US President Barack Obama’s plan to bomb Syria for alleged use of poison gas has raised two questions that remain pertinent despite the proposed international monitoring and eventual destruction of that country’s chemical weapon arsenal: is gassing people more inhumane or reprehensible than killing with Tomahawk missiles and other conventional weapons? And are chemical weapons inherently prohibited in international law, just like genocide and slavery?

These questions are also important because Obama’s request to the US Congress for authorization to attack Syria was not about any specific threat to the US or international security. Rather, the planned attack was for retribution to save the president’s credibility that he believed was on the line.

Let’s be clear: chemical weapons—including choking agents such as chlorine gas, blister agents such as mustard gas, arsenic or cyanide-based blood agents, and nerve agents such as sarin—are far less effective than modern conventional weapons, which kill with greater certitude and precision.

Technological advances, in fact, have made conventional weapons capable of leaving a greater trail of death and destruction than any poison gas. They kill, maim and terrorize in ways not much different than chemical weapons. Some conventional explosives and napalm (a petrochemical incendiary whose use against military targets remains lawful despite the notoriety it gained during the Vietnam War) indeed can cause lingering, painful death.

Chemical weapons have a low kill ratio. Moreover, their employment often demands favourable weather and geographic conditions. If the military intent were to incapacitate enemy army units without killing them, chemical weapons potentially make for more humane warfare than conventional weapons.

But because they are cheap, easy to manufacture, and serve as a poor nation’s deterrent, chemical arms have fallen out of favour with the powerful, who portray them as “immoral weapons". To protect their advantage in conventional weapons, great powers have promoted a taboo against chemical weapon use.

Chemical arms have been used by combatants since ancient times, with the oldest archaeological evidence of chemical warfare being found, ironically, in modern-day Syria. Their extensive use in World War I, especially in the form of mustard or chlorine gas, created revulsion and fear of future chemical attacks. However, their use made little difference to the military outcome.

In fact, the total fatalities from chemical weapon strikes accounted for much less than 1% of the World War I deaths, and were lower than the toll from a single US napalm attack on Tokyo on 10 March 1945. At least 100,000 Japanese died on that day when some 300 B-29 bombers dropped 1,700 tonnes of incendiary bombs—the deadliest air raid of World War II.

Against this background, why do the hundreds allegedly killed by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in a 21 August sarin attack count for more than the estimated 100,000 slain in Syria’s grinding civil war, including many killed by insurgents aided by the US and its repressive Islamist allies, such as the rulers of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey? Why is it any worse to be killed by sarin than to be decapitated by insurgents, a growing number of whom hew to Al Qaeda ideology?

The Obama administration’s visceral we-must-bomb-Syria stand is obscured by such questions.

International efforts since late 19th century to outlaw chemical weapons have been hampered by breaches of legal obligations by a number of nations. The 1899 Hague Convention prohibited the use of projectiles with the “sole object" of diffusing “asphyxiating or deleterious gases"—a ban that was openly flouted in World War I. The violations spawned the 1925 Geneva Protocol banning the use of poison gas as a weapon—a still-binding prohibition breached with impunity by several parties.

The 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) went further and outlawed the production, stockpile, transfer and use of chemical weapons. Some countries have not signed or ratified it, including Syria, Israel, North Korea, Egypt and Myanmar. Some parties strongly suspected of possessing chemical weapons, including China and Pakistan, did not declare any stockpile. By declaring former production facilities, China, however, tacitly admitted that it had built chemical weapons and destroyed them before ratifying the CWC.

Of the seven declared possessor states under CWC, the largest arsenals are held by the US and Russia, which have both missed the convention’s final extended deadline of 2012 for the destruction of all stockpiles. What impact will this contravention have on CWC’s integrity?

Only India, South Korea and Albania are among the seven declared possessor states that have fully and verifiably eliminated stockpiles by the initial deadline of March 2009. The US says its stockpile destruction will not end before 2021, almost a decade after a cut-off extension.

When the US sprayed 20 million gallons of Agent Orange, a toxic defoliant, during the Vietnam War, it was not a party to the Geneva Protocol. It embraced the protocol soon after it ended that war. But its use of white phosphorus as an incendiary weapon and direct tool of warfare during the 2004 siege of Fallujah city in occupied Iraq raised a troubling question about its compliance with international obligations. Studies have reported a sharp rise in cancer, leukaemia and congenital birth defects in Fallujah in the years since.

White phosphorous, like other chemicals not listed in the CWC schedules, can be legally employed for non-combat purposes (for example, as a flare to illuminate the battlefield or to produce smoke to disguise troop movements) but not “as a method of warfare" relying on its “toxic properties".

Before Saddam Hussein fell out of favour with Washington, the Ronald Reagan administration acquiesced in his regime’s gassing of Iranian troops during the protracted Iraq-Iran war. Declassified Central Intelligence Agency papers and interviews with former officials, as highlighted by the journal Foreign Policy recently, confirm what has long been known—that Washington not only turned a blind eye to Iraq’s repeated use of sarin and mustard gas from 1983 to 1988, but also facilitated the gassing of Iranian troops by providing Saddam with satellite reconnaissance data on the location of Iranian units.

It is against this troubling backdrop that Obama—facing both international isolation and congressional defeat—sought to build a legal case to bomb Syria. His task was made uphill by factors extending beyond his decision to bypass the United Nations (UN).

Firstly, Syria is not a party to the CWC, whose enforcement, in any event, vests with the Security Council. Syria did sign the Geneva Protocol in 1968, yet that protocol provides no basis for use of force because it relates to inter-state war, not intra-state conflict. Secondly, in a world in which national stockpiles of chemical arms still exist, few can argue that such weapons are inherently prohibited in international law, regardless of treaties.

Allegations and counter-allegations of chemical weapon use in the Syrian civil war have been rife since last year. Several instances of alleged use were reported in the spring of this year, eventually prompting the
UN to send a team of investigators to Syria in August.

While the inspectors were probing those cases, another instance of alleged use in suburban Damascus on 21 August made international headlines because of a rebel video. Even as the UN inspectors turned to investigating the newest incident, Obama peremptorily declared his intent to punitively bomb Syria.

Why did Obama zoom in on the 21 August incident and ignore the earlier instances? One plausible reason is that while the earlier incidents appeared to point to chemical weapons use by insurgents, with Syrian army soldiers among the victims, the 21 August victims were all civilians in a rebel-held neighbourhood.

Carla del Ponte, a leading member of the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, told Swiss TV in May that there were “strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof" that rebels had used sarin. Del Ponte, a former Swiss attorney general and prosecutor with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, said: “I was a little bit stupefied by the first indications we got...they were about the use of nerve gas by the opposition." The comments prompted the commission to issue a statement that stressed—without denying Del Ponte’s remarks—that it had “not reached conclusive findings".

Contrast that with the 21 August incident, claims about which were ratcheted up progressively. The British reported “at least 350" civilians were killed in that attack; the Americans then released a much higher but incredulously precise fatality toll of 1,429; immediately thereafter, US secretary of state John Kerry thundered that the world cannot allow Assad to gas “thousands" of his people. The French followed up by claiming the attack involved “massive" use of sarin—an assertion picked up by the White House.

The full truth on the various incidents may never be known. Still, it cannot be discounted that the rebels probably were the first to carry out a chemical weapon attack in the civil war.

In this light, the Russian proposal to make Syria sign the CWC and open its chemical weapon armoury to international monitoring and eventual obliteration opens a possible diplomatic solution. It could also bail out Obama from a predicament of his own making—his insistence that he will break international law to punish Syria for breaching a fanciful international legal tradition.

Brahma Chellaney is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

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