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Yesterday President Obama threatened military force against Syria if there were indications that the Assad regime was preparing its chemical weapons for deployment. This was the American president’s first directly threat of force against the Syrian regime since the rebellion began over 18 months ago.

In response to a question by Chuck Todd, Obama said:

I have, at this point, not ordered military engagement in the situation.  But the point that you made about chemical and biological weapons is critical.  … 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. … We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons.  That would change my calculations significantly.

But what is it about chemical weapons as a category of military technology that sets them apart for international opprobrium? According to estimates, around 18,000 Syrians have already been killed since the fighting started, and the regime’s use of airstrikes and high explosives have not drawn similar imminent threats of force though they have destructive force similar to chemical weapons. Indeed, the Syrian regime has explicitly stated that it will not use its stockpile of chemical weapons against its own people — but has stated that it may use them against international forces.

So why the taboo on chemical weapons?

Richard Price (Political Science, UBC) undertook a systematic study of the taboo (which you should read in full, undated) looking at how “chemical weapons have [become] so successfully constituted as an illegitimate category” of weapons, what this taboo means and what purposes it serves. Price denies explaining the taboo based solely on “intrinsic characteristics” of chemical weapons: their indiscriminateness, the suffering they cause, their unseen nature and secretiveness are not characteristics unique to chemical weapons — bullets cannot be seen, high explosives cause just as much suffering as chemical weapons do. Price similarly rejects relying solely on the “poison taboo” to explain the nonuse of chemical weapons.

Both of these accounts (intrinsic characteristics and association with poison) are inadequate because they’re too totalizing: for Price, the history of the chemical weapons taboo is more a story about the many interactions, dynamics, provisional arrangements and re-interpretations. Price eschews the causal (“why”) explanations proffered by neopositivists and behaviourists that dominate IR scholarship, instead advocating an interpretivist or constructivist understanding of “how” the chemical weapons taboo came to be constructed, value-laden, and re-interpreted.

To this end, Price points to the way chemical weapons were categorically banned by the Hague Declarations of 1899 and 1907 — an outcome of their merely theoretical existence at that time, and the imminent threat such a category of weapons (“asphyxiating shells”) would pose to civilians, in a way that other weapons, like torpedoes, allegedly, wouldn’t. He also identifies the role of American Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes who pushed for their categorical ban in 1921-1922 at the Washington Conference and was willing to back down, but never faced strong opposition and so it stuck. Similarly, a strategic miscalculation by the chemical gas lobbies, and attitudes of international political leaders combined to uphold an emerging norm against chemical weapons.

Perhaps Price’s most interesting insight pertains to the hierarchical relations between states that the chemical weapons taboo comes to characterize. The Hague Declarations only banned use between “contracting parties,” but not in their relations with other states. As such, contracting parties became “the nations that would count as members of an emerging society of civilized states” — in distinction from the uncivilized non-contracting (not invited…) parties in the colonial world. Italy’s use of chemical weapons against Ethiopia in 1935-1936 is characteristic of the kind of “interspecific competition” that the Hague Declaration permitted, where the realms of “European war” and “colonial war” were separated and different standards applied to each.

What does all of this mean for Syria? Syria is already in violation of one international norm, the responsibility to protect — although arguably a less solidified norm than the one governing the nonuse of chemical weapons. Syria may not count itself as a member of the “civilized society of states” that the Hague Declaration helped bring into being, and as such may not consider itself governed by the norm — much in the same way Iraq explained its use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq War. But this constant reference to the norm, and Syrian officials’ declaration that chemical weapons would not be used against its own people, points to the strength of the norm as a constraint on state behaviour. None of this is to suggest that the Assad regime will suddenly stop massacring its Syrians, but it does point to the fact that the Syrian Army’s actions do seem to be constrained in some meaningful way — in a way not generally recognized in the media or academia.

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**On a side note, there seems to be a lot of interesting avenues to explore off of this topic: the possibility of the changing nature of the norm in reference to Syria, and its future use/nonuse of chemical weapons; the comparison to the Iraqi use in the Iran-Iraq War; the effects of hierarchical ordering, domination and civilization in world politics — in ideational ways, not simply in material/military domination. Lots to consider going forward.

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