Driving Blind: Syria’s Rebels and a Brief History of Chemical Weapons


Last week’s Driving Blind was completely devoted to the Syrian issue as well, but because events are unfolding in real time, and Congress will actually have to debate and decide on authorization for military intervention, I think it’s worth staying on point. Especially since today’s selection includes some truly invaluable reads.

Aliyah Frumin at MSNBC calls attention to just how little we in the United States know about the rebels in Syria. “While many are operating under the umbrella group  of the Free Syrian Army, they don’t necessarily agree on what kind of government should emerge after Assad. U.S. intelligence says there could be as many as 1,200 groups, with some even having links to al Qaeda. It is not hard to imagine many of these groups turning on each other in the scramble for power that would surely follow an ouster of Assad.” The threat of spiraling sectarian violence is a very real one, and the fact that so many proponents of intervention speak of the opposition in Syria in generalized, monolithic terms is extremely troubling.

Greg Shupak at Jacobin looks back at the West’s intervention in Libya two years ago in a review of Maximilian Forte’s book, Slouching Towards Sirte. Examining the propaganda campaign waged by interventionist hawks and the geopolitical context surrounding Libya at the time, Shupak concludes, “As NATO’s war in Libyan played out, it was primarily understood within two narratives – a humanitarian one, as well as that of the so-called Arab Spring. Both conceptions suffer from their lack of understanding of the war’s African contexts, which suggest that the continent is at risk of again becoming a global hotspot over which foreign powers battle.”

Garrett Epps at The Atlantic considers the legal basis on which President Obama claims not to need Congressional authorization to act in Syria. He finds it severely inadequate, “To sum up: U.S. citizens and military personnel are not under attack. It is not a split-second emergency. The President does not face a request from the Security Council, NATO, the Arab League or even the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States. This is precisely the kind of situation for which the Framers of our Constitution designed its division of authority between President and Congress. Sending our missiles against Syria is an act of war. If it is to be done, Congress, not the president, should approve.”

Also writing at The Atlantic, James Fallows re-posts William R. Polk analysis of the Syrian issue in full. It’s long, thorough, and absolutely indispensible. On the subject of the norms surrounding the use of chemical weapons, Polk writes, “America used various chemical agents including white phosphorus in Vietnam (where it was known as “Willie Pete”) and in Fallujah (Iraq) in 2005.  We encouraged or at least did not object to the use of chemical agents, although we later blamed him for so doing, by Saddam Husain. Just revealed documents show that the Reagan administration knew of the Iraqi use in the Iraq-Iran war of the same poison gas (Sarin) as was used a few days ago in Syria  and Tabun (also a nerve gas).  According to the US military attaché working with the Iraqi army  at the time, the US government either turned a blind eye or  approved its use (see the summary of the documents in Shane Harris and Matthew Aid, “Exclusive: CIA Files Prove America Helped Saddam as He Gassed Iran,” Foreign Policy, August 26, 2013)   We were horrified when Saddam Husain used poison gas against the Kurdish villagers of Halabja in 1988 (killing perhaps 4-5 thousand people) but by that time we had dropped our support for the Iraqi government.   Finally,  Israel is believed to have used poison gas in Lebanon and certainly used white phosphorus in Gaza in 2008. I cite this history not to justify the use of gas – I agree with Secretary Kerry that use of gas is a “moral obscenity” —  but to show that its use is by no means uncommon.  It is stockpiled by most states in huge quantities and is constantly being produced in special factories almost everywhere despite having been legally banned since the Geneva Protocol of June 17, 1925.”

Finally, a humanizing piece from Shane Bauer at Mother Jones in which he reflects on Syria before the civil war, “Even after we moved across the city to Yarmouk, I would come back sometimes to go up on Mount Qasioun and look out over the city at night. The last time I went up there, Sarah, some friends, and I climbed up just above the line of houses. We wanted to go farther, but we stopped short when we saw what looked to be a military base. I couldn’t have imagined rockets flying down from that spot and waking people before dawn, making them choke and kick and scream, shrinking their pupils down to needlepoints. I don’t know for certain that chemical weapons were launched from there, as some have reported—the US is now saying some were shot from another base. What I do know now is that the base we came upon when we climbed that night was a station of the Republican Guard and that it is one of several sites that witnesses said they saw rockets raining down on Ghouta the night of the chemical attack.”

[Image: view from Mount Qasioun.]

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21 thoughts on “Driving Blind: Syria’s Rebels and a Brief History of Chemical Weapons

  1. In any calculus, you’ve got the Sexy Moral Reasons and the somewhat less sexy Pragmatic Reasons.

    To put together a list of pros and cons when it comes to “should we intervene”, we already know that, pragmatically, the “cons” column will have a lot more entries than the the “pros”. Maybe if Iraq II hadn’t happened, it’d be different and maybe that’s not fair… but, hey, “that’s not fair” is more of a moral argument than a pragmatic one.

    When it comes to the moral arguments, the big one is “by intervening, are we going to make things better?”

    One thing I’ve noticed is that when someone discusses occupation, they get slapped down “Occupying Syria is not on the table!” and when someone discusses regime change, they get gently corrected “no one is talking about regime change”. Which, on a pragmatic level, is a relief but then one wonders what the point of the intervention actually *IS*.

    What are we hoping to accomplish?

    By intervening, are we going to make things better?

    I’m pretty sure that I’ve not heard a coherent answer to the former question… and without a coherent answer to the former question, I don’t see how the answer to the latter could possibly be “yes”.

    And if the answer to the latter question ain’t “yes”, then the Sexy Moral Reasons column on the pro side doesn’t seem to have anything at all worth discussing in it.


    • Apparently McCain and Graham are only on board now because Obama has reassured them that the authorization he’s asking Congress to grant is much broader than limited strikes.


      “McCain and Graham have jointly expressed concerns that a military strike should be part of a broader strategy in Syria, not simply a random attack to punish the regime.

      After meeting with Obama Monday, they both said they believed the White House is developing a strategy that would weaken the regime of President Bashar Assad and boost Syrian opposition forces — though they said Obama has more work to do to explain this plan.

      “We still have significant concerns,” McCain said, “but we believe there is in formulation a strategy to upgrade the capabilities of the Free Syrian Army and to degrade the capabilities of Bashar Assad. Before this meeting, we had not had that indication.””


    • What are we hoping to accomplish?

      Deter the Assad regime from using chemical weapons – the pattern has been of escalation thus far. Deter others in the future from using chemical weapons, overall intervention here raises the cost of using chemical weapons – making their use a tripwire others will want to steer clear of. Degrade the regime’s ability to use chemical weapons is what McCain and Graham say Obama communicated to them (according to the NYT today). Altogether reinforcing the prospect of concrete consequences for these kinds of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

      By intervening, are we going to make things better?

      Fitting a strike into what could be the larger policy picture, a plan akin to a much more limited kind of Operation Deliberate Force, wherein diplomacy backed by the use of force is better than diplomacy alone. Yes I’m aware of numerous differences (nature of ground support, rebel disunity in Syria, etc.) and thus parallels between Geneva II and Dayton are inexact, but as a shorthand for the relationship between the use of force and diplomacy it fits my purposes.


      • And how are we going to degrade the regime’s ability to use chemical weapons without striking directly at the chemical weapons, which are apparently sitting around in highly populated urban areas?

        And if it does turn out that the chemical weapons were actually used by the rebels and not the regime, or used by rogue elements within the regime looking to replace Assad, how exactly are we deterring or punishing anything? Heck, we’d be rewarding the behavior.


      • how are we going to degrade the regime’s ability to use chemical weapons…

        Honestly, I don’t know. Military targeting is a subject I’m only familiar with on the human rights / laws of war side, not the, which targets should we strike in Syria right now side. Not to be flip, but that’s why the US spends more than half a trillion dollars a year on the Pentagon to figure that kind of thing out. To have the intelligence and have the tools, like intelligence, special forces, and suited munitions, to take on challenges like this.

        US, UK, French, and Israeli intelligence in the media and released texts lay responsibility with Assad, as has the Arab League. I’m prepared to accept their arguments. As well as the argument, I believe made by foreign secretaries of US, UK, and France, that the Syrian government’s behavior after August 21st was not to disclose but to delay investigation. On your larger point, no matter who used chemical weapons, their use is should be a matter of concern for the US. The response would have to be tailored to the situation, but given the evidence presented, the Assad regime is culpable for the August 21st attack and several prior uses of chemical weapons.


      • Well, not knowing how our weapons and forces work is a major stumbling block to formulating a coherent plan. We don’t have any reliable way to detect where chemical weapons are, or we’d have relied on it in the run up to the Iraq War. What we’ll have are blurry pictures of trucks and buildings. In some cases we can identify a truck as carrying a particular kind of munition, but in this case we’ve given the Syrians about a month to get their munitions off of any said trucks.

        A chemical munition is going to be about the size of an artillery shell. Sometimes it might take the form of a can sitting in a box, kind of like a 12-pack of Pepsi. We don’t have any way to detect 12-packs of Pepsi from space.

        We don’t have a way to use our forces to sweep a country clear of chemical weapons any more than we could sweep Afghanistan and Iraq clear of IEDs, which are about the same size and just as portable.

        As for the evidence that Assad is culpable, they haven’t really presented any. Someone used chemical weapons, we’re not exactly sure from where, and the Syrian government has chemical weapons, we’re not exactly sure where in all cases, and that’s about it. Other than that we have intelligence saying they were as angry and confused as anyone. A more likely culpable party is Obama, who apparently knew about the preparations for that attack three days before it happened, took no actions to stop it and took no actions to warn anyone, neither the rebels nor the Syrian government, according to the intelligence briefs given to Congress. So why not target the White House for a missile strike while we’re at it?


      • I don’t share your uncertainty as to attributing culpability. Who you ultimately rely on to evaluate intelligence claims is up to you. I can tell you the sources I have turned to, the BBC draws together some. There is also the pattern of Syrian government behavior more broadly, well documented in the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic’s reports. You are free to reject them as you please.


      • Did you bother to read those BBC links? I don’t speak French. What is a 404 Erreur?

        The British link says:

        We also have a limited but growing body of intelligence which supports the judgement that the regime was responsible for the attacks and that they were conducted to help clear the Opposition from strategic parts of Damascus. Some of this intelligence is highly sensitive but you have had access to it all.

        Against that background, the JIC concluded that it is highly likely that the regime was responsible for the CW attacks on 21 August. The JIC had high confidence in all of its assessments except in relation to the regime’s precise motivation for carrying out an attack of this scale at this time – though intelligence may increase our confidence in the future.

        Emphasis mine. So they are way less certain than they were that Saddam had WMD, of which they were absolutely positive.

        They go on to say:

        There is some intelligence to suggest regime culpability in this attack. These factors make it highly likely that the Syrian regime was responsible.

        Well, I’m glad we at least have some suggestions that the nation we’re about to go to war with did the thing that we are using as a pretext for war.


      • US, first sentence

        The United States Government assesses with high confidence that the Syrian government carried out a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs on August 21, 2013.

        UK, last sentence of Jon Day’s letter

        We have also worked in concert with the US intelligence community and agree with the conclusions they have reached.

        France, (English language pdf)

        The 21 August attack can only have been ordered and lead by the regime

        I can’t decide for you who is credible and who is not, but the French report includes further details. You are correct, the BBC link has not been updated.


    • A description of US interests from a Lawfare post these are worth considering in reply to your questions as well,

      For the Syrian civil war to resolve, sooner rather than later.
      For the Syrian civil war to not spread further and destabilize what is left of governments with whom we can at least have an open dialogue on Middle East issues, such as Jordan.
      To send a message to the world’s rogue regimes-like North Korea and Iran-that we will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons.
      To demonstrate to the Arab street that we have compassion for their children, too, and that we will back that compassion with strength to defend and protect the most vulnerable.
      To see that the Assad regime falls, and that we have deeper insight into who will make up the new leadership of Syria, and that we will have a channel through which to dialogue and work with that leadership.


      • These all seem awesome. How successful were we at saying this sort of thing with how we handled Iraq, Egypt, and Libya?

        If we didn’t even come close to doing that sort of crap with Iraq, Egypt, or Libya, why should I believe that we’ll do it this time?


      • Jaybird,
        Case studies only get you so far. By that I mean there are limits to the case study methodology and applying what happened in previous cases to this case. Each case is unique and there’re going to be confounding variables to take into account. Second, case selection makes a big difference, with some policy choices being more successful or less successful than others. For instance I can bring up the Balkans, Sierra Leone, and East Timor as relative successes.

        why should I believe that we’ll do it this time?

        I can say learn as much as possible from the previous cases and try and take the best practices from those cases forward as much as possible. But of course there’s uncertainty. No one is able to offer guarantees of success and those people that do are unwise in doing so.


      • To be clear, your default of “oh, well, we shouldn’t do anything”. To me the permanent seat on the UN Security Council is accompanied with the responsibility to have a care for international peace and security. The UNSC tends to be hamstrung when a P5 member has interests in protecting a client, then things get much trickier. But looking over the UNSC agenda, there’s peacekeeping and various kinds of doing things going on all over the world all the time, including right this minute (Security Council Report has one breakdown of the September agenda). Were Syria not a client of Russia, the level of UN response would be different.


      • Yes. In my opinion the default when war crimes and crimes against humanity are occurring is, or at least should be, do something. I direct your attention to International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic’s reports. I’d say membership of the Security Council is an element of a much longer answer as to why. Being permanently on the body charged with maintaining international peace and security carries some meaning, at minimum, as to what we should be directing our gaze towards. Again, crimes against humanity, war crimes, gross and systematic violations of human rights are all on that list.


      • But when Assad was arming and protecting insurgents fighting US forces in Southern Iraq, occupying Lebanon, assassinating the Lebanese prime minister, and stockpiling chemical weapons for use against Jews or opponents of his regime, and George W Bush wanted to punish him, he instead won five intimate dinners with John Kerry and the aid and support of Kerry, Joe Biden, Barrack Obama, Chuck Hagel, and Hillary Clinton. Why is that?


    • Well, an actual strategy on Syria is elusive, short of replacing everyone involved with a better class of people. Oddly, with about 6 million people displaced and 100,000 casualties, there’s a 60:1 displacement to death ratio. Being displaced is not good, but as I’ve said, people who hate each other that much probably shouldn’t live together. There’s somewhat of a sorting operation going on where the ethnicities are separating themselves. It would be nice if they’d have all become a happy melting pot, but that very obviously didn’t happen. It would be nice if we could stick one group in Saskatchewan, one group in Costa Rica, and one group in the Seychelles, but that probably isn’t happening either.

      The only objection I have to Polk’s piece is that he classified willie pete as a chemical weapon. I would class it as something that burns, like gunpowder, gasoline, napalm, pitch, and Greek fire. It’s not a poisoning hazard unless you eat a whole lot of it, and we usually use phosphorus as lawn fertilizer. I have a lot of it in my yard, along with several pounds of uranium, just like everybody else does. Cyanide, sarin, anthrax, and mustard gas, not so much.


    • What are we hoping to accomplish?

      You get to bomb people! And can use that as a excuse for more bombs!

      Really, as a foreign to the US, what comes to my mind when asked about involving the US into the Syrian civil war is “why the hell are you throwing yourselves at yet another war for?”

      By intervening, are we going to make things better?

      I think this is the wrong question. Of course you are going to makes things better -there would be no talk of war if someone wasn’t getting better off without it. the real question is WHO will be better off if we involve ourselves in this war, and do we want to support them?


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