Are chemical weapons particularly heinous?

If chemical weapons were used in Syria last week, that's awful - but far less awful than the overall toll of the war so far.

Molhem Barakat/Reuters
Free Syrian Army fighters run to take cover from snipers loyal to Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad near Aleppo International Airport August 28.

The gnashing of teeth over Syria that's been emanating from various Obama officials and members of the DC punditocracy since last week has rested on a common but rarely examined assumption: That among the vast ranks of tools for man to kill man invented down the ages, chemical weapons are particularly heinous. 

But is it true? If you relied on the Obama administration, you'd think so.  The US government says there was a chemical weapons attack on a Sunni Arab suburb of Damascus on Aug. 21. On Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement about the "immoral" and "unacceptable" use of chemical weapons, and the pattern of claims from the White House since has clearly been in the direction of some sort of US assault designed to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

But "because he used chemical weapons" is not a reason "why." Nor is "because Obama said the word 'red line.'" Or because, as Secretary Kerry had it, chemical weapons are "immoral." A State Department spokeswoman said today, when asked if the US would wait for UN Security Council permission to attack Syria: "We cannot allow diplomatic paralysis to be a shield to the perpetrators of these crimes."

What are these crimes? And how do they differ from the crimes of the past few years?

The alleged number of dead from the alleged chemical attack is about 350 people – less than 0.35 percent of the total number deaths in the Syrian war, which is now well over 100,000. In over two years of fighting children have been tortured to death, area fire weapons like mortars and rockets have rained down on crowded civilian neighborhoods (a war crime), suicide bombs from rebels have killed civilians and soldiers alike on the streets of Damascus (ditto), and both sides have executed captives with a liberal hand.

If the immorality of a weapon lies in its capacity to kill, then the humble assault rifle or machete are far more immoral instruments of death. Yes, theoretically chemical weapons could kill far more in a short period of time, but that hasn't been the track record. Consider Iraq's use of chemical weapons to kill about 5,000 Kurds in the town of Halabja in 1988 – the most horrific and perhaps the most deadly use of chemical weapons since WWI (Iraq's use of chemical weapons on the battlefield during the Iran-Iraq war which then raged may have been worse).

But the massacre at Halabja occurred as a tiny portion of Saddam Hussein's Anfal Campaign in Iraqi Kurdistan that began in 1987 and ran until early September 1988. In 1987 Hussein named his cousin Ali Hasan al-Majid as military commander for Iraq's separatist north with one task: Destroy Kurdish opposition. Majid, who soon earned the nickname "Chemical Ali," pursued the mission with a horrific zeal.

Human Rights Watch and many others labeled the campaign a genocide. They had good reason.

Majid issued orders for large swathes of the Kurdish countryside to be depopulated. Over 2,000 villages were destroyed, crops and livestock were systematically eradicated, tens of thousands executed in detention, others tortured to death while family members were forced to watch. Many more died of starvation. In short, Majid had made it illegal to be Kurdish and alive in a large swathe of traditionally Kurdish territory. He was quite explicit about it:

"All persons captured in those villages shall be detained and interrogated by the security services and those between the ages of 15 and 70 shall be executed after any useful information has been obtained from them," reads one executive order from 1987 laying out the plan. HRW estimated between 50,000 and 100,000 Iraqi Kurds were killed during the Anfal.

Yet today, Halabja is spoken of by the lightly informed as some particularly evil moment rather than as one small piece of a much larger patchwork. The true evil of the Anfal campaign was not that chemical weapons were used, but that so many were killed with the deliberate intent that a whole culture and community would be wiped out.

It is hard to understand what moral good could be accomplished by a few cruise missiles lobbed at Syria by the Obama administration in retaliation for a presumed chemical weapons attack there at this point. The message would seem to be "Kill if you must, but kill by other means."

And it is not just Assad that is doing the killing. Frequently in America politicians will be head to say something like "Assad has killed 100,000 of his own people" but that is not true. Tens of thousands of his soldiers and supporters have fallen at the hands of various rebel groups. While the worst atrocities have been carried out by Assad's forces, the white hat/black hat moral clarity of some on Syria blinds some from the realities of war.

Bashar al-Assad is a brutish tyrant, much like his father before him. He is engaged in a battle for survival – as are large numbers of his supporters. The complexity of Syria - and the very real chance there could be a genocide targeting the Alawite minority that Assad belongs to if he is defeated, have been among the reasons staying the Obama administration's hand on going to war until now.

Perhaps an argument can be made that the balance of risk, reward and national interest have shifted recently. If so, that would be an interesting argument to hear – but the use of chemical weapons would not make much sense as its center piece.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.