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Here's Why The World Treats Chemical Weapons Differently Than The Regular Kind

It's not just a suggestion — it's the law.

Last updated on April 11, 2017, at 5:12 p.m. ET

Posted on April 10, 2017, at 6:57 p.m. ET

Last week, the US launched a military strike against the Syrian government in response to its use of chemical weapons.

U.s. Navy / Getty Images

The response has been decidedly mixed. While members of the media immediately praised President Donald Trump's decision, international human rights advocates were more muted. Generally anti-war, the statements still managed to praise the administration for upholding international law. (More on that in a second.)

What's less than clear now, though, is what rises to the level of a US response these days.

Press Sec. on Syria, citing gas and barrel bombs: "If we see this kind of action again, we hold open the possibilit…

White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Monday wouldn't go into details, saying, "If we see this kind of action again, we hold open the possibility of future action."

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said in a statement that Trump "directed this action to deter future use of chemical weapons" and that Syria should know that it "would be ill-advised ever again to use chemical weapons."

At least part of the reason it's hard to nail down what would draw another US strike right now is because of Obama's "red line" moment back in 2012.

Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty Images

Speaking at a press conference, he declared that the use of chemical weapons by Syria against its people was a "red line" that the US would not tolerate being crossed. But that line was pretty definitively crossed in 2013, when the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad launched an attack that killed more than 1,000 people.

A military response was planned out and nearly put into place, but collapsed in the face of the United Kingdom not joining in the action and Obama's subsequent decision to seek approval for the strike from an unwilling Congress. The idea was totally scrapped after a Russian proposal to have Assad hand over chemical weapons to the United Nations for destruction. (Again, more on that in a second.)

In its bid to show Trump as decisive, the administration justified the airstrikes by making it all about international law — which isn't what you'd expect from a White House that's made "America First" the basis of foreign policy.


They are right, though, in pointing out that Syria's use of chemical weapons is a violation of treaties that the nation signed onto in 2013.

The global law surrounding the use of chemical weapons goes back to just after World War I, when the use of mustard gas and other chemicals in warfare first became possible.

Three Lions / Getty Images

In 1925, the Geneva Protocol was signed into being, marking the first prohibition on the use of chemical and biological weapons in times of war. (The document didn't actually say anything about having chemical weapons though, so stockpiles continued to grow.) It, along with the later Geneva Conventions, would form the base of what would grow into a thriving section of international law governing how countries should fight.

Decades later, the ownership loophole would be closed with the ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which outright banned having them.

United Photos / Reuters

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) formed in 1997 to police the world's adherence to the convention and provide technical knowhow in disposing of them. As of 2013, only four countries hadn't ratified the CWC — North Korea, Egypt, South Sudan, and Syria. (Israel has signed but not ratified.)

Since then, an estimated 90% of the declared banned chemical agents have been destroyed worldwide. But the "declared" part is important — the OPCW can only get rid of stockpiles it's aware of.

Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters

So what, then, is it about chemical weapons that makes them so dangerous that the US decided to bomb Syria for using them?

Handout / Reuters

Strategically speaking? Not too much. No war has ever been won because the other side owned or was willing to use chemical weapons.

Jim Watson / AFP / Getty Images

The gases that were super effective in WWI thanks to trench warfare saw little use in actual war since then, because of a few factors including the taboo around them, how much more effective conventional weapons have gotten, how easily dispersed aerosol weapons are, and the rising effectiveness of gas masks.

That's not to say that they were never used in war — notably during the Iran–Iraq War of the 1980s — but they definitely are more of a rarity than some other banned weapons, like cluster bombs.

Spicer on Tuesday tried to compare Assad's use of sarin to that of the Nazis, whose scientists had invented it as a pesticide in 1939. (They never used the lethal gas to attack Allied forces during the war.)

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

But instead he wound up seeming to suggest that the Nazis had never used chemical weapons ever, omitting the Holocaust's use of poison gas totally. He wound up clarifying the point three times amid growing outrage.

What chemical weapons are very good at is being used as a way to kill and terrorize civilians. Iraq's Kurdish population learned that first-hand during the late 1980s.

Behrouz Mehri / AFP / Getty Images

Then-dictator Saddam Hussein unleashed his chemical weapons arsenal against the Kurdish population in the country's north to put down a bid for independence. More than 100,000 men, women, and children were killed in what some have dubbed a genocide.

Toxic weapons have also been used by non-state actors, like the Japanese doomsday cult ‎Aum Shinrikyo, which unleashed sarin gas in a Tokyo subway in 1994, killing a dozen people.

Junji Kurokawa / AFP / Getty Images

Which brings us back to the 2013 deal to get the chemical weapons out of Syria, a task given to the UN and OPCW.

Khaled Al-hariri / Reuters

The mission was declared a success in 2014, but with the huge caveat that they weren't sure if Assad had declared his entire stockpile.

Since then, Syria has continued to launch chemical attacks, but not with banned chemicals. Instead, the regime has turned to chlorine attacks delivered via what are called barrel bombs.

Stringer / Reuters

Most barrel bombs used are just oil drums filled with explosives and shrapnel, making them extra dangerous for those below when they land after being dropped from aircraft. But they've also been used as a method to disperse toxic chlorine gas, which as a dual-use chemical isn't banned under the CWC. But using them as weapons is definitely super illegal.

Which returns us to Spicer's comments on Monday, which were very, very vague about what would actually draw more missiles from the US — which is a problem, by the administration's own standards.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Spicer said that "if you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb into innocent people, I think you will see a response from this president."

At first, it was unclear whether those barrel bombs have to have chlorine in them to trigger a response, though the White House later said that was the case.

A White House spokesperson attempted to further clarify Spicer's comments, saying Trump "retains the option to act in Syria against the Assad regime whenever it is in the national interest." Which honestly just makes things slightly more confusing.

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