Skeptics of U.S. involvement in Syria ask a fair question: Why is the world expected to respond to the horror of 1,000 or so killed in the sarin-gas attacks, but not the horror of another 110,000 or so Syrian dead?
(First note that it’s not accurate to say Assad killed 110,000 people; that’s the overall death toll on both sides and civilians in the civil war. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights breaks up the death toll as 40,146 civilians, 21,850 rebel fighters, 27,654 regime army soldiers, 17,824 pro-regime militia, and 171 members of the Hezbollah, with another 2,726 unidentified.)
Why does the world treat those killed by chemical weapons differently? The simplest explanation is that there’s an international treaty banning the use of chemical weapons, drafted and signed in the early 1990s, but no treaty banning the use of guns and missiles to kill your own people during an uprising. Almost all of the world’s governments — all of them except for Angola, Myanmar, Egypt, Israel, North Korea, South Sudan, and Syria — thought their interests would be enhanced by a global ban on the use of those weapons.
Leaders from Moscow to Beijing to Washington to Havana concluded that chemical weapons are fundamentally different from the ‘standard’ and necessary tools of war.
Guns, artillery, bombs — they’re all capable of killing lots of people, but at least they can be aimed.
A chemical weapon, once deployed, is subject to the wind and other atmospheric conditions. A biological weapon can spread well beyond the intended target. (Think of the anthrax mailings, and how they killed Postal Service employees and some Americans whose connection to the mailings remains unclear, years later.)
Some types of biological weapons aren’t that hard to make, which is why you’ll find lunatics sending ricin in the mail. Some components of chemical weapons, like chlorine, have common industrial uses. Technically tear gas is a chemical weapon (although not the kind banned by international treaties).
These types of weapons of mass destruction present a unique danger to the world because they’re both deadly and hard to control, compared to firearms and conventional arms.
How do you prevent particularly immoral SOBs running countries from using a weapon that is relatively easy to make, extremely deadly, and often intimidating and terrorizing? The only real deterrent is to make the consequences sufficiently dire. Sure, you may kill your enemy with the poison, but the rest of the world will gang up on you.
But in order to work, the rest of the world has to gang up on the perpetrator! So far, most countries don’t seem interested. France might. Turkey might. Everyone else is a ‘no’ and the American public also isn’t interested. Even the United Nations secretary-general is arguing that U.S. bombing to enforce the treaty, without Security Council approval, would be illegal. Of course, Russia will veto any resolutions to use force.