Chemical weapons have been employed in battle for thousands of years, with the Greeks and Romans using poisoned arrows, arsenic smoke, or noxious fumes on land and sea.
But it took the industrial revolution to make chemicals an effective weapon of war. Mass production applied to the science of chemistry produced horrific results — so bad that treaties were signed to prevent their use ever again.
Of course, that didn’t stop Hitler, who fully intended to use chemical weapons in his bombing of London. But Churchill delivered a stern warning and Hitler’s hand was stayed. Following World War II, chemical weapons became just another part of the arms race between the two superpowers, with both the Soviets and the U.S. building huge stockpiles with a variety of different delivery systems.
Then, in 1997, the world signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, that not only banned signatories from using chemical weapons, but mandated their destruction.
The treaty made everyone feel good but it had no teeth. So bad actors across the world have used chemical weapons again and again to deal with unruly, rebellious populations or enemies on the battlefield. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein not only used chemical weapons against Iran in his war with the mullahs, be also gassed his own people — the Kurds — who were trying to achieve their independence.
The latest tyrant to employ deadly chemicals as a weapon is Syria’s Bashar Assad. He has routinely used chemicals like sarin gas to terrorize civilians in rebel-held areas.
The U.S. has bombed Syria twice — once in April of 2017 and again in April of 2018 — but the lesson apparently didn’t take. Assad’s forces used chlorine gas on a civilians in Latakia last May as part of his effort to conquer the last rebel enclave in Idlib province.
In May, the State Department said it had seen “signs” of a possible chlorine gas attack, but was “still gathering information,” according to spokesperson Morgan Ortagus. Months later, Pompeo declined to say how the U.S. had reached its determination.
“The United States will not allow these attacks to go unchallenged, nor will we tolerate those who choose to conceal these atrocities,” Pompeo said Friday, but he later declined to preview any response.
Pompeo pointed out that the use of chlorine was not technically a violation.
But Pompeo implied that military action was unlikely, given that it was chlorine and not sarin gas used.
“This is different in some sense, in that it was chlorine, so it’s a bit of a different situation,” he told reporters.
Because chlorine is used in dozens of industrial processes, it is not technically a “weapon” according to the CWC. But using it to kill civilians is still a war crime and Assad is, once again, guilty as sin. However, there won’t even be a special session of the Security Council to discuss the Latakia atrocity.
In fact, the world is used to these atrocities. Only the U.S. seems willing to try and uphold the rules of war. The Russians appear to be encouraging Assad to be as brutal as possible in order to cow the opposition into submission.
The announcement by Pompeo is particularly ironic given the progress that’s been made on ending the conflict — a process that would keep Assad in power.
Days after the United Nations announced that Assad and the Syrian opposition agreed to finally convene a constitutional committee to begin a negotiated settlement to the war, the U.S. has been rallying Western and Middle Eastern allies and partners to hold the line of pressure against Assad.
In particular, the U.S. has tried to use funding for reconstruction as a way to pressure Syria and its chief backer Russia. Pompeo will meet with his counterparts from Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom on Thursday evening to discuss the chlorine attack and their strategy going forward.
Their “strategy” will be to ignore the attack and continue negotiations with Assad as if he’s a normal person. If America and it’s allies won’t do anything about it, why should the rest of the world care?
And that’s where we are; normalizing atrocities while studiously ignoring the implications of the unbridled use of a weapon of mass destruction.