The United Nations has confirmed receipt of a letter signed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of his country's intention to sign the international chemical weapons treaty and submit to its protocols, but the Secretary of State John Kerry says the threat of U.S. military force remains.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s office called the letter a "welcome development." Referring to ongoing talks in Switzerland between the US and Russia that began on Thursday and continued Friday, the secretary general expressed “hopes that the current talks in Geneva will lead to speedy agreement on a way forward which will be endorsed and assisted by the international community."
By joining the treaty, Syria—at least in theory—be compelled to divulge a catalog of its current chemical weapon stockpiles, their locations, and submit to a plan to hand them over for destruction. As many have pointed out, however, this will be no easy task, especially in the midst of an ongoing civil war and on U.S. demands that the process be done on shorter timeline than is usual.
In comments on Thursday from Geneva, Kerry reiterated that the U.S. position is that the threat of military force will continue to be used even as negotiations proceed.
"There is nothing standard about this process," Kerry said, because Assad has used his chemical weapons. "The words of the Syrian regime in our judgment are simply not enough."
Kerry added, “Only the credible threat of force and the intervention of Putin and Russia … has brought the Syrian regime for the first time to acknowledge that it even has chemical weapons and will now relinquish them."
“Together we will test the commitment of Assad to follow through with his promises,” Kerry added.
He cautioned that a U.S. military strike could occur if Assad doesn't agree to dismantle his chemical arsenal properly.
"There ought to be consequences if it doesn't take place,” Kerry said.
And as McClatchy describes, the recent progress and dipomatic efforts make no promises for peaceful results:
The atmosphere of the talks couldn’t seem bleaker. Just a week ago, Putin had called Kerry a liar. On Thursday, he wrote a column published in The New York Times in which he warned that a U.S. strike would kill innocent Syrians, widen the conflict, undermine diplomacy on Middle East peace and Iran’s nuclear program, and “unleash a new wave of terrorism.”
For their part, U.S. officials have called Russia “obstructionist” and said that Moscow is siding with child killers. Administration officials also have begun repeating a Reagan-era slogan when it comes to Russia: “Trust, but verify.”
Meanwhile, on Russian television, Assad – accused of war crimes by U.S. officials – flatly said that he doesn’t trust the United States.
Such public discord, coupled with the complex maneuvering it would take to dismantle an arsenal said to contain chemical agents sarin, mustard gas and VX in the midst of a civil war, doesn’t portend a breakthrough in Geneva.
But responding to the U.S. stance that it retains authority to launch military strikes against Syria if it so chooses, legal experts say no such legal authority exists.
As author and journalist Howard Friel writes at Common Dreams on Friday:
President Obama and high-ranking officials in his administration have repeatedly threatened to bomb Syria in response to the use of chemical weapons inside Syria. Even assuming that the government of Syria is the party responsible for the use of chemical weapons—a fact that has not yet been established—the use of chemical weapons in Syria does not constitute an armed attack on the United States. And the UN Security Council to date has not authorized the use of force against Syria. Under this set of circumstances, President Obama has illegally threatened to use force.
In his authoritative work, International Law and the Use of Force by States, Ian Brownlie said this about a “promise” by a state to use force (p. 364): “If the promise is to resort to force in conditions in which no justification for the use of force exists, the threat itself is illegal.”
The view expressed by Brownlie was supported in the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice in “Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons,” where a majority of the court’s judges asserted: “The notions of ‘threat’ and ‘use’ of force under Article 2, paragraph 4, of the Charter stand together in the sense that if the use of force in a given case is illegal—for whatever reason—the threat to use such force will likewise be illegal.”