Syria is once again dominating news headlines. Use of chemical weapons in early April prompted a US-led coalition to launch air strikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. US President Donald Trump, alongside Britain’s Theresa May and Germany’s Angela Merkel, said that the purpose of these actions was ‘to establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread, and use of chemical weapons’.
This keeps with Western states’ precedent to intervene militarily when chemical weapons are used. It was one year ago that the US responded to Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own civilians with missile strikes. Clearly, the use of chemical weapons is the ‘red line’ in the sand. One that compels Western states to potentially erode the principle of non-intervention in the affairs of other states under international law.
On the face of it, this red line makes sense. International humanitarian law defines the limits of war (see: my previous article) and one of its clear legal norms is the chemical weapons taboo. There is an absolution prohibition on the use of chemical weapons in armed conflict. Chemical weapons hold little military utility and, more importantly, they cause indiscriminate suffering to both combatants and civilians alike.
But as Betcy Jose has argued, this chemical weapons trigger raises a deeper, more problematic question for the international community: why is it that we say some types of civilian suffering will compel decisive military action but others will not?
It is an unpleasant question to contemplate. Horrific civilian suffering in Syria has been unceasing since the outset of the conflict seven years ago. According to the most recent data compiled by Human Rights Watch, more than 400,000 people have died in Syria since 2011. Five million people have fled the country seeking refuge and over six million people are internally displaced. In June 2017, the UN estimated that 540,000 people were still living in areas under siege.
No party to the conflict is innocent. The Syrian government, the Russian government, non-state armed rebels and the US-led coalition are all responsible for these deaths. In particular, the Assad regime has conducted deliberate and indiscriminate attacks on civilians, not only with chemical weapons but also cluster munitions and incendiary weapons.
With this context in mind, why do chemical weapons alone prompt military action from the West? Perhaps there is some acceptance that civilian death is a necessary evil in armed conflict. Perhaps chemical weapons are especially indiscriminate and unnecessary, as above, more so than conventional weapons.
But that is a morally indefensible position.
It is time for the international community to re-frame its actions. Rather than using weapons as justification for action, states should draw on another more fundamental norm under international humanitarian law. International action should be based on the protection of civilian norms (see Jones in 2013 for her original argument to focus on this norm). As such, civilians should not be harmed in armed conflict.
Up until 2016, significant consensus had been created around this norm in the United Nations Security Council. In my Honours thesis, I charted the evolution of this norm from its emergence in 1999 to 2016. I found that all Permanent members of the Security Council, China and Russia included, had accepted the twin principles that civilians should not be harmed in armed conflict and civilians ought to be protected.
It was worrisome that in 2017 no resolutions were passed in the Security Council on the civilian protection norm. As such, it is vital for the US, France, and the UK especially, but other states as well, to reframe action in Syria not only on the basis of the use of chemical weapons but also on the basis of the civilian protection norm. A norm that has drawn consensus in the Security Council and which has the potential to end civilian suffering.
Rebekkah Markey-Towler is the International Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.