Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Who carried out those poison gas attacks around Damascus? – Human Rights Watch pins the blame on the Syrian regime

Map showing the areas where the alleged chemical attacks took place in Syria

On August 21, as we all know, a series of poison gas attacks in rebel-held areas around Damascus killed hundreds of people, possibly more than 1,400, and sickened thousand of others. Who did it?

Evidence continues to accumulate that the correct answer is the one that looked pretty obvious from the startnamely, that these poison gas attacks were carried out by the armed forces of the Assad regime, as part of an ongoing offensive to drive rebel forces from areas on the outskirts of the capital. A few days ago a report from Human Rights Watch summed up their analysis of the evidence:
Available evidence strongly suggests that Syrian government forces were responsible for chemical weapons attacks on two Damascus suburbs on August 21, 2013. These attacks, which killed hundreds of civilians including many children, appeared to use a weapons-grade nerve agent, most likely Sarin.

The 22-page report, "Attacks on Ghouta: Analysis of Alleged Use of Chemical Weapons in Syria," documents two alleged chemical weapons attacks on the opposition-controlled suburbs of Eastern and Western Ghouta, located 16 kilometers apart, in the early hours of August 21. Human Rights Watch analyzed witness accounts of the rocket attacks, information on the likely source of the attacks, the physical remnants of the weapon systems used, and the medical symptoms exhibited by the victims as documented by medical staff.

“Rocket debris and symptoms of the victims from the August 21 attacks on Ghouta provide telltale evidence about the weapon systems used,” said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “This evidence strongly suggests that Syrian government troops launched rockets carrying chemical warheads into the Damascus suburbs that terrible morning.”

The evidence concerning the type of rockets and launchers used in these attacks strongly suggests that these are weapon systems known and documented to be only in the possession of, and used by, Syrian government armed forces, Human Rights Watch said. [....]

The Syrian government has denied responsibility for the attacks and has blamed opposition groups, but has presented no credible evidence to back up its claims. Human Rights Watch and arms experts monitoring the use of weapons in Syria have not documented Syrian opposition forces to be in the possession of the 140mm and 330mm rockets used in the attack or their associated launchers.  [....]

Three doctors in Ghouta who treated the victims told Human Rights Watch that victims of the attacks consistently showed symptoms including suffocation; constricted, irregular, and infrequent breathing; involuntary muscle spasms; nausea; frothing at the mouth; fluid coming out of noses and eyes; convulsing; dizziness; blurred vision; red and irritated eyes and pin-point pupils (myosis). Some young victims exhibited cyaonis, a bluish coloring on the face consistent with suffocation or asphyxiation. None of the victims showed traumatic injuries normally associated with attacks using explosive or incendiary weapons.

Such symptoms, and the lack of traumatic injuries, are consistent with exposure to nerve agents such as Sarin, Human Rights Watch said.
This is probably not the first time that the Syrian regime used poison gas during the civil war, though previous instances were on a considerably smaller scale, and it took a while to confirm them.
There is laboratory evidence that Sarin gas has been used in a previous attack in April on Jobar, near Damascus, when a photographer for Le Monde newspaper who was present at the time later tested for exposure to Sarin.

The use of chemical weapons is a serious violation of international humanitarian law. Although Syria is not among the 189 countries that are party to the 1993 Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling, and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction, it is a party to the 1925 Geneva Gas Protocol. Customary international law bans the use of chemical weapons in all armed conflicts.

The August 21 attacks on Ghouta are the first major use of chemical weapons since the Iraqi government used chemical weapons on Iraqi Kurdish civilians in Halabja 25 years ago, Human Rights Watch said.

“The increasingly evident use of chemical weapons in Syria’s terrible conflict should refocus the international debate on deterring the use of such weapons and more broadly protecting Syria’s civilian population,” Bouckaert said.
Bouckaert is right about that.

War is always terrible, even with "conventional" weapons, and efforts to impose moral and legal regulation on warfare are always tricky and imperfect. But over the past century there has been an increasingly broad and well-established consensus that the use of poison gas, against soldiers as well as civilians, goes beyond the limits of what ought to be permitted. And there has been a surprisingly successful record, all things considered, of maintaining the taboo against the use of poison gas (as described in Steven Erlanger's New York Times article last week).  Continuing to maintain that taboo is important, and it ought to be a major priority.

The most recent large-scale failure to enforce that taboo was the way that the world (including not just the US government, but the governments of almost all other significant countries as well) let Saddam Hussein get away with using poison gas on a massive scale against Iranian troops during the Iran-Iraq war. There no doubt seemed to be pragmatic and "realistic" grounds for turning a blind eye in that situation, since almost everyone was terrified by the prospect of an Iranian victory, but in fact this was a case of what C. Wright Mills would have called "crackpot realism". Saddam Hussein, convinced that he could act with impunity, went on to use poison gas against Kurdish civilians and then escalated to more self-destructive levels of military adventurism.

Incredibly enough, some people have argued (or insinuated) that since the world let Saddam Hussein get away with using poison gas during the 1980s, this somehow obligates us to let another Ba'athist dictator, Bashar al-Assad, get away with it now. The idea seems to be that acting otherwise would be hypocritical or inconsistent, or something along those lines. But even though I know that logic sounds half-plausible to some otherwise intelligent people (who are mostly just grasping at straws to find arguments against military intervention in Syria), it's absurd as well as pernicious. As Steve Coll has correctly insisted, it's clear that letting Saddam Hussein get away with using poison gas against the Iranians was not just a "colossal moral failure" but also a "strategic mistake; it encouraged Saddam’s aggression and internal repression, and it allowed Iraq to demonstrate to future dictators the tactical value of chemical warfare." It was a terrible and reprehensible mistake. The right lesson to learn from that experience is that we shouldn't make the same mistake again.

There has to be a serious response to this large-scale gassing of civilians.  Suggestions that it's really no big deal, and that there is no urgent need for a response, are, in my opinion, misguided and harmful. The only real question—and it's certainly a difficult and complicated question—is precisely what form that response ought to take.  Working that out is proving to be a messy process.

Jeff Weintraub