By Juan Cole
The odd discourse in Washington around President Barack Obama’s determination to bomb Syria over the country’s use of chemical weapons assumes a moral superiority on the part of the United States and its allies on this issue that can only astonish anyone who knows the history. At the same time, the most propagandistic allegations are being made about Iran. The creation of a fetish around some sorts of weapons (i.e., chemical ones) takes the focus off others that are just as deadly to innocents. The U.S. has had a checkered history in the use of unconventional arms, and is still among the most dedicated to retaining the ability to make, stockpile and use weapons that indiscriminately kill innocent noncombatants.
The British government as recently as 2012 licensed its firms to sell chemical agents that can be used as poison gas precursors to the Baath government of Syria. Although critics of Prime Minister David Cameron used phrases such as “astonishingly lax” to describe British government policy in this regard, it seems clear that Western governments value profits over morality when it comes to providing such material to seedy dictatorships. Most of Syria’s chemical weapons production technology came from “large chemical brokerage houses in Holland, Switzerland, France, Austria and Germany,” according to security information provider GlobalSecurity.org. Russia may have played a later role, though I find Western charges of Iranian involvement unlikely for reasons I’ll get to later.
Nor are U.S. hands clean with regard to chemical weapons use by allies. In the Iraq-Iran War of 1980-1988, the Baath regime of Saddam Hussein deployed chemical weapons against Iranian troops at the front. Iran had a three-to-one manpower advantage over Iraq, and Hussein sought to level the playing field with gas. Notoriously, his regime also deployed poison gas against separatist Iraqi Kurds, whom he accused of allying with the enemy, Iran, during wartime. As I showed in the early days of Truthdig, the Reagan administration knew about the chemical weapons use. It nevertheless sought an alliance with the Iraqi government via Donald Rumsfeld, then-Reagan’s special envoy to the Middle East. High administration officials deflected Iran’s complaint against Iraq at the United Nations Security Council. The United States did not just ignore Iraqi use of gas. It actively protected Baghdad from international sanctions for it. At the same time, the Reagan administration licensed U.S. firms to provide deadly agents such as anthrax to Saddam Hussein. At the very least, President Obama should acknowledge the Reagan administration’s actions and apologize for them to the people of Iran (where many veterans still suffer from burned lungs) before he strikes an outraged pose toward Syria and Russia. The U.S. has committed to destroying its own once-extensive arsenal of chemical weapons, but 10 percent remain and their final disposal keeps slipping into the next decade.
That Iran suffered so badly from U.S.-backed Iraqi chemical weapons use makes it especially weird that American pundits and politicians should be citing a need to deter Iran by bombing Syria. The Iranian political elite refused to deploy chemical weapons against Iraq, and its religious leader, Ali Khamenei, has condemned making, stockpiling and using weapons that kill innocent noncombatants, including nuclear arms. The U.S. and Israeli case that Iran has a militarized nuclear weapons program that seeks a warhead has never been backed by any convincing proof, and so far resembles their similar case against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which was groundless. That both countries have big nuclear weapons stockpiles of their own also makes their demand that Iran be sanctioned hypocritical at the least.
Although he later had to walk it back, former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani deplored the Syrian government’s use of gas against its own people, and Tehran-watchers are convinced that the Baath army’s action has provoked a heated debate within the closed Iranian elite.
Current Iranian President Hasan Rouhani has condemned all chemical weapons use. Because Tehran backs the Syrian Baath government, it has publicly taken the same position as Russia, that the rebels gassed themselves. That allegation is not plausible, and it is clear that even some high ranking Iranian political figures have difficulty saying it with a straight face.
Short of weapons of mass destruction, the United States has a rather sick attachment to land mines and cluster munitions. Washington used land mines in World War II, and for decades after civilians in countries such as Tunisia were still being killed by them on occasion. In Cambodia and Laos, bomb disposal teams continue the tedious and deadly work of removing munitions dropped during the Vietnam War some 40 years prior. The United States placed tens of thousands of land mines between North and South Korea, though control of them has now been given to Seoul. U.S. allies in Afghanistan also laid thousands of land mines, and years later Afghans were still losing their feet to them. The 2001 Iranian film “Kandahar” showed a gaggle of Afghans hopping on one foot. The U.S. has refused to sign the international convention against land mines, and insists that it now has “non-persistent” land mines that can be deployed and then remotely destroyed. This theory of civilian-safe land mines remains untested and seems implausible on the face of it.
The U.S. makes, stockpiles and sells cluster munitions, which deploy thousands of “bomblets.” These weapons sometimes do not explode, and form a persistent danger to civilian populations in the aftermath. They are inevitably indiscriminate in their impact on noncombatants and have no place in contemporary warfare. Often children will pick them up and play with them, with fatal results. Some 83 countries have banned them, and 31 are currently suffering from the aftereffects of their use. As the 2006 Lebanon War was winding down, the Israeli military used American-supplied cluster munitions on southern Lebanon, dropping an estimated 4 million bomblets. This action was certainly a war crime, since the U.N. Security Council had already called for a cease-fire, which everyone knew would end the war shortly. The bombs had no conceivable military use. They were intended to make it dangerous for Shiite farmers to return to their homes just north of Israel. That is, they were aimed at the civilian population. Some 40 percent of the bomblets failed to explode immediately.
In the year after the war ended, some 200 Lebanese noncombatants were killed by Israeli cluster bombs in south Lebanon. The United States imposed no penalties on Israel for this action, despite its own laws that forbid indiscriminate use of U.S.-supplied cluster bombs. Just this summer, the U.S. announced the sale of $630 million worth of cluster munitions to Saudi Arabia. That country and Israel are among the most vigorous proponents of an attack on Syria because of its deployment of a weapon that indiscriminately killed noncombatants. They have also condemned Damascus for using cluster munitions.
I am not arguing that because the United States and its allies have indiscriminately killed large numbers of innocent noncombatants in the past, the Syrian government should be held harmless for its own gas attack at Ghouta, which killed hundreds of innocent civilians. Two wrongs never make a right. I am arguing that the United States is in no moral or legal position to play the Lone Ranger here. The first steps Washington should take are to acknowledge its own implication in such atrocities and to finish destroying its chemical stockpiles and join the ban on land mines and cluster bombs.
Now that we’re in the 21st century, moreover, it is time to cease using the supposedly macho language of violence in response to political challenges. Tossing a couple of Tomahawk cruise missiles on a few government facilities in Damascus is not going to deter the Syrian government from using chemical weapons, and it will not affect the course of the war. Sonni Efron, a former State Department official and now a senior government fellow at Human Rights First, has argued that the United States and Europe could have a much more effective impact by announcing that in response to the Baath provocation they were going to close the loopholes that allow Syrian banks to continue to interface with world financial institutions. This strategy would involve threatening third-party sanctions on Russian banks that provide Damascus with a financial backdoor. A united U.S.-EU push on this front would be far more consequential for the Syrian government than a limited military strike.
Indeed, the Syrian regime will almost certainly welcome the cruise missiles. In the aftermath, Syria can portray itself as a hero of Arab nationalism, standing up to a bullying, imperialist West. Pro-regime demonstrations are already being planned in Iraq, Egypt and Tunisia. Domestically, President Bashar al-Assad portrays his foes as al-Qaida cadres trained and paid for by Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United States. (Although there are al-Qaida affiliates among the rebels, the vast majority of the demonstrators and rebels are ordinary Syrians tired of the regime’s tyranny and economic stagnation). Assad will be in a better position to make this argument after the Tomahawks land, and some Syrians who have been on the fence may well declare for the regime for nationalist reasons. In 1998, then-President Bill Clinton fired cruise missiles at the Sudan of President Omar al-Bashir. If you don’t know, do a quick Google search for whom the sitting president of the Sudan is now. Bombs are seldom the answer to geopolitical problems.
AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais