The fetishisation of chemical weapons in Syria

I believe that Theresa May’s decision to launch an air strike on Syrian government targets early this morning was wrong for many reasons. But here, I will focus on the one that I think is most important: that it will cause greater insecurity for Syrian civilians by fetishising chemical warfare.

Since the 1990s, and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in 1997, the international community has been working to eradicate the stockpiling and use of chemical weapons. In her press conference this morning, Theresa May made it clear she believes that Assad’s violation of this treaty represents a threat to British security; “We cannot allow the use of chemical weapons to become normalised – either within Syria, on the streets of the UK or elsewhere.”

Assad knows now that if he uses chemical weapons, he will get a big media reaction, and will have greater negotiating power.

At first glance, this might seem like a reasonable position. We all agree that the use of chemical weapons is abhorrent. And many of us believe that in today’s world, our government has a responsibility to protect the citizens of other states from mass human rights violations. I will admit that I have always been sceptical about the benefits of military intervention, but I believe these air strikes are particularly problematic.

Securitisation theory receives a lot of attention in International Relations scholarship. There are many variations, but the basic idea is that when certain issues become redefined as security threats, they enter the realm of extraordinary politics, in which extraordinary measures are deemed appropriate as there is a need to act quickly and decisively. May has decided that the use of chemical weapons is a security threat to the UK, and that this security threat gives her mandate to use extraordinary measures- launching an air strike without the consent of her parliament.

The most obvious concern with this process is that it undermines British democracy; we expect the Prime Minister to lead our parliament rather than bypass it. However, what is more alarming to me is that this air strike could lead to greater insecurity for Syrians.

Theresa May stated this morning, “I believe it should also be a message to others that the international community is not going to stand by and allow chemical weapons to be used with impunity.” I would agree that Theresa May has sent a message to the international community, but with a slight alteration; May is happy to stand by when Assad is committing other atrocities, but chemical weapons are a different matter.

Feminist political theorist, Sarah Meger, has observed a similar process in relation to sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She argues that there exists such a frenzy around gang rape in the media and international policymaking, that local rebel groups are incentivised to carry out gang rape in order to get their names in the newspapers, and gain a place at the negotiating table.

In the same way, May’s air strikes serve to give greater gravity to chemical weapons attacks. Assad knows now that if he uses chemical weapons, he will get a big media reaction, and will have greater negotiating power. This is particularly alarming given that US Secretary of Defence James Mattis has told the press that “right now, this is a one-time shot”, meaning there is nothing to stop Assad using the chemical weapons he has left.

Actors in civil wars across the world are seeing that if they want their war to be taken seriously by the international community, then they should be using chemical weapons.

Instead of recognising that the horrible chemical attack that took place on the 7th of April, and killed 75 people, is situated in a continuum of violence, May is treating the attack as if it occurred in a vacuum. The air strike offers no solution for the Syrians that suffer every day and the hands of other forms of violence.

But this is because the air strike was not designed to protect Syrian civilians; May is only concerned with protecting international norms. “We must reinstate the global consensus that chemical weapons cannot be used. This action is absolutely in Britain’s national interest. The lesson of history is that when the global rules and standards that keep us safe come under threat – we must take a stand and defend them.”

What I find most troubling about the use of extraordinary measures in response to chemical warfare is that it legitimises the violence used every other day by Assad. May claimed that the targets of the strike were limited to “chemical weapons storage and production facility, a key chemical weapons research centre and a military bunker involved in chemical weapons attacks”. By only targeting chemical weapons sites, May is effectively telling Assad ‘carry on as you were’.

Imagine a school playground. A teacher sees a bully hitting a younger pupil with a rock. The teacher walks over, takes the rock and says, ‘the school community does not stand by and allow rocks to be used with impunity’, and then allows the bully to carry on hitting the younger pupil. This is what May is doing with Assad.

The fetishisation of chemical weapons makes other atrocities invisible. There has been no consideration of the security concerns of Syrian civilians on the ground. It has simply been decided by the policymaking elite that chemical weapons represent a security threat to the international community. Once that threat is dealt with, the war will be allowed to continue, and Syrians will go on experiencing constant insecurity.

What is needed is a comprehensive approach that doesn’t obsess over one source of insecurity while allowing others to go on. Will Syrian civilians feel safe after these air strikes? Of course not. The violence that May seems to have forgotten about will continue, and maybe even intensify.

May needs to come back down to the realm of ordinary politics. The security concerns of the Syrian people need to be listened to, and the consequences of reckless air strikes need to be carefully considered before May and her French and American counterparts strike in the name of the international community again.

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