The Dark History of Chemical Weapons Attacks Proves the Red Line Must Be Enforced


Echoing President Barack Obama's remarks of a year ago, Secretary of State John Kerry has called the use of chemical weapons a "red line for the world," asserting that evidence shows beyond a reasonable doubt that the Assad regime used sarin nerve gas against its own people. Failing to act now would push that red line back and send a message that the use of chemical weapons will be frowned upon, but that nothing will result other than stern international admonitions.

This would reverse the tide that has been rolling back the use of chemical warfare for the last 25 years. Chemical weapons are a world red line, and action is necessary to protect hard-won international progress against chemical weapons proliferation.

The long war against chemical weapons use

The first world war was the first occasion on which chemical weapons were used on a large scale in war. The results of these attacks, mostly on British and German soldiers, were so horrendous that a prohibition of their use was included in the 1925 Geneva Protocol, subsequently ratified by 138 nations. This was the first formal recognition that the use of chemical weapons is a red line for the world community.

The U.S. and USSR took another step against chemical weapons by agreeing to cease production and set up an inspection regime in the 1989 Wyoming Agreement. Then, in 1993, the world again pushed forward the red line to halt the production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

The rest of the world has kept these agreements, and the reduction of chemical weapons has progressed steadily ever since. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the enforcement agency of the CWC, has reported that 72% of the world’s declared stockpiles have been eliminated, as of 2011. The rest are scheduled to decommissioned within the next few years. These are mostly located in Libya and Iraq, but crucially, they are secured and will be eliminated with co-operation from other CWC signatory states. The U.S. has eliminated 90% of its chemical weapons and Russia over 60%.

There are reports of chemical weapons use by Russia, Vietnam, and Cambodia in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Saddam Hussein notoriously used chemical weapons against Kurds around Halabja, and during the Iran-Iraq war in 1988.

However, there have now been no proven lethal chemical attacks in 25 years. Worldwide, the use of chemical weapons in war has virtually ceased since the 1993 adoption of the CWC.

Only Syria has continually chosen to ignore the world’s red line on chemical weapons; It is one of only seven nations in the world that refuses to ratify the CWC. (It is joined only by Angola, North Korea, Egypt, and South Sudan; Israel and Myanmar have signed the CWC, but not ratified it.) At a time when the rest of the world was eliminating chemical weapons, Syria was actively stockpiling precursor chemicals and building what has become one of the largest chemical weapons arsenals in the world.

In July 2012, an official Assad regime spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, declared it was Syrian government policy that chemical weapons would not be used against Syrians, but reserved the right to use them against any external forces. So, Assad could not even keep his own declared red line on chemical weapons use. Unleashing nerve gas on noncombatants in Damascus was a big step over the line.

What about other conflict-zone 'red lines?'

Throughout the last century, the world has borne witness to violence throughout the world, including violent political crackdowns, ethnic cleansing, religious conflict, assassinations and border wars. In virtually every one, international law, norms and values — "red lines," if you will — have been stretched or broken. Victims and refugees caught in these conflicts have repeatedly called for intervention by outside powers. Most of these calls have been made on the U.S. and other western powers.

Sometimes, we have answered; most often, we have not. So what makes this "red line" different and why should we act this time?

The world order has been in turmoil since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990 upended the geopolitical bipolarity of the previous 50 years. Former Soviet satellites in eastern Europe and the Caucasus continue to struggle for their own identity and to remain independent. The Arab Spring uprisings are tearing apart the old political order in the Middle East, while the rise of China is making its Asian neighbors nervous and attracting American attention. South American nations continue their journey out of poverty and away from repressive regimes.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is coming to the end of over a decade at war, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Finally, we have already witnessed over 100,000 deaths in Syria.

Not all of the benefits the world was promised when the U.S. and its allies prevailed in the cold war anti-Communist struggle have materialized. In some parts of the world, things seem to be regressing, rather than improving. That is why it is important to preserve and jealously guard what progress has been made in working toward a more peaceful world — even if that means turning to military action against rogue states in order to do so. The steady worldwide reduction of chemical weapons is a prime example of that progress — one that we cannot allow to be eroded so easily.

A failure to act after the Assad regime has crossed that red line would be akin to the world retreating and setting a new, weaker standard without a fight. No state other than Syria has dared to cross the line of chemical weapons use in a quarter-century. If we do not act today, we have set a new world precedent that says the use of chemical weapons is frowned upon, but there will be no serious consequences. We should not retreat so easily without serious consideration of what we would be sacrificing for the future.

Until this moment, the world was on the cusp of eliminating one of the unholy trinity of weapons of mass destruction. Quietly, steadily, we had been approaching the point where we would one day be able to say we had eliminated chemical weapons.

This is progress toward a safer world we can only hope to achieve with nuclear or biological weapons. Worldwide, proliferation of nuclear weapons has increased. Since the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), North Korea, India, Pakistan and Israel have developed new nuclear weapons. Other states, such as Iran, may be trying to join the nuclear club. Meanwhile, the nature of biological weapons makes tracking or controlling them difficult and there is no major international agreement specifically to enforce their prohibition. Though it receives less attention, the CWC is a real success story in comparison.

Syria is the last country in the world with a large stockpile of chemical weapons that refuses to eliminate them. Now, the Assad regime has used them on its own people. And Syria has threatened to use them against any outside forces which threaten the Assad regime. No other country in the world has dared do that since 1988.

Assad is the last major roadblock to achieving a world free from the horror of chemical weapons. That is why the world, led by the U.S., must take action in Syria.

This post first appeared on The Guardian