Chemical Weapons Vs. Airstrikes: Civilians Affected By Both, Politicians Respond To One

On July 7 the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons released preliminary results for samples collected from the site of an alleged chemical attack that occurred in Duoma in April. According to the report, “No organophosphorus nerve agents or their degradation products were detected,” but traces of various chlorinated organic chemicals were found. These traces suggest the use of a chemical weapon known as chlorine gas, but the OPCW has not reached any conclusions.
The OPCW investigation lasted roughly two months and a conclusive, full-length report can be expected in the near future. The international organization responded in record time due to public outcry over suspected chemical weapons usage.

Powerhouse political figures around the world denounced the attack. The European Union released a statement condemning “in the strongest terms the use of chemical weapons” and called for an international response. Leaders of the U.S., the U.K., and France threatened air strikes. French President Emmanuel Macron reportedly said deploying chemical weapons crossed a “red line set by France”.

Six hundred airstrikes in Southern Syria in the time span of three days this past week displaced more than 330,000 Syrians. Politicians were relatively silent.

Classification under international law creates a chasm between chemical weapons and airstrikes. Chemical weapons are prohibited under a separate, specific multilateral treaty called the Chemical Weapons Convention and cannot be used under any circumstances in any armed conflict. The legal basis for the prohibition comes from the indiscriminate nature of chemical weapons because toxic chemicals can spread to surrounding populations and affect food and water supplies. The deployer of a chemical weapon cannot possibly predict how far-reaching the damage will be.
Drone strikes and aerial bombardments are not condemned in the same way, though their effects are quite similar. Bombs don’t just cause immediate damage to the area they destroy. There’s aftermath — civilians displaced by wreckage, roads for relief supplies blocked by collapsed buildings, and medical facilities overwhelmed by casualties.
Under international humanitarian law, direct attacks on civilian populations are prohibited. However, aerial warfare is not specifically governed by international laws in a way that would lead to public outcry, unlike chemical attacks. Hague Regulations for the Aerial Warfare were drafted in 1923 but ultimately scrapped and not given a legally binding status. Aerial bombings have become so normalized in modern warfare that a lack of a specific body of international law devoted to their regulation is surprising.
This lack of specificity means that laws of the land are generally accepted as governing attacks from the air. The Hague Regulations of 1907 do provide some leeway for the prosecution of aerial bombardments. Articles 25 through 27 prohibit any bombardments of civilian buildings including those dedicated to religion, art, science, or charitable purposes, historic monuments, demilitarized zones, and hospitals. They also provide that commanders of attacking forces must warn authorities in the area prior to an attack to help reduce civilian casualties.
Despite these articles, aerial bombardments and drone strikes in Syria have destroyed cultural sites, civilian buildings, and hospitals over the past seven years.
In June, the Washington Post reported that warplanes had bombed 3 hospitals in Southern Syria. The bombing of hospitals should have been universally condemned. Instead, the international community was relatively silent.
In January, the Pew Research Center reported that an estimated 13 million Syrians have been displaced as a result of the conflict. Regular bombings in volatile areas make it difficult for Syrians to return to what’s left of their homes. Jordan and Israel have closed their borders to these displaced civilians. Jordan accepted over 600,000 registered Syrian refugees since the start of the conflict. The unregistered number may be much higher.
The condemnation and focus on chemical weapons attacks instead of drone strikes and bombings speak volumes about our current international political climate. The international community needs to hold both sides accountable for the slaughter of civilians in Syria, not just the weapons used to do so. Chemical attacks should be investigated and prosecuted, but so should the targeting of civilian populations.
The work of the OPCW in conducting fact-finding missions in Duoma and other parts of Syria is commendable. However, the international community should not ignore the ongoing atrocities being committed in Syria. As we wait for two international powerhouses, the U.S. and Russia, to hopefully reach an agreement on July 16, we need to remember the importance of keeping a spotlight trained on all atrocities committed in Syria, not just the ones outlawed under the Chemical Weapons Convention.