By Jozef Kosc

An Interview With Ambassador Bolewski

I had the privilege of asking former Ambassador and now Professor Wilfried Bolewski about his perspectives on the ongoing Syrian civil war, the legality of foreign military intervention, and the process of chemical weapons disarmament in the context of peace negotiations. Ambassador Bolewski has led a long and varied career in international law and diplomacy. He gained practical experience in International Security Policy at the UN Conference on Disarmament – including Chemical Weapons –, NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group, NATO Defense College and at the NATO desk of the German Foreign Ministry. Ambassador Bolewski now teaches diplomacy and international law at the American Graduate School in Paris and the Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po).


In the weeks following a chemical weapons attack on civilians in Damascus on August 21st, US President Barrack Obama considered a US-led military strike against al-Assad’s regime, with the allied assistance of UK and French forces. After diplomatic opposition from Russia followed suit, wherein Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused rebel forces for the attack, the US and Russia agreed to opt for chemical weapons disarmament as an alternative to military intervention. This decision was solidified in a UN Security Council resolution on September 28th, and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has been on the ground in Syria since October 1st. The destruction of some of the chemical weapons production facilities in Syria began on October 6th.

John Kerry, Sergei Lavrov, Syria, chemical weapons, disarmament

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov agree to push for chemical weapons disarmament process in Syria.  Photo Credit: Getty Images/ Harold Cunningham

Thank you very much for your time Ambassador; it has been a busy past few weeks in the world of international relations, and with an array of various media perspectives, it helps to have some clarity from an expert.

My first question. When Obama proposed a coalition armed strike against the Syrian regime in early September, sentiments were mixed—both within the domestic sphere of the United States, and at the international level of diplomacy. In the context of international law, was there ever a legal justification for military intervention? 

Ambassador: The pre-conditions for a military intervention in Syria under the Responsibility to Protect (crimes against humanity) were and still remain fulfilled: more than 100,000 people killed by the Assad regime in conventional civil strife, 4 million internally displaced, 2 million trans-border refugees, more than 1,400 people killed through attacks by Government activities, recognizable in the UN Inspectors Report by the origin of weapons and ballistic trajectory.

The (limited) legitimate aims of such an intervention would be to neutralize or destroy the infrastructure and organs of the regime responsible for the commitment of the said atrocities and to prevent, deter and incapacitate any future use of Chemical and Conventional Weapons, preferably against 3 C installations – Command, Control, Communication.

Do you think that the deadline for foreign military intervention has passed? What if Damascus fails to comply with OPCW requests?

Ambassador: Contrary to the immediacy of a reaction in the case of self-defence there is no time limit to the duty to protect civilians as long as the threat to their lives persists.

Since the UN-SC Resolution of September 28, 2013 does not include any automatic sanctions in case of non-compliance any new UN-SC Resolution would be faced with the same veto unless the recent French proposal of self-restraint in case of mass crimes would apply to the P 5.

What makes the use of chemical weapons so much more grievous than other forms of violence? Is there an international law outlining strict prohibition?

Ambassador: Syria ratified in 1968 the 1025 Geneva Protocol on the Protection of the Use of Chemical Weapons in war and it recently signed the Chemical Weapons Contention of 1003. The use of Chemical Weapons has been recognized as a Crime Against Humanity in International Customary Law.

OPCW, Syria, United Nations, Hend Abdel Ghany

The OPCW enters Syria on October 1st. Photo courtesy of UN Photo/ Hend Abdel Ghany.

The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces criticized the US-Russian decision on disarmament, noting that “Chemical weapons use is just one of the many crimes against humanity Assad is committing against the Syrian people…” General Salim Idris, head of the Supreme Military Council of the rebel Free Syrian Army, also criticized the resolution for failing to hold al-Assad accountable for any crime. Do you think that chemical weapons disarmament will do anything to stop the ongoing civil war?

Ambassador: The political criticism against this CW Disarmament initiative is based on the following:

  • The Assad regime is elevated to a partner in disarmament and it thus regains a new legitimacy for at least one year.
  • The International Community seems more concerned about weapons than the protection and assistance for civilians under continuous attack,
  • Disarmament seems to take priority over crisis management of underlying causes and expectations.

In fact, the disarmament initiative as a shield against military intervention is seen as a deceptively attractive manoeuvre of diversion and a diplomatic pipe dream in relation to the need for the topical crisis management because it is

  • Technically impracticable to destroy CW stocks in war-time,
  • Inefficient to stop conventional as well as chemical war crimes.
Syria, civil war, Syria Needs Analysis Project, rebels, government

A geopolitical map of the Syrian civil war, outlining rebel and government-held strongholds. Photo Credit: Syria Needs Analysis Project.

Recent reports indicate that as many as 19 rebel groups are actively opposing political negotiations with al-Assad at the proposed upcoming Geneva II peace talks. Are you optimistic?

Ambassador: The success of future Geneva II negotiations will depend on:

  • A cease-fire,
  • Inclusive participation of all regional fractions,
  • Protection of minorities and
  • Eventually, an out-of-the-box, innovative approach, including a rethinking of the State in the Middle East along ethnic, linguistic and sectarian communities.  This could lead to new sovereign states building transnational stability among neighbours in regional groupings.

Final question. Iran’s new President, Hassan Rouhani, has called for the expulsion of terrorist groups from Syria, alongside the destruction of chemical weapons. Would Western leaders benefit from including Iran in the upcoming negotiations?

Ambassador: The inclusion of Iran and its recognition as a leading regional power seems to be a condition sine qua non to any sustainable solution of the regional conflict.