Syria and selective historical memory

The United States will soon attack Syria, with or without help from anyone else. Despite the refusal of many traditional American allies to participate in an act of illegal aggression, the Australian government appears to be straining at the leash. Kevin Rudd has pre-empted the findings of a United Nations investigation into chemical weapons attacks against Syrian civilians in Damascus, finding Assad guilty of the ‘most flagrant breach of international law’. Rudd is no doubt familiar with what a flagrant breach of international law looks like. His recent asylum seekers policy was bitterly condemned by international legal experts as being in breach of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and other agreements – in other words, international law. Reports of systematic abuse, appalling living conditions, self-harm and suicide at refugee detention centres are commonplace. If he has forgotten, someone might remind Rudd that large numbers of Syrians languish in these squalid camps.

Someone might also remind him that, if he does possess ‘overwhelming evidence’ that Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, he should turn it over immediately to the United Nations. It would certainly have saved them the hassle of deploying expert investigators to Syria. Of course, Rudd has nothing of the sort. Assad might well have committed the crimes for which he is accused, but the ‘evidence’ Rudd refers to now is the same kind of ‘evidence’ used to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003 – that is, the invented kind. It took Coalition forces less than two years to abandon any pretence of searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but the carnage had, by then, only just begun. The civil war that continues to rage would not begin for another year, and the scale of the refugee crisis was yet to be known. Around five million Iraqis are now displaced, and this number grows still. It is easy to forget that refugees fleeing Iraq far outnumber those fleeing Syria. In fact, with the exception of Palestinians fleeing the formation of Israel in 1948, Iraqis constitute the largest Middle Eastern refugee population in recent history.

The most serious consequences of the American-led invasion of Iraq may be yet to come. There were fissile materials and other tools of mass destruction in Iraq at the time of the Coalition attack – these were carefully monitored by UN officials at protected facilities. As Coalition forces unleashed ‘shock and awe’ on the people of Iraq, UN officials had to abandon these facilities for their own security, and much of the material they were monitoring is now unaccounted for. It is not hard to imagine a similar situation unfolding in Syria. One Canadian military expert warned that attempts to destroy Assad’s chemical weapons from the air will ‘only do a nice job of spreading them around, missing fifty per cent of them because they are underground, providing them to a whole bunch of people who should not have them’ and ‘exposing some of the chemical agents to the air’. A rosy picture.

But Western complicity in the proliferation of chemical weapons has not always been so haphazard. Under Ronald Reagan, the United States sold huge quantities of chemical weapons to Saddam Hussein in the full knowledge that he was using them to massacre defenceless ethnic Kurds and Iranian soldiers during the Iran–Iraq War. The historical record is clear on this, even if our collective memory is a little sketchy. Consider the recent remarks of veteran journalist Robert Fisk, who witnessed Saddam’s invasion of Iran in the Eighties: ‘I saw the Ypres-like wounded of this foul attack by Saddam – US officers, I should add, toured the battlefield later and reported back to Washington – and we didn’t care a tinker’s curse about it. Thousands of Iranian soldiers in the 1980-88 war were poisoned to death by this vile weapon.’ John Kerry, the incumbent American Secretary of State, has been one of the most vocal critics of Syrian atrocities. When American forces were helping Saddam gas Iranians and turning a blind eye to his gassing of the Kurds, Kerry was serving on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. His moral opposition to chemical weapons has become somewhat more acute between then and now.

We might cast our memory back further still to recall the most hideous and extensive use of chemical weapons in human history. During the Vietnam War, the United States and its allies dumped 43 million litres of the dioxin-based chemical defoliant Agent Orange on Vietnam. The herbicide was sprayed over a full quarter of South Vietnam, destroying five million acres of forest and half-a-million acres of food crops. Dioxin is classified as a carcinogen by the World Health Organization, and Australian veterans have reported significantly higher rates of cancer and serious health issues, including birth defects in their children. One report concludes that the rate of spina bifida and absent body parts is a thousand per cent higher than for children of other Australians. Of course, the Vietnamese were worst affected by Agent Orange. Since the end of the American war in Vietnam, the Vietnamese Red Cross has linked no less than 150 000 cases of birth defects to the use of dioxin-based defoliants. But not to worry: if John Kerry’s remarks on Syria apply universally, then ‘there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people’. The United States recently committed $40 million – the cost of a few cruise missiles – to help clean up areas of Vietnam still contaminated by chemical defoliants. According to a local activist group, the cheque must still be in the mail.

Of course, one simple and effective action Western governments could take to reduce the proliferation of chemical weapons would be to stop using them. The American and Australian militaries continue to use depleted uranium (DU) in their armour-piercing munitions, despite it being a widely suspected cause of cancer and other serious health defects, and Australian companies are leading exporters of uranium to weapons producers around the world. In December last year, 155 governments voted for a UN General Assembly resolution that recommended a ‘precautionary approach to DU’ and greater transparency in its use. Four countries voted against the resolution: the US, Israel, the UK and France. Australia abstained.

Like the Vietnamese with Agent Orange, Iraqis have suffered the worst consequences of DU use. It is estimated that four-hundred metric tons of DU munitions were used in Iraq, overwhelmingly by American forces, but also by the UK and Australia. In places like Fallujah, where DU was used in large quantities, higher rates of cancer, infant mortality and birth defects such as sexual mutation have been recorded than among survivors of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Other areas of Iraq are similarly affected. Moreover, the International Atomic Energy Agency has warned that the Iraqi government is pitifully under-resourced for the task of decontaminating DU-affected areas in Iraq, and contamination is spreading through a trade in scrap metal – a trade largely plied by children. The cost of cleaning up confirmed DU sites in Iraq, according to a Dutch organisation, would be around $30 to $40 million. If Vietnam is any indication, Western governments will get around to it in 2053. This might be a little hard for Iraqis to accept, given that the American government spent $600 million in the first weeks of the attack on Libya in 2011, including $340 million on Tomahawk cruise missiles – the same missiles to be used in ‘surgical strikes’ on Syria.

In fairness, Syria is not Vietnam or Iraq. It is quite possible, even likely, that Assad did use chemical weapons on his own people. But we should be under no illusions. An American military attack on Syria will have nothing to do with protecting people from chemical weapons, and everything to do with protecting the interests that are typically served by American foreign policy. The Assad government is the last remaining Iranian ally in the region. Its removal would further isolate Iran and an American presence in Syria would encircle it. The United States has sought to destabilise Iran since 1979, when the Iranian people overthrew the Western-backed dictatorship of the Shah and American oil companies were deprived of their contracts. The first action America took to destabilise Iran was to encourage Saddam Hussein to invade in 1980, supplying him with the weapons and tactical support he needed, including chemical weapons and their delivery systems.

Scenes of innocent people dying from poisonous gas are difficult to watch, but there are sensible, legal solutions to the Syrian crisis. An arms embargo on the Syrian regime is a viable option, and multilateral intervention under the auspices of the UN is still a possibility. These have been the proposals of the Argentinian government and others. Russia and China, stalwart allies of Assad, have hinted that they would support an arms embargo if the Assad regime is revealed to have carried out the attacks in Damascus.

In the final analysis, while the tragedy of Iraq continues to unfold, any talk of our governments repeating the same actions in Syria to protect civilian life should be treated as farce. If Kevin Rudd is so concerned about international law, he should adhere to the UN Refugee Convention and end the senseless torture of asylum seekers. If he is so concerned with chemical weapons, he should ban the use of DU munitions by the Australian military and support the international non-proliferation campaign, and he should pressure the Obama administration to properly resource Iraqi decontamination efforts. Lastly – and most significantly for the people of Syria – the Australian government should refuse to participate in illegal unilateral military action with the United States. Of course, none of this is likely to happen without popular pressure, so if the Australian government is hazy on the historical record, it is crucial that we know it with crystal clarity.

Sam Oldham

Sam Oldham is a postgraduate student of history at Monash University. He lives in Melbourne.

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  1. Sam, you’ve done a great job in discovering the “chemical past”. As for the present, you wrote (and sorry for the long comment):

    It is quite possible, even likely, that Assad did use chemical weapons on his own people.

    I can’t understand why it is possible not to mention likely. Makes no sense. I think it’s quite obvious that Syrian chemical weapons are deterrents agains strong outside adversaries, mainly the Zionists. Just like the North Korean atomic bomb. It’s like Mutually Assured Destruction, if you know what I mean.

    It makes no sense to use them in small quantities agains the “contras” who mix with the local population. The tactical value of chemical weapons is low, the government eventually always prevailed with conventional weapons and it’s getting better and better every day.

    Furthermore, the government enjoys considerable popular support, and Syrians are getting more and more hostile to the “rebels” even in “rebel” held territories. Such indiscriminate attacks would be very counterproductive regarding support even if tactically justified but we can’t even assert the latter.

    “Official” enemies of the “West” almost always get bad treatment even in the progressive or leftish press. It is almost like an obligation to mention that this or that head of state is a “brutal” “dictator” and “No decent human being would possibly harbor any sympathy for [him]”. Kind of apologizing. This is very sad, and not only “oversimplifies” the question but plays into the hands of the imperialists. Even the annoying phrase “his own people” above comes directly from the propagandists’ playbook.

    Russia and China, stalwart allies of Assad, have hinted that they would support an arms embargo if the Assad regime is revealed to have carried out the attacks in Damascus.

    This is very-very unlikely. The whole Syrian shit is part of a much greater imperialist game where the “West” is on one side and the Russians and Chinese are on the other. That other side is by no means unified. The Russians and the Chinese have learnt from the Libyan shit (and two decades of global fuck up by the US) and now they don’t allow anything resembling real multilateral support for intervention.

    Note, that the “West” doesn’t give a shit for public opinion, they regularly get away with everything in the press, and Russia+China know it very well. They have a bad publicity in the “West” anyway so they don’t loose anything standing behind Assad regardless of what he’s done.

    […] but there are sensible, legal solutions to the Syrian crisis. An arms embargo on the Syrian regime is a viable option, and multilateral intervention under the auspices of the UN is still a possibility.

    The most sensible and legal solution would be: leave them alone, no intervention. The Syrian civil war is not just “happening”, it’s not a phenomenon that has come out of the air. There are outside actors, actually the “West” (mainly through Gulf proxies), and their role is most important. It is well known how they created the “insurgency” and launched it on top of a wave of popular discontent back in 2011. This wave has died out of course, the reality of the “revolution” is much enough to most Syrians. The popularity of the “regime” is increasing according to polls (and the CIA), a great act during a civil war.

    (“Regime”… Why don’t we speak of the “American” or “Australian” regime? It would be at least as much justified as “Iranian” regime)

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