September 9, 2013

President Obama’s push for U.S. military involvement in Syria is based on Syria’s violation of a near-universal ban on the use of chemical weapons and the danger that these weapons may fall into terrorists’ hands. The horrendous acts of the Syrian government may justify action to “degrade” its ability to gas its own people. But military action cannot strengthen the legal norm we purport to enforce. Only universal and verifiable legal agreements can do that, and this is a time of unparalleled leverage to accomplish that end.

With Syria, our two main client states in the Middle East, Israel and Egypt, are the region’s only non-parties to the 1992 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The CWC bars both internal and external use of most chemical weapons by its parties, requires reporting on both their chemical weapons activities and the destruction of their stockpiles, and provides for verification inspections by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

We need to use the U.S. response to the Syrian horrors to require Israel to ratify and Egypt and Syria to sign and ratify the CWC. Mr. Obama indicates that our military action is not urgent, and Israeli ratification should be a prerequisite to the proposed U.S. military retaliation against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Egyptian and Syrian accession to the CWC is not immediately achievable, given the lack of an effective government in Egypt or a credible government in Syria. But CWC accession should precede military assistance to new governments in those states. Let some good flow from Syria’s humanitarian disaster.

Bill Hoffman, Washington