Filter results

  • Tuesday, April 18 2017
  • Daniel Jiménez
  • Analysis
  • Human rights
  • 0

On the 4th April, a chemical attack struck the Khan Sheikhun area of the Idlib province in the north west of the Syrian Arab Republic. The attack resulted in 71 deaths, mostly civilians, including children. The area is under the control of the Syrian rebels; this led to believe that the General Bashar al-Assad’s forces were behind the operation.[1] The United States’ President Donald Trump aligned with this view and opted for a military intervention against Syrian military infrastructure. The chemical gas that was employed is named Sarin and is generally viewed as a weapon of mass destruction.


Chemical weapons are prohibited by customary international law, in both international and non-international armed conflicts.[2] The Chemical Weapons Convention of 1997 specifically prohibits the utilization of such type of weapons. Syria is a State Party to the treaty and a Member State of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the treaty-based body that is intended to ensure compliance with the law. In accordance with the Convention and the relevant decisions of the OPCW Executive Council, as well as UN Security Council Resolution 2118 (2013), Syria must refrain from developing, producing, retaining or using chemical weapons or toxic chemicals as weapons.[3] The Fact-Finding Mission (FFM), which was set up in 2014 “to establish facts surrounding allegations of the use of toxic chemicals, reportedly chlorine, for hostile purposes in the Syrian Arab Republic,” is currently investigating the incident in southern Idlib.[4] In order to hold Syria accountable for the operation, it must be corroborated that the attack originated from the state. If the state is found guilty for non complying with the Convention, the OPCW can recommend collective punitive measures to other states-parties. In cases of “particular gravity,” the OPCW could bring the issue before the UN Security Council and General Assembly.


The International Criminal Court (ICC) has jurisdiction over the violation of the prohibition to employ chemical weapons. However, the Court’s current statute only refers to international armed conflicts,[5] whereas the Syrian attack only involved the national Parties to the civil war. Moreover, Syria has not ratified the ICC statute and therefore does not recognize the Court’s legitimacy. The UN Security Council is the only that can refer a state that is not Party to the Rome statute to the Court, or alternatively take action under Chapter VI or the UN Charter.[6] However, the presence of Russia (Syria’s current ally) as a permanent member, holding veto power, makes this hypothesis unlikely.


Apart from the International Law mechanisms, many actors are currently involved in the Syrian turmoil. Their actions weigh on the geopolitical balance in the Middle East, too.


On the 4th and 5th April the European Union’s buildings in Brussels hosted a joint UN-EU conference on “the future of Syria and the region.” Labelling the attack as “sad,” Federica Mogherini, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, stressed the idea of unity in the face of the challenges that arise in the Middle East. The European Union seems to align with the idea of a ceasefire and a political resolution between the Syrian government and the rebels, rather than a military intervention on the ground.[7] A military solution to the civil war is not the development that the international consensus hopes for. After the Astana peace talks of January 2017, however, it remains unclear whether a peaceful settlement will accommodate the Parties to the conflict. As of today, the Syrian government seems to intend to defeat the rebels militarily and regain full control of the country.


After six years of conflict, peace and stability remain are seemingly unattainable. They remain a blurred hope in the horizon. 


Nevertheless, the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhun unleashed more than just the last massive human right violation perpetrated by the Syrian government against unarmed civilians. Looking back on the past six years, we can see how Russia’s geopolitical position became predominant in the region, overtaking other actors. The Astana talks that took place a couple of months ago in Kazakhstan’s capital were meant to be the zenith of the Russian alternative to Geneva, driving out Western presence in the discussions upon the future of the Syrian dictator. The Syrian opposition’s rebuttal of the conclusions of the conference, followed by subsequent discussion in Geneva and Brussels, was answered by the despicable massacre that took place in Khan Sheikhun, prior to the EU-UN joint conference.


On 21st August 2012, former US President warned Bashar al-Assad that the use of chemical weapons would cross the administration’s “red line”[8], and trigger a US military response. When blatant evidence was gathered, to prove the massive use the Syrian regime was making of chemical weapons on unarmed civilians, the lack of consequence seemed to show that violating Geneva Protocol[9] had no political consequences in Syria, thanks to the Russian support in the form of veto in the UNSC. The unexpected American attack the former US administration never dared to carry out[10], was not agreed on the international level. Human rights are not safeguarded by unilateral acts of violence and today peace and stability in the region do not seem to be any closer. UN resolutions and international law are not only goals but means and each and every time a political actor faces no consequences for disregarding it we all lose.


As Europeans, we should have a relevant opinion on the Syrian conflict. Syria is not only a neighbouring country, but also the epicentre of a political instability, that can impact the future of the EU itself. Terrorism or the refugee crisis are just some of the issues that we are failing to resolve and that are connected to the situation that MENA region is facing. As Europeans, we should do more than backing US unilateral acts[11] or labelling human rights violations as “sad.”[12][13]

As Europeans, we need to have a voice on what is happening in Syria. The European Neighbourhood Policy virtually failed and the joint EU-UN conference in Brussels merely focused on the US and Russian strategies to end the conflict.

What is the EU position in this complex scenario? Are we shifting towards a bipolar system, again? Are we going to live up to our core values, when we take a stance in the international scenario?



[2] Henckaerts, Jean-Marie, Louise Doswald-Beck, and Carolin Alvermann. Customary international humanitarian law. Vol. 1. Cambridge University Press, 2005.

[3] OPCW, UPDATED Media Brief: Reported Use of Chemical Weapons, Southern Idlib, Syria, 4 April 2017, Friday, 07 April 2017,

[4] Id.

[5] The 2010 ICC Review Conference of Kampala achieved the extension of the rule to non-international armed conflicts. Only the states that ratify the amendment will be bound by the rule.

[6] In the case the attack is labelled as gross violations.