LONDON – In terms of raw casualty numbers, Tuesday’s apparent nerve gas attack near the Syrian city of Khan Sheikhoun — believed to have killed at least 70 — should hardly be significant against the backdrop of a war that has left hundreds of thousands of people dead.
But that was never the point of chemical weapons. Since European powers first used them over a century ago at the height of World War I they have held a psychological and political shock value in many ways out of proportion to their physical or military effect. Alongside the threat of biological warfare, they hold a very distinct horror.
In the trenches of World War I, doctors noted that the paralyzing fear of a gas attack often exceeded that of conventional artillery and bombs, even though the latter killed many more people. By the end of that conflict, basic gas masks and chemical protection equipment meant many soldiers could survive such an attack relatively unscathed.
The horror of those campaigns, however, was key in driving most states to ban such weapons. In total, 192 nations are now signatories to the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention with more than 90 percent of the world’s pre-existing chemical weapons stocks believed to have been destroyed by the end of last year.
What the Syrian civil war appears to be re-establishing, however, is that on occasion governments may be able to use them against their own people without suffering much in the way of consequences.
With senior U.S. officials including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis suggesting in recent weeks that the removal of Syrian President Bashar Assad was no longer a priority, the Syrian government appears to be demonstrating that it feels it can act against its domestic enemies with almost total impunity. That sends an alarming signal about the erosion of global rules and norms on weapons of mass destruction, as well as the limits of U.S. power and influence. For those Syrians still fighting the government, it is a savage warning of the cost of further resistance.
It is hardly a new tactic. The British Empire used poison gas against Iraqi villages during the 1920s and 1930s to make a similar point, as did Mussolini’s Italy during its invasion of Abyssinia, now Ethiopia. Saddam Hussein used sarin gas against Kurdish civilians around the town of Halabja, killing an estimated several thousand and cementing his own reputation for brutality.
In this case, much is veiled in deliberate ambiguity, most likely to further reduce the prospect of outside response or retaliation. Western governments — as well as independent monitors — say the evidence points to a deliberate strike by the Syrian Air Force. Assad’s ally Russia, however, says the chemicals were accidentally released from a rebel weapons facility by a government bombing raid.
That could be possible, although most of the evidence so far points against it — not least images that suggest the munitions landed on roadways and in open country. Militant groups have periodically attempted to build such weapons, and Islamic State in particular has deployed poison gas in its fight to retain control of Iraq’s second city of Mosul.
Tuesday’s attack, however, had stark similarities to the previous government-linked chemical strike on the outskirts of Damascus in 2013, which killed several hundred civilians and briefly looked as though it would draw the United States into direct military conflict with Assad.
U.S. President Barack Obama and other Western leaders had declared the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” that would prompt outside intervention. The Syrian regime, however, had already begun pushing those lines with much smaller chemical attacks throughout 2013, often killing only a handful of people.
Syria signed the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013 and was supposed to have handed over all its chemical stocks as part of a Russian-brokered deal to avoid U.S. military action after the Damascus attack. It now seems that was not the case — Tuesday’s strike followed another string of much more limited chemical attacks.
Assad and his Russian backers almost certainly believe the Trump administration has no intention of mounting any kind of military response — not least because, like the Obama White House, it has neither the appetite for a long-running intervention nor a strategy for it.
The irony is that just as the Syrian government has been demonstrating how effective chemical munitions can be as a political weapon, across the border in Iraq, Islamic State has been finding out just how limited their impact can be on the battlefield. Allied forces and human rights observers have reported several relatively primitive gas attacks in September, October and last month, but they reportedly injured relatively small numbers of people.
For all the decades of concern over chemical and biological attack by militants, they have been remarkably rare — and often ineffective.
Experts say that while both al-Qaida and Islamic State would like to get their hands on chemical and biological weapons, neither has made doing so a priority. Most recently, such groups have tended to focus on the other end of the technological spectrum, using the simplest available weaponry such as trucks, knives and firearms in attacks such as those in Brussels, Paris or last month in Westminster.
That may not always remain the case. Having failed in its attempts to make biological weaponry work, the Aum Shinrikyo cult successfully manufactured sarin and used it to attack the Tokyo subway system in 1995, killing 12 people and injuring hundreds more. Had they perfected a better system for distributing the chemical, experts say the death toll could have been significantly higher.
In general, however, what happened in Syria on Tuesday is a reminder that those at greatest risk of chemical weapons attacks are those whose government wishes to make an example of them. It’s a stark reality that neither the U.S. nor any other Western country knows what to do about.
Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist.
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