Syria After the Chemical Weapons “Red Line”

This week, the Syrian Arab Republic accedes to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). With weapons inspectors already in country beginning their work to destroy President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical arsenal, Syria’s ascension to the CWC is a victory for diplomacy, the campaign against chemical weapons, and international law. Last week, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the body monitoring compliance with the CWC and currently working to dismantle Syria’s weapons, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. 

The tension over Syria’s chemical weapons began over a year ago. Last July, Syria publicly confirmed the country’s chemical stockpile. Following the announcement, President Barack Obama warned that Syria’s use of chemical weapons in its civil war would be a “red line” that would be met with “enormous consequences.” Subsequent reports of chemical weapons attacks in Syria increased international pressure for a formal investigation and possible military intervention. In light of the mounting tension, President Assad agreed to a Russian proposal to submit its chemical weapons to international monitoring and eventual destruction. The destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons is remarkable progress, yet should not obscure the country’s ongoing humanitarian crisis and international crimes committed with conventional weapons. The international community should continue to pressure Syria to comply with the Geneva Conventions and consider ICC referral if atrocities continue.

In an essay published this week in UCLA Law Review Discourse entitled, “A Legal ‘Red Line’? Syria and the Use of Chemical Weapons in Civil Conflict,” we analyze the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons under international law. We find that while chemical weapons are firmly banned in international armed conflict, the prohibition is less clear in noninternational armed conflict. We also argue that the use of chemical weapons in Syria does not, by itself, cross a legal “red line” that would justify military intervention. The situation in Syria highlights the legal complexities of chemical weapons use in a civil conflict and the need for reform. States should ratify a 2010 amendment to the Rome Statute that would make chemical weapons use illegal in all conflicts and also allow for ICC prosecution of individuals who carry out chemical weapons attacks in civil war. The international community should also remain committed to the prevention of international crimes and resolution to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria.

The final version of the essay can be downloaded here.

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