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How has the West responded to ‘gassing’ in West Asia?

R S Kalha is a former Indian Ambassador to Iraq.
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  • September 04, 2013

    President Obama recently speaking from the White House said that Syria’s actions represented a “challenge to the world” as also to American national security. He added that he had not made a final decision and was considering only a “limited, narrow act.” Obama emphasized: “We’re not considering any open ended commitment. We’re not considering any boots on the ground approach.” He added, however, that the US has an obligation “as a leader in the world” to hold countries accountable if they violate “international norms.”

    At the State Department, the Secretary of State, John Kerry, argued in even more passionate language that the Syrian regime had committed a “crime against humanity” that could not go unpunished. Kerry further added “history will judge us extraordinarily harshly if we turn a blind eye,” adding that there were 426 children among the dead. And finally the punch-line: “This is the indiscriminate, inconceivable horror of chemical weapons. This is what Assad did to his own people.”

    What Kerry said was enough to warm the hearts of every human rights campaigner. But like most self-righteous politicians there seems to be a convenient gloss over history; even though military action does appear imminent.

    Actually the first to use chemical weapons [gas] in the Middle-East were the British. Soon after the First World War when the British created the state of Iraq consisting of the three former Turkish Vilayats [provinces] of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul; the southern Kurds much to their dislike had been added to the new state of Iraq and in protest broke out in open rebellion. Faced with the prospects of a prolonged conflict, with added financial costs and loss of British life; the British decided that the ‘best method’ for putting down the revolt was to use gas. As the then Colonial Secretary, Sir Winston Churchill had remarked, “I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas.” The then RAF Chief Sir Hugh Trenchard in a report to the British Cabinet admitted that this was a “cheaper form of control.” Even the redoubtable Lawrence of Arabia wrote to the London Observer that “it is odd we do not use poison gas on these occasions.” The poor Kurds were the first to receive the ‘gas’ treatment and as history would prove not the last time!

    Let us move ahead in time and come to Saddam Hussein. Iranian official history records that Iraq first used chemical weapons against its soldiers on January 13, 1981. It is reported that between December 28, 1980 and March 20, 1984 Iranians list 63 separate gas attacks by the Iraqis. There is no doubt that the US was acutely aware of what was going on. In a Memorandum on November 1, 1983, officials of the State Department warned the then Secretary of State George Shultz that they had information that the Iraqis were using chemical weapons on an ‘almost daily’ basis. Equally blunt was the warning that Iraq had acquired chemical weapons capability from Western firms, including possibly from a US subsidiary. The US was also aware that chemical weapons were being used against ‘Kurdish insurgents’. At the same time the US, according to a media report, continued to provide Iraq with critical battle planning assistance and satellite data on Iranian military movements, knowing very well that Iraq was using chemical weapons against Iran as also Kurdish insurgents.

    No concrete action was taken. Saddam was a friend fighting to ‘weaken the ambitions of Iran’ and, therefore, President Reagan’s Special Representative the redoubtable Donald Rumsfeld, who was to gain much fame later in 2003 as Saddam’s nemesis, turned up in Baghdad [20 December 1983] with a letter from the President which the State Department later was to describe as ‘a milestone’ in US-Iraqi relations. To be fair, however, on March 6, 1984 the State Department announced that, based on available evidence, it ‘concluded’ that Iraq had used lethal chemical weapons in the fighting with Iran [emphasis added].

    However the Iranians were one step ahead, for by then Iran had even produced photographs, in every gory detail, of the casualties caused by chemical weapons. By March 1984, Iran had sent about 50 soldiers suffering from chemical weapons attacks to hospitals in some Europeans countries in order to graphically display the results of Iraqi chemical weapons use and to arouse public opinion around the world. After Iran’s repeated request the UN sent an investigation team to the region beginning March 1984. In its report of March 26, 1984, the UN team confirmed the use of chemical weapons by Iraq. But the UN Security Council apart from routine admonitions took no action against Iraq.The then Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati could only bitterly complain, “…this irresponsible and indifferent attitude of the Security Council has indeed encouraged and emboldened Iraq….What is the effect of these crimes on the one hand and the silence of the UN on the other?”

    In 1988 an awful massacre took place at Halabja [Kurdish Iraq] where thousands of innocent Kurds were ‘gassed’ by the Iraqis and Saddam Hussein during Operation Anfal. At that point in time Saddam Hussein was still a friend. The US knew what had happened but still no tangible action was taken against Iraq or Saddam Hussein. There were even reports that absolved him of the atrocity. But all that changed after Saddam invaded Kuwait. He was now a ‘rogue,’ a ‘bully’ and a ‘megalomaniac’ and one who gassed his own people!

    In a celebrated aside to an aide, Kissinger while testifying before the Pike Commission in 1975 is reported to have admonished him “not to confuse foreign policy with missionary work.” Therefore, there is high probability that some ‘action’ will be taken by the US in conjunction with the ‘oldest ally’ [France; a reference to the US War of Independence in which France allied against Britain]. How galling this phrase, used by Kerry, is going to sound to British PM David Cameron! It is not so much because of the use of chemical weapons that will unleash US fire-power, but the fact that the Assad regime might be winning the civil war in conjunction with its Iranian and Hezbollah allies. A victory would be hard to swallow, particularly if Israel is considered as the next target. Therefore, the military strike may just be intended to show that victory for Assad and his Iranian allies is not as yet assured and that it may persuade them to come to the negotiating table. For the US that would be the most suitable outcome.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.