Through the misty panes of smartphone video footage of last Wednesdays attacks, it appears that the fog of war in Syria just became a whole lot deadlier. Obama’s Red lines have been crossed and the international community has suddenly mobilised to respond.

But the conflict has raged for over two years, resulting in scores of deaths (the death figure varies, and is dependent on whether you want to intervene or not), and has produced 1 million Syrian children refugees. This brutal civil war has torn Syria apart while the international community, deadlocked by veto-wielding opposition in the security council and domestic-based reluctance, looked about as empowered to intervene as Dutch peacekeepers in Srebrenica.

But, as events have unfolded over the last week, the use of chemical weapons has sparked a chain of events that may well result in the direct use of military force by the international community. Talk of intervention is rife.

But since calls for intervention have been made, policymakers have struggled to explain what objectives military intervention would meet. A rebel victory is not seen by many to be in the West’s interests, as Martin Dempsey laid out. Others have suggested that limited intervention would bomb both sides to the negotiating table. The trouble with this suggestion is that any negotiated settlement, as unlikely as one could be reached, would need some form of enforcement. Without proper enforcement, almost half of all negotiated settlements have erupted in further (and more deadly) violence within 5 years. This means a long-term military or peacekeeping commitment, probably involving ‘boots on the ground’, would be necessary to ensure a lasting peace and few countries, particularly the post-heroic western powers that are exhausted from a decade of insurgency fighting, are going to sign up for that.

So why has the crossing of the Red Line and use chemical weapons been able to break the international impasse over Syria, sparking these calls for intervention? One may argue that it is simply to do with the century-long struggle to ‘civilise’ warfare. If military intervention takes place, it may represent no more than an intervention against a particular means of killing.

The likely explanation for the Red Line and why the international community has suddenly sprung into action is that chemical weapons are seen as a morally abhorrent form of warfare that are banned by international law. The narrative goes as follows: the horrors of the First World War, in particular chemical warfare, truly exposed that Old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori. This sparked a long succession of conventions that started with the 1925 Geneva Protocol and ending with the Chemical Weapons Convention. The latter, which came into force in 1997 and prohibits the use, production, and stockpiling of chemical weapons as well as compelling signatories to destroy their existing weapons and is signed by nearly every country in the world.

These above reason have led some commentators to claim that the international community needs to act because Assad’s (or the rebels) use of chemical weapons risks breaking the ‘taboo’ against their use. Responding to the use of barbaric chemical weapons in Syria, the argument goes, is important because, if Assad is allowed to use these with impunity, there is little to stop other states from stockpiling or engaging in this form of warfare. The floodgates would have been opened and the Conventions, one of the few products of the 20th century that has designed to make war more humane, would be exposed as toothless.

These argument, of course, have their problems. The condemnation of chemical weapons has not quite reached the status of a universally accepted international norm. Most obviously, Syria is not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention. There have also been countless arguments throughout history advocating the use of chemical weapons; notably, the American Legion once argued that position gas was one of the most humane weapons of warfare because it spared victims of maiming that explosives and bullets caused. In practice, not every use of chemical weapons has met such universal condemnation; it was absent during the Iran-Iraq war, when the US knew about Saddam’s use of chemical weapons but reportedly played it down, long before the US condemned his use of them against the village of Halabja. Gassing Iranians was much more in US interests than gassing Kurds. There are also arguments that question whether chemical weapons are actually any more horrific than conventional methods of killing people.  Somehow, death by gas has become universally abhorred but causing death or maiming by vaporisation from an explosion blast, or being torn apart form a Fragmentation grenade is more acceptable. Yet many of us would have probably heard the argument that the world’s true weapon of mass destruction is the omnipresent AK47.

These are valid arguments and show how the line between conventional and morally repugnant forms of warfare have been constructed over the years. But it is beyond doubt that revulsion is the expected reaction to the use of chemical warfare.

So what does the use of chemical weapons, and the galvanised international response, actually signify?

First, chemical weapons will are most likely to form the narrative depicting the barbarity and brutality of the conflict in spite of the thousands of deaths that conventional weapons have caused beforehand.  This is not that different from common perspectives of Rwanda, where coverage of the genocide meant that the brutality of that conflict was personified by the Machete wielding Hutu despite the fact that much of the killing was carried out using rifles and RPGs. As Christopher Cramer has argued, barbarity and atrocity have been fused together in the liberal perspective of violence around the world. The use of chemical weapons have allowed this fusion to happen in the case of Syria.

More importantly, as the use of chemical weapons per se has inspired the international community to potentially intervene militarily in the absence of clear strategic objectives for such an operation, it seems means that any military intervention looks like it is quite simply an intervention against chemical weapons themselves. 10 years ago the West engaged in a similar war when the US declared ‘a global war on terror’ after the 9/11 attacks and this generated some criticism. In response to this war, Francais Fukuyama commented  “terrorism is only a means to an end; in this regard, a war on terrorism makes no more sense than a war on submarines.” An intervention that is in response to the use of chemical weapons but has no other clearly identifiable purpose continues this trend of waging wars against means of warfare. The unique thing about a war on chemical weapons (though, paradoxically, chemical weapons stockpiles are unlikely to be targeted) is that it is designed to punish Assad for killing his population in a way the world doesn’t like, when there are plenty of legitimate and ignorable means to do so that had successfully swept the question of intervention under the rug until now.

International norms have constructed good ways to kill and barbaric ways to kill; and whenever I hear about Red Lines begin crossed, I can’t help but recall Sean Conney’s line from film adaptation of Kiplings The Man Who Would Be King. When training local tribesmen the ways of modern conventional warfare, Daniel Dravot shouts:

“When we’re done with you, you’ll be able to slaughter your enemies like civilised men.”

Is that what we’re telling Assad?

Nick Thomson

Nick Thomson

Nick recently graduated with an MA in Conflict, Security, and Development at the University of Sussex. During this time he extensively researched the securitisation of development and the strategic use of development aid in counterinsurgency campaigns.

Leave a comment