Civil society must stop the use of chemical weapons being used as a pretext for US-led bombing in Syria. A gendered understanding demonstrates that the only sustainable strategy is to pursue disarmament and strengthen international humanitarian law.
Before the poison gas attacks killed families in a Damascus suburb last week, Syria upheld its right to retain chemical weapons as a counterweight to nuclear arsenals held by the US and Israel. Syria therefore refused to sign theÂ Chemical Weapons ConventionÂ (CWC), one of only a handful of states to reject this multilateral treaty. Before the CWC was opened for signature in 1993, many countries had been producing and stockpiling these inhumane weapons, viewing them as legal. They were even given legitimacy as the â€œpoor manâ€™s deterrentâ€. The gendered comparison with nuclear weapons is chillingly revealing.Â Now a state outside the CWC has used poison gas weapons banned by the treaty. The humanitarian consequences have been appalling, but should not be used as a pretext for the UK or others to intervene with bombs of our own.
We have to look carefully at what caused this chemical attack, and consider how best to demonstrate international revulsion, prevent further attacks, and recognise the consequences of UK policy responses for other conflicts and weapons. The case for establishing a zone free of nuclear and all otherÂ weapons of mass destructionÂ (WMD) in the Middle East, as repeatedly proposed by the League of Arab States and supported by the United Nations andÂ Non-Proliferation TreatyÂ (NPT) members, including Syria, is stronger than ever. Even before this regional zone is achieved, Syria and the remaining hold-outs must accede to the CWC now. This treaty, the UN and the International Criminal Court can already provide the tools to identify the criminals â€“ whether state or non-state â€“ compile the necessary evidence and bring the perpetrators to justice. This would reinforce international law and do far more to deter further uses and promote political solutions than the airstrikes that are being demanded by gung ho advocates in the US, UK and France.
Syriaâ€™s arguments for retaining its chemical arsenal uncomfortably echo British government arguments for replacing Trident and refusing to join multilateral efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons. David Cameronâ€™s public pronouncements on the Syrian gas attacks have veered between sanctimoniously claiming that US-UK military actions are required to â€œpunishâ€ Bashar al-Assadâ€™s government and pontificating that military strikes will â€œdeterâ€ future chemical weapons use. How is this supposed to work? Who do they plan to target? The US and UK claim (but havenâ€™t produced) evidence that the Assad regime is responsible for crossing the â€œred lineâ€ that President Obama set two years ago. Assadâ€™s spokespeople point the finger at opposition groups, arguing that the red-line threat provided unscrupulous terrorists with the incentive to stage a chemical attack to bring the US military into the war. We donâ€™t yet know for certain what was used and who ordered and carried out this crime against humanity. For that reason alone the rush to military action is wrong-headed. But letâ€™s look more closely at why some group or faction in the Syrian war apparently thought that using chemical weapons would bring military or strategic gains. The perpetrators â€“ on behalf of the government or the opposition â€“ were certainly not deterred by red lines or military threats; these may even have backfired and provided unintended motivations for gassing thousands of civilians, including children who had been asleep in their beds.
If given adequate time and access, the UN inspectors should be able to ascertain whether chemical weapons were used, and whether these were consistent with what is known of Syriaâ€™s existing stockpile, or if the horrifying scenes had been caused by cruder â€œhome-madeâ€ weapons. Why, then are our governments pushing for military action before the UN evidence has been properly gathered and assessed, repeating the mistakes they made with Iraq in 2003?
We can stop them from bombing Syria, but it will take more effective civil society and political pressure in our countries and from the rest of the world. If chemical weapons have been used, the international community must act. The key issue is how, and with what objectives?
The desire to â€œdo somethingâ€ can best be answered through international law, not more weapons. The CWC is the legal basis for the UN being able to send inspectors to investigate the poison gas attacks, and it is also the basis for the legal recognition that using chemical weapons is a war crime and a crime against humanity. The CWC entered into force in 1997 and has over 185 States Parties. It prohibits a state from using chemical weapons or engaging in military preparations to use such weapons. It makes it illegal for governments to â€œdevelop, produce, otherwise acquire, stockpile, or retain chemical weapons, or transfer, directly or indirectly, chemical weapons to anyoneâ€, and also extends to making it illegal to promote or assist in any prohibited action, whether perpetrated by individuals, groups, or another State.
Though Syria has refused to sign it, the CWCâ€™s universal ban on the production, use and stockpiling of chemical weapons is applicable because it has become an integral part of international law. This does not provide justification for retaliation or punishment bombings from Western governments; it provides the basis for a process to identify the perpetrators and their suppliers and bring them to justice. Bombing would â€œpunishâ€ innocent Syrian civilians. A well-enacted judicial process will punish only those actually responsible for these crimes against humanity.
Treaties cannot prevent every possible violation, as the Syrian case shows, but they have a very important role in delegitimising the weapons, minimising their numbers and availability, and providing legal tools for dealing with perpetrators and preventing future uses. Before the CWC there were large stockpiles of chemical weapons in over 20 states. The CWC built a strong disarmament regime and stopped chemical weaponry being treated as a deterrent or currency of power. All the major stocks have been or are in the process of being eliminated. Abhorrent as it was, the Syrian attacks should not be portrayed as a failure of the CWC, but as an aberration that proves the treatyâ€™s worth. If Syria had joined the CWC it would have destroyed its chemical weapon stocks. That wouldnâ€™t have prevented the current war, but it would have greatly reduced access, motivation and incentive for using chemical weapons, since by no stretch of strategic imagination could they be thought to bring military advantage.
Efforts to rid the Middle East of all WMD have been impeded by US, UK and French policies with regard to their own and Israelâ€™s nuclear weapons, which have fed into Syrian narratives justifying its chemical arsenal. The US also has to take some responsibility for inadvertently elevating the importance of Syriaâ€™s chemical weapons with its inept deterrent strategy of declaring that it would get involved in the war if that red line were crossed. These governments â€“ along with Russia and others â€“ must also bear some responsibility for equipping Syria â€“ and most other unsavoury regimes â€“ with far too many weapons systems in the past, including precursors and delivery equipment for chemical arms. During the Cold War and in the 25 years since, these countries have started wars and become embroiled in othersâ€™ conflicts through the hubristic arrogance of weak and ideological leaders, degrading their own nationsâ€™ security (and economies) as a result. David Cameronâ€™s speech in the House of Commons evokes Tony Blairâ€™s mistakes, but clearly hasnâ€™t learned the lessons. Barack Obama wanted to change Americaâ€™s role and reputation, but will be vilified alongside George W. Bush if he now compounds the chemical weapons crime with bloody strikes of his own.
Even if the chemical weapons users were identified with irrefutable certainty, punishment attacks areÂ contrary toÂ international law; and since the red line threat didnâ€™t deter, what makes anyone imagine that Western military strikes will do a better job? With or without the fog of war, the complexities of international relations ensure that operations and communications intended to deter all too often miss their mark. So do weapons. Â Yet militarism has become so ingrained in patriarchal politics, that no matter how often it fails, this is still the male primate response when called on to â€œdo somethingâ€. Airstrikes would only make things worse for the Syrian people. Itâ€™s time to try something different.
The Syrian war has not arisen overnight or in a vacuum.
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