The Syrian crisis is testing international leadership, including Australia’s

Flag of the United NationsThe two year conflict in Syria has been shining a very bright light on divided great power attitudes to international leadership. It’s not a flattering picture. Despite appalling suffering, the deaths of tens of thousands of people, the internal displacement of millions, and the creation of hundreds of thousands of refugees, the Security Council has been unable to agree on what action to take in response to the Syrian civil war. There are many reasons for this deadlock, but the roots lie in a fundamental clash among the Security Council’s permanent five members on the nature of responsible international leadership. On one side, France, the UK and the US favour a proactive role, believing that intervening in the domestic affairs of another state is justified in cases of gross human rights abuses; on the other, China and Russia believe that state sovereignty is sacrosanct and resist the imposition of sanctions and the use of force in response to internal conflicts.

This year, Australia has a front row seat to witness these deep divisions at close quarters, and has tried to steer a middle path in Security Council negotiations. Gary Quinlan, Ambassador and permanent representative of Australia to the United Nations, has spoken out against the human rights abuses by Syria’s security forces, which he’s described as ‘unacceptable to the international community’. At the same time, he’s promoted a peaceful Syrian-led political resolution to the crisis, apparently eschewing other options. In addition to declaring support for the Arab League’s diplomatic efforts, and for the Lakhdar Brahimi’s attempts at mediation, Australia’s also provided medical and food aid to the Syrian people through the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, and just last week pledged to boost this support by $24 million.

This has seemed a reasonable response to a tragic and difficult situation to which there are no good solutions, only less terrible ones. The atrocious behaviour of the Bashar al-Assad regime and suffering of the Syrian people are undeniable, but in the context of Security Council deadlock, uncertainty over the extent and location of Syria’s WMD stockpiles and production sites, and rising concern over the fractious nature of the Syrian opposition (including Al Qaeda infiltration of at least one major opposition group), it’s been responsible to adopt a strategy of allowing more time for a Syrian-led solution to the crisis while providing humanitarian aid to help alleviate the suffering.

But the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict would change this. Australia can’t continue on its current course if evidence proves that the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own people, as France, the UK and now Israel are claiming. According to customary international humanitarian law, which is binding on all states, the use of biological and chemical weapons is strictly prohibited. This norm is based on the long-standing international taboo against the use of ‘plague and poison’ in war, which is codified in the 1925 Geneva Protocol. If the Assad government—a party to the Geneva Protocol but not the Chemical Weapons Convention—has used chemical weapons in or around the cities of Aleppo, Homs and Damascus, as has been alleged, it constitutes a crime against humanity. Under these circumstances, Australia would need to abandon its cautious diplomacy and stand squarely behind France, the UK, and US in pushing for intervention, including seriously considering all possible options for toppling the Assad regime and urgent efforts to locate and secure Syria’s chemical (and possibly biological) weapons assets.

All states have a responsibility to uphold the laws and norms against the proliferation and use of WMD and to ensure that such materials are secure, and Australia has earned huge international respect for taking these responsibilities seriously. In 1985, after a UN investigation team found that Iraq had used chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war, Australia led a major international initiative aimed at harmonising export controls to help prevent chemical weapons proliferation. That initiative, known as the Australia Group, has since expanded to include 40 states plus the European Commission, and has evolved to address emerging threats and challenges, including the diversion of materials to biological weapons programs, and dual-use technologies and equipment that can be used to manufacture chemical and biological weapons. Australia was also one of the original signatories to the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention and the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, and plays a constructive role in the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

Given the leadership role Australia plays in the WMD regimes, the Australian Government’s lack of response to the recent reports is surprising. After all, the Prime Minister made numerous statements condemning the human rights atrocities of the Assad regime during 2011–2012, and the Foreign Minister recently described the situation in Syria as ‘one of the world’s great humanitarian crises’. It would be  prudent to wait for more conclusive evidence regarding the use (or not) of chemical weapons in the conflict. In the meantime, using Australia’s influence as a Security Council member with strong anti-WMD credentials to strongly support UN and other fact-finding missions, and to push for Syrian cooperation in these investigations, would be both helpful and timely.

Tanya Ogilvie-White is a senior analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.