The Daily Mirror’s Front Page leads with a shocking story of how Syrian children are being gassed and killed by the Assad regime. The photo is graphic, and shows the bodies of nine children – it’s an image which is sure to bring out emotive responses from around the world. The Mirror reports that 1,300 people have been killed so far by chemical weapons in the conflict. The National Post describes the alleged attack as “the worst use of nerve gas since Saddam Hussein.”
The BBC reports that the chemical weapon attack killed hundreds on the outskirts of Damascus, and also has video evidence of Syrian citizens gasping for air and convulsing.
On the matter, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said: “The United States is deeply concerned by reports that hundreds of Syrian civilians have been killed in an attack by Syrian government forces, including by the use of chemical weapons, near Damascus earlier today.”
Chemical weapons was the ‘red line’ that the Obama administration judged would be a step too far if Assad used them. Nearly a year ago, the then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton said: “The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable. And if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable.”
We know that chemical warfare is terrible, but why was it the “do not cross line” for the American government – especially when over 100,000 people have already been killed by other means? Assad’s forces, for example, have shelled neighbourhoods, used torture to gather intelligence from prisoners of war, and have buried men alive (GRAPHIC) – all without crossing into the no-go zone.
Furthermore, a senior U.N. official recently accused both the forces of Assad and the Opposition of “committing acts of torture, abduction and kidnapping.” We know that the torture methods of the Assad regime are brutal, and involve electric jolts to prisoner’s genitalia, or having their head, neck, and legs pushed into a tyre to thwart any attempt of avoiding being beaten. This is all done without crossing America’s red line.
But why? Why are chemical weapons a game changer, so to speak?
Nerve agents such as Sarin gas – which Assad is thought to possess in bulk – produce immediate symptoms of a runny nose, tightness of the chest, difficulty breathing, and pupil constriction. Later on victims will lose control of their bodies and will vomit, defecate, and urinate. This is followed by twitching, uncontrollable jerking and death.
Sarin is also very contagious. A person’s clothes can release the gas for up to thirty minutes after they have been in contact with it – which can then lead on to contaminate other people. And, even slight exposure to the gas can kill, or if it does not, may produce permanent neurological damage to the victim.
Take a step back however and much can be said of other weapons. Syrian air strikes, for example, cover large target areas, much like a nerve agent could. In an abstract way, air strikes are as close a replica of chemical weapons. This is because they can kill many people who are not necessarily in the same vicinity (much like how Sarin is transported on clothes), they have the ability to cause permanent damage should they not kill, and death may not be quick and painless (a victim might suffocate under dense rubble, for example).
In today’s attack, “hundreds have been killed” according to the BBC. But let’s not forget that over 100,000 people have died since the conflict started. To be blunt: Why draw the line after a few hundred have died from nerve agents? If there was a legitimate line, it should have been drawn after thousands of people died from the government’s more conventional weapons. Killing is still killing, regardless of how it is done. It’s as if to say: “100,000 dead is not a good thing but we can’t do anything about it. But hundreds have now died from nerve agents so we have a moral obligation to end this violence.” It seems to be almost an arbitrary point of when Damascus has overstepped itself.
There are still more questions however: Should the United States, Western powers, or others decide to intervene, who would they back? David Cameron has spoken about the ‘official opposition’ as a group who are in “favour of democracy, human rights, and a future for minorities.” But Western leaders must see that the opposition is no angel, they have conducted beheadings, and killed children for blasphemy against their religion; not to mention that they have links to Al-Qaeda.
Should we back them? I’d say probably not.
Secular groups within the opposition would compete for power after Assad’s forced removal. Syrian politics would be turbulent and unpredictable, and there is no guarantee – judging on the behaviour of the rebels – that Assad’s successor would be any less of a tyrant.
You remove a Louis and you’ll end up with a Napoleon.
But that may not matter anyway, because someone’s red line was crossed.