SMALL STATES - Check out our new series on multilateralism and small states →

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


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.”

PassBlue Related Articles
You might be interested in these posts.
[display-posts taxonomy="category" tax_term="current" orderby="date" posts_per_page="3" wrapper="ul" content_class="pb-inpost-list" wrapper_class="pb-inpost-layout" exclude_current="true"]

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 is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.

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. 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 Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

We would love your thoughts. Please comment:

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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

1 Comment
Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
5 years ago

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.

Related Posts


Global Connections Television - The only talk show of its kind in the world
Democracy needs news. News needs you. Give now.

Subscribe to PassBlue


Don't miss a story

Subscribe now to send the smartest news

on the UN directly to your inbox.

Stay informed, stay connected!

We respect your privacy and take protecting it seriously