• Confronting Possible Gas Attacks in Syria, the UN Security Council Succumbs to Chaos

    by  • April 13, 2018 • Disarmament, Geopolitics, Middle East, Peace and Security, Secretary-General, Security Council, US Foreign Relations • 1 Comment

    Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s chief diplomat to the UN, on April 9, 2018, the first of many meetings during the week in the Security Council to confront the recent alleged gas attack in Syria and to respond to retaliatory military threats by America. To his left are diplomats from Sweden, the United States and Britain. MARK GARTEN/UN PHOTO

    In a week of reversals, semireversals and blatant backtracking by some of the most powerful countries on earth, diplomacy showed its head-spinning underside in the United Nations Security Council, as three Western allies — Britain, France and the United States — conveyed their outrage against Russia for its perceived role in allowing the Syrian government to unleash fatal chemical weapons on its own people. Russia reacted in kind against the Westerners, spreading invective all around.

    The drama began on Monday, April 9, as the Council responded to the alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma on the previous weekend, in which dozens of people were reported killed and many more were wounded. (Tallies vary from 40 to 85 dead.) The insults hurled toward Russia and from Russia to the US and its allies lasted all week in Council “emergency” sessions on the topic. The lashing-out culminated on Friday, as threats by America to launch an armed assault on Syria boiled on Monday but simmered down with each passing day.

    After the early-in-the-week tweeting of “bellicose rhetoric” from Donald Trump, as the Russian ambassador to the UN put it, the Council met almost daily to find a diplomatic route, however narrow, to confront the alleged use of chemical weapons, a violation of international law and a war crime, as France said.

    Trump’s tweets on Sunday stoked the hysteria for the week, as he warned that there would be a “big price to pay” for the use of toxins in Douma. Days later, after it was clear he had “tipped his hand,” as Susan Rice, the former US secretary of state said, he tweeted that a military strike “Could be very soon or not so soon at all!” [In the late evening of April 13, the US announced its intentions to launch missiles into Syria.]

    Amid the backdrop of a looming aerial bombardment by the US and its allies on Syria, the Council met on April 9 to hear briefings from UN experts describing what they knew — and couldn’t verify — about the April 7 attack. They said they had gotten reports from nongovernmental organizations having received “hundreds” of cases of people exposed to chemical weapons.

    Quickly, Nikki Haley, the US envoy to the UN, accused the Syrian government and its “monster,” President Bashar al-Assad, of launching the toxins in Douma, in a rebel-held enclave near Damascus.

    France, which has showed the most regret among Council members for the demise, in November 2017, of the UN’s independent accountability mechanism to investigate chemical weapons’ use in Syria, called the Douma act a form of “state terror.”

    At the same time, Britain told the Council that all “options” were on the table in the country’s response to the Douma attack but an inquiry was necessary. On the other side of the fence, Russia called the military threats by Trump “very very dangerous” — for the world — as the ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, contended that no chemical weapons attack had occurred.

    Symbolizing how chaotic, impulsive and enraged the three countries of the West and Russia reacted in language and other posturing to the attack, the Council met the next day to vote on three draft resolutions that were all swatted down during an afternoon of often-angry speeches by members. Yet some elected members, from Equatorial Guinea to the Ivory Coast, from Kazakhstan to the Netherlands, tried to make the center hold, asking for calm on all fronts.

    One draft was proposed by the US and the other two by Russia. All drafts reacted to the Douma attack by degrees: the US and many other countries wanted not just an independent investigation but to ascribe blame, similar to the Joint Investigative Mechanism, or JIM, which collapsed because of a Russia veto.

    Such a new tool could enable, under the best of circumstances, a referral to the International Criminal Court or other tribunal to prosecute the perpetrators. But Russia has refused to vote yes for such a mandate to go ahead, to protect its Syrian ally, some governments suggest, and to avoid appearing complicit in a war crime.

    The other drafts veered from assigning blame to seeking authorization for an independent inquiry and authorizing an impartial body, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, or OPCW, to travel to Syria to determine what chemical weapons were deployed, if any. The third version would have asked OPCW investigators to ascribe blame but let the Council approve the results, a censoring choice.

    Meanwhile, the White House, the State Department and other US agencies held conversations with US allies, including Theresa May of Britain, Emmanuel Macron of France and Angela Merkel of Germany, but the results appeared to be unspecific. As the State Department said on April 10, “We are looking for a coordinated response, whatever that response might be, to the situation in Syria.”

    The OPCW has since dispatched investigators to Douma to gather evidence, which with each minute can vanish literally into the air. The US State Department said the Douma incident was “the ninth attack using some sort of chemical substance this year alone,” adding that “it used to be that when attacks would take place the world would stand up and take attention and it has become, in the view of the U.S. Government and many others as well, far too common.

    “So I think it’s taken the world to stand up and say this is unacceptable; this is horrific, and we can’t stand for this anymore.”

    By April 12, Western calls for military actions on Syrian territory de-escalated and even incorporated reason in considering how a strike could worsen the problem for Syrians. The threats were also leavened with another Cold War reality: Russia saying it would shoot down any unwanted warplanes over Syrian territory.

    The Security Council’s voices against an attack by the US became more vociferous, too. Bolivia, an elected member, requested a closed meeting, backed by Russia, to address the “recent escalation of rhetoric regarding Syria and the threat of the use of unilateral actions.”

    The meeting went nowhere despite some original good intentions. Sweden, for example, probably the most experienced mediator in the Council, proposed a “high-level mission on disarmament” to come to grips with the chemical weapons stockpiling in Syria.

    But the US and Russia would hear none of it Thursday afternoon. As one diplomat said, using an African metaphor, “When two elephants fight, the grass suffers.”

    By Friday the 13th, the ill will quieted down in the Council as it met in another emergency session — this time openly and requested by Russia — on the illegality of the US going to war in Syria.

    Russia had wanted António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, to speak at the meeting. But symbolizing more ambivalence of the week, Guterres said the day before he wouldn’t attend: No, he told PassBlue when he was asked about it in a UN hallway, although by Friday he was there.

    His remarks traveled across the spectrum of the Middle East’s worst problems, from the Palestine-Israel confrontations in Gaza to the sorrowful scale of suffering in the Yemen war. He left no doubt, however, about the source of upheaval, saying, “Syria indeed today represents the most serious threat to international peace and security.”

    By Friday, Russia seemed more willing to admit that a gas attack had even happened in Douma, conceding, “We trust OPCW produces an independent probe,” Nebenzia said.

    Later, as he headed out of the UN, Nebenzia was asked what the Western allies have been wondering all along, which is, Why does Russia still support Assad?

    “We don’t support Assad,” Nebenzia said. “We support a sovereign nation.”

    [Editor’s note: The Council met on April 14 as well to vote on a draft resolution condemning the Western allies’ airstrikes in Syria; the resolution failed to pass.]

    Dulcie Leimbach


    Dulcie Leimbach was a fellow of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at the Graduate Center of CUNY from 2012 to 2017. She is the founder of PassBlue, for which she edits and writes, covering primarily the United Nations, West Africa, peacekeeping operations and women's issues. For PassBlue and other publications, she has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal) as well as from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio and Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles.

    Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA, where she edited its flagship magazine, The InterDependent, and migrated it online in 2010. She was also the senior editor of UNA's annual book, "A Global Agenda: Issues Before the UN." She has also worked as an editorial consultant to various UN agencies.

    Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Colorado, graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver before she worked in New York at Esquire magazine and Adweek. In between, she was a Wall Street foreign-exchange dealer. Leimbach has been a fellow at Yaddo, the artists' colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and was a guest lecturer at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She grew up mostly in Oyster Bay and Huntington, Long Island, where her family moved a dozen times, ending up in Santa Barbara, Calif. Her first exposure to the UN was at age 8, on a summer Sunday visit with her mother and sisters, where she was awed by the gift shop. Leimbach now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

    One Response to Confronting Possible Gas Attacks in Syria, the UN Security Council Succumbs to Chaos

    1. PassBlue
      April 19, 2018 at 12:19 pm

      Syria: Is this how you want international affairs to be conducted now?
      by Rene Wadlow
      2018-04-15 06:12:37

      In the emergency U.N. Security Council meeting called by Russia on 14
      April 2018, the Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia asked of the
      representatives of the USA, France and the UK “Is this how you want
      international affairs to be conducted now?” He was referring to the
      coordinated air strikes of the USA, France and the UK aimed at targets
      associated with Syrian chemical weapons programs.*

      The use of violence as an instrument of world politics is not a new idea as
      the Ambassador may know if he reflects on Russian history. But Russian
      history may also remind him that it was a diplomat of the Czar who
      suggested the first Hague Peace Conference and its efforts to limit the
      means used in war. The 1925 Geneva Protocol is a direct outgrowth of the
      “Hague spirit.”

      [image: syrwar01_400]A suspected chemical-weapon attack on 7 April 2018 on
      rebel-held Douma, a city of some 130,000 near Damascus had killed at least
      50 people and sickened hundreds more. The attack may have been of
      weaponized chlorine and nerve agents possibly sarin. The Assad government
      has been accused of using chemical weapons before – charges which the
      government has denied saying that chemical arms were used by rebel factions
      such as Jash al Islam.

      A major issue is that the use of chemical weapons, probably sarin or a
      sarin-like substance is in violation of the 1925 Geneva Protocol for the
      Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases,
      and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare of which Syria is a party, among
      the 135 governments which have signed. The attack was also a violation of
      the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production,
      Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction which came
      into force in 1997. The Convention created The Hague-based Organization
      for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Syria signed the
      Convention in 2013 as part of a compromise decision to have its
      chemical-weapon stock destroyed.

      The use of poison gas strikes deep, partly subconscious, reactions not
      provoked in the same way as seeing someone shot by a machine gun. The
      classic Greeks and Romans had a prohibition against the use of poison in
      war, especially poisoning water wells because everyone needs to drink.
      poison gas is abhorred because everyone needs to breath.

      There is a real danger that the Geneva Protocol of 1925, one of the oldest
      norms of humanitarian international law will be undermined and the use of
      chemical weapons “normalized”. The Organization for the Prohibition of
      Chemical Weapons is already investigating the use of chemical weapons in
      seven other locations in Syria and new inspectors arrived in Syria on 13

      Chemical weapons have been used in armed conflicts in the Middle East
      before. Although Egypt had signed the 1925 Geneva Protocol, Egyptian
      forces used chemical weapons widely in their support of the republican
      forces in the Yemen Civil War (1962-1967) with very few international
      outcries. As a result of the lack of any sanctions against Egypt, Syria
      requested Egyptian technical assistance in developing its own chemical
      weapons capabilities shortly after 1967 – well before the al-Assad dynasty
      came to power.

      Humanitarian international law is largely based on self-imposed
      restraints.Humanitarian international law creates an obligation to maintain
      the protection of all non-combatants caught in the midst of violent
      conflicts as set out in the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional
      Protocols of 1977. Moreover, there is an urgent need to focus special
      attention on the plight of children. They are the least responsible for
      the conflict and yet are most vulnerable. They need special protection. The
      norms to protect children in armed conflicts are set out clearly in the
      Additional Protocols which has 25 articles specifically pertaining to
      children. The norms are also clearly stated in the Convention on the
      Rights of the Child, the most universally ratified international treaty. The
      Convention calls for the protection of the child’s right to life,
      education, health and other fundamental needs. These provisions apply
      equally in times of armed conflict and in times of peace.

      As with the use of weapons prohibited by international treaty: chemical
      weapons, land mines, cluster munitions, the protection of children must be
      embodied in local values and practice. The classic Chinese philosopher
      Mencius, in maintaining that humans were basically good, used the example
      of a child about to fall into a well who would be saved by anyone
      regardless of status or education.

      [image: wc00]The Association of World Citizens has called for a United
      Nations-led conference on the re-affirmation of humanitarian, international
      law. There needs to be a world-wide effort on the part of governments and
      non-governmental organizations to re-affirm humanitarian values and the
      international treaties which make them governmental obligations.

      Limiting the use of chemical weapons or other banned weapons such as land
      mines and cluster munitions is only part of what is required. There needs
      to be negotiations in good faith to put an end to the armed conflict. The
      Association of World Citizens has called for good-faith negotiations among
      all the parties from the start of what was at first non-violent
      demonstrations in March 2011. Neither the Government nor the opposition
      were willing to set an agenda or a timetable for good-faith negotiations.
      The Government held out vague promises for reform but without giving
      details and without open discussion among those concerned. As the fighting
      has escalated, the possibility of good-faith negotiations has increasingly
      faded despite efforts by the U.N. mediators to facilitate such negotiations.

      The situation has become increasingly complex as new actors play
      increasingly active roles. The entry of Turkish forces and their Syrian
      allies into the city of Afrim after two months of fighting in the area of
      this largely Kurdish-populated city on the frontier with Turkey. It is
      impossible to know if this is a limited show-of-force or the first steps of
      a broader anti-Kurdish policy in northern Syria.

      There is a growing awareness that there is a dangerous stalemate and that
      there is no military “solution”. It is often at this “stalemate” stage of a
      conflict that parties turn to a negotiated compromise. (1) The dangers of a
      wider conflict with more States involved are real. Thus the situation
      requires careful concerted action both on the part of governments and
      non-governmental organizations.

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