Conventions and the Un-conventional: We’ll Get Better Answers When We Ask Better Questions

Dura EuroposThere’s no small amount of irony in the fact that the first evidence we have of military operations using chemical warfare comes from Syria — from about 256 A.D. when the Romans controlled the area.  It is postulated that a Sasasinian attack on the city of Dara-Europos included the use of braziers and bellows to pump fumes into a Roman tunnel, with bits of bitumen and sulfur added to flames to create a toxic cloud. We know this because the remains of 19 Roman soldiers and one Persian were found in the tunnel — still holding their weapons. [NatlGeog]

Fast forward to World War I  and the toxic clouds reappear as German forces released cylinders of yellow-green chlorine gas toward French lines at Ypres  in 1915.  Technically speaking: “Chlorine gas is a pulmonary irritant with intermediate water solubility that causes acute damage in the upper and lower respiratory tract.” [Medscape]  Of the 70,552 American soldiers exposed to gas during the War to End All Wars, 1843 were hit by chlorine gas.  Another gas entered the arsenal in 1917.

Mustard Gas, difficult to detect, surprisingly durable, and insidious.

“…one of the most dangerous aspects of mustard gas doubles as one of its most desirable attributes as a weapon. We know mustard gas is difficult to detect unless you’re under a direct attack. It’s even harder to notice in contaminated areas where the gas has settled. That posed a problem for soldiers walking through an exposed area that underwent an attack say two days earlier. The chemical agent would stay in the ground for weeks, depending on the temperature. The colder the ground, the longer the mustard gas would linger.” [Science]

Those exposed would suffer painful blistering on the skin, those who inhaled it would find their respiratory system compromised such that airways were sealed.  The gas didn’t kill quickly, or cleanly.  Gases did account for approximately 100,000 casualties during the Great War.

The League of Nations has its detractors, but one of its contributions to civilized society remains in place, the 1925 Geneva Protocol.  Enforced as of February 8, 1928, the Protocol prohibited the use of chemical and biological weapons.   The Protocol was short, and to the point:

“Whereas the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices, has been justly condemned by the general opinion of the civilized world; and Whereas the prohibition of such use has been declared in Treaties to which the majority of Powers of the world are Parties; and To the end that this prohibition shall be universally accepted as a part of International Law, binding alike the conscience and the practice of nations;…” [UNODA pdf]

There are two important features of this Protocol which ought to be acknowledged.  First, it is contractual in nature and some signatories reserved the option to use chemical and biological weapons as a response to a chemical or biological attack. Secondly, there is nothing in the Protocol specifically prohibiting the use of chemical or biological weapons during civil/internal conflicts.  [Harvard/Sussex] Nothing in this brief document sets  any verification methods for determining the use of chemical or biological weaponry.

Those who would argue that the 1925 Geneva Protocol doesn’t offer any justification for intervention in the current Syrian civil war aren’t looking beyond the original document, specifically toward the 1993 CWC convention.

The CWC strengthens the 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibition on the use of chemical weapons by prohibiting their use “under any circumstances”. Chemical weapons are defined broadly as “toxic chemicals and their precursors, except where intended for purposes not prohibited”, munitions exclusively designed for the delivery of toxic chemicals and other equipment designed for use with such munitions. A major innovation of the CWC is its intrusive verification regime which requires :

(1) national declarations of data on industrial chemical production;
(2) continuous and routine inspections of treaty-related facilities;
(3) short-notice challenge inspections, intended to resolve concerns about compliance, of any facility on the territory of a State Party.

The 1993 Convention adds the phrase “under any circumstances” (including civil war and civil unrest) and delineates the verification elements missing from the original 1925 document.

Unfortunately, the Protocol and the Convention haven’t prevented the development (and use) of such munitions as napalm, Agent Orange, sarin gas, and other highly toxic items.  Syria is not a signatory to the CWC Convention. [CWC convention]

The arguments in favor of the enforcement of both the 1925 Protocol and the 1993 Convention run the gamut along the philosophical spectrum.

From a practical standpoint, since the case of that unfortunate Persian soldier at the entrance to the tunnel in Dara Europos it’s been apparent that the use of chemical weapons can be harmful to ones own forces. Witness the continuing controversy about the long term effects of Agent Orange.  Since the wholesale use of chemical weapons during World War I it’s been readily observable that these munitions defy civilized norms that war be conducted with attention paid to killing the enemy but doing so in a quick and humane fashion.  During the bad old days of mutually assured destruction nuclear weapons were reserved, if for no other reason than to prevent a Nuclear Winter.  In short, the long term human, ecological, and medical effects of exposure to non-conventional weaponry has mitigated against its use; or at least caused condemnation for its application.

Whether the verified use of chemical weapons by the Assad government during the current Syrian civil war rises to the justification of international intervention is going to be one touchy, technical, and tricky question for diplomats.

It would be extremely helpful in the debate over intervention in Syria if we were to move past the political posturing, and the punditry’s obsession with hypothetical implications of diplomatic and military activities.  The discussion would be enhanced if we could move beyond inquiries like “Who looks weak?” or “Who’s being hypocritical?”  We’ll get better answers if we ask better questions.

Trick Question #1: Does the international community have the authority to enforce the 1925 Protocol and the 1993 Convention on non-signatories (such as Syria) during the conduct of an internal civil war?  We ought to remember that one of the justifications for our intervention in Iraq was the gassing of the Kurdish population when Iraq was not a signatory to the 1993 Convention — Iraq didn’t sign until January 13, 2009.

Trick Question #2: Does the production and storage of chemical and biological weapons in a non-signatory country create a proliferation problem for signatory nations?   Would we benefit if further negotiations were conducted concerning the production, transportation, and the monitoring of commercial traffic involved in the manufacture of chemical weapons?  Might more stringent controls have prevented the sale of nerve gas chemicals by British firms to the Syrian government 10 months after the civil unrest began? [Record/Mail]  Does this remind us of the 1991 allegations that a Florida firm  sold cyanide to the previous Iraqi regime? [counterpunch]

Trick Question #3: In terms of U.S. foreign policy, are we treading close to the edge of the classic Security Dilemma?  This one is from International Relations 101:

“John Herz, who originally coined the term “security dilemma,” elaborated it as follows: “Groups and individuals who live alongside each other without being organized into a higher unity . . . must be . . . concerned about their security from being attacked, subjected, dominated, or annihilated by other groups and individuals. Striving to attain security from such attacks, they are driven to acquire more and more power in order to escape the effects of the power of others. This, in turn, renders the others more insecure and compels them to prepare for the worst. Because no state can ever feel entirely secure in such a world of competing units, power competition ensues, and the vicious circle of security and power accumulation is on.” [Sirpa pdf]

In short, not only does “power accumulation” cycle, but as the perceived aggressors appear to accumulate more power the “victim” sees fewer and fewer options in response.  In the classic explication of the Security Dilemma the adversaries are gradually reduced to a limited menu of military options.

Therefore, if we could please get beyond discussions about the internal politics of selecting a specific military option, and address at least one or two of those “trick” or larger questions we’d be better served as a nation, and a member of the world community.

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