The ghastly images reveal rows of the dead, many of them children, wrapped in white burial shrouds, and survivors gasping for air, their bodies twitching, foam oozing from mouths.
This was unlike any other scene in Syria’s civil war, where bombs and bullets have killed and maimed more than 100,000 people in the past 2½ years.
The Aug. 21 attack on the rebel-held suburbs of Damascus, the Syrian capital, was carried out, the U.S. says, with chemical weapons. It crossed what President Obama calls a “red line” and, he says, demands a military response against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
But in a war where only a fraction of the more than 100,000 Syrian deaths have come from poison gas — the Obama administration says more than 1,400 died in the attack — what is it about chemical weapons that sets them apart in policy and perception?
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Some experts say chemical weapons belong in a special category. They point to the moral and legal taboos that date to World War I, when the gassing of thousands of soldiers led to a worldwide treaty banning the use of these weapons. The experts also say chemical weapons are not just repugnant but pose national-security risks.
“The use of nerve gas or other types of deadly chemical agents clearly violates the widely and long-established norms of the international community,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a nonpartisan research group in Washington. “Each time these rules are broken and there’s an inadequate response, the risk that some of the world’s most dangerous weapons will be used in even further atrocities is going to increase,” he said.
Others contend there is no distinction and the U.S. should focus on protecting Syrian civilians, not on preventing the use of a particular type of weapon against them.
“The Syrian regime commits war crimes and crimes against humanity every day,” said Rami Abdel-Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. “A war crime is a war crime.”
The chemical-attack deaths, which the Assad government blames on rebels, came a year after Obama said the use of such lethal weapons in Syria would carry “enormous consequences.”
“A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” Obama said.
Last week, Obama shifted the onus. “I didn’t set a red line,” he said. “The world set a red line” by banning the use of chemical weapons.
After tens of thousands of soldiers, mostly Russians, were asphyxiated by phosgene, chlorine and other gasses in World War I, most nations banned such chemicals in the Geneva Protocol of 1925, which Syria signed.
Many signatories, however, reserved the right to respond if attacked first, said W. Andrew Terrill, a research professor at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania.
In 1993, the Chemical Weapons Convention outlawed the use, production and stockpiling of these agents. Syria is one of the few nations not to have signed that agreement.
Terrill said Obama’s “red line” shouldn’t be viewed as just an emotional response to horrific acts, but as “cold, hard strategy. I think it gives us the moral high ground and we’re going to use the moral high ground when we get an opportunity to do so while pursuing our interests.”
There also are national-security reasons for military action, he said.
If Assad isn’t stopped now, that could open the way for expanded use of chemical weapons and embolden nations with suspected nuclear ambitions, such as Iran, Terrill said. “It’s better to nip it in the bud now,” he said. “It’s better to make our disapproval known early because if we don’t, we could be coping with a much worse situation.”
Robert Kaplan, an analyst at Stratfor, a U.S.-based global intelligence firm, said America’s strategic interests often collide with aspirations to be a guardian of international norms.
In the 1980s, he said, the Reagan administration did not punish Iraq’s Saddam Hussein when he used chemical weapons during the war with Iran and against his own country’s Kurdish minority.
At the time, the U.S. had other priorities, such as the Cold War with the Soviet Union and attempts to contain Iran, said Kaplan and Richard Price, a professor at the University of British Columbia. Punishing Saddam could have undermined those objectives, they said.
Obama now faces another dilemma, Price said. If the president enforces the “taboo” against poison-gas attacks and strikes Syria, he risks “violating another set of norms, about when it is legitimate to resort to force under international law,” Price said.
Some Obama critics have said he must seek U.N. Security Council approval for any strike, but a likely Russian veto there blocks that option.
Others have said he should have intervened earlier in Syria, where numerous acts of brutality have been reported involving conventional weapons.
The New York-based group Human Rights Watch says that since November it has documented multiple attacks in Syria with incendiary bombs dropped from government planes. The group released a report last week identifying 152 locations where government forces used at least 204 cluster munitions, which explode in the air, releasing hundreds of tiny bomblets, over a one-year period that ended in June. These munitions pose a long-lasting danger to civilians.
“It turns out that conventional weapons are extremely effective at killing civilians and they can be just as arbitrary,” said Dominic Tierney, an associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College and author of “How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War.”
“We should be focused much more on the overall plight of the civilians … and not be so fixated on whether one particular weapon system is used. … It’s almost like saying we’re making strangling illegal, but other kinds of murder are OK.”