The Anti-Chemical Weapons Norm Is Not in Danger

The cruel violence of the Syrian regime should not have surprised anyone, nor should the fact that it continued to engage in it without concern for the ambiguous threats issues by the US and others. Regimes like Bashar al-Asad’s have nothing to gain and everything to lose by compromising and giving up some of their power.

Now that the regime may have used chemical weapons against the opposition, some analysts and advocates are calling it a “game changer,” arguing that American credibility is on the line, requiring the United States to intervene. And if it doesn’t intervene after the small-scale use of chemical weapons in Syria, Jonathan Tobin asks, how can we trust Washington’s promises to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon?

Others have rightly pointed out the absurdity of calling for intervention now, after the regime has tortured and killed tens of thousands of Syrians with conventional weapons and methods. To this, Max Fisher responds that more is at stake now—namely, the norm against the use of chemical weapons in the international system.

But if we are going to think about what constitutes a “red line” that might trigger a more direct military intervention in Syria, I’m not sure that strengthening the anti-chemical weapons norm is a good enough reason: because the norm against the use of chemical weapons is not endangered of being undermined by what happens in Syria.

Since World War Two very few states have used chemical weapons. The US used them in Vietnam. Evidence suggests Egypt used some in the 1960s during its involvement in the Yemeni civil war, while Libya used some in a 1987 conflict with Chad. Iraq used it against the Iranians during the Iran-Iraq War, and also against the Kurds in 1988. Beyond this, there is little evidence that many states have considered using them in many circumstances.

The reason is because the norm against the use of chemical weapons is very strong. The Chemical Weapons Convention, with 188 member-states, is the most formal representation of this. But consider, too, what a norm is. It is a “standard of appropriate behavior for actors with a given identity,” which incorporates a logic of appropriateness—a sense that specific behaviors are required as some sort of baseline for states to participate in international political life. The overwhelming majority of states want to be recognized as “good citizens” of the world.

Customary practice, the norm of sovereignty, and the laws of war have all entrenched the use of violence under particular circumstances. In the case of conflict, good citizenship requires controlling levels of violence, and that means that violence must based primarily on the use of conventional weapons. Indeed, the evidence suggests states are increasingly moving to control “excess” violence toward this end.

When it comes to chemical weapons—or nuclear or biological weapons—the exceptions to the norm proves the rule. Even a cursory glance at those states that have used them indicates that their interest in violating the norm is specific to their conditions, leaders, and motivations. If the US doesn’t intervene immediately in Syria because of the use of chemical weapons, no state that wouldn’t already be thinking of it will look at Syria and believe that Washington doesn’t care about chemical weapons, and therefore decide to use them. What matters are the particular regime dynamics at play in a given place and time.

This isn’t an argument against intervention or against considering the need to maintain the norm as a reason for intervention. It’s to say that intervention is a big deal, and we need to be careful about why we might go in. And if we’re thinking about implications and comparisons, instead of focusing on the use of chemical weapons at this point in time, I think the lesson is rather very strongly about the need to deter mass killing near the beginning, before regimes come to believe they either have impunity to attack their own citizens or feel cornered enough to try anything.