Amy E. Smithson is a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and the author of “Germ Gambits: The Bioweapons Dilemma, Iraq and Beyond.”
With calls for intervention in Syria’s two-year-old civil war mounting, the United States, Britain, France and Israel have focused on whether forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have used chemical weapons. To answer that question and understand its implications, some myths need to be dispelled.
1. Witness reports can establish the use of chemical weapons.
Because Syria has blocked United Nations inspectors from entering the country, much of the evidence in play is from witness reports. The most detailed of those came this past week from France’s Le Monde newspaper: “No odor, no smoke, not even a whistle to indicate the release of a toxic gas. And then the symptoms appear. The men cough violently. Their eyes burn, their pupils shrink, their vision blurs. Soon they experience difficulty breathing, sometimes in the extreme.”
A feature from The Post’s Outlook section that dismantles myths, clarifies common misconceptions and makes you think again about what you thought you already knew.
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The problem with such reports is that while they may suggest exposure to toxic gas, they can’t identify which chemicals were present, who used them or whether they were intended as weapons. That information isn’t just nice to know — it’s critical for figuring out how to respond.
The State Department is reportedly working to bring medical professionals who have seen evidence of chemical attacks in Syria to meet with U.N. investigators in Turkey. Far more telling would be blood and urine from the victims and soil and munitions from the attack areas. Analysis of those samples could nail down what brought on the symptoms. Traces of nerve agents would point to deliberate use by Assad’s forces, which have access to Syria’s chemical weapons stash. Traces of industrial chemicals would make it harder to determine what happened. For example, explosions near industrial facilities could have ruptured chemical tanks and released toxic gasses.
2. The use of chemical weapons is a “game-changer.”
President Obama has been criticized for not following through on his declaration in March that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a game-changer. In April he tried to clarify his remarks by saying that he meant “not simply for the United States but for the international community, and the reason for that is that we have established international law and international norms.”
Yes, there are laws. The 1925 Geneva Protocol outlaws the use of chemical and biological weapons, and the Chemical Weapons Convention, implemented in 1997, bans the development, production, stockpiling and use of poison gas.
But chemical weapons don’t always change the game politically. Consider the Iran-Iraq war. U.N. investigators found traces of mustard gas in soil and bomb fragments and examined dozens of soldiers with symptoms of mustard gas exposure. They concluded that Iraq had repeatedly used poison gas against Iran. When photographs of streets littered with bodies in the Kurdish town of Halabja appeared in 1988, the world suspected Iraq had gassed Kurdish civilians as well. In the wake of the Iranian hostage crisis, however, Washington’s sympathies were with Iraq. At a 1989 conference on chemical weapons, world powers did not even censure, much less punish, Iraq.
Of course, chemical weapons were cited as one justification for going to war with Iraq in 2003. Flawed intelligence then has clearly made the United States more hesitant today to declare a game changed.