On 7 April 2018, reports emerged of a major chemical weapons attack in Douma, Syria. 70people reportedly died while sheltering in basements and 43 of them allegedly had symptoms consistent with exposure to highly toxic chemicals.
In reaction to the news US President Donald Trump said that there would be a ‘Big price to pay’ and that Russia and Iran were responsible for backing Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.
On 13 April 2018, the US, the UK and France launched precision air strikes on three Syrian chemical weapons facilities. No congressional or parliamentary approval was sought. This in itself is against the spirit of democracy. However, grounds for military intervention at all is legally questionable as not since the UN Charter was put in place has the use of force on a sovereign nation to impose peace been condoned.
The UK for instance has invoked the argument of ‘humanitarian protection’ but the doctrine is not widely supported by the international community at large and action without approval from the UN Security Council is highly controversial. It also presents a selective approach towards humanitarian protection.
So far, according to one human rights organisation, 85 chemical attacks have been found to have occurred in Syria, perpetrated by the Syrian government and ISIS; yet diplomatic measures to enforce sanctions as have been empowered within the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) are wanting. That states should divert straight to airstrikes is a dangerous line of engagement and comes at a precarious time when relations with Assad’s ally, Russia, also condemned in the attack, are at a low for both the US and UK. Accusations and action while evidence still remains hazy risks increasing viperous conduct between nations.
ICRD appreciates the frustrations of Russian veto on establishing a mechanism of investigation of those responsible for chemical weapons use in Syria. However, derogating from international law puts the world on a trajectory that will inevitably lead to further loss of life. Isolated strikes are futile and only risk escalating the conflict.
If the objective is to displace Assad then a much larger military effort would be required, although precedent suggests that western military intervention has only sought to inflict more chaos in the region as seen in Libya and Iraq. If states are to go down this route there must be careful consideration of how its objectives are to be achieved without harming civilians and in accordance with international law. It should be coupled with a strategy for the country’s reconstruction, transition of power and exit plan for foreign forces.
If states are serious about humanitarian protection, they must take further measures at providing civilians with a safe haven. They should pledge to take more refugees, provide humanitarian visas, extend the principle of family reunification and enable effective dissemination of humanitarian aid along with other measures that protect civilian life.
The use of chemical weapons, as well as other war crimes, is absolutely abhorrent. States should use all of their diplomatic vigour to end the violence in Syria; they must pressure the Syrian regime for safe access to the chemical attack site so that the OPCW can conduct their investigation; and the OPCW must use its powers to impose sanctions on those responsible.