Friday, 27 September 2013

The Shifting "Red Line" in Syria and Historical Context on Chemical Weapons

George Orwell once wrote, “Everyone believes in the atrocities of the enemy and disbelieves in those of his own side, without ever bothering to examine the evidence.” This is the shadow, originating from the conflict in Iraq, which overlays the debate regarding military intervention in response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Sentiment against an attack, when the debate was at its height several weeks ago, was strongly suggestive of embarrassment at the fallout of earlier events: the doctored case for war in Iraq, the failure to find WMD, and a decade of costly Coalition occupation. The rejection of intervention by the British Parliament mirrored all these concerns. If that discussion were displaced to the era before Operation Iraqi Freedom its tone would have been very different. Pundits spoke of President Obama’s fatal diplomatic blunder, and his hesitant statements and delay in waiting for Congressional debate were viewed as last-minute obfuscations on the path to retreat. There was no doubt about both widespread opposition to war and doubt about how such an operation would function without proverbial “boots on the ground.” The eleventh-hour promise of international negotiation, the machinations of the Russians, and Vladimir Putin's famous op/ed piece in The New York Times changed the debate radically, allowing all the "disaster" (diplomatic or military) scenarios to be put on the shelf -- at least temporarily.

The debate over the “red line” took a crucial turn at the gathering of the G20 in Russia at the beginning of September and the war of words highlighting the difference between Putin’s narrative of the West and the way the West views itself. David Cameron, who had resigned himself to the sidelines, had his nose put out of joint due to the “small island” row. Obama has continued to insist that the red line was devised not by his administration, but through over one hundred years of international treaties recognized by most nations (not including Syria). Even our own Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who had initially only offered tepid moral support, came out with strong words against the Russian position and pointed out that even the most barbarous regimes of the twentieth century (with some exceptions) refrained from the use of chemical warfare. He went so far as to say that a failure to act “is a precedent that humanity will regret for generations to come.”

The historical red line against chemical weapons is worth exploration. Many instinctively feel that this taboo is curious, though it is difficult to articulate why. Some wonder how death by gas is much different, in the end, from death due to shelling or aerial bombardment? The answer lies in the historic evolution of our notions regarding “civilized warfare.” Since ancient civilization, those who employ poison have been particularly loathed. In addition, weapons which imitate prehistoric violence such as rockets, shells, bayonets, and mortars have found greater acceptance as “natural” weapons. Chemical compounds have been regarded as illegitimate weapons of war on these grounds.  The human aversion to gas warfare is visceral. As early as 1899 Hague Peace conference delegates voted against chemical warfare, charging that nations should “abstain from the use of projectiles the sole object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases.” These attitudes remain an entrenched part of international laws of armed conflict, enshrined in the Geneva Protocol of 1925. It formally banned the use of chemical warfare, though Europeans in the 1920s and 1930s were not optimistic that it would be adhered to by a future aggressor. Ethicists may ask why the red line does not also include all targeting of civilians; indeed, pacifist campaigners in the 1920s and 1930s were interested in outlawing aerial warfare in addition to the use of chemical weapons.

The fact that we know we cannot prevent aerial bombardment, drone attacks, or civilian casualties from conventional weapons does not necessarily mean that it is not important collectively to maintain some taboos. Obama, Harper, and other leaders were expressing the anxiety that chemical weapons will become “normalized.” The deaths from these terrorizing attacks are, of course, no more tragic than 100,000 Syrian fatalities from conventional weapons. Having become increasingly cognizant of how “generations to come” will judge their decisions, leaders of the "world community" have taken a major step in at least attempting to enforce and negotiate an end to Syria's current, and hopefully future, use of chemical weapons. The news that has just come in highlights that the UN is, finally, taking this issue seriously and has approved a plan for action to destroy an estimated 900 tonnes of chemical weapons. There is admittedly much work left to do and many uncertainties and intractable problems remaining, but it is, at the very least, an important start.

Michele Haapamäki is the author of the forthcoming book The Coming of the Aerial War: Culture and the Fear of Airborne Attack in Inter-war Britain

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