Syria has no reason to use chemical weapons

World View: After the fiasco over Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, people around the world are rightly sceptical about claims of gas attacks

Share
Related Topics

'I am not afraid of anything except for God and poison gas," said an Iraqi officer who had fought in the Iran-Iraq war. "It's like a ghost. You have no defence against it." Though not a target of poison gas as a member of the army using it, he knew what it did to its victims.

Poison gas is a terrifying weapon. People are still dying in Iran from the effects of ingesting it a quarter of a century ago. It is one of the few weapons to be banned with partial success between its first use on a mass scale in the First World War and again by Saddam Hussein with even greater intensity against Iranians and Kurds in the 1980s.

It is right, therefore, that the alleged attack by the Syrian armed forces using chemical weapons against Saraqeb, a rebel-held town south-west of Aleppo on 29 April, should be carefully investigated. Doctors told the BBC's Ian Pannell that after an artillery bombardment they treated eight people with breathing problems, some of whom were vomiting and others who had constricted pupils.

One woman named Maryam Khatib later died. Her son Mohammed said: "It was a horrible, suffocating smell. You couldn't breathe at all. You'd feel like you were dead. I couldn't see anything for three or four days." Videos taken by local people show a helicopter dropping an object which appears to leave a trail of white vapour.

My experience of trying to report allegations of the deployment or use of such weapons over the years makes me cautious. Local people, including local doctors, are often sincerely convinced that some exotic weapon has been used against them, but they may not have past experience of either conventional or chemical attack.

For instance, doctors in Fallujah west of Baghdad suspect that non-conventional weapons must have been used against the city when it was stormed by US forces in November 2004. This might explain why so many malformed babies have been born since. It is impossible not to sympathise or suppress a feeling of rage over the sufferings of these people.

But, in blaming non-conventional weapons, people may underestimate what conventional munitions can do. In two weeks' fighting in Fallujah in 2004, US marine artillery units fired an average of 379 high-explosive 155mm shells a day into this small city. In addition, American jets flying overhead dropped 318 bombs and, together with helicopters, fired 391 rockets and missiles.

At the time, the Iraqi government of Iyad Allawi made the unlikely claim that just 200 buildings in Fallujah had been destroyed or damaged. A recently published book, The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq from George W Bush to Barack Obama by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor, from which the above figures are taken, reveals that the US marines "estimated that out of about 50,000 residences in the city, their operations had destroyed between 7,000 and 10,000, as well as 60 mosques". Perhaps this vastly excessive use of firepower is sufficient explanation for the appalling birth defects.

Allegations about the use of poison gas in Syria are made under the shadow of the notoriously false claims about Saddam Hussein's possession of weapons of mass destruction made to justify the Iraq war. Not surprisingly, this has made the public everywhere in the world dubious about stories about the possession or use of WMD being used to hoodwink them into supporting another war.

Of course, it is much against the interests of the Syrian government to use chemical weapons because this might provoke foreign military intervention. The Syrian army has no need to use it as a terror weapon because artillery, aerial bombardment and death squads are quite enough to frighten people into taking flight. There are already 1.5 million refugees outside the country.

Journalists bear a large measure of responsibility for giving credence to the stories peddled by Iraqi defectors, intelligence services and government about Saddam's WMD. In that case, it should have been self-evident that Iraqi defectors with juicy stories, and the opposition parties that promoted them, wanted to tempt the US into military action against Saddam. When it comes to chemical weapons, the Syrian opposition has similar and wholly understandable motives.

As for the credibility of Western government claims about WMD, it is worth recalling that they tolerated Saddam using poison gas on a mass scale. And they did more than just turn a blind eye. Joost Hiltermann, in his book A Poisonous Affair: America, Iraq and the Gassing of Halabja, writes that Western powers "sent repeated signals to Iraq that the regime could continue, and even escalate, chemical weapons use – which it did, with the Halabja attack [when thousands of Kurdish civilians died] as climax".

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Part-time Payroll Officer - Yorkshire - Professional Services

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful professional services firm is lo...

Recruitment Genius: Inside Sales Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Join a worldwide leader in data-driven marketi...

Recruitment Genius: Business Adviser - Sales and Marketing

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have a desire to help sm...

Recruitment Genius: 1st Line Support - Helpdesk Analyst

£18000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a customer focu...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A 'match' on Tinder  

Tinder may have inadvertently hit its self-destruct button by charging older users more

Nash Riggins
A Yorkshire Terrier waits to be judged during the Toy and Utility day of the Crufts dog show at the NEC in Birmingham  

There are no winners at Crufts. Dogs deserve better than to suffer and die for a 'beauty' pageant

Mimi Bekhechi
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn