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Saturday 19 Aug 2017 | 02:42 | SYDNEY
Saturday 19 Aug 2017 | 02:42 | SYDNEY

Syria and the chemical weapons norm



30 April 2013 16:43

There's no easier way to demonstrate the appalling standard of online political debate than to cite comment threads: abusive, intolerant, disrespectful, rude, inflammatory etc.

That's true, but it's not the whole truth. I give occasional seminars here at the Lowy Institute for groups of public servants about how they can make best use of the internet for policy work, and my advice about comment threads is as follows: avoid comment threads on mainstream websites, but on specialist sites, seek them out, because they attract other specialists who often add value.

Arms Control Wonk is an excellent example, and today one commenter in particular made me think differently about Syria's chemical weapons. I've been mulling for some days over this statement from Arms Control Wonk founder Jeffrey Lewis:

Chemical-weapons use invokes an interest that has nothing to do with the future of Syria. We have a stake in strengthening the norm against chemical-weapons use. If Assad is using chemical weapons to hold on to power, we have an interest in ensuring that his government falls and that the responsible regime figures take their turn at the Hague.

I'm not one to dismiss lightly the importance of norms in international relations (though being schooled in conservative political philosophy, I prefer 'traditions', 'rituals' or even 'practices'), but as Anthony Bubalo pointed out, the Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya experiences should make us extremely wary of what the West can do in Syria. Then there's Stephen Walt's point about the taboo against chemical weapons:

...I think it exaggerates the supposedly "unique" lethality of chemical weapons. Sarin is very bad stuff, but it is not like a nuclear weapon. Nor should we forget that governments can sometimes kill lots of people using rather simple weapons -- in the Rwandan genocide, they did it with machetes -- and the overwhelming number of deaths in Syria have occurred through conventional means.

All true, and yet in the comments thread of an Arms Control Wonk post from yesterday, John Schilling lays out exactly what is at stake in eroding the norm against chemical weapons:

The nearly complete abolition of chemical warfare after 1918 was perhaps the greatest achievement in the history of arms control. An international norm that held even through five years of total war; France, Italy, Germany and Japan all allowed themselves to be conquered rather than deploy chemical weapons even as a last resort in national self-defense. The only regime to subsequently engage in open chemical warfare, was ultimately destroyed for its troubles. It would be sad to see this consensus end.

And yet, to maintain it will require the strongest of commitments. Chemical weapons, after all, work. And they work particularly well against rebellious civilians, militias, and other assorted paramilitaries. With Gaddhafi in particular as an object lesson, with the Pinochet precedent effectively ruling out quiet retirement abroad, why would any dictator refrain from using every weapon in his arsenal to maintain his hold on power?

In a later comment, Schilling adds:

In 1919, a unique set of circumstances got the world to generally accept a rule against one specific form of brutality, the use of war gasses against people. And yes, that being 1919, there was some early confusion as to whether “people” meant just white people. Now that we have that cleared up, I think it is probably a good thing that we have and may be able to keep that rule.

Stephen Walt is right that chemical weapons are not uniquely evil, but Schilling reminds us that we should not lightly allow a valuable tradition prohibiting the use of this dreadful technology to be eroded.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

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