Sign­ing up must mean some­thing

The Guardian Weekly - - Comment & Debate -

In 2013 Barack Obama made a bar­gain with Syria’s pres­i­dent, Bashar al-As­sad, bro­kered by Rus­sia, the lat­ter’s ally. The United States with­drew its threat to at­tack Mr As­sad’s regime for us­ing sarin against Syr­i­ans in Da­m­as­cus that sum­mer. Hun­dreds died in the dead­li­est use of chem­i­cal weapons since the Iran–Iraq war. Mr As­sad de­nied he had used such weapons, but in re­turn for US re­straint his regime agreed to dis­man­tle its chem­i­cal weapons pro­gramme. Much of the coun­try’s banned sub­stances were thought to have been de­stroyed, and Syria joined the treaty against their use.

But Mr As­sad has made a mock­ery of the agree­ment. Syria’s civil war, now in its sev­enth year, has been wreathed in toxic fumes. Ex­perts from the UN and the chem­i­cal weapons watch­dog said the Syr­ian regime has used he­li­copters to dump chlo­rine gas on op­po­nents. Chlo­rine is not a banned sub­stance, since it has com­mer­cial uses, but its use as a weapon is. The watch­dog last year said Mr As­sad’s forces also used sarin gas, a nerve agent. There have been an es­ti­mated score or more of in­ci­dents of chem­i­cal weapons use since then.

These are heinous crimes. It’s not that these weapons kill on any wider scale than heavy ar­tillery does, but that they kill in a very cruel way. The use of chem­i­cal weapons amounts to of­fi­cial ter­ror­ism, cor­rupt­ing fur­ther a cor­rupt regime. Mr As­sad does not care; it has been ef­fec­tive, even in smaller doses than the 2013 at­tack, to evict in­sur­gents from their sanc­tu­ar­ies, forc­ing them to keep mov­ing and mak­ing it harder to re­group.

Mr As­sad has been al­lowed to act with mur­der­ous im­punity be­cause of his back­ers in Moscow. Rus­sia has ve­toed crit­i­cal res­o­lu­tions at the UN se­cu­rity coun­cil. In an at­tempt to de­ter Mr As­sad from us­ing chem­i­cal weapons again, the US, France and the UK last week­end took mil­i­tary ac­tion.

Vladimir Putin’s Rus­sia has largely fallen out of love with arms con­trol, see­ing the rules-based or­der as a way of re­duc­ing its in­flu­ence and stature in the world. Moscow wants Rus­sia’s power to re­flect its gi­gan­tic ge­og­ra­phy rather than its puny econ­omy and al­most nonex­is­tent po­lit­i­cal mag­netism. Rus­sia is sim­i­lar to North Korea and Iran in seek­ing strength through hav­ing ad­ver­saries. But in elic­it­ing global con­dem­na­tion they achieve weak­ness.

The only way to bring back rogue na­tions into com­pli­ance will be through re-es­tab­lish­ing the fun­da­men­tal premise of why arms con­trol agree­ments ex­ist. Coun­tries enter into them not for the sake of moral prin­ci­ple but be­cause they help to set up the rules for mil­i­tary strat­egy. Key to this is de­vel­op­ing ways to avoid war, min­imis­ing the com­pe­ti­tion be­tween mil­i­tary pow­ers, and cur­tail­ing the scope of vi­o­lence. In Syria, the Rus­sians and Ira­ni­ans have lost sight of these things. Mil­i­tary ac­tion with­out par­lia­men­tary scru­tiny, such as that seen last week­end, will not help. What will is es­tab­lish­ing a wider cost for such aw­ful be­hav­iour.

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