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Decoding the UNSC Resolution on Syria

The Resolution passed by the UN Security Council (UNSC) on 28 September 2013 does not apportion blame to the Bashar al-Assad regime or to anyone else – notwithstanding the threat of unilateral military action by the United States against Syria.

Chemical weapons have been used in the ongoing civil war, but clearly by both sides. While the U.S. convinced itself that no one but the Syrian regime was responsible, the Russians disputed this claim. There is enough evidence to show that rebel groups, like the Al Qaeda-linked Jhabat al-Nusra, possess these weapons.

The non-committal language of UNSC Resolution 2118 refers only to “credible allegations” against “those responsible” without going further. UN weapons inspectors have returned to Damascus to look into every instance of the use of chemical weapons.

In the Syrian civil war, chemical weapons have accounted for only a portion of the huge number of overall civilian casualties in three years of conflict: 1,400 of the 1,00,000 killed. The possibility of intervention, humanitarian or otherwise, was not raised despite this massive loss of life. Why then has the issue of chemical weapons become the crux of the discourse? A number of reasons explain the belligerence of some western powers.

The losses suffered by the rebel groups in operations by the Syrian Army in the suburbs of Damascus, like the Ghouta, reportedly provoked the foreign sponsors of these groups to allege that the regime used chemical weapons, as a means to prod the U.S., France and others to threaten military action.

Having failed to secure a UN mandate on grounds either of humanitarian intervention as in the Libyan case in 2011, or claiming direct causus belli, the U.S. attempted to raise the non-use of chemical weapons to an international norm susceptible to Chapter VII action under the UN Charter. It did not succeed for want of clear proof only against the Assad regime. Yet the Resolution does end up outlawing the use of chemical weapons anywhere.

At the ground level there was an equally important imperative. The Syrian regime has the largest chemical weapons stockpile in the region, stored in multiple locations. It has built the stockpile and held it so far as a deterrent to Israel’s stockpiles of both chemical and nuclear weapons. An unstated agreement ensured that the West acquiesced so long as no hue and cry was made about Israel’s holdings, thereby ensuring a delicate balance of terror between Syria and Israel.

The UN Resolution has two legally-binding provisions: Syria will give up all its chemical weapons now and forever; and it will provide unfettered access to sites and persons in the country as asked for by the UN chemical weapons experts. The obligations accepted by the present Syrian government will devolve on all those which succeed.

With the UNSC thus seeking the complete dismantling and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, Israel has reason to worry that its stocks of WMD will also be called into question. On its part, by signing the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), and agreeing to the terms of the Resolution, the Syrian regime has leveraged its chemical weapons stockpile to prolong itself in power. The real test of the process laid down in the Resolution will depend if its deadlines can be met.

The process of disarmament has no automatic triggers, which would unleash military action, even though there is reference to imposing measures under UN Chapter VII either through sanctions or military action. However, this will require a second recourse to the Security Council where Russia, and possibly China, is bound to veto.

The Resolution was a face-saver for U.S. President Barack Obama, who had backed himself into a corner with repeated references to “red lines” and the likelihood that the U.S. Congress would disapprove of his plans. Despite the Resolution, the U.S. says that the option of a strike against Syria is still on the table.

The Syrian regime signed the CWC on 14 September 2013. It has started implementing CWC provisions even before the convention comes into force in mid-October. But second-guessing has already started on Syrian compliance, even though the regime has given a list of its stocks beyond the expectations of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the Secretariat which administers the CWC.

It takes time to destroy chemical weapons even in peace-time. The U.S., 10 years after ratifying the CWC, is still not fully compliant with its CWC obligations. It has not yet destroyed tons of Sarin, VX and mustard gas stocks. President Assad, in his interview to a US channel, has said that it could take over a year to destroy all its stocks and manufacturing facilities.

Another important aspect of the UNSC Resolution is its emphasis on the political dimension of the Syrian civil war. It states that an international conference will be summoned in Geneva by mid-November 2013 in an “inclusive Syrian-led political process” which will also include the Assad regime. The Resolution only asks all parties to attend the conference and negotiate seriously; furthermore, it promises that spoilers of the proposed process will face western action.

While the action to be taken is not specified, it does demonstrate that after more than a year a degree of international agreement on the Syrian issue has been possible. The Syrian regime has already committed to the conference; it will be up to the West and regional powers to bring the fractious opposition to the table in a cohesive form.

In the evolving situation, Russia will emerge as a major player in Syria and the region. The U.S.’s belligerence, coming on top of the backlash after the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the NATO action in Libya, has increased the level of animus against the U.S. The Syrian regime will seek to involve Russia in the disarmament and the political process, resulting from the UN Resolution, both to free its hands in its fight against the rebel groups and as a guarantee against future U.S. military action.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, speaking in New York on 26 September, put India firmly with those who would like to see the elimination of chemical weapons in Syria and elsewhere. He emphasised that the only solution to the conflict is a political process through the Geneva conference. Given its high-standing in West Asia, and in Syria, India can play a significant role in bringing this about, as well as in giving humanitarian assistance to a beleaguered Syria.

Rajendra Abhyankar is Chairman, Kunzru Centre for Defence Studies and Research, Pune. He is currently teaching at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University, Bloomington.

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