Red Lines Crossed: The Syrian Civil War & The History of Chemical Warfare

By Senior Campaign Agent Luke Walpole

On September 1, 1917, American soldier Stull Holt wrote home from the battlefields of France. Between wisps of small talk, Holt recalled how at one time, he “gasped, choked and felt the extreme terror of the man who goes under in the water and will clutch at a straw.” The cause of this dread? Mustard gas. With the advent of the First World War came the start of chemical weaponry on an industrial scale. Though actual fatalities to the substance may have, proportionally, been low, the psychological affect was ominous. Ever since, this is a spectre which has never fully detached itself from warfare. In 1925, the Geneva Protocol deemed chemical attacks illegal, what’s more, they were a crime against humanity itself.

Yet such crimes were repeated throughout the twentieth century. The Second World War was littered with incidents, whilst the horrors of the Holocaust were facilitated by the chemical Zyklon-B. In the Vietnam War, ‘Agent Orange’ laid waste to the Vietnamese countryside. Later, in 1988, Saddam Hussein poisoned thousands of Kurds in Halabja, Northern Iraq. By the turn of the century, the use of chemicals had become the most vivid example of mans’ humanity to man. Indeed, even without the judicial underpinning of the Geneva Protocol, their use formed a tacit Red Line; understood by all, enforced by few.

In 1993, the creation of the Chemical Weapons Convention marked a key turning point. The Convention, created through the UN, served to augment the Geneva Protocol, and has had numerous successes. The CWC’s enforcement arm, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, has declared that since its inception, around 72% of the world’s chemical weaponry stockpiles have been neutralised. These positive changes have led to a concomitant decline in the number of chemical weapon attacks. Those that have utilised them are often not held to international law (such as so-called Islamic State).

However, there is one glaring exception to this positivity. The Syrian Civil War has been plagued by the fear, and reality, of chemical attacks. As the conflict stagnated, then-President Obama made a somewhat off-hand comment to reporters. On August 20, 2012, he contended:

“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.”

And so, the ‘Red Line’ was created. In some senses, it had always been there. Yet for a sitting President to vocalise such concerns raised the stakes. It was morbidly predictable that just over a year later, on August 23, 2013, the line would be tested.

“Sir, I've seen things you won't even dream about in your worst nightmares,” said Kassem Eid, a denizen of Damascus, and a survivor of a Sarin attack targeted at Syrian rebels. Begun as part of the Nazis’ weapons program, Sarin is a nerve agent which violently attacks the nervous system. Odourless, colourless and difficult to detect, it has the capacity to debilitate, paralyse and ultimately kill. The August attack took over 1,500 lives, including 400 children.

The sobering aftermath of this attack questioned morality and legal jurisdiction. Obama had strongly implied that the use of chemical weapons – something which President Assad stringently denied – would be a catalyst for American intervention in the region. The President thus decided to try and set in motion a plan to intervene in the area. For the third time this century, it looked as though American boots would be hitting Middle Eastern ground. Tired of warfare, the American people rallied against any such movement, and Obama was forced to renege. Even for the most vocal Obama acolytes, the ‘Red Line’ thesis had proven hollow and farcical.

Despite this, there were short term successes. The spectre of US involvement pushed Assad to declare his stockpile of chemical weapons; a horrific collection which was swiftly disposed of by an international delegation. However, this has proven to be a false dawn. Last April, the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun was crippled by a similar attack to that of August 2013. President Trump – a man who criticised Obama consistently regarding his foreign policy, and much else besides – acted with less caution. 59 missiles were fired upon the area, much to Trump’s pride. In his eyes, as well as other conservatives, he had enforced the Red Line his predecessor had so timidly scribbled.

The President was confident that his actions would “deter the spread and use of deadly weapons.” But did they? The New York Times surmises not. Far from a panacea, military intervention in Syria has done little to stabilise. Since last April, there have been multiple chemical attacks, specifically through the weaponisation of chlorine. Supported by Russia, and an alleged beneficiary of North Korea, President Assad’s Syrian regime has given the Red Line little credence.

And so, we reach the plight of Eastern Ghouta. Over recent weeks, the Syrian Government’s shelling of the rebellious area have intensified. Over 700 have been killed, and thousands remain stranded. Reports even suggest that over 30 people were affected by a chemical attack in the area. The UN, despite its best efforts, has proven close to ineffectual. As far back as 2016, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, candidly stated that:

"The UN Security Council should, without any further delay, adopt criteria to restrain members from using the veto when there are serious concerns that war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide may have been committed."

The ‘Humanitarian Pauses’ in the conflict, finally agreed by the UN Security Council, have largely not been heeded. The Syrian Civil War is wracked with inertia, and international condemnation is having a negligible affect.

This is felt no more keenly than with regards to chemical weapons. Censure, economic pressures and the threat of military intervention are not galling enough for Assad. The international community may have suggested a Red Line, but they are proving powerless in their attempts to enforce it. We might conclude that for the Western World, the phantom of the Iraq War perhaps looms too heavily over any discussion of chemical weaponry and the Middle East. Accordingly, the outlook for Syria continues to appear bleak.


To return to World War One and German Officer Rudolph Binding offered a supplementary point to Stull Holt’s testimony. Upon hearing of the German Army’s intention of using Mustard Gas, he mused, “I am not pleased with the idea of poisoning men. Of course, the entire world will rage about it at first and then imitate us.”

How soberly prophetic.

Sources and Further Reading:

Image Credit: David Holt London @ Flickr

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