After Khan Sheikhoun, “War Crimes” Might Have No Meaning

Posted April 4th, 2017 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing


[Published at The Century Foundation.]

The latest chemical weapon attack in Syria assaults the most foundational values of our international order just as surely as it shocks the conscience. The attack on Khan Sheikhoun on April 4 bears the hallmarks of previous regime attacks; it will take time to fully assess the evidence, but there is already a powerful body of evidence implicating Syria’s government in the strike.

What does “never again” mean if one of the most closely watched dictators in the world can repeatedly get away with violating a global ban on chemical weapons in a scorched-earth campaign against the last holdouts resisting his abusive regime?

How are we in the future to rely on the delicate web of international institutions erected after World War II, on matters of core concern to humanity (and for that matter, to U.S. interests), if we allow those institutions to be gutted by a coalition of autocrats willing to brazenly test the resolve of a Western-dominated international order?

There are plenty of painful matters to unpack as a result of the apparent regime attack on Khan Sheikhoun, which will take its place in the long catalogue of horrors that is Syria’s civil war.

Some questions concern Syria, and its likely future under Bashar al-Assad, the country’s newly confident hereditary ruler. What kind of daily atrocities can Syrians expect from a ruler who, as he arcs toward victory, demonstrates such rapacious thirst not for reconciliation but for vengeance against civilians?

Other questions affect the entire global community of nations: What meaning remains in international humanitarian law—the laws of war—that are supposed to govern what weapons belligerents can use, how they choose their targets, and how they can treat their  prisoners of war? Such laws are often observed in the breach, but we are testing the limits of how often war crimes can be committed without rendering the whole concept terminally abstract.

After World War II, even powerful nations understood they had a stake in limiting the horror of total war; after all, they had all just experienced its extremes—and most understood they had committed some atrocities as well as suffering at enemy hands. The Geneva Conventions of 1864 were the first laws governing warfare, but international momentum really coalesced with the Geneva Conventions of 1949. From this shared understanding—and not from some spirit of altruism—were born a new set of norms: No genocide, no chemical weapons, no torture of prisoners of war, no completely indiscriminate bombing.

Of course, since the end of World War II, these norms have been tested and transgressed, at times by the United States. But the mutual agreements survive because they have given rise to an extensive web of laws, treaties, and institutions, and because even powerful nations that occasionally abuse those laws tend to do so while claiming to uphold them—a surprisingly effective way of propping up even a partially observed norm.

Tests of international will took on a new and more toxic form in Syria’s civil war. Assad’s use of chemical weapons ultimately strengthened his regime’s standing rather than turning it into a pariah. His temerity and the feckless international response, together, strike a body blow against an international consensus that was already weakened by the excesses of the American-led global war on terror after 9/11.

The first step came in August 2013, when Assad killed more than a thousand civilians in a nerve gas strike on the Damascus suburbs. It was the one move that risked punitive strikes against the regime, or potentially more broadly, bringing the United States fully into the war on the side of the rebels. Assad risked it anyway. American airstrikes on Damascus appeared imminent until a surprise eleventh-hour agreement was reached to dismantle Syria’s entire chemical weapons stockpile. Russia and the United States brokered the deal, and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (one of those all-important international organizations upon which we depend for what rule of law persists in the global order) oversaw its implementation.

But the deal faltered after the first year, in a painfully chronicled failure. In documented attacks since 2013 it appears that Assad’s forces have used chlorine, which is not listed in the Chemical Weapons Convention. If sarin or a similar nerve agent was used in the Khan Sheikhoun attack, it would represent a significant shift.

Today, American foreign policy aims for transactional, whitewashing failed governance and human rights abuses if dictators are willing to cooperate on counterterrorism.

The strike in Khan Sheikhoun, if it is eventually proven to be a regime act, will mark the second brazen contravention of international norms—and this time, it comes at a moment when Bashar al-Assad already appears on the cusp of obtaining most of what he seeks from his erstwhile enemies, potentially prevailing against long odds. Why risk that imminent victory and possibly turn a President Trump who appears predisposed to deal with Damascus against Assad?

We might never know the motive for the gas attack, but its impact will be clear. The countries that have voiced opposition to Assad will now have to consider whether to match actions to their words. And Russia and China, the most powerful countries that sympathize with the transactional dog-eat-dog view of international relations, will have to decide whether to exercise their United Nations Security Council vetoes to limit any response to Khan Sheikhoun.

Unless the unlikely occurs and a sizable portion of the international community stands against the outrage, we’ll be another step closer to an international order without order, a world of war where there’s no longer any such thing as a war crime.

What Could Possibly Motivate a Chemical-Weapons Attack?

Posted April 4th, 2017 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

A picture taken on April 4, 2017 shows destruction at a hospital in Khan Sheikhun, a rebel-held town in the northwestern Syrian Idlib province, following a suspected toxic gas attack.
Omar Haj Kadour / AFP / Getty

[Published in The Atlantic.]

BEIRUT—The horrifying reports of the latest war crime in Syria, which the Assad regime has been accused of carrying out—another apparent nerve gas attack against civilians, including children, this time in Idlib—manage, somehow, to shock us even after years of outrages that have dulled our sensibilities.

At present, U.S. intelligence officials say the attack has the “fingerprints” of an Assad regime strike. In a statement on Tuesday, President Donald Trump directly condemned Assad for the attack, but suggested that President Barack Obama’s weakness set the stage for the continuing use of chemical weapons in Syria. “Today’s chemical attack in Syria against innocent people, including women and children, is reprehensible and cannot be ignored. … These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution,” the statement read.

None of this answers the central question of motive, which remains as much a mystery today as it was after the 2013 nerve gas attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. There are a few clues, however. Some can, indeed, be found in Obama’s hasty retreat from his red line on chemical weapons. Another can be found in Trump’s warm words for Egyptian dictator Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, uttered on Monday at the White House during the official debut of a new, unabashedly transactional foreign policy that marginalizes issues of human rights and governance.

This is not to suggest a causal link between Trump’s bear hug of Sisi and the attack the following day on one of the last persistent rebel holdouts in Syria—the Ghouta attack took place after Obama explicitly threatened retaliation for such a thing, after all. But the brazenness and horror of the attack suggest a gutting of the very heart of foundational international norms. Whether intentional or not—and it might well be a calculated move—this attack marks a second frontal assault on global norms against chemical warfare, along with the international institutions that undergird that ban.

The first challenge, the Ghouta chemical attack in August 2013, was sadly successful. It put to rest any notion that the U.S.-led international order was willing to enforce its red lines, even one as globally important as the taboo against chemical weapons, which grew out of universal horror at the gas attacks on the trenches during World War I. Obama’s red line, and the flawed deal that followed that dismantled most but not all of Assad’s chemical weapons capacity, taught Syria and its backers an important lesson: at least in this current epoch, the guarantors of the international order are no longer heavily invested in its ethical core or its literal enforcement. Obama laid down only one explicit marker that would prompt him to intervene in Syria—the use of chemical weapons. Assad used them anyway, and found great reward in testing even the most supposedly sacred limits. That was the real lesson of 2013, and it wasn’t lost on Assad, Sisi, Putin, or other transactional authoritarians.

For nearly the entire Syrian civil war, Assad has offered a deal to the foreign powers that backed the rebellion. If these foreign governments returned to the regime’s fold, all would be forgiven, and Assad’s nexus of intelligence services would resume (or in some cases, start) a morally compromised but effective counterterrorism partnership against common enemies, from ISIS to jihadi operatives now in the West. American and European diplomats expressed distaste for such a Machiavellian deal. But after Europe’s unity fractured in the wake of the refugee crisis, some of its governments began, discreetly, to discuss the inevitability of Assad’s permanence. While his gulag and the methods of his intelligence services horrified them, they also could imagine tangible benefits from intelligence cooperation to root out terrorists. Privately, Syrian officials remind their Western counterparts that their extensive files could help them identify militants or jihadis currently hiding in plain sight in Turkey, the European Union, or the United States. Obama gave up on regime change, but was eager to keep his distance from the dictator in Damascus.

Not so for Trump. His administration’s official policy was recently changed to let Assad’s fate “be decided by the Syrian people.” More importantly, Trump has no truck with American exceptionalism. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson all but disowned the agency’s annual human rights report, traditionally used by administrations of both parties to outline America’s moral priorities and push despots around the world in a better direction, even if only slightly. (Tillerson didn’t even bother to show up for the report’s public release.) Trump’s positions on Russia, NATO, immigration, and a widening gyre of issues, make clear that he will act on behalf of a narrow set of American interests, mistakenly confident that he will escape any measurable blowback for symbolic or political shifts.

When Washington does seek international cooperation to check chaos in some roiling war zone or roll back expansionism by a rising power, or even simply and crassly to protect American commercial interests or markets somewhere around the globe, Trump will realize he needs the very same quilt of institutions and norms that has been so thoroughly eviscerated over Syria. America has already been reminded of the importance of allies as it confronts a bellicose North Korea. It is probably coming to similar realizations about managing the South China Sea, maintaining the benefits of the Iran nuclear deal, and safeguarding Old Europe.

Institutions and governments that stand by idly or ineffectually as Assad makes a mockery of the chemical weapons taboo and the agreement that supposedly emptied Syria of chemical weapons years ago will find themselves ill-equipped to cope with later crises about which they care far more than they do about Syria.

This leads back to the question of motive.

The U.S. government’s confidence aside, it will take time for conclusive proof about this latest attack to emerge in the public sphere, as it did in 2013, of the regime’s culpability. From a Syrian tactical viewpoint, this attack was utterly gratuitous. Syria’s government, which at this stage is handily winning the civil war, does far more killing with conventional weapons. So in terms of the human toll, chemical attacks are but one piece in a horrifying network of crimes.

But the attacks do more than just murder Syrians: they expose the international order as a sham, and weaken the same institutions that are supposed to restrain Assad and his chief backers, Russia and Iran. A weakened and humiliated United Nations—or European Union or United States for that matter—behoove the maneuvers of Moscow, Tehran, and Syria, which more often than not find themselves targets of the wrath of an international order dominated by Washington and Brussels.

It could be that the attack in Idlib was the work of a rogue or a madman. But it’s all the more likely, given the carefully studied impact of the 2013 chemical fiasco in Syria, that Assad expects even greater dividends this time than he reaped during the last round. If he can drop chemical weapons on the same day that a conference in Brussels is discussing plans to reconstruct Syria, without any substantive response, then he’ll inch even closer to his current goal of winning a Western-funded rebuilding plan on his own terms. He hopes to cudgel the West into funneling reconstruction money through his regime, which committed most of the destruction in the first place. It’s absurd that until last year, the same Western governments that were calling for Assad’s ouster and funding for armed militants to overthrow him would now pay to restore his abusive authority— it’s also very possible.

A chemical attack seems folly at this pivotal moment, with Europe and the United States pondering whether to reluctantly restore relations with Assad. But sadly, it’s the kind of gamble that has worked for Assad in the past.

As usual, the first victims are Syrian civilians, caught in Assad’s total war. But an equally important casualty might be what remains of the international institutions that are supposed to fight war crimes and atrocities. Today Syrians suffer. Tomorrow, the world.

Red Lines and Taboos in Syria

Posted April 26th, 2013 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

[Orginally published at The Blog of the Century.]

Chemical weapons hold a special kind of horror. Ever since the widespread and horrifying use of chlorine and other poison gases in the trenches of the First World War, most nations have agreed not to use any of the increasingly sophisticated agents they have concocted.

It is because of this well documented taboo and the Chemical Weapons Convention that the United States government has said that it “will not tolerate” any deployment of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict.

But beyond moral revulsion, what will it mean not to tolerate the use of chemical weapons? What if clear and convincing evidence is presented that Bashar al-Assad has used nerve gas or some other chemical weapon against his citizens? What is the White House to do differently—and why, ultimately, should this particular method of mass murder rise to a new level than the workaday means (mortar shells, bullets, rockets, bombs) employed until now to kill upwards of 70,000 people in Syria?

There’s an argument to be made that chemical weapons are potentially so lethal, and so easy to spread, that states must establish a strong deterrent to their use. But that thinking doesn’t really hold up. Iraq used chemical weapons against its own citizens in the 1980s with support from the US government, which tried to blame Iran for the battlefield use of toxins. In that case, chemical weapons were just one atrocity among many in an eight-year conflict, and the world didn’t see a spate of nerve gas attacks by stateless militants.

In Syria today, the White House must decide whether to invest more resources in the conflict. Already, the US is arming and funding the rebel factions that it finds most palatable. It has held back from doing more because of the plethora of Islamist extremists in the opposition and because of the uncertainty of what would follow in the event of a state collapse in Syria. If in fact the Syrian regime is using chemical weapons, there would be more urgency to resolving the question of whether the US should do more.

But the basic calculus won’t change.

The US wants to see a stable Syria, which is unlikely to happen any time soon, and unlikely to happen at all so long as Bashar al-Assad is in power. So far, there is no clear alternative. On one side, a bankrupt family regime; on the other, a splintered opposition with no unified leadership, no clear plan for after Assad, an Islamist flavor and a major streak of jihadi extremism.

The US and the other foreign sponsors of the opposition have funneled money and weapons to their preferred groups, hoping that incremental and indirect intervention will mould the opposition into a more coherent structure. This might or might not happen, but until a viable leadership actually controls a sizeable portion of the rebels, outside powers—including the US—are unlikely to escalate their involvement. This constraint holds whether or not the regime is using chemical weapons (and whether or not, as many allege, some factions of the opposition are also committing war crimes).

Confirmed chemical weapons use will surely create a public outcry and intensify the moral case for intervention, and the ensuing pressure will surely affect the White House calculus. But it’s unlikely on its own to make the US go to war in Syria, or propel a coalition like the one that intervened in Libya. That kind of game-changing development will require a real shift in the structure of the opposition.

Greater crimes by the regime—be it use of chemical weapons, or ever more prolific massacres—could galvanize such changes. But misbehavior or crimes committed by some rebel factions could well cancel out any momentum to get involved.

The latest evidence is worrisome indeed. But it doesn’t yet open the way for an international intervention.