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The Syrian Endgame: Why Assad May Have Used Chemical Weapons

On 4th of April, 2017 the Assad regime allegedly attacked the rebel-held village of Khan Sheikhoun, Syria with chemical weapons (sarin gas). 100s of innocents died with the pictures of the dead and dying bodies flooding the internet immediately.   There was widespread condemnation but almost immediately both Syria and Russia denied the act and claimed that the rebel forces had stockpiled chemical weapons in the village which had blown up in the explosion caused by the Syrian air force.
A lot of questions and doubts had been raised as to why would Bashar al-Assad, risk launching a chemical attack on his own citizens at this crucial juncture and risk international condemnation. 
This article attempts to state the possible reasons which may have lead Assad to consider the use of chemical weapons as a safe course of action.

We need to understand at this moment what were the possible repercussions Assad may consider being threatened with and whether that would truly make a difference to him;

1) International Condemnation: The world would hate Bashar al-Assad, but most of the world already does, and he knows it. But international isolation and humiliation did not stop the Syrian regime from having used chemical weapons once before in 2014. This is a regime which is slowly but surely killing its own people. International condemnation, being as shortlived as it generally it would not have deterred their plans.

2) Security Council Resolution against Syria: The Security Council had already tried this before. But as long as Syria has the backing of Russia and China, with their veto power, the Security Council is as good as useless to take any affirmative action against Syria. 

3) General Assembly: On rare instances when nations feel that the Security Council has failed in their duty to maintain peace, they can trigger Resolution 377 A, aka the Uniting for Peace Resolution. This Resolution was passed to facilitate prompt action by the General Assembly in the case of a dead-locked Security Council, the resolution created the mechanism of the "emergency special session" (ESS), which can be called upon the basis of either a procedural vote in the Security Council, or within twenty-four hours of a request by a majority of UN Members being received by the Secretary-General. 
In procedural votes, the permanent members of the Security Council—the so-called "P5"—do not have the ability to block the adoption of draft resolutions, so unlike substantive matters, such resolutions can be adopted without their consent.
But even in the extremely slight possibility that an ESS is called upon to discuss the matter of Syria, Assad, does have powerful allies including Russia, China, and Iran who could ascertain that no Resolution against the Syrian regime in the ESS gets the requisite number of votes. 

4) International Court of Justice: The International Court of Justice cannot sue moto take up matters. The parties must willingly come to the ICJ and accept its jurisdiction. As long as Assad refused to do that, Assad was safe. 
ICJ can pass an advisory opinion, but that would hardly deter Assad. 

5) International Criminal Court: It is to be noted that Syria has never actually ratified the Rome Statute, which is the governing statute of the ICC. Despite that, the Security Council had once before attempted to drag Syria to the Court. But alas, Assad's friends in China and Russia vetoed that resolution.

Even if we could hypothetically drag Assad to the ICC, the Rome state defines the use of chemical weapons as a "war crime", which would fall under Article 8 (4), that is "willfully causing great suffering" only for international conflicts. In essence, if Assad has been using chemical weapons against his own civilians, it technically wouldn't be a war crime! 
The only remaining alternative in this hypothetical scenario would be to attempt to prosecute him under Article 7 (16) which is "crimes against humanity". 
But sentencing aside, as the ICC lacks a proper enforcement mechanism for its orders, Assad can forcibly stay in power as long as Russia and China support him. 

On this point, it is important to note that Jens David Ohlin, an expert on international war crimes, explains the tension between justice and peace as a classic dilemma.

He describes three philosophies regarding criminal accountability. The first is instrumental: If lives can be saved by cutting a deal with a murderous autocrat, you make that deal. Ohlin says there were calls for such thinking as Liberia's Charles Taylor, convicted in 2012 to 50 years in prison for war crimes, held onto power. "There's some people who think that if there hasn't been this insistence on criminal prosecution, that he could have been convinced to end the war and give up power much earlier," he says. "And maybe thousands of people would have had their lives saved."

Another view, Ohlin says, is that the world should prosecute dictators and war criminals whenever it can. If today's strongmen notice their deposed peers facing justice, the reasoning behind deterrence goes, they may realize that there will be consequences for their own transgressions.

The third attitude toward these situations, retributivism, holds that criminals must be punished because that's the essence of justice. "You don't ask whether or not punishment is going to make the world go better or worse," Ohlin says. "You just punish wrongdoing."

But pragmatism often wins out, meaning dictators with blood on their hands never see the inside of a cell.
A child after chemical attack in Syria
General Alfredo Stroessner, the dictator of Paraguay who used torture as a political tool and provided refuge for Nazi war criminals, found asylum in Brazil on the condition that he never returns to politics. He died there in 2006 at the age of 93. Uganda's Idi Amin, who in the 70s oversaw the death of perhaps half a million of his countrymen, was squirreled away to a villa in Saudi Arabia, where he died in 2003. The same Saudi city of Jeddah is also home to Ben Ali of Tunisia, who fled there after his ouster in 2011.

Knowing all these factors and the history well, Assad could have no reason whatsoever to fear any repercussions in case of launching a chemical attack on his own troops. But what he does fear is his own citizens. He knows they will never accept his leadership anymore. A foreign power cannot dethrone him as long as he has powerful allies, but his own citizens are a different matter altogether. 
Hence he would neither hesitate, nor wait before he finishes off the only opposition to his rule. Assad has no reason not to use chemical weapons and all the reasons to use it to intimidate and break the very will of those opposing him. 

The only way this madness can end is if Resolution 377A is somehow triggered and the General Assembly manages to recommend the matter to the International Criminal Court and the Court finds enough evidence to convict Assad of crimes against humanity and Assad is either forcibly or willingly removed from power.

About the Author:   Sourya Banerjee is the Lead Editor of A38



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