On Thursday, the Russian permanent representative to the UN cast its 10th Security Council veto (all of the Russian UN vetoes have been to shield the Assad regime from international opprobrium) to prevent the mandate renewal of a UN joint mechanism to investigate and assign blame for the use of one of the world’s deadliest chemical agents against civilians.
The Russians first came to the defense of Assad’s use of mass chemical warfare in August 2013 when the regime faced potential US retaliatory strikes after nearly 2,000 civilians in the Damascus suburbs were gassed to death in their sleep following the launch of sarin-filled rockets from Assad military bases.
Moscow negotiated a deal with the Obama administration that would have Assad surrender his chemical weapon stockpile in return for an agreement by the Americans not to launch military strikes.
It did not take long for Assad to break the deal. According to international watchdogs, the Assad regime has used chemical weapons on at least half a dozen separate occasions since the 2013 deal. But it was not until the Trump administration decided to hold Assad accountable by launching military strikes for the April sarin gas attack in the city of Khan Sheikhun that the regime was finally put on notice.
Meanwhile, the Russian Foreign Ministry has been quick to attempt to cast doubt on the legitimacy and veracity of the UN’s investigation of the chemical attacks and the hidden sarin stockpiles that the Assad regime maintains to this day.
According to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical weapons (OPCW), “a rigorous methodology was employed for conducting an investigation of alleged use of chemical weapons that took into account corroboration between interviewee testimonies; open-source research, documents, and other records; and the characteristics of the samples including those provided by (the Assad regime).”
The subsequent investigation and the samples collected by the OPCW pointed unequivocally to the Assad regime’s culpability in the Khan Sheikhun chemical attacks. Indeed, shortly after, reports by Western intelligence agencies and monitoring groups surfaced that Assad had returned to producing advanced chemical weapons in a secret facility near Masyaf in western Hama province.
It seems that Moscow has offered the Assad regime a level of plausible deniability and a cover for the continued production and use of sarin gas.
Alarmingly, Moscow to this day denies the Assad regime’s responsibility for the August 2013 sarin attack that first forced the Russians to intercede on Assad’s behalf at the UN.
So what does all this mean in the long term? It seems that Moscow has offered the Assad regime a level of plausible deniability and a cover for the continued production and use of sarin gas. The Russian UN ambassador has, naturally, denied that there is any evidence of Assad regime involvement in the sarin gas strikes. He blamed the US for seeking a "puppet-like structure to manipulate public opinion" while calling for the prevention of the proliferation of chemical terrorism in the region.
But the most likely outcome of the Russian veto will be the encouragement of chemical weapon proliferation. By creating doubt about solid international investigations of Assad’s use and production of chemical weapons, Moscow dangerously opens a Pandora's box where the proliferation of sarin gas rockets and the possible transfer into the hands of third-party "sub-state" groups would allow regimes like Assad’s to skirt meaningful international repercussions and military retaliation.
One can just as easily imagine terror groups such as Hezbollah or the PKK coming into the possession of short-range sarin-filled rockets. The only real guarantee to preventing even deadlier and more widespread use of sarin gas is to stop the production facilities and covert storage that Assad maintains.
Ambassador Nikki Haley, the US representative to the UN, had some strong words for the Russians following the veto. But those words will do little to ensure that justice can be found for the victims of Assad’s chemical arsenal.
If the UN Security Council can be so easily deadlocked because the Russian government is unhappy with the findings of an impartial and scientifically sound investigative body, imagine the impunity with which chemical weapons will probably be wielded in the future. We have seen time and time again how Syria’s conflict is not bound by borders. Now, sadly, with the latest 11th-hour Russian diplomatic intervention in Syria, we may yet again witness more chemical horrors played out on the international stage.
— Oubai Shahbandar is a Fellow in New America’s International Security Program. He is a former Department of Defense senior adviser, and currently a strategic consultant specializing in technology, energy and Arabian Gulf security.