Consequences of Assad’s chemical weapons use in Syria, and the world

The continued use of chemical weapons stands in defiance of an international norm.

When the Assad Regime first deployed chemical weapons (CW) in Damascus on August 21, 2013, President Barack Obama called the international community’s credibility in question if they did not act in defense of the international norm. Despite this and becoming a member of the Chemical Weapons Convention two months after the first attack, the use of chemical weapons in Syria has continued. The latest attack happened on September 6th.

We spoke to Richard Price, University of British Columbia about the chemical weapons taboo. Price is a leading expert on international norms and has written about the subject in “The Chemical Weapons Taboo” and for Foreign Affairs.

ResearchGate: How are chemical weapons being used in the Syrian civil war?

Richard Price: They have been used by the Syrian government, ISIS, and potentially other non-state armed groups; they have also been used against civilians.

RG: Is the use of chemical weapons in Syria somehow exceptional? Or is this the new norm?

Price: The use of chemical weapons in Syria is the first significant use of CW in a conflict in 25 years. In that sense, this is very much an exception. The CW taboo is a very robust international norm by any standard with only one violation in the last quarter century. Compare this to the number of violations there are of the norm against torture, for example.

At the same time, when chemical weapons have been deployed in the years after WWI, it has tended to be in the Middle East and/or Africa, such as Yemen in the 1960s. So while there have been incidents in recent years in Iraq and Afghanistan by non-state armed groups, this is not a new global norm, but an occasional regionalized exception to a global norm that remains pretty robust, and has arguably gotten stronger with the ascension of Syria to the Chemical Weapons Convention in the aftermath of its attacks in August 2013. That leaves only 4 countries in the world who are not a party to this treaty; one government’s violation does not make this the new international norm among states.

Increased use by non-state armed groups like ISIS may challenge the norm, but it is difficult for such groups to acquire or manufacture these weapons on a large scale. Non-state armed groups violate other norms of warfare like the treatment of prisoners of war, treatment of civilians, use of child soldiers, and so on, but it does not mean that this new norm will be embraced by state governments. War time norms face the biggest challenges to their survival as norms, given the extreme circumstances, thus any successful restraint is somewhat surprising and quite an achievement.

RG: If a government can win a war using taboo tactics like chemical weapons, is it realistic to expect them not to?

Price: If a weapon was a ‘war-winning’ weapon, then a widespread norm prohibiting its use would be unlikely to be created in the first place, and fragile in practice. Unless, that is, the weapon is simply too destructive – as is the case for nuclear weapons. All that said, there have been instances of banned weapons not being used that could have turned the tide in battle. A US military study during World War II concluded that the use of chemical weapons would have been the most effective technique against Japanese forces in caves and tunnels in Pacific islands. Similarly, it was recognized that the use of chemical weapons by the Germans against any Allied landings (D-Day) in WWII would have likely been devastating. Still, they were not deployed, which was underpinned in no small part by the effects of the CW taboo, and mutual deterrence (fear of retaliation in kind).

RG: If norms are violated, what’s the point in having them?

Price: It all depends on the scope and scale of the violations, and subsequent reactions to them. It is almost impossible to think of a norm that has not been violated, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth having. The point is to have a tolerable level of compliance. If that fails to hold, then sure, there is no point in having the norm in question, and many societal norms, and international norms, fall into desuetude over time. An international example of an old norm that fell into desuetude is the practice of declaring war which is virtually non-existent.

But it is important to note that even some frequently violated norms are still worth having – societal norms against murder, for example – would anyone really argue that because a given country experiences thousands of murders per year that there is no point in having laws prohibiting murder? Kant put it well – laws are not for angels since they won’t do the bad deed in question nor demons since they won’t be restrained by laws, but those in between.

RG: Whose job is it to make sure governments don’t use weapons banned by norms and punish them if they do?

Price: For international treaties to take effect they typically must be translated into domestic legislation. That then puts the onus on member governments to ensure compliance. On top of that, the use of weapons banned by international law may trigger the involvement of the Security Council under Chapter VII of the UN Charter as a threat to international peace and security, in this case the UN Security Council may decide to authorize enforcement measures. The UN did exactly this for many years to enforce compliance with the weapons of mass destruction disarmament regime imposed on Iraq after the Gulf War of 1990-91. Also, the Chemical Weapons Convention has provisions for an intrusive inspection regime to be deployed on cases of suspected violation; the Biological Weapons Convention lacks such a provision.

RG: Does the violation of one norm have implications for others (e.g. cluster bombs, landmines)?

Price: Scholars like myself have studied the opposite – that is, how banning one weapon can sometimes have a spin-off benefit of leading to bans on other weapons. In this case, the fact that many governments around the world had banned chemical weapons was sometimes cited by diplomats in the 1990s as a reason they could ban landmines; the argument was made they were both indiscriminate weapons and as such have no place in humanity. The cluster-bomb ban movement drew explicitly on the landmine ban to argue that the former are more or less equivalent to the latter, they are just delivered from the air, so those who support the landmine ban should support the cluster munitions treaty.

To your question, once restraints start breaking down in war, it is easy to imagine that further restraints will tend to give way. That is why CW not being used against cities or on the battlefields during WWII is such a puzzle – given all the other restraints that were exploded (genocide, fire-bombing attacks, unrestricted submarine warfare, and bombings against civilians, and even the use of poison gas against concentration camp prisoners), the threshold against CW in the battlefield or against cities still held.

RG: Does the fact that Obama declared this his “red line” and did nothing, impact the norm?

Price: While the story of reinforcing the norm in Syria has been decidedly mixed, it is not accurate to say that Obama ‘did nothing.’ After the large scale attack in August 2013 he threatened to use military force against Syria. Obama stated boldly that he had “decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets” articulating a rationale that amounts to as pointed an exercise in norm bolstering as one could imagine: “What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?  What's the purpose of the international system that we've built if a prohibition on the use of chemical weapons that has been agreed to by the governments of 98 percent of the world's people and approved overwhelmingly by the Congress of the United States is not enforced?”

Such a declaration is a big thing from the point of view of reinforcing a violated international norm, and in fact is the strongest kind of bolstering one could imagine, short of actually following through on the threat itself with military attacks. In response, Syria, under Russian pressure, agreed to join the Chemical Weapons Convention which meant declaring and giving up its chemical weapons. So this episode had an enormous impact on the norm even as Obama drew back from attacking the Syrian regime and its assets. While Syria has continued to use a different form of chemical weapon – the dropping of chlorine barrel bombs – the casualties from these more makeshift CW have been far less than the much deadlier Sarin attack. This is a difference that matters, even as Assad seems to have concluded he can get away with these attacks.

RG: In an ideal world what would be the international response to a country’s use of chemical weapons?

Price: There are provisions in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) for the international community to respond to allegations of CW by requesting a verification inspection. Syria was not a member of the CWC at the time of reports of initial uses of CW, thus it was the United Nations which requested an inspection team, which was granted. In fact, an inspection team was on the ground at the time of the August 2013 attack.

The ultimate response to the use of CW would be a UN Security Council approved resolution authorizing the use of all means necessary to stop and prevent further uses, which would include military strikes. This wasn’t necessary because of a US and Russia backed deal whereby Syria agreed to join the CW Convention, declare all of its weapons, and have them destroyed.

This was a fairly ideal outcome at first blush, especially compared to the Iraqi use of CW vs. Iran and its own Kurdish population in the 1980s. Still, the continued use of chlorine as a weapon by Syria (which is not banned by the CWC as it is a widely used chemical), and doubts as to whether Syria actually declared all of its banned CW, make the ultimate outcome short of ideal.

Featured image courtesy of Flickr.