A year ago, as rumors of a possible chemical attack by the Syrian government began circulating, United States President Barack Obama stated that the use of chemical weapons is a “red line” that, if crossed, would likely change the noninterventionist stance of the United States. On the 21st of August, reports of a mass chemical attack in Syria bombarded both local and international media outlets. One thousand casualties were attributed to the use of sarin, a poisonous airborne chemical. Obama denounced the weaponry and stated that “this is a challenge to the whole world.”
One wonders, though, why the “challenge” arises now, two years after the onset of the Syrian conflict. Over 100,000 people have died, millions have been displaced, and the lines between those fighting for democracy and those advocating tyranny have become blurred beyond recognition. Why is intervention brought up now, when the casualties from the chemical attack account for less than 1% of the overall mortalities throughout the whole conflict?
For two years, the West sat largely idle as Syria imploded. Immediately after reports of a chemical attack, Obama called for a serious and prompt reaction, the United Kingdom pushed for drafting of a United Nations resolution, and cries of disbelief and outrage rang around the globe. Why? How is killing through chemicals different than the myriad other media for massacre?
The first large-scale use of chemical weaponry occurred in 1915, during World War I, when the German army discharged chlorine unto the English, killing over one hundred soldiers. That initial attack catalyzed the use of chemical weapons, by both sides, throughout the remainder of the war. After WWI, horrified by the effects of chemical warfare, members of the League of Nations signed the 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibiting the practices of chemical or biological warfare. Unfortunately, the Protocol had many loopholes, and neither prevented its signatories from developing chemical or biological weaponry nor using them against non-signatories. Hence, in 1997, the Chemical Weapons Convention came into force with 189 signatories – 98% of the world’s nations – openly decrying the use of chemical warfare in any context.
Let me repeat: 98% of the world’s nations have agreed to ban chemical weapons. The ban is not an exclusively American one. President Obama did not unilaterally prohibit their use. The ‘red line’, though articulated by Obama, was not invented by him; it was drawn in 1997, on the premise of a global arm control agreement. Someone crossed that line. Someone disregarded the judgement of the civilized world – an act which President Obama called ‘a mockery’. But, though Obama seems to have monopolized the voice of the Western world, this is not just the concern of the United States.
All eyes are on him now – like the song of thieves in Disney’s Aladdin, the world asks, “Are you in or out?” His ‘loose rhetoric’ last year implied he’s in. Yet he must seek Congressional approval, and most Americans are loath to enter into another Middle Eastern military commitment. The Syrian government calls his hesitance ‘a sign of weakness’. The opposition in Syria, afraid of a complete renegement, called him ‘a weak president’. Many fear Obama’s perch on the ledge of intervention – neither explicitly in nor out – further embolden’s Assad: heavy shelling of rebel strongholds in Damascus began shortly after Obama’s statement.
The problem is that a Syrian chemical attack is not only Obama’s problem. The US should not be the only one on the hot chair. The violation of international law is an attack against the whole international institution. The focus on the United States reveals deep divisions within a supposedly ‘united’ world order, one that refuses to adequately respond to a ‘mockery’ of its founding tenets. The international community must pull together and act according to its communal principles. Allowing anyone to cross the ‘red line’ now would mean giving the green light for any future violations of international law.
No one from the West wants to go to war. Washington doesn’t want to touch the quicksand that is the Syrian situation, nor do American taxpayers want to send troops and resources to the region. 10 Downing’s initial militaristic fervor was quickly calmed by the House of Commons, which refused to entangle the country in another Middle Eastern conflict. The people of the United Kingdom clearly support their Parliament’s decision to stay put. Merkel is in her pre-election preparations and does not need any war-related controversies.
However, a reaction is necessary. Such a violation of international law should be appropriately addressed, regardless of domestic political pursuits. It is not only America’s business to go around policing – this attack was against all 189 signatories of the Chemical Weapons Convention, and each and every one of them should in respond.
I would like to think that we do not live in a unipolar world, but rather a multilateral community where the balance of power is kept by all. I would like to think that collective security organizations such as the United Nations are truly forums for debate and action, rather than extensions of influence for dominant nations. A chemical attack violates international norms – Syria is therefore the business of Australia and Fiji as much as it is that of the US and UK.
Potential international law breakers, such as North Korea and Iran, are watching to see how the international community will react to a challenge of its founding tenets. So far, what they are seeing is a failure to respond. What is behind this failure is yet unclear.