Part of Foreign Affairs Report: Syria in Crisis

A Taboo Worth Protecting

Chemical Weapons Are Indiscriminate -- And That's Why They Should be Outlawed

Chemical weapons Syria Iraq Kurds Halabja
An Iraqi Kurd visits the cemetery for victims of the 1988 chemical attack in Halabja, March 2013 (Thaier al-Sudani / Courtesy Reuters)

Among the many arguments marshaled in opposition to U.S. intervention in Syria, a prominent one is that the chemical weapons taboo is not worth saving. Writing in Foreign Affairs last April, the political scientist John Mueller suggested that the world should “erase the red line,” since chemical weapons generally produce far fewer fatalities than conventional weapons. Echoing this reasoning, the Harvard scholar Stephen Walt asked in The New York Times last week, “Does it really matter whether Assad is killing his opponents using 500-pound bombs, mortar shells, cluster munitions, machine guns, icepicks or sarin gas? Dead is dead, no matter how it is done.” These arguments are troubling. Like the taboo against nuclear and biological weapons, the chemical weapons taboo is well worth protecting -- and inaction in Syria risks eroding it.

It is true that over the past century, conventional weapons have killed far more people than chemical weapons. But if we are keeping score, conventional weapons have also killed far more people than nuclear weapons. Nobody doubts that conventional weapons can and do kill in large numbers -- Hutu extremists in Rwanda demonstrated the lethality of even simple machetes and hoes. But nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons are labeled weapons of mass destruction because they have a higher potential to kill or wound very large numbers of people compared with other weapons. If used to full capacity and under the right environmental conditions, chemical weapons are more lethal than virtually all kinds of conventional weapons. In the August 21 attack near Damascus, sarin gas killed nearly 1,400 people in 90 minutes and injured countless others -- the single most devastating assault in the last two and a half years of war.

But the lethality of chemical weapons is not the main reason to distinguish them from conventional ones. They belong in the same category as biological and nuclear weapons because they are primarily weapons of indiscriminate destruction.

Protecting noncombatants from intentional harm is the basis for much of international humanitarian law and nearly all traditions of just war. And nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons make discrimination between civilians and fighters virtually impossible. This is especially true in modern warfare, which is rarely conducted on clearly defined battlefields.

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