Foreign Policy

A chance to stop Syria and Russia from using chemical weapons

The fight for the future of non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction takes place within an obscure but important international organization based in The Hague. The upcoming showdown at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) will determine whether the world returns to the norm of using chemical weapons from zero or whether countries follow Russia’s example of poisoning dissidents and Syria’s example, its own citizens to gas.

So far, Moscow and its customer regime in Damascus have successfully delayed the work of the OPCW, and they are determined to stop any efforts to impose consequences for their wrongdoing.

In February US Secretary of State Antony Blinken remarked: “We must uphold international law against the use of chemical weapons – or we risk normalizing their use,” adding that Russia and Syria must “have no impunity”. The OPCW is a sluggish organization, however, and unless the United States forms a coalition against impunity for Moscow and Damascus, this is likely to remain the norm.

As we now know, Russia is using chemical weapons to assassinate enemies of the state. In 2018, Moscow activists used a novichok nerve agent, a group of toxins developed by the Soviet chemical weapons program, against Sergei Skripal, a Russian intelligence officer who worked for the UK and defected there. While Skripal survived, an innocent mother of three later died of the poison.

The United States and European countries imposed sanctions on Russia, and with Moscow’s feigned enthusiasm, the OPCW added novichok substances to the list of chemicals banned by the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. The lukewarm response, however, did not include a basic requirement that Moscow be responsible for the remaining chemical weapons, manufacturing capacity and facilities.

Russia has learned that the cost of using chemical weapons is tolerable. Moscow next used chemical weapons against Alexey Navalny, a prominent challenger to Russian President Vladimir Putin, in August 2020. Navalny fell ill in Russia and was eventually brought to Berlin. Several independent laboratories, as well as the OPCW, confirmed that Russia was again using a Novichok agent. Despite the evidence, the Kremlin issued further denials.

There have been three OPCW meetings since the Navalny poisoning, at which member states sharply condemned Moscow but made no effort to hold it accountable.

In the meantime, the United Nations and the OPCW have meticulously documented the use of Syrian chemical weapons. The United States also found in 2018 that the regime had used chemical weapons at least 50 times since the Civil War began seven years earlier. However, Damascus and Moscow continue to deny this fact.

Last summer, the 41-member political body of the OPCW, the Executive Council, issued Damascus an ultimatum: compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention within 90 days or suspension of the OPCW. But the deadline passed without any action.

What explains the lackluster response to the use of chemical weapons in Russia and Syria?

A major problem is that the OPCW officials are not empowered to initiate investigations into suspicious facilities and activities – either one Member State has to give its consent or other Member States could instruct the OPCW to do so. To avoid punishment, Moscow uses these rules and the reluctance of some countries to engage in what they perceive as great power politics. Members know that if they do not choose the Kremlin route, they could be the target of Moscow’s retaliation.

However, Washington now has the option to form a coalition to impose penalties on Russia and Syria to prevent future use of chemical weapons.

At the Conference of States Parties later this month – a gathering of all 193 OPCW member states – the United States should make efforts to formally suspend Damascus, an action that requires a two-thirds vote. Under the Trump administration, the United States and 45 other countries got the ball rolling at the Conference of States Parties late last year by circulating a relevant draft decision.

Washington could have an uphill battle. According to an analysis of more than two years of OPCW voting data from the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (which we both work for), getting a two-thirds majority when countries abstain or vote with Moscow is daunting. Fifty-nine countries have voted for Russia on a regular or semi-regular basis, or have sat on the fence for the ultimate benefit of Moscow. Again, this could stop or delay decisions.

The Biden government must go to the trouble of gathering the votes necessary to get Syria out of the way, and it has no moment to lose. Blinken and US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan can help the dispute by calling countries that have not yet expressed support for the suspension of Syria. In particular, you should seek assistance from states that tend to abstain but have significant trade, economic, development, military, or security ties with the United States.

With regard to Russia, Washington should press for an investigation into the OPCW at the July Executive Council meeting and ask Moscow to declare its ongoing chemical weapons program within 90 days. This reflects the Council’s 90-day deadline for Syria to demonstrate compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention.

According to our analysis of previous OPCW votes, countries voting for Moscow or abstaining on the Executive Council may also prevent Washington and its allies from getting a two-thirds majority. For example, 18 countries currently on the Executive Board often vote in favor of Moscow or abstain – more than the 14 votes needed in the council to block decisions. Fortunately, the membership of the Executive Board changes, which means that there is not always a blocking majority.

But even if the United States cannot cast the required votes this time around, the prosecution of these measures would force countries to stand on record for their failure to hold Russia and Syria accountable. This would set an important precedent that Washington will not allow Members to remain on the sidelines on these important issues. Even if the United States loses its vote, it will lay the foundation for future success.

If Moscow and Damascus fail to comply with the international chemical weapons rules they have signed, states should suspend their OPCW voting rights. An OPCW without Syria and Russia might even be a good thing.

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