Below are excerpts from a July 26, 2015 speech Syrian president Bashar al-Assad delivered in Damascus.
On the West’s double standards on terrorism
[Western powers] call it terrorism when it hits them, and call it revolution, freedom, democracy, and human rights when it hits us. There, its perpetrators are terrorists, and here, they are rebels and moderate opposition. They scream at the top of their voices whenever they are touched by a spark of fire while they fall deathly silent when we are burned by it.
On humanitarian intervention
Let them permit the opposition in their countries to bear arms and kill and destroy and keep calling them opposition, or permit them to become proxies or let other states decide what is the ruling system for them should be, then we will believe and accept their old recipes that have always been used to justify an aggression or interference in states’ affairs under humanitarian slogans like human rights, freedom, democracy, and so on.
On the West’s relationship with militant Islamists
What they want is to keep this monster in check and not eliminate it. All their military, political and media campaigns are in fact smoke screens, and what the West has done so far has led to a growth of terrorism instead of eliminating it, and this is confirmed by reality, not personal analysis, as terrorism has spread geographically, its material resources have increased, and its manpower has doubled.
An observation a propos of Assad’s comments: Western newspapers talk of the Egyptian army’s fight in the Sinai against militant Islamists, but of the Syrian army’s fight against militant Islamists in Syria as “regime forces” waging a “brutal” war to crush a “rebellion”.
July 19, 2015
By Stephen Gowans
Kristen Ghodsee’s “The Left Side of History: World War II and the Unfulfilled Promise of Communism in Eastern Europe,” is a variegated reflection on socialism as practiced in Eastern Europe, and especially Bulgaria, in the four and half decades following WWII. It is, at one and the same time, a meditation on the purpose of official anti-communism; a near hagiography of the British communist Frank Thompson, the elder brother of the famed historian E.P. Thompson, who died fighting with Bulgarian partisans in WWII; a history of the Lagadinovas, three brothers and a sister (the latter of whom would become famous throughout the socialist bloc as the “Amazon”), who joined the ranks of communist partisans struggling against Bulgaria’s Nazi-allied government; a Philippic against the contemporary political left for being comfortable only with opposition, and lacking any clear sense of what it’s for; and paradoxically, given the foregoing, an execration of communism, filled with the crude anti-communist diatribes one would expect from The Black Book of Communism, and not from one who sets out to explore the heroism of communist partisans and a British communist who fought with them.
Ghodsee is an ethnographer whose prior works include “three books on how non-elite Bulgarian men and women experienced the economic transition from communism.” (Ghodsee, 2012)
Function of official anti-communism
In writing The Left Side of History, Ghodsee set out to show there was much good about communism in Bulgaria. She felt that the achievements of communist Bulgaria were hidden beneath an avalanche of official anti-communist demonization. In this, she has responded to a danger foretold by the great historian of the Russian Revolution, E.H. Carr. Referring specifically to the Bolshevik revolution, Carr warned in 1978 that there was little danger that a veil would be drawn “over the enormous blots on the record of the Revolution, over its costs in human suffering, over the crimes committed in its name.”
Indeed, every effort has been made by those who would discredit the Bolsheviks and all they stood for to bring these to the fore. The greater danger, warned Carr, was that
“we shall be tempted to forget altogether, and to pass over in silence, (the Revolution’s) immense achievements…I am thinking of the transformation since 1917 in the lives of ordinary people: the transformation of Russia from a country more than eighty per cent of whose population consisted of illiterate or semi-literate peasants into a country with a population more than sixty per cent urban, which is totally literate and is rapidly acquiring the elements of urban culture…and these things have been brought about by rejecting the main criteria of capitalist production—profits and the laws of the market—and substituting a comprehensive economic plan aimed at promoting the common welfare.” (Carr, 1978)
For her part, Ghodsee celebrates the achievements of Bulgarian communism. It “provided support for working mothers and promoted programs to ensure the de jure and de facto equality of men and women. Communism promoted literacy and education and health care and guaranteed full employment for anyone able to work. Communism gave people jobs, homes, and daily routines that were predictable and stable…” (Ghodsee, 2015: 192)
Nowadays, communism is presented, not as a type of society that stressed the common welfare and the end of exploitation of man by man, but as an abomination equal to Nazism. In 2009, the European Union created a new holiday, the European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism. Ghodsee condemns this as an attempt to discredit communism at a time the global financial crisis is inspiring austerity-weary populations to seek political alternatives. She cites also as further evidence of the efforts to blot out the rich contribution communists have made to the progress of humanity, a June 2013 decision by a Madrid court ordering the dismantling of a monument that commemorated the sacrifices of the mainly communist International Brigades, volunteers burning with passion for a new, more humane and democratic world, who fought against Franco’s fascists.
In my country, Canada, plans are afoot to erect a monument to the “victims” of communism, leaving ordinary Canadians puzzled as to why. Canada has never been Communist.
But there is a chance that Canadians, and others in the world, bedevilled by unemployment, economic insecurity, diminished economic opportunity and growing material deprivation, will increasingly look to the model provided by the really-existing socialism of the Soviet bloc as an alternative. “Communism may be making a bit of a comeback in Europe,” Ghodsee writes, “but it is also the case that some political elites are working harder than ever to stop it by blackwashing its history.” (Ghodsee, 2015: viii-xix) She adds, “At the exact moment when ordinary people are searching for political alternatives, many official historical institutes are supported (often with funds from the West) to discredit communism.”
Victims of communism, promoters of fascism
Ghodsee effectively punctures the growing movement to commemorate the ‘victims’ of communism by showing that the ‘victims’ were hardly innocents, but in many cases, were xenophobes, Judeophobes, and fascists responsible for the deaths, oppression and exploitation of numberless people.
Every year some Bulgarians lay wreaths at a wall inscribed with the names of many who died at the hands of communists. “The victims memorialized on the wall include many political opponents of communism executed after September 1944, when Bulgaria’s communists seized power in this tiny Balkan country,” reported the Associated Press. (Ghodsee, 2015: 192) Ghodsee points out that ‘Nowhere was it mentioned, even in passing, that Bulgaria’s ‘political and military elite’ were allied with Nazi Germany.” (Ghodsee, 2015: 192)
The ‘victims’ of communism memorialized in Bulgaria include:
o Bogdan Filov, a passionate and committed ally of Hitler, who as Bulgarian prime minister from 1940 to 1943, deported 11,000 Jews to their deaths at Treblinka;
o Petar Gabrovski, minister of the interior under Filov, and briefly prime minister; a vicious Judeophobe who started his political career as a Nazi;
o Nikola Zhekov, head of the Bulgarian far-right legionnaires and a personal friend of Hitler;
o General Hristo Lukov, the Bulgarian minister of war, who has become an inspiration for today’s neo-Nazis. (Ghodsee, 2015:194-196)
What are we fighting for?
Ghodsee writes of an encounter with students at an Occupy-like encampment.
“I spoke to some students sitting on the ground in front of one of the tents. There was a sign in Bulgarian. It read ‘This is not a protest. This is a process. Revolution for a New Bulgaria.’
“I asked the students why they were protesting. One young woman said, ‘I love my country, but I have no future here. While the Mafia governments stay in power, Bulgaria will never develop, I don’t want to leave. I want to stay and fight and make my country a better place.’
“’Do you have any concrete proposals?” I said. The protestors I had spoken to thus far all had very different ideas about what needed to be done.
“’Free university education,’ she said. The other students nodded. ‘And practical training placements for three years after you graduate.’
“’You mean like it was before?’ I said. Before 1989, the state paid for all university education, and all students completed three years of national service upon graduation. The state guaranteed a job in the student’s area of speciality…
“’Yes,’ the woman said…
“A second woman in the group waited until there was a lull in the conversation before she spoke. ‘There should be more kindergartens,’ she said. ‘Every mother should have a safe place for her child when she works.’
“’You mean like they had under communism?’ I said.
“At the word ‘communism,’ the students tensed.
“’We don’t want communism back,” the first young woman said. ‘We just want a normal country.” (Ghodsee, 2015:166-168)
In a similar vein, Ghodsee recounts a conversation between two elderly Bulgarian women, Elena Lagadinova, who joined the Bulgarian partisans at age 14 and later became a member of the Bulgarian Communist Party Central Committee, and Maria Zneopolska, author of a book on Frank Thompson.
“’Look at these protestors,’ Elena said, ‘They are against the monopolies and the corruption and the foreign capitalists. These are the same things (the communist partisans) were against.’
‘It’s the same fight,” Maria agreed. She looked to Elena and then back at me. ‘But it’s not enough to protest against. Nothing ever changes until the people have something to fight for.’” (Ghodsee, 2015: 175)
While Ghodsee laments that “strident anticommunist rhetoric demonizes anyone who once called himself or herself a ‘communist’ or who believed in the communist ideal” (Ghodsee, 2015: xvi) and regrets the hegemony of an anti-communist ideology that makes it “easier to assert that the moon landing was staged than it would be to argue that there was anything good about the communist past,” (Ghodsee, 2015: 133) she, herself, reinforces the anti-communism she deplores.
This, she does, subtly, in earlier publications, through the use of language that implicitly accepts communism as a danger implanted from without. For example, in Lost in Transition: Ethnographies of Everyday Life after Communism, Ghodsee writes that “the revolution in Cuba (just 90 miles from Florida) brought the communist threat closer than it had ever been to the United States” (emphasis added; Ghodsee, 2011: xi) rather than writing “the Cuban revolution brought communism (sans threat) closer than it had ever been to the United States”, or that it “brought the communist threat closer than it had ever been to the capitalist elite of the United States.” She wrote too of how “Many countries in Latin America and Africa were constantly fighting communist insurgencies” (Ghodsee, 2011: xi) as if the insurgencies were separate from the countries that battled them. Here she equates country with the state. It would have been more apt for Ghodsee to have written that many states in Latin America and Africa, backed by Western economic and political elites, fought to suppress rebellions from their populations against their oppression and exploitation. Of the other September 11, September 11, 1973, Ghodsee writes “Chile would elect a socialist leader, leaving the United States no choice but to support a coup d’état” (Ghodsee, 2011: xi), leaving one to muse over why she felt the United States government had no choice. Indeed, formally, it did have a choice, though it might be argued that the imperatives of the US economic system created a compulsion for Washington to intervene.
In The Left Side of History Ghodsee abandons subtle anti-communist language for crude, and shockingly puerile, anti-communist rhetoric. After touting the achievements of Bulgaria’s communism, she brands communist Bulgaria “a brutal dystopia ruled by paranoid dictators.” (Ghodsee, 2015: 129) Rather than examining the history of Stalin’s Soviet Union from the perspective of the multiple and almost insuperable challenges the country’s leadership faced, she offers a sophomoric psychological reductionism, transforming Stalin into a kind of cartoon character Dr. Evil, who she depicts as a “megalomaniac” who “hijacked the communist cause” (Ghodsee, 2015: 129) to pursue his “dreams of world domination.” (Ghodsee, 2015; 128) It appears that it is not only the European Union that has drawn an equal sign between Hitler and Stalin.
Against the Stalinist Beelzebub Ghodsee juxtaposes the pure and angelic heroes of her book, Frank Thompson and the Lagadinovas, the ‘good’ communists betrayed by their iniquitous leaders. “I needed to remind myself,” she writes, “that not all who fought or found themselves on the left side of history were radical Marxist zealots bent on world domination.” (Ghodsee, 2015: 199) Ghodsee wants us to believe that everything good about communism in Bulgaria is traceable to Thompson, the Lagadinovas, and the good communists, and all the bad is due to “Stalinists.”
This, however, is completely indefensible. The Bulgarian partisans and Frank Thompson had very little to do with the gains communism implanted in Bulgaria. The Bulgarian partisans were, by Ghodsee’s own admission, largely ineffective. They spent most of their time eking out a bare existence, frequently betrayed by peasants who didn’t support them. Unlike in neighboring Greece and Yugoslavia, where foreign occupations galvanized people to support the communist-led guerrilla resistance, Bulgaria was allied with Nazi Germany and endured no foreign occupation. The lives of most Bulgarians during the war were quiet, and they did not support the communist guerrillas. It was the Red Army, under Stalin’s leadership, that ultimately toppled Hitler’s allies in Sofia, and brought communism to Bulgaria. Stalin, far more than the Lagadinovas, and especially the hapless (though admirable) Frank Thompson, is responsible for the immense social gains Bulgaria enjoyed during the communist period.
Ghodsee’s political ideal, revealed in her various other writings, is “a more socially oriented state akin to the Scandinavian welfare state—states that combine democracy with social security.” (Ghodsee, 2004) She doesn’t say what she means by ‘democracy,” though it appears that she means a multiparty state, or at least, not the socialist states of central and eastern Europe in which one party, that of the Communists, was hegemonic. What she’s against is “the overly-individualistic, savage capitalism of the United States and the United Kingdom,” (Ghodsee, 2004) but is also against “one-party rule and leaders who remained unchallenged for thirty-five years” (Ghodsee, 2015: 191). She favors a combining of the full-employment, social welfare, egalitarian politics of the communist states (democracy as a type of society) with the procedural democracies of North America and Western Europe (democracy as a set of rules for electing representatives.) In this she is guilty of what she faults the contemporary left for: being clear on what she’s against (‘savage’ capitalism* and the one-party state), but having no concrete proposal for how to bring about the implied alternative, namely, socialism within a multi-party state—nor any sense, one suspects, of whether a socialist state with a Western-style parliamentary democracy is at all possible in a world profoundly dominated politically, economically, militarily and ideologically by a capitalist elite, who will no more accept a “democratic” socialism than an “undemocratic” one. The only difference between the socialism Ghodsee lionizes and the socialism she deplores is that the first has never existed. It’s as if, like the supporters of Syriza, Ghodsee believes that all one has to do is vote against capitalism (or austerity) and the capitalist elite, its institutions, and imperatives will meekly step aside. Jean Bricmont offers a refreshing corrective to Ghodsee’s naiveté. “If it is true, as often said, that most socialist regimes turn out to be dictatorships that is largely because a dictatorship is much harder to overthrow or subvert than a democracy.” (Bricmont, 2006)
The Left Side of History is not without its charms. Ghodsee does stress the importance for the left of having a clear idea of what it’s for and concrete proposals for how to get there. She makes the case, cogently I think, that the upsurge in official anticommunism is linked to the financial crisis and austerity and the need of ruling elites to eclipse, what from their point of view, is a danger that in a searching for political alternatives, people will turn to the really-existing socialism of the Soviet bloc for inspiration. She has shown that many of the so-called victims of communism were hardly innocent, but instead were victimizers—often fascists, racists and xenophobes, responsible for the persecution, oppression and deaths of numberless people. And in exploring the lives of Frank Thomson and the Lagadinovas, she challenges official anti-communism by pointing to communists who were not the “red scum” of official anticommunist demonology but selfless heroes with a burning passion for a more humane, democratic world.
The weakness of The Left Side of History lies in Ghodsee’s occasional substitution of anti-communist slogans for critical analysis, as in her portrayal of Stalin as a paranoid bent on world domination who hijacked a good cause and turned it to evil ends. In this she concedes to the official demonology. To be sure, in her view, Thompson and the Lagadinovas were communist heroes but Stalin and Stalinists were red scum. What Ghodsee loses sight of was that Thompson and the Lagadinovas were members of a movement in which Stalin played a central role, and could therefore, themselves, be called “Stalinists.” What’s more, Stalin, to far greater degree than Ghodsee’s chosen heroes, brought the achievements of communism to Eastern Europe.
Another weakness is Ghodsee’s depiction of communist Eastern Europe as a brutal dystopia. Indeed, this borders on bizarre, considering that she attributes the rise in official anticommunism to a need on the part of ruling elites to discredit communism as a model. Why would anyone feel compelled to discredit a brutal dystopia?
One could speculate that in writing The Left Side of History, Ghodsee was filled with a dread that her favorable assessments of communism would inevitably mean she would be denounced as a Stalinist. Could it be that as a prophylaxis, she armored herself with anti-Stalinist rhetoric? Her rhetoric is fevered, of a more rabid variety than even conservatives are capable of. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone seriously accuse Stalin—the champion of socialism in one country, the man who dismantled the Comintern and pursued what his leftist critics called an overly cautious foreign policy–of having had an agenda of world domination.
If indeed fear of being denounced as a Stalinist led Ghodsee to the missteps that have almost fatally weakened The Left Side of History, she might have looked to E.H. Carr for inspiration. After publicly declaring his concern that the achievements of communism would be expunged from history, Carr acknowledged that, “Of course, I know that anyone who speaks of the achievements of the Revolution will at once be branded as a Stalinist. But I am not prepared to submit to this kind of moral blackmail.” (Carr, 1978)
*Savage capitalism implies there’s some other kind of capitalism, perhaps a gentle one. But this is tantamount to distinguishing a gentle slavery from a savage slavery, as if indeed, a gentle slavery (or a gentle capitalism) is anything but an oxymoron.
Jean Bricmont. Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human Rights to Sell War. 2006
Kristen Ghodsee, “The Specter Still Haunts: Revisiting 1989,” Dissent, Spring 2012
E.H. Carr, “The Russian Revolution and the West,” New Left Review 1/111/ September-October 1978.
Kristen Ghodsee, “Red Nostalgia? Communism, Women’s Emancipation, and Economic Transformation in Bulgaria,” L,Homme Z. F. G. 15, 1 (2004)
Kristen Ghodsee, Lost in Transition: Ethnographies of Everyday Life after Communism. Duke University Press Books, 2011.
Kristen Ghodsee. The Left Side of History: World War II and the Unfulfilled Promise of Communism in Eastern Europe. Duke University Press. 2015.
It’s highly unlikely that the Syrian military has used chemical weapons in its ongoing fight against foreign-backed jihadists, but if it had, would use of the weapons be uniquely reprehensible, and would it justify an intervention?
June 27, 2015
Updated July 18, 2015
By Stephen Gowans
There are two problems with the way we think about chemical weapons. The first is the idea that killing with gas is more reprehensible than killing with bullets, shrapnel, and explosives. This position is both intellectually and morally indefensible. The second is our belief that chemical weapons are weapons of mass destruction (WMD). They are not. In fact, they’re no more WMD than are bullets and machetes. 
Before elaborating on these points, let me address the question of whether the Syrian Army has used chemical weapons. This article is not a defense of the use of chemical weapons by Syrian forces, because I don’t believe the Syrian Army has used them. If it had, I would defend the army’s use of these weapons, but there’s no reason to believe they have been used, and compelling reasons to believe they haven’t. It’s impossible, of course, to say definitively that Syrian forces haven’t used chemical weapons; negatives can’t be proved. But there are compelling political and military reasons that can be cited that any reasonable person would concede amount to formidable constraints on the Syrian military that would prevent it from using chemical weapons. These constraints make the allegations against Syrian forces unconvincing. Plus, there’s no hard evidence, only allegations by states with a record of placing fabrications on the public record as pretexts for illegal aggressions against nationalist, socialist, communist and anti-imperialist governments. As an Arab nationalist state, with a significant public sector, and an independent foreign policy, Syria is a prime target for aggression by the United States, its allies, and its proxies.
Chemical weapons, as will be shown below, are highly ineffective. It’s difficult to conceive of when they would be used when bullets, conventional ordnance, missiles and jet fighters are at hand. Militarily, there are no compelling reasons for the Syrian military to use chemical weapons. This logic is all the stronger in the case of chlorine gas which is more an annoyance (its makes people sick, and rarely kills) than a credible weapon. 
Additionally, it made no sense politically for Syrian forces to deploy chemical weapons once their use became a red line drawn by US President Barack Obama. Since the US leader promised that the use of chemical weapons by Syrian forces would trigger missile strikes, any possibility of their use became severely constrained. And since there were no compelling military reasons to use them, allegations that the Syrian military did, indeed, use them are unconvincing in the extreme.
The recent allegation that Syrian forces are using chlorine gas-filled barrel bombs dropped from helicopters suffers from the same lack of credibility. The political reasons against using chlorine gas remain the same as those that militate against the use of banned chemical weapons. And the military reasons that act as restraints on their use are even stronger, since chlorine gas rarely kills. 
Let’s acknowledge, then, that the Syrian military almost certainly hasn’t used chemical weapons in Syria in the last four years, and almost certainly isn’t mounting chlorine gas attacks today. Instead, let’s turn to the following questions:
• Are chemical weapons more reprehensible than other weapons?
• Are they legitimately WMD?
• Where did the concept of WMD come from?
• What role, if any, does the concept play in selling Western foreign policy goals to the public?
The idea that killing with gas is more reprehensible than killing with bullets, shrapnel, or explosives is untenable. Why is choking to death from gas inhalation inhumane, while bleeding to death from a bullet wound, being crushed to death by a collapsed building struck by a missile, or being incinerated in an explosion, morally acceptable? Why is killing hundreds of people with sarin or mustard gas bad, when killing a hundred-fold more people through sanctions and economic blockade and their attendant hunger and disease, is all right? In this perverted moral calculus, what matters, it seems, is not the weapon, per se, but who’s wielding it. Our unique weapons are all right. Their unique weapons are morally repugnant. This double standard is glimpsed in the condemnation by Western human rights NGOs of the Palestinians’ home-made rockets as indiscriminate and therefore criminal under international law and the acceptance of Israel’s missiles and bombs as “precise” and therefore acceptable under the rules of war. The trouble is that the “morally repugnant” Palestinian rockets kill few Israelis while the Israeli’s “morally acceptable” precise weapons kill many Palestinians. 
To have any meaning at all, the concept of WMD must include weapons that kill massive numbers of people, and exclude those that don’t. A single atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima killed 70,000 people.  By contrast, a rocket with a typical payload of nerve gas will kill between 108 and 290 people if delivered under ideal weather conditions (overcast skies with no wind) over a heavily populated area against unprotected people. If there is a moderate wind or the sun is out, the death rate will be 11 to 29 people.  WMD kill tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people, not tens or hundreds.
Compared to the single atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima, a single rocket with a typical chemical weapons payload perfectly delivered against unprotected people will produce a fatality rate less than one-half of one percent as great under ideal conditions, and less than one-twentieth of one percent as great under realistic conditions. Against those with gas masks, or who have taken shelter indoors, the fatality rate will be infinitesimally small.
In WWI, it took 70,000 tons of gas to produce as many fatalities as were produced in Hiroshima by a single atom bomb. 
For the aforesaid reasons, defining chemical weapons as WMD is highly dubious unless the concept is so diluted that bullets and machetes are also included.  In large quantities, chemical weapons can kill many people. But in large quantities, bullets and machetes can kill many people, too.
Chemical weapons were introduced by the Germans in 1915. They accounted for less than one percent of battle deaths in WWI. Only 2-3 percent of those gassed on the Western front died, while the fatality rate among those struck by bullets or shrapnel was 10 to 12 times higher. It took a ton of gas to produce a single fatality. After the war, some military analysts argued that gas was comparatively humane—it incapacitated troops without killing them. 
Iraq made extensive use of chemical weapons in its war against Iran in the 1980s—to little outside protest. At the time, Iraq was fighting a US enemy, Iran, with US assistance. Hence, for the United States and its allies, chemical weapons were all right—even though they were largely ineffective. Of 27,000 Iranian soldiers gassed, only 268 died—one in 100. 
Baghdad’s chemical weapons attack on the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988 is held up as an example of the weapons’ extensive destructive power. The attack is said to have produced 5,000 deaths. However, even if we accept this estimate as reasonable, it isn’t in the tens of thousands, as would be expected from a true WMD, like an atom bomb, but is in the low thousands. And there’s reason to believe that even this number is over-estimated. The source of the estimate was Iranian authorities, who had an interest in exaggerating the number of fatalities, because they were engaged in a conflict with Iraq and were providing aid to the Kurds. Journalists visiting the town after the attack reported seeing hundreds, not thousands, of dead. And the town had been under siege for several days and bombarded by conventional artillery.
Conventional weapons likely accounted for some fraction of the fatalities, and perhaps a large fraction. 
A Human Rights Watch report on Iraqi chemical weapon attacks in Iraqi Kurdish areas during the 1980s cited two attacks in which it is suggested that 300-400 may have been killed (again hundreds, and not tens of thousands of fatalities), while estimates for other attacks are under 100, and most are under 20. 
The release of sarin gas into a Japanese subway station in 1995 killed only 12 people. 
In August 2013, a chemical weapons attack took place in the Syrian town of Ghouta. Fatality estimates range from the low hundreds to low thousands, not tens of thousands. 
Thousands were killed in the 1984 Bhopal tragedy in India. This is sometimes cited as an example of the massive destructive power of chemical agents. But 40 tons of toxic gas was released into a heavily populated area after an explosion at a chemical plant, and no chemical weapon carries a payload of 40 tons.  To be sure, chemical weapons can be highly destructive if used in massive quantities, but so too can bombs and incendiaries, as witness the tens of thousands of deaths caused by the fire-bombings of Dresden, Hamburg and Tokyo in WWII.
The idea that killing with gas is more reprehensible than killing with bullets and shrapnel comes out of WWI. The Germans were the first to introduce gas in 1915 and the British emphasized the inhuman aspects to try to draw the United States into the war on their side.  The British used the deception—to be used by many other states subsequently–that their weapons were humane while the weapons uniquely used by the other side were inhumane. That this was wrong is starkly illustrated by the following: Eighty thousand soldiers died from gas in WWI. Even if all of these fatalities were British, the number would pale in comparison with the hundreds of thousands, and possibly as many as 750,000 German civilians who perished from hunger and disease as a result of Britain’s deployment of its main weapon against Germany—a blockade intended to starve the country into surrender. 
Initially, WMD was a term to denote nuclear weapons or weapons of similar destructive capacity that might be developed in the future.  In 1989, George HW Bush departed from this convention, using the term WMD in an address to the UN in connection with chemical weapons. 
In 1990, on the eve of the Gulf War, the White House began to talk of Iraq as “an emergent regional superpower, bristling with weapons of mass destruction,” a reference to Baghdad’s chemical weapons and ballistic missiles.  As shown above, chemical weapons are manifestly not WMD. Nor, by themselves, are ballistic missiles WMD. But it was useful for Washington to transform Iraq from being seen accurately as a comparatively weak country militarily that could carry out chemical weapons attacks, each of which could kill a few thousand at most under favorable conditions, to being seen inaccurately as a WMD threat. The purpose of elevating Iraq from a non-threat to a large threat was to soften public opinion for a series of wars and massively destructive sanctions that would soon be rolled out against the country. Washington’s problem with Iraq wasn’t that it bristled with WMD (it didn’t), but that it bristled against subservience to the interlocked political and economic agendas of Washington and Wall Street. As an Arab nationalist state with a publicly-owned economy sitting atop an ocean of oil, Iraq was a prime target for US aggression. Deceiving the Western public into believing Iraq was a WMD threat would secure public support for, or at least acquiescence to, a campaign of war and sanctions leading to regime change and absorption of Iraq into the United States’ informal empire. The ultimate prize would be the privatization of Iraq’s oil industry. 
In 1992, as sanctions against Iraq were beginning to bite, US law defined chemical and biological weapons as WMD. In 1994, radiological weapons and explosives were added to the list. Under the law, almost all weapons apart from modern rifles and pistols now became WMD, a vast extension of the concept, rendering it virtually meaningless. 
Bullets kill. Shrapnel kills. Explosives kill. Chlorine gas makes people sick. It is lethal only in very high doses and where medical attention is not immediately available.  It’s a nuisance, not a lethal threat. It’s not even in the same category as bullets and machetes.
There are compelling political and military considerations that militate against Syrian forces mounting chlorine gas attacks. Chlorine gas is less effective than bullets and conventional ordnance, so why use it? Moreover, doing so would open up Syria to the risk of the United States claiming that the Syrian military’s use of chlorine gas was uniquely reprehensible and that air and missile strikes on Syrian forces were necessary as a moral response to barbarity.
By contrast, there is a strong reason for the jihadist proxies of the United States and its allies to mount chlorine gas attacks. They would welcome any direct military intervention by US and allied forces that weakens the Assad government. Any evidence of chlorine gas use in Syria can be employed to create a pretext for a US-led air campaign against Syrian forces, or short of that, to further vilify the Syrian government. Pinning blame for chlorine gas attacks on Assad and convincing the Western public that the Syrian president is culpable isn’t difficult to do. The Syrian leader has already been so thoroughly demonized that any charge, no matter how absurd, improbable, or baseless, will stick. All that needs to be done is to produce evidence of chlorine gas use, and then have Western state officials publicly express a “strong suspicion” that the Syrian Army is responsible. No hard evidence need be produced. The allegations will be disseminated uncritically by mass news media, to become, soon enough, the received truth. If the incident isn’t used by Western forces as a pretext for an attack, it can still be added to the growing Himalaya of slanders and black propaganda that has accumulated against the Syrian government over the last four years, and so make a future attack all the easier to sell to Western populations.
Significantly, chlorine gas has been used by jihadists in Iraq since 2003. There was flurry of chlorine gas attacks on US forces carried out by Al Qaeda in Iraq in 2007.  The jihadist group later became ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, the main anti-government militant groups operating today in Syria. Ask yourself: If chlorine gas attacks have been mounted in Syria, who is more likely to have been the perpetrator—organizations with a history of using the weapon and a motivation to continue , or an organization with no military reason to use it and a compelling political reason not to?
The idea that chemical weapons, like nuclear weapons, kill massive numbers of people is wrong. Chemical weapons are no more destructive, and often are far less so, than conventional arms. Calling chemical weapons massively destructive makes the concept of WMD meaningless. WMD has become a hollow term used to manipulate public opinion to secure support for dubious political goals. Developed as a way of justifying a program of aggression against Iraq, its sole function is to connote something bad while denoting almost nothing at all, in order to turn non-threats into seemingly legitimate targets to secure public support for campaigns of aggression against governments whose sole crime is to exercise sovereignty over their country’s politics, natural resources, and economy.
Stephen Gowans discusses chemical weapons and WMD with Brendan Stone on Unusual Sources
1. John Mueller, “Erase the Red Line,” Foreign Affairs, April 30, 2013
2. Anne Barnard and Somini Sengupta, “Syria is using chemical weapons again, rescue workers say,” The New York Times, May 6, 2015
3. Barnard and Sengupta
4. See Jonathan Cooke, “Experts: Israel’s weapons are not precise,” The Blog from Nazareth, August 1, 2014. http://www.jonathan-cook.net/blog/2014-08-01/experts-israels-weapons-are-not-precise/
5. John Mueller and Karl Mueller, “Sanctions of Mass Destruction,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 1999
6. “A 1993 analysis by the Office of Technology Assessment of the U.S. Congress finds that a ton of sarin gas perfectly delivered under absolutely ideal conditions over a heavily populated area against unprotected people would cause between 3,000 and 8,000 deaths. Under slightly less ideal circumstances—if there is a moderate wind or if the sun is out, for example—the death rate would be one-tenth as great.” (John Mueller. Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them. Free Press. 2006. p.18.) The UN estimated that rockets carrying a payload of between 11 and 16 gallons of chemical agent were used in the 2013 chemical weapons attack in Ghouta, Syria. (“Syria chemical attack: What we know,” BBC, September 24, 2013) Assuming an average payload of 13 gallons and 358 gallons per ton, then 13 gallons of sarin gas perfectly delivered under absolutely ideal conditions over a heavily populated area against unprotected people would cause between 108 and 290 deaths.
7. According to Mueller, 2013 it took one ton of gas to produce a single fatality in WWI. If follows, then, that 70,000 tons of gas would produce 70,000 deaths—as many as caused by a single atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
8. Mueller and Mueller
9. Mueller, 2013
10. John Mueller. Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them. Free Press. 2006. pp.19-20
11. Mueller, 2006
12. Mueller, 2006
13. John Mueller. Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda. Oxford University Press, 2010. pp 227-228
14. “Syria chemical attack: What we know,” BBC, September 24, 2013
15. Mueller, 2006. p. 20
16. Mueller, 2013
17. Mueller and Mueller
18. Mueller, 2013
19. “Excerpts from Bush’s Speech at the Opening of the UN General Assembly,” The New York Times, September 26, 1989. Bush pledged to eliminate the United States’ chemical weapons within 10 years (since delayed to 2023.) US allies Israel and Egypt also have chemical weapons. In 2003, Syria proposed to the United Nations Security Council that the Middle East become a chemical weapons-free zone. The proposal was blocked by the United States, likely in order to shelter Israel from having to give up its store of chemical arms or from being forced into the embarrassing situation of having to explain to the world why it was keeping them. Numerous calls to declare the Middle East a nuclear weapons-free zone have also been blocked by Washington to shelter Israel from having to give up its nuclear arsenal.
20. Michael Wines, “Confrontation in the Gulf: US explores new strategies to limit weapons of mass destruction,” The New York Times, September 30, 1990
21. See Greg Muttitt. Fuel of the Fire: Oil and Politics in Occupied Iraq. The New Press. 2012
22. Mueller, 2013
23. Barnard and Sengupta
24. Kirk Semple and Eric Schmitt, “U.S. is investigating report that Islamic state used chlorine gas,” The New York Times, October 23, 2014.
25. In a July 17, 2015 New York Times Article, (ISIS has fired chemical mortar shells, evidence indicates) journalist C.J. Chivers reported on indications that Islamic State militants used improvised mortar shells to carry chemical agents in attacks on Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq.
The Islamic State appears to have manufactured rudimentary chemical warfare shells and attacked Kurdish positions in Iraq and Syria with them as many as three times in recent weeks, according to field investigators, Kurdish officials and a Western ordnance disposal technician who examined the incidents and recovered one of the shells.
Chivers added that Sunni militants have a history of using chemical weapons.
Beginning more than a decade ago, Sunni militants in Iraq have occasionally used chlorine or old chemical warfare shells in makeshift bombs against American and Iraqi government forces. And Kurdish forces have claimed that militants affiliated with the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, used a chlorine-based chemical in at least one suicide truck bomb in Iraq this year.
According to Chivers, an investigator found evidence that ISIS militants had used chemical projectiles in attacks in northeastern Syria.
The reporter acknowledged that “Chemical weapons, internationally condemned and banned in most of the world, are often less lethal than conventional munitions.” He didn’t mention that despite the pariah status of the weapons that the United States has one of the world’s largest chemical weapons stockpiles. Israel, too, has chemical weapons.
May 20, 2015
By Stephen Gowans
John Mueller, the US political scientist who coined the term “sanctions of mass destruction,” to show that “economic sanctions…by large states…may have contributed to more deaths during the post-Cold War era than all weapons of mass destruction throughout history” , wrote an article two years ago in Foreign Affairs, the major foreign policy journal of the US establishment, challenging the idea that Syria’s chemical weapons (when it had them) were a threat.  Mueller examined the history of chemical weapons since WWI to make the point that chemical agents are misclassified as weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
According to Mueller, chemical weapons accounted for less than one percent of battle fatalities during the First World War; it took one ton of Sarin gas on average, during that conflict, to produce a single fatality; and only 2-3% of those gassed on the Western front died, compared to a fatality rate 10 to 12 times higher among those who were struck by bullets or shrapnel from conventional weapons. 
In their official history of WWI, the British concluded that “gas made war uncomfortable…to no purpose.”  Accordingly, most handsomely funded militaries with generous weapons development programs or the means to purchase highly destructive armaments were quite happy to relinquish their chemical weapons. They are ineffective and conventional arms produce far higher rates of fatalities.
But in the course of challenging the view that chemical weapons are WMD, Mueller came close to making a far more significant point, namely, that the concept of WMD is used for propaganda purposes to vastly exaggerate the threat posed by official enemies that have “weapons of little destruction.” This is done by creating the impression that the ineffective weapons in the enemy’s arsenal are weapons of great destructive power, through the pairing of weapons of little destruction, like chemical agents, with highly destructive armaments, like nuclear weapons. Two auxiliary points are necessary here: (i) These “enemies” are comparatively weak militarily, without the massively destructive conventional arms found in the arsenals of major military powers; (ii) The previous point explains the “enemies’” possession of weapons of little destruction. To exaggerate to make a point, labeling chemical weapons as WMD is like calling the spears of hunting and gathering tribes WMD in order to turn primitive people into threats.
In 1992, the term WMD was explicitly codified in US law to include not only nuclear weapons but chemical and biological weapons, as well. Then, in 1994, radiological weapons—conventional bombs used to disperse radioactive material—were added.  But chemical, biological and radiological weapons have nowhere near the destructive capability of nuclear weapons, to say nothing of the destructive capability of the high yield conventional explosives in the arsenals of the US and other large militaries.
So why would the United States subsume a class of highly ineffective weapons under a rubric archetypically defined by nuclear weapons?
For the same reason the British quintupled their gas casualty figures in WWI—to justify a military intervention. For the British, making gas into a uniquely inhuman weapon demonized the Germans, the major users of gas. This could be used, it was hoped, to draw the United States into the war on the side of the Triple Entente. 
For the United States, in 1992, investing chemical weapons with the same kind of horrific aura that nuclear weapons have, served the political purpose of making Iraq, which had chemical weapons—furnished by the United States, which condoned their use by Iraq against Iran —appear to be a unique threat—one that had to be dealt with by imposing what amounted to a blockade to starve the population into submission. The blockade contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands, if not over a million, Iraqis—more people than could ever be killed by all of the chemical weapons in the US-supplied Iraqi arsenal—truly, sanctions of mass destruction, and far more terrible than chemical weapons.
So, WMD, applied to chemical, biological, and radiological weapons, is by design, a term of deception, whose purpose is the manipulation of public opinion to soften up attitudes to war against countries that (i) are an obstacle to US geopolitical designs and (ii) have one or more types of these weapons of little destruction.
These days, the concept of WMD as part of the propaganda system of Western states has been used against the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. The nature of the government in Damascus, and the reason it finds itself in the cross-hairs of the West’s regime-change apparatus, can best be explained in the words of its president. “Syria,” asserts Assad, “is an independent state working for the interests of its people, rather than making the Syrian people work for the interests of the West.”  In other words, the Syrian government pursues Syria’s interests, not the interlocked political agendas of Washington and economic agendas of Wall St.
To demonize this obstacle to Western agendas, the charge is leveled at Damascus that it is responsible for at least one chemical weapons attack, for which no clear evidence has ever been adduced that implicates the Syrian army, and for which the use of chemical weapons would have been a transparent tactical blunder since it would have delivered to Washington a pretext to directly intervene militarily in Syria. For this reason it is highly improbable that the Syrian army was behind the attack. An additional charge, made now that Syria has abandoned its chemical weapons, is that it routinely uses chlorine gas as a weapon.
As a weapon, chlorine gas is exceedingly ineffective. It is lethal only in highly concentrated doses and where medical treatment is not immediately available. It is far less effective than conventional weapons.  Why, then, would the Syrian army use a highly ineffective weapon, which is deplored by world public opinion, and whose use would provide the United States a pretext to directly intervene militarily in Syria, when it has far more effective conventional weapons, which are not deplored by world public opinion, and whose use does not deliver a pretext to Washington to intervene? Unless we believe the government in Damascus is comprised of a collection of imbeciles, this makes no sense.
On the other hand, let’s look at this from the perspective of the opposition. It has a strong motive to use chlorine gas in order to pin blame for its use on the Syrian army to create a pretext for direct US military intervention. What’s more, the opposition’s major forces have a long history of using chlorine gas as a weapon.
Chlorine gas has been used by Sunni militants in Iraq for over a decade. It has been used intermittently in attacks against US and Iraqi forces and against civilians since 2003. There was a flurry of such attacks in Anbar province in 2007 as US forces were trying to wrest control of the territory from Al-Qaeda in Iraq , an organization from which sprang ISIS and al-Nusra, the principal militant groups in Syria today.
In light of the above, you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out who’s using chlorine gas in Syria: the forces that have a motive for their use and a history of using them. Nor do you have to be particularly perceptive (only attentive) to determine that the insinuation of US politicians and leading news media that the Syrian government is weaponizing chlorine gas is a deliberate deception, on par with Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Powell inventing a pretext for war on Iraq by concocting a deliberate fiction about Iraq concealing chemical weapons, a fabrication leading news media legitimized.
The concept of WMD provides a context in which the public is manipulated to see governments whose militaries have ineffective weapons, of a destructive capability far below that of the conventional weapons in the arsenals of major militaries, as uniquely inhuman and vastly destructive, thereby depicting these governments as dire threats and consequently as necessary targets for regime change. Syria’s relinquishing its chemical weapons stores has undercut the ability of Western governments to demonize Damascus as a user of WMD. Accordingly, the Western propaganda system, of which governments, leading news media, and leading human rights NGOs are a part, has invoked allegations of chlorine gas use by the Syrian Arab Army to bring WMD back into the picture.
But it should be made clear, first, that it is a corruption of the truth to equate weaponized chlorine gas, a weapon of little destruction, with nuclear weapons and veridical WMD; second, that the allegation that the Syrian military is deploying a weapon of little destruction when it has more effective weapons and use of chlorine gas would deliver a pretext to Washington to directly intervene militarily in Syria, strains credibility; and third, there is, not surprisingly, a complete absence of credible evidence that the Syrian army has used chlorine gas as a weapon. It is the propaganda apparatus of Western states—itself a weapon of mass deception–that advances the antitheses of these points.
1. John Mueller and Karl Mueller, “Sanctions of Mass Destruction,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 1999.
2. John Mueller, “Erase the Red Line: Why WeShouldn’t Care about Syria’s Chemical Weapons,” Foreign Affairs, April 30, 2013.
5. Ibid; The radiation dispersal range is equal to the blast range. Hence, anyone exposed to radiation would be killed first by the conventional blast. Adding radioactive material, then, to a conventional bomb is pointless—like shooting someone two days after he has been beheaded.
7. Glen Kessler, “History lesson: When the United States looked the other way on chemical weapons,” The Washington Post, September 4, 2013
8. President al-Assad: Basis for any political solution for crisis in Syria is what the Syrian people want,” http://www.syriaonline.sy/?f=Details&catid=12&pageid=5835
9. Anne Barnard and Somini Sengupta, “Syria is using chemical weapons again, rescue workers say,” The New York Times, May 6, 2015.
10. Kirk Semple and Eric Schmitt, “U.S. is investigating report that Islamic state used chlorine gas,” The New York Times, October 23, 2014.
May 14, 2015
By Stephen Gowans
The dictator of Bahrain—who, with the help of Saudi troops and tanks, ruthlessly crushed an Arab Spring uprising that demanded a representative democracy—is spending a leisurely day, today, in Britain, one of the world’s oldest parliamentary ‘democracies’, visiting a horse show with his fellow parasite Queen Elizabeth II. Britain is neck deep in the undemocratic campaign to topple the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, amply assisted by Saudi Arabia and other tyrannies of the Persian Gulf, who have provided arms, training and money to al-Qaeda and other Sunni religious fanatics to wage jihad against the secular, anti-sectarian, anti-imperialist, and anti-Zionist government of Assad. Assad must be toppled, the misnamed Friends of Syria aver, because he is a dictator who thwarted an Arab Spring uprising.
Sensitive to the legitimate demands inhered in the uprising, the Syrian government made major concessions, amending its constitution to open up political participation, and holding a multi-candidate presidential election, which Assad won. Is Syria a democracy? By Western standards, not yet, concedes Assad. But “if you want to compare me to your closest friend, Saudi Arabia, of course we are democratic,” Assad told a French journalist.
In response to news that traces of ricin and sarin have been found in Syria, former US ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, ever vigilant for opportunities to vilify Assad, pronounced the Syrian government guilty of hiding chemical weapons, even though UN inspectors say the discovery is not evidence of “a lingering weapons program” or “new use or production.”
“You’re dealing with a regime that is not very credible on weapons of mass destruction programs,” Ford insisted, to lend weight to his case. To be sure, his observation is incontestable, but not in connection with Syria and only insofar as it refers to the “regime” in Washington, which infamously concocted a fiction about Saddam Hussein concealing weapons of mass destruction as a pretext for war on Iraq. The accusations levelled at Syria are no less baseless, Ford’s transparently politically-inspired arguments notwithstanding.
The Bahraini king’s hobnobbing with ‘Her Majesty’ calls to mind Diderot’s observation that mankind will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest, though an updated version would need to include the rulers of the world’s currently dominant socio-political system, along with an expanded definition of priests to include mainstream journalists, think-tank experts and PR hacks, to say nothing of former US ambassadors, labouring to mislead public opinion into accepting yet another war on a country that seeks to chart its own course, free from subservience to the dictates of Washington and its political masters on Wall St..
“Syria,” asserts Assad, “is an independent state working for the interests of its people, rather than making the Syrian people work for the interests of the West.” And therein is the issue. Ford, the New York Times, and other instruments of the Western ruling class, want the Syrian people to work for the interests of Western bankers, high-level corporate executives and major investors, as the Saudis, Bahrainis, and other puppet Arab monarchies do. And they’re willing to lie, deceive the public, do deals with al-Qaeda, and wage wars of aggression, to get their way. Into the Middle East they stride, their hypocrisy going naked, with the new priests scrambling desperately to drape it with pleasing raiment.
By Stephen Gowans
The New York Times ran an article on May 12 suggesting that the Syrian government has held back some of its chemical weapons and is using them against rebel fighters. Significantly, the allegation was backed by no evidence, yet the newspaper chose to run the story anyway.
In their story (“Inspectors in Syria find traces of banned military chemicals”) reporters Somini Sengupta, Marlise Simons and Anne Barnard cited a conclusion drawn by an anonymous Western diplomat who was briefed on findings by inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The inspectors had reportedly found traces of toxic nerve agents in Syria. The diplomat was quoted as saying that there’s a “strong suspicion” that the Syrians “are retaining stockpiles which are being held back.”
However, a close reading of the article showed that there was not one whit of evidence to back up the diplomat’s suspicion. Indeed, at various points in the article, the story’s lead was challenged by the journalists themselves.
• “[S]mall amounts of banned agents [have been found. But these findings] do not necessarily indicate a lingering weapons program.”
• “[T]here was no clear evidence of new use or production of forbidden chemicals.”
• “There is no evidence that banned materials were used in weapons after Syria signed the treaty, or that Syria possesses sufficient quantities to use in future weapons.”
A fitting headline would have read “Western diplomat accuses Syrian government of hiding chemical weapons, on no evidence.”
In the same article the reporters refer to “mounting evidence that Mr. Assad’s forces had violated the terms of the international treaty banning use of chemical weapons … by dropping jerry-built chlorine bombs on insurgent-held areas.” The mounting evidence turned out to be the testimony of witnesses who say the bombs have been dropped from government helicopters.
However, the quality of the evidence is untested, and virtually useless. There’s no way to determine whether the witnesses are authentic or simply opponents of the Syrian government who have an interest in spreading false allegations.
What’s more, there’s a compelling reason to believe that Syrian forces have not engaged in the action they’re accused of. Jerry-built chlorine bombs are capable only of briefly incapacitating a few fighters. Conventional bombs—which the Syrians have in abundance—permanently eliminate many more. Why, then, would Syrian forces risk worldwide condemnation to use an ineffective weapon, when they have more effective weapons at their disposable which world opinion does not condemn?
Sensing that their source’s allegation may be treated with suspicion, the New York Times journalists acknowledge that “Evidence of chemical weapons remains a fraught issue for global public opinion more than a decade after false claims of an Iraqi chemical weapons program were used to justify the American invasion that deposed Saddam Hussein.”
No less fraught is the complicity of Western media in propagating similarly baseless allegations to serve an obvious political agenda.