Early in the evening of 22 April, 1915, German troops opened the valves on 6,000 steel cylinders that had been installed along their defensive line on the murderous battlefield of Ypres, in Belgium. For the next ten minutes, clouds of chlorine, 168 tons in all, drifted slowly downwind towards the French, Algerian and Moroccan soldiers on the other side of the barbed wire.
The clouds, a witness wrote, turned "yellow as they travelled over the country blasting everything they touched and shrivelling up the vegetation." French soldiers staggered in, "blinded, coughing, chests heaving, faces an ugly purple colour, lips speechless with agony."
Now, almost a century on, the United States is preparing to punish the breach of the chemical weapons taboo which emerged from that most murderous of all wars. United States Secretary of State John Kerry announced last night that while he understood Americans were tired of war, "fatigue does not absolve us of responsibility". "History would judge us all extraordinarily harshly if we turned a blind eye to a dictator’s use of chemical weapons."
He's wrong: the United States' march to war in Syria is senseless.
For one, the evidence is at best inconclusive. The United States' case for war rests on intelligence assertions that Syrian officials authorised a pre-dawn chemical weapons attack on 21 August, killing an estimated 1,429 people including at least 426 children. The assessment says the regime has carried out multiple smaller chemical weapons strikes over the last year, "to gain the upper hand or break a stalemate".
It's impossible to say how credible this information is — yet, there's reasonable grounds for doubt. The United Nations had examined evidence from earlier purported chemical weapons strikes, and came to no clear conclusions. Its experts are still investigating the 21 August attack. Images have emerged purporting to show the kinds of munitions used to deliver chemical weapons in Damascus, but there’s no hard evidence yet on who fired them — or what precisely they contained.
Charles Blair notes, in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, that two of the three chemicals Syria is reported to have used are non-lethal; a third, white phosphorous, is lethal but not technically considered a chemical weapon.
Moreover, the United States' intelligence estimates sit poorly with other numbers. The United Kingdom intelligence estimate on the Damascus gas attack, places the numbers of lives lost at 350. It's worth reading that number against the 100,000 lives the United Nations says the war has cost.
Nor is there clarity on United States war-intentions. State Department officials have been privately saying they're only contemplating limited missile strikes, not ground-troop commitments — or regime change. President Barack Obama has said he's not considering a "boots-on-the-ground approach."
In that case, though, everything would be back where it was before 21 August: the murderous stalemate would continue, albeit without chemical weapons. Syria would, more likely than not, degenerate into another Libya or Iraq — its infrastructure of authority destroyed; a nation reduced to a state of anarchy.
Even if the United Nations determines Syria used chemical weapons, it’s far from clear this would legitimise war with these outcomes. The chemical weapons taboo, like all taboos, has mostly been a pious fiction. Agent Orange, a defoliant liberally used by the United States to counter insurgents in Asian forests, continues to claim lives. In a 2012 report, the Congressional Research Service recorded up to 4.8 million Vietnamese were exposed to Agent Orange, and that upwards of 350,000 veterans, their children and their grandchildren still suffer effects.
It’s true, of course, that the intention of the United States was to a win a war, not kill civilians—but al-Assad could, for obvious reasons, make precisely the same claim.
The Second World War saw no use of chemical weapons— but several historians have argued that was because of the absence of a reliable delivery system, as well as the certainty of retaliation.
Later, the United States actually aided Iraqi dictator Saddam Husain as he used chemical weapons in the 1980-1988 war with Iran—knowing he was doing so.
“The United States”, Shane Harris and Matthew Aid note on the basis of declassified Central Intelligence Agency documents, "applied a cold calculus three decades ago to Hussein's widespread use of chemical weapons against his enemies and his own people. The Reagan administration decided that it was better to let the attacks continue if they might turn the tide of the war."
Iran eventually sued for peace — not because of the chemical strikes, but the crippling of its economy and war machinery due to sanctions. In a recent review, John Muller recorded Iranian estimates that of 27,000 soldiers exposed to chemical weapons in March, 1987, just 262 died. Even at Halabja, one of the great crimes of modern war, the largest estimates of chemical weapons fatalities stretch to 400; the bulk of the killing was caused by conventional munitions.
The world only agreed in 1993 to the Chemical Weapons Convention—though efforts to proscribe them can be dated back to the late nineteenth century. Syria isn’t a signatory.
It’s hard to have dispassionate discussion on the ethics of chemical weapons, not just because of the sheer horror of the images out of Damascus, but because the chemical-weapons taboo has been embedded in our consciousness by history. There's little evidence, though, chemical weapons are in fact more lethal or indiscriminate than other kinds of weapons. The second battle of Yypres, where they were first used, ended in a stalemate—as would all other forms of trench warfare until the rise of the modern battle tank.
In a must-read chronicle of chemical weapons in World War I, scientist Gerald Fitzgerald estimates that by the war’s end on 11 November, 1918, chemical weapons had caused 90,000 deaths—a tiny percentage of the 9.7 million soldiers' lives lost.
Plain-vanilla artillery and bullets killed more effectively—and just as painfully—as gas. The soldier and scholar Basil Liddle-Hart, who knew first-hand about bodies torn apart by shrapnel and seared by chemical weapons, famously asserted, in a 15 June, 1926 article London’s Daily Telegraph, that gas was “more humane than shells”. “I did not see in 1917”, wrote the chemist James Conant, involved in the United States’ chemical weapons programme, "why tearing a man’s guts out by high explosive shell is to be preferred to maiming him by attacking his lungs."
The truth is that the al-Assad regime has been brutal—but its brutality is unexceptional. It’s hard to understand what benchmarks make it unacceptable for Syria to use chemical weapons against its insurgents — but not for the United States to level Basra using depleted uranium, which is still causing birth defects. It is hard to see consistent reasons for why Iran can’t seek nuclear weapons but India, Israel and even Pakistan can. There’s no explanation for why United States can invade Afghanistan to punish terrorists, but India ought not to cross Line of Control.
It's hard to understand precisely what benchmark makes it acceptable for the United States and the Gulf monarchies to supply lethal aid to Syrian insurgents, who've killed with exceptional brutality— but not for the regime to kill with exceptional brutality.
Except, of course, the one benchmark that counts: power. And it's the absence of the rational use of power that makes the United States' war in Syria so utterly stupid.
Liberals sometimes argue that wars would be legitimate if they're sanctioned by the United Nations — but this is pure fantasy. It’s worth recalling that there was no international consensus against Fascism in 1939: Joseph Stalin stood allied with Nazi Germany, and the United States wanted no part of Europe’s war. No-one ought confuse great-power geopolitics-which is what plays out at the Security Council-with moral norms.
The truth is the world will always be driven by politics—the medium through which power is exercised. In politics, pragmatic ends matter more than means: a fundamental divergence from the world of law and morals. In a stellar essay, John Grey points out that “when they topple tyrants for the sake of faddish visions of rights, western governments enmesh themselves in intractable conflicts they do not understand and cannot hope to control”.
In Syria, that’s just what happening: an arbitrary moral taboo, not pragmatic politics focussed on ends.
The West’s support for al-Assad’s enemies has destroyed lives, and brought about a jihadist sunrise across the region—not the dawning of democracy. Bombing Damascus won't bring that end any closer.
New Delhi has perched on the fence on through the conflict in Syria, fearful of antagonising the powerful gulf monarchies—the employers of the diaspora who are India’s key source of foreign currency. Yet, as oil prices surge in anticipation of conflict, and a regional crisis looms, it’s becoming clear silence also has a price. India's government must speak out, and now.