The Chemical Questions: Six key concerns that need to be addressed regarding alleged use of Sarin in Syria and the American response
By Zulfiqar Husayni
- Does Assad even have any chemical weapons? Didn’t he give them up in 2015?
In 2013, after a chemical weapons attack on the Ghouta district, Assad called a ceasefire and invited UN inspectors to the area. Their report verified that Sarin was used but had insufficient evidence to point the finger of blame at any one side. Instead it stated that whoever committed the attack had access to the Syrian Army’s chemical weapons stockpile. Given that the army was as split as the rest of the country, such weapons could easily have fallen into opposition hands. Indeed, Carla Del Ponte, a high-ranking UN official and former war crimes prosecutor made precisely this claim .
After the attacks, Assad committed to joining the Chemical Weapons Convention and it was confirmed by Russia in 2014 that all known chemical weapon stockpiles had been destroyed.
It is possible of course that small stashes were hidden away, but if so why would Assad reveal them except in the direst need? WMD deterrence works like this: a country that has large amounts of weapons of mass destruction want to announce them to the world – as North Korea does – the aim is to dissuade others from attacking it by clearly signalling how expensive an attack would be. A country with small amounts of WMD will want to keep them secret because their stockpiles are an invitation to attack but not sufficient to deter. For Assad to use his small remaining stockpile to do nothing more than tell the world he has it goes against all the logic of war.
- What motive could Assad have for using chemical weapons against civilians in a war he is winning?
This is the critical question and one that has the pro-intervention lobby tying itself in knots. Their assertion is that Barak Obama’s failure to “draw a red line” (i.e. invade or engage in mass bombing of Syrian targets in the wake of previous chemical attack claims) has emboldened Assad, giving him a sense of impunity. This, combined with his essentially evil nature (inherited from his father Hafez, who gassed a Muslim Brotherhood uprising in the town of Hama in 1982) has led him to deploy the nerve agent as a show of force.
So we are expected to believe that having narrowly averted international intervention in 2013 by giving up his chemical weapons, Assad would suddenly and for no military purpose draw attention to his secret stash of WMD at just the time when the world was beginning to accept that he should be allowed to stay in power. Further, we are asked to believe that his only reason for squandering the marginal and hard won legitimacy he has gained, as the only viable power in Syria was to… demonstrate that he is the only viable power in Syria.
The argument quickly becomes circular: Bashar Al-Assad used the chemical weapons because he is a monster and he is a monster because he used the chemical weapons, he felt able to do it because he feels a sense of impunity and his aim in doing so was to demonstrate that he feels a sense of impunity.
- What was the weapon used against Syrian civilians on 4th April and it classified as a chemical weapon under the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention?
Because there has been no investigation, we must rely on expert analysis of what appears to be camera-phone footage of the attack. Such footage must in itself be treated with caution, the Syrian war has been rife with sophisticated propaganda and until it has been possible to verify it through assessments on the ground, all we know is that we see video of people exhibiting symptoms similar to those caused by Sarin gas. We cannot be certain where and when the video was taken and even if these uncertainties are cleared up, there is no guarantee that Sarin was used.
Terrorism expert Michael Burleigh writes in Britain’s Daily Mail that chlorine gas produces similar symptoms to Sarin. He also cites accounts of Medcins Sans Frontiers staff, some of whom believe that chlorine gas was used. Although use of chlorine as a weapon is banned, it is not, in itself, classed as a banned substance under the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention. Whilst this is hardly an exoneration of the Syrian regime, it casts doubt on the idea that a banned weapon of mass destruction was used in the attack. As Burleigh concludes: “until impartial experts establish whether, and what, chemical weapons were involved, reliance on the observations of doctors is insufficient.”
One doctor whose testimony certainly cannot be relied on is British-born Shajul Islam whose video of himself treating the victims was one of the first to come out after the attack and which has shaped much of the subsequent narrative. According several British newspapers, Islam was tried for kidnapping two journalists in Syria. The trial collapsed due to the fact that the journalists in question were unable to give evidence at his trial.
- If such a weapon was used, can we prove that it was Assad’s forces that used them?
The simple answer to this is no, at least not without an investigative team to inspect the damage and crucially, verify the claims coming us, supposedly from eyewitnesses but mediated through opposition sources who have an obvious interest in pointing the finger of blame towards Assad.
The US government has released what it claims was the flight path of the jets which allegedly dropped the weapons, but any judge in the land would dismiss this as the circumstantial evidence that it is. If we are to engage in legitimate military action – rather than just a petulant demonstration that we have bombs too – this is far from a technicality, it is critically important that we are not deploying the most awesome military machine in the history of mankind on the basis of unverified claims.
- What do the strikes accomplish?
In terms of foreign policy, the strikes accomplish very little. Allies like Saudi Arabia and Turkey will be relieved that despite his anti-interventionist campaign promises, it will be business as usual under President Trump; the Russians, until recently so hopeful of détente, are furious and Assad himself has been given good reason to believe that he cannot come to an accommodation with the West. He has once again been forced into a corner and shown that his only strength and his only legitimacy comes from military strength and that any victory for his regime(and let us be clear that whether it comes in months or years, there is no other likely outcome) must be total and crushing.
Where the strikes have been massively successful, however, is in distracting from President Trump’s domestic woes. He has forced through a Supreme Court appointment using the nuclear option; his healthcare debacle must go down as one of the all-time greatest American political disasters the vicious feud between his advisors Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner has spilled out onto the front pages and of course the Russian election tampering story gets uglier with every turn.
This is the most incompetent and chaotic White House in living memory; it almost had no option but to draw attention away with the drama and spectacle of a cruise missile sortie.
- Why has the attack been roundly supported on both sides?
Perhaps the most distressing aspect of the response at home has been the wave of enthusiasm from liberals for both this intervention and intervention more broadly. Until just a few days ago, President Trump was reviled by every liberal in America, suddenly he is being embraced as a great humanitarian and courageous leader because he has fired some missiles. This is absurd and should, in itself, point to the greater absurdity inherent in such interventions.
It is shocking that after so many failures over so many years, there is still a substantial majority amongst the media, analysts and in the political world who see military force as the first and not the last resort and intervention in the affairs of a sovereign nation as a right.
Liberal interventionism is just interventionism. It doesn’t matter if the end goal is liberty or if it is profit; it doesn’t matter if the motivation is access to oil or ending the suffering of civilians. It has been tried, tried and tried again. Each time the results have been more catastrophic than the last.