Part of Foreign Affairs Report: Syria in Crisis

No Strike, No Problem

The Right Way to Nurture a Norm

Improvised mortar shells inside a box at a weapons factory in Aleppo, September 4, 2013.
Improvised mortar shells inside a box at a weapons factory in Aleppo, September 4, 2013. (Hamid Khatib / Courtesy Reuters)

With his well-meaning effort to draw a red line around the use of chemical weapons, U.S. President Barack Obama seems to have painted himself into a corner in Syria. The wisdom of making public threats can certainly be questioned (contrast Obama’s public pronouncement to Secretary of State James Baker’s private warning on the eve of the Gulf War that Saddam Hussein should not use chemical weapons, which was ultimately successful). But the same goes for the oft-proclaimed need to follow up on public threats to protect credibility. Whether credibility matters forms the crux of the current debate about U.S. involvement in Syria -- an issue that’s almost beside the point if the official U.S. goal is to uphold the international taboo on chemical weapons use. What’s really at stake is whether there is legal precedent for such an attack (no); whether attacking could do more harm than good, including to international law (it might); and whether that taboo would weaken if the United States doesn’t attack Syria (perhaps not).

ILLEGAL AND LEGITIMATE

If U.S. claims are correct, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has violated the near-universally accepted international norm against using chemical weapons. Although Syria is not a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, it is a party to the Geneva Protocol of 1925. That protocol forbids its signatories to use asphyxiating gas on one another (without explicitly banning its use against a non-party) although, at the same time, demands its members’ consent that the prohibition on asphyxiating gases be universally binding. Unfortunately, the protocol contains no mention of how its provisions might be enforced. (This is not unusual for a treaty of that time, particularly one relating to disarmament.) Enforcement decisions are made by the UN Security Council, which must determine whether Syria’s infraction constitutes a threat to international peace and security. If it does, the Security Council must also specify the appropriate response. Possible measures include rhetorical condemnation; calls for Syria to join the Chemical Weapons Convention (a stricter agreement banning even the possession of chemical weapons); and sanctions, ranging from an arms embargo to economic and diplomatic restrictions.

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