Why chemical weapons shouldn't be America's red line in Syria
America continues to base its Syria decision-making on the kinds of weapons used to kill people, rather than the fact of their being killed in the first place
Last week, President Trump ordered the Navy to lob 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian airbase. Apparently $100 million of the very best in remote-guided American munitions was enough to keep the airbase closed for one entire day, after which it resumed its role as a launching point for regime atrocities. The pretext for this ineffectual publicity stunt was Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's horrific chemical weapons attack on the village of Khan Shaykhoun that left more than 70 people dead and hundreds wounded. President Trump, parked like an unemployed blogger in front of his television, had apparently seen some footage of "beautiful babies" who had been killed in the chemical attack and decided he had to reverse his administration's stated policies about intervention in the Syrian civil war.
Just days earlier, the Trump administration was willing to let Assad's grotesque government stay in power if it would bring peace to Syria. Backed by the full weight of Russian military power, the Assad regime was poised to end the Syrian civil war the way that so many civil wars have ultimately ended in the past: with one side winning and the others losing. But a single attack on a single village appears to have scrambled this calculus. This continues the curious American policy of basing its Syria decision-making on the kinds of weapons used to kill people, rather than the fact of their being killed in the first place.
According to the Western imagination, the following are ways in which it is acceptable for beautiful Syrian babies to die: being torn apart by barrel bombs dropped by the regime, being incinerated by Russian-dropped phosphorus munitions, being shot at close range by armed combatants, drowning while desperately trying to reach Southern Europe with their families, perishing from disease or malnutrition in a refugee camp, passing away from depression and misery while waiting to get into one of the many rich countries too afraid of them to help, or expiring as collateral damage in an American drone strike aimed at someone else. It is acceptable also for beautiful Syrian babies to die in any area currently or recently held by ISIS, as it is a well known precept of international law that you forfeit your beautiful babyhood when your parents are known jihadists or live in the same neighborhood or attend weddings with them. More than 17,000 Syrian children have died by these means since 2011.
The following, apparently, are all the ways in which it is unacceptable to the United States of America for a beautiful Syrian baby to die: in a chemical weapons attack.
To point out this hypocrisy is not to deny the particular gruesomeness of chemical weapons. In the same way that Ebola draws attention because of the ghastly nature of the symptoms, the drawn-out, painful process of dying or suffering in a sarin attack is one of the many affronts to human decency that has led nearly every country on Earth to join the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), one of the most effective efforts to eradicate specific methods of warfare that the world has ever seen. Joining the OPCW is such a no-brainer that even the United States has done it and Republicans haven't sought to blow the treaty apart, participating with such righteous élan that we have managed to destroy 89.5 percent of our existing stockpile in the 24 years since joining the club.
But is it impolite to point out that "conventional" weapons also inflict equivalent pain and suffering on their victims, that one does not necessarily die immediately after a drone strike or Russian airstrike, and that it is possible to experience lasting agony merely by being wounded, mortally or otherwise, in a gun battle between adversaries in a run-of-the-mill civil war? That war itself is a moral abomination? That the United States maintains its right to "first use" of nuclear weapons — in other words, to nuke without first being nuked? That we have no credibility on this issue in the region after looking the other way when Saddam Hussein's Iraq gassed Iranian civilians and Iraqi Kurds?
Another cold truth: Many countries have signed on to this project in large part because chemical weapons are nearly useless on the battlefield. If they weren't, there would be more of them and they would probably be used more often. After all, the United States has pointedly refused to join the 1997 Ottawa Convention banning the production, sale, or use of antipersonnel land mines, another horrific way to die or to be maimed and one that claims far more lives every year than chemical weapons. The Bush administration predictably rejected the whole idea — the State Department, in a terse, Tillerson-like 2004 statement, claimed it could not join the convention because "its terms would have required us to give up a needed military capability." Oh. Ok then.
The Obama administration committed to the principle of eliminating land mines but like someone who wants to go on one last, epic bender before getting sober, claimed they were too essential to the defense of South Korea to give up completely. The Trump administration, presumably, will abandon the enterprise altogether, once it finds the requisite number of D-list hacks to fill all the vacant deputy-level positions at the State Department. Washington, D.C., is full of people who have been waiting their whole lives to trash a painstakingly negotiated treaty.
In many justice systems, the gruesomeness of a crime can increase the length or severity of the punishment. You will often see these crimes described in media accounts as "grisly." U.S. law provides judges leeway with "sentencing enhancements" to impose harsher prison terms for macabre crimes. And indeed, Assad's chemical weapons attacks should be catalogued and remembered if it ever becomes possible to prosecute him or other members of his regime for their many crimes during the course of this conflict. They are abhorrent, and the international outrage is justified.
But any intervention in Syria — from one-off air strikes to more sustained involvement — should not be based on the types of weapons currently being used to kill Syrian civilians. Assad has already killed enough Syrians with conventional arms to be sentenced to 10 consecutive life sentences at the Hague. Instead, intervention should be premised on asking and answering difficult questions like, "Can we achieve our goals in Syria with military force?" and "Will pressing this button start a nuclear war with Russia?"
The Obama administration's decision to stay out of Syria was not due to lack of moral outrage over what is happening there but rather to a prudent appraisal of the likelihood that using military force could stop the civil war and bring about a more just resolution. The wisdom of that position is certainly debatable, but if the Trump administration has better ideas, it is long past time for them to be revealed and discussed before the U.S. gets itself involved in yet another war in the Middle East.