Theory Meets Reality: Reacting to WMD Use in Syria

| September 26, 2013

Earlier this summer, at a colloquium co-sponsored by the Naval War College and Carnegie Council for Ethics and International Affairs, questions about the ethics of nuclear proliferation and deterrence were discussed.

Building on the article by the Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, which serves as the lead article of the fall 2013 issue of Ethics & International Affairs, as well as the work of Thomas Nichols (author of the forthcoming No Use: Nuclear Weapons and U.S. National Security) and Ward Wilson, who is also a contributor to the current issue of EIA, the aim of the discussions was to try and connect the theories about whether the possession (and possible use) of weapons of mass destruction could ever be just with the strategic and political dilemmas faced by policy-makers. Little did we know that within a month of those conversations, the hypothetical would become real.  Although there had been previous allegations of chemical weapons use, on August 21, there was no doubt that, for the first time since the 1980s, a weapon of mass destruction—albeit chemical, not nuclear, was used in a combat situation. However, the civilian casualties that resulted from the discharge was only a fraction of the noncombatant deaths that have occurred since the Syrian government used force to repress anti-government protestors and ignited the civil war two years ago.

Since that time, the international community has wrestled with several ethical dilemmas as countries struggle to develop policy responses to the crisis in Syria. Is it more permissible to kill people using “approved” weapons? After all, Rwanda proved that even machetes in enough hands could be weapons of mass destruction. And is a conventional military strike in order to enforce the norm that WMD use cannot be tolerated, but that has the possibility to kill and injure far more people than died in the August 21 attack, acceptable and ethical as a response? The genuine ethical confusion in many capitals around the world was reflected in statements that deplored the use of chemical weapons (and assigned blame to the government of Bashar al-Assad, in contrast to the Russian assertion that blamed the opposition), but, at the same time, few governments were willing to endorse U.S.-led military action as a response.

The fragile and uncertain consensus that has emerged after the Geneva negotiations between John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov is that gaining Syrian government acquiescence to the Chemical Weapons Convention and creating a mechanism to identify, locate, transport and destroy Syria’s entire arsenal of chemical WMD is the paramount ethical task, because of the indiscriminate way in which these weapons kill combatant and non-combatants alike; the manner in which they kill; and the lingering poisonous effects of such arms.

Compelling the Syrian government to end its ongoing conventional-arms struggle with the opposition (which has led to far more deaths) is now less of a priority. If the agreement is honored in full by the Syrian government (leaving aside here the very real challenges of implementing such a framework in Syria’s current unsettled condition as well as the separate question as to whether the government in Damascus plans to actually abide by its obligations), and if there is no corresponding political settlement that ends the fighting, presumably the Assad government would be free to continue to use non-WMD methods to defeat its opponents.

This brings me back to the discussions held in Newport, particularly the conversation as to whether we make an unnecessarily ethical (and policy) distinction between so-called “conventional” weapons and WMD. After all, civilians have been dying in agonizing fashion from the utilization of conventional weapons in ways no less horrifying than the innocents who perished from the chemical attack. Is it a matter of degree and intention: that conventional weapons—the bullet, the rocket-propelled grenade, the missile—in theory can be better targeted to try and hit combatants only (even if civilians and innocents can still be affected), but that WMD, once they have released their toxins, have no way at all of distinguishing friend from foe, innocent from fighter? Is it that most conventional weapons have a limited time span of lethality (with the exception of mines—this being a major impetus to the creation of the Land Mine Treaty banning use of such weapons) but WMD can continue to poison and kill for a longer span? One of the strands of thought taken up in the Newport colloquium, for instance, was that the United States, even if itself attacked by a WMD, would still be likely to resort to massive conventional retaliation rather than respond in kind—that, in the current post cold war world, it is America’s massive conventional arsenal and its proven track record in being willing to use it—not its possession of WMD—that serves to deter possible attacks.

And if governments and policymakers perceive that WMD are “different”—and are afraid of the consequences of their use—can their existence in a conflict zone create ethical outcomes, by forcing action and creating incentives for diplomatic solutions? Consider the Algerian case. Despite the oft-cited figure of 100,000 deaths in Syria over the last two years, that is still only half of the number of deaths that are calculated to have occurred in Algeria’s own years-long struggle between an authoritarian government and an Islamist opposition in the 1990s—a poignant reminder that Syria’s own struggle could continue to claim many more lives. However, because Algeria never had WMD, there were never any “red lines” that impelled outside powers to intervene, even though the death toll, in the end, proved to quite high.

Prior to August 21, Syria seemed doomed to be locked into a similar Algerian-style perpetual cycle of violence, with neither the government nor the opposition capable of achieving a decisive battlefield victory that would end the conflict. The peace process was moribund, while the outside parties—Iran, Russia, the Gulf states and the Western powers—were content to merely ship additional weapons (and perhaps some advisers) to their preferred parties, not to actually directly intervene and put their superior military capabilities in the service of bringing the war to a close. But the fear of further chemical weapons attacks—and the need to create a more stable environment in which to implement the Kerry-Lavrov agreement—might compel the major outside actors to become more interventionist rather than to let the fighting continue.

Since the end of the cold war, debates over the ethical propriety of the possession and the willingness to use WMD (in order to maintain a credible deterrent) were seen as largely the preserve of the academy. But the Syrian crisis forces these questions back firmly on the policy agenda—and provide a new avenue for ethicists and policy-makers to engage in dialogue.

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