Holding Syria accountable for chemical attacks will be tough without sharing intelligence

A Syrian soldier films the damage to the Syrian Scientific Research Center in Barzeh, near Damascus, Syria, on April 14, 2018. The site was attacked by U.S., British and French military strikes to punish President Bashar al-Assad for suspected chemical attacks against civilians. (Hassan Ammar/AP)
A Syrian soldier films the damage to the Syrian Scientific Research Center in Barzeh, near Damascus, Syria, on April 14, 2018. The site was attacked by U.S., British and French military strikes to punish President Bashar al-Assad for suspected chemical attacks against civilians. (Hassan Ammar/AP)

A chemical weapons confrontation is escalating in Syria, after an international watchdog agency concluded this month that Damascus used chemical weapons, lied to investigators and violated its commitment to dismantle its chemical weapons arsenal. Syria has 90 days to respond — or face a referral to the U.N. Security Council for possible punishment.

Since 2013, the independent Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), often in coordination with experts from the United Nations, has led efforts to collect evidence on the use of toxic gas on civilian targets in Syria. Most recently, the OPCW’s Investigation and Identification Team concluded that the Syrian government was responsible for the use of chemical weapons in March 2017, and thus lied about dismantling its entire stockpile. If Syria’s actions are taken up by the U.N. Security Council, the country may face diplomatic, economic or other penalties.

The international community relies on clear evidence to determine an appropriate response to any use of chemical weapons, whether through diplomacy, sanctions or military strikes. However, proof of crimes in war is hard to come by. The OPCW, like other multilateral bodies, has sometimes turned to national intelligence to fill the evidence gaps. This approach can prove helpful — or, at times, not so helpful.

It’s an international ‘whodunit’

Governments often wish to uphold international laws, but they cannot regulate what they cannot see. The stakes are high, as a system that cannot reliably document law violations will not deter them.

Here’s the challenge with the traditional approach: Sources of information about international law violations have serious flaws. Governments may self-report, but few are interested in self-incrimination. Journalists and nongovernmental advocates may document apparent violations, but have limited powers and information access. International bodies like the OPCW typically lack the authority to conduct intrusive monitoring or visits that might fill in these gaps.

Our new book analyzes another source of evidence — information derived from national intelligence that is quietly shared with international organizations. Governments collectively spend billions of dollars each year on technologies and human networks that can provide precise and timely information on compliance with international rules.

Multilateral agencies have tapped into this intelligence and other kinds of sensitive information for tracking rule violations regarding chemical weapons, peacekeeping, multilateral sanctions regimes, war crimes and even global disease outbreaks. These materials can document violations of laws in foreign affairs with unmatched precision.

Intelligence and chemical weapons in Syria

The OPCW’s approach to investigating chemical weapons usage in Syria illustrates how targeted intelligence-sharing with an international body is one workaround for this dilemma. International experts can assess tips while keeping sensitive disclosures secure. After gathering additional evidence, international organizations can share their conclusions with the international community.

Governments may be reluctant to share their intelligence for fear of revealing their sources and collection methods. Integrating intelligence thus requires international watchdogs such as OPCW to treat sensitive disclosures confidentially. This is secrecy by another name and includes measures such as classification systems for different kinds of submissions, and physical and information technology infrastructure to provide secure storage.

The OPCW, for instance, uses a classification system, limits access to information within the organization, conducts special staff training on handling such information and penalizes breaches of these policies.

This reliance on secrecy appears to have paid off. Intelligence has assisted the investigation of Syria’s chemical weapons at each stage of the process. Confidentiality systems in other multilateral bodies have made international cooperation easier in other areas as well. For example, intelligence played a critical role in dismantling Saddam Hussein’s nuclear infrastructure after the Persian Gulf War, identifying North Korea’s nuclear facilities and holding leaders accountable for war crimes in Bosnia.

But this reliance also produces liabilities

But there are costs to this approach. Turning to intelligence can also make international organizations less transparent, invite accusations of bias and lead to public relations problems if leaks occur.

One trade-off is reduced transparency within international institutions, which has been a hallmark of global governance since the end of the Cold War. Governments will not tolerate the political and operational risks of sharing intelligence unless they can trust that it will be protected. A potential workaround is to have transparency coexist with secrecy, such as public-facing documents that include redactions, and clear descriptions of confidentiality processes and procedures.

Relying on intelligence can also lead to accusations of bias. The Syrian government, for example, has challenged OPCW conclusions, alleging that “reports were prepared in advance by the Western intelligence services.” Multilateral institutions can try to counter such claims by soliciting submissions from a variety of governments and by using technically competent and apolitical experts, though such concerns may remain.

And, of course, secrecy inevitably risks leaks. The more valuable the information that an organization collects, the greater the temptation for others to hack or otherwise steal it. Organizations can protect sensitive information to the best of their abilities, but some leaks are probably inevitable. This concern has arisen at the OPCW, for example.

Intelligence will be part of the solution in Syria

Since international politics lacks a sheriff to keep governments in line, governments often must police one another. However, clear evidence of violations — like Syria’s use of chemical weapons — is hard to come by. We therefore expect that intelligence will remain an important element of global governance, particularly in Syria’s case.

First, if Syria fails to come clean and the OPCW votes to refer Damascus to the U.N. Security Council, intelligence may play a role in any penalties that are imposed — that’s the story in a similar situation, with North Korea. Second, any escalation to the Security Council will raise the stakes of key OPCW judgments, increasing the risk of leaks. Higher stakes may also lead to a shift in tactics. Governments may try to more aggressively shape public opinion and make intelligence public, as they have in the past.

The experience in holding Syria accountable for its chemical weapons commitments shows that intelligence can help to fill in evidentiary gaps and give international law more bite. Yet this approach also adds new layers of risk and complexity to global governance.

Allison Carnegie (@AllieCarnegie) is an associate professor of political science at Columbia University and the author of “Power Plays: How International Institutions Reshape Coercive Diplomacy” (Cambridge University Press 2015). Austin Carson (@CarsonAust) is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago and the author of “Secret Wars: Covert Conflict in International Politics” (Princeton University Press 2018). Carnegie and Carson are the authors of “Secrets in Global Governance: Disclosure Dilemmas and the Challenge of International Cooperation” (Cambridge University Press 2020).

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