Syria, Iraq and moral obscenities big and small

Other governments should be held to the same standard as Syria when it comes to use of chemical weapons.

Syria/gas attack
A likely chemical attack last week in Damascus killed more than 300 people and hurt many more [Reuters]

Question: Can a government that supported the use of chemical weapons in one conflict claim any moral, political or legal authority to militarily attack another country for using the same weapons?

There is little doubt that using chemical weapons is, to quote US Secretary of State John Kerry, a “moral obscenity”. And Kerry knows a thing or two about moral obscenities. He (in)famously threw up to nine of his combat medals over the fence of the US Capitol in protest against the Vietnam War, in which he fought.

As Kerry recalled in 1971, the Nixon administration “forced us to return our medals because beyond the perversion of the war, these leaders themselves denied us the integrity those symbols supposedly gave our lives”.

These are eloquent and powerful words. So were his remarks accusing the Assad regime of this latest moral obscenity, a likely chemical weapon attack in Damascus that killed 355 people and hurt many more.

I have no illusions that the rebel forces in Syria have greater moral scruples than do Assad and his forces. But it is also implausible that this was a rebel-launched false flag attack, because of its scale and scope. It is simply not conceivable that the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia or other major players would allow any of the Sunni jihadi groups operating in Syria to build up a significant stockpile of chemical weapons and use them on numerous targets simultaneously. The risk that these weapons could be used against Israel, the US or other targets would be too great to allow.

This was, in all likelihood, the work of a regime that has already killed more than 100,000 of its own people and forced millions to become refugees. That the world community would sit by while the Syrian government so brutalises its own people is an even greater moral obscenity than this particular use of illegal weapons.

Kerry: Assad government responsible for chemical attack

Making matters worse, it’s only one of seemingly uncountable moral obscenities suffered by the weak the world over.

The main question commentators and officials seem to be asking about this attack is why the Syrian government would launch an attack that would almost inevitably lead to direct Western military intervention against it and further alienate global public opinion.

Several theories are being put forth to answer this question, from declaring that the seeming illogic of the attack is proof enough that it was the rebels; to the belief that these attacks were ordered by Bashar al-Assad’s allegedly even more ruthless brother, Maher; an appreciation of Assad’s “extremely calculating” tactic of ratcheting up the use of force to the point where chemical weapons become normalised; or a sense that Obama will not risk an all-out confrontation with Assad and his Russian backers and so will limit any retaliation to acceptable levels.

Are chemical weapons fundamentally ‘different’?

But there are two other questions, both raised by a blockbuster revelation in an August 26 Foreign Policy article, “CIA Files Prove America Helped Saddam as He Gassed Iran”, which I would argue are more important to consider.

The first concerns the issue of whether chemical weapons are fundamentally different from their conventional counterparts, and thus should continue to be singled out for international condemnation. As we have seen, conventional weapons are also capable of producing death and destruction on an industrial scale.

Emblematic of this line of thought is a December 6, 2012 American Prospect articlein which Paul Waldman argues that chemical weapons are not not as uniquely dangerous as biological or nuclear weapons because they don’t have the ability to kill large populations (by which he means tens or hundreds of thousands of people, or even millions). “I’ve never seen anyone explain what it is,” Waldman writes, that these weapons continue to be singled out given their relative lack of large-scale killing power.

An Atlantic column by Dominic Tierney from the same time argues that if we “strip away the moralistic opposition to chemical weapons” what we’ll find lying underneath is “strategic self-interest… Powerful countries like the United States cultivate a taboo against using WMD partly because they have a vast advantage in conventional arms. We want to draw stark lines around acceptable and unacceptable kinds of warfare because the terrain that we carve out is strategically favourable.” Even those who argue that chemical weapons are worse than conventional weapons assume they are only good at killing civilians indiscriminately, and not very practical for winning conventional battles.

This is where the documents examined in the Foreign Policy article come in. What they clearly show is that chemical weapons do in fact provide a crucial strategic advantage to those using them. For instance, Iraq’s use of chemical weapons during its war with Iran was believed by US analysts to be among the decisive factors in counteracting the Iranian “human wave” strategy, which had been overrunning Iraqi front lines, albeit at a huge cost in Iranian soldiers.

Chemical weapons, and particularly the kind of nerve agents used by Saddam Hussein and now likely Bashar al-Assad’s regime, are effective precisely because they can kill large numbers of people, can be used easily and indiscriminately against civilian targets, last long enough to cause damage well after the immediate fighting has ceased, and can help turn the tide of a conventional battle.

Because of these factors, the side subjected to ongoing chemical weapons attacks will usually seek to acquire and use them as well. This inevitably creates an arms race that will exacerbate an already deadly conflict.

Moral calculi

Beyond confirming their effectiveness as a weapon of war and terror, the US intelligence reports analysed by the Foreign Policy article are important for another reason. They reveal that the United States government not only knew about the use of chemical weapons by Iraq – in fact, the same neurotoxin, sarin, was most likely also used in the recent attack in Syria – but aided their use by providing satellite and other intelligence to the Iraqi government.

Inside Syria – Syria’s ‘red lines’ and shameful milestones

This reality leads to the question with which I began this column: Can a government that supported the use of chemical weapons in one conflict claim any moral, political or legal authority militarily to attack another country for using the same weapons, particularly when the attack is not authorised by the UN Security Council?

Not only did the US aid the use of chemical weapons by the former Iraqi government, it also used chemical weapons on a large scale during its 1991 and 2003 invasions of Iraq, in the form of depleted-uranium (DU) ammunition.

As Dahr Jamail’s reporting for Al Jazeerahas shown, the use of DU by the US and UK has very likely been the cause not only of many cases of Gulf War Syndrome suffered by Iraq war veterans, but also of thousands of instances of birth defects, cancer and other diseases – causing a “large-scale public health disaster” and the “highest rate of genetic damage in any population ever studied” – suffered by Iraqis in areas subjected to frequent and intense attacks by US and allied occupation forces. 

Thus what we have now is a situation in which a government (the United States) that has both supported and committed large-scale and systematic war crimes in one country (Iraq) is leading the international effort to stop Iraq’s neighbour Syria from continuing to use chemical weapons against its own people.

The US is being opposed by other major powers, particularly Russia, which have their own history of committing large-scale war crimes, including the use of chemical weapons, such as in the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

A little common sense

The fact that the United States has supported and committed war crimes, including the use of chemical weapons (in Vietnam even more than in Iraq), does not mean that it should play no role in trying to stop Syria from continuing to commit its own war crimes.

Nor does it mean that we should ignore the crimes of the Assad regime and its allies in Russia, Iran, Lebanon or other places.

Imperfect though it may be, the international community must come together when possible to stop the kind of mass murder that has been witnessed in Syria during the last two years. But if we are to heed Kerry’s call to respond to the alleged actions of the Syrian government in a manner that is “grounded in facts, informed by conscience and guided by common sense”, then supporters and opponents of a forceful response should hold other governments accountable to the same standard. 

This would mean getting rid of the UN Security Council veto enjoyed by the major powers, which has so often been used to shield themselves and their most important clients from punishment for war crimes and other violations of international law. It would also mean turning off the weapons tap across the region: in Israel as well as Saudi Arabia (with whom the US just signed an agreement to sell cluster bombs, another weapon banned under most interpretations of international law), in Egypt as well as in Syria.

A little common sense, facts and conscience would go a long way not just in Syria but across the Middle East and North Africa, and in forming the foreign policies of the world’s major powers. Sadly, if the continued carnage in Syria is an indication, I wouldn’t hold my breath in hopes of seeing it any time soon.

Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine and distinguished visiting professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden, and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh. His book, Heavy Metal Islam, which focused on ‘rock and resistance and the struggle for soul’ in the evolving music scene of the Middle East and North Africa, was published in 2008.

Follow him on Twitter: @culturejamming