Recent revelations that Bashar al-Assad’s regime, as well as potentially the Syrian opposition, has used chemical weapons on a number of occasions, has sent the international community into a panic. Almost a year ago, Barack Obama warned that the use of chemical weapons constituted a “red line” that would trigger international intervention. While Obama has tried to finesse this statement—and the relevant facts— in order to prevent the United States from being rapidly sucked into the intricate and ruthless quagmire of the Syrian civil war, the US pro-war camp has gained strength in the past few days.
Chemical weapons have a long and inauspicious history in the Middle East; since the Second World War, the Middle East has been the only place to see repeated and extensive use of chemical munitions in warfare. The British considered using them during the 1920 Iraqi uprising against colonialism, although evidence suggests actual use was highly limited at worst. Chemical weapons were most infamously used on a large scale during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), where it is estimated that over 100 000 Iranians, many of them civilians or conscripted children, were killed by Saddam Hussein’s extensive arsenal of chemical munitions. Saddam, a lover of chemical munitions, also used them on his population, committing genocide against Marsh Arabs and Kurds in the 1980s and early 1990s, most prominently in the Halabja massacre.
Chemical weapons are often classified with biological weapon, such as germs and mycotoxins, as “toxic agents”; George W. Bush even extended the definition, including both, along with nuclear weapons, in the category of “weapons of mass destruction”. Chemical weapons have a few features that make them more feared than conventional weapons.
First, chemical weapons cause damage in horrifying ways. Gases that corrode flesh, suffocate screaming civilians taking shelter in basements or shut down an opponent’s nervous system create deep-seated terror in a way that bombs and bullets do not.
Second, chemical weapons are seen as “unfair”, especially to the patrician framers of the international laws which bar their use. While a gun battle is “fair” in some sense, suffocating an enemy in clouds of poison gas, without giving them the chance for an honorable fight is seen as somehow wrong.
Third, while chemical weapons are designed to cause mass casualties just like conventional weapons, they are also known for creating large numbers of sick, wounded and permanently disabled people, in ways that internationally sanctioned conventional weapons do not. Sarin for example, reportedly used in Syria, can cause permanent neurological damage. This, especially in the confused and cruel environment of a civil war, means that tens of thousands of both soldiers and civilians in dense urban areas may suffer grinding agony and burden an already-overwhelmed refugee medical system.
For these reasons, chemical weapons use has been seen since the end of the First World War but especially since the Second World War as “beyond the pale”, with an international prohibition on their possession or use. However, this has proven broadly ineffective. Chemical weapons are relatively cheap to produce, and can be manufactured by any country with a functioning civilian chemical production capacity, including basic goods like synthetic fertilizers. Chemical weapons are so easy to produce or improvise from civilian chemicals that even insurgent groups like the Tamil Tigers have used crude versions, while more complex and lethal weapons have been mass-produced even by poor countries like Syria and Iraq.
This international standard has also proved immensely flexible. Britain and France used poison gas in Iraq and Morocco during their colonial rule; the U.S. military carpet-bombed whole regions with highly toxic “defoliants” like Agent Orange in Vietnam; and Iraq has received Western support for their use of chemicals in their long bloody war with Iran. As well, use of chemical weapons has never prompted actual intervention; ironically, the only military intervention based on possession of chemical weapons (among others), the 2003 invasion of Iraq, failed to uncover Saddam’s purported chemical weapons stockpiles.
In today’s Syria then, perhaps chemical weapons should not be a “red line” to intervention. Chemical weapons, while terrifying, are no more lethal than conventional tools; whether people are being killed by mustard gas or machine gun fire makes very little actual difference to the dead. Chemical weapons are not necessary for wholesale slaughter; while Saddam Hussein relied on them, Bashar al-Assad’s father and predecessor Hafez al-Assad calmly butchered 20,000 people in three weeks during the 1982 Hama uprising with just artillery fire and bullets. Finally, a commitment to intervene only with the use of chemical weapons reeks of hypocrisy and is highly inflexible. International intervention should be based on how many lives are at risk or on actual threats to regional stability, not on the manner in which lives are ended or what particular tool brutal dictators use to fight a dirty war. Whether or not the United States should commit itself to al-Assad’s fall is unclear, but chemical weapons should not be the catalyst for such a reaction.
– Alex Langer
Featured photo: jenspie3, Creative Commons, Flickr