Chemical Weapons in Syria – Some Thoughts

            I should admit at the start—I think war is never an effective way to resolve conflicts (World war II might be an exception).  But even if you don’t agree with that, I think there are strong grounds for Congress to reject the use of force against the Assad government on the grounds that they have used chemical weapons (CW).  I hope you’ll find the following points helpful.         

            I draw a lot on the following sources.

 1) Gareth Porter “In ruch to strike Syria, US tried to derail UN Probe” InterPress Service 8/28/2013.

 2) William R.Polk, e-mail on Syria   8/30/2013  (I  don’t have the exact title—I got it from a colleague and it may be accessible   Polk was, quite a member of the US State Dept. Policy Planning Staff under President Kennedy, and has written several books on the Middle East and other issues. In addition to the topics I mention below, Polk’s long e-mail summarizes some history of the use of chemical weapons during and since World War I)


To ordinary citizens, a lot is very unclear. 

            The first UN inspection was very incomplete,  because the Asssad government couldn’t guarantee the inspectors’ safety (Polk pp.2-4). 

            Porter reports that US Secretary of State Kerry “intervened with [the] UN Secretary-General…to call off the investigation, [and] dismissed the UN investigation as coming too late to obtain valid evidence on the attack that Syrian opposition sources claimed killed as many as 1,300 people…An unnamed ‘senior official’ told the Washington Post that the evidence had been ‘significantly corrupted by the regime’s shelling of the area.” But, Porter  continues, a US State Dept. spokeswoman 
“did not explain how the Syrian agreement to a ceasefire and unimpeded access [for UN inspectors] to the area could represent a continuation of ‘shelling and destroying evidence’ “.  I agree with Porter’s comment that the US’s reversal of its previous support for the UN investigation “suggests that the administration sees the UN as hindering its plans for an attack.”

            The NY Times (8/27 article by Ben Hubbard) reported that “near the attack sites, activists found rockets that appeared to have been homemade and suspected they delivered the gas” (Polk p.3).

            Independent reports by the Israeli equivalent of the US National Security Agency are to be, in my view, treated with caution, given that Israel has in the past fabricated such intelligence reports (see brief details in Polk p.4)

            Polk concludes that the request by UN Secretary-General Ban for more time to do inspections “appears to be prudent”..  Porter quotes various chemical weapons (CW) experts as saying that allegations of such weapons’ use can be proved or disproved in a few days. Polk also says (p.2–quoting a UN spokesperson) Sarin gas can be detected up to months after its use. 



1.The Assad government.  Polk points out the following.

a) rather than attacking a disputed area with chemical weapons, it would have made more military sense for the Assad government would have to attack an area under rebel control. 

b) a regime using chemical weapons would likely either be making “a last-ditch stand” or seeking a “knockout blow”.    To the contrary, there is plenty of evidence that while not totally victorious, the Assad regime was gaining militarily in recent months (Polk p.4) 

c)that the regime has generally held back use of regular troops and instead used paramilitary groups and air attacks.   Polk seems to imply that a CW attack would have constituted a major change of strategy.

             So Polk concludes (p.5) that for the Assad regime  the advantages of CW use would outweigh the costs.

2.Rebels?  Polk points out that they are a very disparate and ill-coordinated set of groups (he also provides considerable details on who they are).Polk points out (p.5) that “given the propensity [in the US and elsewhere] to believe everything evil about the Assad regime, …a consensus, at least in America, has been achieved…that it must be complicit.”  Polk mentions the following points that back the conclusion that the rebels had more to gain than to lose from using CW.

a) the rebels needed much more outside aid than they’ve got so far, to defeat the regime, and “must have pondered that situation”  .

b) There is evidence from Wikileaks that US military and intelligence leaders thought that in the Libya case in 2011,  “don’t believe air intervention would happen unless there was enough media attention on a massacre.” 

            I personally wonder if US leaders are now thinking similar thoughts about Syria.  Also the record of US lies about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2002-3—plus the above-mentioned comment about Libya—makes me wonder about the US government’s motives and possible secret communications between the US and rebel groups.


III.THE SYRIAN UPRSING—A LITTLE BIT OF CONTEXT.  Polk mentions (on pp.7-8) that “climate change came to Syria with a vengeance. Drought devastated the country from 2006 to 2011…Outside observers…estimated that between 2 and 3 million out of Syria’s 10 million rural inhabitants were reduced to extreme poverty.”  Syria asked the US for economic aid in 2008 but was rebuffed.  Polk continues, “tens of thousands of frightened, angry, hungry and impoverished former farmers…constituted a ‘tinder’ that was ready to catch fire.”


IV.WHAT IF THE U S BOMBED SYRIA?  Let’s assume the US goal is a limited one, of degrading Syria’s CW command communication and supply capabilities.   Then I think we must all ask some searching “what next?”  questions, such as:

·      what about effects, even if US bombing is limited, on civilians in Syria in terms of both their casualties and their support f or the regime? 

·      What about retaliation by the Assad regime?

·      What about other players getting involved militarily, e.g. Hezbollah, Iran? 

·      What about a wider regional war? 

·      Will there be US “mission creep” ?  e.g. the US following up bombing of non-CW weapons storage sites, bases and barracks—not to mention civilian housing, businesses, schools etc. which are likely to be collateral damage??  Could this lead to a quagmire similar to Vietnam and Iraq?


V.WHAT ABOUT NON-MILITARY FOREIGN INTERVENTION?  I realize the whole situation is complicated and intractable, and there is no good solution.  But I’m also very concerned that if the US starts limited bombing, the momentum towards further escalation will be very hard to stop.

            I also think the following have a reasonable chance of success, if pursued energetically, creatively and persistently.

a)             for the short term, allow the UN CW inspection team to finish its work, and make conditions as safe as possible for this.

b)            for the longer term, convene an international conference to negotiate about all the parties’ grievances.  This would involve not only the Assad government and rebel groups; but also other governments with a stake in the conflict, and with leverage over Assad and rebel groups. This would build on the current efforts to convene a conference in Geneva.

c)             Start prosecution of President Assad and other Syrian leaders for alleged war crimes, through the International Criminal Court. This has, I think, a reasonable chance of being agreed to by major governments—a better chance than an agreed resolution by the UN Security Council, given the likelihood of a Russian veto of any US proposal.