This is an updated and expanded version of the article “The US and Chemical Weapons: No Leg to Stand On,” originally posted in Foreign Policy in Focus on May 2, 2013.
Had the United States pursued a policy stemming the proliferation of chemical and other nonconventional weapons through region-wide disarmament, when it was proposed in 2003 by Syria, it is likely there would be no apparent use of such ordnance and no present rush to war on that basis, says Zunes.
The Syrian regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons against civilian areas on August 21 constitutes a breach of the Geneva Protocol of 1925, one of the world’s most important disarmament treaties, which banned the use of chemical weapons.
In 1993, the international community came together to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), a binding international treaty that would also prohibit the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, retention, and transfer or use of chemical weapons. Syria is one of only eight of the world’s 193 countries not party to the convention.
However, US policy regarding chemical weapons has been so inconsistent and politicized that the United States is in no position to take leadership in any military response to any use of such weaponry by Syria.
The controversy over Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles is not new. Both the Bush administration and Congress, in the 2003 Syria Accountability Act, raised the issue of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles, specifically Syria’s refusal to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention. The failure of Syria to end its chemical weapons program was deemed sufficient grounds by a large bipartisan majority of Congress to impose strict sanctions on that country. Syria rejected such calls for unilateral disarmament on the grounds that it was not the only country in the region that had failed to sign the CWC—nor was it the first country in the region to develop chemical weapons, nor did it have the largest chemical weapons arsenal in the region.
Indeed, neither of the world’s two largest recipients of US military aid – Israel and Egypt – is a party to the convention either. Never has Congress or any administration of either party called on Israel or Egypt to disarm their chemical weapons arsenals, much less threatened sanctions for their failure to do so. US policy, therefore, appears to be that while it is legitimate for its allies Israel and Egypt to refuse to ratify this important arms control convention, Syria needed to be singled out for punishment for its refusal.
The first country in the Middle East to obtain and use chemical weapons was Egypt, which used phosgene and mustard gas in the mid-1960s during its intervention in Yemen’s civil war. There is no indication Egypt has ever destroyed any of its chemical agents or weapons. The US-backed Mubarak regime continued its chemical weapons research and development program until its ouster in a popular uprising two years ago, and the program is believed to have continued subsequently.
Israel is widely believed to have produced and stockpiled an extensive range of chemical weapons and is engaged in ongoing research and development of additional chemical weaponry. (Israel is also believed to maintain a sophisticated biological weapons program, which is widely thought to include anthrax and more advanced weaponized agents and other toxins, as well as a sizable nuclear weapons arsenal with sophisticated delivery systems.) For more than 45 years, the Syrians have witnessed successive US administrations provide massive amounts of armaments to a neighboring country with a vastly superior military capability which has invaded, occupied, and colonized Syria’s Golan province in the southwest. In 2007, the United States successfully pressured Israel to reject peace overtures from the Syrian government in which the Syrians offered to recognize Israel and agree to strict security guarantees in return for a complete Israeli withdrawal from occupied Syrian territory.
The US position that Syria must unilaterally give up its chemical weapons and missiles while allowing a powerful and hostile neighbor to maintain and expand its sizable arsenal of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons is simply unreasonable. No country, whether autocratic or democratic, could be expected to accept such conditions.
This is part of a longstanding pattern of hostility by the United States toward international efforts to eliminate chemical weapons through universal disarmament agreements.
One of the most effective instruments for international arms control in recent years has been the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which enforces the Chemical Weapons Convention by inspecting laboratories, factories and arsenals and oversees the destruction of chemical weapons. The organization’s most successful director general, first elected in 1997, was the Brazilian diplomat José Bustani, praised by the Guardian newspaper as a “workaholic” who has “done more in the past five years to promote world peace than anyone.” Under his strong leadership, the number of signatories of the treaty grew from 87 to 145 nations, the fastest growth rate of any international organization in recent decades, and – during this same period – his inspectors oversaw the destruction of 2 million chemical weapons and two-thirds of the world’s chemical weapons facilities. Bustani was re-elected unanimously in May 2000 for a five-year term and was complimented by Secretary of State Colin Powell for his “very impressive” work.
However, by 2002, the United States began raising objections to Bustani’s insistence that the OPCW inspect US chemical weapons facilities with the same vigor it does other signatories. More critically, the United States was concerned about Bustani’s efforts to get Iraq to sign the convention and open their facilities to surprise inspections as is done with other signatories. If Iraq did so, and the OPCW failed to locate evidence of chemical weapons that Washington claimed Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed, it would severely weaken American claims that Iraq was developing chemical weapons. US efforts to remove Bustani by forcing a recall by the Brazilian government failed, as did a US-sponsored vote of no confidence at the United Nations in March. That April, the United States began putting enormous pressure on some of the UN’s weaker countries to support its campaign to oust Bustani and threatened to withhold the United States’ financial contribution to the OPCW, which constituted more than 20 percent of its entire budget. Figuring it was better to get rid of its leader than risk the viability of the whole organization, a majority of nations, brought together in an unprecedented special session called by the United States, voted to remove Bustani.
The Case of Iraq
The first country to allegedly use chemical weapons in the Middle East was Great Britain in 1920, as part of its efforts to put down a rebellion by Iraqi tribesmen when British forces seized the country following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Winston Churchill, who then held the position of Britain’s Secretary of State for War and Air, was reported to have said, “I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poisonous gas against uncivilized tribes.”
It was the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, that used chemical weapons on a scale far greater than any country had dared since the weapons were banned nearly 90 years ago. The Iraqis inflicted close to 100,000 casualties among Iranian soldiers using banned chemical agents, resulting in 20,000 deaths and tens of thousands of long-term injuries.
They were unable to do this alone, however. Despite ongoing Iraqi support for Abu Nidal and other terrorist groups during the 1980s, the Reagan administration removed Iraq from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism to provide the regime with thiodiglycol, a key component in the manufacture of mustard gas, and other chemical precursors for their weapons program. Walter Lang, a senior official with the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), noted how “the use of gas on the battlefield by the Iraqis was not a matter of deep strategic concern” to President Reagan and other administration officials because they “were desperate to make sure that Iraq did not lose.” Lang noted that the DIA believed Iraq’s use of chemical warfare was “seen as inevitable in the Iraqi struggle for survival.” In fact, recently released CIA documents show that DIA personnel were dispatched to Baghdad during the war to provide Saddam Hussein’s regime with US satellite data on the location of Iranian troop concentrations in the full knowledge that the Iraqis were using chemical weapons against them.
Even the Iraqi regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians was not seen as particularly problematic. The March 1988 massacre in the northern Iraqi city of Halabja, where Saddam’s forces murdered up to 5,000 Kurdish civilians with chemical weapons, was downplayed by the Reagan administration, with some officials even falsely claiming that Iran was actually responsible. The United States continued sending aid to Iraq even after the regime’s use of poison gas was confirmed.
When a 1988 Senate Foreign Relations committee staff report brought to light Saddam’s policy of widespread extermination in Iraqi Kurdistan, Senator Claiborne Pell introduced the Prevention of Genocide Act to put pressure on the Iraqi regime, but the first Bush administration successfully moved to have the measure killed. This came despite evidence emerging from UN reports in 1986 and 1987, prior to the Halabja tragedy, documenting Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians – allegations that were confirmed both by investigations from the CIA and from US embassy staff who had visited Iraqi Kurdish refugees in Turkey. However, not only was the United States not particularly concerned about Iraq’s use of chemical weapons, the Reagan administration continued supporting the Iraqi government’s procurement effort of materials necessary for their development.
Given US culpability in the deaths of tens of thousands of people by Iraqi chemical weapons less than 25 years ago, calls by the administration and Congressional leaders for the United States to go to war with Syria in response to that regime’s apparent use of chemical weapons that killed several hundred people leads even many of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s fiercest opponents to question US motivations.
This is not the only reason US credibility on the issue of chemical weapons is questionable, however.
After denying and covering up Iraq’s use of chemical weapons in the late 1980s, the US government – first under President Bill Clinton and then under President George W. Bush – began insisting that Iraq’s alleged chemical weapons stockpile was a dire threat, even though the country had completely destroyed its stockpile by 1993 and completely dismantled its chemical weapons program.
Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been leading the administration’s efforts to convince Congress to go to war, insists that “Chemical weapons were used by the [Syria] regime. We know this.” However, as a senator in the fall of 2002, he falsely claimed that “Iraq has chemical and biological weapons . . . and [their weapons programs] are larger and more advanced than they were before the Gulf War.” Even more absurdly, Kerry insisted that “Iraq has some lethal and incapacitating agents and is capable of quickly producing and weaponizing a variety of such agents . . . for delivery on a range of vehicles such as bombs, missiles, aerial sprayers and covert operatives which could bring them to the United States homeland.” House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, who is leading the pro-war effort in that chamber, insists that Syria’s use of chemical weapons is “undeniable.” On NBC’s “Meet the Press” in November 2002, however, she falsely claimed that Iraq “certainly” had chemical weapons and that there was “no question about that.” Vice president Joe Biden, who claims that there is “no doubt” the Syrian government was responsible for the chemical weapons attack, also falsely claimed in 2002 that Iraq possessed chemical weapons.
Even though they may be telling the truth this time, this record of deceit makes it difficult to trust US government officials when it comes to accusations regarding hostile Arab governments and chemical weapons. As a result, the United States should be the last country to lead a global crusade against chemical weapons in the Middle East.
It should also be noted that many of today’s most outspoken congressional advocates for US military intervention in Syria in response to the Damascus regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons were among the most strident advocates in 2002-2003 for invading Iraq. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), whom the Democrats have chosen to be their ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and who has emerged as a vocal proponent of US air strikes against Syria, was among the right-wing minority of House Democrats who voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq on the grounds that the country possessed “weapons of mass destruction.” When no such weapons were found,Engel came up with the bizarre allegation that “it would not surprise me if those weapons of mass destruction that we cannot find in Iraq wound up and are today in Syria.”
Unlike the case of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, there are no UN Security Council resolutions specifically demanding that Syria unilaterally disarm its chemical weapons or dismantle its chemical weapons program. Syria is believed to have developed its chemical weapons program only after Israel first developed its chemical, biological and nuclear programs, all of which still exist today and by which Syrians still feel threatened.
However, UN Security Council Resolution 687, the resolution passed at the end of the 1991 Gulf War demanding the destruction of Iraq’s chemical weapons arsenal, also called on member states “to work towards the establishment in the Middle East of a zone free of such weapons.”
Syria has joined virtually all other Arab states in calling for such a “weapons of mass destruction-free zone” for the entire Middle East. In December 2003, Syria introduced a UN Security Council resolution reiterating this clause from 12 years earlier, but the resolution was tabled as a result of a threatened US veto. As I wrote at time, in reference to the Syrian Accountability Act, “By imposing strict sanctions on Syria for failing to disarm unilaterally, the administration and Congress have roundly rejected the concept of a WMD-free zone or any kind of regional arms control regime. Instead, the United States government is asserting that it has the authority to say which country can have what kind of weapons systems, thereby enforcing a kind of WMD apartheid, which will more likely encourage, rather than discourage, the proliferation of such dangerous weapons.”
A case can be made, then, that had the United States pursued a policy that addressed the proliferation of nonconventional weapons through region-wide disarmament rather than trying to single out Syria, the Syrian regime would have rid itself of its chemical weapons some years earlier, along with Israel and Egypt, and the government’s apparent use of such ordnance and the resulting rush to war would have never happened.