There is an exceptionally important international treaty, commonly referred to as the Geneva Protocol, that since 1928 has prohibited the first use of chemical and biological weapons. It was amended twice, in 1972 and 1993, to also ban the production, storage or transfer of such horrible weapons.
The treaty forbids the use of “asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices” as well as “bacteriological methods of warfare.”
In short, the Geneva Protocol bans exactly what Syria is accused of doing last week in its never-ending civil war. But for all the protocol’s prohibitions to be effective, every nation with the potential capacity to deploy such weapons would have to have signed the agreement.
Syria is among those that have refused to do so, and therefore the world today stands on the brink of a potentially major new war, the outcome of which cannot be predicted. For example, Iran has warned that it would retaliate on behalf of Syria, and it hinted strongly that Israel would be its preferred target.
Still, in this dicey situation, the United States must keep the focus on Syria’s stockpiling of vile weapons that even Syrian allies such as Russia should condemn.
There appears to be little doubt that, despite his government’s vigorous denials, the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad is responsible for last week’s deadly use of chemical weapons against his own people in the suburbs of Damascus, although there has been some speculation it was actually engineered by his notoriously brutal brother, Maher al-Assad, who is in charge of security.
The White House has said that although it is determined to punish Assad for using these forbidden weapons — in doing so, Syria crossed President Obama’s self-described “red line” — a change of regime is not among its objectives.
That’s because nobody in the West fully trusts those who are fighting to drive Assad out of office. There appears to be abundant evidence that not only have the rebels taken to fighting among themselves, they’ve been infiltrated on an alarming scale by jihadists sympathetic to al-Qaida.
A post-Assad Syria, therefore, might very well become far more of a threat to American interests than it is now. So far, there doesn’t appear to be any international consensus about how to resolve this knotty issue, although key international leaders agree that Assad must be “punished” for the use of chemical weapons.
But surely the most suitable punishment would be the one with the fewest negative consequences, or the fewest risks.
One possibility is to authorize the United Nations to seize and secure Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons, which otherwise could easily end up in the hands of terrorists.
Yes, navigating the processes that shape U.N. decisions is a high-risk endeavor, given the intransigence of Russia and China.
But if the focus is on getting rid of the poisonous weapons, not aiding the rebels, perhaps Russia and China would go along.
Ideally, Assad — fearing for his own future — would voluntarily give up the weapons and perhaps even belatedly sign on to the Geneva Protocol, something that would not end the war, and might even shore up his regime, but would get rid of weapons of mass destruction.
Taking the chemical weapons out of the equation would remove the threat of air strikes and other military action against Syrian targets by the United States, the United Kingdom and other nations determined to prevent further use of chemical weapons by Assad (or his brother). And it would avoid a possible — perhaps even probable — war between Israel and Iran.
Sadly, there appears small likelihood the intransigent Syrian dictator would ever consider such a sensible response.
Americans, weary of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, clearly don’t want to become entangled in yet another foreign conflict. But Assad has to recognize that if the United States does act, the outlook for his regime is bleak. Giving up his chemical weapons, which represent a global threat, would be the smart thing for him to do.