The title is hyperbolic, but it gets to a shortcoming of the UN Security Council’s Resolution 2118 on Syria’s chemical weapons passed last week. It was inspired by reported responses to the resolution.
US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power - This resolution makes clear there will be consequences for noncompliance. US Secretary of State John Kerry - Progress would be reported to the Council, he said, stressing that non-compliance would lead to the imposition of Chapter VII actions.
It is not clear whether Ambassador Power and Secretary Kerry actually believe what they are saying, but to be clear, they should not.
The consequence in question is item 21 of the resolution: “decides, in the event of non-compliance with this resolution, including unauthorized transfer of chemical weapons, or any use of chemical weapons by anyone in the Syrian Arab Republic, to impose measures under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter.”
In reality, this is hardly a consequence. First off, any measures imposed under Chapter VII would require another UNSC resolution, a point that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made clear on a Russian TV interview. Another resolution gives Russia another chance to veto, and an earlier draft of 2118 suggests that Russia’s requirements for action are quite high.
For fun, let’s assume that Russia would be sensitive to criticism if it prohibited a response to another chemical attack after approving 2118. While it is true that the UN’s harshest measures require Chapter VII, the reverse is not true; Chapter VII does not require harsh measures. That is, Russia could put forth a toothless Chapter VII resolution to meet its institutional obligations and still shield Assad.
The Security Council Report wrote in 2008 on the myths of Chapter VII that spells out the range of Chapter VII resolutions. The following line is the most relevant to the situation:
In some cases, the Council invokes Chapter VII (for purely political purposes) but with no intent to impose binding obligations.
Ultimately, if we do see another chemical attack by the regime, the UN would find itself in a position similar to where President Obama was in early September - having its vague threat challenged with little chance of backing it up in a meaningful way. Let us hope that Assad is a man of his word.