MOSCOW, August 20 (RAPSI, Ingrid Burke) - The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement Tuesday warning the US and the international community as a whole to remain strictly and prudently observant of international law in light of increasingly fervent reports of a possible military intervention in Syria. 

Reports emerged last week that chemical weapons had been used in a deadly attack in Damascus. A UN team deployed to probe the possible use of chemical weapons came under sniper fire Monday, according to the UN News Centre, which added that while the team’s vehicle was destroyed, its members were not harmed. The team returned to the spot afterward to collect samples and to interview witnesses, survivors, and doctors, the report stated, citing UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Notably, the UN team’s inspection will aim to determine whether a chemical weapon attack was carried out, not who bears responsibility, a point reiterated by State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf during a press briefing Monday: “I think, first, it’s important for everyone to remember what the mandate of this team was. It wasn’t to determine culpability into who would have used chemical weapons, it’s to determine whether they were used.”

A statement released by the Russian Foreign Ministry Tuesday announced the US decision to postpone talks that had been expected to be held in The Hague Wednesday. The statement noted that US Secretary of State John Kerry had assured Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during a phone call Sunday that the US remained committed to a joint Russian-American initiative to convene Geneva-2, an international conference aiming to foster a political resolution to the Syrian conflict.  

The Russian Foreign Ministry’s statement went on to explain that the US decision to postpone the meeting sent a contradictory signal to the opposition - rather encouraging rebel forces to have heart that an external intervention could be anticipated. Likewise, the statement noted Kerry’s statements during a press briefing Monday, wherein the Secretary of State noted that the US had obtained evidence of chemical weapon use, though it had declined to disclose any such data.

Meanwhile, Lavrov warned in no uncertain terms Monday that a unilateral Western Intervention in Syria would be a “most brazen violation” of international law. 

Over the course of the past year, the White House has on numerous occasions made clear its position that the use of chemical weapons would constitute a “red line.” 

On August 20, 2012, Obama said during a White House press briefing: “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.  That would change my calculus.  That would change my equation.” He then added, “We have put together a range of contingency plans.  We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons.”

In a letter to US Senator John McCain in April, which the senator in turn published on his website, a White House Official responding on behalf of Obama explained: “Because of our concern about the deteriorating situation in Syria, the President has made it clear that the use of chemical weapons – or the transfer of chemical weapons to terrorist groups – is a red line for the United States of America.”  

During an interview with US news agency CNN Friday, Obama was asked by CNN New Day anchor Chris Cuomo about the red line, in light of the unconfirmed reports of a chemical attack in Syria. At that point, the American president pointed to the rules of international law, stating: “you know, if the U.S. goes in and attacks another country without a U.N. mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it, do we have the coalition to make it work, and, you know, those are considerations that we have to take into account.” The president noted however that “this latest event is something that we’ve got to take a look at.”

Kerry used significantly more flamboyant language Monday in referring to the attack. Friday’s presidential vagueness had given way to concrete blame and unapologetically graphic imagery: “What we saw in Syria last week should shock the conscience of the world. It defies any code of morality. Let me be clear: The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders, by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity. By any standard it is inexcusable, and despite the excuses and equivocations that some have manufactured, it is undeniable.”

Notably, the text of Kerry’s statement published on the State Department’s website is devoid of any explicit mention of international law or the UNSC within the context of a potential response. 

Then CBS, another US news agency, reported Monday that Obama has ordered the release of a report justifying the use of military force in Syria. According to CBS, Obama conducted a three-hour meeting Saturday with his national security team in order to discuss the country’s next move in Syria, in light of reports that chemical weapons may have been used. According to the CBS report, there was no debate about the necessity of a military response, and the president ordered a report justifying the legality of a military strike in case the president decides to order one outside of the UN Security Council (UNSC).

The legality of such an intervention has remained a key issue, as reiterated by Lavrov, who explained during a press conference in Moscow Monday, as quoted by RIA Novosti that, “Paris and London are both calling for the destruction of chemical weapons in Syria even without approval from the UN Security Council. This is a very dangerous, slippery slope.” 

On the point of the UNSC, Tuesday’s Russian Foreign Ministry statement went on: "Attempts to circumvent the UNSC, in yet another attempt to create artificial, unsubstantiated pretexts for military intervention in the region, are fraught with new misery for Syria and catastrophic consequences for other countries in the Middle East and North Africa." The statement concluded with a call to the US and all members of the international community to prudently, and strictly observe international law - and above all, the fundamental principles of the UN Charter.  

Chapter VII of the UN Charter vests the UNSC with broad power to maintain or restore international peace and security in cases where such is sincerely threatened or breached. This chapter has served as the basis for some of the UN’s most high-profile international justice initiatives, from the creation of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) to the 2011 Libya intervention. As suggested by the latter, Chapter VII goes so far as to explicitly provide for the use of force in certain, dire contexts.

According to Article 42 of Chapter VII: “Should the Security Council consider that [various economic and diplomatic sanctions] would be inadequate or have proved to be inadequate, it may take such action by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security. Such action may include demonstrations, blockade, and other operations by air, sea, or land forces of Members of the United Nations.”

While this provision is fairly straight forward, the key issue is clear: any action taken in accordance with Article 42 requires something of an agreement, at least between the five permanent members of the UN: Russia, China, France, the US, and the UK. Each of these five member nations has a veto power that can singlehandedly derail any substantive Chapter VII initiative.