Syrian children at a camp for internally displaced persons in Manbij, April 2017.
Syrian children at a camp for internally displaced persons in Manbij, April 2017.
Rodi Said / Reuters

Coughing, choking, foaming at the mouth, scores of panicked Syrians died in a recent chemical weapons strike. Except, unlike the Bashar al-Assad regime’s latest alleged sarin gas attack in Idlib last week, their deaths by chlorine gas did not lead to U.S. missile strikes against the Syrian regime. Rather, although the chlorine attacks—which some monitoring groups claim number at least 12 a year—have been met with widespread condemnation and sanctions, not much else has been done. Expressing the frustration felt by many human rights activists, Zaher Sahloul, a former president of the Syrian American Medical Society lamented, “There were testimonies in the [UN] Security Council, there were resolutions, there were attributions and then investigation teams, and then nothing happened. I think at this point, people gave up on Syria and talking about these issues.”

In 2013, I raised the question of why Syrian deaths by some banned chemical weapons elicited such a visceral response in the United States—in particular the desire to launch military strikes against the Assad regime—yet the myriad of other ways in which innumerable civilians have died there have not. (Chlorine has an ambiguous status under the treaty banning chemical weapons.) Unfortunately, the question bears repeating. Much as in 2013, the United States has used protecting the chemical weapons taboo as justification for possible military action.

The day before the missile strike, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, speaking at the Security Council, asked, “If we are not able to enforce resolutions preventing the use of chemical weapons, what does that say for our chances of ending the broader conflict in Syria?” In his statement on the strike, U.S. President Donald Trump said that “it is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.”

Implicit in these declarations is the concern that inaction in the face of these violations will diminish and maybe even kill the chemical weapons ban. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made this point in a statement on April 6. “It’s important to recognize that as Assad has continued to use chemical weapons in these attacks with no response—no response from the international community—that he, in effect, is normalizing the use of chemical weapons, which may then be adopted by others. So it’s important that some action be taken on behalf of the international community to make clear that the use of chemical weapons continues to be a violation of international norms.”

Of course, the chemical weapons ban must be preserved; these weapons are enormously deadly, hard to control, and indiscriminate. But what about the civilian immunity norm, which has been violated throughout Syria’s conflict? Assad is notorious for his egregious targeting of civilians. He has not even spared well-entrenched mores, such as those protecting healthcare workers. Yet, repeated violations that haven’t involved particular chemical weapons have not received similar treatment to those that do.

Perhaps in setting the stage for the missile strikes to follow, Trump stated, “When you kill innocent children, innocent babies—babies, little babies—with a chemical gas that is so lethal, people were shocked to hear what gas it was, that crosses many, many lines." Yet the photograph of a bloodied and dazed young Omar Daqneesh, taken shortly after he was pulled from the rubble of his home which a military strike destroyed, apparently crossed no such lines. Nor did countless deaths by starvation or barrel bombs.

None of this is to suggest that missile strikes are the only way to meaningfully protect Syrian civilians. But the United States and its allies did not even seriously work to offer them sanctuary or create an often-proposed safe haven along the Syrian border for those who managed to stay alive.

One reason for the disparity could be that states prioritize the preservation of norms that serve their security interests. With myriad norms competing for limited resources, it is unsurprising that states opt to protect those who affect them most. The chemical weapons taboo partially emerged out of a desire to shield soldiers from such weapons’ horrifying effects. The civilian immunity norm, one of the oldest norms in the global arena, arose to safeguard noncombatants from intentional targeting. The civilian immunity norm is not even absolute. Some civilians can be targeted if they are directly participating in the war, for example by clearing mines, hacking military computer networks, or operating attack drones. Governments pushed for this allowance to protect their soldiers from belligerents who feign civilian status or from actual civilians posing a threat. Thus, even a norm designed to protect civilians yields to states’ desires to protect their militaries.

Syria’s use of chemical weapons would concern the United States for a number of reasons. First, they can harm U.S. soldiers currently stationed in Syria to help fight ISIS. More broadly, if the ban weakens, it might affect U.S. interests outside of Syria should other actors choose to follow Syria’s lead. We can see the same logic in the support that the U.S. missile strikes received from a diverse range of governments, despite academic and activists’ concerns about their impact on sovereignty norms and civilians.

As I argued in 2013, the choice between preserving the civilian immunity norm and the chemical weapons ban is a false choice. Protecting civilians can actually ensure the chemical weapons taboo’s integrity. Hollow words in lieu of action in the face of repeated intentional attacks on civilians can have a ripple effect. Not only can that weaken the civilian immunity norm, it can also enable other norms violations. This may have been the case in Syria, where U.S. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) has argued that U.S. tolerance of Assad’s future in power may have emboldened him to violate norms that more directly trouble the rest of the world in order to secure that future. Thus, if states really want to protect their soldiers, they have to make a more concerted effort to vigorously protect civilians first.

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  • BETCY JOSE is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Colorado, Denver.
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