Price: Chemical weapons taboo is moral and political

A renowned political science professor said on Tuesday that the use of chemical weapons is the threshold beyond which Syria's regime will be considered intolerable.

Richard Price, a senior adviser to the president of the University of British Columbia, said that the taboo against chemical weapons is a moral and political limitation placed on war that requires recurrent reinforcement. Following the recent reports that Bashar al-Assad's regime used a hallucinogenic chemical in a December attack, there may be consequences if Washington does not respond to the attack with serious countermeasures, Foreign Affairs reports.

Price discussed chemical weapons in the context of history, from World War I onward.

"From the crossbow to the firearm to the submarine, many new weapons technologies throughout history have been greeted with protestations that they cross the boundary of acceptable conduct even in war," Price said, according to Foreign Affairs. "Moreover, after World War I, the American Legion actually argued that poison gas was one of the most humane weapons of warfare, a preferable alternative to explosives and bayonets, which often left survivors maimed and suffering from horrifying infections. What galvanized the world's attention to try to ban these weapons after World War I was the fear that they could be employed with catastrophic lethality against civilian populations -- especially in future wars, in which air power might be used to devastate major cities."

In 1993, the Chemical Weapons Convention was created to put a ban on chemical weapons after their use during the Iran-Iraq war. Saddam Hussein's Iraqi regime first used non-lethal tear gas, but the regime eventually stepped it up to deadly mustard gas.

"Even as Saddam proceeded to use chemical weapons, he refused to admit it; such behavior actually reinforced the notion that chemical weapons were politically sensitive," Price said, according to Foreign Affairs.

While progress has been made since the advent of chemical weapons, Syria and other countries have not joined the CWC. Syria said it will not give up the weapons until Israel disbands its nuclear program and joins the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The nuclear powers reject Syria's reasoning that chemical weapons are the moral equivalent of nuclear weapons.

Price said that after the potential use of Agent 15, the hallucinogenic agent, the taboo against chemical weapons will continue to grow stronger, Foreign Affairs reports.

"As the world watches the situation in Syria unfold with horror, it is useful to bear in mind that the Assad regime is not unleashing mustard gas, sarin, or similar agents as if doing so were fair game," Price said, according to Foreign Affairs. "In fact, in light of the reaction to recent reports alleging the Syrian regime's limited use of a hallucinogenic agent, the taboo against chemical weapons will likely grow stronger -- and the moral noose around one of humankind's many agents of destruction will only tighten."