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Why Are Chemical Weapons the ‘Red Line’ for Intervention in Syria?

Even as the international community fiercely debated which side might be responsible for the apparent chemical weapons attack in Syria last week, the United States and several other nations agreed such tactics should warrant foreign military intervention for the first time since the bloody civil war began in 2011.

WASHINGTON, August 26 (By Maria Young for RIA Novosti) – As the international community on Monday fiercely debated which side might be responsible for last week's apparent chemical weapons attack in Syria, the United States and several other nations agreed such tactics warrant a foreign response for the first time since the bloody civil war began in 2011.

"It is fair to say the US and a number of other countries have for a long time viewed chemical weapons as a taboo," said Andrew Terrill, a chemical and nuclear weapons expert at the US Army War College in Pennsylvania.

United Nations inspectors spent their first day Monday searching for evidence of chemical weapons used in the attack, which Doctors Without Borders said claimed more than 355 lives, many of them women and children.

An estimated 70,000 people have died since the Syrian conflict erupted, so why is the use of chemical weapons triggering such an outcry around the world?

“The problem here is the whole question of weapons of mass destruction carries a certain stigma that other weapons do not, and also the president helped get this underway,” said David Speedie, director of the US global engagement program at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, a nonprofit New York think tank that supports the peaceful resolution of conflict.

For one thing, he said, “There’s a certain sense that it’s a cowardly way to fight.”

The United States, Britain, France and Turkey have said they are considering an attack on the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, even without UN approval.

President Obama drew the proverbial line in the sand last August, when he said, talking about the possibility of military force in Syria, "a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized."

Terrill told RIA Novosti that long-held international standards differentiate between conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction, which include nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, for several specific reasons, starting with the level of suffering involved.

An estimated 50,000 Russians were killed by chemical weapons in World War I, said Terrill.

It was, “an exceptionally horrible way to die because basically the types of chemical weapons were blistering agents, choking agents, phosgene gas, mustard gas, and those types of gasses get into your lungs, destroy your lungs, they cause excessive bleeding, and over a period of hours you drown in your own blood,” Terrill said.

“It’s a ghastly way to die,” he added.

But Larry Mays, author of "War Crimes and Just Wars," told RIA Novosti, “The ban on poisons and chemical weapons cannot be sustained without also banning bombs, especially those dropped from planes or fired from destroyers far out at sea, because these weapons are also indiscriminate in roughly the same way that chemical weapons are.”

“So the absolute ban on chemical weapons, and the ‘red lining’ of chemical weapons, in my view, is difficult to justify,” he said.

Chemical weapons “certainly cause more human suffering, and it’s more difficult to use these weapons with precision,” said Gabor Rona, international legal director at Human Rights First, a nonprofit, nonpartisan international human rights organization based in Washington and New York, in an interview with RIA Novosti.

There are several international treaties including The Hague Convention and the more recent Chemical Weapons Convention, signed by the US, Russia and 186 other countries – but not Syria – that prohibits the use of chemical weapons.

There is also concern, said Terrill, that when a nation accepts the use of chemical weapons, it can easily escalate into other, more dangerous forms of mass weaponry.

“We have this concept of weapons of mass destruction that one sort of leads to the other that you get chemicals and then all of a sudden you want biological and nuclear so we don’t like chemical weapons because we see it as proliferating into banned weapons and other weapons of mass destruction,” he said.


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