There is a reason why President Barack Obama said in a press conference on September: “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. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”
At the time, it was alleged that President Bashar Assad’s Syrian regime had unleashed chemical weapons — specifically sarin gas — on August 21 in the outskirts of Damascus against men, women and children, killing more than 1,400 of them. Earlier this week, Assad told PBS interviewer Charlie Rose that the U.S. government has not a “single shred of evidence” of a chemical weapons attack by his government. Instead, the Syrian dictator insisted that, if chemical weapons were used, it was by rebels and terrorists who have been attempting to topple his regime.
But a day later, the Syrian government announced its support for a Russian plan to place Syria’s chemical weapons under international control so that they could then be destroyed. But the agreement has been delayed as a result of the Russians balking at a French plan to enforce the agreement under a binding UN Security Council resolution that would include a war option.
The announcement to agree with the Russian porposal was made in Moscow by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem last Tuesday, and is believed by some observers simply to be a the nation’s own delaying tactic to prevent the launching of a U.S. missile strike. Assad is well known in the past to have agreed to cease fires and last-minute deals only to break them.
Among all the weapons in use in modern warfare, chemical agents have become among the most feared and claimed to be the most inhumane. The sarin gas used by Assad’s regime is a nerve agent, which is absorbed through the skin. Within seconds or minutes, it can cause blurred vision, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and convulsions. The nerve gas soon afterward shuts down the respiratory system, causing the victim to suffocate to death.
Chemicals unleashed in cities as a military weapon are indiscriminate, killing combatant and non-combatant alike — child dies alongside soldier.
“They have become weapons of terror,” Michael Luhan of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons told the National Post. “You put yourself in a position where you’re in a neighbourhood and suddenly, without knowing anything, without smelling anything, seeing anything (sarin gas’ characteristics), people’s eyes bug out, they start gasping for breath and hyper-ventilating, going into convulsions. You don’t know what the hell is going on.”
Chemical weapons are no less lethal than conventional weapons — people are killed or wounded whatever the weapon. But there is a near-unanimous belief by the international community that such weapons are more abhorrent and insidious than bullets and explosives. While civilians can take shelter against artillery shells and bullets, there is no shelter against chemical weapons.
As early as 1899, when the Hague Declaration was signed, it was recognized that poison gases represented an evil instrument of terror. According to the declaration, nations were to “abstain from the use of projectiles the object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterous gasses.”
Not knowing what the “hell is going on” happened to Canadian and Allied soldiers during the Second Battle of Ypres in the First World War. On April 22, 1915, an artillery bombardment alerted the Allied lines that a German attack might be imminent. French, Moroccan and Algerian troops observed a yellowish-green cloud, 10 kilometres wide and a kilometre deep, drifting toward their trenches. Unaware of what they were confronting, the troops stood fast to meet the expected attack. But then as the thick cloud entered the trenches, troops began to asphyxiate.
The Germans had released 160 tons of chlorine gas from cylinders mounted at the forward edge of their trenches into a light northeast wind.
As the French and their colonial troops fell back in wild retreat, they reached the Canadian positions. Major Andrew McNaughton, an artillery officer, remembered the Algerians streaming past him, “their eyeballs showing white, and coughing their lungs out — they literally were coughing their lungs out; glue was coming out of their mouths. It was a very disturbing, very disturbing sight.”
“A 1.5-kilometre-long gap had been opened in the Allied line from the experimental weapon and the 1st Canadian Division shifted over, along with isolated French outposts, to fill it and block the expected German breakthrough. Buying time for reinforcements to be rushed in, the Canadians fought a series of vicious sacrificial battles” (Through Clouded Eyes: Gas Masks and the Canadian Corps in the First World War, by Tim Cook, National Archives of Canada).
“On the morning of April 24 the battered Canadians were once again pounded by the German artillery and this time it was accompanied by the hissing of gas — the second chlorine gas attack of the war was directly against the Canadian lines. As the wall of gas drifted toward their trenches, officers and men, noticing the green tarnish to their buttons two days before, had realized that the Germans were using chlorine against them. Not yet equipped with any sort of protection, men were ordered to rip off pieces of cloth, urinate on them and hold them to their faces. With ‘invisible death creeping up’ on them, as one Canadian later described it, those soldiers that followed the instructions were generally saved as the urine partly neutralized and then crystallized the chlorine.Those that did not, or could not, suffered a terrible fate.”
Cook wrote that: “The German infantry once again advanced behind their lethal cloud, but this time, they met a fusillade of bullets as half-choked and blinded men fired through the still lingering haze of the cloud. The Germans were cut to pieces, but their overwhelming numbers and artillery inevitably pushed the Canadians back ... When the Canadians were pulled out of the line the next day, they had lost almost half their fighting strength, close to six thousand men in three days of fighting. Thousands had been lost in the immediate aftermath of the gas or to its secondary effects, which caused confused, helpless men to be captured, or to be rendered unconscious and then killed by conventional weapons.”
After this attack, the Allies would also use poison gas against the Germans, who also continued using gas during the war, but it was recognized as such an abhorrent weapon that most nations signed the Geneva Protocol in 1925 prohibiting its future use in warfare. It is a direct result of the memory of what happened during the First World War that the belief in the immorality of using chemical weapons lingers to this day.