Chemical weapons and Syria: we need evidence-based, international justice

31.08.2013 23:49

Given the horrific events unfolding
in Syria, it is understandable that
there are calls for something to be
done in response to what John
Kerry has rightly condemned as a
"moral obscenity" . Yet in
circumstances where our
knowledge is incomplete about
what happened, who was
responsible and how best to
respond given the complexity of the
conflict that has engulfed Syria,
there is a need to exercise caution
and precaution.
This requires avoiding recourse to
policy based on a false dichotomy
between what Tony Blair recently
described as "commentary or
action" . Policy choices are being
implicitly framed as a well-defined
crossroads, when the evidence
about what transpired and what
action to take is not. Instead, we
need what Obama described as a
more "informed decision" about
which policy pathways should be
According to the emerging western
narrative, on 21 August a large
scale attack using neurotoxic
chemical weapons was launched on
targets in Ghouta, a suburb of
Damascus, by forces of the Assad
regime. There is little doubt that
something horrific has happened.
However, we do not have a
credible "chain of custody" from
sampling to analysis (as could be
provided by UN inspectors working
with the WHO and OPCW), and it is
difficult to determine the exact
nature of the agent or agents used
or what exactly transpired.
Adding to the complexity, acquiring
such information is not easy. As
Meselson has stated, "obtaining
reliable chemical analyses is not
nearly as simple as non-specialists
might think" (pdf). Yet without
either "some kind of smoking gun"
or details on the circumstances of
the chemicals' release, the truth
about what happened is highly
It is certainly possible that the
Assad regime has employed
chemical weapons, but the timing
of the attack, occurring so shortly
after the arrival of inspectors, so
close to where they are currently
operating and when the regime is
winning in the two-year conflict,
raises questions. As such, is it
entirely reasonable to discount the
possibility, raised by Carla Del
Ponte of the UNHCR in relation to
earlier allegations, that "the rebels
have used chemical weapons"?
While this possibility sits
uncomfortably with the western
narrative on the Syrian conflict,
and may well turn out to be
mistaken, uncritically accepting the
prevailing account of events in
Ghouta ignores the extent to which
the history of chemical (and
biological) warfare is riddled with
false allegations, misinformation
and propaganda which, as
Robinson has pointed out, have
often been deftly exploited by
" well-intentioned as well as
unscrupulous people to vilify
enemies and to calumniate
rivals" (pdf).
Uncritical and therefore
unscientific acceptance of a
particularly framing of events also
undermines the UN inspectors'
efforts to conduct independent, on-
site, fact-finding activities about
what happened that can feed into
more informed and transparent
future action. The existing
uncertainty means it is not just
difficult to formulate an evidence-
based solution, " it is irrational
even to try, let alone claim, this ".
The provision of more objective
evidence would provide the
international community with a
better basis to pursue future legal
action. Without it, we are dealing
with wild western, rather than
western justice. Someone within the
territory of the regime – if not the
regime itself – has committed a
serious violation of the laws and
customs applicable in international
armed conflict (pdf). Under the
circumstances, they could thus be
liable to prosecution by the
International Criminal Court.
The alternative, limited military
options available to western
governments (including most
probably " a single punitive attack"
involving multiple missile strikes)
are subject to risk, uncertainty,
ambiguity and ignorance (pdf).
Under such conditions a legal
approach, which is much more
suited to dealing with uncertainty
than military strikes, is likely to be
a more fruitful and safer course of
action in the longer term.
The history of allegations of
chemical weapons' use is largely
the history of misinformation and
disinformation. This makes it much
more difficult to work out what has
happened in a legitimate and
transparent way. Given the risks,
uncertainties, ambiguities and
ignorance attached to all the
available policy options, a
response of caution, precaution
and transparency is called for.
This will doubtless be unpopular
among many, certainly based on
the impassioned comments
appended to several articles on this
issue. Yet as terrible as the use of
chemical weapons is, terrifying
actions have taken place against
civilians on a daily basis during
this two-year humanitarian
catastrophe, and have generated
only a limited response.
Given the risks of western
involvement in yet another war in
the Middle East, caution is required
to allow UN inspectors the time to
gather the necessary evidence and
generate the technical information
needed for a law enforcement
option to emerge. Over-hasty
reactions, well intended as they
may be, are actions without the
benefit of evidence. Such actions
are unscientific, hubristic and
rarely end well.