Before dawn on August 21 last year, when the Damascus suburb of Ghouta was dark and still, an artillery launcher blasted a salvo of warheads filled with poisonous gas. One struck the corner of an apartment complex on its second floor, the warhead snapping in one direction, the body caroming in another, until it smashed through a trellis, tearing open a crater. A second rocket punctured the roof of a five-story building. The gas was sarin: a rapidly evaporating nerve agent that attacks the body’s muscles, inducing convulsions, paralysis, respiratory failure and death. Once released, victims suffer within seconds: from breathing or touching it, or if it contacts their eyes. Its vapors are heavy and sink to low areas, just when the tenants fled to their basements in midst of the fighting. As many as 1,300 died. Two brothers told UN investigators, 40 of their relatives inhabited one building and they all perished. Those who rushed to help found corpses; survivors fainted, with troubled breathing. The gas then knocked out the first-responders.
The UN already had 16 complaints against Syrian chemical attacks, and a fact-finding mission had arrived in Damascus days earlier, on August 18. Qatar and the West accused the government, while Russia and Syria’s Pres. Bashar Assad, charged the rebels. In Khan al-Asal in March, a rocket exploded, releasing a smoke that slew 25 people who inhaled it. A month later, in Saraqueb, a helicopter dropped canisters into the courtyard of a house, and two women fell unconscious, foaming at the mouth. Eight others were hospitalized, with shortness of breath and shrunken pupils, symptoms of nerve gas. The same month, nearby, in Sheikh Maqsood, 21 patients were rushed to Afrin Hospital, suffering from sarin. To investigate Sheikh Maqsood, the UN mission was just miles from Ghouta, in the same city of Damascus, interviewing officials.
It’s Only Rhetoric
Chemical weapons can drift in the air for days, lie as residues for weeks, and can blow from the battlefield to civilian areas. They kill indiscriminately; and depending on the symptoms, can be a gruesome way to die. But for Russia, its opposition is more a smokescreen, to vilify the rebels or to please international audiences. For decades, Russia helped its ally Syria amass an arsenal of a 1,000 tons of flesh burning mustard gas, phosgene that chokes, and a witch’s brew of sarin and VX, which attacks the nerves. In the UN, Russia vetoed resolutions for intervention in Syria, condemnations of its government or Assad; and when France submitted a resolution authorizing force if Syria did not dismantle its chemical armories and prosecute Ghouta’s culprits, Russia rejected it the same day. This January, the UN ceased counting the dead. Thanks to Russia, UN missions to Syria are barred from determining who the attackers are; only whether chemicals were used or not.
For America, opposition seems to be for internal consumption. In 2012, Pres. Barrack Obama threatened, chemicals against civilians was a “red line.” With Ghouta, the US sent submarines and warships. Saudi Arabia privately supported retaliation. The Arab league condemned Syria. But America never struck. US morale was low from Iraq and Afghanistan; Obama shunted his intervention to Congress for approval he did not need, only to make a deal with Russia: Assad would surrender his chemical arsenal. Nonetheless, the agreement excludes general purpose toxins, like the chlorine in your pool, which is also an armament. And as the team from the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, known as the OPCW, removed the regime’s toxins, chlorine attacks continue. On April 11, a helicopter unleashed a yellow powder on the village of Kfar Zeita, wounding children and medical staff. A month later, France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, accused Assad of killing with chlorine 14 times since the deal. Firebombs are also exempted, because they are not toxic, and in February, Assad’s forces pummeled Aleppo with oil drums crammed with explosives, shrapnel, and some say chemicals, causing 500,000 to flee.
On June 23, the OPCW’s leader, Ahmet Üzümcü, at a press conference in New York, announced Syria’s entire stockpile had left the country; and when one reporter asked if he was sure, Üzümcü admitted, “we cannot say.” The mission had been unable to reach the site of the chlorine attacks. “Nevertheless they were able to gather some information,” Üzümcü averted his gaze at the podium. “We made public this preliminary report. In fact, [it] gives credence to the view that chlorine might be used systemically in Syria.”
Obama’s strategy could be described as dollar diplomacy. He earmarked over $5.5 billion to allaying the conflict, of which only $70 million is intended to tackle chemical weapons. Robert Ford, America’s ambassador to Syria, resigned in disgust, citing policy inaction.
Now contrast this with Obama’s reaction to ISIS, the militants that invaded Iraq on June 5. Within weeks, he sent drones, military advisors and security. He never asked Congress. Or in 2013, when 100,000 Syrians had died, and chemical attacks were documented, and both Assad and the rebels agree they occurred, Obama focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, sending Sec. of State John Kerry to Jerusalem, repeatedly, once twice in a week, for negotiations that have faltered since 1993. War has killed more Syrians since 2011, and spawned more refugees, then all Jews and Arabs in the Palestine conflict, combined, since 1920. At least 170,000 Syrians have been slain, 2.8 million Syrians have fled, and 6.5 million are internally displaced.
Syria joined the Geneva Convention in 1968, baring poison gas in war, but never signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, which proscribes making or stockpiling them; and despite fears of chemical terrorism, Middle East militants never used them. However Syria may have to crush an earlier rebellion. In 1982, Islamists in Hama, a city north of Damascus, revolted and the Syrian military launched an assault. Up to 30,000 were slain, and, according to an Amnesty International report, witnesses claimed government troops pumped cyanide gas from hoses into houses suspected of sheltering militants, murdering everyone inside.
After Ghouta, Assad appeared on the TV program, Charlie Rose. He wanted to convince the Americans to avert a strike, yet when Rose asked Assad if he understood the “consequences of weapons that don’t discriminate,” between civilians and combatants, Assad interrupted: “technically they are not the same, but morally, they are the same.”
“Morally, they are same?” Rose was shocked.
“They are the same,” Assad shrugged. “Mass-killing is mass-killing. Sometimes you may kill thousands, or tens of thousands, with very primitive armaments.”
Previously, gas warfare was a footnote in the upheavals of WWI, or the Iran-Iraq War, when millions already died. Or in Yemen’s first civil war, in isolated villages with little contact to outsiders. There, the occupying Egyptians hid it. The gas was designed to dissipate, leaving no trace. Their pilots used napalm to burn off residues, and when canisters survived, jets tracked and destroyed them. And so few dared use chemicals, so few died. Toxins were the tiniest fraction of deaths in WWI, just 90,000, when 18 million perished. In the 21st century, 250,000 people die a year, 90% from small arms. By contrast, in Yemen the deadliest chemical barrage never killed more than 200. And while governments worldwide spend $1.6 trillion a year to arm themselves, only 25 develop chemical weapons.
But Ghouta is a game-changer. Civilians were gassed in a city, under the eye of the media, with UN investigators nearby. Everyone knows. And if nothing is done, chemical weapons will be increasingly common. Because, if before it was assumed rivals would surrender from lack of territory or resources, unable to fight, that’s not how Vietnam worked, or Iraq or Afghanistan; nor Syria in 2014. In the new wars, dominance is won through displacing populations through fear. And for this, chemical weapons are particularly effective.
With Russia giving Syria diplomatic support, without concern for human rights, or casualties, or war crimes, and the US adamant it will not be dragged in, then if war is won by driving out enemy populations through fear, would not the most logical choice for Assad be to use chemical weapons, brazenly, openly, to crush their morale and show no one will save them. They will all die. Perhaps this is why Assad besieges his own cities. 150,000 people in Ghouta are besieged. There, hospitals operate under battery-powered lights. Smallpox, typhoid and tuberculosis have reemerged. In 2012, a defected Syrian ambassador, Nawaf Fares, told BBC, “I have absolute conviction that if the circle of the people of Syria becomes tighter on the regime, the regime will not hesitate to use chemical weapons.”
Few in the West want Assad toppled, lest the power vacuum be filled by Islamist, like ISIS or al-Qaeda or Boko Haram. Bin Laden launched 9/11 from Afghanistan, a fundamentalist haven, and a repeat in Syria is America’s nightmare. The alternative is Assad, to ignore his chlorine, his sarin; though it creates a consequence: chemical attacks work and may be increasingly common. Holding Assad accountable carries horrible risks, but is it necessary to prevent the escalation of something profoundly evil? Perhaps. Maybe the best solution is the one Obama suggested, then threw away: limited strikes, to degrade Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons. The threat pushed Syria to surrender its declared toxins, suggesting Assad feared America’s firepower would hamstring him more. Possibly there is no option that ends well. Surgical strikes, any strikes, could empower terrorists. And this time, after Iraq, we cannot delude ourselves that grateful Syrians will shower us with rose petals. Punishing Assad will lead to future dangers, it will cultivate anger, but the cost of ignoring chemical weapons is too high.
Jesse Weinberg is a PhD candidate at the University of Oklahoma and a former researcher on the Middle East for the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League.
Top Photo: Within Syria, Assad portrays himself as a warrior. In 2013, the Syrian government posted this image of him on Instagram to commemorate war with Israel. Its caption: “the armed forces have created Syrian history since independence.”