When you hear people shouting the words ‘gas’ or ‘chemicals’ — and you hear those shouts spreading among the people — that is when terror begins to take hold, especially among the children and the women. Your loved ones, your friends, you see them walking and then falling like leaves to the ground. It is a situation that cannot be described — birds began falling from their nests; then other animals, then humans. It was total annihilation. Whoever was able to walk out of the town, left on foot. Whoever had a car, left by car. But whoever had too many children to carry on their shoulders; they stayed in the town and succumbed to the gas.
These words were spoken by a resident of Halabja, in northern Iraq, who was interviewed by journalist Ahmad al-Zubaidi following the gas attack carried out by Saddam Hussein’s regime in the closing days of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988. Around 4,000 Kurds, almost all civilians, were killed by shells launched by the Iraqi military which contained mustard gas, Hydrogen Cyanide, and most infamously Sarin.
Of the multitude of weapons fabricated during the twentieth century, few are as viscerally appalling as C4H10FO2P, more commonly known as Sarin gas. A nerve agent, Sarin seeps into the victim’s skin, mouth and eyes causing them to experience first acute pain and nausea followed by vomiting, convulsions, blindness, and finally paralysis. A single pinhead of the agent, which was first fabricated in Germany in 1938, is enough to kill a grown man in minutes.
The residents of Halabja were not the first or last victims of the gas: In 1995, cultists released Sarin-laced capsules onto the Tokyo metro, killing 13 and injuring over 6,000. In 2004 in Iraq, insurgents unsuccessfully attempted to detonate IED’s containing the gas near a U.S. convoy. And according to the State Department, on August 21, outside of Damascus, Syrian dictator Bashir Al-Assad’s army fired rockets containing Sarin at civilians, killing anywhere from 300 to 1,500, mostly civilians.
When details of the Halabja attack were leaked to the public in 1989, the initial Western response was muted. The State Department suggested that the attacks had been aimed at Iranian soldiers, while the British Commonwealth and Foreign Office released a statement which read, in part,
We believe it better to maintain a dialogue with others if we want to influence their actions. Punitive measures such as unilateral sanctions would not be effective in changing Iraq’s behavior over chemical weapons, and would damage British interests to no avail.
It was only a decade and a half later, when war against Saddam’s was again on the table, that Halabja began to be discussed by the Bush administration. (Although a second Sarin attack the same year, carried out with the endorsement of U.S. intelligence against Iranian troops occupying the Al-Faw peninsula, was not remarked upon.) In contrast, the response of President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry to the recent attack has been swift. At a press conference this week, while urging military action against the Assad regime, the president invoked reports that many of the dead were children:
Here is my question to every member of Congress and every member of the global community-what message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?
It is a potent question, although, like most political rhetoric, it glances over the nuances of the current situation—one which could hardly be more chaotic. If the August 21 attack was indeed a Sarin gassing perpetrated by the Syrian Army, then it would certainly represent an escalation in the ongoing civil war. Although the Syrian government has denied it, and both Iran and Russia have suggested it was the rebels, and not Assad’s forces who were behind the attack, there is a great deal of evidence to the contrary. Although U.N. inspectors were denied access to the site of the attack, video footage and eyewitness accounts have largely corroborated the story that chemical weapons were used in the suburbs of Damascus. Assad belongs to the same Ba’athist movement as Hussein, and his military has been suspected of stockpiling Sarin and other nerve agents for decades. He certainly would have no moral objection to using such weapons against civilians, although why he would risk international retribution with such a flagrant attack remains unclear.
Indeed, it is difficult to gauge the motives of most parties involved. With friction between different groups of rebels, ranging from the relatively West-friendly Free Syrian Army to the Islamist Al-Nusra front, as well as support from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, Assad seems to be winning the war, trapping the rebels in a stalemate which they are ill-prepared for. Decisive victories, like the recapture of the rebel stronghold al-Qusayr earlier this summer, have bolstered the regime’s precarious position.
Intervention by the United States and France could change that, of course. As was the case in Libya, government forces are heavily dependent on airpower to pin down rebel soldiers and civilians. If deprived of this advantage, Assad could end up much like his Libyan counterpart, Quaddafi. But unlike Mr. Quaddafi, Bashir Al-Assad has his own allies, in Moscow and Tehran. And therein lies the crux of the issue, why the President has decided to finally take action now, after years of nothing but rhetoric.
President Obama is not advocating an attack on Syria because of the human cost of the gas attack, nor should he—in a war which has claimed over 100,000 lives over several years, it would be bizarre to differentiate between 1,000 who were poisoned and tens of thousands who were gunned down or blown up. If we can stomach decades of North Korea systematically starving its citizens and advocating war, or our good ally Saudi Arabia stoning adulterers and gunning down protesters in Bahrain, then there is no reason the U.S. should suddenly decide that using nerve agents three years into a brutal civil war crosses a moral “red line”, however disturbing the details may be.
The real focus of the President’s policy is not Syria—it is Iran. The Islamic Republic’s nuclear program remains the glowing, enriched elephant in the room. Despite economic sanctions, and a less belligerent figurehead in the person of Hassan Rouhani, Iran continues to pursue its nuclear program. The Ayatollah evidently does not fear either implicit U.S. threats or very explicit Israeli ones—he is determined to have a nuclear deterrent. By attacking Syria, over the use of WMD’s, President Obama hopes to send a message to Iran (and Putin’s Russia, as well) that, despite the U.S. drawdown in the region, he remains committed to preventing the use of unconventional weapons, even as conventional ones continue to rain down death every day. Whether the rest of the country—or Congress—shares the President’s commitment is an open question.
It seems like chemical weapons elicit a particular revulsion in people. The vivid memories of their use in the trenches of the first World War prompted those in power to place particularly comprehensive bans on them. With the unsurprising exception of the Third Reich, the nations of the world largely kept by this ban, preferring to kill their enemies with dynamite, lead and napalm—far more socially accepted forms of mass murder. If the reports from the outskirts of Damascus are true, then it seems Bashir Al-Assad has decided that he has nothing left to lose. Neither, it would seem, do the people of Syria.