In 2003 Colin Powell, then US Secretary of State, stood on the Halabja cemetery platform and, with a high degree of authority, stated that, "… what happen here [in Halabja] in 1988 is never going to happen again”. In no uncertain terms, he committed the globe’s leading superpower to do what it takes in order to prevent another chemical weapons (CW) tragedy. The question is whether the current US administration has the will and determination to honour such a commitment in Syria.
President Barack Obama famously warned that the use of CW by the Syrian Government constitutes a game-changing red line that would lead to US intervention. However, he dampened expectations after determining the current proof insufficient and the line uncrossed. This contrasts statements made by both US Secretary of State John Kerry and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who are convinced of "strong evidence" that the Syrian Government has already used CW against opposition forces. However, their cries and concerns so far have not resonated widely and they may never secure the backing of other major players in this crisis. Meanwhile all cylinders are firing inside Syria and it may be only a matter of time before CW smoke irrefutably fills the sky.
Déjà vu: another Halabja in the making
For too long before the Halabja genocide of 16 March, 1988, the East and West turned blind eyes to Saddam’s atrocities against his own people, and to the use of CW against Iranian military and civilians. In the face of international inaction Saddam grew confidant and used CW as a tool in his campaign of genocide against the Kurds. Even the death of 5000 and the injury of 10,000 unarmed civilians in a single day was not enough to create an international uproar.
After Halabja, the UN Security Council issued the half-hearted Resolution 612 condemning only “the continued use of chemical weapons in conflict”. The UK Government expressed grave concerns but chose not to act. The US diverted attention to Iran and blocked all efforts to incriminate Iraq, and Russia accused the victims as well as the Western media of lying. Consequently, Saddam saw no reason to stop from pushing all boundaries.
Twenty-five years on, circumstances have changed but the rules of the game remain the same. The Syrian regime is engaged in an existential war against its internal opposition. The two sides are increasingly desperate, showing no sign of compromise and prepared to use whatever weapon they can lay their hands on to defeat each other. Between them, and under the watchful eyes of the world, people, places and irreplaceable heritage have been destroyed en mass.
The Syrian Government has a massive CW stockpile - this is a fact - and the opposition so far has not had access to this stockpile. If the increasingly effective extremists among the opposition were to gain access, they may not hesitate to use them, as the latest UN sponsored investigators have proposed. The Assad regime, on the other hand, has a long track record of killing its own civilians at a genocidal scale, even when the immediate threat to its survival was relatively very low. As the threat increases, the chances of it using weapons of greater mass destruction will increase. In fact, the regime has been incrementally using military power disproportionate to the threat posed by the advancing opposition. Apparently, the final balance of the war has not yet tipped against the regime and, if and when it does, no ‘red-line’ will stop Assad from using CW at a scale that would make Halabja look like a small incident.
In other words, the fact that the Assad regime has not yet used CW on a wide scale probably has more to do with the regime’s own threshold and less to do with the fear of consequences from the international community.
A blurred line
Regional powers, particularly Iran, Turkey and some Arab countries, are all parties to the conflict and fuel its escalation beyond control. The major global powers are, like always, engaged in realpolitik and see the Syrian conflict through their own narrow lens of national interests. Russia and China are not impartial and have stood firmly behind the Assad regime. The Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has already raised serious doubts about the West’s intention for using CW issue for political purposes. Moreover, his country has signed new arms deals with Syria, destined to extend the regime’s longevity with further escalation of the crisis.
Europe is divided on the issue of intervention, and the US is determined not to take direct responsibility in solving the crisis. Instead, the Obama administration has attempted, unsuccessfully, to ‘lead from behind’, an approach consistent with its foreign policy pattern over the past four years. The US administration has opposed the Assad regime and offered substantial political and financial aid to the opposition, as well as to Turkey and Jordan, but has continued to play for time and find good reasons for inaction. Mr. Obama’s recent emphasis on the complexity of, and absence of easy options for, the Syrian crisis signals more hesitation and puts serious doubts on his CW red line.
The US knows full well that obtaining solid proof is extremely complex in these circumstances. Indirect and circumstantial evidence provided by non-experts can be disputed. To catch the culprits red-handed, the UN and The Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons need to act swiftly, sending impartial experts to access the crime scene in a timely fashion and obtain quality samples and reliable information that would stand scrutiny. However, such timely and unlimited access would require the Syrian Government’s cooperation, which predictably would not be forthcoming. Syria has not acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention, and even if it had, as a sovereign country, no force can force it to provide access. In fact, no international convention has ever stopped independent states from producing, stockpiling or using CWs. Moreover, Russia and China are poised to veto any resolution at the UN Security Council and counter any assertive action by other powers.
Recipe for disaster
As internal warfare intensifies by the day, US, European and Russian leaders are debating the threat of CW and negotiating political deals behind the scene. Their agenda and deliberations remain concealed, however it is striking that no one has openly debated mechanisms for eliminating the threat of CW. For, as long as the Syrian CW stockpile is out there in the hands of a shaky regime, no red line or external threat can prevent an eventual use of CW and the repeat of Halabja. The world powers and Syria’s neighbours cannot afford to rely totally on the regime’s goodwill or fear of consequences for restraint.
It is therefore justifiable and absolutely feasible for the US, Europe and Turkey to negotiate a deal with the Russians to force the Syrian regime to hand over control of its CW stockpile, physically remove it from the area and eliminate the threat once and for all. Failing that, the on-going debate will prove futile and the Syrian crisis will culminate into another CW disaster when the global powers have no moral leg in the Middle East to stand on.