International relations prof Richard Price on the crisis in Syria and how the global community reacts to the threat of chemical warfare
When U.S. president Barack Obama threatened to intervene in Syria’s civil war, it was the alleged use of chemical weapons that provoked the U.S. to act, rather than the growing death toll of more than 100,000 people killed in the two-year conflict.
As a United Nations team arrives in Damascus to investigate the allegations, the international response underscores the taboo that surrounds this form of warfare, says UBC international relations expert Richard Price, author of several books on chemical weapons and global security.
Price – whose grandfather faced mustard gas in First World War trenches – breaks down the crisis in Syria and explains why society draws the line at chemical weapons, but condones forms of “conventional” warfare that are equally lethal.
Were chemical weapons used in Syria?
The U.S. announced in June that the chemical weapon sarin had been used on a small scale by the Syrian government against rebels. Syria denied the charge, and while some traditional American allies have accepted the evidence the U.S. provided, others such as Russia remain unconvinced. The evidence has not been made public, and there has been no neutral confirmation.
Last week, a UN team met with Syrian officials to discuss a possible investigation, which Syria has refused to date. Syria is one of the few countries in the world not party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, so it is not obligated to allow an inspection of such allegations. Given the recent history of U.S. intelligence claims of “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq, it would be wise to await independent confirmation.
“When we talk about banning chemical weapons and landmines, it should force us to consider our use of violent technology more broadly. Why is it OK to shoot people with drones or blow them up with grenades, but not to gas them with chemicals?”
What will the U.S. do about the crisis in Syria?
Indications of possible Syrian preparations for the use of chemical weapons led U.S. President Obama to declare in 2012 that any such use would cross a “red line” and that there would be consequences. By making such a public declaration, Obama boxed himself in a bit. If chemical weapons were used, he needs to act – otherwise he loses credibility on the world stage by not backing up his words. If chemical weapons were not used, then U.S. intelligence was wrong: not good either. The U.S. has indicated that it would supply arms to the Syrian opposition as a way of responding, though many of the rebels are hardcore jihadists, so the U.S. doesn’t see them as a particularly attractive alternative to Syria’s dictatorship.
Will international forces intervene?
I would be shocked if any troops are sent, even if it is confirmed that Syria used chemical weapons. At the very most – and I still see this as very unlikely – any intervention would likely be along the lines of what happened in Libya recently, no fly zones, targeted air strikes by aircraft or perhaps armed drones.
What are other recent examples of chemical warfare?
Iraq used chemical weapons against Iran in the 1980s, and then later on its Kurdish population. Iraq seemed to have calculated that it risked losing the war with Iran otherwise. They started slowly with non-lethal chemicals, and isolated trials, but switched to more widespread use of deadly forms when the global community responded with silence.
Chemical weapons were used extensively in the First World War, including mustard gas and chlorine. In the interwar period, Italy used chemicals in Ethiopia. In the ‘60s, Egypt deployed chemical weapons in its war in Yemen.
Most nations have signed a treaty that bans the use, stockpiling and production of chemical weapons. Besides the few state holdouts, the greatest threat of chemical warfare comes from terrorists and non-state actors. In 1995, terrorists attacked the Tokyo subways with sarin gas, killing 12 people.
Are there “grey areas” around the use chemical weapons?
Disagreements have occurred over the definition of chemical weapons. For example, many nations interpreted the U.S.’s use of napalm and Agent Orange in Vietnam as prohibited chemical warfare, while the U.S. said they were not. The chemical weapons treaty doesn’t cover biological weapons, such as bacteria, viruses and germs which is governed by another treaty.
Other interesting areas include domestic policing and anti-terrorism efforts. Police forces regularly use tear gas for crowd control, although the practice is actually banned in war. Russia used toxic gas against Chechen rebels holding hostages in a theatre. Supposedly they pumped chemicals in the ventilation to subdue them. These are interesting examples of nations testing what’s acceptable and pushing the envelope.
What makes chemical weapons different than conventional weapons?
Interestingly, chemical weapons were first envisioned by some as a more humane method of warfare. The idea was that armies would temporarily immobilize their enemies with non-lethal gasses – and everyone could just wake up the next day and get on with things. Obviously, that idea didn’t last long.
It is common for people today to express a visceral aversion to chemical warfare. This stems from two reasons. First, they’re one of the few weapons banned even before they were invented. In 1899, European and a few other nations banned asphyxiating shells – artillery shells that released poisonous gas – before any were even produced. So that put chemical weapons on a different footing right off the bat.
Second, every time a nation has chemical weapons and chooses not to use them, it becomes harder for others to justify their use. Iraq had chemical weapons, but never used them against Western coalition forces. Hitler gassed huge numbers of people in concentration camps – but even he never unleashed chemical weapons in cities or the battlefield, and nobody wants to be the person who does what even Hitler wouldn’t do. So a taboo has been built up over time. With each case of non-use, the threshold gets raised.
What’s your family history with chemical weapons?
Amazingly, it was only after my dissertation on chemical weapons that my mother told me that my grandfather was gassed in the First World War’s infamous battle of Ypres. I had always been interested in global issues of technology and morality, which attracted me to the topics of chemical warfare, but it was shocking to discover this personal connection.
What lessons can society take from the successful efforts to ban chemical weapons and landmines?
Whenever a new weapon appears, there are always calls to ban it. As most attempts fail, chemical weapons and landmines offer important lessons. In my view, the grassroots efforts of organized, energetic citizens in NGOs, supported by moral entrepreneurs in like-minded governments were crucial to these successful treaties.
When we talk about banning chemical weapons and landmines, it should force us to consider our use violent technology more broadly. Why is it OK to shoot people with drones or blow them up with grenades, but not to gas them with chemicals? It’s an opportunity discuss the morality of so-called “conventional weapons,” which are equally lethal, and to question why we don’t restrict ourselves further. Successful movements help us to reimagine what’s possible in humanity.
Prof. Richard Price, UBC Dept. of Political Science, has written such books as The Chemical Weapons Taboo and The United Nations and Global Security. His previous research on landmines – working with Canada’s Lloyd Axworthy and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Jody Williams – engaged with the successful effort to ban landmines in 1997.