war on the rocks

#NoImpunity: Will the Newest International Effort to Stop Chemical Attacks in Syria Succeed?

March 2, 2018

Late in the evening on March 16, 2015, the Taleb family was asleep in their home in the small town of Sarmin in Syria’s war-torn Idlib province when a Syrian Air Force helicopter dropped a chlorine barrel bomb on their house. The bomb fell through a shaft that provided ventilation to the underground levels and detonated in the kitchen on the second level, releasing its deadly payload of poisonous gas. Since chlorine is heavier than air, the gas remained trapped on this floor, which also contained the family’s bedrooms. The entire family of six, including the children aged one, two, and three, died after inhaling a lethal dose of chlorine. As Dr. Mohammed Tennari, a doctor in Sarmin who treated casualties from this attack and several others in Idlib province around this time, told the U.N. Security Council, the Taleb family’s basement “became a gas chamber.”

The process of identifying and holding accountable the perpetrators of chemical attacks in Syria, like the one on Sarmin, has been slow and frustrating. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the international body charged with implementing the Chemical Weapons Convention, can conduct fact-finding missions to determine if toxic chemicals were used as weapons, but the organization does not have the authority to determine attribution — that is, who launched the attacks. That was once the job of the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), created by the Security Council in 2015, to “identify to the greatest extent feasible individuals, entities, groups, or governments who were perpetrators, organizers, sponsors or otherwise involved in the use of chemicals as weapons.” The JIM found the Assad regime responsible for multiple attacks with chlorine barrel bombs, including the attack on Sarmin, as well as the use of sarin in Khan Sheikhoun last April.

The success of the JIM, however, led to its downfall, as Russia used its veto power on the Security Council to kill the organization last year. Russia’s commitment to the survival of the Assad regime and its readiness to use diplomacy and disinformation to achieve that objective has foreclosed the use of existing international mechanisms to hold the regime accountable.

Now, a new international partnership seeks to fill this gap in the international nonproliferation architecture by publicizing and punishing the perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks in Syria. The International Partnership Against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons, or the Partnership Against Impunity for short, is a promising initiative that seeks to operate alongside traditional multilateral forums to more successfully hold perpetrators accountable and uphold the international norm against chemical weapons.

The End of Attribution

In response to the JIM’s findings on Khan Sheikhoun, Russia used its veto three times in fall 2017 to prevent the JIM’s mandate from being extended, silencing the only international body with the authority and resources to identify the perpetrators of chemical attacks in Syria. Russia has also succeeded in preventing the OPCW from condemning Syria’s use of chemical weapons, let alone imposing sanctions for violating the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Syria has taken advantage of the political cover provided by Russia to escalate its use of chemical weapons over the last two months. The most recent chlorine attack, in Ghouta on Feb. 25, killed a child and sickened 15 others. According to the humanitarian group Syrian American Medical Society, this was the seventh chemical attack of the year and the 197th of the war. While chemical weapons have so far accounted for only a fraction of the deaths and casualties inflicted by the Syrian civil war, they have the potential to cause far greater destruction if the Assad regime uses them on a larger scale. The longer the regime can use chemical weapons without facing serious consequences, the greater the risk it will escalate these attacks and the weaker the restraints on other states from adopting similar tactics. Stopping the use of these weapons is both a nonproliferation necessity and a humanitarian imperative.


In light of Russian willingness to protect Syria from censure, concerned members of the international community have had to come up with creative ways to hold the Assad regime accountable for its violation of international laws and norms. To fill this gap in the global anti-chemical weapon architecture, France launched an international initiative in January to pressure the Assad regime to halt its use of chemical weapons. The Partnership Against Impunity, which uses the hashtag #NoImpunity on Twitter, is a group of 25 countries motivated by the twin goals of deterring future chemical attacks and bringing to justice the perpetrators of past attacks.

The members of the Partnership Against Impunity have agreed to cooperate to identify individuals and entities involved in the use of chemical weapons, to strengthen national and multilateral sanctions to punish them, and to share information on these perpetrators so they can be prosecuted in the future. In addition, members have agreed to assist states with developing mechanisms to compile this information and develop national legislation to prosecute perpetrators of chemical attacks. A public website has been established to publicize the names of individuals and entities that have been sanctioned by Canada, the European Union, France, the United States, or the United Kingdom for having contributed to the development or use of chemical weapons.

It must be acknowledged that most of the sanctions that individual countries have levied so far are largely symbolic, since most of the individuals and entities on these lists don’t have assets in, conduct business with, or have an interest in traveling to the countries imposing the sanctions. This is likely truer for lower-ranking Syrians in the military and the chemical weapon production complex who are responsible for producing and delivering chemical weapons. High-ranking Syrian officials — who manage the chemical weapon program and plan the attacks — are more likely to have financial or personal ties to European countries, and so are more vulnerable to being cut off from traveling or conducting business abroad. For instance, Amr Armanazi, who runs the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC), the organization that develops Syria’s chemical weapons and ballistic missiles, and has been sanctioned by Australia, the European Union, the United States, and the United Kingdom, reportedly has two sons living in London. The overall impact of these sanctions is also limited by the fact that they are implemented by only a handful of countries, since Russia has used its veto in the Security Council to ensure that Syria won’t be subject to tougher international sanctions.

Publicizing the identity of those responsible for violations of human rights, also called “naming and shaming,” is a time-tested tactic for pressuring governments to improve their human rights practices. The Partnership Against Impunity’s efforts, however, go beyond a simple “naming and shaming” strategy to embrace more ambitious objectives. Increasing international awareness of the individuals and entities responsible for the production of chemical weapons and planning of attacks has four valuable functions: disrupting Syria’s procurement of materials for its chemical weapons program, preserving future options to prosecute perpetrators, demonstrating that the chemical taboo is not dead, and deterring future attacks.

Beyond Naming and Shaming

First, by curating a public database that lists all of the front companies and procurement agents used by the SSRC, the Partnership Against Impunity makes it easier for other countries and companies around the world to avoid doing business with Syria’s chemical weapons program. While sanctioning these shadowy companies and middlemen is like playing “whack-a-mole,” it is an essential element of preventing Syria from rebuilding the capabilities that the OPCW destroyed after Syria joined the Chemical Weapons Convention. Since 2014, France has observed several Syrian attempts to acquire dozens of tons of isopropanol, one of the precursors needed to produce sarin. According to a February report by U.N. experts, Syria has been rebuilding chemical weapon production facilities with material provided by North Korea.

By consolidating information that was previously scattered across multiple websites and in multiple formats into a single place, the group has reduced the time and effort required for governments and companies to perform due diligence on potential customers that may be linked to Syria’s chemical weapons program. As Richard Cupitt, who worked on strategic trade controls at the State Department and is now a senior associate with the Stimson Center, told me: “Screening parties in a transaction required for due diligence isn’t easy, nor cheap. Consolidated screening lists reduce the costs of regulatory compliance — helping companies to avoid exploitation by terrorists, criminals, and proliferators.” It should be noted, however, that even a more robust implementation of sanctions and export controls will not prevent Syria from using chemical weapons against its own people. Chlorine is a widely available chemical with a range of industrial uses, and the regime is believed to have withheld several tons of sarin precursors from destruction by the OPCW.

The second important role this initiative performs is to lay the groundwork for future prosecutions of military officers and government officials who engaged in war crimes. The list of individuals sanctioned by various governments is a roadmap for identifying perpetrators who can be prosecuted in the future under the right conditions. Bringing these criminals to justice, however, will be a long, slow, and difficult process as long as the Assad regime, or an Alawite successor, remains in power. Syria’s lack of membership in the International Criminal Court, and the Russian and Chinese veto of a Security Council resolution to refer Syria to the court, means this venue will likely remain off limits for the foreseeable future.

In the absence of a competent national or international authority to hold regime officials accountable right now, sanctions play a necessary, though not sufficient, role in keeping this option open in the future. While each country uses different laws and procedures to impose sanctions, they all undertake a lengthy internal review process to ensure that there is enough information, both classified and unclassified, to justify their imposition. As a result, the imposition of sanctions for the development or use of chemical weapons indicates that the government has significant information that it can potentially share with national or international bodies responsible for prosecuting crimes committed during the civil war.

Third, the Partnership Against Impunity is a concrete manifestation of the noble goal enshrined in the preamble of the Chemical Weapons Convention “to exclude completely the possibility of the use of chemical weapons.” This norm has been badly eroded by Syria’s continued chemical attacks and the Russia’s willingness to shield its ally from consequences. By publicly committing themselves to devote time, energy, and resources to upholding the norm, the members of the Partnership Against Impunity have demonstrated that these principles are not being ignored. While such declarations may be cold comfort to Syrian civilians who are suffocated by chlorine or killed by sarin, they play an important role in bolstering the norm, provide a platform for mobilizing international action, isolate defenders of the Assad regime such as Russia and Iran, and discourage other governments from seeking to emulate the regime’s actions. It is imperative for the partnership to expand its membership to demonstrate that its commitment to accountability is widely shared.

The final, and most ambitious, objective of the Partnership Against Impunity is to deter future chemical attacks. Unfortunately, this is the objective that this group will be least able to influence. The fundamental problem is the asymmetry of interests between the Assad regime, which believes it faces an existential threat, and Western and Arab nations that have strong, but not vital, national interests in ending the Syrian civil war and preventing the use of chemical weapons. Russia’s assistance also insulates the Assad regime from the full brunt of Western and Arab political and economic coercion.

This asymmetry of interests operates not only at the level of the regime, but also at the level of the individuals who comprise Syria’s chemical kill chain. For these individuals, the costs imposed by sanctions and the uncertain risk of future prosecution for war crimes are a faint echo of the fear that if the regime falls, their very survival will be threatened. The history of illicit weapons trafficking also suggests that the increased risk of interdiction and prosecution will not deter Syria’s foreign suppliers from attempting to profit from procurement opportunities.

From Impunity to Accountability

There are several ways the Partnership Against Impunity can improve the odds that it will succeed in its mission of curtailing the use of chemical weapons in Syria and around the world. The partnership needs to improve its ground-breaking list of individuals and entities who have been sanctioned, build awareness and capacity among member and non-member states to enforce these sanctions and prosecute perpetrators, and provide assistance to international organizations charged with investigating and attributing chemical attacks in Syria.

More Naming

The list of individuals and entities on the partnership’s sanctioned list is incomplete. For example, Brigadier General Bassam Al-Hassan, who serves as Assad’s advisor for strategic affairs and is his representative to the SSRC, is not included in the database despite having been sanctioned by the United States in 2014. The Metallic Manufacturing Factory was sanctioned by the United States in early 2017 for serving as a front company for SSRC and, according to a UN report, procuring materials from North Korea used in the construction of chemical weapon production facilities. But it is not listed in the database. In addition, Australia is not even listed as a contributor to the database despite being a founding member of the group who imposed sanctions on 40 individuals and 14 entities in August 2017 for their role in Syria’s chemical attacks. Addresses and passport numbers, which are useful for enforcing sanctions and export controls, are not included. In many cases, individuals and entities in the database have been sanctioned by multiple countries, but this is not always reflected in their entry. This is unfortunate since one of the values of this initiative is that it communicates the collective resolve of concerned countries. Hopefully, these gaps and omissions will be fixed during the database’s biannual update.

While the Syrian government is the world’s most prolific user of chemical weapons, it is not the only one. When the partnership was launched in Paris, the founding members issued a declaration to:

Reaffirm our condemnation in the strongest possible terms of the use of chemical weapons by anyone under any circumstance, emphasizing that all uses of chemical weapons anywhere, at any time, by anyone, under any circumstances are unacceptable, and contravenes international law.

To keep true to its global scope, the partnership should also target other perpetrators of chemical attacks. The Islamic State has committed multiple chemical attacks in Iraq and Syria. Although the frequency and scale of the Islamic State’s chemical attacks pale in comparison to those committed by the Syrian government, restoring the norm requires that all those who use toxic chemicals be held accountable.

The Partnership Against Impunity should also target the North Korean intelligence agents, and their superiors, who organized the assassination of Kim Jong Nam with the nerve agent VX in February 2017. Four North Korean agents are already the subject of a “red notice” issued by Interpol. The two women who are alleged to have smeared the poison on Kim Jong Nam’s face are on trial in Malaysia. While this trial is a rare victory, there cannot be true justice until the actual masterminds of this attack are held accountable.

More Shaming                                                     

The Partnership Against Impunity’s website downplays the heinous crimes that individuals listed in its database have committed or aided and abetted. The site includes only the name and date of birth of the listed individuals and the legal authority under which they have been subjected to national or European sanctions. In many cases the United States and European Union have publicly explained why individuals are being sanctioned. Omitting these freely available, important details from the website misses an opportunity to raise international awareness of the well-organized apparatus Syria has developed for the research, production, weaponization, planning, and delivery of chemical weapons. The current bare-bones entries do not do justice to the gravity of the crimes that these individuals are associated with and fails to counter the misinformation peddled by Syria and Russia.

Facilitating Information Sharing for Investigation and Attribution

The Partnership Against Impunity can serve a valuable clearinghouse function to collate and share information with international bodies that have a role in investigating and attributing the use of chemical weapons. Members of the OPCW are already obligated to cooperate with the group’s fact-finding missions, but the partnership could be a useful tool for encouraging states to share as much relevant information as possible with that body.

Two other U.N. entities could also benefit from efforts to improve the sharing of accurate and timely information on chemical attacks. The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic has also been collecting information on the use of chemical weapons. Between March 2013 and September 2017, the commission documented approximately 30 chemical attacks in Syria, judging that most were perpetrated by the Assad regime against civilians. Although the commission has engaged in attribution, it lacks the investigative capacity and political standing of the now-defunct JIM.

In 2016, frustrated with Russia’s veto of the referral of Syria to the International Criminal Court, the U.N. General Assembly created the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to Assist in the Investigation and Prosecution of Persons Responsible for the Most Serious Crimes under International Law Committed in the Syrian Arab Republic. This body has the additional responsibility of collecting and preserving evidence that sheds light on the intent behind chemical weapons abuses and the role of individuals in the chain of command who can be held responsible in a national or international tribunal.

The activities of these two bodies require access to timely, reliable, and relevant evidence. Efforts by members of the Partnership Against Impunity to share their own information or facilitate access to information held by others would be a valuable contribution to the pursuit of international justice.

Capacity Building

The Partnership Against Impunity, like other multinational undertakings, is only as strong as its weakest link. A number of countries with sizable chemical industries lag behind in implementing their obligations under U.N. Security Council resolution 1540, which requires all states to prevent the proliferation of chemical, biological, and nuclear materials to non-state actors. Equally important is bolstering the capability of individual states to enforce the laws they already have. Members should also support the expansion of existing Interpol programs to train and equip law enforcement agencies to interdict and investigate criminal and terrorist cases involving toxic chemicals.

The Partnership Against Impunity could also serve a useful role in coordinating assistance provided to civil society groups inside and outside of Syria that are actively collecting, preserving, and analyzing evidence about mass atrocities committed during the conflict, including the use of chemical weapons. Such assistance could be not only financial, but also cover training and equipment for properly protecting the physical integrity and chain of custody of evidence that could contribute to international criminal cases in the future.


The international community’s ability to conduct attribution of chemical attacks in Syria has been badly damaged by Russian misinformation and its termination of the JIM. In light of Russian intransigence, the Partnership Against Impunity is a necessary expedient to magnify the actions that countries have been taking individually so far to advance the cause of chemical weapon nonproliferation and accountability. This group is only the latest example of a “minilateral” initiative that starts with a small but committed core of like-minded countries that seek to advance their shared nonproliferation objectives outside of, but in support of, established international organizations and treaties. The Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Australia Group, the Missile Technology Control Regime, the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, and the Proliferation Security Initiative were all created to enhance multinational cooperation to prevent the illicit trafficking of materials and technologies related to weapons of mass destruction.

By avoiding multilateral forums that all too often yield “lowest common denominator” outcomes and allow spoiler states to block progress, such groups can move quickly to create strong standards, establish mechanisms for sharing information, improve coordination, and eventually expand their membership. While on one level, such minilateral initiatives are a sign of weakness in the multilateral approach, they also signal key states’ enduring commitment to the goals and principles embodied by these multilateral institutions.

The Partnership Against Impunity breaks new ground by combining nonproliferation and international justice. Its success can be measured not only by events on the ground in Syria, but also by the number and commitment of states that join the partnership, denounce the use of chemical weapons anywhere by anyone, and take concrete actions to sanction and prosecute perpetrators of chemical attacks. Ultimately, “naming and shaming” and international sanctions — no matter how severe they are and how many countries adopt them — are not an adequate substitute for true accountability. But by assembling a broad coalition of diverse countries, collecting and sharing credible evidence, and strengthening the penalties levied on perpetrators, the Partnership Against Impunity can help create the conditions necessary for successful accountability. While both peace and justice have proven to be frustratingly elusive in Syria for the past six years, the worst crime would be to give up hoping that either goal will remain forever out of reach.


Gregory D. Koblentz is an associate professor and director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. He is also a member of the Scientists Working Group on Chemical and Biological Security at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

Image: F. de la Mure/MEAE