What Exactly is the Chemical Weapons Convention?


The use of chemical weapons in the ongoing conflict in Syria is in direct violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). However, Syria is not currently party to this agreement, which presents a unique opportunity for all major parties involved to ratchet down the international brinkmanship at play. While it most likely won't end the fighting, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad following through with his tentative pledge to relinquish Syria's chemical weapons and join the CWC signifies a major turning point in the Syrian conflict because it gives America a clear choice on how to proceed.

The CWC is an important piece of the puzzle in establishing a meaningful dialogue between Syria and the U.S. But at this point in the conflict, anything achieved through the CWC will be a half-measure and would require the world to accept the greater of two evils.

Since its adoption in January 1993, the CWC has addressed the lack of restriction on the production and stockpiling of chemical weapons. While the Geneva Protocol of 1925 originally prohibited the use of chemical weapons in warfare, it left several loopholes through which countries were able to justify possessing and using of these weapons. The CWC introduced strict oversights aimed at identifying and eliminating stockpiles of chemical weapons.

Parties to the CWC must not "develop, produce, otherwise acquire, stockpile or retain chemical weapons, or transfer, directly or indirectly, chemical weapons to anyone." They must report their possession of chemical weapons as well as the facilities used to design, produce, destroy and convert them to non-prohibited purposes. The convention also includes provisions for inspections and sanctions in order to ensure compliance with the agreement.

The CWC was enforced in 1997 after being ratified by 65 nations. There are currently 189 nations that have joined the agreement. In the 20 years since it was originally adopted, Syria has been one of the few members of the UN that has not acceded to the convention. It has made no secret of its possession of chemical weapons and its willingness to use them should the need arise. This is why Syria's sudden willingness to renounce its chemical weapons stockpiles is both surprising and inviting of skepticism.

Syria's acceptance of the CWC would likely spare countless individuals from a painful death caused by chemical agents and put the country in line with the rest of the world. This is absolutely a good thing. The measure would be a symbolic gesture and allow Syria and other nations to stop shouting at each other and start talking about a realistic way to end the conflict in Syria. It would not, however, stop the killing of innocent people by a regime bent on retaining power by whatever means necessary. In all likelihood, it will not lead to the resolution of the conflict because the problem is Assad himself.

Assad has already proven unwilling to step down from office, and his eagerness to fight his opposition into submission. He has killed more than 200,000 people and displaced over 6 million as a result of his actions. Allowing him to save face by joining the CWC only strengthens his position and allows the rest of the world a convenient exit from an uncomfortable situation. Even without chemical weapons, the Assad regime has plenty of bullets, bombs, and manpower to continue its war of attrition. Whether Syria joins the CWC or not, there is no solution that involves the current regime. If America is sincerely concerned about the conflict in Syria, then as unpopular as it may be, military action might be the lesser of two evils.

In his national address on Wednesday night, President Obama made his case regarding this truth. As a nation we are justified in being hesitant to pursue further military action, but if the conflict in Syria is something we strongly care about, then we can't simply walk away after receiving what is ultimately no more than a paltry concession. We must decide whether we are willing to fight for true justice or if we are only interested in saving face. Are we willing to allow another dictator to continue to get away with heinous atrocities to advance his own agenda?