Whose (red) line is it anyway?


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.


  1. I completely agree with the first point expressed here. I do not doubt that various politicians feel genuine horror following the use of chemical weapons. However, as you have pointed out, there has been no such reaction for the past two years – despite tens of thousands of innocent people being killed.

    I find it hard to accept a moral argument against their use from politicians who have not raised the same concerns for the past two years, or indeed, for every other conflict round the world where people are dying every day. To the families of those who are dead, I think it is safe to say that the how is far less important than the why. Yet for western governments, the how is all that seems to matter. It is killing that should outrage politicians in countries that are fortunate enough to be at peace, not the legal technicalities of how it is done.

    In answer to your question of ‘Why?’, the answer is simple. In the last two decades or so, the term ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ has achieved almost mythical status. Chemical weapons, as a result of being more ‘unconventional’, have achieved an elevated status amongst the fears of politicians. Are they particularly capable of mass destruction? Not really. If they are, then so is a bullet. I do not for a second doubt how horrific they are, but ultimately, they are a means of killing, as are many things.

    As you say, after the First World War, they scared people. The same was true of civilian bombing, which is far more destructive, as various examples from the Second World War clearly show, with death tolls reaching 100,000 for just one raid. However, because a bomb is a more ‘normal’ weapon, no one stops to think. WMD is not a term that reflects actual capability (except for nuclear weapons, which used to be how the term was exclusively used, before the end of the Cold War), rather, it is a state of extreme political anxiety, especially when associated with ‘undesirable’ regimes, or terrorist organisations. Quite how Syria is a threat to US national security I do not know.

    However, I do have some issues with several of the points you go on to discuss. While 98% of the world’s nations have signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, Syria is not one of them. They are subject to the Geneva Protocol, though as you say, there is a loophole in that it refers to international conflict. Combined with Syria’s denial that the Assad regime used the weapons (not to say that this holds any truth), Syria can claim that it has not breached laws it is subject to. Combine this with the Security Council looking very unlikely to agree on military action, and the whole thing becomes a bit of a legal mess. We all know that if there is one thing countries are scared of, it is the perception of an illegal war.

    Additionally, there are some practical points. You have mentioned several times the need for countries to ‘act’ or take an ‘adequate’ response. I assume by this you mean military action. Anyone can condemn an act, but this brings me back to the above point; if the country being condemned does not judge itself by the same standards, then condemnation is nothing more than rhetoric. It does not solve the problem. Nor do economic sanctions, you only have to look at past disputes to see that all they do is wind up the regime in question and make them carry on.

    Secondly, assuming military action, there are further issues. Many countries who are strong players on the international stage do not pursue a remotely militaristic policy, and limit themselves purely to defence. What can they do, other than the above measures which do not work in the first place? Additionally, of countries that can react, how many can actually react? Very few countries have the power projection to do anything about the situation, and not all of those are willing. The US is in a unique position to be able to do something as a result of its capability, even compared to Britain and France.

    However, this comes back to the original point. You want countries to act on a united front, but the action on the table equates to not very much at all. All that is being sought is the removal of the chemical capability. I am sceptical as to how that can be done, but far more importantly, as your initial point makes clear, how will this actually help Syria? The answer is, it will not. All it will do is calm the misguided fears of politicians. Syria will still be a mess. People will keep dying as long as Assad is in power, yet the only alternative is full-scale involvement and a regime of unknown qualities, neither of which have any chance of being implemented by the western powers.

    As for setting a precedent and potential international law breakers, the case is far more dubious than Syria. Nuclear weapons are not illegal full stop. They are only illegal under certain circumstances under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The reason why international action does not work is because it is not international. North Korea did not like the treaty, so they left. Iran has signed, yet claims it only has peaceful intentions. Why might Iran think it needs nuclear weapons? Because Israel has got them. However, Israel denies this, not that it matters anyway, as they haven’t signed the treaty. Israel is a key US ally. They aren’t in breach of the law because they haven’t signed up, so they are not considered an international menace (along with India and Pakistan). The system quite clearly does not work when only some states decide the rules.

    That final point answers your final question. It is not a failure to respond from the dozens of countries who have no interest in international force projection, as they cannot do anything about the situation in the first place. If it is a response from the international community you want, the only two countries who really matter are Russia and China. Without that, I do not see how this situation can be resolved to the actual benefit of the Syrian people, as that should be what matters, rather how well western politicians sleep at night.


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