THE HAGUE – The international community’s failure to bring the Syrian civil war to an end is a tragedy – especially for the country’s long-suffering people. In one respect, multilateral action has had a clearly positive impact: the elimination of the Syrian government’s chemical-weapons program. And yet there are persistent reports that chemical weapons, including sulfur mustard (commonly known as mustard gas) and chlorine bombs deployed against civilians, continue to be used in Syria.
The stakes could not be higher. The perpetrators of these attacks must be identified and brought to justice. Allowing the use of chemical weapons to go unpunished not only could reverse one of the few promising developments in the Syrian conflict; it also threatens to undermine international norms on the use of toxic gas and nerve agents, increasing the possibility that they will be used in terrorist attacks.
In August 2013, rockets containing deadly sarin gas struck Ghouta, a rebel-controlled suburb near Damascus. Horrific images of women and children dying in agony mobilized international consensus against the use of these types of weapons. In October 2013, following Syria’s accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention, a joint mission of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the United Nations was tasked with eliminating the country’s chemical arsenal and production facilities.
Less than a year later, the mission accomplished what no military intervention could have achieved; the strategic threat from Syria’s chemical weapons was effectively eliminated. Work to clarify certain aspects of the government’s initial declaration about its weapons program is ongoing; but 1,300 metric tons of chemical weapons, including sulfur mustard and precursors for deadly nerve agents, have been accounted for and destroyed under the watchful eyes of OPCW inspectors.