Over the past weeks, we have been inundated with news of the use of chemical weapons in Syria against its civilian population. While Syria had originally stated that they would not use unconventional weapons against civilians, they reserved the right to use them against foreign forces attempting to intervene in the current rebellion. International law generally recognizes that nations have the right to use force preemptively to defend themselves rather than suffer from an actual attack. Since Syria has repeatedly stated that the rebel forces are foreign terrorist elements, this opens the door for the "defense defense".
Syria is not a party to many of the world's treaties regarding the use of certain types of weapons, however, on December 17, 1968, Syria agreed and ratified the Geneva Protocol, also known as the Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, a treaty first introduced during a League of Nations meeting in May and June 1925 in an attempt to prevent Germany from importing or manufacturing chemical weapons after their defeat in World War I. The Protocol first came into effect on February 8th, 1928 after being signed on June 17th, 1925.
Here are the key paragraphs in the Protocol:
"Whereas the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices, has been justly condemned by the general opinion of the civilized world; and
Whereas the prohibition of such use has been declared in Treaties to which the majority of Powers of the World are Parties; and
To the end that this prohibition shall be universally accepted as a part of International Law, binding alike the conscience and the practice of nations;"
While Syria did ratify the Geneva Protocol, they declared a reservation which stated that "...the ratification of the Protocol by its Government does not in any case imply the recognition of Israel or lead to the establishment of relations with the latter concerning the provisions laid down in the Protocol."
While Syria signed the Geneva Protocol, they were not signatories to many of the world's major multilateral arms control agreements and treaties as shown on this chart:
Note that Syria signed the Chemical Weapons Convention on September 12, 2013, a bit too late for hundreds of Syrian civilians.
Before we go any further, let's look at the difference between agreeing to a treaty and ratifying it. Agreeing to a treaty is a supportive gesture whereas ratifying a treaty implies that a legal obligation is created once the treaty is signed through the passing and implementation of domestic legal legislative practices by the government involved in signing the treaty. Without ratification by the government of the signing country, there is no legal obligation to fulfill the requirements of the treaty, rendering it a relatively ineffective piece of paper.
Syria signed the Biological Weapons Convention in 1972 but has not ratified the agreement. The country also signed and ratified the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, ratified the Outer Space Treaty which prevents sovereign claims to space and prohibits the placement of weapons of mass destruction into orbit or on celestial bodies. This is not particularly a problem for a nation with not space program and no nuclear program.
If Syria elects to violate the Geneva Protocol, exactly what can be done by the international community? This is particularly pertinent since the United States was widely condemned by the world's Communist countries during the Vietnam War for its widespread use of chemical herbicides and tear gas. At that time, the U.S. denied that the Protocol applied to nontoxic gases and herbicides, showing that interpretation of the Geneva Protocol is in the eyes of the beholder. In fact, as I noted above for Syria, many nations hold reservations to the Protocol, declaring that if the Protocol would not be binding on them if their enemies or the allies of their enemies failed to respect the Protocol. These nations include Algeria, China, Israel, Jordan, DPRK, South Korea, Libya, Syria and, most interestingly, the United States!
Now, let's look at who else in Syria's neighbourhood has not signed the Geneva Protocol. Here is a screen capture from the Nuclear Threat Initiative website showing who has signed the Geneva Protocol among Syria's neighbours and more importantly, who has not:
Notice that Israel became a party (Acc) to the Geneva Protocol on February 20th, 1968 but that it was never ratified. You will also notice that Jordan became a party to the Geneva Protocol on January 20th, 1977 but, once again, it was never ratified. Iraq and Iran are both in the same position, signing the Protocol but not ratifying it. Obviously, these nations feel a need to protect themselves from their avowed foes.
Let's take a closer look at one nation, Israel. The Israeli Army (IDF) recently announced that it would end the use of white phosphorus, an incendiary weapon used in Operation Cast Lead in December 2008 and January 2009 on the Gaza Strip that killed more than 1400 mainly civilian Palestinians. While not in the same family as the noxious chemicals used in Syria, the IDF used white phosphorus in heavily populated areas of Gaza, including at least two hospitals as shown on this video:
Under international law (The Geneva Convention on the Use of Conventional Weapons and the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons), the use of white phosphorus in areas where there is a concentration of civilians is illegal. According to United States Army generals, the impact of white phosphorus is best compared to napalm, the infamous incendiary device used widely in Vietnam. Apparently, there really are many shades of grey when it comes to right and wrong in the Middle East. I guess it's all in your point of view.
As well, Israel is generally reported as having undeclared offensive chemical weapons capabilities despite the fact that it signed (but did not ratify) the Chemical Weapons Convention in January 1993. The dual nature of Israel's substantial chemical research and production industry suggests that there is an offensive chemical warfare component, particularly with the discovery of a crashed El Al cargo plane carrying a chemical precursor for sarin.
Just in case you wondered how the United States is involved, in 2007, the Bush II Administration signed a 10 year, $30 billion military aid package with Israel, considering it to be an "investment in peace". This was followed up with a March 2013 pledge by current President Obama that the provision of military aid would continue. Here is a chart showing the total aid given to Israel by the United States since its formation as a state in 1949 noting that nearly $71 billion has helped the nation develop its military capabilities:
It is this ongoing American aid that has allowed Israel to develop the IDF into one of the most technologically sophisticated militaries in the world, giving the nation a "qualitative military edge" over its neighbours even though Israel has not ratified either of the two key chemical warfare treaties. It is this very qualitative military edge that has created a complex geopolitical situation where Israel's neighbours, including Syria, feel that it is necessary to develop their own means of military self-defence, including the development of chemical weapons since it certainly appears that Israel may have its own stockpile.
While Syria and the Assad regime certainly are no angels, with the extremely complex and volatile geopolitical nature of the Middle East, no one should really be surprised at the recent turn of events. After all, history shows us time and time again that meddling in the Middle East can result in unintended outcomes that kill large numbers of civilians in terrible ways and that American foreign policies sometimes end up hurting the wrong people.
Oh, the hypocrisy of it all.
Oh, the hypocrisy of it all.