Normalising Assad's chemical weapon savagery

Normalising Assad's chemical weapon savagery
Comment: For tyrants around the world, Assad is reasserting their right to power by the most brutal means, writes Sam Hamad.
7 min read
08 Feb, 2018
Syrians suffer breathing difficulties after regime air strikes on the northwestern town of Saraqeb [AFP]
Speaking of the first ever use of chlorine gas during WWI, unleashed by German forces against mostly French combatants at the Second Battle of Ypres, German soldier Willi Siebert puts it as starkly as possible: "What we saw was total death... nothing was alive." 

Siebert continues, "the bodies of soldiers were everywhere… you could see where men had clawed at their faces, and throats, trying to get breath… some had shot themselves… the horses, still in the stables, cows, chickens, everything, all were dead. Everything, even the insects were dead."

You don't need to go as far back as 102 years to find chlorine gas once again being used as a weapon war, despite laws, conventions and treaties criminalising its use.

The ground zero for the use of chlorine gas is the seemingly never-ending nightmare of Syria, while it's the Assad regime and his allies who continue to use it. 

Many people will be familiar with Assad's previous uses of poison gas, specifically the most famous use of sarin in East Ghouta in August 2013, an attack which killed as many as 1,429 civilians.

The world also seemed to be briefly shocked into concern when in April 2017 after Assad once again used sarin to murder at least 74 and perhaps as many 100 civilians in the town of Khan Sheikhun.

But something most people are not familiar with, are the numerous smaller instances of the Assad regime using chlorine gas against civilian areas and military targets. 

Since the war began in 2011, Assad has used chemical weapons at least over two dozen times according to UN war crimes reporters. While these figures are horrific on their own, they may not account for the true scale of Assad's chemical weapons use, due to the UN's strict criteria for documenting such attacks.

You don't need to go as far back as 102 years to find chlorine gas once again being used as a weapon war

The most recent of these attacks was earlier this week, in the town of Saraqeb, Idlib, which is one of the rebels' last remaining strongholds, home to 2 million people, many of whom are refugees from areas of Syria cleansed by Assad's war of terror, including Aleppo. 

The chlorine bomb dropped on the town didn't cause any fatalities this time, but nine civilians were treated for severe breathing difficulties.

Perhpas even less familiar, is the strategic logic behind Assad's use of poison gas. Aside from the proximity of liberated East Ghouta to Damascus, the immediate strategic calculation was that the use of sarin would clear the lines of entrenched rebel fighters.

Read more: Mattis is splitting hairs over Assad's chemical mass murder

It's of no coincidence that poison gas was used to its greatest degree in WWI, a war in which almost every theatre of the western front relied on trench warfare. By blitzing the opposition with gas, the intention is not merely to kill, but to terrorise and confound them into fleeing; thus, opening the path for a military breakthrough. 

Prior to the Ghouta attack, the Assad regime had launched an unsuccessful attempt to retake East Ghouta. 

But the logic extends beyond mere military victory.  Civilians were targeted to terrorise them - for those left alive, left to witness the cruel deaths of loved ones by sarin, the desired effect of the gas was one of fear and demoralisation. 

This is perfectly in line with Assad's use of "conventional" means, such as cleansing hostile civilian populations through airstrikes, starvation and the destruction of civil society, to preserve the power of his rump state and the interests of his imperialist partners.​ The logic is savagely simple: If you're in proximity to a chlorine attack, whether fatal or not, the terror of the effects - the sensation of your eyes burning in your sockets and your lungs aflame in your chest - might make you put your gun down and flee, or leave your home and become another refugee, or give up the ultra-dangerous service of trying to save lives. In this sense, it's pure terrorism.

Prior to the Ghouta massacre, sarin had been used in smaller quantities in March 2013 at Khan al-Asal and Saraqeb in April of the same year. These smaller attacks may be considered as tests that culminated in the large-scale use at Ghouta a few months later. 

It's thus with extra horror we see Assad ever more boldly and brazenly using chlorine gas in Idlib, wherein the rebellion is deeply entrenched. Could another Ghouta be just around the corner?

If we, as spectators, are horrified by the prospect, imagine being in that province, where murder by conventional means via Assad and Russia's airforce is already a daily reality

You can't simply claim to oppose one method of genocide, such as poison gas, while tacitly endorsing the genocide in its totality

As we've seen with pro-regime forces cleansing hundreds of thousands of Syrians from parts of Idlib as they advanced, the people know that Assad, Iran and Russia are coming for them. 

And poison gas is just one particularly cruel instrument in this larger genocidal project.

However, though massacres by "conventional" weapons are no better than ones by chemical weapons, the latter do represent something more subversive regarding Syria and its meaning apropos world order. 

The use of illegal weapons of war is hardly unique, but Assad's use of chemicals, despite empty US warnings of such use being a "red line", was not simply just a message to his revolutionary enemies that his intent towards them was genocidal, but it also revealed the illusion behind the very conception of a just world order based on the rule of law. 

For tyrants around the world, Assad is reasserting their right to power by the most brutal means. 

The illusion of the US in the Obama era as an imperfect world police force was shattered, even by those who bought into the idea in the first place. Evan McMullin, a senior adviser to Congress on national security, tells a chilling story of when he confronted a senior state department official on the lack of US action over Assad's use of chemical weapons. 

At the time, regime use of chlorine bombs had first been documented, and McMullin asked the official why the Obama administration wasn't "more forcefully condemning the atrocities". The official's reply was cruel but honest, "We're afraid the media will then ask us what we're going to do about it." 

Following Ghouta, Obama threatened Assad very limply with, to quote John Kerry, "unbelievably small" action - no such action occurred. Far from threatening WWIII, Russia swooped in and saved Obama the sweat of having to make a case for protecting the lives of civilians and deterring genocide in some Arab backwater, with the Kerry-Lavrov deal, which would see Assad get rid of his chemical weapons stockpiles.

The deal has proved to be meaningless as far as protecting Syrians from chemical weapons has been concerned. It effectively green-lit Assad's massacre by conventional means; hence the murder at Khan Sheikhun, or the numerous chemical weapons attacks up to and including the most recent at Saraqeb.

The illusion of the US in the Obama era as an imperfect world police force was shattered

US intelligence now reports that the Assad regime is developing new chemical weapons, almost certainly with Iranian support, while Russia, following the shooting down of one of its war planes in Idlib, seems to have for the first time overtly sanctioned the use of poison gas.  

The Trump regime might make tokenistic noises about all this, but there's no indication that either Assad or Russia are deterred. 

You can't simply claim to oppose one method of genocide, such as poison gas, while tacitly endorsing the genocide in its totality. 

It was the great horrors of imperialism in the 19th and early 20th centuries that provided a zeitgeistal impetus for the rise of European fascism. 

One might say there was blood in the air, whether from the British use of concentration camps against Africans and Boers, or the German empire's genocide in Namibia or WWI itself. The past decades had normalised new industrial forms of brutality. 

It's no surprise that the Syrian civil war with its internationally accepted brutality should be rumbling away as democracy recedes and authoritarian brutality breaks through once more around the globe.

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.