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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

War Games: U.S. Bombs and Syrian Chemicals

Why should the United States intervene if Syria used chemical weapons?

Rebel officials claim more than 1,300 people, including many women and children, died recently as a result of chemical weapons. France says the chemical attack near Damascus last month "could not have been ordered and carried out by anyone but the Syrian government." 

Meanwhile, a U.N. chemical weapons inspection team took biological samples and other materials from Damascus, and Secretary of State John Kerry says the U.S. has evidence that the chemical nerve agent sarin was used in the deadly attack.

President Barack Obama said a single attack chemical attack crossed a "moral and legal red line." He denounced the alleged attack as “an assault on our human dignity.”

The United States believes Syria was behind it; rebels blame the Syrian government as well. The Syrian regime denies it, and some Syrians have told CNN they doubt their government used chemical weapons.

The toll of dead and injured is relatively small, roughly equal to the average number of fatalities in an ordinary week in Syria’s civil war. Yet, the use of toxins conjures memories of the killing fields of World War I when chemicals first became a true weapon of mass destruction as European chemists were enlisted on both sides to help end the stalemate in the trenches. 

Pick Your Poison

Some ask what is the difference between killing with deadly conventional weapons and killing with chemicals. The United States took no military action to prevent the deaths of an estimated 100,000 Syrians in this conflict by more conventional but often brutal methods. Are both means equally evil?

And, many consider other acts just as immoral. North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il killed thousands if not millions more with starvation, yet the Americas did nothing substantive. On a scale of sheer brutality, is it worse to die of gas or hunger?

Some even consider the Vietnam casualties, enemy and friendly, of the lethal defoliant Agent Orange as unacceptable chemical warfare. And, should the government admit stupidity and fault for this terrible chapter in chemical destruction?

Jonathan Tucker, the author of War of Nerves, a history of chemical weapons, argued that there’s something primal in the human revulsion to such weapons. “This ‘chemical weapons taboo’ appears to have originated in the innate human aversion to poisonous substances,” Tucker writes, “as well as revulsion at the duplicitous use of poison by the weak to defeat the strong without a fair physical fight.”

(Joby Warrick, "Even After 100,000 Deaths in Syria, Chemical Weapons Attack 
Evoked Visceral Response," The Washington Post, August 31 2013)

"Blowing your people up with high explosives is allowable, as is shooting them, or torturing them," complains Dominic Tierney, political science professor at Swarthmore College. "But woe betide the Syrian regime if it even thinks about using chemical weapons!"

In a column in The Atlantic, Tierney -- author of a book on what he calls "the American way of war" -- adds, "A woman and her child under fire in Aleppo might miss this distinction. It's not obvious that high explosives are inherently less evil than chemical weapons."

Writer Paul Waldman makes similar comments in The American Prospect: "Getting killed by mustard gas is surely awful. But so is getting blown up by a bomb. Using one against your enemies gets you branded a war criminal, but using the other doesn't."

And, the Los Angeles Times' Paul Whitefield writes, "Bombs blowing up buildings, which fall on innocent civilians -- men, women, children -- that's bad, but not cause for us to act? But a chemical weapons attack: That we can't allow? Spare me."

(Josh Levs, "Syria and the 'Red Line' Debate," CNN, August 27 2013)

The White House argues there's good reason to view chemical weapons attacks differently.
"The use of chemical weapons is contrary to the standards adopted by the vast majority of nations and international efforts since World War I to eliminate the use of such weapons," spokesman Jay Carney said this week. ".... The use of these weapons on a mass scale and a threat of proliferation is a threat to our national interests and a concern to the entire world."

President Obama proposed what he said would be a limited military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Any military attack would not be open-ended or include U.S. ground forces, he said.  But, the president said he would take his case to Congress, not because he has to -- but because he wants to.

"While I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even more effective," he said. "We should have this debate, because the issues are too big for business as usual."

Obama said top congressional leaders had agreed to schedule a debate when the body returns to Washington on September 9. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing over the matter on Tuesday, Sen. Robert Menendez said.

(Catherine E. Shoichet and Tom Watkins, "Strike Against Syria? Obama Backs It,
But Wants Congress to Vote," CNN, August 31 2013)

So, What Is the Bottom Line?

The use of chemical weapons is villainous and vile, and so is the use of biological weapons and the deliberate use of denying human sustenance. In fact, the use of many so-called "conventional weapons" is equally maleficent. 

When in war, desperate nations resort to heinous means of mass destruction to insure their survival. Perhaps chemicals draw the most revulsion because of the results of their random dispersion upon unsuspecting and innocent targets. Few will dispute their deadly reputation as evil weapons.

Supporters of the attack believe the action proposed is described as merely punitive and a "deterrent," directed purely at a past incident of a chemical massacre, yet BBC broadcaster and reporter Simon Jenkins says, "'Punishing' a dictator for killing his own people by simply killing more of his own people seems beyond cruel. It seems stupid. It leads nowhere." 

Jenkins continues: "This is gesture war. It will not punish the guilty, such as members of the Assad regime, who should be arraigned before a war crimes court. It will merely destroy buildings and kill people. It seems peculiarly pointless ... It is idiot deployment of aerial bombardment as a cure-all for the world's ills."

(Simon Jenkins, "The West's Threat to Attack Syria Is an Idiotic Gesture,"
The Guardian, September 2 2013)

The majority of the American public does not want the Obama administration to give in to pressures to take sides in a civil war in which brutal war crimes are being committed by both sides. Reliable reports contend some of the strongest factions aligned against Assad’s regime have links to al-Qaeda, which is waging a worldwide terrorist campaign against the United States.

What if the forces trying to defeat Assad prevail, and Syria became the world’s first al-Qaeda-led nation? DeWayne Wickham, reporter for the Tennessean says, "This outcome that would almost certainly draw large numbers of U.S. ground forces back onto a Middle East battle zone. Avoiding that outcome is in this country’s national interest."

(DeWayne Wickham, "Why the United States Should Not 
Attack Syria," Tennessean, September 4 2013)

It seems America's involvement in Syria is about much more than deadly chemical attacks and "a threat to American national interests." The president's interests in Syria are political and seated in loyalty to Israel. Obama wants to topple a regime for a particular purpose.

Assad's government is widely seen as a pariah because it is an ally of the mullahs in Iran. Iran wants to destroy Israel. Israel's supporters inside the Obama administration and Congress probably see the sarin attack as an opportunity to use the American military to undermine Assad's hold on power.

Israeli leaders believe that getting the U.S. to attack Syria will send a message to Iran that the U.S. is serious when it says it will not allow Tehran to develop a nuclear weapon.

Think of an attack on Syria in this manner:

"If the Assad government falls, it will be disrupted and Israel, the US and Saudi Arabia will supposedly benefit. The weakening of Hezbollah will reduce the size of security threat it poses to Israel. Iran will lose its only strategic ally outside its boundaries and deep into the region; it will be completely isolated and substantially weakened. It is already reeling under the crippling sanctions imposed by the western powers. All this is likely to delay and degrade Iran's efforts to go nuclear."

(Tahir Mehdi, "In Focus: Why Does the U.S. Want to Attack Syria?"

Perhaps Iran, not Syria, is the true target of American bombs?

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