Yesterday’s reportage from the battlefront brought the terrible news that scores of men, women, and children had died in a suspected chemical attack by Assad’s forces on the outskirts of Damascus. According to the UK based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights which has extensive contacts in Syria, Assad’s troops bombarded rebel areas to the east and west of Damascus since the morning of August 21. The death toll is estimated anywhere between 100 to 1,000. The Syrian government, not unexpectedly, denied using poison gas. A Syrian activist however claimed that many civilians had died in their homes which is consistent with the use of chemical weapons.
The horrors inflicted on hapless soldiers by gas attacks during World War I are poignantly catalogued by the likes of British poet Wilfred Owen, the German writer Eric Maria Remarque, and many others. The League of Nations and later the United Nations in more detail outlawed the use of chemical weapons in war. The majority of nations comprising the United Nations are signatories to these conventions, but for some states it is one thing to adhere to an international treaty and another thing to abide by it. The Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein killed thousands of Kurds and Iranians in the 1980’s with chemical weapons. These were used by both Iraq and Iran during their eight year war (1980-1988) but the use by Saddam at Halabja, northern Iraq against both the Kurds and the Iranians was the most notorious example of an atrocity committed through chemical weapons. There was a pallid response by the international community to Saddam’s action. Reasons of realpolitik no doubt were in play for the Western countries as Saddam was diminishing the threat of the so-called Islamic revolution in Iran by weakening the mullahs in Tehran. In hindsight, this was an expedient move by the United Nations and the international community which should have come down much harder on Saddam for this glaring departure from the accepted norms concerning chemical warfare.
It had been reported that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons before also, albeit in smaller quantities against its opponents during the civil war. President Obama, exactly at this time last year, had warned Assad that the use of chemical weapons would cross a red line and invite a U.S. response. When subsequently one such attack was alleged to have taken place in Syria, the U.S. did not take any action on the grounds that the alleged use of chemical weapons had not been verified. To some, at least in the international community, Obama’s tergiversation was another example of leading from behind.
The pendulum has swung toward Assad in the civil war. The rebels are disunited and are therefore unable to mount a sustained and credible assault on Assad’s forces. There are reports of armed clashes between them. On the other hand, Assad has enjoyed the steadfast military and financial support of Russia, Iran, and Hizbullah which has permitted him to turn the tables on the rebels. The U.S. and the western countries have been calling upon Assad to step down. He has ignored these demands. Western support to the rebels has been muted, if not feeble, reportedly only some small arms and some humanitarian aid has been sent to them so far. Calls for more robust action such as establishing a no fly zone over Syria or at least taking the necessary measures to make the Syrian airfields inoperable have not been acted upon. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey have backed the rebels with arms and money but this assistance pales in front of the help provided to Assad by his allies.
Will this latest atrocity prove a game-changer, permitting the U.S. and NATO to mount a sustained attack against a regime that appears to have cast all caution to the winds? That is a million dollar question. The statement of the President of the UN Security Council (who is from Argentina) is couched in the anodyne language of the UN. She said, “I can say there is a strong concern among council members about the allegations and a general sense that there must be clarity on what happened, and that the situation has to be followed carefully. All council members agreed that any use of chemical weapons, by any side under any circumstances, is a violation of international law.” Such wishy-washy statements are a call for inaction rather than conveying clearly to the Assad regime and its backers that the use of chemical weapons will invite a UN response. This could include Security Council action under Chapter VII of the UN Charter which authorizes the use of force. Even if Russia and China veto such action, the international community can deploy the NATO mechanism against Assad, as was done to dislodge the two despicable tyrants Milosevic and Gaddaffi.