Chemical weapon accusations raise the stakes in Syria

By Arthur I. Cyr

“I think the real failure here has been Russia’s …” That is how Secretary of State Rex Tillerson succinctly summed up the situation resulting from the use of poison gas in Syria. He was speaking on April 6 at a Florida airport, about to depart for visits to Italy and Russia. The administration has responded to the use of gas by attacking a Syria air base with cruise missiles. The G-7 convened in Lucca, Italy, an appropriate prelude to the difficult talks in Russia. War remains a scourge of human existence, but the total wars and unprecedented destructiveness of the twentieth century resulted in commitment to international institutions. The G-7 is part of this regime. Secretary Tillerson was referring to diplomatic intervention by President Vladimir Putin of Russia in 2013, following earlier use of poison gas in Syria. International agreements were reached to destroy the weapon stockpiles under international supervision.

Russia played the leading role in persuading the Syrian government to abandon poison gas stockpiles. Given past duplicity by both Moscow and Baghdad, there were skeptics regarding this seemingly benign humanitarian intervention. They have now been confirmed. Use of gas has become a disturbing recurring problem in the seemingly endless turmoil of the Middle East. Faulty intelligence that the regime of Saddam Hussein of Iraq held weapons of mass destruction was used by officials of the administration of President George W. Bush to justify the 2003 invasion of that country. Earlier, Saddam Hussein’s regime was supported by the U.S. in a long, brutal war with Iran. This occurred despite the fact he used poison gas in genocidal attacks against the Kurd population in 1988, which added credibility to later allegations. Poison gas, a grotesque weapon, has a distinctive as well as disturbing history. In World War I, gas was employed by both sides. The resulting agonizing and horrific mass deaths, combined with unpredictably of winds, has served generally to deter using such weapons since. In World War II, Italy and Japan used gas in Ethiopia and China, but Nazi Germany did not bring this weapon to the battlefield. Adolf Hitler had direct exposure to poison gas during combat in the trenches in World War I.