President Obama has warned the Syrian government that any use of chemical weapons in its ongoing civil war would “cross a red line.” Two questions come to mind: What will Obama (and other world leaders) do if the line is crossed? And given that Syrian president Bashar Assad has already killed more than 40,000 of his own people through more conventional methods, what’s the big deal about chemicals? Why should they trigger alarms that his heinous acts to date have not?
NBC News reported this week that Syrian military officers have loaded the precursor agents for sarin, a particularly lethal nerve gas, into bombs that could be dropped from dozens of combat aircraft. Syria has stockpiled roughly 500 tons of the stuff; anyone exposed to a mere one-tenth of a gram would likely die. In short, if Assad wanted, he could turn whole cities into wastelands.
That is one reason why chemical weapons, especially these chemical weapons, are viewed as something qualitatively different. It’s why they are designated “weapons of mass destruction” (even if they’re less destructive than their biological or nuclear cousins) and why 188 nations signed the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention Treaty, outlawing their use, production, or stockpiling. (Syria is one of just six nations not to sign the treaty, the others being Angola, Egypt, North Korea, Somalia, and South Sudan.)
So a bright red line separates chemical weapons from conventional munitions for moral, humanitarian, and legal reasons. Not just Obama but the leaders of the other signatory nations have an obligation to respond in some very serious fashion if Assad crosses the line—to send the clear message, to everyone, that the use of these weapons is completely unacceptable.