Tag Archives: Chemical weapons

Even When The Chemical Weapons Are Gone, Violence And Despair Will Endure In Syria

A man bleeds in a northern Syria hospital after a ricochet bullet went through his foot. In a sense, he was lucky that the bullet did not stay in his body, which would have required surgery to remove. The hospital staff told us that until very recently th

Notwithstanding my remarkably horrendous coping with jet-lag, I have been following along — as best I can — with the developments in, around, and regarding Syria. From the hasty deal struck between Russia and the U.S. to account for Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles, to the draft resolution currently underway — and meant for an imminent Security Council resolution — involving diplomats from the U.S., Russia, China, France and Britain, it seems like the Obama Administration has been able to avert a war, save face, and reinforce everyone’s favourite international norm.

But while it’s a very good thing the international arena is acting in unison over Assad’s use of chemical weapons, it makes little difference to the everyday Syrian — either fighting in the streets, or fighting to stay alive at home. The sad truth is, we’re in the early stages of a bloodletting in Syria that began nearly 94 years ago when one Brit (Sir Mark Sykes) and one Frenchman (Francois George-Picot) divided the Arab provinces — once belonging to the Ottoman Empire — between their two respective colonial powers. The Sykes-Picot Agreement (also known as the Asia Minor Agreement) of 1920 created the modern state of Syria as we now know it. 20130918-110243.jpgNo one living in Syria ever got a say in how their “nation” was constructed — both in terms of territory, and control. Syria was purposefully devised to pit the Shiite Alawite minority against the Sunni Arab majority, with a side-show consisting of Christians, Druze and Kurds (who are also Sunnis). The same principle (divide-and-rule) applied to Iraq, except the minority Sunnis were used to control the majority Shiites. The reason colonial powers constructed these cynical divisions is simple: appeal to the minority, train them, arm them, and use them to control the majority out of fear, oppression, and obligation. It’s how empires are made, and how they endure.

It should come as no surprise, then, that from Syria and Iraq we had (and have) two of the most brutal, horrific dictators of all time: Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad. They were (and are) manifestations of colonial manipulation; the products of two nations created under the weight of permanent warfare, oppression, and sectarian strife.

“Why do we have a brutal civil war in Syria?” is not the question we should be asking. We know why it’s happening. It’s the same reason we still have one raging in Iraq. The brutal and callous decades long oppression of the majority groups in both states broke free, at long last, with the Arab Spring. For better or worse, and due in large part to the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003, the bloodletting in Syria has only just begun. It won’t stop if and when the chemical weapons stockpiles are accounted for. Nor will it stop if and when Bashar al-Assad is removed from power. Notice for example how when the United States argues that it’s justified in arming the opposition, they make it plain that they intend to only support “moderate” rebels. What about the not-so-moderate rebels? What role will they play in a post-Assad Syria? The quixotic idea that any two sides in this conflict could reach a political agreement, untainted by blood and terror, is as likely as it was in Iraq — where a decade of occupation and trillions of dollars could not prevent 100,000+ deaths.

Innocent men, women and children are being murdered at staggering rates. Some have been gassed, but 99% have lost their lives to the real “weapons of mass destruction”: small munitions. The images of dead children, and the videos of crying mothers holding their lost loved ones are unbearably heartbreaking. But for every image of an innocent life lost, there’s a video of a rebel, or one of Assad’s soldiers, reminding the world through barbaric savagery that this is a sectarian fight to the death.

And no UN Resolution is going to change that.

(Photo: Freedom House)


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A Better Solution


In the march towards a congressional vote on military action in Syria, one thing became glaringly obvious: the Obama administration had run out of options, and leverage. Maybe Secretary of State John Kerry sensed it and knew exactly what he was doing when he offered Syria an olive branch on Monday. The terms were (and are) simple: give up your chemical weapons stockpiles. We don’t know if this was a strategic plan by Kerry, but we do know that it was accepted almost immediately by both Russia and Syria, and has become a far better solution to this whole saga than anything previous.

Military intervention was meant for one (double) reason only: deter the future use of chemical weapons, and make sure Assad can’t do this again. It was never meant to remove Assad from power, or substantially help the opposition — that would be “war”, according to the Obama administration. What this proposal from Russia/Syria/Kerry does is put these weapons under the control of the international arena — presumably some UN agency — therefore accounting for both deterrence and Assad’s capability to use chemical weapons. If the Obama administration has been honest all along, and chemical weapons have been the first and only reason to act, it couldn’t have worked out better.

Many are pointing out that, “we’re relying on Russia and Syria to carry this out? Fat chance.” They have a point. Maybe the plan will never be realized; but it’s still a better option than military intervention. Russia’s acceptance of the plan means we may see a Security Council resolution affirming this proposal — something that’s been missing all along. Russia wont veto a resolution they themselves proposed, and I doubt China would want to be the lone state standing in the way of a diplomatic solution.

Another pessimistic — but possible — take is that Assad will never agree to go through with this. Having chemical weapons is not an insignificant thing in the grander scheme of regional power politics, where Assad has to keep one eye on neighbors like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel, who want nothing more than a regime change in Damascus.

But even if Assad balks, the entire paradigm of this conflict has been altered for the better. If the United States feels forced to attack Syria if the proposal fails, they’ll probably do so with a UN resolution and a greater number of allies behind them — both pipe dreams on September 8. And if by chance Assad agrees to whatever the proposal ends up being, the U.S. will have averted a war, saved face, and accounted for Syria’s chemical weapons. Win-win-win.

On September 8, the United States stood completely alone. Domestic support was horrendous; the backing of the Security Council (and NATO) was nonexistent; Russia was becoming more vocal and dangerous; Iran was threatening retribution; and even Britain pulled support.

How strange would it be, then, if a simple gaffe by John Kerry ended up preventing another Middle-East war?

(Photo: Chair. Joint Chiefs)

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Could This Kerry Gaffe Accidentally Save Us From War?


Earlier today, while pressed by the media for alternatives to military intervention, Secretary of State Kerry accidentally said this:

Asked if there were steps the Syrian president could take to avert an American-led attack, Mr. Kerry said, “Sure, he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week — turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow the full and total accounting.”

The State Department went into crisis mode almost immediately, making it clear the Secretary was being totally hypothetical:

“Secretary Kerry was making a rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied he used,” Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, said in an e-mail to reporters after Mr. Kerry’s comments. “His point was that this brutal dictator with a history of playing fast and loose with the facts cannot be trusted to turn over chemical weapons, otherwise he would have done so long ago. That’s why the world faces this moment.”

So, here’s an idea: if you’re the Secretary of State for the most powerful country in the world, and coincidentally, that country is mulling over the option of launching missiles at another country — don’t be fucking hypothetical. And for the love of Zeus, stop making Hillary Clinton look like the best SOS in history.

Anyway, the Russians immediately pounced on the offer:

“We don’t know whether Syria will agree with this, but if the establishment of international control over chemical weapons in the country will prevent attacks, then we will immediately begin work with Damascus,” Mr. Lavrov said at the Foreign Ministry. “And we call on the Syrian leadership to not only agree to setting the chemical weapons storage sites under international control, but also to their subsequent destruction.”

Holy crap. Kerry made a blunder, but that blunder may actually save us from another terrible Middle-East war. The Russian foreign minister’s support for this — actually quite sensible — plan of controlling Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities is a huge deal. It would protect the world from chemical weapons, therefore appeasing the President. It would also allow Russia to involve itself in a peaceful resolution to this whole mess, without the added degradation of looking like their doing the U.S.’s bidding. And apparently, the UN Sec. Gen is on board. As is Syria:

Wow. This could actually work given the U.S. accepts the terms of the deal and Russia actually lives up to it by helping collect all the chemical weapons in Syria. Two big ifs, but both are better than the alternative of war.

Keep gaffing, Mr. Secretary.

(Photo: Shino)


Gaining momentum.

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The Astonishingly Bad Arguments For Another Middle-East War


During the absurd Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing featuring three senior American officials — Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Chuck Hagel, Secretary of Defense, and John Kerry, Secretary of State — on why the Administration is justified in seeking Congressional approval for a strike against Syria, Kerry argued — with a straight face — that, “We don’t want to go to war in Syria either … The President is not asking you to go to war.”

Except that’s exactly what he’s asking. What is Kerry trying to argue? That just because the ships launching the missiles will be safe from retaliatory fire, it’s not war? Do we only label something as war when other nations kill Americans, not the other way around? I get that it’s kind of been an American thing to launch bombs against other countries, but have we become so jaded about the seriousness of war that we hesitate in labeling a massive bombing campaign against another state’s infrastructure (and people) as such?

The rest of the arguments for intervention — heard during the hearing — were just as illogical, and because I don’t want you to have to sit through the same excruciating video I did, here’s my summary:

    • Assad used chemical weapons, so we should make an example of him to deter other dictators from using chemical weapons in the future. BUT, we don’t mean we should punish him to the point of removing him from power, since Syria would “implode”. Instead, the punishment would focus ONLY on his chemical weapons capabilities. So, while our policy is that Assad has to go, we won’t force him to go. In that case, we’ll launch surgical air strikes directed at his chemical weapons capabilities, but not his ability to rule over Syria. And, we’ll just have to live with the fact that we’re NOT accounting for the other weapons that have killed 99% of Syrians during this conflict. Please vote yes.

Here’s the video (it’s really long):

While reinforcing some abstract international norm — that nations like the United States have willingly broken themselves by allowing Saddam’s regime to use chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War — sounds good as a talking point, it hardly motivates anyone to throw their support behind another war. According to The Independent, about 80% of the British people oppose exactly what Obama’s proposing. A Washington Post/ABC News poll found nearly 70% of Americans are likewise against it.

But even while Obama enjoys considerably less domestic support than Bush had with Iraq, as well as no British backing, and open condemnation from much of the UN for immediate intervention, his proposition for air-strikes against Syria may very well pass — by the skin of it’s teeth — in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Our only hope is that — as we saw in the House of Commons — the representatives of the American people will actually listen to their constituents, and save us all from yet another bloody, costly, unjustified and unpopular sectarian war in the Middle East.

(Photo: Chair. Joint Chiefs)

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Best Of The Week


I feel like in years to come, we’ll look back on events this week and wonder what we could have done, or argued, differently. I don’t know what will happen if we intervene in Syria. No one can know something like that. What I rely on instead is what little I know about regional history, past military interventions, sectarian violence and the great fallacy that is international law. But despite my furious objection to intervention, my heart breaks that so many innocent people have died — and will die. In a perfect world, we could act as guardian protectors for all those who cannot protect themselves. Provide justice from above. But this isn’t a comic book, and limited air strikes won’t make a bit of difference in the rate of death, turmoil and despair in that poor country. What will happen, I fear, is that we’ll be sucked into another war.

That means more death. More suffering. That’s what I’m opposing.

The most popular post of the week — unsurprisingly — was one of my many pieces on the subject: Syria Is Not Iraq. It’s Much Worse.

Other notable posts included Republicans Were Invited To Attend And Speak At MLK Ceremony. They Didn’t Show Up.; Did The Worst Chemical Weapons Attack In Decades Just Happen In Syria?; the hilariously contentious Starbucks Is Better Than Your Local Coffee Shop. Deal With It.; The Arguments For (And Against) Intervention In Syria; and finally, Boomers, Ye Be Warned: Millennials Are Not Anti-Politics.

More after the holiday.


(Photo: Chair. Joint Chiefs of Staff)

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We Used Sarin


Newly declassified documents from the CIA show that Saddam Hussein relied heavily on U.S. intelligence and satellite imagery when he used mustard and sarin gas against Iran during the long and bloody Iran-Iraq war:

“The Iraqis never told us that they intended to use nerve gas. They didn’t have to. We already knew,” [retired Air Force Col. Rick Francona] told Foreign Policy.

According to recently declassified CIA documents and interviews with former intelligence officials like Francona, the U.S. had firm evidence of Iraqi chemical attacks beginning in 1983. At the time, Iran was publicly alleging that illegal chemical attacks were carried out on its forces, and was building a case to present to the United Nations. But it lacked the evidence implicating Iraq, much of which was contained in top secret reports and memoranda sent to the most senior intelligence officials in the U.S. government. The CIA declined to comment for this story.

The disclosure is timely, considering the United States is set to launch a military strike against another dictator who probably definitely used chemical weapons:

If, as is looking increasingly likely, the U.S. does conduct a military intervention in Syria it is worth remembering that the U.S., while condemning the use of chemical weapons now, once supported a dictator knowing that he intended to use chemical weapons on his enemies, another example of how policy makers too often justify ugly and obscene policies in order to pursue what are considered desirable ends.

Ah, perspective.

(Photo: by Kamshots — Painting of the Iranian soldiers during the Iran-Iraq war, outside walls of the Ex-US embassy-Taleghani street in Tehran.)

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The Arguments For (And Against) Intervention In Syria

Members of the Free Syrian Army, an armed opposition group made up largely of defectors from President Bashar al-Assad’s army, attacked a column of government tanks passing through the town of Saraqib, Syria.

We still don’t know for sure if Bashar Al Assad used chemical weapons against his own people in the suburbs east of Damascus. Considering the lengthy list of barbaric atrocities carried out by his regime, and given that UN inspectors were — just today — targets of sniper fire while attempting to gather proof that could possibly exonerate Assad if indeed he’s been telling the truth, I don’t think I’m going out on any limb by saying that I think he almost certainly used chemical weapons.

I’ve long argued that there’s no good option when it comes to Syria, but non-intervention is the best-bad choice. Despite that, it looks ever more certain that intervention of some sort is brewing, and so if involvement is the worst option on the table, then air strikes have to be considered as the best worst option of the worst option.

Over at Wonkblog, Max Fisher provides the most basic arguments for and against intervention by air strikes. The case against air strikes is pretty damn good: they won’t change the trajectory of the conflict; civilian casualties will increase; and there will almost certainly be an escalation of hostilities.

The case for air strikes is a little less persuasive:

1) A “punishment” strike against Assad’s forces for this month’s suspected chemical weapons attack would make him think twice before doing it again….

2) The international norm against chemical weapons matters for more than just Syria….When the next civilian or military leader locked in a difficult war looks back on what happened in Syria, we want him to conclude that using chemical weapons would not be worth the risk.

3) Even just the (apparently earnest) threat of U.S. strikes could change Assad’s behavior.

The three arguments are interchangeable, and call for the exact same outcome: make sure chemical weapons are never used again. But would surgical air strikes against military targets deter Assad — or any other future-dictator in a fight for his existence — from using chemical weapons against those attempting to depose him? Unless the air strikes are devastating, I doubt it.

Make no mistake here: the United States would be declaring war against Assad if air strikes commence. There’s only one way to change Assad’s “behavior”, and that’s by removing his government from power.

(Photo: Freedom House. Members of the Free Syrian Army, an armed opposition group made up largely of defectors from President Bashar al-Assad’s army, attacked a column of government tanks passing through the town of Saraqib, Syria.)

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Did The Worst Chemical Weapons Attack In Decades Just Happen In Syria?

20130821-103116.jpg(YouTube Screenshot)

Syrian rebels claim that Assad’s forces used chemical weapons against “women, children”, and themselves in the suburbs east of Damascus, affecting at least 1,300 people:

BEIRUT/AMMAN – Syria’s opposition accused President Bashar al-Assad’s forces of gassing many hundreds of people – by one report as many as 1,300 – on Wednesday in what would, if confirmed, be the world’s worst chemical weapons attack in decades.

George Sabra, one of the leading opponents of Assad, said the death toll was 1,300 killed by poison gas released over suburbs east of Damascus.

“Today’s crimes are … not the first time the regime has used chemical weapons. But they constitute a turning point in the regime’s operations,” he told a news conference in Istanbul. “This time it was for annihilation rather than terror.”

An opposition monitoring group, citing figures compiled from medical clinics in the Damascus suburbs, put the death toll at 494 – 90 percent of them killed by gas, the rest by bombing and conventional arms. The rebel Syrian National Coalition said 650 people had been killed.

If the cause of death and the scale of the killing were confirmed, it would be the worst known use of chemical weapons since Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Kurds in the town of Halabja in 1988.

It’s always difficult to figure out exactly what happened, or who to believe, but Foreign Policy reports that videos “showed Syrians lying on the floor gasping for breath, medics struggling to save infants, and rows of bodies of those who had reportedly died in the attack.”


But it has to be noted that all of the information coming out of the Ghouta region, where rebels enjoy broad support, has yet to be confirmed by independent observers. The videos do suggest some sort of attack, but some have expressed doubt that the released footage shows enough of the symptoms that would follow a chemical weapons attack of this kind.

So we’re really left with one option here: dispatch the UN observers who are already in the country to the affected areas ASAP. If they find that chemical weapons were indeed used, then we can verify what the rebel groups have been saying and go from there. If they aren’t allowed into the area by the Syrian regime, then we have Assad basically admitting guilt.

The interesting question here is what will happen if the reports are confirmed and the worst chemical weapons attack — let’s just call it a good old fashioned war crime — since Saddam in 88′ just took place. Will Obama finally be moved to intervene? Would intervention be the sort of disaster I’ve been saying it would be? Or will the U.S., and the UN, simply turn a blind eye yet again to Assad?

Probably the latter. But let’s wait and see.

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Another Iraq? Experts Question Whether Assad Actually Used Chemical Weapons


President Obama had a lot of things to cover when he spoke to Charlie Rose this week. He had to address NSA surveillance programs leaked by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, create a distinction between his foreign and domestic national security policies and those of Dick Cheney (he’s still working on that one), argue that Syria is not Iraq, and finally, justify the arming of rebels inside Syria. To account for the latter, the president cited that U.S. intelligence, British intelligence, and even French intelligence (sure) have “high confidence” that Assad’s regime used chemical weapons, thus passing his (Obama’s) red-line.

But many are skeptical that the evidence actually exists, or if it legitimately points to actions taken by the Syrian regime — it’s totally unclear how the data was obtained or analyzed. A former U.S. senior official expressed those concerns to the Washington Post:
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Israeli bombing of Syria and the fallacy of universally applied principles

By now, much of the world is aware that on Saturday, Israel launched a massive airstrike against Syria – near Damascus – in an event that the NY Times described by quoting residents as, “more massive than anything the residents of the city have witnessed during more than two years of war.” That’s saying a lot, considering Assad has been shelling his own citizens with bombs for the better part of those two years. Here are some facts that are worth knowing, extracted from that same Times article:

Rebels, opposition activists and residents said the strikes hit bases of the elite Republican Guard and storehouses of long-range missiles, in addition to a military research center that American officials have called the country’s main chemical weapons facility.

An American official said a more limited strike early Friday at Damascus International Airport was also meant to destroy weapons being sent from Iran to Hezbollah.

Defenders of the strike, or more acutely defenders of Israel, claim – although not officially – that the strikes targeted weapons provided by Iran that were meant to end up in the hands of Israel’s most dangerous enemy in the region: Hezbollah in Lebanon. Again, although neither the US or Israel side claims official responsibility or knowledge of the attacks, officials in the Obama administration have come out to say that they unequivocally support Israel in taking this unilateral action. Democratic Sen. Pat Leahy reminded us for instance that, “…the Israelis are using weapons supplied by us.”

So that brings us to the question of principles. Israel and her defenders cite the necessity to strike Syrian weapons factories as a matter of self defense, since those weapons, they argue, were meant for Hezbollah, to be used against Israel. There hasn’t been one small gasp of condemnation coming out of the US media or prominent political circles; really Washington seems eager to praise Israel for something they wish they could have done first.

Don’t be fooled by the appeal to principles to defend the actions of Israel and the lack of condemnation by the US. This entire saga is nothing more than an example of why universal principles of rights and responsibilities are fallacies by which those with ‘might’ dictate to everyone else that which is ‘right’. If you don’t buy that, apply for a moment the Israeli appeal to principles of self defense to several other cases, as was done by several commentators on Twitter after the airstrike:

and another scenario here:

The only real principle that exists in international affairs is this: the side that is superior is afforded the ability to discern what is morally permissible and necessary and are allowed to do things that their enemies are not. Anything else, any appeal to some imaginary universal principle of self defense or moral authority is ludicrous. Imagine if Syria were to attack a military base in the United States, killing Americans, but were to invoke the exact same principle that allowed Israel to do the exact same thing – namely that they’d be justified since the US has been aiding Syrian rebels. Would Syria be afforded the same principle of action and necessity that Israel enjoys? Of course not.

Israel and the US have the “right” to unilaterally airstrike other countries – or arm rebels – if they perceive doing so is necessary to defend against a possible threat. Iran and Syria (and let’s be honest, anyone else) do not.


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Has Assad finally crossed the Rubicon?

Here’s the HuffPost with a good summary of the developing situation:

President Barack Obama said Wednesday that the United States is investigating whether chemical weapons have been deployed in Syria, but he’s “deeply skeptical” of claims by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime that rebel forces were behind such an attack.

Both the Assad regime and Syrian rebels have accused each other of using chemical weapons in an attack on Tuesday that the government says killed 31 and wounded more than 100. But Obama suggested it’s more likely that if the weapons were used, the Syrian government was behind the attack.

“We know the Syrian government has the capacity to carry out chemical weapon attacks,” Obama said. “We know that there are those are in the Syrian government who have expressed a willingness to use chemical weapons if necessary to protect themselves. I am deeply skeptical of any claim that in fact it was the opposition that used chemical weapons. Everybody who knows the facts of the chemical weapons stockpiles inside of Syria as well as the Syrian government capabilities, I think, would question those claims. Once we establish the facts, I have made clear that the use of chemical weapons is a game changer.”.

The President has said on more than one occasion that the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime would be the red line, causing him to strongly consider military intervention to stop the gross atrocities carried out by Assad’s thugs daily. Here is the president on his reasoning for not intervening as it is:

Obama said the U.S. policy not to intervene militarily thus far is based on his desire to solve the problem as a global community. “It’s a world problem … when tens of thousands of people are being slaughtered, including innocent women and children,” Obama said.

– Publius

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