In Syria debate, history’s in the eye of the beholder


The grave site of many of the 5,000 victims of the 1988 chemical attacks on Halabja, Iraq.


Marco Di Lauro

In the debate over Syria’s use of chemical weapons that’s raged in the past two weeks, parties on all sides have marshaled recent historical events in an effort to bolster their case.

Most arguing against an international attack on Syria’s regime, for allegedly using sarin nerve gas to kill more than 1,400 people last month, cite the futility of the Iraq war and hear echoes of the mischaracterization of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction programs that preceded the US-led invasion in 2003.

Those who support a strike invariably point to the Kosovo intervention, virtually all of it conducted by NATO warplanes and missiles, as a model of how violations of international norms — the United Nations’ Genocide Convention in that case, the Chemical Weapons Convention in this one — can be successfully carried out with minimal risk to combatants.

Both historical citations have some validity. Yet the most relevant event has received little attention, in part because it went unanswered, and in part because it raises a host of uncomfortable “what ifs” for America and its allies.

Twenty-five years ago this year — on March 16, 1988 — the Iraqi military rained artillery shells laced with mustard gas, sarin and other deadly nerve agents on a village in called Halabja. It’s a largely Kurdish village, close to the Iranian border in a region then swept up in a broader anti-Kurdish genocidal campaign by Saddam Hussein’s government dubbed “al-Anfal” — roughly translated, “spoils of war.”

Kaveh Golestan, a prize-winning Iranian photojournalist killed by a land mine explosion in Iraq in 2003, reportedly once described what he saw when he arrived on the scene in Halabja:

"It was life frozen. Life had stopped, like watching a film and suddenly it hangs on one frame. It was a new kind of death to me. [...] The aftermath was worse. Victims were still being brought in. Some villagers came to our chopper. They had 15 or 16 beautiful children, begging us to take them to hospital. So all the press sat there and we were each handed a child to carry. As we took off, fluid came out of my little girl's mouth and she died in my arms."

The gas attacks killed 5,000 Kurds, according to Red Cross statistics, and maimed 10,000 more. The region suffers a severely increased level of birth defects and cancer. And yet, the international response was muted, to say the least.

Journalists capture images of corpses of a Kurdish man and a baby on March 20, 1988, in Halabja, northeast Iraq, where the regime killed thousands in a chemical attack. IRNA/AFP/Getty Images

Indeed, for decades, the CIA insisted that the attack was likely the work of the Iranians, then embroiled in the final year of a long war with Iraq. In the late 1990s, the CIA revised its assessment and added copious detail in the runup to the 2003 Iraq invasion.

But only recently has it come to light that the CIA’s “official” position was diametrically opposed to the opinions being stated by its internal experts.

Earlier this month, Foreign Policy magazine quoted retired Lt. Col. Rick Francona, a former US defense attaché as saying that the United States knew immediately that Iraq was the culprit. (Full disclosure: Francona is a friend of mine.) Indeed, he charges, Iraq repeatedly used chemical and nerve agents against Iranian troops with what amounts to tacit approval from President Ronald Reagan’s administration, which had decided that an Iranian victory over Saddam would be “unacceptable.”

Such was the brutal logic of the Cold War.

But what brutal logic prevails today?

The debate in the US Congress largely revolves around whether a limited campaign of airstrikes would have any effect militarily at all. This is a question, however, that misses the point: limited airstrikes are more political than military in nature.

Kosovo was a sustained, 78-day air campaign that drove an entrenched army from that former Serbian province.

A more apt analogy to what’s currently envisioned over Syria would be the pin-prick Tomahawk cruise missile attacks lobbed at alleged Al Qaeda bases in Kashmir and Sudan after the 1998 East African embassy bombings, or even the 1993 strike against Baghdad by Bill Clinton after Kuwaiti authorities discovered a plot to kill his predecessor, George H.W. Bush, on a planned visit to Kuwait City.

More GlobalPost analysis: Congress debates Syria, now what?

Neither had a military purpose: This was a message in a supersonic, high-explosive bottle.

A third, even more obscure example occurred, ironically, just a month after Halabja — Operation Nimble Archer. In April 1988, the Reagan administration ordered the US Navy to destroy several Iranian oil platforms in the Persian Gulf as punishment for Iran’s missile attack on a Kuwaiti oil tanker that had been “reflagged’ as an American ship.

Lost in all these supposed precedents to a Syria strike — and the charges of “warmonger” from one side and “appeaser” on the other — are the dead of the Damascus suburbs, 1,400-plus confirmed at the moment, according to Secretary of State John Kerry, with another 300 bodies still to be classified.

Add to that the 5,000-plus of Halabja, and you have a rough total of all the chemical warfare victims on the planet since World War I, when the horrors associated with these weapons led to the most comprehensive arms ban ever enacted.

Inaction after Halabja no doubt had its roots in the tortured 1988 political calculus of the late Cold War. We will never know what might be different today if the truth of that attack had been aired.

The runup to the Iraq war, with its trumped-up, sexed-up WMD dossiers, poisoned even hawkish people in the West to the value of intelligence in pondering military intervention.

But what would inaction in Syria rest on?

In the wake of Iraq — and more specifically, the political campaign to convince America to launch it — even a blatant chemical weapons attack on civilians has otherwise reasonable people wondering if it isn’t all a plot to drum up another war.

What a sad legacy for the dead of Halabja.

Michael Moran, foreign affairs columnist for GlobalPost, is also vice president, global risk analysis for Control Risks, an international political, integrity and security risk consultancy. He is author of The Reckoning: Debt, Democracy and the Future of American Power.