Poi­son gas ac­cu­sa­tions raise Syria stakes

United Na­tions should act to pre­vent an­other at­tack

The Commercial Appeal - - Viewpoint - ARTHUR I. CYR

“I think the real fail­ure here has been Rus­sia’s…” That is how Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son suc­cinctly summed up the sit­u­a­tion re­sult­ing from the use of poi­son gas in Syria. He was speak­ing on April 6 at a Florida air­port, about to de­part for vis­its to Italy and Rus­sia. The ad­min­is­tra­tion has re­sponded to the use of gas by at­tack­ing a Syr­ian air base with cruise mis­siles.

The G-7 (Group of Seven) ma­jor trad­ing na­tions con­vened in Lucca, Italy, an ap­pro­pri­ate pre­lude to the dif­fi­cult talks in Rus­sia. War re­mains a scourge of hu­man ex­is­tence, but the to­tal wars and un­prece­dented de­struc­tive­ness of the twen­ti­eth re­sulted in com­mit­ment to in­ter­na­tional in­sti­tu­tions. The G-7 is part of this regime.

Sec­re­tary Tiller­son was re­fer­ring to diplo­matic in­ter­ven­tion by Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin of Rus­sia in 2013, fol­low­ing ear­lier use of poi­son gas in Syria. In­ter­na­tional agree­ments were reached to de­stroy the weapon stock­piles un­der in­ter­na­tional su­per­vi­sion.

Rus­sia played the lead­ing role in per­suad­ing the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment to aban­don poi­son gas stock­piles. Given past du­plic­ity by both Moscow and Bagh­dad, there were skep­tics re­gard­ing this seem­ingly be­nign hu­man­i­tar­ian in­ter­ven­tion. They have now been con­firmed.

Use of gas has be­come a dis­turb­ing re­cur­ring prob­lem in the seem­ingly end­less tur­moil of the Mid­dle East. Faulty in­tel­li­gence that the regime of Sad­dam Hus­sein of Iraq held weapons of mass de­struc­tion was used by of­fi­cials of the ad­min­is­tra­tion of Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush to jus­tify the 2003 in­va­sion of that coun­try.

Ear­lier, Sad­dam Hus­sein’s regime was sup­ported by the U.S. in a long, bru­tal war with Iran. This oc­curred de­spite the fact he used poi­son gas in geno­ci­dal at­tacks against the Kurd pop­u­la­tion in 1988, which added cred­i­bil­ity to later al­le­ga­tions.

Poi­son gas, a grotesque weapon, has a dis­tinc­tive as well as dis­turb­ing his­tory. In World War I, gas was em­ployed by both sides. The re­sult­ing ag­o­niz­ing and hor­rific mass deaths, com­bined with un­pre­dictably of winds, has served gen­er­ally to de­ter us­ing such weapons since.

In World War II, Italy and Ja­pan used gas in Ethiopia and China, but Nazi Ger­many did not bring this weapon to the bat­tle­field. Adolf Hitler had di­rect ex­po­sure to poi­son gas dur­ing com­bat in the trenches in World War I.

The long tan­gled tale of the Viet­nam War high­lights the ex­treme un­cer­tainty which can ac­com­pany al­le­ga­tions about poi­son gas. Af­ter with­drawal of U.S. forces, the Hmong were tar­geted for ruth­less re­tal­i­a­tion in Laos as well as Viet­nam. These fierce war­riors had been loyal al­lies of Amer­ica.

In 1975, re­ports be­gan to sur­face that Soviet poi­son gas was be­ing used against the Hmong. U.S. Sec­re­tary of State Alexander Haig in 1981 charged lethal T-2 my­co­toxin was the agent. In­de­pen­dent sci­en­tists, how­ever, tes­ti­fied nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring mass bee defe­ca­tions were re­spon­si­ble for in­ci­dents of toxic “yel­low rain.”

In 1998, a widely touted CNN re­port al­leged poi­son gas had been used by U.S. troops in Op­er­a­tion Tail­wind, a spe­cial op­er­a­tions 1970 strike into Laos. The lurid and im­plau­si­ble story in­cluded ac­cu­sa­tions a main tar­get was a group of Amer­i­can rene­gade de­fec­tors. The story was quickly dis­cred­ited, and CNN per­son­nel lost their jobs.

An an­ti­dote to such poi­sonous ir­re­spon­si­bil­ity is ab­so­lute com­mit­ment to con­firm­ing ev­i­dence, while strength­en­ing in­ter­na­tional mech­a­nisms. In 1936, a weak In­ter­na­tional Red Cross re­fused to re­lease ev­i­dence of Ital­ian atroc­i­ties in Ethiopia. In­ac­tion then fin­ished the frag­ile League of Na­tions.

The United Na­tions to­day must be a leader against the poi­son-gas dis­ease.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Dis­tin­guished Pro­fes­sor at Carthage Col­lege and au­thor of “Af­ter the Cold War.” Con­tact acyr@carthage.edu


Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son says “I think the real fail­ure here has been Rus­sia’s ...”

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