Acting On The Basis Of A Moral Duty: Syria, Chemical Weapons And The Issue Of Pre-Emptive Military Intervention


On April 7th 2018, the world witnessed – yet another – devastating chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburb of Douma, killing 70 people and injuring hundreds more.  Six days later, the United States, The United Kingdom and France coordinated the first multilateral air strike on Syria, successfully targeting three production facilities associated with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s deadly chemical weapons program. This act sent an unequivocal message; the international community would not tolerate the use of chemical weapons, in any form.

As this was the first act of multilateralism to combat the use and spread of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict, the Western intervention was judged as a highly significant political moment in the overall development of the conflict. This act also exposed the fragility of inter-state relations and the deep-rooted antagonisms embedded within international political structures.

Almost a year on from this momentous occasion, The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) released the full investigative findings for the Douma attack, as evidenced on March 2nd 2019. The report concluded, with information gathered provided from the targeted area, “that the use of a toxic chemical as a weapon had taken place on 7 April 2018”. The report outlined the use of a ‘reactive chlorine’ agent, previously used in attacks such as Khan Sheikhoun in April 2017 that served the purpose of debilitation of civilian populations and rebel groupings – rather than massacre. It should be noted, that whilst the chemical agent chlorine remains unlisted on the original 2013 draft of Syria’s obligations under the terms of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, the weaponization of any chemical agent remains strictly prohibited under international law. Since August 2013, following the massacre of 1300 civilians in the province of Eastern Ghouta by the deadly nerve agent gas sarin, the use of chemical weapons has marred the Syrian Civil crisis. However, Western failure to act divisively until 2018 under the premise of chemical weapons requires a thorough examination.

So how and why are these two outlined moments significant? First and foremost, the use of chemical weapons in any conflict requires an in depth investigation as to their utility in conflict, the rationale behind their use, and their destructive nature, causing harm to innocent civilians. The second reason why this series of events remains significant lies in the unprecedented actions taken by the West to deter the spread and use of chemical weapons, without conclusively knowing 1). the gas agent(s) used in the attack, and 2). who the primary culprits were at the time of intervention.

The recent publication of the OPCW report validates the West’s premature judgement that chemical weapons had been used in the town of Douma. However, by acting purely on the basis of suspicion, the West set a dangerous example. The following report examines the structural issues caused by pre-emptive military intervention, using the Douma attacks of 2018 as the primary case study. The report will then examine possible avenues of conflict-management that could have served a more effective and lasting purpose to prevent the use of chemical weapons within Syria, and consequently impede the West to act ‘unilaterally’ on matters of international significance.

The unprecedented action of the West to prevent and deter the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict has remained the source of political and theoretical contention. According to the OPCW governing body, there have been approximately 80 chemical attacks since 2013. So why did the West ultimately decide to  act in 2018, and why act as a multilateral force in a case proven to be the least deadly chemical weapons attack since 2013? This report presents the hypothesis that Western intervention was largely premised on the notion that Russia was a rising adversarial international power. This rationale is based on Russia’s recent cooperation with neighboring Middle Eastern nations such as Egypt and Turkey that jeopardized Western predominance within the region, in addition to  Russia’s plans to construct a regional natural gas pipeline. A move that would ensure Russia to become the largest producer and exporter of natural gas in the Middle East and Europe.

In accordance with the much-used policy of ‘containment’, the  U.S., U.K. and France required suitable cause to [legally] intervene within Syria without perpetuating deep-rooted antagonisms existent between Russia and the West. All nations involved in the proxy Syrian War, are all party to the Chemical Weapons Convention. Hence, the utilization of the chemical weapons discourse by the West served to illicit an international response to ensure innocent civilians were not harmed by the use of such weaponry.

The use of the chemical weapons discourse within the aforementioned context, reveals a host of structural international problems including the ability of individual state actors to deviate from binding international law to serve individual strategic interests and motivations. This can be discerned through a simple discourse analysis of the Presidential and Prime Ministerial speeches given in the wake of the Western intervention. A numerical count of the number of times the word ‘Russia’ is used in comparison to ‘chemical weapons’ suggest an ulterior motive is at play. In addition, the use of a coordinated air strike to deter the use of chemical weapons in April 2018 was categorically ineffective. The examination of chemical related activity after April 2018 demonstrates the air strikes had no bearing or lasting impact on Syrian forces to discontinue the use of such weapons. Hence, alternative methods to the use of military force to deter action of such kind needs to be considered so that future episodes of the like are not witnessed on the international stage again.

The international landscape is complicated. As all nations involved within Syria remain key members of the United Nations. They remain bound by a set of common practices, rules, obligations and common standards of behaviour. In this context, a possible solution to combat unwarranted acts of Western military aggression lie in the vocal and multilateral condemnation of such parties by the international community, in the forum of an international organization such as the United Nations. By holding such nations to account, through the enforcement of such common standards of behaviour; such as the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and importantly in this instance, the Chemical Weapons Convention, the international community can ensure compliance and conformity amongst actors. The fact all nations utilized the mechanisms of the UN Security to express their condemnation of the suspected attack and thereafter inform the Security Council of the Western intervention under the guise of legality suggests all nations (even the powerful ones) treat the opinion given by multilateral international organizations extremely seriously. Therefore, it is reasonable to suggest institutionalized diplomacy could be an influencing factor that could impede future acts of Western intervention.

India Birrell

Government and International Relations graduate from the University of Sydney. Interested in conflict management, human rights and inter-state relations. Contributing to the OWP as a correspondent in Australia.

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About India Birrell

Government and International Relations graduate from the University of Sydney. Interested in conflict management, human rights and inter-state relations. Contributing to the OWP as a correspondent in Australia.