As Russia puts forth an incredibly reasonable proposal on what to do with Syria about chemical weapons, it’s time to ask ourselves why, exactly, chemical weapons are a big deal, and whether, even if the motives of the US were completely honest and transparent here, is is a stand worth taking.
Chemical weapons are one of the first categories of weapons to be roundly condemned by the international community. Ultimately, this is a bit of an accident of history – right as internationalism was at its strongest (this was alsso the era of banning war altogether), we had just seen chemical weapons used to horrific effect in the first world war. When the predominant military tactic of the day was to dig a ditch and take cover in it, toxic heavier-than-air gasses were devastatingly effective. So, the world effectively agreed that these weapons were a step more evil than bullets and bombs.
This begs three questions: Is it still the case that chemical weapons are so devastating as to be in a class of their own? How effective has the world been at limiting their use thus far? And finally, is this an enforceable ideal?
The first answer seems to be no. In an age of incredibly destructive missiles and bombs, chemical weapons are not a decisive factor in battle. Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, neither of which experienced any qualms about violating every other rule of war, did not make use of chemicals weapons. When incendiary bombs could kills tens of thousands in a single bombing raid, chemicals that attack the respiratory or nervous system are no longer game-changers.
And yet they still are used, particularly in the Middle East. It is well known that Saddam Hussein used them to crush internal uprisings, but Iraq, as a US client state, also used them against Iran (However, Iraq’s mastery of chemical weapons seems not to have affected the outcome of that war). Egypt under Nasser also used chemical weapons in Yemen, again without suffering real consequences. And while the US and Israel have probably never used more typical chemical weapons like Sarin or mustard gas, substances like Agent Orange and White Phosphorus have been used by both countries (and likely many others) in ways considered by many to constitute chemical warfare.
So, if chemical weapons are no longer decisive strategically, and there has (to my knowledge) never been a successful international retaliation against any country for using them, is it possible and desirable to create a precedent where none yet exist? It seems to be that it is neither. For one, thing, the US, Israel, Russia, China, and any other large, militarily powerful nation will continue to maintain weapons stockpiles and will retain the ability to use them with impunity. For another, it is not unthinkable that a middle-order country that the US had no interest in bombing, like Ethiopia or Indonesia (not to suggest that those particular countries are likely to do so) will someday in the future use chemical weapons. Pursuing this policy now will bind us to it in the future, meaning that if in the future China or Russia want to use chemical weapons as an excuse to intervene in another nation, we’ll certainly have no rhetorical leg to stand on if we oppose them.
Chemical weapons are no doubt bad. But if we use them to justify intervention in Syria now, the potential benefits seem limited and the potential harms immense.