A chemical weapon never dies. Ask residents of Ypres, the Belgian town where Germans deployed mustard gas for the first time in July 1917: “Where I live we find up to 250 tons of artillery shells every year,” said Lionel Roosemont, owner of a tour business and a lifelong resident of Ypres, where thousands of soldiers and civilians died from chemical weapons attacks in battles from 1914-1918. The attacks—ranging from tear gas to mustard gas—choked breathing and ignited pulse rates. They sent victims into spasms of pain as their lungs discharged sometimes up to two quarts of yellow fluid per hour through their mouths, noses, and eyes before they died, usually within 48 hours of gas contact.
Army trucks to this day make circuits through Ypres—every day—to pick up recovered shells. Canisters of chlorine gas—now almost a century since they were launched—still can cause large skin blisters and other injuries. Even with the precautionary removals, “accidents happen on a yearly basis, some fatal,” said Roosemont.
Knowing the grim history, international leaders made a concerted effort to ban all chemical weapons starting in the 1960s, culminating in the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. As of this year, 189 countries are signatories to the ban—but Syria is not one of them.
Syria’s alleged engineering of an Aug. 21 sarin gas attack the United States claims killed over 1,400 has galvanized the White House to act on behalf of rebel groups—including al-Qaeda militants—in helping the downfall of President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
Secretary of State John Kerry said the Syrian government’s role was “undeniable” and “a moral obscenity” in an Aug. 30 speech setting the stage for prompt—if unilateral—U.S. military action. One day later President Barack Obama flanked Kerry, saying he had “made a second decision” and would seek congressional approval for any Syria strike.
As lawmakers on August recess scrambled to convene hearings on Capitol Hill, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said: “The mass atrocity committed by the Assad regime in grave violation of international law requires American leadership. We have an obligation to act, not witness and watch while a humanitarian tragedy is unfolding in plain view.”
But the humanitarian tragedy unfolding in plain view began long before the Aug. 21 gas attack. Casualties in the 2½ year civil war have topped 100,000, and the number of Syrians who’ve had to flee their homes is over 8 million (from a country of 20 million).
Other mass attacks have gone unanswered. Brutal killings last year of parents and children near Homs, bodies found in mass graves suggesting crimes against humanity, stirred no international response. Western groups first blamed them on the Assad regime but ignored later findings that they likely were carried out by rebels.
Western leaders also were aware of prior chemical weapons use. Last December U.S. satellite imagery suggested that Syria was reactivating chemical weapons depots. In April Great Britain and France, with corroborating evidence from the United States, certified to the UN that chemical weapons attacks had taken place in Homs, Aleppo, and Damascus.
Meanwhile aid groups, global church leaders, and regional allies have asked for U.S. support short of military intervention to ease the crisis, and to prevent its destabilizing the region (Lebanon, for example, a country of 8 million, has taken in over 1 million Syrians). Yet the only move offered by the White House until August has been to aid rebel groups fighting the government.
In Aleppo, where rebels laid siege starting just over a year ago, city services have collapsed. Nearly all areas of the city under rebel control (and most majority Christian areas) have lost all phone communication, electricity, and water supplies. Few families have meat or bread, and hospitals have run out of medicine.
“It’s notable that the West has said nothing to the rebels about allowing humanitarian aid relief into these areas,” said Patrick Sookhdeo, executive director of Barnabas Fund, a British relief organization that has worked in Syria for decades. “The United States, unlike in any other crisis like this in my memory, is silent on humanitarian aid.”
Now, with five U.S. destroyers and at least two assault ships in the eastern Mediterranean on standby, U.S. action is likely to worsen the humanitarian crisis and inflame regional conflict, something residents in the regime call a moral obscenity.
Said Michael Young, opinion editor of Lebanon’s Daily Star: “Even when it involves reacting to crimes against humanity, the president’s thinking is defined by domestic considerations. Syrians have been dying in horrific numbers, and Syria’s neighbors have endured hardship, but the president reacted only when he realized that not doing so would highlight his hypocrisy.”
Americans should not expect Syrian action to unfold like other U.S. “policing actions.” Syria’s population is 10 times Kosovo’s and its air defense network is twice the size of former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s.
Fear of a widened, prolonged conflict reminiscent of war in Iraq is only one reason U.S. allies—particularly Great Britain—have pushed against military action. Nagging questions persist about U.S. intelligence concerning the Aug. 21 gas attack.
International aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF) treated over 3,600 patients in three Damascus area clinics in less than three hours on the morning of Aug. 21, but said in a later press statement it “can neither scientifically confirm the cause of these symptoms nor establish who is responsible for the attack.” MSF reported 355 of those patients died.
Reporter Yahya Ababneh interviewed residents of Ghouta, the Damascus suburb where the attacks took place, who said rebels, not government forces, were responsible for the attack. The residents said rebel fighters stockpiled gas canisters in tunnels for weeks.
Syria’s Christian population, already targeted by some rebel factions, stand to suffer most from U.S. action. Once mostly protected by the Assad regime, they are increasingly targeted by jihadist rebels, and already many are left with nowhere else to turn but the borders.
Said Sookhdeo ahead of U.S. strikes: “I think we are looking at a situation of decimation of the Christian community.”