The civil war between the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and rebel forces entered an ominous phase with the chemical weapons attack on August 21, which targeted a rebel-held suburb of Damascus that killed hundreds of civilians. Evidence apparently points to the attack coming from the al-Assad regime, and anyway it would be counterproductive for the rebels to use chemical weapons against civilians sheltering rebel fighters in a bid to frame the al-Assad government. The attack violates international norms against the deployment of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), to which chemical weapons belong.
Responsibility to Protect as Justification for Intervention
While Syria is not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993 which prohibits the production and use of chemical weapons, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), a UN initiative from 2005, places the onus on all states to protect their citizens from mass atrocities. If any state should perpetrate such crimes against its own people, the international community has the responsibility under R2P to coercively intervene, using military action as a final resort.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Since the al-Assad regime has allegedly employed chemical weapons against rebel forces in March, June and early August, the latest chemical attack on August 21 establishes the Syrian government as a perpetrator of war crimes and mass atrocities, warranting military action to deter it from future chemical weapons usage.
However, to bestow legitimacy on any military intervention, it is necessary to pass a resolution invoking chapter VII of the UN charter through the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), such that the council could declare Syria’s use of chemical weapons to be a breach of international peace and an act of aggression requiring a military response. Indeed, the U.K., supported by the U.S., tabled such a draft resolution before the UNSC on August 28.
Realpolitik Undermines UNSC Efficacy
But despite the moral obligation of all permanent members of the UNSC (as permanent UNSC members, France, Britain, Russia, China and the U.S. have individual veto power) to either approve or abstain from the aforementioned resolution so that chemical weapons use can be punished and global norms against WMDs reinforced, both China and Russia have rejected the draft resolution.
From Beijing’s perspective, it stands to make serious economic losses if force against Damascus is authorized, given that China exports more than US$2 billion to Syria annually, has a substantial stake in Syria’s oil sector and is contracted to build electrical and commercial infrastructure for Damascus. As for Russia, Syria helps Moscow maintain a naval presence in the Mediterranean by leasing the port at Tartus to the Russian navy and is a buyer of Russian military hardware. Hence, realpolitik concerns in the form of both economic and strategic interests drive Chinese and Russian foreign policy towards Syria, with international norms against chemical weapons or WMD use being shunted aside.
Consequently, the overriding focus on power politics driven by national interest condemns the UNSC to irrelevance as major decisions against belligerent states or in support of victimized nations can only be implemented if the bellicose party has no allies amongst the UNSC “permanent five” or assistance to wronged countries does not hobble the interests of the five permanent council members. International pariahs pursuing nuclear arms like North Korea or suppressing rebellions using chemical weapons like Syria can flout global norms based WMD prohibitions by having friends in high places.
Even though international norms against the acquisition and use of WMDs including chemical, nuclear and biological weapons are firmly in place, rogue states around the globe will still endeavor to obtain such “mass atrocity” weapons and, as seen in Syria’s case, use such weapons for counterinsurgency purposes whilst hoping to escape the consequences of R2P violation.
It is extremely regrettable that great powers like China and Russia cannot see beyond their economic and strategic realpolitik noses, choosing instead to neglect their principled obligations to punish WMD development and more critically, use. Ironically, it is in their long-term security interest to clamp down on WMDs because the latter’s proliferation could well result in blowback to those permanent UNSC members who previously backed international pariahs like Syria. It is not inconceivable that WMD technology from these parties could find their way into terrorist hands and eventually be used to attack Russian or Chinese interests and nationals.
Nah Liang Tuang is an Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.