Last fall, over a single week in the battle for Aleppo, 96 Syrian children were killed. Across Syria in 2015 and 2016, at least 1,200 children were killed (but possibly many more). Why then, after 27 children died in Tuesday’s alleged chemical attack in the Syrian province of Idlib, did an emotionally charged President Trump, highlighting that “beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack,” abruptly reverse his noninterventionist stance on Syria, thrusting the United States into a risky conflict against the Russian-backed government of Bashar al-Assad? Why did Trump, a businessman not widely known for his humanitarian impulses, react with dramatic violence to an incident devoid of any immediate threat to US security or economic interests? What is it about the use of chemical weapons?
After six years of civil war, hundreds of thousands of Syrians are dead, almost all of them killed by conventional weapons. But very few images of people killed by conventional arms appear in major news outlets; such photographs and videos are generally deemed too horrific for public consumption. Meanwhile, portraits of the 72 chemical weapon victims in Idlib province are ubiquitous. These images can be disconcerting, to be sure—but the victims are bloodless, their limbs remain attached, and their internal organs are unexposed. What this speaks to is that, when chemical and conventional weapons are objectively compared in terms of damage done, chemical weapons are often far less gruesome. Indeed, if it were otherwise, news organizations and government representatives wouldn’t be displaying images of the Idlib victims. Yet an immensely emotional taboo surrounds chemical weapons. It is a taboo with ancient roots, and one so normalized that, most of the time, it is an unspoken, unexamined assumption.
Declared and undeclared. The Idlib attack is just the latest in a series of unconventional attacks perpetrated over the last four years by both the Assad regime and opposition forces. Syria’s most lethal instance of chemical weapon use occurred in August 2013, when the government—despite later denials by both the regime and its Russian enablers—used sarin, a highly toxic chemical nerve agent, to kill as many as 1,500 civilians in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. The United States, forgoing an armed response that might well have drawn Washington into another large-scale ground war, worked with Russia and successfully pressured Syria to join the Chemical Weapons Convention—a 1993 arms control agreement that outlaws the production, possession, and use of chemical weapons. The Assad regime then declared a stockpile of 1,308 metric tons of sulfur mustard agent, sarin nerve agent, and various related precursors. In early 2016, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the international body responsible for implementing the provisions of the Chemical Weapons Convention, announced the complete “destruction of all chemical weapons declared by the Syrian Arab Republic.”
“Declared” appears to be the operative word because Damascus undoubtedly retained some of its chemical stockpile. Chemical weapons—largely chlorine, a choking agent initially used in World War I—were reportedly present in more than 100 attacks carried out after Syria’s entry into the convention. These uses of chemical weapons have cumulatively resulted in scores of injuries (but relatively few deaths). Tuesday’s attack, however, represents the renewed use of sarin, after its last appearance in 2013. Because sarin inhibits transmission of nerve signals, its observed effects are startling: convulsions, blocked respiratory functions, fluid excretion, and often prompt death.
The global community has responded to the attacks with revulsion, renewing its characterization of the Assad regime as barbaric and devoid of any moral compass. There’s certainly some truth to the charge. What’s not so obvious is why Assad’s use of chemical weapons is more barbaric than his far more lethal use of conventional munitions.
The poison connection. The virtually global taboo against using chemical weapons developed relatively recently. The United States, for example, largely accepted chemical weapons “as an unavoidable fact of war” throughout most of the 20th century. The 1899 and 1907 Hague peace conferences were the first international efforts aimed at codifying the rules of chemical weapon use, but Washington opposed the agreements that emerged from them. “[Chemical] projectiles,” Washington argued, “might even be considered as more humane than those which kill or cripple in a much crueler manner, by tearing the body with pieces of metal.” It wasn’t until 1975 that the United States signed the Geneva Protocol, an agreement banning, among other activities, chemical warfare. Regardless, by 1993, when the Chemical Weapons Convention opened for signature, the United States had amassed a chemical weapons stockpile exceeding 28,000 metric tons, mostly composed of nerve agents—the same class of chemical weapon used in Tuesday’s attack.
Even if humanity hasn’t always regarded chemical weapons as taboo, it has long regarded them as suspect. This opprobrium is rooted in the close kinship between chemical weapons and poisons. At least as far back as Homer’s Odyssey, strictures against poison existed around the world. This was the result, in part, of poison’s role as an “equalizer”—poison empowered the weak, notably women, and was therefore considered illegitimate in conflict among elite male warriors. “The idea of the deceptiveness of women is essential to understanding the image of poison,” Margaret Hallissy wrote in Venomous Women, her seminal 1987 study about poisoning’s role in literature. “Poison,” she argues, “can never be used as an honorable weapon in a fair duel between worthy opponents, as the sword or gun, male weapons, can.” In a similar vein, the distinguished chemical weapons expert Richard Price observed that, if societal norms demand warfare be practiced by “professionals,” poison can’t be tolerated. Tolerating poison, Price wrote, “threatened to undermine the class structure of war … a carefully preserved social institution.” Poison came to be associated with treachery and cowardice; “legitimate” warfare was practiced through force.
In the modern era, a new objection has emerged—that poisons (used on a wide scale) do not discriminate between combatants and civilians. Of course, the same can be said of nuclear weapons, but nuclear weapons’ advanced technology largely grants them a perceived status as “modern” tools in the arsenals of “sophisticated” states.
The Trump reaction. So—chemical weapons’ status as taboo may be founded on suspect or arbitrary beliefs. Chemical weapons may often be less gruesome than conventional weapons are. Still, it’s in the interest of the United States to delegitimize chemical weapons. With chemical weapons banned, the United States can (at least in theory) conduct offensive kinetic operations without providing chemical protection to its troops and equipment; that is, the taboo helps the United States maintain its conventional superiority.
The ban is also in the interest of the international community as a whole. The Chemical Weapons Convention is a primary pillar of the overall nonproliferation regime; without it, the legitimacy and near-universal status of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty might well erode. Price, in a telephone interview with the authors of this article, emphasized the importance of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) to the nonproliferation regime in general: “[Chemical weapons are] the only weapon[s] of mass destruction being used,” he observed. “If the international community cannot respond to challenges to the CWC, how can it respond to other, far more serious, weapons of mass destruction? Beyond its intrinsic value, the CWC is a good test case. In fact, it’s the only test case.”
Tuesday’s events in Idlib—amid Syria’s ongoing use of chlorine—threaten the viability of the convention. Damascus, by acceding to the treaty in 2013, committed never, under any circumstances, to use chemical weapons or to “develop, produce, otherwise acquire, stockpile, or retain chemical weapons, or transfer, directly or indirectly, chemical weapons to anyone.” The convention is clear on Syria’s responsibilities, but—Thursday’s cruise missile attack notwithstanding—the legal basis for punishing Syria’s transgressions is nonetheless tenuous. The convention allows any signatory country to challenge the compliance of another signatory country. “Cases of particular gravity,” however, are ultimately the business of the UN General Assembly and Security Council. Obviously, with Russia a key ally of the Assad regime, the power of the United Nations to punish Syria is questionable at best.
Attention has now turned to the Trump administration’s reactions. Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump questioned US military adventures abroad. He belittled the notion that the United States had any national interest in Syria. Still, after so many months of criticizing Barack Obama for failing to respond forcefully when Syria crossed the Obama administration’s “red line” of chemical weapon use, Trump let it be known after Idlib that “many, many lines” had been crossed—and he acted accordingly. Of all the humanitarian issues on which Trump might have taken a passionate position, chemical weapons turned out to be what motivated him. This says a great deal about chemical weapons’ psychological power.
The Trump administration’s action against the Syrian regime upholds the Chemical Weapons Convention, one of the pillars of the modern global order. Moreover, because Trump rationalized his attack on Syria primarily through a humanitarian lens—not on the basis of security or economic interests—he has upheld the validity of global norms and conventions, which many feared he would ignore. But the missile strike also strengthens the perception that in tough situations, Trump responds unpredictably—that he makes choices based on emotion rather than logic, that he is moved more by individual cases than by empirical data. In its way, Trump’s reaction to the Idlib attack perfectly exemplifies the intensely emotional nature of the taboo surrounding chemical weapons.