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Why is the red line at chemical weapons?

Red Line

US Secretary of State John Kerry spoke passionately about the abhorrent act of Syrian forces deploying chemical weapons to kill hundreds of people last week.

“What we saw in Syria last week should shock the conscience of the world. It defies any code of morality,” said Kerry.

“Let me be clear: The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders, by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity.”

Analysts suggest that Kerry’s remarks represent the US taking yet another step closer to intervention in Syria’s civil war. Lawmakers like Senator John McCain are pushing hard for the Obama Administration to take a more active role. The president’s invocation of a red line on the issue of chemical weapons has been a source of debate and anger for those supporting US action in Syria.

“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” said the president said a year ago last week. “That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”

President Obama spoke with UK Prime Minister David Cameron about the alleged attacks. A spokesman for Cameron’s office said that the two discussed the implications of Syria using chemical weapons.

“They reiterated that significant use of chemical weapons would merit a serious response from the international community and both have tasked officials to examine all the options,” he said.

Others, in response to Kerry’s comments, are questioning why chemical weapons are the proverbial red line. They ask why it is that killing people with chemical weapons is a moral obscenity as opposed to the tens of thousands of deaths over the past two years due to other violent means. What makes a death by chemical weapon worse than a grenade?

The answer, it appears, dates back to the first World War. Political scientist John Mueller described the history in an OpEd he wrote for Foreign Affairs in April.

The notion that killing with gas is more reprehensible than killing with bullets or shrapnel came out of World War I, in which chemical weapons, introduced by the Germans in 1915, were used extensively. The British emphasized the weapons’ inhumane aspects as part of their ongoing program to entice the United States into taking their side in the war. It is estimated that the British quintupled their gas casualty figures from the first German attack for dramatic effect.

Chemical weapons accounted for a fraction of the deaths during WWI, but the case made by the Brits helped perpetuate the idea that chemical weapons were particularly bad. Even the UN, who has provided an important humanitarian response in and around Syria, has ratcheted up its rhetoric and action in response to the attack.

“The whole world should be concerned about any threat or use of chemical weapons. And that is why the world is watching Syria,” said UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon on Monday.

Chemical weapons inspectors were dispatched to the location of the attack on Monday. The UN and Syrian rebels both say that the convoy of inspectors was attacked by sniper fire en route to the site.

Even Russia, a country that has stalled many attempts to take UN-backed action, showed a willingness to consider the possibility that Syrian forces used chemical weapons. The foreign ministry urged caution in the investigation and for conclusions to be held back until evidence is gathered.

Although the supposedly hard red line determined by Obama a year ago is not quite as clear as was once thought, the pressure against Syria is building. What the US and other Western powers will do next is still in doubt.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]