It is hard to look at the photographs. American newspapers are showing largely sanitized versions, so you’re safe. But Twitter feeds and UK newspapers such as the Daily Mail don’t hesitate to show the full horror. Hundreds of beautiful children, all dead, most of them wrapped in white shrouds, and their mothers, aunts, uncles, fathers, and grandmothers.
These people didn’t die of gunshots or explosions; there is no blood. If you look at photos from the fighting in Cairo, blood is clearly seeping through the shrouds, evidence of external wounds. Not in Syria. The Syrians died from nerve gas — probably Sarin, a type of gas known to be in the Syrian arsenal.
Israel’s Minister for Intelligence and Strategic Affairs Yuval Steinitz confirmed observers’ worst fears. “According to our intelligence assessments, chemical weapons were used, and of course not for the first time,” he told Israel Radio. The Europeans and the United States still want an “investigation,” because they fear punishing the Assad government would make them party to the civil war on the side of an armed opposition that is, itself, unacceptable to the West. But destroying Syria’s Air Force and long-range artillery, and for that matter its known chemical stockpiles, would not be an act of war or an intervention in the Syrian civil war. It would be an operation to remove a threat of mass murder.
Dead is, of course, dead, and more than 100,000 people have been killed already, many in atrocious acts of horrific violence and through brazen war crimes by the Syrian government — including artillery barrages on town squares and hospitals. But chemical weapons have always triggered a different level of international horror. The 1899 and 1907 Hague Conventions banned them, as did the 1925 Geneva Convention, the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, and the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. And yet they are produced and stockpiled by the most heinous regimes precisely because they are a terror weapon.
It is worth recalling the use of chemicals against Iraqi Kurds by Saddam Hussein. Between 25,000 and 250,000 Kurds were killed by the end of 1991, but the 3,000 dead in the chemical attack on Halabja are the indelible image of the Kurdish revolution. Saddam wanted the Kurds terrorized, and so they were. Terror would also serve the Syrian government.
Bashar Assad and his Iranian and Russian sponsors have reason to believe the West (meaning the U.S. and the leading European countries) will not intervene in Syria. They are not alone. The remoteness of the chance of Western intervention drove Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan to visit Moscow in an unlikely and maybe desperate effort to reduce Russian support for Assad. According to an Arab diplomat, Putin “listened politely” and declined. Could the belief that they’re immune to Western pressure explain the resort to nerve gas?
On the other hand, some experts think that the rebels, who were facing the bleak prospect of defeat, may have regained some strength. They captured a government air base and are again more effectively challenging the regime — including in the suburbs of Damascus. Could the belief that they’re losing explain the government’s resort to nerve gas?
The Russians have their own explanation. It was, they said, a “provocation,” launched by the rebels themselves to justify Western intervention. From a technical perspective, that argument fails. The rebels have no chemical weapons delivery systems, no aircraft, and very limited ability to withstand a nerve gas attack themselves.
Gases like Sarin are pernicious agents. A gas mask, even a chemical protective suit, may not be enough to protect a fighter even if suits were available. While there are some photos of rebels with gas masks, none have been seen in protective suits. And, of course, the population has neither.The only way to treat a nerve gas victim is with atropine injections, which must be quickly administered. U.S. forces use encapsulated atropine injectors; in Israel atropine injectors, antibiotics (for biological weapons such as Anthrax) and gas masks are part of the civilian defense system. Not so elsewhere in the Middle East.
If the rebels were acting as agents provocateur, murdering their own people, you can be sure of two things: first, many rebels in the area would have died along with the population, so the mission would be doubly suicidal; and second, the surviving civilian population would surely try to kill any rebel they could lay their hands on.
It is long past time to punish the Syrian regime for the atrocities it has visited on its own people. Oddly enough, the American perhaps most opposed to military intervention in or above Syria, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey, may have made the case. In a letter to Congressman Elliot Engel, Dempsey said the American military is clearly capable of taking out the Syrian air force. He wouldn’t do it because it would “offer no strategy for peace,” he wrote. [The war] “is a deeply rooted, long-term conflict among multiple factions, and violent struggles for power will continue after Assad’s rule ends. We should evaluate the effectiveness of limited military options in this context.”
He is correct. Looking for a “strategy for peace” would be premature, but precisely in the context of “the effectiveness of limited military options,” the destruction of the Syrian Air Force and its long-range artillery would teach a hard and effective lesson to the regime about what the civilized world considers behavior beyond the pale.