Gas Mask: Why Is Chemical Warfare Obama’s ‘Red Line’ in Syria?

Assad has been slaughtering innocents for months. Why draw the line at poison gas?

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Narciso Contreras / AP

A man collects his belongings after his home was damaged due to heavy fighting between Free Syrian Army fighters and government forces in Aleppo, Dec. 2, 2012.

Amid disturbing reports that Bashar al-Assad may be preparing to use chemical agents against insurgent opposition, the Obama administration is reiterating its position that such a step constitutes a “red line” the Syrian dictator dares not cross. “Today I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and those under his command: The world is watching,” President Obama said on Monday. “The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable. And if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable.” Added Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “we are certainly planning to take action” in such an event.

That seems like an uncontroversial position. Except when you consider that, in the nineteen months since the Syrian uprising began, Assad’s forces have killed the great majority of the more than 40,000 people to die in the conflict, many thousands of them innocent civilians. His men have indiscriminately shelled residential neighborhoods; tortured prisoners; allegedly burned infants in their beds and even buried men alive. All without crossing a red line.

(MORE: Bashar Assad’s Chemical-Weapons’ Calculus)

So why draw a line at chemical weapons? “The international community has spelled out a specific set of rules and norms outlawing the use of chemical or biological weapons,” explains White House spokesman Tommy Vietor. “The death to civilians is indiscriminate and the human suffering they inflict is horrific.”

It certainly is. Assad is thought to have a stockpile of sarin gas, which, for instance, produces drooling, convulsions and vomiting before death. But conventional weapons are horrific, too. Explosives cause dismemberment, severe burns, collapsed lungs. And while the effects of poison gas are often likened to torture, countless Syrians have already endured torture–the kind with cables, whips and electric shocks to the genitals.

As Vietor notes, international law does treat chemical weapons differently. They were banned after World War I by the Geneva Protocol (which Syria signed), and again by the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. (Syria is among a small and nasty club of states not to join that one). But Assad’s brutality has violated international law many times over; chemicals aren’t a game-changer.

(MORE: The Anti-Assad Offensive: Can the West Oust Syria’s Strongman?)

So the real issue here isn’t moral or legal. It’s psychological–and therefore political. Academics debate why chemical weapons carry a special stigma; it may be a special genetic aversion to poison, or perhaps a dread-inducing unfamiliarity with their effects. But the fact is that Assad’s use of chemical weapons would generate a degree of revulsion and outrage that would give the west the political cover required for direct intervention. “The possible use of chemical weapons would be completely unacceptable for the whole international community,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters this week. The White House’s Vietor even invokes Saddam Hussein, whose gassing of the Kurds was an oft-repeated rationale for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. “The last leader to do so was Saddam Hussein, clearly a pariah in the international community,” adds Vietor. “Assad could still have some possible exit valves available to him. I can’t imagine any state would help him if he gassed his people.”

There is one other rationale for this red line, one that the White House doesn’t publicly emphasize: terrorism. Chemical weapons tend to be relatively portable, and give a terrorist the theoretical ability to kill large numbers of people in a dense urban area. (That point has attracted the particular interest of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is reportedly contemplating airstrikes against Syria’s chemical weapons depots.) Even so, when five members of the fanatical Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo released sarin gas on the Japanese subway in March of 1995, the death toll of thirteen was a small fraction of the 190 people killed on the Madrid subway in 2006, when the method was old-fashioned high explosives.

Unless he runs out of conventional weapons, Assad would be foolish to incite America by tapping his chemical arsenal. He’s spent most of the past two years inflicting blood-curdling suffering on his people. There’s little reason to think we’ll try to interfere–so long as his sadism is the conventional kind, the kind we apparently can tolerate.

PHOTOS: Syria’s Slow-Motion, Bloody Civil War

122 comments
MohammadMahmoudAlzayat
MohammadMahmoudAlzayat

using chemicals or not , it doesn't matter for the Americcan government, but what matters in the next stage is the leadership of Syria. The American government wants the Syrian next government to move in its orbit , especially Syria is one of the front states with Israel

poliphobic
poliphobic

Leaving aside the rights/wrongs etc. , a simple question from a naive foreigner:

If this red line is crossed what action will you take? 

Surely not another invasion, with the responsibility to occupy and run the place after you have conquered it, remembering that those you have sought to help will probably turn against you ?  There is also Russia to consider.

GlobalLeanings
GlobalLeanings

@TIME @crowleytime once gas is loaded on planes, who is to say where those plane will go~

BertMayer1
BertMayer1

"Syria is among a small and nasty club of states not to join" the 1933 Chemical Weapons Convention. The nastiest of this club that defies all international laws and conventions is their neighbour..........Israel!

YetiHunter
YetiHunter

Let them fight it out amongst themeselves, no matter what they want to use to kill each other. Do you think any Syrians would come to the aid of any western country for any reason? Why should we spill one drop of blood for them?

drock2289
drock2289

But the answer to Mr. Crowley's question is to be found right here on Time.com! From "Assad's Chemical Weapons: How Does Sarin Work?":                                                                                                                                                                                                          "Sarin...was used in the 1988 Halabja massacre in which Saddam Hussein ordered the release of sarin gas over the Kurdish city and killed at least 5,000 civilians over three days"                                                                                                                                                                      THAT is (one reason) why chemical weapons are a red line. 5000+ deaths in *3 days*. Even Assad's indiscriminate and brutal use of artillery, airstrikes, and torture against civilians took months to kill as many as did the deployment of sarin gas for 3 days in a *single city* with a population of only 70,000 people! For comparison, the combined (prewar) populations of Damascus and Aleppo, Syria's two largest cities, are estimated at around 4 million.                                                                                                                                                           Additionally, chemical weapons (unlike bombs, bullets, and torture) cannot be precisely targeted to a single region, since they can be carried by the wind for miles. This is one of the reasons why dealing with Assad's chemical weapons is such a thorny issue--it would be simple enough if we could just call in missile strikes or bombing runs, but doing so would effectively detonate all of the chemical weapons stored onsite, and there are concerns that the resulting toxic clouds might be blown over into *Jordan*, a neighboring country!                                Thus, chemical weapons are truly Weapons of Mass Destruction--they kill indiscriminately, uncontrollably, and on an incomprehensible scale when deployed in densely populated areas. Add to this the fact that Assad's chemical weapons, if captured by organizations like al-Qaeda, would actually pose a credible threat to *Americans*, and you have some VERY good reasons to draw a big red line at any activities suggesting that these weapons are being readied for deployment or shipment off-site.

Greekgeek
Greekgeek

Thank you for asking this question. I couldn't understand why indiscriminate bombing of civilian neighborhoods wasn't the red line. 

Fla4Me
Fla4Me

All killing is bad, yes, but we've been down this road before.  Remember your history.  In the current situation it's taken 19 months to kill 40,000 and in ways that some have had the chance to defend themselves.  Isn't there a difference if 40,000 are killed in a week and those who die have no way to fight back?  If there is no consequence for this escalation don't chem/bio weapons become the new standard for keeping your dictatorship humming along?  I think MC falls short on this premise

goldnrulejoe
goldnrulejoe

Assad is no worse than Bush  and Obama both war criminals. Torturing and killing innocent people with drones. Quite possibly killing own people on the inside job that was 911!   There sure was no thorough investigation. Why?

nflfoghorn
nflfoghorn

To the title: Maybe we're just tired of fighting other people's wars.

goldnrulejoe
goldnrulejoe

How many innocents has the U.S. killed in the last 12 years in Iraq , afghanistan and pakistan just to name a few?  You people and your hypocrital comments kill me!

bl
bl

"You can shoot them, stab them, burn them, strangle them, bomb them, or run them over with tanks, that's okay.  But don't you dare even think about poisoning them.  That's the Red Line!"

Potemkin
Potemkin

This article doesn't not go far enough in demanding that the U.S. invade [insert unstable country name here]. We need to convert all U.S. public schools into military academies teach American children how to safely disarm an IED and throw a frag grenade.   Our movie studios should be put under state control so that money wasted on films like Up and Finding Nemo can be instead put into churning out military propaganda.  American women should be forced to have one chid a year in order to supply the fighting men and women for Team American World Police.  Every American needs to sacrifice their lives and the lives of their children to solve the problems of  people in other countries who can't get along.  Yes, we Americans have fought in our own bloody Civil War and Revolutionary War, not to mention a pair of World Wars and countless Operations, but Michael Crowley is right: we haven't done enough to solve the the rest of the world's problems.  Silly us, raising, loving and fighting for our own children, when we could be churning out babies to feed the global war effort.  Do Blackhawks come with child safety seats?  Because we're gonna need 'em if we Americans are going to fix the world by Christmas.

Dachman
Dachman

Got to love Islam it really is about love and peace...Like the rest of the Islamic nations of the Middle East there is not reasoning, they will kill each other, treat their wives and daughters like trash and we stand back and take their side when it comes to Israel and say they are committing genocide. Assad has killed 40,000 in under 2 years and Israel is the one everyone is upset about...what a joke.

formerlyjames
formerlyjames

NBC warfare is formally accepted as the over the limit of "acceptable" warfare, use of conventional weaponry.   The first use by Germany in WW1 was alarming not for the death caused, but for the slow death.  I am not that old but remember as a child a WW1 "survivor" of mustard gas still suffering a slow death until it got him 40 years after the exposure.  BTW, the chemical weapons have also spurred Russia to meet with the USA over the matter, which is a good outcome.

MichaelWellman
MichaelWellman

I wholeheartedly agree with the point of this article, which is to say that "Chemical Weapons" should not be the thin red line.  Assad has crossed quite a few of what *should* have been those red lines.  By saying, "If you use chemical weapons, we're going to do something about it," you're essentially telling the world that killing massive numbers of civilians is OK as long as you don't kill them in a certain way.  Then again, I think we're saying that right now by ignoring what's going on in the Democratic Republic of Congo anyway.

paulejb
paulejb

Well, well, well, it seems that Saddam's WMD may be used after all. The irony will be that it is again Muslims slaughtering Muslims. Really nothing new here.

worleyeoe
worleyeoe

@BertMayer1 You're funny, Bert. If you live in the U.S., please leave. No country is perfect, but putting Israel in the club of Assad is down right sickening.

DrinkerOfTheRye
DrinkerOfTheRye

@BertMayer1 Sunnis, Shias, Alwites, all little people kiling each other in Arab tribal wars. They only have peace when imposed by an occupier or a dictator.

Cezar
Cezar

@YetiHunter I'm sorry for you! The west country,they don't go there to help somebody,they go because they have a interest.

drock2289
drock2289

Disappointing formatting, Time.com. Can this be improved? I would prefer to be able to press "Enter" rather than hit "Spacebar a bunch of times. Thanks.

Cezar
Cezar

@nflfoghorn I'm disappoint from your people,I will ask you and all people who thinking like you.Where you USA citizen fighting for somebody else?When you drive your car with price 4 times chipper from EU you and similar persons please try to thinking why is like that.

worleyeoe
worleyeoe

@goldnrulejoe Like Israel, the U.S. is at war with Islamic extremists. If you don't get this, then you really have no business posting. The Islamists would not hesitate for a moment to turn America into a glass parking lot, and at its foundation it has nothing to do with us being in those countries you mention. Radical Islam wants to dominate the world. It's that simple.

Greekgeek
Greekgeek

@Potemkin Actually, the mess in Syria is exactly what we should be using those dratted drones for. Bombing civilians in Pakistan? No. Assad's planes being used to drop bombs on civilians? Yes.It's cowardly, but I'm pretty sure the damage to our military personnel operating drones from air-conditioned offices in Colorado is psychological (which I'm not dismissing) rather than physical. 

bl
bl

@Potemkin "teach American children how to safely disarm an IED"Potentially, a heck of a lot more valuable than some of the things they learn.   

Arimathean
Arimathean

@Potemkin Well, thank God you're steering away from hyperbole and straw-manning this entire article.

BertMayer1
BertMayer1

@Dachman Wasn't it recently in NY City that bus line run by Orthodix Jews relegated women to the back of the bus? Every religion has it's "backward" elements.

Arimathean
Arimathean

@Dachman Don't be a fool.  Islam has been around for 1434 years.  At that point in Christianity's history there was rife anti-Semitism, the Inquisition, and the legacy of 3+ failed Crusades.  If you want to make this about "which religion is more violent", I'm afraid we Christians have too many planks in our own eyes.

BertMayer1
BertMayer1

@worleyeoe @BertMayer1 I hope you are feeling better. I did not compare Syria to Israel but merely pointed out that if you define "nasty club" as nations not signatories to the 1933 Agreement, one should include Israel. Your suggestion that I should be expelled from the US for my opinion gives me some concern, however, my comment was regarding Israel and not the US.

BertMayer1
BertMayer1

@DrinkerOfTheRye Apples and oranges! Sunnis and Shias are "sects" of Islam. Alwites are "tribes" such as Kurds, Aramiens and Semites. "Arabs" is a generalization for a race of people.

BertMayer1
BertMayer1

@worleyeoe @goldnrulejoe How about Zionist extremists? Christian extremists? Is the US at war with the whole world? Hypocricy is why the US is losing it's international standing.

MichaelWellman
MichaelWellman

Yes, that is pretty horrible.  I can't think of any weapons the US has that could cause such effects, especially given that US soldiers are exposed to those same weapons on a daily basis.  However, we're talking about two completely different magnitudes here.  You're talking about a few hundred kids a year... which is bad, don't get me wrong.  I'm talking about over a million deaths, over 200,000 women raped as a form of psychological warfare, and hundreds of thousands of children raped, mutilated, or forced to become child soldiers.  Your example is a tragedy... my example is a genocide.

MrObvious
MrObvious

@DonQuixotic @paulejb 

Considering they had their own extensive program. But hey; why would a thought get in the way of an rant for paulejb.

BertMayer1
BertMayer1

@worleyeoe @BertMayer1 I take it from your commentary that you are Jewish although I don't expect you to confirm this. In any event, you are clearly Islamaphobic and have anger management problems. Being aggressive, insulting and name calling certainly does weaken your arguments with educated readers.

worleyeoe
worleyeoe

@BertMayer1 Oh no you didn't, you two faced liar. You explicitly went beyond this by stating "defies all international laws and conventions". Do you even proof what you read, Bert?

Israel is a legitimate country like all of these Arab countries in the middle east. The big difference is that Israel takes up less than 3% of all the land in the middle east that are occupied by Arabs who are almost all hostile towards Israel, and Israel has been a functioning democracy since day one. The world is indeed a "nasty" place, Bert, but the problem isn't us or Israel, it's with the Islamists. Tell them to modernize their beliefs and the world would be a lot less "nastier".

And while you're at it, tell the Palestinians that they already have a country. It's called Jordan, which makes up about 80% of what used to be TransJordan and what they would have called their homeland before the end of WWI, once things started to be partitioned out. The Jews lived along side the Palestinians since the days of the Old Testament, and in modern times it is the Islamists who have wrought terrorism upon Israel and are now exporting it globally.

Everyone wants to act like a Palestinian state would solve the middle east's problems. It wouldn't, but rather it would simply be one step along the way towards the destruction of Israel.

BertMayer1
BertMayer1

@DrinkerOfTheRye Let me guess. You are a Canadian from Eastern Canada.........

DrinkerOfTheRye
DrinkerOfTheRye

Maybe fruit salad.Arab people aren’t a distinct race but rather a panethnicity. They are identified as such on one or more of genealogical, linguistic, or cultural grounds with tribal affiliations, and intra-tribal relationships playing an important part of Arab identity.More importantly, those that don't immigrate to other cultures, remain a little people, a silly people, greedy, barbarous and cruel.

worleyeoe
worleyeoe

@BertMayer1 Zionist extremist aren't trying to take over the world, you moron. No of course the U.S. is not at war with the whole world. Stop being so dramatic and think / post rationally.

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

@MichaelWellman We're most certainly talking about more than a few hundred kids (more than 100,000 civilian non-combatants in Iraq alone). I'm not saying that we're the Congolese army, M23 rebels or Bashar al-Assad but we should reserve some of our self-righteousness from our righteous indignation at "indiscriminately shelled residential neighborhoods; tortured prisoners; [and] burned infants in their beds..." Both we and our allies *cough* Israel *cough* have that sort of blood on our own hands. And it's ongoing.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-greenwald/us-drone-strikes-are-caus_b_2224627.html

MrObvious
MrObvious

@MichaelWellman 

So very true; tortured logic would assume that the facts we don't know (Iraqi chemical weapons) will be used over the facts we know they have (Syrian chemical weapons). To claim that the one fact we can prove is tortured logic is in itself tortured logic.

MichaelWellman
MichaelWellman

He's not.  He's saying that while we can extrapolate that Syria's weapons program is not sufficient to produce the volume of weapons we believe (but do not know for sure) it possesses, and while we can theorize that the difference came in terms of weapons from Iraq, we can't prove that those weapons came from Iraq (because we can't, in fact, get an accurate count of the weapons in the first place, nor the output of Syria's weapons manufacture facilities, nor an estimate on how long those facilities have been in operation).  If it turns out that they do have imported weapons, those weapons could just as easily (and just as plausibly) be from Iran, or even from Russia (which supplied a lot of Syria's other military equipment).So the point is, we can't say "Syria has weapons from Iraq."  What we CAN say is, "We believe Syria has more weapons than it could possibly have produced, and some of those weapons quite likely came from Iraq."

paulejb
paulejb

@MrObvious @paulejb @DonQuixotic ,

You are using tortured logic to dispute something that is self evident. The fact that Syria has it's own weapons did not preclude them from accepting Saddam's.

MrObvious
MrObvious

@paulejb @MrObvious @DonQuixotic 

The difference is that we KNOW that they've manufactured their own weapons as supposed to THINK that they have Saddams old weapons. That's the difference between having facts to prove something, and finding 'facts' to prove what you already believe. Hint - there's a big difference. 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syria_and_weapons_of_mass_destruction

Syrian chemical weapons production facilities have been identified by Western nonproliferation experts at approximately 5 sites, plus one suspected weapons base:[17]al-Safira (Scud missile base)Hama (Scud missile base)HomsLatakiaPalmyra

roknsteve
roknsteve

Good Morning Scooter, So how much of that Sarin do you have with you in your bunker?  By the way, the sun is shining here in California and all working age members of my family have good jobs.  Of course we're positive people and that's the difference. 

MrObvious
MrObvious

@paulejb @DonQuixotic 

What is it about Syria's chemical weapons program that prevented the transfer of Saddam's WMD to Syria? Your logic is tortured.

Someone need to read up on the meaning of tortured logic.

paulejb
paulejb

@DonQuixotic @paulejb ,

What is it about Syria's chemical weapons program that prevented the transfer of Saddam's WMD to Syria? Your logic is tortured.

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

@paulejb @DonQuixotic 

Syria has long had its own chemical weapons program, but the extent it may have been aided by weapons and materials transferred by Iraq before the war has only been the source of conjecture.

I remember the first time you posted this.  You never learn, do you?