The UN has joined the USA in offering beleaguered Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad a stark warning about the potential use of chemical weapons. Assad’s military is believed to boast a frightening stockpile of chemical weapons that could be utilised against rebel forces should the regime edge further towards collapse. Such a step as adopting chemical warfare would bring untold misery to countless civilians and threaten to open up the civil war beyond Syria’s borders. Will Assad risk everything for the sake of maintaing power for a few more months? Or will he learn from history and keep the chemical munitions tightly locked in their underground depots?
The horrors wrought by mustard gas in the European trenches of WWI forced the International Community to enshrine in international law the prohibition of chemical and biological warfare. It formed part of the Geneva Convention, signed in 1925 and enacted in 1928. However, despite its good intentions the convention did not outlaw the production and storage of chemical weapons and, indeed, during WWII, large stockpiles were built-up and preserved across Europe and the Pacific. The Allies and the Germans both decided against using their reserves of mustard gas and sarin due to the fear of retaliation against such a morally tainted action. The Japanese were not so cautious. The Imperial Army regularly used tear gas and other toxins against opponents in East Asia, with ever-fearsome biological weapons developed by the infamous Unit 731. This contributed to the image of the Japanese conducting the war unconfined by any moral limits and undoubtedly encouraged the use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end the war.
It should also be remembered that, despite not using chemical weapons in conventional warfare, the Nazis were more than willing to incorporate the Zyklon B pesticide into their war of extermination against the Jews. For that, the image of Germany has always been tainted.
The two most notable uses of chemicals in battle since WWII have both precipitated massive shifts in public opinion. The dropping of the herbicides Agent Orange and Napalm by American forces during the Vietnam War, whilst intended to destroy the Vietcong’s sanctuary of foliage, had the indirect effect of maiming hundreds of innocent civilians. With public opinion already turning against the war back in America, the images of children engulfed in flames as they fled Napalm attacks contributed to a massive anti-war movement which helped lead to a humiliating American withdrawal. It was also, perhaps, the first time international opinion unanimously questioned the interference of the USA in another country’s affairs.
The other notorious application of chemical warfare was certainly deliberate. During the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein ordered the dropping of mustard gas and tabun against Iranian soldiers and civilians alike. Horrendous injuries were brought upon the Iranians and Hussein, once seen as a secular Western ally in the midst of a staunchly Muslim region, became a pariah. His annexation of Kuwait in August 1990 may not have led to a US-led coalition invading his country had his brutal reputation not been forged years earlier against Iran. Similarly, whilst we now know that Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction prior to the Anglo-American invasion in 2003, the fears of a man like Hussein potentially possessing such weaponry would undoubtedly have terrified diplomats familiar with his indiscriminate use of chemical warfare. For this reason, the temptation to manipulate the truth is at least partly understandable.
Assad therefore risks embroiling the Western powers in Syria if he dares to use chemical weapons against the rebels. The 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention notwithstanding – in which stockpiling and producing chemical weapons was also forbidden under international law – chemical warfare is seen as the final cowardly and immoral action of a brutal leader uninterested in the sanctity of life. The only way the USA or any of its allies will intervene in Syria is if Assad uses chemical weapons. Preliminary moves have been made with the positioning of anti-missile batteries along the Turkish border. Furthermore, even Assad’s Chinese and Russian patrons may think twice about politically propping up a regime resorting to such criminal measures. The worrying thing is that Assad probably knows that should he be toppled he is likely to be arrested for war crimes or face the rest of his life on the run. In a sense he has nothing to lose. And that is truly terrifying.