Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Syria’s Chemical War

The videos are heart-wrenching to watch: a young boy, screaming and crying with other children in the street while bodies lie around them. A young man convulses uncontrollably, while others are sprawled in the halls of what appears to be an overwhelmed medical clinic; some still shake and show signs of life, others are clearly dead. In what has become a hallmark of videos of massacres in Syria, makeshift morgues lined with scores of corpses leave no doubt that a massive attack has taken place. The surviving victims display many of the hallmark symptoms of sarin gas exposure: convulsions, foaming at the mouth, and dilated pupils, and the scale of the casualties only add weight to this conjecture.

Videos of the attack today in the Ghouta region east of Damascus killing hundreds of civilians will test the United States’ ability to stay out of the two-year-old civil war in Syria. Opposition leaders have already pointed their fingers at beleaguered president and war criminal Bashar al-Asad. US Pres. Barack Obama has previously listed chemical attacks as a “red line” that, if crossed, would automatically trigger American intervention. Yet despite confirming that it had “conclusive evidence” of such an attack in June, the government has yet to deliver the promised military aid to rebel groups. The amount of footage from today’s alleged attack makes it difficult to dispute that something horrific has taken place in Ghouta, yet there is little reason to believe a Western response will go much further than rhetoric and promises of aid.

The Asad regime denies that such an attack took place – and if it did, the government insists that it was at the hands of the opposition. There is, for once, good reason to be suspicious of the attack: it took place just a few miles from where the United Nations chemical weapons inspection team is staying in Damascus, after having arrived in Syria on Sunday. It seems counterintuitive that Asad would order an attack on a location that can be so easily and immediately accessed by UN inspectors, especially so soon after their arrival. The Asad regime has also been winning important battles using conventional methods, and there seems to be no good strategic reason that it would shift tactics now. In the chemical weapons attacks earlier this summer, evidence pointed not only to the regime’s use of sarin, but also to likely rebel use against government forces. Both groups claim the other is trying to frame them, and both may be right. If this is the case in Ghouta, then rebel groups murdered hundreds of their own supporters in order to gain Western support in the seemingly never-ending war against Asad, an unthinkable action.

A man lays an infant to rest among scores of victims. Courtesy AP.
Then again, the Asad regime could be growing increasingly confident that even if the UN team confirms the use of sarin, Western governments will still stay out of the Syrian civil war. Asad is many things, but an idiot isn’t one of them; he can sense as well as anyone else American and European reluctance to get involved in what would be a messy intervention, at a cost of billions of dollars to their already unbalanced budgets, not to mention on the side of rebels who may or may not end up supporting Western interests if they were to gain power. After all, the “conclusive evidence” of the sarin attacks earlier this summer cited by the American government has failed to provoke even the delivery of military aid, let alone boots on the ground.

The UN teams must answer questions of who is culpable for the attacks swiftly if there is to be hope of outside intervention. The conflict has already caused human suffering at a pace and scale that is unprecedented in regional history: over 100,000 have died in the civil war, and more than half of Syria’s population has been displaced both internally and abroad. The addition of chemical weapons will devastate an already shattered country, and lessen the likelihood of a peaceful transition when the dust clears. In the worst case scenario, chemical weapons alongside conventional warfare will render the country Syria a barren failed state, with stronghold controlled by warlords where massacres and human rights violations regularly take place. In the best, a timely intervention by outside forces to establish No-Fly Zones and safe havens for civilians while assisting the rebels to win militarily or force the regime to the negotiating table would at least leave Syria intact as a country. At this point in the conflict, that’s the best we can hope for, and that is nearly as depressing as the West’s lack of intervention for the last two years.


  1. It's not really unprecedented for the region. An example being Iran Iraq war took an estimated million lives.

  2. I think what Vicky was getting at with that classification is the magnitude of life lost AND displacements. In the only area of the MENA region with tiny countries all packed next to each other, refugee flows become a huge problem both for the sender country and the small, economically-weak receiving state(s).


  4. Hey anonymous, I was speaking to the number of displaced persons in the amount of time the war has gone on. If you take a look at the best analogies of Middle Eastern civil wars - Lebanon and Iraq - neither reached this magnitude in two years. In fact, the number of refugees alone stemming from Iraq 06-07 took twice as long to reach even the conservative estimates of the amount of Syrian refugees so far. Comparing Syria to the Iraq-Iran war is has little merit due to the interstate nature of the latter conflict.

  5. Not to mention the ten years over which it took place. Syria is on pace to reach that, however, which is astounding given its much smaller population.