Since regular munitions can kill just as effectively as chemical weapons, it is unlikely that deterring Bashar al-Assad from deploying the latter—as the airstrikes last month and the previous year were intended to do—will save many lives. For precisely this reason, argues Max Singer, preventing their use is a worthy and achievable goal:
It is possible to get the world to enforce moral values when it can do so without incurring large costs. In places like Syria, the world cannot stop the killing without a military force stronger than the local forces, and no country is willing to sacrifice its soldiers [to do so]. But the world can [enforce] the ban on chemical weapons by using only missile attacks from a distance.
There is no way the recent U.S.-British-French attack on Assad’s chemical-weapons facilities could have a major influence on the struggle for control of Syria or stop the killing of civilians. The purpose of the attack was . . . to make sure Assad and his successors understand that he loses more from his use of chemical weapons than he gains—which is certainly true.
The dictators of the world don’t use chemical weapons because they are cruel; they use them because they are a slightly easier and cheaper way to kill and frighten their enemies. But they have other ways of killing and frightening people. So if the example of what happened to Assad convinces them that they would lose more from international retaliation for using chemical weapons than they might gain from their use, they will not use them. Others might decide it is a mistake to build or buy such weapons in the first place. . . .
A world in which chemical weapons are not used is better than a world in which they are—even if there is only a small reduction in the number of people killed. Perhaps a world in which international agreements achieve some moral goals, even modest ones, is better than a world in which nations cannot succeed in enforcing any moral values at all.