Just days after U.N. inspectors arrived in Syria to investigate the possible use of chemical weapons, opposition activists allege that as many as 650 people have been killed in a poison gas attack. Two anti-Assad opposition groups say that a large rocket attack in Damascus on Wednesday morning was actually a chemical weapons attack launched by the regime. If the reports are confirmed, it could also be one of the deadliest single incidents of the entire war. Syria’s state media agency denied the claims.
There are wildly differing reports on the casualties — from “dozens” to 213 to over 650 (and now an unthinkable 1,300) — and still no formal confirmation on the cause of death, but witnesses and reporters on the ground confirm that some kind of attack took place in the Syrian capital and that children are among the dead. Reuters reports that photographers, including their own, have taken images and videos that “showed scores of bodies including of small children, laid out on the floor of a medical clinic with no visible signs of injuries.” (You can see several such images here, though you should be warned that they are very graphic and the origins are not fully confirmed.) A lack of obvious wounds would suggest that some kind of poisoning may the cause.
Reuters also quotes a nurse saying the victims “arrived with their pupils dilated, cold limbs and foam in their mouths,” which are typical symbols of gas attack victims.
Since the end of World War I, for the most part, civilized nations have shunned the use of chemical weapons, even as they developed ever more deadly agents.
Treaties prohibiting the use of gas warfare were signed in the aftermath of the Great War, and have, for the most part, been followed, not so much because of the paper the treaties were written on, but because the danger of being the first to use chemical weapons had to be balanced against being the last to have chemical weapons used against you.
During World War II, neither the Axis nor the Allies used chemical warfare, despite extensive preparations to do so, largely because of the concept of Mutual Assured Destruction, even though MAD would not become a formal strategic concept for another 20 years, during the nuclear era of the Cold War.
And indeed, that same concept of MAD held sway through the bi-polar world of the Cold War era, with some notable exceptions. The most notorious uses of chemical warfare are probably those associated with the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. While the Iran-Iraq war wasn’t exactly a proxy war between the superpowers, most observers would argue that the Soviet Union saw it as useful for the tensions in the oil-rich region to be high, and serve as a distraction to the US. But neither superpower was willing to intervene when the combatants resorted to battlefield use of chemical weapons.
The unwillingness to use chemical weapons has never been altruistic, but rather a fear of repercussions. The tacit (and sometimes explicit) policy was that the escalation of chemical warfare would bring swift, incredibly violent retribution.
But that’s simply not the case today, especially in a civil war such as Syria. The quandary facing the US and most of the West in Syria is that while Assad is aligned with Iran, and a rather implacable foe of us, the rebel forces are increasingly composed of Islamist, Al Qeda types who are even more committed in their hatred of the West. Would any intervention by the US or other Western powers in any way advance our own interests? The vast majority of the US polity may recoil in horror at the death of hundreds, or even thousands of Syrian civilians, but after well over a decade of war in the Islamic world, those same US voters have little stomach for risking Americans in a fight that has no possible upside for us.
President Obama has stated that the use of chemical weapons is a bright red line that the combatants in Syria cross at their peril. But is it?
And if we don’t respond, have we shown ourselves weak, and invited future, more ghastly uses of chemical weapons, either in civil wars, or upon our own future battlefields, or worse, a terror attack against America?