Congress’s imminent debate over Syria dredges up painful memories for one local congressman who directly witnessed the horrific impact the last time a Middle Eastern country used poison gas to massacre its own citizens.
In 1988, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) spent four days trekking through Kurdish refugee camps along the Turkish-Iraqi border collecting hundreds of eyewitness accounts of the murderous effect of Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons. He was 29 and working on arms control and NATO issues for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff.
“That was a very emotionally powerful experience, because you came face to face with people whose families had been victims of chemical weapons attacks, who had been killed by poison gas. There were mass casualties,” said Van Hollen, whose district includes most of Montgomery County.
The anguish didn’t end there. It was aggravated later, because Iraq got away with it.
The United States took no action, even though Van Hollen and a colleague wrote a detailed Senate staff report describing Baghdad’s brutality and urging economic sanctions.
The Senate endorsed the sanctions, but the House balked. Democrats controlled both chambers at the time. The Reagan administration, which had tilted toward Iraq in its war with Iran, wasn’t interested.
“I have always found it cruelly ironic that the United States and the world did nothing when Saddam Hussein actually used chemical weapons against his people, and then wrongly went to war more than 15 years later when Saddam Hussein did not even have any chemical weapons,” Van Hollen said.
Today, Van Hollen wants to make sure Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad doesn’t escape punishment as Saddam did in 1988. He is helping to lead the effort to round up congressional support to authorize President Obama to carry out air and missile strikes to deter Syria — and others — from using poison gas again.
Congress and the public should listen to this unique voice of experience. As Van Hollen explained in an interview Friday in his Capitol Hill office, it’s important to hold Syria accountable for violating what has been a mostly successful effort since World War I to prohibit use of an especially heinous form of warfare.
Even Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler refrained from using chemical weapons on the battlefield.
“I’m well aware of the argument that this was a bloody civil war in which over 100,000 people have already been killed. Some people ask, ‘What’s the difference?’ ” Van Hollen said.
“But there is a reason that the international community for almost 90 years has banned the use of poison gas. That’s because it’s a weapon of mass destruction that kills indiscriminately,” he said.
He noted that last month’s gas attack killed more people at one time than any other assaults during the Syrian fighting.
For Van Hollen, a lesson from Iraq was the need for accountability.
“I strongly believe that if the United States and the international community had taken some action [in 1988], then it would have reined in Saddam Hussein early on, that the failure to act emboldened Saddam Hussein to take reckless action, including the invasion of Kuwait,” Van Hollen said.
Of course Van Hollen recognizes the risks. That’s why he’s made an extra effort to ensure that any U.S. military action is strictly limited.
In that task, he has worked with Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), another local congressman who once worked for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. After seeing the resolution originally proposed by the White House, the two immediately agreed it was too permissive.
They set to work last week drafting an alternative. It rules out sending U.S. ground troops and expires in 60 days. It restricts the mission to one round of attacks with the sole purpose of punishing and deterring Syria’s use of chemical weapons.
“The objective should be incredibly narrowly focused,” Van Hollen said. “I am very much opposed to the United States getting more deeply enmeshed in the Syrian civil war.”
The American public is right to be skeptical of anyone pushing for military action in the Middle East in pursuit of idealistic purposes. In this case, however, a limited strike is justified to put muscle behind a worthy, long-respected principle.
Take it from a man who’s been there.
For previous Robert McCartney columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.