By Alan Caruba
to the Geneva Convention outlaws the use of gas in warfare. This did not stop
Iraq’s Saddam Hussein from using it during his eight-year war with Iran. In one
infamous incident Saddam ordered the use of poison gas
against Kurdish guerrillas and civilians in the border town of Halabja, killing
5,000 people at the height of the Iran-Iraq war. His cousin earned the nickname
“Chemical Ali” and was later hanged after Saddam was overthrown.
During the course of the Syrian civil war, charges from
both sides that poison gas has been used were traded. The latest, aired April
24, is the first time the U.S. confirmed that poison gas, most likely Sarin,
was used by the forces of Bashar Hafez al-Assad, the president of Syria. He
keeps referring to the forces arrayed against him as terrorists even though
Syria has been ruled by the use of terror for decades and has supported
Hezbollah, an organization widely identified as terrorist and which currently
is in charge of Lebanon.
President Obama went on record not long ago saying that
the use of poison gas was a “red line” that would subject Assad’s forces to
possible intervention by a coalition of national forces, presumably led by the
U.S., NATO, or as a UN mission. In its wars against Iraq and Afghanistan, the
U.S. may have done most of the fighting, but was accompanied by other nations,
primarily from Europe.
A report in the April 27 edition of the Telegraph, a
British newspaper, noted that “the fight for al-Safira is no ordinary turf
war…Inside what looks like a drab industrial estate is one of Syria’s main
facilities for producing chemical weapons—and among its products is sarin, the
lethal nerve gas that the regime is now feared to be deploying in its bid to
cling to power.” Moreover, “among the rebel lines in al-Safira flutters the
black flag of the al-Nusra Brigade, the jihadist group that recently declared
its allegiance to al-Qaeda.”
Obama will now likely be assailed if he does commit U.S.
fighting forces and if he does not.
I don’t much care for anything Obama has done while in
office, but I like his reluctance to get the U.S. involved in a civil war or an
insurgency that will turn out badly no matter who emerges as the winner. Assad
is getting a lot of help from both Russia, who wants the use of Syria’s port on
the Mediterranean, and by Iran for whom it has long been an ally. Let them
waste their resources there.
This is not to say that Assad has not been utterly
ruthless in his effort to put the insurgents to flight and retain the power he
inherited from his father, Hafez al-Assad who had ruled Syria for thirty years
since 1971. The son has ruled since 2000, having been reelected in 2007, thanks
to no opposition.
Syria, of course, poses problems for its neighbors Turkey
and Jordan, both of which have had to absorb and provide humanitarian aid to
what is likely more than a million Syrians who fled for their lives. An
estimated 80,000 to 90,000 Syrians have been slain in the conflict that began
on March 15, 2011 with popular demonstrations that were nationwide by April. Suffice
to say, both sides of the conflict have engaged in brutality, sparing neither
women nor children.
The nations of northern Africa, also called the Maghreb,
erupted into protests that have come to be known as the “Arab Spring.” Tunisia,
where the initial protests in 2011 against an autocratic president, Zine El
Abidine Ben Ali, led to his overthrow, has done the best job of transitioning
to become a functioning democracy, but in Libya a low level conflict continues
and, in Egypt, the population is having serious regrets after having elected a
leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Morsi, to replace the ailing and
imprisoned Hosni Mubarak.
Complicating things further in Syria is the presence of
elements of al Qaeda as part of the force opposing the Assad regime. This
accounts for the reluctance of the U.S. to arm those forces even as Russia and
Iran sends arms to Assad and, in the case of Iran, military assistance as well.
Syria is a rat’s nest even if the U.S. had the ability to
identify who among the opposition to support. Then there is the question, if
the opposition were to prevail, whether that would encourage elements of the
Muslim Brotherhood and al Qaeda to overthrow the Jordanian monarchy, leaving
Israel even more vulnerable. It would not surprise me to see Israeli forces
join with the Jordanians to sustain the monarchy.
After the United States withdrawal from Iraq it has been
experiencing an increased level of internal conflict as the Sunnis seek to
punish the Shiites who replaced their control under Saddam. Bombings are a
daily event. Scheduled to leave Afghanistan in 2014, the U.S. can ill afford
the cost of a military involvement in Syria, nor can the European member
nations of NATO. The United Nations, as always, is totally useless. Their
so-called peacekeeping forces have all abandoned Syria, exiting via Israel.
The human toll is appalling, but there are few good
reasons for the U.S. and others to be drawn into the Syrian conflict. If Bashar
al-Assad survives, he will still be an ally of Russia and Iran. Lebanon will
still be a Syrian satellite. It would take years to rebuild the nation reducing
a military threat to Israel.
There is, however, a compelling reason to mount a mission
to secure Syria’s poison gas arsenal. If nothing is done, it would further
embolden Iran to continue its nuclear arms program. A limited show of force to isolate
and remove its poison gas arsenal would be a warning to Iran whereas further
sanctions are of little value.
If al-Qaeda gains access to Syria’s stores of poison gas,
no city in America would be immune from an al Qaeda attack using it.
For now, the “red line” that Obama spoke of is likely to
have been written in invisible ink, disappearing with every passing day.
© Alan Caruba, 2013