How should we make sense of the enforcement of a “red line” prohibiting one horrible weapon that has killed relatively few but leaving untouched the conventional weapons that the Syrian military has used to kill tens of thousands? It is easy to disparage a chemical weapons deal that aims to stop the method of slaughter responsible for fewer than 2 percent of Syria’s estimated 115,000 deaths resulting from the conflict over the past two-and-a-half years while leaving unimpeded the means used to slaughter more than 98 percent. “Red light for chemical weapons, green light for conventional weapons” would fairly summarize the approach.
Yet it would be wrong to belittle September’s last-minute diplomatic breakthrough in which Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov seized on US Secretary of State John Kerry’s seemingly offhand remark that Syria could avoid US military action by surrendering its chemical weapons. To begin with, averting another US military intervention in the volatile Middle East is no small matter. Congressional support for President Barack Obama’s proposed military enforcement of what he called his “red line” was by no means certain, but Russia feared the not-unimaginable possibility that the Senate would give Obama the support he sought and that he would then act without waiting for the likely House rejection.
Moreover, awful as it has been to watch on average five thousand Syrians killed each month by conventional weapons, the August 21 chemical attacks on two sites in suburban Damascus killed an estimated 1,400 in a single night. Despite government denials, the research of Human Rights Watch and others confirmed that the chemical weapons had been fired by the Syrian military. Without an international response, there were good reasons to anticipate the terrifying prospect that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would deploy chemical weapons regularly.
So in the Syrian case, chemical weapons are different—and not simply because they are a long-banned indiscriminate weapon, as Kerry pointed out in making the case for a military response. After all, the United States keeps indiscriminate weapons in its arsenal—some, such as land mines and cluster munitions, that are banned by treaties the US has not ratified, and some, such as nuclear weapons, that are not explicitly outlawed. Rather, as Assad showed, chemical weapons are also different because of the extraordinary civilian toll they can exact.
In the cool nighttime air of late August, the heavy vaporized sarin seeped into the basements where many women, children, and other civilians had taken refuge from the fighting around them. A basement ordinarily is a good place to avoid rockets and artillery exploding above, but they turned deadly that night.
The Syrian government will undoubtedly try to squirrel away some chemical weapon capacity from its vast arsenal, but with Russia, its main political…
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