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Using Chemical Weapons Is Always Abhorrent - Except When It Isn't

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Why act now against the loathsome Assad regime in Syria? The alleged use of chemical weapons against the residents of Ghouta is a "moral obscenity", according to the US Secretary of State John Kerry.

"There have been decades of painstaking work to construct an international regime of rules and checks, overseen by the UN, to prevent the use of chemical weapons and to destroy stockpiles," adds our own foreign secretary William Hague.

Most of the arguments in favour of taking some form of military action against Syria - for example, this Spectator blogpost which refers to the use of chemical weapons as "an affront to the very idea of civilisation itself" - seem to rely on stoking our emotions, our understandable outrage and disgust at the alleged deployment of gas (gas!) against civilians. This morning, on Radio 4's Today programme, Middle East expert Rosemary Hollis invoked the Holocaust and the use of the gas chambers against Jews, homosexuals and the disabled during the Second World War. Again and again we are reminded that there is a political, legal and moral taboo against bombing people with sarin, mustard gas, VX and the rest. To deploy chemical weapons (CW) against one's enemies, we've been told this week, is always abhorrent, barbaric and inexcusable.

The problem for the liberal hawks, however, is that just 25 years ago - three years after John Kerry was elected to the Senate and a year after William Hague's first attempt to enter the Commons - the United States and its allies didn't just turn a blind eye to the widespread use of chemical weapons by the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq (against both Iranian troops and Iraqi Kurds) but were complicit in those horrific CW attacks.

With impeccable timing, Foreign Policy magazine revealed on Monday that the west "knew Hussein was launching some of the worst chemical attacks in history - and still gave him a hand".

Basing their conclusions on recently declassified CIA documents and interviews with former intelligence officials, Shane Harris and Matthew M. Aid wrote:

"In 1988, during the waning days of Iraq's war with Iran, the United States learned through satellite imagery that Iran was about to gain a major strategic advantage by exploiting a hole in Iraqi defences. US intelligence officials conveyed the location of the Iranian troops to Iraq, fully aware that Hussein's military would attack with chemical weapons, including sarin, a lethal nerve agent."

Their report continued:

"The Iraqis used mustard gas and sarin prior to four major offensives in early 1988 that relied on US satellite imagery, maps, and other intelligence. These attacks helped to tilt the war in Iraq's favour and bring Iran to the negotiating table, and they ensured that the Reagan administration's long-standing policy of securing an Iraqi victory would succeed. But they were also the last in a series of chemical strikes stretching back several years that the Reagan administration knew about and didn't disclose."

Retired US Air Force colonel Rick Francona, who was a military attaché in Baghdad in the late 1980s, told the authors:

"The Iraqis never told us that they intended to use nerve gas. They didn't have to. We already knew."

Francona's words are worth keeping in mind this afternoon when you hear MPs from across the political spectrum stand up in the Commons to sanctimoniously decry and denounce the alleged use of sarin by Assad. So too are these two devastating sentences from Harris and Aid:

"[The CIA documents] show that senior U.S. officials were being regularly informed about the scale of the nerve gas attacks. They are tantamount to an official American admission of complicity in some of the most gruesome chemical weapons attacks ever launched."

You can read the full - and shocking - Foreign Policy report here.

On a side note, if the use of chemical weapons is always and unequivocally abhorrent and a taboo, why is it that the United States once held nearly 30,000 tons of CW materials such as mustard blister agent and the nerve agents VX and sarin? Why is it that the US had a first-use policy on chemical weapons until 1969 and a second-use, 'retaliatory' policy on chemical weapons as recently as 1991? And why does the US government continue to miss its legally-binding deadlines for getting rid of all its CW stocks?

Also, if chemical weapons constitute the 'red line' in this conflict, and the trigger for military action and outside, US-led intervention in Syria, why didn't we see a debate like this in May when UN investigator Carla Del Ponte suggested that Syrian rebels had used sarin, too? Where was the outrage then? And why haven't we heard a peep from Del Ponte on this subject in recent days? (I approached the UN's Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, on which she sits, for comment from Del Ponte but received no response.)

Last but not least, when are we going to debate the use of depleted uranium (DU) ammunition by the US and its allies in Iraq in 2003 and 2004, and the "compelling evidence" linking the use of DU weapons, as well as white phosphorus, to the growing number of cancers and birth defects subsequently recorded in and around Basra and Fallujah? Is this not worthy of discussion? How about the ongoing fallout from the use of napalm and Agent Orange in Vietnam?

Don't get me wrong. I want Assad gone and I believe him to be a brutal and corrupt dictator. I wouldn't be surprised either if it turns out that his troops did use sarin against civilians in Ghouta. The point, however, is not just that US/UK/French missile strikes won't prevent him from using chemical weapons again, nor will they help bring the Syrian conflict to a much-needed close, but that our political leaders in the west, sadly and shamefully, occupy very little moral high ground when it comes to condemning the use of chemical weapons by hostile regimes.

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