Why Do We Even Care About Syria’s Chemical Weapons?

The United Nations estimates that more than 100,000 Syrians have died since the country’s civil war began in March 2011. More die every day. But the U.S. is not considering military action to save them.

The strikes that the Barack Obama administration favors, and that Congress is now debating, have a more limited purpose: to ensure that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad uses conventional weapons to massacre his people rather than the chemical variety that recently killed 1,400 in the suburbs of Damascus. The hope is that U.S. intervention will encourage future tyrants to kill by firepower rather than by sarin.

“The goal here is to deter dictators in 2022 from using chemical weapons on a mass scale against civilians,” said Democratic Representative Brad Sherman of California, who supports the strikes. “That is a very abstract objective.”

Chemical weapons were first outlawed at the 1899 Hague Convention. But the prohibition didn’t stick. They were widely used in World War I, and Germany even argued that they were more humane than, say, a bayonet to the gut. But the ban was affirmed in the 1925 Geneva Protocol, and in World War II neither the Allies nor the Axis deployed chemical weapons on the battlefield. The ban has more or less endured since. Only a handful of countries — including Syria — have refused to sign the treaty prohibiting their use.

“No one wants to cross the line even Hitler didn’t cross,” said political scientist Richard Price. “He did use gas in the concentration camps, but not really on the battlefield. So in war there becomes this idea that they must be really bad if even Hitler wouldn’t use them.”

International Norm

There have been violations of that international norm — and the treaty that codifies it — but they haven’t inspired international retaliation. When Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against Iran in the 1980s, the only international reprisal was a weakly worded condemnation from the UN. Hussein used chemical agents again as part of his campaign against the Kurds (earning Iraqi General Ali Hassan al-Majid the nickname “Chemical Ali”). In response, the U.S. established a no-fly zone over northern Iraq, but that was more a reaction to humanitarian disaster than to Hussein’s choice of weaponry.

The military strikes Obama is considering to punish Assad would be unprecedented, which leads to two questions: First, are they necessary? Second, are they worthwhile?

As Sherman sees it, we should imagine that “it’s 2035, and this-or-that dictator is thinking of using chemical weapons. Do you want them to say Assad used them on a large scale in August of 2013, nothing happened,” and so Assad kept doing it? If that’s the case, Sherman said, “you can take that 1925 agreement not to use chemical weapons and kiss it goodbye.”

Price is less adamant. He points out that almost every country on Earth has signed the treaty against the use of chemical weapons; Syria is a rare holdout. “Bombing Syria would be the strongest possible upholding and reinforcement of the norm,” he said. “Will the norm fall by the wayside if that doesn’t happen? No, I don’t think it will. But if there was a strike to enforce it, that would be a watershed moment in many respects.”

Let’s imagine, instead, that Sherman is right. Assad gets away with the use of chemical weapons, and future dictators become somewhat more likely to use chemical weapons. To put it coldly, so what?

The argument against chemical weapons isn’t that they’re more lethal than conventional artillery. It’s that they’re more grisly and less discriminate. Chemical weapons are poorly targeted and subject to the vagaries of the wind. As Price puts it, they’re “an inherent threat to civilian populations.”

Modern Horrors

A tyrant willing to use chemical weapons in range of civilians is probably willing to kill civilians directly — and in that case, conventional weapons are perfectly effective. Assad has proved as much, killing orders of magnitude more Syrians with explosives and bullets than with chemical weapons. At the extreme of modern horrors, Rwanda’s Hutus bypassed modern technology altogether, ordering more than 500,000 machetes from China to slaughter hundreds of thousands of Tutsis.

The better argument is that the extraordinary success of the ban on chemical weapons has been instrumental in subsequent efforts to outlaw weapons ranging from land mines to biological agents.

“I was at a lot of those diplomatic conferences,” Price said. “I was really struck by how many times diplomats from various countries made the argument that we’ve already banned one weapon and so we can do this. That precedent made it seem a lot more possible. I’m really convinced that if there wasn’t a quite successful track record on restraining chemical weapons, many more countries around the world would think it preposterous that you could ban a weapon that’s used as widely as land mines.”

The ban on chemical weapons, in other words, is proof that humanity can make war a little more decent. Consequently, its continued success is vital to all future efforts to make war a little more decent. There is a kind of beauty in that, but much less so when you recall the 100,000 Syrians killed by nonchemical weapons.

The U.S. is now debating a military campaign that marries the highest, most abstract idealism to the harshest, most unsettling pragmatism: Obama wants to punish Assad for violating the abstract norms of war even as he leaves Assad capable of continuing his massacre by more conventional means. This is why there is no enthusiasm for intervening in Syria: Making the decision to punish Assad means explicitly making the decision not to stop him. The brutality of what we are willing to accept tarnishes the better world we seek to preserve.

Ezra Klein

Ezra Klein is the founder and editor-in-chief of Vox.com.