Was it illegal for Syria to use them?

Not that we’ve particularly observed the rule of law in Syria in recent years but still, it’s an important question. We all generally think that the use of chemical weapons is illegal – this isn’t necessarily so. It depends what the government concerned has signed up to. This is akin to those perennial whines about Israel and atomic bombs. Why aren’t they subject to the same sanctions that, say, Iran was?

The answer being that Iran signed up to a treaty which said they wouldn’t, Israel didn’t. Under international law therefore we have to have actions (not necessarily sanctions) against Iran and we can if we wish but don’t have to against Israel.

Yes, this does matter:

President Trump responded Sunday to reports of a suspected chemical attack in the Syrian city of Douma, blaming Syrian President Bashar Assad and his international allies for the apparent attack that left dozens dead and hundreds injured. In some of his most critical comments directed at Russian President Vladimir Putin to date, Mr. Trump threatened that there’s a “big price … to pay” for those backing the Assad regime.

The point being that if Assad has been breaking this international law about chemical weapons then we really are all supposed to do something about it:

The British government also condemned the Syrian government and its backers.

“These are very concerning reports of a chemical weapons attack with significant number of casualties, which if correct, are further proof of Assad’s brutality against innocent civilians and his backers’ callous disregard for international norms,” said a statement from the Foreign Ministry. “An urgent investigation is needed and the international community must respond. We call on the Assad regime and its backers, Russia and Iran, to stop the violence against innocent civilians.”

Again, the point is the use of chemical weapons or not – their use would mean that we’ve, under the relevant treaties at least, got to do something. A government killing its own citizenry doesn’t mean that.

That means we should consider whether Syria, assuming they have used chemical weapons, should be punished for having done so. Or are they in the position Israelis in? They didn’t sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty concerning atomic bombs and so, while any country can argue as it likes, there’s no insistence that sanctions must be applied given that they do have  bomb or 12. Iran had signed that treaty, therefore sanctions should have been applied when they tried (or succeeded, not sure myself).

The answer is Syria has signed the relevant treaty but only just:

The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is an arms control treaty that outlaws the production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons and their precursors.

In September 2013 Syria acceded to the convention as part of an agreement for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons.

That makes their use or not a big deal – over and above the shock and horror of their use that is. Which is why there’s going to be such argument about whether they were used and if so, who by, of course.