Allegations that chemical weapons have been deployed against civilians in Syria are troublesome and, if true, are abhorrent. But what facts have been established? What details are as yet unknown? And are calls for some form of military intervention warranted in the current situation?
These are the questions that should and must be asked. But already the ground has been cleared such that speculation (on all sides) has become fact, and expert opinion derided as pure fantasy. There's a need to look more closely at these truth claims so as to reveal something altogether more meaningful.
The facts, as I see them, are these: (1) the nature of what occurred on 21 August, and the veracity of the various claims, are hotly contested; (2) of what has thus far been said, few have the evidence or specialist knowledge at their disposal; and (3) for their part, the UN inspectors and staff at the OPCW labs will not make their findings public, and are neither in a position, nor tasked, with identifying those responsible.
Yet the call for reprisals against "those responsible" has indeed been swift and strong. Frustrated with the Russian and Chinese veto in the UN Security Council, and at odds with the UN Secretary General's evocation of a possible "crime against humanity", ambassador Susan Rice resorted to tweeting an actual impossibility:
The Syrian government must allow the UN access to the attack site to investigate. Those responsible will be held accountable. [Emphasis mine]
More worryingly still, the UN special advisors for Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect echoed this sentiment last Friday in their joint statement to media:
The alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria is yet another example of the crimes taking place in the country. All these crimes must be investigated immediately, and those responsible for committing them held to account, as an integral part of a peaceful and sustainable political solution to the disastrous conflict in Syria. [Emphasis mine]
As I pointed out at the time Obama drew his "red line", whilst condemnation for the use of chemical weapons is to be expected, reprisals would require evidence of who did it – to date nothing of what has been said has been based on a verified, independent, expert assessment of the evidence. No chemical weapons specialists have said: "this is precisely what substance/s were used, and this is who definitely deployed them." Not one. Nor, in fact, have any governments.
The importance (yet improbability) of attribution
Without attribution, "those responsible" can actually never be truly "held to account". There are technical, practical, legal and political reasons for this seemingly suboptimal outcome.
Technical constraints on the UN inspections include not only the procurement of evidence, witness accounts and testimony (from medics, for example), but also the limitations of an interagency process that requires testing in multiple facilities over the course of several days.
Practical constraints include the inescapable problem that Syria is an active war zone, and UN inspectors must prioritise both their own personal safety, as well as their mission's integrity. Ensuring the adherence to protocols including the proper handling of evidence and selection of witnesses will not be easy during the course of any conflict, whether Assad and the rebels comply or not. No one outside of the select few negotiators, likely not even the UN inspectors themselves, are aware what evidence has been supplied by Assad's regime, the rebels, or external actors such as Russia, France, the UK, US and Israel.
The Assad government's legal obligations are complex and not altogether as strong and as rigid as commonly supposed. Syria is not a states-party to the international convention banning the use of chemical weapons, though they are party to the 1925 Geneva Convention. Assad is under no legal obligation to facilitate inspections of Syria's sovereign territory, despite the assertions to the contrary based on customary international law. In fact, it was Assad who agreed to the inspections currently underway under the remit of the UN Secretary General five months before the reported strikes. To be sure, there are limitations to the scope and nature of that inquiry, in part set by Assad, and in part because of the technical and practical constraints outlined above.
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