The weird obsession with chemical weapons
If Assad really has killed 15 people with sarin, why is that worse than his slaughter of thousands of others with bullets and bombs?
It seems fairly likely, but still uncertain, that the government forces of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad deployed some sort of chemical weapon against rebels in the cities of Aleppo, Homs and Damascus. Intelligence agencies in Israel, UK, France and the US certainly seem convinced. As indeed do politicians. But here’s the question few seem to be asking: so what?
That is not to diminish or demean the deaths of the 15 or so alleged to have been killed by some sort of chemical agent. Rather, it is to ask: what makes those deaths so different from the 70,000 others who have lost their lives during the two-year-long Syrian conflict? There certainly seems to be an assumption that these deaths are different, that, in short, a handful of chemically aided fatalities are somehow more morally repugnant than the tens of thousands of non-chemically aided deaths. For some as yet obscure ethical reason, the means of death appear to matter to Western observers. Burning people alive or mangling them to death are, it seems, deemed lesser wrongs than suffocating people using a nerve agent.
Which doesn’t really make any sense. Why is there this obsession in Western political circles with the possible use of chemical weapons? No doubt, the potent symbolism of chemical warfare plays a part. Largely invisible, chemical weapons play upon the idea of the unseen enemy, the unseen threat. And as such, in our fearful, hyper-vulnerable times, the idea of unsighted chemical agent wreaking silent destruction resonates in a way an all-too-tangible tank does not. To compound the curious socio-cultural significance of chemical weapons, there is also the myth-bound historical legacy of chemical-weapon use during the First and Second World Wars, despite actual gas-induced fatalities being far outweighed by fantastical fears. In fact, such was the terror of the Germans dropping a chemical payload on Britain during the Second World War that the entire population was provided with a gas mask.
But in the case of Syria, something else is informing the Western obsession with chemical weapons: namely, the political and moral cowardice of the debate around intervention. That is, there should be a political debate about the rights and wrongs of intervention. There should be a debate informed by political and moral principle, by ideas of what one ought, or ought not, to do. But in the case of Syria, just as in the WMD-framed arguments over the war in Iraq, this debate has not taken place. Instead, there is a deathless technical debate about whether, how, and on whose orders, Assad’s forces used chemical weapons, just as there was a deathless technical debate about the likelihood of then Iraqi president Saddam Hussein possessing WMDs in the early 2000s. And both those in favour of further, more forceful intervention in Syria and those against are using the arguments about chemical weapons to make their pro-intervention/anti-intervention cases for them. Chemical weapons are standing in for political and moral principles.
In a sense, US president Barack Obama started this principle-dodging. Back in August last year, Obama, who is clearly reluctant to inveigle the US into yet another Middle East escapade, kinda, sorta outlined, with a whole heap of caveats, the conditions in which the US would intervene. ‘There would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical-weapons front or the use of chemical weapons’, he said at the time. ‘That would change my calculations significantly.’ Then secretary of state Hillary Clinton echoed Obama: ‘[Use of a chemical weapon] is a red line for the US. We are currently planning to take action… in the event of credible evidence that the Assad regime has resorted to using chemical weapons.’
This, the position of the Obama administration, was not, as the more conspiratorially inclined like to believe, an attempt to create a pretext to invade Syria. In fact, it was the opposite. It was an attempt to provide a pretext not to invade Syria. By drawing an arbitrary line in the sand, albeit a bright red one, Obama was trying to justify non-intervention. It’s just that he wasn’t doing this on moral or political grounds; he was doing it on quasi-legalistic grounds. So, providing Assad didn’t use a particular weapon to kill his opponents, Obama could insist that Assad had not actually committed a war crime. And therefore, so Obama’s logic ran, the US ought not to involve itself militarily in Syria.
That a profoundly pragmatic reluctance to intervene underpinned Obama’s ‘red line’ position has become clear since Assad’s alleged transgression. Because, despite the war-happy urgings of Republicans like senator John McCain, and Democrats like senator Dianne Feinstein, Obama has refused to say whether the red line has been crossed. It is important to know ‘when [weapons] were used, how they were used’, Obama said on Friday. ‘We have to act prudently. We have to make these assessments deliberately.’ It’s a mess of his own making. Having created the red line in lieu of a principled argument against intervention, Obama is now desperately trying to smudge the red line to avert intervention’s necessity.
Yet just as unprincipled, just as morally and politically bankrupt, are those using chemical weapons to make the case for intervention. These self-righteous sorts, hearts on sleeves, rattling sabres in hand, are not prepared to make this case openly – the damaging legacies of more recent do-gooding missions in Iraq and Afghanistan still hang heavy round their scrawny necks. Instead, they hope the facts of chemical-weapon use, the evidence of a sarin attack, will automatically justify intervention and make their case for them. Their determination to establish the evidence amounts to a determination to establish a casus belli.
‘What is most important now’, explains an Observer editorial, ‘is the integrity and transparency of any investigation that requires governments that claim they have evidence of use to explain precisely what they know as a fact and the limits of their knowledge.’ The Guardian’s editorial dripped with prim barbarism: ‘The use of chemical weapons is a war crime. It is a war crime even if it is committed by a state which, like Syria (or North Korea), is not a signatory to the international chemical weapons convention… [B]ut the evidence needs to be examined. There undoubtedly needs to be a proper investigation, authorised by the international community, of the sarin allegations.’ Does anyone have Hans Blix’s phone number?
This obsession with the evidence of chemical weapon usage is best thought of as a form of fetishism. It is as if soil samples, DNA analysis, and YouTube footage of victims frothing at the mouth, have the power to decide what Western powers, led by the US, do next. And in a way, evidence of chemical weapons really does have that power. Not because their deployment really is more morally heinous than shelling people to death, but because political and moral cowards on both sides of the debate, unable to make a case in political and moral terms, have invested chemical weapons with the moral force that ought properly to belong to political and moral argumentation.
And here’s what should be the rub for those politically opposed to further, more forceful Western intervention in Syria: even if there is incontrovertible evidence that Assad used chemical weapons to kill his opponents, that still does not in any way justify intervention. That’s because the reason to oppose intervention has nothing to with Assad’s means of combat, and everything to do with the idea that the only people who can win and exercise freedom in Syria are the Syrian people themselves. To debate intervention, principles are needed, not evidence of chemical weapons.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
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