Behind Obama's Chemical-Weapons Double Standard

The White House's "red line" rhetoric on Syria's unconventional arsenal tiptoes around battlefield ethics.

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An Iraqi Kurdish soldier stands in Halabja cemetery in northern Iraq on March 16, 2005. Over 5,000 of the town's residents were killed in a chemical weapons attack by Saddam Hussein's regime in March of 1988. (Namir Noor-Eldeen/Reuters)

After a brief scare last week, the Obama administration now believes that the threat of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad using his sizable stock of chemical weapons has abated. But that doesn't mean the threat is entirely gone: as the rebels advance, and as strategic flashpoints like the Damascus airport threaten to fall out of the regime's direct control, the temptation to clear neighborhoods and intimidate Assad's opponents could become overwhelming. 

For the Obama administration, the use of chemical weapons in Syria would transform official U.S. understanding of the conflict. War with chemical weapons would be of an entirely different order than the current fighting, said Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria who appeared with regime opponents in the besieged city of Homs before he was recalled from the country in February, in an appearance at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies' last week.

"Utilization of these weapons in any way crosses a U.S. red line," he said during his prepared remarks. In a reply to an audience question, Ford said that possible consequences for crossing this line were "above my pay grade." But he added that "the use of these weapons is for us a qualitatively different situation ... it will change our calculus in a fundamental way."

It makes sense for Ford to avoid elaborating on possible U.S. action in response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria -- all it takes is one careless statement to give off the appearance that the Obama administration has implicitly committed itself to some form of military intervention. If the administration were to attempt an attack on Assad's chemical weapons capability, such an intervention likely would not be a minor one. Bombing Assad's chemical facilities from the air would disperse deadly sarin gas; depending on which way the wind were blowing, it could be carried into civilian areas or even neighboring countries. The Department of Defense estimates it could take up to 75,000 troops to secure Syria's chemical weapons stock. And then the weapons would have to be disposed of. According to Paul Walker of Global Green U.S.A., it will take another 10 years and $10 billion to destroy the 2,800 metric tons of chemical weapons remaining in the U.S's arsenal. Securing and disposing of Assad's 500 metric tons of ordinance will be costly, labor-intensive, and time-consuming.

"The use of these weapons is for us a qualitatively different situation...it will change our calculus in a fundamental way."

The administration seems convinced that the use of chemical weapons would make the conflict something more than simply an internal matter. As Dominic Tierney has noted at The Atlantic, this type of thinking creates something of a double-standard. "Oddly, the international community seems less concerned by how many people the Syrian regime kills than by the methods it uses to kill them," wrote Tierney. "The rule of murdering your population is: Don't use chemical weapons."

Simon Adams, executive director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, echoed Tierney when I spoke with him last week. "This regime has already violated every international human rights and humanitarian law, and has essentially gotten away with it," he said. Adams emphasized that the use of chemical weapons doesn't necessarily change the conflict from a humanitarian point of view. "From a responsibility-to-protect perspective, this is already a regime that is beyond the pale and which has broken international law and which needs to be held accountable." 

The Obama administration's belief in the difference between war by conventional- and unconventional weapons must be grounded in something other than the immediate threat to human life -- something more universal, and more abstract, than the prospect of more dead Syrians. But what?

I contacted Paul Walker to get an answer to that question. Walker is a leading expert on chemical weapons disarmament, and he explained what makes this category of weaponry so uniquely horrible.

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Armin Rosen is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Global channel.

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