Nikki Haley, credit USUN

UPDATE: A Chemical Weapon Has Been Used in Syria. What Does the Security Council Do Now?

UPDATE: The Security Council is meeting again today, potentially on separate resolutions offered by the United States and Russia. The key difference between the two resolutions is that the United States wants an independent international investigation to be able to assign blame for the attack. The Russian proposal would only empower the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to investigate whether or not chemical weapons were used — not who used them.

This debate over the mandate of chemical weapons investigators goes back to last year when Russia vetoed extending the mandate of UN-backed chemical weapons investigators (see below).

Now, the stakes are much higher. If Russia vetoes the US resolution, thereby blocking an independent investigation into who conducted this apparent chemical attack, I think it is almost certain that the United States launches airstrikes in the very near future.

Original post

Monday, April 9: The Security Council is meeting in an emergency session today following a likely chemical weapons attack in Syria that killed dozens of people in the town of Douma. The United States was quick to blame the Assad regime for the attack, threatening retaliatory strikes.

Russia, meanwhile, is raising doubts that a chemical weapons attack even occurred. Moscow tried to use a procedural tactic to schedule a second Security Council session today, this one under the rubric of “terrorism and international security” because Russia, like the Syrian Government, accuses Syrian rebels of being terrorists.

As of now, it looks like there will be just one meeting. But what can it accomplish?

Because of Russian intransigence last fall, the UN-backed body that would have investigated this attack no longer exists. In November, Russia vetoed extending the mandate of an entity called the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM). This was a partnership that between the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the United Nations that the Security Council created in 2015 to investigate alleged uses of chemical weapons in Syria. This body put out seven reports in total, assigning responsibility to both the Syrian government and ISIS for specific attacks.

But the JIM ran into significant trouble with Russia as it prepared a report about the April 2016 attack in Khan Shaykhun, which prompted a US military strike. Russia did not want the Joint Investigative Mechanism to investigate that attack, but it did anyway. When the JIM released its report in late October, Russia attacked it, raising a number of somewhat spurious concerns about the JIM’s methodology. This signaled a wider break between Russia and the rest of the Security Council over the Joint Investigative Mechanism. Days later, in early November, the JIM’s mandate was up for a one-year renewal. Russia cast its veto and the JIM was disbanded.

Now, it appears the United States is trying to give new life to the JIM. Reporter Colum Lynch obtained a draft copy of the United States-drafted resolution that again calls for the creation of a UN-backed investigative authority.

Unless something gives, this measure will almost certainly be met with a Russian veto. At that point the Security Council will be back at square one when it comes to investigating chemical weapons in Syria.