Syria's 99 Percent: The Problem With Focusing on Chemical Weapons

If Assad agrees to forsake sarin, how can we intervene if he continues to slaughter civilians while technically playing by our rules?
A civilian runs with his belongings as he attempts to enter Turkey illegally at the Bab Al-Salam border crossing September 9, 2013. (Molhem Barakat/Reuters)

John Kerry's off-the-cuff remarks about Assad handing over his chemical weapons have triggered a potential resolution to the Syrian crisis. Kerry's gaffe-from-the-gods led to furious diplomatic maneuvering that averted an immediate U.S. air strike against Syria.

There's no question that Obama escaped a seemingly impossible situation. If Congress had rejected the use of force, what was Obama going to do? Press ahead with air strikes amidst congressional howls? Or back down meekly and suffer a diminished presidency?

The deal offers a face-saving way to claim some success. Assad hands over his chemical weapons stockpiles. The taboo against using chemical weapons is upheld.

Americans also avoided a dangerous military adventure. U.S. missile strikes would be big enough to embroil the United States in the Syrian civil war but too small to really make a difference on the battlefield--unless, of course, the U.S. campaign escalated into something much grander.

But Syrians, on the other hand, remain very much in the line of fire.

Removing chemical weapons from the Syrian battlefield will probably make little difference. The real weapons of mass destruction in Syria are conventional arms like artillery, guns, and mortars. Conventional weapons have killed 100,000 Syrians. Chemical weapons have killed 1,000.

Guns and bombs are no less barbaric than gas. High explosives even contain plenty of chemicals--it's just these chemicals cause explosions that kill through laceration and trauma rather than through asphyxiation.

Even if Assad dutifully hands over his chemical weapons, it still leaves shelling, gunfire, and torture on the menu. Indeed, Assad's willingness to give up his chemical stockpiles suggests they're hardly essential to the regime's strategic plans.

It's like telling Al Capone he can't murder people with a baseball bat--disappointing perhaps, but he does have other options.

Enforcing the chemical weapons taboo could have the perverse effect of encouraging brutality against Syrian civilians--so long as it happens in a conventional way. The more we fixate on chemical weapons as "bad" warfare, the more we make conventional weapons seem like "good" warfare.

After all, we enforce rules by punishing violators and by not punishing those who stay on the right side of the law. If Assad goes back to killing his people in the socially approved manner, it becomes tougher for the United States to act. How can you rally domestic and international support for intervention if Assad plays by our rules?

We're too preoccupied by the means of killing rather than by the total number of civilian deaths and the overall strategic situation. Any decision to use sanctions or force should focus on Syria's 99 percent: the vast majority of victims who were killed by conventional means.

The chemical weapon taboo is not about Syrian civilians. It's about protecting a norm that Washington thinks is valuable for wider U.S. foreign policy. It's about defending America's reputation. It's about Obama's credibility.

The prospect of a diplomatic solution is a cause for relief. We avoided U.S. air strikes that would have undermined American interests and could have worsened the situation on the ground. But let's not kid ourselves. Upholding the chemical weapons taboo will do little to help Syrian civilians. This was always about us.

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Dominic Tierney is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and an associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College. He is the author of How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War.

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