Syria's Chemical Weapons Mean We Must Act — But Not For the Reason You Think

The evidence is unequivocal: Syria’s regime used chemical gas against rebel-linked civilian areas. But does that in and of itself compel the United States to act to punish Syria’s dictator? The arguments for striking Syria seem to fall into two main categories — those centered on justice and those focused on deterrence.

On the former: Do I want to punish Assad for this crime against humanity? I do. But the doling out of punishment for justice’s sake — though a punishment well-deserved — is not the best argument for striking Assad. To many, it is not immediately apparent why a chemical strike should elicit a U.S. response while more “conventional” means of killing that have left 100,000 Syrians dead shouldn’t. Their cruelty is hard to objectively judge — and it’s true, if you die from a bomb or a bullet, it’s still gruesome and you’re still dead.

Veterans of World War I, of which none remain any longer, would be horrified at this canard that it “really doesn’t make a difference.” And though I find that argument callous at best, I concede that reacting on revulsion alone does not make for good foreign policy.

Rather, the best argument for striking Assad is the reinforcement of the international norm against the use of chemical weapons — and the slippery slope that non-enforcement of that norm will lead to.

First of all, chemical weapons are uncommonly cruel. They deliver a slow, painful, agonizing death to those in the target area. That death comes suddenly and by surprise, and it comes en masse to civilians and soldiers alike. Due to the nature of gas attacks, the target area may not even be the one affected. Wind may blow the poison off-course, dispersing it in unpredictable ways and killing incalculable masses. Once released, there’s no way to control what happens to the gas you released. Even afterwards, chemical weapons result in severe damage to the environment, sometimes rendering areas inhabitable for large periods of time.

Ergo, chemical weapons are much more a weapon of psychological terror than battlefield efficacy. This might be why Assad — a man whose regime was not facing imminent collapse — chose to terrorize the opposition, perhaps putting them to bed for good.

The good news is that generally, nations don’t have to fear chemical attacks, because most nations have no chemical weapons. This is so because most are party to the Chemical Weapons Convention. And the common consensus contained therein is that usage of chemical weapons will be met with swift action from the international community. If chemical weapons mean a guaranteed intervention against the user, they’re less likely to be viewed as a possible get-out-of-jail-free card if a dictator is on his last legs or is seeking to crush his enemies at long last.

Walk with me for a moment into a world where chemical weapons are not taboo: If you think that your neighbors might have chemical weapons, you are compelled to have them as a deterrent since there is none provided by the international community. This need to possess a deterring stockpile is especially acute if you lack other means to protect yourself, for example, a better army than your neighbors.

There are other risks as well for the world. Should states begin to build up chemical weapons arsenals, the chance of accidental usage or proliferation goes from nonexistent to dangerously likely. And since the use of chemical weapons in a wartime scenario is not world-ending (or even nation-ending), the deterrent philosophy of mutually-assured destruction holds much less weight.

These are reasons that a red line exists. And yes, this red line should be enforced by the United Nations. The United States should not have to act virtually unilaterally in defense of this norm. Yet the fact remains: No other nation is willing to act. Part of this is because of a collective action problem only the U.S., the world’s only global power, can overcome.

But as many have said, the U.S. is not the world’s policeman. And the U.S. certainly does have an imperfect record when it comes to human rights. The 1982 chemical attack on Iran and the gassing of the Kurds in 1988 come to mind — instances of chemical-weapon use that passed without a U.S. response. Why respond now when we did not respond before?

At the risk of fulfilling Godwin’s Law, I offer this query: Why should the Allies have intervened after Poland was invaded in 1939? No one responded to Ethiopia, Manchuria, Austria, or Czechoslovakia. What changed? Simply put: A past record of failure is no reason to sign onto a continued record of failure. A line must be drawn — since the alternative is no line at all.

What the United States can and must do is deliver a severe blow to Assad to signal to dictators that the world is disgusted by these weapons and values not just their non-use but nonexistence. The breaking of the chemical-weapons norm is much more dangerous than the breaking of any norm against state sovereignty.

Will a strike work? It’s not certain. Assad may continue chemical attacks, at which point the U.S. must strike again — harder — to reinforce the point. In a twisted way, it might bolster the notion that the U.S. means business.

The alternative is moving closer to that world where chemical weapons aren’t a thing of the past.