Western powers have a competitive advantage in nuclear and biological WMDs, as well as high-tech conventional arms. Chemical weapons are the poor man’s WMD. ~ andy ho
In August last year, United States President Barack Obama declared that if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should ever use chemical weapons against rebels, he would consider a "red line" crossed.
On 21 August this year, when Syria crossed that red line amid reports of chemical weapons use, Obama threatened air strikes, saying, "I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line" under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Currently 189 states, including Singapore, are party to the CWC, which came into force in 1997. But only the United Nations Security Council can authorise the use of force against a state that resorts to chemical weapons.
Non-member Syria now says it will sign the CWC and hand its chemical weapons over to international control for destruction. This plan has helped it avert US air strikes for now, but Obama said force remains an option if Syria should go back on its word.
Some 110,000 people have perished in the Syrian conflict that began in April 2011. The nerve gas attack in Damascus on 21 August killed "only" 355, according to the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres. Yet, US Secretary of State John Kerry called the attack "immoral". Why is this comparatively tiny number of deaths considered so morally repugnant that it justifies US military intervention?
Now that Syria says it will give up its gas weapons, it will presumably be allowed to continue killing its citizens with impunity so long as it uses only conventional arms.
Why are chemical weapons morally more abhorrent than conventional ones?
Jonathan Tucker, author of War Of Nerves (2006), claims that there is a taboo "deeply rooted in the human psyche" against chemical weapons. As early as 431 BC, the Spartans lobbed burning pitch-and-sulphur mixtures into inhabited areas, where the resulting sulphur dioxide smoke caused asphyxiation.
In the Middle Ages, Genghis Khan’s forces used the same tactic. In the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War, Japanese soldiers stuck burning arsenic-soaked rags in the trenches where Russian soldiers were hunkered down.
But large-scale chemical warfare was really a World War-I development. This happened on the back of the birth of an industrial sector that could produce a lot of chemicals quickly. The Germans were the first to deploy poison gas on a wide scale in war. On 22 April 1915, near the strategic town of Ypres in Belgium, they released 150 tonnes of chlorine from gas cylinders, killing 5,000 Allied troops. Then, in 1917, they introduced mustard gas, which causes burns and blisters in the skin, eyes, and breathing passages while killing slowly.
In World War-I, chemical weapons, primarily mustard gas launched via artillery shells, were estimated to have caused 100,000 deaths. It is the imagery of WW-I trenches with soldiers choking in a fog of yellow mustard gas that is seared in the public’s imagination. Perhaps this is the origin of the taboo against chemical warfare, if one really exists. It could also be linked to the gas chamber and Hitler’s final solution. Such fears were stoked in 1988 by news that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had gassed a village called Halabja, killing 5,000 Kurds living there.
Perhaps chemical warfare is viewed as immoral because those under attack in conventional warfare can surrender and escape further harm. No one has that opportunity in a chemical attack. The gas might also be colourless and odourless, so victims may not even know what hit them. They may just gasp, develop fits, froth at the mouth and die. But why is being blown to smithereens by a smart bomb less likely to attract international opprobrium?
Perhaps chemical weapons are viewed as morally abhorrent because they are weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), so the killing is indiscriminate? But conventional explosives in Bali or Baghdad can kill indiscriminately too.
Or, it might be the long-term impact of chemical residues after an attack that catapults it into a more reprehensible category. This could lead to genetic mutations in survivors and their offspring. In Halabja, long after Saddam’s attack, a study found a raised incidence of childhood leukemia and lymphomas.
But nuclear WMDs would have the same effect and more.
It might well be here that the truth lies: Western powers have a competitive advantage in nuclear and biological WMDs, as well as high-tech conventional arms. Chemical weapons are the poor man’s WMD. As Edward Spiers’ book A History Of Chemical And Biological Weapons (2010) noted, some industrial chemicals have dual uses. Take thiodiglycol, used in ballpoint pen ink.
It is also an ingredient in mustard gas. So a poor country with a ballpoint pen factory could potentially make mustard gas that is easily weaponised in a low-tech lab. Is this why the West demonises chemical warfare without also demonising high-tech nuclear, biological and conventional bombs and rockets? In fact, the US employed non-lethal chemical weapons in Vietnam widely.
Authorised by successive US presidents, from John F. Kennedy to Richard M Nixon, 20 million gallons (76 million litres) of the defoliant Agent Orange were used in Vietnam from 1962 to 1971. This saw 400,000 Vietnamese killed and 500,000 born with congenital defects.
Chemical weapons appear to be no worse morally than conventional weapons. Used against defenceless civilians especially, they are equally abhorrent. Intervene in Syria if you must, but chemistry offers you no moral high ground to justify it.

the straits times/ann