U.S. doublethink on chemical weapons and the use of force in Syria

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The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them… To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just as long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies – all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth. — George Orwell’s 1984

With increasing bellicosity, U.S. officials are accusing the Syrian regime of using chemical weapons in an incident in the suburbs of Damascus last week that killed hundreds of civilians. While few dispute that the attack took place, there are conflicting allegations over who carried it out, with the Syrian regime blaming armed rebels, and Syrian allies such as Russia leaving open the possibility that a third party may have been responsible.

The United States however unequivocally places the blame at the feet of the Bashar al-Assad regime. A senior Obama administration official said Sunday that there was “very little doubt” that Assad’s military forces had used the chemical weapons and that a Syrian promise to allow United Nations inspectors access to the site was “too late to be credible.”

The official, in a written statement, said that “based on the reported number of victims, reported symptoms of those who were killed or injured, witness accounts and other facts gathered by open sources, the U.S. intelligence community, and international partners, there is very little doubt at this point that a chemical weapon was used by the Syrian regime against civilians in this incident.”

Independent experts, however, point out that there is no way to be able to decisively assign blame simply based on the visual evidence provided by YouTube videos without forensic data. “It’s very difficult from a visual context to ascertain what’s going on,” said Federation of American Scientists fellow Charles Blair.

He continued:

In fact, it’s impossible to draw any sort of definitive conclusion. Some governments have relied entirely on visual confirmation to assert that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons but essentially what you need to do is you need to get people from the UN, for the prohibition of chemical weapons to go to these sites and conduct highly rigorous scientific investigations, and they determine only if an agent has been used or not used. But what they don’t tell us, which is the most important story, I think, that’s not being captured, is even if the UN team were to go into the area that got struck today, they could not verify nor are they charged with determining who was responsible for the act. So they can tell if you an act has occurred but we will never have this conclusive evidence of who was responsible for it.

What the UN team might be able to determine however is precisely what sort of chemical weapon was used, which could indicate who was responsible. The level of sophistication of the weapon could provide a clue as to whether it was manufactured by state or non-state actors, for example.

But the U.S. has already declared that any UN inspection now would be ineffective. As the Wall Street Journal reports, “the White House and Pentagon signaled the U.S. wasn’t backing away from a possible showdown despite apparent efforts by the Syrian government to ease tensions by letting U.N. inspectors visit areas near the capital where hundreds were killed, allegedly by chemical weapons.”

The Obama administration dismissed as too late the regime’s offer to let UN inspectors visit areas where chemical weapons were used. The U.S. concluded that evidence at the scene has likely been compromised due to continued Syrian shelling and the resulting dissipation of any poison gases.

With Obama having previously stated that the use of chemical weapons by Syria in the two-year old civil war would be a “red line” for the United States which could necessitate military action, the White House has said in recent days that the U.S. could launch an attack with or without UN Security Council backing.

“We’ll consult with the UN. They’re an important avenue. But they’re not the only avenue,” a senior administration official said.

The nonchalant attitude of the White House towards the UN is reminiscent of the Bush administration’s approach to the international body when the U.S. was gearing up for war against Iraq a decade ago. “If we need to act, we will act, and we really don’t need United Nations approval to do so,” George W. Bush said in March 2003. “We really don’t need anybody’s permission.”

Similarly, White House officials now say that Obama might prefer to work instead with international partners such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or the Arab League, rather than the UN.

The legal basis for an attack on Syria, presumably, would be the crimes against humanity – including the alleged chemical weapons attack last week – for which the Assad regime is purportedly responsible. The use of chemical weapons in Syria would constitute a “crime against humanity” that would reap “serious consequences,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Friday.

“Any use of chemical weapons anywhere, by anybody, under any circumstances, would violate international law. Such a crime against humanity should result in serious consequences for the perpetrator,” Ban said.

But the U.S. has its own checkered past when it comes to compliance with international law in this regard, as evidenced by numerous war crimes carried out by U.S. forces in the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. political system has also shown an inability to bring the committers of war crimes to justice, instead sending whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning to prison for decades simply for providing documentary evidence of these crimes.

Even when it comes to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which the U.S. ratified in 1997, the U.S. record of compliance is spotty at best. The U.S. declared a huge domestic chemical arsenal of 27,771 metric tons to the OPCW after the CWC came into force in 1997 and despite efforts made toward destroying this arsenal still stockpiles several thousand metric tons of these weapons.

Russia has alleged that the U.S. has inhibited inspections and investigations of U.S. chemical facilities, and has accused the U.S.of not fully reporting chemical agents removed from Iraq between 2003 and 2008.

Further, WikiLeaks revealed in 2007 that the U.S. had at least 2,386 “non-lethal” chemical weapons deployed in Iraq. Appearing in a 2,000 page battle planning leak, the items are labeled under the military’s own NATO supply classification as “chemical weapons and equipment.”

As WikiLeaks explains,

In the weeks prior to the March 19, 2003 commencement of the Iraq war, the United States received a widely reported rebuke from its primary coalition partner, the United Kingdom, over statements by the then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld suggesting that the US would use CS gas for “flush out” operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Subsequently Washington has been quiet about whether it has deployed CS gas and other chemical weapons or not.

The use of chemical weapons such as CS gas for military operations is illegal. The Chemical Weapons Convention of 1997, drafted by the United Kingdom and ratified by the United States, declares “Each State Party undertakes not to use riot control agents as a method of warfare”. Permissible uses are restricted to “law enforcement including domestic riot control.”

The U.S. use of depleted uranium in Iraq is another cause for concern. In Fallujah – which was targeted by U.S. forces in 2004 – the use of depleted uranium has led to birth defects in infants 14 times higher than in the Japanese cities targeted by U.S. atomic bombs at close of World War II, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

As the Huffington Post reported in March, “ten years after the start of the U.S. invasion in Iraq, doctors in some of the Middle Eastern nation’s cities are witnessing an abnormally high number of cases of cancer and birth defects.”

A 2002 UN working paper on depleted uranium argued that its use may breach one or more of the following treaties: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Charter of the United Nations, the Genocide Convention, the United Nations Convention Against Torture, the Geneva Conventions including Protocol I, the Convention on Conventional Weapons of 1980, and the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Yeung Sik Yuen writes in Paragraph 133 under the title “Legal compliance of weapons containing DU as a new weapon”:

Annex II to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material 1980 (which became operative on 8 February 1997) classifies DU as a category II nuclear material. Storage and transport rules are set down for that category which indicates that DU is considered sufficiently “hot” and dangerous to warrant these protections. But since weapons containing DU are relatively new weapons no treaty exists yet to regulate, limit or prohibit its use. The legality or illegality of DU weapons must therefore be tested by recourse to the general rules governing the use of weapons under humanitarian and human rights law which have already been analysed in Part I of this paper, and more particularly at paragraph 35 which states that parties to Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 have an obligation to ascertain that new weapons do not violate the laws and customs of war or any other international law.

Despite the U.S.’s own record in using these legally questionable weapons, it is taking a hard line against Syria and appears to be moving towards armed conflict. Officials say that a list of possible targets for a military strike has been circulating in the White House since late last week. The list includes both chemical-weapons sites and broader military and government targets, depending on the type of action the president orders.

The Wall Street Journal reports:

In recent days, the Pentagon has moved more warships into place in the eastern Mediterranean and U.S. war planners have updated military options that include cruise-missile strikes on regime targets, officials said. The White House held high-level meetings over the weekend, but officials said late Sunday that Mr. Obama had yet to decide how to proceed. …

Administration lawyers have been crafting legal justifications for an intervention without U.N. approval that could be based on findings that Mr. Assad used chemical weapons and created a major humanitarian crisis.

Whether a U.S. attack would quell or exacerbate this humanitarian crisis is an open question. There are indications that a military assault could spiral out of control, with Syrian allies reluctant to allow Western forces free reign to intervene in order to topple the regime. According to an analysis by BBC:

Any military action would immediately bracket the West with Israel, whose air and missile strikes on Syria this year have been held up by the regime as evidence that its internal troubles are part of a Western-Zionist-Salafist plot to destroy a citadel of resistance to Israel. …

The signs have always been that the regime would pull the whole house down around it before capitulating, and also that its strategic allies, especially Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, would not allow that to happen.

Further, as happened in Iraq, Western intervention risks fragmenting the country further, creating an uncontrollable situation and handing large parts of it to forces it regards as its enemies.

“The West faces the reality that the moderate opposition elements it has been trying to boost have proven neither cohesive, credible nor effective on the ground,” the BBC points out.

The opposition has largely consisted of Islamist factions, many linked to al-Qaeda. Intervening on their behalf could lead to a host of unintended consequences, including the possibility of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal falling into the hands of terrorist groups.

With nothing but bad options, the best hope would likely involve an immediate ceasefire by all sides to the conflict. This, however, is a remote possibility that would be further set back by an armed intervention by the United States.

Any U.S. intervention would also likely lead to more civilian casualties and refugees, exacerbating what is already a grave humanitarian crisis.

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One response to “U.S. doublethink on chemical weapons and the use of force in Syria”

  1. Jeff Nguyen says :

    Agreed, too reminiscent of the rush to judgment in Iraq where the facts were irrelevant if they didn’t fit the predetermined narrative.

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