Syria Deeply Asks: What Are the Implications of the U.N. Report?

The U.N. has released its findings from its report on Missions to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons. The report confirmed chemical weapons had been used in Syria, though it did not assign blame to any party.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Also today, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon called the use of such weapons by any party a “war crime.”

We asked Nadim Shehadi, associate Middle East fellow at Chatham House, and Middle East affairs analyst Taufiq Rahim to weigh in on the possible implications of the report.

Syria Deeply: The report didn’t assign blame. What will be its effect on the international community’s Syria response?

Shehadi: It was not expected [that it would], it’s not within their mandate to implicate anybody. A report like this has no effect.

Such a report is a very bureaucratic process that takes months to prepare, and there’s a very precise protocol that says what they can and cannot do. In this case, they had a limited mandate [to find out] whether there was use or not, and not to lay blame. That’s a limitation.

Chemical weapons should not be the main purpose for a policy on Syria. They could be the excuse to reconsider a policy on Syria, a bit like when you march Al Capone in on a tax charge and you open all his files. But to get lost in the intricacies of determining the chemical weapons used and organizing observation missions and monitors, that’s automatically buying the regime a couple of years.

Taufiq Rahim: The effect will be very limited because the U.S.-Russia agreement, which preceded the report, takes precedent over the report’s findings. So while the U.S. and its allies may seek to use the findings to put further pressure on Syria, it will likely be relegated to rhetoric rather than any tangible steps. That being said, there are a lot of specifics in the report, especially the appendices, that could be used in war-crimes investigations that are ongoing or that may emerge in the future.

SD: Will the report have any effect on President Obama or other Western leaders?

Shehadi: No. The agreement between the Russians and U.S., between [Sergey] Lavrov and and [John] Kerry, will still go ahead [despite the report]. The agreement was an independent process. And then even if you determine the use, you have to determine a chain of command, it’s endless. The regime can manipulate it and play around as much as they can. Just think of [chief U.N. inspector] Hans Blix and Iraq. It’s a U.N. process, while [Syria] policy depends on the policymakers.

In this case, the policymaker, the Obama administration, was probably looking for an excuse not to intervene. I think that now we are entering a phase that is very dangerous, because it will give the regime a lot of time and still give them the green light to suppress the revolt. The regime is saying it’s fighting terrorism, but there’s no mention of a cease-fire or of stopping things.

Rahim: The U.S. had already assumed that chemical weapons had been used and that they’d been used by the regime. What the report may do, with additional analysis by third parties, is increase pressure on Syria’s backers, in particular Russia, who have said until now that attributed blame to the rebels and not the regime.

SD: What will we see happen this week? The Syrians had been given one week to hand over their chemical weapons.

Shehadi: The regime and the Russians will try their best to comply, because this agreement is in their interest. [But] this one-week ultimatum that Kerry gave is totally meaningless because it only threatens to go back to the Security Council. The whole problem in Syria was that there was a failed attempt to reach a [cease-fire] agreement in the Security Council in 2011, which is why we reverted to the Arab League initiative, which was sabotaged, then there was another Arab League attempt, and then it went to the Geneva meeting. That’s the game. The net effect of all this is that it just gives Assad more time to suppress the revolt.

Rahim: The exact day that Assad is supposed to turn over his list is still undetermined and without consensus, which means it could very well be that we have incomplete information at the end of this week or none at all. And this will be the first of many delays that happen in this process.

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