Last month saw the US, UK and France reacting to the use of chemical weapons in Syria. In her defence of her decision to launch a strike against Syria, British PM Theresa May stressed that the objective of the joint military action was to send a clear warning that the ‘normalisation’ of the use of chemical weapons would not be tolerated.
I am not going to get into the ‘whodunit’ debate. I have argued earlier in these annals (“Syria chemical weapons attacks – we still don’t know who is responsible”, Breaking Views 31 August 2013 - see HERE) that the evidence linking that particular Sarin attack to the Assad government was scanty, and my position on the incident that prompted the Western strike will depend on the outcome of the OPCW investigation. But there is no denying that chemical weapons have been used in the Syrian conflict – repeatedly.
Prohibitions on the use of noxious gases in warfare have been around since the 1874 Brussels Declaration and the 1899 Hague Convention. Both sides in WW1 sidestepped the rules by delivering chemical weapons using canisters or bottles rather than by means of explosive ordnances. The 1925 Geneva Protocol banned the use of poison gas altogether. They were not used in WW2. This did not, however, stop various nations from producing them. Several countries have stockpiles of them, including the Western powers. Syria had them too, but handed them over to the OPCW for destruction four years ago, or so we were assured.
Mustard gas victim, WW1
The horrors of chemical warfare of a century ago have been, and are being, revisited in the Middle East. Readers may recall the use of mustard gas by Iraq against Iranian troops during the war between those two countries in the 1980s. That Iraqi regime used chemical weapons, including nerve agents, against sections of its own population as well. Chlorine has been being biffed about quite frequently during the past five years in Syria. The Islamic State was actively pursuing its own chemical weapons programme but thankfully was not in a position to make use of any.
There is something particularly repugnant about chemical weapons. They are wholly indiscriminate in that they spread from the point of delivery to cast their shadow of death over all, combatant and non-combatant, within their orb. Death mostly comes with great suffering and anguish, or they may leave their victims so maimed that even such a death would have been a comparatively merciful fate.
Despite being condemned since the 19th century through various international conventions, chemical weapons remain attractive options to some. The simpler ones are easy and cheap to produce. They do not need sophisticated delivery systems. They do immense damage to personnel and linger after their initial deployment. They instil dread into the hearts of target populations, both military and civilian. They were once referred to as ‘the poor man’s A-bomb’.
Which brings me to the issue of nuclear weapons proliferation. Once upon a time, the nuclear club was made up of just half a dozen members – the US, USSR, UK, Britain, France and China. The first two of those had arsenals big enough to wipe one another out. The acronym MAD – mutually assured destruction – gained currency in the 1970s. Essentially this meant that there could be no winners in a nuclear war, only losers.
In retrospect, we have a lot to thank nuclear weapons for. Stalin’s face fell when he was told about the A-bombs dropped on Japan. The unspoken message being sent by the Americans was loud and clear: don’t push your luck in Europe when the war is over. Without that nuclear imbalance, WW3 would likely have occurred on the heels of WW2. Along similar lines, Kennedy’s threat to use ‘the bomb’ in 1962 averted what could well have been a nuclear inferno enveloping most of the Northern Hemisphere. Ever since, MAD kept the peace between the major nuclear powers.
But the genie was out of the bottle and other countries joined the club. Israel, India and Pakistan all developed nuclear weapons. And of course North Korea. South Africa and Iraq had nuclear programmes that were abandoned. Iran remains a hopeful.
With this expansion, the psychology of the nuclear stand-off has been changing away from MAD. The minor nuclear powers don’t have the capability to totally eradicate an adversary, and they don’t need it – the ability to reduce a city or two to radioactive rubble is enough to make the other side feel vulnerable and think twice about initiating any hostilities . This may work even where one party does have the power to totally eradicate the other. For instance, the US has the capability to turn the whole of North Korea into a pile of glowing ash but all Emperor Kim III has to be able to do is raise the possibility that he can sneak a single nuke through the US air defences and take out a chunk of a city like Los Angeles or San Francisco to make the Yanks unwilling to risk a confrontation – at least that’s the theory.
“You might be bigger and stronger than me but all I need to do is get ONE of these through your defences… would you take the risk?”
Thus the threat of the use of nuclear weapons – even the tacit threat inherent in developing them or their delivery systems – appears to becoming ‘normalised’ because it is perceived to pay off in terms of a substantial boost to a minor nuclear player’s bargaining power whether it is dealing with a like state entity or – so they hope – with a much stronger one. That may not seem too alarming in itself but there may be a slippery slope here leading to the morphing of this threat into limited nuclear strikes just to show that ‘we mean business’. How would the rest of the world react should this scenario unfold between two lesser nuclear powers?
We have seen how the Western powers will react to any further ‘normalisation’ of chemical weapons. We need to be as resolute – even more so – about the encroaching ‘normalisation’ of nuclear weaponry. The MAD paradigm has been effective as a deterrent for the major nuclear weapons powers for the past half century but will need a bit of tweaking to adapt it to these new realities.
Donald Trump’s idea of such a tweak seems to be to remove the ‘M’ from ‘MAD’. The principle of proportionality was an important consideration in the recent strike on Syria but DJT doesn’t seem to care much for that maxim when it comes to nuclear threats. His message is: you so much as lob a single nuke at us or at one of our mates and we will obliterate you. Perhaps it’s working, as the North Koreans have now suspended their testing and are willing to talk. Iran had better sit up and listen. This guy means business. Don’t call his bluff ‘cos it ain’t.
Barend Vlaardingerbroek BA, BSc, BEdSt, PGDipLaws, MAppSc, PhD is an associate professor of education at the American University of Beirut and is a regular commentator on social and political issues. Feedback welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org