Cyber Security and Emerging Threats Radha Patel

Syria: A Chemical Weapons Arms Race?

Sequencing Recent Events

Rapid developments have pushed Syria from the corner of the front page back to the focal point of international media. Recent allegations that chemical weapons have been used in Syria resulted in an intensive week of global inquiries. Israeli bombs were dropped in Syria overnight onto what they believed were advanced missiles that were to be shipped to one of their greatest regional enemies, Hezbollah. Additionally, a 2-day blackout and lack of internet detected by Google and two other technology firms led to further questioning of possible motives by Assad’s regime for the timing of such an event. Independently, each incident harnessed a renewed sense of urgency to a watching global audience. However, the degree to which each event has done so is debatable. Assad’s forces have created blackouts before, and Israel has been adamant that their intent was not to support either side of the Syrian conflict but rather to prevent Hezbollah from using Syria as a route to gain more weapons. Conclusively, the chemical weapons usage is what spurred the international community into renewed action, and the situation was exacerbated by subsequent events.

According to a UN report in January 2013, the Syrian conflict had reached more than 60,000 casualties.

Global Reactions to Chemical Weapons

Following the allegations, many in the international community assumed that the US would increase its involvement in the conflict. The “red line” referred to by US President Barack Obama appears less clear now than when he initially spoke of it, due to a lack of information on the ‘who, where, what, when, and how much’ questions of the illegal chemical usage. Despite continued US reluctance to become actively involved in the Syrian conflict, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Russia’s Foreign Minister and with President Vladimir Putin. The two states finally agreed on convening an international conference to discuss a political resolution strategy for Syria, set to occur before the end of May. Russia has consistently supported the Assad regime, so the willingness to participate in this conference implies that chemical weapons have re-engaged them into diplomatic talks. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Secretary General Anders F. Rasmussen expressed his optimism that this conference is a step in the right direction. However, it is only the first step. As the process moves forward, NATO will continue to be concerned for its ally in the region, Turkey.

Canadian Concerns

Canada has taken on the same stance as its fellow NATO allies, expressing hope for a political solution while remaining on the sidelines of the conflict. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird argues that aiding the rebel forces is being too risky since “there isn’t one opposition, there are many; it gets awfully difficult at times to separate the good guys from the bad guys.” Despite this contention, Canadians have felt pressure to explore alternatives in alleviating the conflict. On May 7th, the House of Commons convened in an emergency meeting to discuss possibilities. The result was open ended; Canada will continue with humanitarian efforts while working with NATO and its allies to develop a political solution.

Re-Claiming International Law

On the surface, it appears as though not much has changed in the global response to the Syrian conflict. However, the usage of chemical weapons shifted the dynamics – whether the international community is prepared or not. The increased uncertainty indicates that a humanitarian response alone is inadequate and more assertive action is needed. Aid has been sent to Jordan and Turkey, both of which are under immense pressure from an influx of refugees from Syria. Now, responders have to take into account not only possible missile attacks on these refugee camps, but also the potential usage of other weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) such as chemical or biological weapons, not to mention the direct threat to civilians in Syria itself.

Considering Syria had “not signed onto the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) nor ratified the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC),” it has never made a formal declaration of its stock. This means that knowledge of Syria’s current nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) capabilities are unclear. The longer these remain variables, the more of a chance there is that actors in Syria will concern themselves with acquiring these weapons, potentially resulting in a chemical weapons arms race. This is not only a concern for actors in the Syrian conflict; in any region where nuclear capabilities are economically improbable, chemical and biological weapons could become a viable alternative.

With hope, the upcoming conference will result in Russian cooperation to pressure the Assad regime, at least on this front, so that UN chemical weapons inspectors can gain access into Syria and then gain control of the situation. If military intervention remains off the table for NATO, then they must utilize the conference to gain support from Russia on this particular matter. Changing any other aspect of Russia’s response to the current predicament in Syria seems unlikely, but harnessing support across political lines against chemical weapons is imperative if international law is to be upheld. How the international community chooses to react to the usage of chemical weapons in Syria will have an immeasurable impact on their future practice in conflicts. They need to ensure they remain banned, not only on paper, but in practice too.

Radha Patel
Radha Patel completed her BA at McGill University, with a double major in Political Science and World Religions and a minor in Politics, Law, and Society. Her areas of interest include international relations, comparative politics, and transitions to democracy. Radha is interested in learning about Canada’s role on the international stage and how it can be optimized to be more effective in its global endeavours. She was the Program Editor as well as a Research Analyst for the Emerging Securities Program at the NATO Association of Canada.