President Obama is right to have declared a red line on the Assad regime's use or movement of chemical weapons in Syria. The ban on the use and possession of chemical weapons, as embodied in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), is one of the main pillars of global security established by the international community with US leadership in the wake of the Cold War. 188 nations are parties to this landmark disarmament treaty, which eliminates an entire class of weapons of mass destruction under a comprehensive verification regime.
The central question is not why President Obama has declared a red line but why 187 other heads of state have not.
Syria, one of only a handful of states not to be a party to the Convention, is the first country to arrogantly and blatantly defy the international community of nations since the entry into force of the CWC fifteen years ago by publicly acknowledging its possession of chemical weapons, flagrantly threatening their use against its own population and prohibiting an international investigation into the suspected use of chemical weapons in the civil war. The crisis in Syria is also the first in the 21st century playing out the much-feared post Cold War scenario of a crumbling regime potentially losing control of it weapons of mass destruction most dangerously to terrorist groups.
Every signatory of the treaty should now be embracing the red line, urging immediate action to establish control over the stockpiles and calling for immediate entry into Syria for the UN inspectors. The President of the United States should be mobilizing this group -- this coalition of the already committed -- more effectively as part of the US response to the crisis.
The momentum for the conclusion of the Convention fifteen years ago was sparked by the lack of international action the last time these weapons of mass destruction were used by Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War and then against his own people. The obscene images of the deaths and casualties from Saddam's use of chemical weapons followed by the use of chemical weapons in the terrorist attacks on the Tokyo subways, rallied the international community to say never again.
During the 1990s the international community of nations both collectively and individually put concerted diplomatic pressure on the United States to bring its leadership to bear, as the world's only superpower, to conclude the negotiations on the Convention and then to ratify it so that the CWC could enter into force with both the US and Russia, the largest possessors of chemical weapons, as original member states. Recognizing that such a ban was in the US national security interests, President George H.W. Bush and then President Clinton provided that leadership.
When the Assad regime admitted last summer that it had chemical weapons and that it was willing to use them against its own people, it seemed like, except for the United States, we were back in the 1980s when a less committed international community turned a blind eye towards the use of chemical weapons.
As Chinese President Xi Jinping recently said regarding North Korea, no one single nation should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gain. In this battle, it is 188 to 1. With those odds, the chemical weapons convention regime is not the regime that should be seen as tottering.
While the CWC can hail as its greatest accomplishments its near universal acceptance and the reducing of existing chemical weapons stockpiles by over 80% to date, its has also marked its 15th anniversary with its greatest challenge -- the crisis in Syria. It is past time for the 188 signatories both collectively and individually to put direct pressure on the Assad regime to stop the use and possible lose of control of its chemical weapons. It is past time for the US to mobilize this international effort as part of its response to the Syrian crisis.
The importance of the US leveraging the international arms control regimes and mobilizing a collected international response reaches beyond the viability of the CWC. Iran and North Korea are launching a similar challenge to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which has about an equal number of nations as parties to that treaty. President Obama and the world community need to show these treaties have meaning and that outliers like Syria, Iran and North Korea will not be allowed to determine global security against the will of the international community of nations.
Dr. Lori Esposito Murray was Special Advisor to President Clinton on the Chemical Weapons Convention. She currently holds the Distinguished Chair for National Security at the US Naval Academy sponsored by the Class of 1960.