Why especially intervention against the use of Chemical Weapons? –

Why especially intervention against the use of Chemical Weapons? –

The case Syria

We believe that a military intervention should have taken place against the large-scale rocket attack with the nerve agent Sarin on 21 August 2013 against the (then) rebel-held Ghouta area of Damascus.

This chemical attack killed and maimed hundreds of people, mainly civilians. The highest estimate from the United States government speaks of 1,429 fatalities, including 426 children.


The armed forces of the regime of Bashar al-Assad almost certainly committed this atrocity, as well as earlier, smaller-scale chemical attacks. This heinous act is a war crime that particularly violates the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993. True, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that some rebel forces have carried out (some of) the chemical strikes. This may be particularly true of foreign Islamist groups with direct ties to Al-Qaeda but with no direct ties to the local communities, like those of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Still, their involvement in chemical warfare is improbable, because:

  1. Practically all targeted areas are (or were) in rebel control, and most of those are peopled by communities who support or even have family and kinship ties to the rebels in the area. It is extremely unlikely that ‘indigenous’ rebels would target their own people and families just to lay the blame on the enemy for propaganda reasons.
  2. Even if particularly foreign Jihadists perpetrated some of the chemical attacks, it is highly unlikely that they possess the capacity and the amount of chemical agents to mount a large-scale attack as the one on August 21st.
  3. There are no reliable reports and factual indications at present that any of the Syrian rebel groups perpetrated any of the chemical attacks during the conflict.

We welcome the dismantling and destruction of Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons by mid-2014, jointly undertaken by the United Nations and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) according to UN Security Council Resolution 2118, primarily negotiated by the United States and Russia. This dismantling and destruction programme seems to proceed with reasonable success: presently, all known and reported facilities for the production of chemical weapons have been destroyed in Syria, according to the OPCW. We also welcome the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the OPCW for its efforts to rid the world of chemical weapons.

Yet are all these diplomatic, practical and symbolic measures against the use of chemical weapons sufficient. We are afraid not. Admittedly, by agreeing to the chemical dismantling-and-destruction programme, Assad’s regime does pay a heavy geostrategic price for the August 21 attack. However, this and Assad’s decision to join the CWC, are not enough – even if the destruction of 1,000 tonnes of sulphur, mustard, VX, sarin and other agents is successful and timely implemented despite the continuous war and fighting. Essentially, the dismantling of Syria’s chemical-weapon arsenal does not constitute a direct and sufficiently forceful punishment of the perpetrators for the chemical attack, nor a sufficient warning against and discouragement of anyone in or outside Syria contemplating the use of poison gas in the future. For that reason alone, we would have publicly supported the originally planned airstrike against targets directly and indirectly related to Syria’s chemical-weapons capability – by a coalition of the willing led by the United States, France, and possibly other countries from the region.

We would still call for such a military strike if Assad’s regime wilfully delays, frustrates or undermines OPCW’s dismantling-and-destruction programme. Such a strike may then be different – perhaps more limited – in its targets, scope and duration from the one originally planned by the U.S., France and other nations, particularly if civilians would not be in direct danger of another chemical attack. Other measures – which we also call for – are extra, credible and far-reaching economic and diplomatic sanctions against the regime and its leading members. Above all the perpetrators of the August 21 attack and any other chemical attacks in Syria should be indicted, arrested and prosecuted for these atrocities by the International Criminal Court (ICC) and/or a Syrian court after the war. Naturally the defendants must receive a fair trial and decent treatment before, during and after the trial.

Those who argue that it would be “absurd to intervene only because of that chemical attack, while over 120,000 people have been killed by non-chemical but equally atrocious violence in the civil war” have a point for so far humanitarian intervention against non-chemical violence would be justified and required as well. Nevertheless, intervention to stop, punish and prevent chemical violence is all the more urgent, because chemical – and biological – weapons are uniquely horrible: poison gasses and other chemical and biological agents are automatically, by their very nature, painful, harmful and potentially lethal to anyone being deliberately targeted and exposed to these agents. Once released, any people coming into contact with those agents will feel pain, will get hurt, will get maimed (skin burns, burnt lungs) and will probably die a painful death or at best survive with long-term or permanent physical and mental damage. So given these characteristics, one should not wonder why chemical and biological weapons are forbidden by international law.

Other toxics and burning agents with kindred effects on deliberately targeted victims should be banned as well, such as Napalm and other poisons used in explosives, and fuel-air explosive bombs – like the ones dropped by the Syrian Air Force on a secondary school in the rebel-held town of Raqqa on 29 September, killing at least fourteen civilians according to Human Rights Watch.

In contrast, most conventional weapons do not automatically i.e. universally have such inevitably painful and maiming effects. One can always dodge a bullet or even a grenade or rocket; and even if one is hit, one may be wounded lightly. Many conventional wounds are even relatively painless – or will be painful only for a short while, or the received wounds will heal well, with only scars showing.

Apart from defenceless people being deliberately targeted, conventional warfare normally leads to surprisingly low casualty rates among combatants, even on hotly contested battlefields. The primary exception is trench warfare like the one in WWI, when lightly-armed soldiers get out of the trenches and charge over open terrain against heavily fortified positions with machineguns and other heavy weaponry. Yet such charges are risky, often stupid tactics that fortunately rarely occur in present-day warfare.

In contrast, chemical weapons only lead to few casualties due to fortunate wind and other weather conditions; in other words, a low body-count in any chemical attack relies on luck –

even more so than in a biological attack, which is less susceptible to changing atmospheric conditions.

Even so, it is also of paramount importance to stop the general, mainly-non-chemical violence and thereby the war in Syria, as speedily as possible and as justly as possible. Thus we call for conditional support to the most credible and moderate Syrian political and military opposition movements, whether in or outside the embattled Syrian National Coalition and (SNC) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The primary conditions for such support are

i) recognition of democracy, plurality, tolerance and human rights for all individuals and minority groups during and after the war;

ii) respect for humanitarian and human rights law by their own fighters; and

iii) effective discouragement and proportional punishment of any (incidental) violations by their own combatants.

Such conditions are necessary, as rebel forces do commit atrocities as well, like the massacre of 190 civilians in villages near Latakia during an offensive in August according to a report by Human Rights Watch; these villagers were mainly heterodox-Shiite Alawi who support Assad’s regime if only out of fear what might happen to them if the primarily Sunni rebels win the war – such atrocities only help to solidify and justify these fears.

If actual genocide, i.e. large-scale killings intended and geared towards the extermination of an entire people, is looming, we call for a humanitarian intervention on the ground, if necessary by a coalition of the willing if there is no UN authorisation and mandate. We do recognise that such an operation would be much wider in scope, and would harbour many more risks, than a relatively speedy and small-scale series of airstrikes. But if the international community even fails to intervene against genocide, then the whole concept of “international peace and security” definitely a hollow one, a smokescreen to hide hypocrisy, indifference and avoidable powerlessness.


Caspar ten Dam, chairperson ICHI

With: Bas Wallage, spokesperson ICHI                          

This declaration is a shortened and modified version of the one sent during late October and early November 2013 to, amongst others, the Dutch and Belgian ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defence, and to the specialists on these policy-areas in the Dutch and Belgian parliaments, and to those of the European Parliament.