Sunday, January 29, 2017

Michelle Bentley's "Syria and the Chemical Weapons Taboo"

Michelle Bentley is Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Director, MSc International Politics Programmes at Royal Holloway, University of London.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Syria and the Chemical Weapons Taboo: Exploiting the Forbidden, and reported the following:
Page 99 is the title page for Part II of the book, called ‘A Failed Taboo’. Part I looks at how US President Barack Obama talked about Syria in terms of the chemical weapons taboo. This is the idea that chemical arms are so appalling and repulsive that they must be stopped. We see this in Obama’s controversial redline, when he said the US would respond if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used these weapons (which Assad did, and still does today).

Part II looks at what this meant for Syria. It argues that Obama’s obsession with chemical weapons made the conflict worse – hence the ‘failed’ in the title. While you might think getting rid of chemical weapons is a good thing, US foreign policy actually intensified the war. This happened for four reasons:

1. Focusing on chemical warfare made it easier to ignore the massive body count caused by conventional weapons, e.g. bombs – where acknowledging this would have pressured Obama into an intervention he didn’t want. We’re supposed to intervene when so many people are being killed, but Obama didn’t want to get involved.

2. Eliminating chemical weapons created an illusion of progress. It looked like the US was doing something in Syria, but this masked the way Obama avoided the conflict all costs. It looked like the US was taking action, but in reality the war was getting worse.

3. Destroying Assad’s weapons was terrible for the rebels. The Syrian army was told to guard the OPCW (the group responsible for demolishing the stockpiles) across Syria. But this meant the army could enter rebel-held areas – a major disadvantage for anti-regime forces.

4. Getting Assad to agree to give up chemical weapons gave the dictator legitimacy. State leaders sign these sorts of agreement, so the US was acknowledging that he was in charge. At a time the US was hoping Assad would fall from power, they were actually strengthening his position.

Getting rid of chemical weapons is a great thing. These weapons cause horrendous destruction and the world is a better place without them. But looking at these exclusively, and ignoring the rest of a conflict, can actually end up killing more people than you save.
Learn more about Syria and the Chemical Weapons Taboo at the Manchester University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue