For decades, the world’s superpowers have operated under the pretense that chemical weapons should not be created or utilized in a time of war. Though this was agreed upon multiple decades ago, it seems as if a discussion over their validity must be held again. President Bashar al-Assad of Syria has recently been under fire for his government’s supposed utilization of chemical weapons against rebels in the civil war. After weeks of will-we-or-won’t-we-strike debates, the United States and its allies have decided to try and work with the Syrian government in giving up and disabling the weapons in question, according to CNN. Allowing Assad to peacefully give up his chemical weapons in order to avoid a strike, however, is morally reprehensible and weakens the bargaining power of the United States.
Most international laws and norms are enforced only by reciprocity, but some must be backed by force, and chemical weapons are an issue that absolutely requires enforcement and dissuasion through punishment.
One hundred and ninety countries have signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, which is administered by the United Nations, with Syria as the last signatory, according to paperwork filed with the U.N. The CWC explicitly outlaws the creation, stockpile and use of chemical weapons. States, however, often sign international treaties such as this one because they are not backed by physical force. Politically speaking, it’s easy to sign a treaty and have no intention of meeting the provisions because there is no enforcement behind the treaty. For this reason, numerous international treaties rely on reciprocity, rather than force. Nevertheless, leaders blatantly disregard treaties such as those preventing the creation of weapons of mass destruction need to be brought back in line with the international community and punished so that they will not violate these laws again.
The reason that chemical weapons are illegal worldwide is because of the massive potential that the weapons have to inflict pain and death. Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling wrote in his 1966 book, Arms and Influence, “Nuclear weapons make it possible to do monstrous violence to the enemy without first achieving victory. Victory is no longer a prerequisite for hurting the enemy. One need not wait until he has won the war before inflicting ‘unendurable’ damages on his enemy.”
What the looming agreement between the U.S., Russia and Syria fails to do is act as a deterrent to the rest of the world to demonstrate the absolute “line in the sand,” as President Barack Obama repeatedly put it before Assad launched his gas attacks. The agreement, according to Foreign Policy, requires Assad to give up his chemical weapons to the international community but allows Assad to stay in power.
Thus, Assad will still be able to fight his bloody civil war, a war in which Assad has contributed to the deaths of more than 100,000 civilians and the flight of another 2 million, according to U.N. estimates. The problem with this plan is that it demonstrates that the international community is not willing to fight for the principles of human dignity and stop the proliferation and use of weapons of mass destruction.
To dictators or would-be aggressors with allies among the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, this deal demonstrates that powerful allies can prevent international intervention, even when those belligerents commit war crimes.
Weapons of mass destruction have long been considered a weapon of last resort, but for the U.S. to appease the demands of Russia and give Syria a free pass on using such weapons signals to these other countries that the U.S. will not stand by international rules of war, and might give them enough confidence to violate human dignity and use weapons of mass destruction in the hopes of maintaining their states.
It’s time for the international community and the U.S. to step up. Use of weapons of mass destruction cannot go unpunished.
Dan Morgan-Russell is a sophomore majoring in international relations (global business). His column “Going Global” runs Mondays.