Gas Mask: Why Is Chemical Warfare Obama’s ‘Red Line’ in Syria?
A man collects his belongings after his home was damaged due to heavy fighting between Free Syrian Army fighters and government forces in Aleppo, Dec. 2, 2012.
Amid disturbing reports that Bashar al-Assad may be preparing to use chemical agents against insurgent opposition, the Obama administration is reiterating its position that such a step constitutes a “red line” the Syrian dictator dares not cross. “Today I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and those under his command: The world is watching,” President Obama said on Monday. “The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable. And if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable.” Added Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “we are certainly planning to take action” in such an event.
That seems like an uncontroversial position. Except when you consider that, in the nineteen months since the Syrian uprising began, Assad’s forces have killed the great majority of the more than 40,000 people to die in the conflict, many thousands of them innocent civilians. His men have indiscriminately shelled residential neighborhoods; tortured prisoners; allegedly burned infants in their beds and even buried men alive. All without crossing a red line.
So why draw a line at chemical weapons? “The international community has spelled out a specific set of rules and norms outlawing the use of chemical or biological weapons,” explains White House spokesman Tommy Vietor. “The death to civilians is indiscriminate and the human suffering they inflict is horrific.”