Syria, Chemical Weapons and the Elusive Goal of a Better World

ImageCOUNCILLOR COLUMN: In the debate about how to respond to what has happened in Syria, let’s not forget one thing: chemical weapons are an abomination and the taboo that attaches to them is worth preserving. There are other terrible weapons of war that we would like to see banned as well, but a rare consensus has developed around chemical weapons. There was agitation against the use of chemical weapons as early as the late nineteenth century, though this did not prevent their use in World War l. It was partly in response to this that use of chemical and bacteriological weapons were formally banned in the Geneva Protocol of 1925. In 1997 the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) came into force. This bans the use and even possession of chemical weapons and is backed by 188 states around the world. The ban on chemical weapons remains one of the most widely respected constraints on the conduct of war and evidence suggests that the reluctance to use chemical weapons is not because they are regarded as ineffective, or out of concern that they might be used in retaliation, but rather, because they have come to be regarded as uniquely intolerable. The reasons for this are difficult to fathom, but regardless of why, we should be thankful that the taboo exists. The world would be a much more dangerous place if chemical weapons came to be regarded as “conventional”.

Chemical weapons were used in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, and when Iraq used gas to kill 8,000 Kurds in Halabja in 1989, and it is reasonable to argue that the lack of any significant international response to these earlier events served to encourage the outrage that is now alleged to have happened in Syria. At what point do developments like these threaten the chemical weapons taboo? There are parallels in all this with the situation regarding nuclear weapons. These have not been used since the end of World War ll and something of a tradition of non-use has evolved. But there can be little doubt that if they were to be used again a threshold of momentous significance would have been crossed. That such a development would threaten the future security of the world is a key motivation behind the drive to promote another international norm – opposition to the further proliferation of nuclear weapons. In a more incremental way, we could be witnessing in the Middle East a process that could lead to the collapse of the CWC. It is for this reason that the situation in Syria is so serious.

Despite there being a good case for supporting the CWC, little enthusiasm exists for Washington’s plan to punish the Syrian regime for its alleged gas attack. The US believes that this can be done without altering the balance of power in the Syrian civil war. But the old adage, that in war one can never be sure of the outcome, cautions against such optimism. The Syrian conflict involves a plethora of competing secular and religious elements, and external powers with an interest in the outcome of the conflict – especially the US, Britain, France, Russia, Iran and Turkey – cannot be sure how intervention might affect their fortunes or those of their allies in the region. The legacy of Iraq and Afghanistan clearly weighs heavily on the minds of policy makers anxious to avoid involvement in the quagmire of Middle East conflict. This was nowhere more evident than in the vote in the British Parliament against intervention – at least for now. In the final analysis, it should not be forgotten that forceful intervention in Syria to defend the CWC – worthy and all as this might be –is in conflict with other important norms: that of sovereignty; and that relating to the idea that recourse to the legitimate use of force in world politics should be limited as much as possible. At the very least, this provides a convenient rationale for those opposing intervention: China and Russia have prioritized the importance of sovereignty, and others have argued that no intervention should occur without the approval of the Security Council – something that seems most unlikely.

It is important that we not see the issue of Syria and chemical weapons in isolation, but rather, as yet another indicator of how difficult it is to promote norms in international society. It has been said that opposition to the spread of nuclear weapons has come to constitute something of a norm, and that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty bears witness to this. But regardless, there is little consensus among the great powers about how to respond to the nuclear challenges from Iran and North Korea. We’ve been told, too, that there is a norm of humanitarian intervention, formalized in the doctrine of a Responsibility to Protect (RtoP). But when it came to Syria – surely a situation that cried out for the application of that principle – RtoP failed the test miserably. No one was keen to stop Assad from savaging his citizens.

None of this should surprise us because history shows that in the hurly-burly of international relations, norms compete with interests, and norms are often in conflict – realities that make agreement on the enforcement of norms difficult.

Bob Howard is a Councillor at the AIIA (NSW).

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