Why Chemical Weapons Have Become a Battleground in Syria’s Information War

Faisal Al Yafai

Ghouta is in the news again. The small enclave outside of Damascus has been a rebel stronghold for years and has been under constant, relentless siege by the Assad regime since early in the civil war. Any time Ghouta is mentioned, it sets off, among the supporters of the regime and the rebels, a potent, raging argument about chemical weapons – for it was in Ghouta, five years ago, that the regime first used chemical weapons against civilians. Since then, no discussion of the Syrian civil war has been conducted without reference to chemical weapons, and Assad supporters have waged years-long disinformation campaigns to cast doubt on culpability for that attack.

In one sense, this focus on chemical weapons in the long information war between the two sides makes sense: the attack in April 2013 killed hundreds in the worst possible way. Yet it was only one attack in a long, relentless war that has destroyed families, towns and cities. The supporters of Bashar Al Assad have not attempted to disavow their role in that violence, nor have opponents of the regime spent so much ink and air trying to pin the blame. What is it about chemical-weapon attacks that imbue the subject with such focus and fascination?

The answer to that question lies far in the past and right next door in Iraq. It encompasses both high-minded philosophy and expedient politics. Because it turns out that chemical weapons hold a particular horror, even for those who have never set foot in a war zone – and that horror provides a motivation to act, where other atrocities may not so much.

The year before the chemical weapons attack in Ghouta, Barack Obama had warned the Assad regime that a chemical-weapons attack would constitute “a red line” for the US. The following September, six months after Ghouta, he was asked if not enforcing that red line had destroyed his credibility. Obama was irritated: “First of all, I didn’t set a red line; the world set a red line. The world set a red line when governments representing 98 percent of the world’s population said the use of chemical weapons are abhorrent and passed a treaty forbidding their use even when countries are engaged in war.”

He was talking about the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, which completely banned the production and use of chemical weapons. And in a meaningful sense, he was right.

The prohibition against chemical weapons has roots in a visceral fear of them, developed by an understanding of the horrors of its use in the First World War. Every school child who studies the First World War in the English-speaking world, and indeed far beyond it, is familiar with Wilfred Owen’s poem Dulce et Decorum Est, about a chlorine gas attack: “In all my dreams…he plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.” The horror of a gas attack was not merely baked into the poetry of the time, it was in the letters soldiers sent home and in the frantic attempts of military strategists on both sides to find protection. Nothing in that brutal, cold, distant war was feared as much as a gas attack.

Somehow, the rest of the world has absorbed that fear. Perhaps the images of gas masks, with their peculiar exaggerated human features, provides part of the explanation. So, too, must be the method of death – choking and literally drowning in blood.

And, of course, there’s something else, something less definable: a horror of the invisible. Chlorine gas, such as that used in the First World War, is green – you can see it coming. But sarin, used in Syria, is colorless and odorless. Victims had no way of knowing what was happening until it was too late. The first attack in Ghouta took place in the early hours of the morning; many literally drowned in their beds.

It is that peculiar horror of the method of death that also leads to a sense that the use of chemical weapons is “unfair.” That same criticism was made during the First World War – an astonishing critique, then and now, given how brutal and unfair war in general is. Yet somehow that moral consideration has stuck to the messy business of war.

That’s the philosophical aspect. The second aspect is political. The revulsion toward the use of chemical weapons is motivating intervention – and in a war that has lasted so long and created so many horrific images and experiences, that seems like the only thing that may force the outside world to act.

It is impossible to discuss the on-again off-again push for intervention against the Assad regime without discussing Iraq. The 2003 invasion dramatically changed the landscape of the Middle East, but it also changed the landscape of political imagination across the world. All the high-minded ideals of intervention, and the downright lies, were washed away in the bloody cities of that country.

After Iraq, it became impossible to sustain the idea that any intervention would be easy, quick or painless. And that, in the West, changed the public’s appetite for fearsome rhetoric against a foe far from home. When, in late 2011, the Syrian uprising began to degenerate into a brutal civil war and calls began for intervention, Western publics – and Western politicians like Obama – resisted it, fearing another quagmire. No matter the horrors that came out of the war, public opinion didn’t seem to shift.

It was only after Ghouta in April 2013 that the conversation changed and what seemed like a drumbeat toward military action started – a drumbeat that was only quelled when the Assad regime agreed to give up its chemical-weapons stock.

That point in 2013 remains the high point of possible Western intervention, and because it was precipitated by the chemical-weapons attack, opponents of the Assad regime repeatedly return to the theme. It seems to be the only thing capable of motivating a war-weary Western public.

In one sense, of course, the exact nature of the attack shouldn’t really matter. By the time Assad used sarin in 2013, around 100,000 Syrians had lost their lives, and in the worst possible ways: blown to pieces in bomb attacks, massacred by machine guns, buried under buildings, starved in sieges and hanged in dark dungeons. What did the method matter? But the revulsion against chemical weapons is real and provides its own motivation.

That’s why the arguments still rage, half a decade on. It’s why Assad supporters are determined to spread the lie that sarin wasn’t used. They hope to blunt the force of the criticism, to play another tune over the violence of the war, in case the drumbeat for intervention rises again.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.