Red Lines Matter

Why We Should Care About Syria's Chemical Weapons

A picture of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad on the facade of the police academy in Aleppo. In March, rebels said they captured the academy after days of fighting. (Mahmoud Hassano / Courtesy Reuters)

In a recent article for Foreign Affairs, the political scientist John Mueller wrote that we should not care about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s reported use of chemical weapons. His case hinges on the argument that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s unleashing of massive amounts of mustard gas and nerve agents on unprotected civilians during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s had few consequences. Yet there is ample evidence that the weapons had severe immediate and long-term effects on those exposed to them. And the international community’s indifference to Saddam’s use of the poisons led the Iraqi regime to increasingly rely on them. In turn, Iraq’s unchecked chemical weapons program gave Iran the impetus to pursue a chemical weapons program of its own.

There is an international norm against the use of such inhuman weapons for a reason: they are profoundly devastating. As the Syrian conflict intensifies, chemical weapons could make the civil war more violent and destabilizing. And simply turning a blind eye to Assad’s testing of American red lines will only complicate the endgame in Syria.


On March 16, 1988, Saddam launched a devastating chemical attack on the Kurdish city of Halabja. Iran called for a UN investigation to determine the death toll, but Iraq denied inspectors access to the city. An authoritative study by Human Rights Watch lists various estimates of the casualties -- some are as low as 600, but most range between 3,500 and 6,000. A Red Cross official estimated that attacks between March 16 and March 18 left some 5,000 civilian casualties, excluding Iranian soldiers. (Even today, gas trapped in basements continues to kill.)

Days after the strike, journalists from the BBC and other news agencies entered the town and documented “ghastly scenes of bodies strewn along Halabja's streets, families locked in an embrace of

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