacking another country in violation of international law? Presidential to deny refuge to women and children fleeing chemical weapons and bombs raining down from the skies?
This column was initially published in The Ward Post and has been republished here with the consent of the author, Ambassador Curtis Ward.
Ambassador Curtis A. Ward is a former ambassador of Jamaica to the United Nations, with two years of service on the UN Security Council. He is an attorney at law and international consultant specializing in national and international security law and policy; counter-terrorism legal and operational capacity assessments and solutions; international sanctions; rule of law and governance (program development and execution); geopolitical strategy analyses; international business transactions, and inter-governmental relations.