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Rethinking Chemical Weapons

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?

“You mention chemical weapons, people immediately freeze and are irrational.”–Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, former commanding officer of the British army’s chemical weapons unit.*

June 27, 2015
Updated July 18, 2015 and August 14, 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. [1]

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. [2]

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. [3]

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. [4]

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. [5] 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. [6] 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. [7]

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. [8] 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. [9]

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. [10]

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. [11]

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. [12]

The release of sarin gas into a Japanese subway station in 1995 killed only 12 people. [13]

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. [14]

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. [15] 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. [16] 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. [17]

Initially, WMD was a term to denote nuclear weapons or weapons of similar destructive capacity that might be developed in the future. [18] In 1989, George HW Bush departed from this convention, using the term WMD in an address to the UN in connection with chemical weapons. [19]

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. [20] 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. [21]

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. [22]

Chlorine Gas

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. [23] 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. [24] 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 [25], 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

Radio: We need to oppose illegal wars, not just weapons


*Adam Entous, “Islamic State suspected of using chemical weapon, U.S. says,” The Wall Street Journal, August 13, 2015.

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.

Chivers wrote:

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.

Written by what's left

June 27, 2015 at 3:26 pm

Posted in Chemical Weapons, Syria, WMD

Under-Reported UN Investigation Points to Rebel Use of Chemical Weapons in Syria

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By Stephen Gowans

It can’t be said that the media failed to mention it altogether, because The New York Times made passing reference to it on December 12 (Chemical Arms Used Repeatedly in Syria, U.N. Says).Other media outlets did too. They just didn’t give it much coverage.

The ‘it’ was the finding of the UN inspector mission in Syria that chemical weapons were used on two occasions against Syrian soldiers and on one occasion against soldiers and civilians (presumably by insurgents.)

This is the same mission whose report on the August Ghouta incident is now widely misreported in the Western media to have strongly suggested that the Syrian army was responsible for the gassing deaths of hundreds. In fact, while the UN report concluded that a chemical weapons attack had occurred, it did not assign blame for the attack, and noted that physical evidence at the site had been manipulated, complicating whatever inferences one cared to make about who the perpetrators were.

The mission’s final report—presented to the UN Secretary General on December 12 – explores a number of other incidents in which chemical weapons were allegedly used.

The inspectors corroborated three of four Syrian government allegations that its troops had been gassed. In one of the alleged incidents (on March 19 at Khan Al Asal) civilians were also gassed. That incident “reportedly resulted in the deaths of 25 people and injured more than 110 civilians and soldiers,” according to the UN report.

Given that Syrian soldiers were the targets of these attacks, it seems very likely that insurgent forces were responsible. Of course, that’s by no means certain. It’s possible that the soldiers were exposed to sarin after mishandling their own weapons. But the balance of probabilities favors the view that the insurgents were the culpable party.

Had UN inspectors concluded that chemical weapons were used against insurgents and civilians, killing two dozen and injuring over 100, it is nearly certain that this would be the top news story in Western media for days to come. However, given that the report points, instead, to the insurgents using chemical weapons, and not Syrian forces, it has been given little play.

The New York Times limits to three paragraphs its reporting on those elements of the UN report that point strongly to the culpability of insurgent forces, and reporters Somini Sengupta and Rick Gladstone take pains to minimize the mission’s findings, noting that “verification was impossible” and that in the Jobar and Ashrafiah cases “the report said, chemical weapons may have been used on ‘a relatively small scale against soldiers’” (emphasis added).

In fact, the relevant conclusions from the report, reproduced below, evince more certainty than Sengupta’s and Gladstone’s use of “may” acknowledges.

• “The United Nations Mission collected credible information that corroborates the allegations that chemical weapons were used in Khan Al Asal on 19 March 2013 against soldiers and civilians.”

• “The United Nations Mission collected evidence consistent with the probable use of chemical weapons in Jobar on 24 August 2013 on a relatively small scale against soldiers.”

• “The United Nations Mission collected evidence that suggests that chemical weapons were used in Ashrafiah Sahnaya on 25 August 2013 on a small scale against soldiers.”

Interestingly, the report reveals that the UN team felt that most of the French, British and US allegations against Syria lacked sufficient information and credibility, and so were never investigated. On the other hand, the mission found all four of Syria’s allegations to be sufficiently credible to investigate, and corroborated three of them.

Table 1This suggests that in most instances, the allegations made by the Western powers were propaganda-driven, and were intended to manipulate public opinion through the innuendo effect—the tendency of people to regard allegations as fact, especially if viewed to come from a credible source. The UN mission, however, had other ideas about how credible these sources were.

Also under-reported is the investigative work of Seymour Hersh, who in a December 8 online article for the London Review of Books, titled Whose Sarin?, revealed that Washington had “evidence that the al-Nusra Front, a jihadi group affiliated with al-Qaida, had mastered the mechanics of creating sarin and was capable of manufacturing it in quantity.”

According to Hersh, the Joint Chiefs of Staff “concluded that the rebel forces were capable of attacking an American force with sarin because they were able to produce the lethal gas.”

On the other hand, Hersh revealed that Washington had no evidence that the Syrian army was responsible for the August 21 Ghouta attack.

The New Yorker and Washington Post, which usually run Hersh’s investigative reporting, refused to publish his story. With the UN report offering credible evidence that the insurgents have used chemical weapons, it’s difficult to attribute the media outlets’ rejection of the Hersh story to concerns about the credibility of Hersh’s reporting. It’s more likely that they, along with media outlets who are underplaying the UN report, are trying not to draw too much attention to the use of chemical weapons by insurgents.

Table 2

Written by what's left

December 14, 2013 at 12:56 am

Posted in Chemical Weapons, Syria

UN Report on Ghouta Gas Incident Points to Evidence Tampering, not Syrian Culpability

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By Stephen Gowans

The United Nations report on the alleged use of chemical weapons in the Ghouta area of Damascus on August 21 does not, as newspaper headlines have indicated, “point to Assad’s use of gas” [1]; confirm that rockets were loaded with sarin [2]; or “come closer to linking Assad to sarin attack” [3]. Nor, as US officials and some journalists have declared, does it “reinforce the case that Mr. Assad’s forces were responsible” [4]; “confirm Damascus’s responsibility” [5]; or “undercut arguments by President Bashar al-Assad of Syria that rebel forces … had been responsible.” [6]

This isn’t to say that Syrian forces didn’t use chemical weapons, only that the evidence adduced in the UN report doesn’t show, or even suggest, that they did. On the contrary, the report offers stronger evidence that attempts were made to manipulate evidence to attribute blame to the Syrian government.

The report concludes that “chemical weapons have been used in the ongoing conflict between parties in the Syrian Arab Republic, also against civilians, including children, on a relatively large scale.” [7]

The UN inspectors adduced five findings in support of their conclusion.

• “Impacted and exploded surface-to-surface rockets, capable to carry a chemical payload, were found to contain sarin.
• “Close to the rocket impact sites, in the area where patients were affected, the environment was found to be contaminated by sarin.
• “Over fifty interviews given by survivors and health care workers provided ample corroboration of the medical and scientific results.
• “A number of patients/survivors were clearly diagnosed as intoxicated by an organophosophorous compound.
• “Blood and urine samples from the same patients were found positive for sarin and sarin signatures.” [8]

The findings, then:

• Present evidence that the symptoms experienced by people in Ghouta on August 21 were due to sarin exposure.
• Suggest—but do not confirm—a possible route through which the contamination occurred (delivery of the agent by surface-to-surface rockets.)
• Says nothing about who was responsible.

US officials and their allies have cited the discovery by the UN inspectors of rocket fragments containing sarin to attribute blame to Syrian forces. But to make the leap from ‘sarin-contaminated rocket fragments were found’ to ‘Syrian forces carried out a sarin attack’ requires evidence to support two intermediary conclusions:

• The contaminated rocket fragments weren’t planted or manipulated.
• Only Syrian forces could have carried out a chemical weapons attack using rockets.

The report can’t confirm the first conclusion, and indeed, challenges it.

Pages 18 and 22 of the report contain key paragraphs headed by the title “Limitations”.

On page 18:

The time necessary to conduct a detailed survey … as well as take samples was very limited. The sites [had] been well travelled by other individuals both before and during the investigation. Fragments and other possible evidence [had] clearly been handled/moved prior to the arrival of the investigation team. [9]

On page 22:

As with other sites, the locations [had] been well travelled by other individuals prior to the arrival of the Mission. Time spent on the site was … limited. During the time spent at these locations, individuals arrived carrying other suspected munitions indicating that such potential evidence [was] moved and possibly manipulated. [10]

In other words, the inspectors had little time to carefully gather evidence and inspect it in situ; there was plenty of opportunity for the evidence to be manipulated; and the evidence had clearly been handled and moved.

Far from indicting Syrian forces as the culprits, these findings point more strongly to evidence being manipulated, possibly to falsely implicate the Syrian government.

As to the argument that only Syrian forces could have launched a rocket attack, it’s plain that rebel forces could have used rockets supplied by their foreign backers or captured from Syrian forces.

Indeed, as the Associated Press’s Kimberly Dozier and Matt Apuzzo reported on August 29,

U.S. intelligence officials are not so certain that the suspected chemical attack was carried out on Assad’s orders. Some have even talked about the possibility that rebels could have carried out the attack in a callous and calculated attempt to draw the West into the war. [11, 12]

In summary, here’s what the UN report says: On August 21, people in Ghouta were exposed to sarin. We don’t know how they were exposed and who was responsible. But we do know that evidence in connection with rocket fragments was possibly manipulated.

Concluding that the UN report adds to the evidence linking Syrian forces to the August 21 incident, as US officials and some US mass media have indicated, is misleading. First, there was no hard evidence of Syrian culpability to which the UN report could be added. An earlier assessment by the US intelligence community was “thick with caveats.” [13] Second, the UN report, like the US intelligence community assessment, offers no evidence linking the Ghouta incident to Syrian forces.

US officials are reading far more into the evidence than the evidence allows, and US mass media are docilely following the officials’ lead. Anti-Syrian forces have adopted a ridiculously lax evidentiary standard to allow themselves to find the target of their hostility guilty of gassing non-combatants on, at best, flimsy evidence. One can only conclude that they’re motivated to discredit the Syrian government to facilitate the project of bringing about regime change in Damascus—a project these parties are overtly committed to.

Consider motives.

• The United States and its allies have a motive to blame the Syrian government for using chemical weapons in order to establish a pretext to step up their intervention in Syria’s internal war. In light of this, it would be expected that they would be inclined to favor very liberal, over-reaching, interpretations of evidence to create a casus belli.

• Once Washington declared that the use of chemical weapons by Syrian forces would trigger an overt intervention by US forces, the rebels had a motive to stage a chemical attack in order to blame it on Syrian forces.

• Syrian forces had a motive to refrain from using chemical weapons to avoid crossing the United States’ red line.

In light of these motives, the most probable scenario is that a sarin attack was carried out by rebel forces to draw the United States more fully into the war and that Washington and its allies have set their evidentiary bar deliberately low to read Syrian culpability into the flimsiest of evidence. The objective is to achieve what US foreign policy has long set as its principal goal: to topple governments that stand in the way of the expansion of economic space for private ownership, market regulation and profit accumulation.

What makes Syria’s government an object of hostility for the big business-dominated US state is its denial of complete freedom for foreign capital to exploit Syrian markets, land, resources and labour. [14] Added to this is Damascus’s refusal to fully cooperate in supporting US geopolitical goals (which are themselves linked ultimately to US profit-making interests.) “Syria,” says the country’s president “is an independent state working for the interests of its people, rather than making the Syrian people work for the interests of the West.” [15]

Syria’s insistence on maintaining its independence, the US government’s long-standing hostility to foreign governments that demand to be allowed to chart their own course, the rebels’ interest in staging a gas attack to blame on Damascus, Washington’s reading far more into the evidence than the evidence allows, and the absence of any hard evidence linking Syrian forces to the Ghouta incident, suggest that the Syrian government is being set up.

The UN report does nothing to challenge this view. If anything, its noting that evidence was moved and possibly manipulated, supports it.

1. Rick Gladstone and C.J. Chivers, “Forensic Details in UN Report Point to Assad’s Use of Gas”, The New York Times, September 16, 2013.
2. Rick Gladstone and Nick Cumming-Bruce, “U.N. Report Confirms Rockets Loaded with Sarin in Aug. 21 Attack,” The New York Times, September 16, 2013.
3. Joby Warrick, “U.N. inspectors’ findings come closer to linking Assad to sarin attack”, The Washington Post”, September 16, 2013.
4. Siobhan Gorman, Joe Lauria and Jay Solomon, “Report on Gas Attack Emboldens U.S.”, The Wall Street Journal, September 16, 2013.
5. Gorman, Lauria and Solomon.
6. Gladstone and Chivers.
7. UN Report on the Alleged Use of Chemical Weapons in the Ghouta Area of Damascus on 21 August 2013, http://www.un.org/disarmament/content/slideshow/Secretary_General_Report_of_CW_Investigation.pdf
8. UN Report.
9. UN Report.
10. UN Report.
11.Kimberly Dozier and Matt Apuzzo, “Intelligence on weapons no ‘slam dunk’”, The Associated Press, August 29, 2013.
12. Significantly, that “suspicion was not included in the official intelligence report.”
13. Dozier and Apuzzo.
14. Stephen Gowans, “Syria’s Uprising in Context”, what’s left, February 10, 2012, https://gowans.wordpress.com/2012/02/10/syrias-uprising-in-context/
15. Bashar al-Assad May 19, 2013 interview with Clarin newspaper and Telam news agency

Written by what's left

September 17, 2013 at 6:18 pm

Posted in Chemical Weapons, Syria

Counter-Questions on Syria

with 7 comments

By Stephen Gowans

The US state is above international law, according to US president Barack Obama. In an address announcing that he was referring to the US Congress the decision to take military action against Syria, Obama declared that the United States needs to violate international law in order to enforce “the international system” and “international rules.” The international “system” and “rules” Obama referred to, which he apparently intended his audience to construe as “international law,” is not, in fact, international law, but rules Obama himself has unilaterally drawn up, and through rhetorical sleight of hand, attempted to pass off as international law. Obama has no regard for international law. The very act Obama proposes—waging war on Syria without UN Security Council authorization—is a flagrant violation of the authentic international system Obama deceptively claims he wishes to uphold. Obama has arrogated onto himself the powers and responsibilities of world ruler. He sets the rules, decides when they’re broken, and metes out the punishment.

The US president justified his self-elevation to the post of world emperor on moral grounds, arguing that the United States must punish heinous acts (though only those, real or imagined, of countries that are not US satellites; the heinous acts of satellite countries are allowed to continue with impunity, and often, US assistance.) In his statement, he asked:

• What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?
• What’s the purpose of the international system that we’ve built if a prohibition on the use of chemical weapons that has been agreed to by the governments of 98 percent of the world’s people…is not enforced?
• If we won’t enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules? To governments who would choose to build nuclear arms? To terrorists who would spread biological weapons? To armies who carry out genocide?

Laying aside the realities that: there is no hard evidence that the Syrian president was behind the heinous act and that it seems more likely that the opposition, Washington’s ally, was; that appointing to itself the moral duty to punish the perpetrator is rather rich coming from a country that has authored multiple heinous acts around the globe—and on an infinitely grander scale; that the agreement of other governments not to use chemical weapons has no relevance to what goes on in Syria, which has not signed onto the Chemical Weapons Convention (and neither have US allies Egypt and Israel); we might put these counter-questions to ourselves:

• What message will we, the world’s 99 percent, send if a president can autocratically appoint to himself the right to bomb other countries without justification and without legitimate authority, and pay no price?
• What’s the purpose of the international system if a prohibition on the unlawful use of force that has been agreed to by the governments of 100 percent of the world’s people (the UN Charter) is ignored with impunity?
• If we, the 99 percent, won’t enforce accountability in the face of this act of aggression against Syria, which is to be carried out in brazen defiance of the international system, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules? To a country that threatens non-nuclear countries with nuclear arms (as the United States does, reserving the right of first-strike against any country)? To a government which terrorizes civilians through bombing raids, “shock and awe” and drone attacks? To states that carry out genocide through sanctions of mass destruction (as the United States did in Iraq)?

Not only is Washington willing to brush aside international law when the UN Charter gets in the way of its foreign policy interests, it is also willing to toss evidence, reason and logic aside when they threaten its pretexts for war.

Written by what's left

September 1, 2013 at 10:44 pm

Posted in Chemical Weapons, Syria

Are we going to stand idly by?

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By Stephen Gowans

In the end, the US intelligence community assessment released by Washington yesterday to justify an attack on Syria amounts to this: There is no confirming evidence that a chemical weapons attack occurred on August 21 in Syria, or if one occurred, that it was carried out by the Syrian military.

Newspapers have been warning that Washington would be unable to point to a smoking gun and had no hard evidence to back up its charges against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Nothing in the official assessment disconfirms this.

The assessment is a judgment, based on an opinion that a chemical weapons attack occurred and that the Syrian military is the only agent in Syria capable of carrying one out.

Others have a different view. The UN special commission of inquiry into Syria announced in May that it had strong suspicions that opposition forces had used chemical weapons. Speculating about the possible outcome of a US-French war on Syria, Washington Post reporter Anne Gearan wrote today that “the rebels might be tempted…to stage further attacks and blame” the Syrian government.

Even more damaging to Washington’s case is this August 29 report from Associated Press reporters Kimberly Dozier and Matt Apuzzo:

U.S. intelligence officials are not so certain that the suspected chemical attack was carried out on Assad’s orders. Some have even talked about the possibility that rebels could have carried out the attack in a callous and calculated attempt to draw the West into the war. That suspicion was not included in the official intelligence report, according to the official who described the report.

US secretary of state John Kerry, Washington’s war-monger in chief on the Syrian file, said: “The question is: What are we—we collectively—what are we in the world going to do about this?”


• The United States is hardly an impartial party, and has been trying to topple the Arab nationalist government in Syria for decades. It has an interest in contriving pretexts to intervene militarily.
• An attack on Syria would be illegal.
• Even if there was confirming evidence that the Syrian military launched a chemical attack, it is not a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention. Neither are US allies Egypt and Israel. And while Syria did in 1968 sign onto the Geneva Protocol banning the use in war of gasses, the protocol is concerned with war between, not within, states.
• Along with Russia, the United States has the world’s largest stockpiles of chemical weapons.
• Washington’s revulsion at the use of chemical weapons is disingenuous. The United States aided Saddam Hussein to gas Iranians in the late 1980s.

The more fitting question is: What are we—we collectively—what are we in the world going to do about the United States arrogantly arrogating onto itself, in contempt of international law, in defiance of the greater part of humanity, the right to wage war on Syria, and worse, on a pretext?

Written by what's left

August 31, 2013 at 1:57 pm

Posted in Chemical Weapons, Syria

US Strike on Syria: No Hard Evidence, Insincere, Illegal

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By Stephen Gowans

Political scientist Ian Hurd, writing in the New York Times, scotches the misconception that there is a legal basis for a US attack on Syria. Because Syria does not belong to international conventions prohibiting the use of chemical weapons, there is no “legal justification in existing law” for US military action, Hurd writes. Even if Syria had signed onto these conventions, the treaties are enforceable only by the United Nations Security Council, and not by the United States acting unilaterally or with allies. Indeed, an attack on Syria would be illegal. [1]

Without a legal basis for military action, Washington and its British and French allies have invoked a moral imperative. British prime minister David Cameron says that planned military action “is about chemical weapons. Their use is wrong and the world shouldn’t stand idly by.” However, the Washington Post’s Walter Pincus reminds us that, “In the late 1980s, not only did the Reagan White House take no action when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against Iranian forces and his own people but the United States also aided the attacks by providing intelligence.” [2]

And it’s not as if the United States has an aversion to chemical weapons. It has, along with the Russia, the world’s largest stockpiles. [3]

But the lack of a legal basis for military action, and the insincerity of the allies’ claim that they’re driven by a moral revulsion against chemical weapons, is beside the point. There’s no hard evidence that Syrian forces are responsible for last week’s attack. US, British and French politicians may say they’re certain that Assad is guilty, but the US intelligence community isn’t.

According to The Associated Press’s Kimberly Dozier and Matt Apuzzo [4],

• U.S. intelligence officials say, “The intelligence linking Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or his inner circle to an alleged chemical weapons attack that killed at least 100 people is no ‘slam dunk.’”
• “A report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence outlining the evidence against Syria is thick with caveats.”
• “U.S. intelligence officials are not so certain that the suspected chemical attack was carried out on al-Assad’s orders, or even completely sure it was carried out by government forces (emphasis added).”

The New York Times’ Mark Mazzetti and Mark Landler echo the Associated Press’s reporting. “Administration officials say there is no “‘smoking gun’” and no “hard evidence tying Mr. Assad to the attack.” [5]

So, there’s no hard evidence that the target has done what he is accused of, and even if he had, military action would still be illegal, and the assertion that the planned attack is driven by moral imperatives is not credible. Not only did the United States assist Saddam Hussein’s gas attacks, it has stood idly by while Saudi tanks and troops helped Bahrain’s royal dictatorship crack down violently on protesters and stood idly by as Egypt’s military launched a coup and killed civilians who were peacefully demonstrating against the illegal ouster of their elected government. The idea that US foreign policy in connection with Syria is shaped by outrage over the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian military and its violent repression of demonstrators carries no weight in light of Washington’s benign tolerance of similar behaviour on the part of its allies.

To understand US, British and French actions vis-à-vis Syria, it is therefore necessary to understand what sets Syria apart from Bahrain, Egypt’s military rulers, and other Western allies which have one or more of the characteristics the imperial powers claim to abominate about Syria. The distinguishing factor appears to be the degree to which the balance of a country’s public policy tilts away from domestic constituencies toward accommodating the economic, political and military interests of Western financial and corporate concerns.

Egypt, Bahrain, the Gulf state monarchies and Israel are pro-West, which means accommodating of Western economic, political and military interests, while Syria is pro-Arab, and pro-Syrian. This is the real basis for US, French and British hostility toward the country. The rest is artifice, intended to obscure the authentic motivation for Western aggression against the Arab nationalist state.

1. Ian Hurd, “Bomb Syria, even if it is illegal”, The New York Times, August 27, 2013.
2. Walter Pincus, “Obama is boxed in on Syria”, The Washington Post, August 28, 2013.
3. Hurd.
4. Kimberly Dozier and Matt Apuzzo, “Intelligence linking Syria to chemical attack no ‘slam dunk’, U.S. intelligence says”, The Associated Press, August 29, 2013.
5. Mark Mazzetti and Mark Landler, “U.S. facing test on data to back action on Syria”, New York Times, August 28, 2013.

Written by what's left

August 29, 2013 at 9:16 pm

Posted in Chemical Weapons, Syria

Never Mind Whether Obama’s Red Line Has Been Crossed—Is It Even Legitimate?

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By Stephen Gowans

US officials say they’re convinced that the Syrian government gassed its own people. This might mean something, if US officials weren’t notoriously bad at getting the facts straight. In 1998, the Pentagon flattened a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant with a cruise missile, because US officials said they were convinced it was a site for manufacturing chemical weapons (CW). In turns out the plant made pills. In 1999, Serbia and parts of Montenegro were bombed by US and NATO warplanes for 78 days because US officials said they were convinced the Milosevic government was carrying out a genocide in Kosovo. They were wrong. Over a million Iraqis were sanctioned, bombed and invaded into early graves by the United States and its British subaltern because the officials of both countries said they were convinced the Iraqi government was hiding weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Wrong again. The weapons Iraq was said to be hiding, but had destroyed, had only a tiny fraction of the mass destructive power of the weapons in the arsenals of the US and UK militaries, which didn’t call their weapons WMD, but “deterrents” and “guarantors of our national security.” The Libyan government was ultimately toppled by NATO warplanes because US, French and British officials said they were convinced Libyan leader Muamar Gaddafi was about to commit genocide. Gaddafi had neither the means nor intention to do so. Yet another spectacular error.

In making the point that Washington has waged unprovoked wars on the basis of faulty intelligence at best, but far more likely contrived intelligence and sheer deception, we mustn’t implicitly accept the idea that the United States has the right and obligation to outrage the sovereignty of any country it wishes because the country’s government has crossed a red line the United States has unilaterally established. In doing so, we become locked in a framework of the US ruling class’s making, accepting its claim to have a moral right to assume the role of global rule-maker, prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner—in other words, the planet’s autocrat.

Accepting this framework could limit the questions we ask, making us miss important ones. When is an intervention legitimate, and when is it not? Is intervention to punish a country for using a class of weapons in a civil war legitimate? If not, why even talk about whether the trigger for intervention has been pulled if the trigger is invalid? Why talk about whether Obama’s red line has been crossed, rather than whether Obama’s red line is even legitimate? Why are the United States’ massively destructive weapons not called WMD while Syria’s not so massively destructive weapons are? If the Americans, British, French, Russians, Chinese, Indians, Pakistanis, and Israelis have a right (de jure or de facto) to have nuclear weapons as a deterrent, why not the North Koreans?

Diana Johnstone eloquently pointed out in Counterpunch yesterday that, “There are many ways of killing people in a civil war. Selecting one as a trigger for US intervention serves primarily to give rebels an excellent reason to carry out a ‘false flag’ operation that will bring NATO into the war they are losing.” [1] True. But we could also note, There are many ways of killing people in a civil war. Why single out CW? It can’t be because they’re uniquely destructive or gruesome. All the deaths due to reported use of chemical agents in Syria are dwarfed by the number of deaths due to other weapons. And dying by gas is no more gruesome than evisceration by an al-Qaeda rebel or having your head blown off by a Saudi-supplied RPG.

Part of the answer, I think, for why CW have been singled out is because Washington can’t single out the Syrian government for using violence to put down a rebellion. That’s because the United States’ satellites, the ruling generals in Egypt, and the Arab royal dictators, are using violence in Egypt and Bahrain to put down rebellions there. To punish the Syrian government for using violence to defend itself against a rebellion is a tough sell, given that Washington’s friends are doing the same in their own countries. UK leader David Cameron says that the plan to use US WMD (cruise missiles) against Syria “is about chemical weapons. Their use is wrong and the world shouldn’t stand idly by.” So, what has the Syrian government done (or said to have done), that the military dictatorship in Egypt and royal dictatorship in Bahrain haven’t done? The answer is: been accused of deploying CW. Hence, CW have been singled out as one of many ways of killing people in a civil war, that will provoke an intervention. The motivation is purely political, and the singling out of CW has been customized to the Syrians to provide a pretext to attack them.

If we’re to use the term WMD descriptively, then WMD cannot be limited to nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, or be something that only countries that insist on safeguarding their political and economic independence have. It must include all weapons that can create mass destruction, no matter who has them. Incendiary bombs are WMD. The destruction of Dresden, Tokyo, Hamburg and other cities by US and British firebombing raids, attests to that. A Tomahawk cruise missile is a WMD. Nuclear weapons have become less attractive to the US military, as it develops conventional bombs that have near-nuclear destructive power, without the radioactive mess. Are these not WMD?

We should ask, Why is it not wrong for the United States and the United Kingdom to use sanctions of mass destruction to kill over a million Iraqis, and conventional bombs and missiles of mass destruction, along with depleted uranium, to invade Iraq, when it is wrong to use CW to kill a few hundred people (which, for reasons I’ve outlined elsewhere, there is no proof, open to examination, that the Syrian government used, and cogent reasons to believe it didn’t)? We should also ask, Is there not something morally grotesque about the United States and the United Kingdom planning to use their own WMD to punish Syria for the deaths of a few hundred people through CW, when the Anglo-American alliance used sanctions of mass destruction and weapons of mass destruction against Iraq, on contrived grounds, producing vastly more deaths and engendering a humanitarian catastrophe on an immense scale? Isn’t this even more grotesque considering that the evidence points more strongly to the alleged gassing incident being the work of the opposition, allied to the United States, than the Syrian government?

Meanwhile, one of Washington’s servile friends, the royal dictator, King Abdullah of Jordan, has called for a peaceful settlement of Syria’s civil war. Abdullah’s hypocrisy is stunning. He has turned Jordanian territory over to the CIA and Saudis as a center for training Syrian rebels and distributing weapons to the Syrian opposition. Hardly a contribution to a peaceful settlement. [2]

Turkey, which once maintained a vast prison house of nations that included the Arabs, says it will join other former colonial powers, France and Britain, in the campaign to punish Syria. The Syrian government, it should be stressed, remains part of a movement of Arab national emancipation and colonial liberation. Unlike the US Communist Party and other leftists who make conspicuous displays of turning up their noses at the Syrian government, I’m happy to recognize the role it plays in the movement for Arab emancipation, and regard it as progressive. I measure no movement for emancipation against utopian standards, and acknowledge that the Syrian government, as every other organization in the movement for liberation, whether of race, class or gender, also falls short by utopian standards. The question is not whether the Syrian government is inerrant and beyond reproach, but whether it is advancing the cause of emancipation. The servile Arab League, from which the legitimate government of Syria has been ejected, and which has settled comfortably into the role of US puppet, is not so concerned about emancipation, and the same leftists who publicly revile the Syrian government are not so concerned about showing their distaste for the reactionary Arab regimes, all friends of the West.

Finally, the Wall Street Journal reported today that according to a June poll it sponsored with NBC News, US public opinion is opposed to a military intervention to respond to “the Syrian government’s killing of protesters and civilians.” Only 15 percent of respondents backed a US military intervention. The newspaper didn’t say whether respondents were asked if they favored US military intervention in response to the Egyptian military’s killing of protesters and civilians in Egypt, or Bahrain’s royal dictatorship killing of protesters and civilians in Bahrain, although we can be pretty certain they weren’t. Within the ruling class framework of acceptable thought, punishing allies for doing what enemies are punished for, is unthinkable. It could be said that the poll results are irrelevant, because the survey question didn’t ask about CW. That’s true, but even if the CW question had been posed, the poll results would still be irrelevant. US state officials don’t make decisions on the basis of public opinion, and aren’t particularly swayed by it. The taking and presenting of public opinion polls simply create the illusion that public opinion matters in the formulation of US foreign policy. It doesn’t. What matters are the interests of major investors, bankers and the top executives of America’s largest corporations, and the opinions of the members of the power elite that represent them. And what matters to them is securing more markets, labor and natural resources for US capital to exploit and plunder by toppling governments that insist on using these for their own country’s development and people’s welfare, rather than for the enrichment of Wall Street investment bankers and the expansion of corporate America’s profit margins. The red line Syria crossed had nothing to do with CW, and everything to do with its insisting on preserving its political and economic independence.

1. Diana Johnstone, “US uses past crimes to legalize future ones”, http://www.counterpunch.com, August 26, 2013.
2. Michael R. Gordon and Thom Shanker, “U.S. to keep warplanes in Jordan, pressing Syria”, The New York times, June 15, 2013; Adam Entous, Julian E. Barnes and Siobhan Gorman, “U.S. begins shipping arms for Syrian rebels”, The Wall Street Journal, June 26, 2013; Adam Entous, Nour Malas and Margaret Coker, “A veteran Saudi power player works to build support to topple Assad”, The Wall Street Journal, August 25, 2013.

Written by what's left

August 28, 2013 at 10:51 pm

Posted in Chemical Weapons, Syria

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