Syria has the right to use chemical weapons, but there’s no proof, or reason to believe, it has

By Stephen Gowans

“’The fact that an attack has taken place is not going to be hard to establish; the hard part is going to be assessing the blame,’ said Gary Samore, who until recently was the Obama administration’s top adviser on arms control and weapons of mass destruction.” [1]

It seems that the task of producing evidence that the Syrian government launched a gas attack against civilians last week has, in fact, become so difficult, that Washington, the French, Britain, and the Western media, have simply side-stepped the problem by declaring that unless the Syrian government proves itself innocent, it must be guilty.

And to seal the deal, they say that even if Damascus proves itself innocent (and how can it prove a negative?), it’s too late. “At this juncture, the belated decision by [the Syrian government] to grant access to the U.N. team is too late to be credible,” a US official said. [2] This is a red herring. The team of 20 World Health Organization inspectors has neither the mandate, nor the ability, to determine who launched the attack, only whether chemical weapons were used. Even if the inspectors had access days ago to the site of the alleged attack, they would only be able to ascertain whether a gas attacked had occurred, not who was behind it.

Equating evidence of a chemical weapons attack with evidence that Assad’s government undertook one, is a crafty trap that the media have willingly stepped into, and that the left risks blundering into. The trap is to accept as axiomatic and beyond dispute that any gas attack must be the work of the Syrian government. This is the view of British foreign secretary William Hague, US and French officials, editors of major newspapers in the United States and Britain, and of the so-called reliable reporter Patrick Cockburn, who equates mounting evidence that a gas attack occurred, with mounting evidence that Assad gassed his people. [3]

There are three reasons to reject this view:

1. It’s based on no evidence, and only an assumption—one which conveniently fits the political agendas of the governments making it. Leftists who also make it may want to reacquaint themselves with Gramsci’s ideas on hegemony.

2. The Syrian government’s launching of a gas attack would be so thoroughly against its own interests, and with so little to show for it, that to accept this view is to accept a ridiculously implausible scenario. Why use a weapon of mass destruction to produce limited casualties? Why use gas against civilians, and not armed rebels? Why launch an attack at the same time WHO inspectors are in the country to investigate chemical weapons use? Why hand political enemies a pretext to step up their military intervention? If the Syrian government was riddled with morons, we might believe the story, but it hasn’t hung on for three years against armed rebels backed by royal dictators, former colonial powers, and history’s top imperialist power, without perspicacity and knowing when to avoid suicidal missteps.

3. The idea that the opposition carried out the attack, on the other hand, is more plausible. I have outlined the reasons why elsewhere, from the existence of a strong motive to carry out a gas attack and blame it on the government to pave the way for the West to escalate its military involvement in Syria, to reporting that points to the rebels possessing chemical agents. To this can be added the following from today’s Washington Post:

Adding urgency to the international deliberations, Jahbat al-Nusra, an opposition group in Syria that the United States deems a terrorist organization, said Sunday that the attack gives a green light for rebels to respond in kind.

‘It is permissible for us to punish in the same way,’ Jahbat al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani said in a statement Sunday titled ‘Eye for an Eye’.

‘It is a debt that will not be lifted until we make them taste what they made our sons taste,’ said Jalani, a Syrian who fought with al-Qaeda in Iraq. ‘With every chemical rocket that fell upon our people in Syria, the price will be paid by one of their villages.’ [4]

If the Syrian military is the only force in Syria that can carry out a chemical weapons attack, how do we explain Jolani’s threat? It could, of course, be empty bluster, but in the context of evidence the United Nations independent commission of inquiry on Syria said that it had found that the opposition had used chemical agents [5], and Wall Street Journal reporting that “Islamist rebel brigades have several times been reported to have gained control of stockpiles of chemicals, including sarin,” [6] it at least gives ground to very seriously doubt the assertion that chemical weapons use is a Syrian government monopoly.

Iraq and Iran Reprised

Demanding that Damascus prove itself innocent of the allegations the West has made, is the same tactic the US and its British and French subalterns used in Iraq, and use today in connection with Iran.

The Iraqis were required to prove they had no weapons of mass destruction, and their inability to prove a negative provided a US-led coalition with a pretext to bomb and sanction. This was a campaign of genocide that led to the deaths of over a million civilians, before a ground war was launched in 2003 that created a vast humanitarian catastrophe on top of the profound damage the imperialist coalition had already created. No weapons of mass destruction were found.

The Iranians are required to prove they don’t have a nuclear weapons program, even though US intelligence says they don’t, and IAEA inspectors have no evidence that nuclear material is being diverted to military use. All the same, the country is being subjected to an assault from the West on three fronts: ideological, economic and military. The Iranians must prove their innocence, simply because the West says they’re guilty.


Declaring countries guilty until proven innocent isn’t half as absurd as setting out to punish the putative, though by no means actual, use of chemical agents to kill a few hundred people, while blithely accepting the killing of many more by conventional arms. Thousands of Syrians have already been killed by assault rifles and artillery, many, if not most, at the hands of the Syrian military. If there are no grounds to intervene in Syria’s internal affairs to punish the Syrian government for using conventional weapons to produce thousands of deaths (and there aren’t), surely there are no grounds to punish the same government for producing a few hundred deaths with chemical weapons (laying aside, for the moment, that there’s no evidence Damascus has actually done this and no cogent reasons to believe it would.)

How is it, then, that some weapons like Tomahawk cruise missiles, are all right to use, while others, like mustard and sarin gas, are not—especially considering that Tomahawk cruise missiles have the potential to kill far more people than the limited number of people that have been killed in alleged gas attacks in Syria? The answer, I think, lies in what weapons the United States regards, at this moment, as useful to its military goals, and the weapons which are not useful, but which may be useful to countries the United States deems its enemies. A country can’t be punished for using weapons the US military itself might use, except if they’re nuclear weapons, and then only if that country is North Korea.

Gas is an inefficient weapon. It’s messy, difficult to use, and its effects are unpredictable. The United States military wouldn’t use gas, because it has far more effective and certain ways to slaughter large numbers of people. So it demonizes gas, the weapon it doesn’t need, but which less armipotent countries might find useful, while branding far more destructive weapons—weapons with the potential to create mass destruction—as acceptable. This establishes the double standard of: Our WMDs are acceptable, but yours are not.

The great absurdity, then, is that the United States is poised on the brink of using Tomahawk cruise missiles against Syria, which could kill more people than all the people killed in alleged gas attacks attributed to the Syrian military without proof.

Syria’s Right to Use Chemical Weapons

Gas as a weapon is no more inherently gruesome than are Tomahawk cruise missiles, or the warplanes, tanks, and attack helicopters that the United States itself uses and sells to its Arab dictator friends, royal and otherwise, to punish, intimidate, destroy and conquer. Gas can’t be declared beyond the pale simply because it has no useful place in the US arsenal. If Syria is to be punished for using gas to produce hundreds of deaths (and without proof or even sound reason to believe it has done so), surely the United States should be punished for killing millions of civilians by conventional methods in an endless string of wars, and so too should France and Britain, whose records of slaughter in colonial wars, including those in the Levant, are hardly to be admired. To our list of absurdities must be added the spectacle of countries with the blood of tens of millions on their hands, parading about as humanitarian warriors.

The Syrian government has a right to use gas to protect itself against the neo-colonial machinations of Western powers, as well as a formal legal right to do so without punishment. It has not signed onto the international treaty banning their use, and neither have Washington’s key subalterns in the region, Israel and Egypt. Syria, therefore, has no formal legal obligation to refrain from using chemical weapons. All the same, there is neither proof nor reason to believe that Damascus has exercised this right.

Limiting ourselves to the empirical question of whether the Syrian government did indeed exercise its right, we should acknowledge that there are two issues to be addressed.

• Were chemical weapons used?
• Who used them?

Regarding the first question, there is no proof yet that chemical weapons were indeed used (though there is mounting circumstantial evidence they were.) However, it’s possible that proof will never be forthcoming and that some other cause is responsible for the deaths.

Proof that chemical weapons were used, however, does not establish that they were used by the Syrian government. The question of who did use them is far more difficult to establish, especially in light of the reality that there is no reason to believe that Damascus has a monopoly on chemical agents. The rebels have the motive, and the evidence suggests they also have the means, to carry out a chemical weapons attack.

1. Anne Gearan, Loveday Morris and Colum Lynch, “U.N. to inspect site of alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria; lawmakers call for U.S. military response”, The Washington Post, August 25, 2013.
2. Gearan, Morris and Lynch.
3. Patrick Cockburn, “Did Syria gas its own people? The evidence is mounting”, The Independent, August 25, 2013.
4. Gearan, Morris and Lynch.
5. “Syrian rebels may have used Sarin” Reuters, May 5, 2013
6. Margaret Coker and Christopher, “Chemical agents reflect brutal tactics in Syria”, The Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2013.

8 thoughts on “Syria has the right to use chemical weapons, but there’s no proof, or reason to believe, it has

  1. Okay, get a grip people.
    This is NOT rational (sane) logic working here and we should all know this.
    This is the logic (propaganda) of US imperialism.
    This is the operating project since at least 1898 being used in the quest for global hegemony (i.e. control of the earth’s wealth on behalf of Wall St.)
    It’s about total economic and military might and power with close to (or more than) 800 overseas military bases and well over a trillion dollars in spending each year.
    This is what a militarized national security prison police state looks like.

  2. Im afraid if the wolf wishes to eat the lamb then any excuse will do.My heart goes out the the hundreds of thousands,possibly millions of Syrians that are about to be exterminated by rapacious,violent ,hegemonistic neo fascist imperialism.All because the Syrians choose a path of independant development not conducive to finance capitals profit making.How much longer must the people of this pretty planet put up with this insane capitalist system ?

  3. FYi from Pepe Escobar

    Khalil Harb, of Lebanese paper As-Safir, confirmed a few minutes ago to my great friend Claudio Gallo an article published in Arabic two days ago, quoting a Russian source.

    According to the source, Russia’s ambassador in the UN Security Council, Vitaly Churkin, presented conclusive evidence – based on documents and Russian satellite images – of two rockets carrying toxic chemicals, fired from Douma, controlled by the Syrian “rebels”, and landing on East Ghouta. Hundreds of “rebels”, as well as civilians – including those children on the cover of Western corporate media papers – were killed. The evidence, says the Russian source, is conclusive. This is what Lavrov himself was hinting at yesterday. And that’s the reason there’s no UN Security Council resolution against Syria, and why Washington does not want the inspectors to find anything.

  4. ‘It is permissible for us to punish in the same way,’ Jahbat al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani said in a statement Sunday titled ‘Eye for an Eye’.

    ‘It is a debt that will not be lifted until we make them taste what they made our sons taste,’ said Jalani, a Syrian who fought with al-Qaeda in Iraq. ‘With every chemical rocket that fell upon our people in Syria, the price will be paid by one of their villages.’ [4]

    That, my friends, is a confession.
    It confirms that cowardly America’s cowardly ‘rebels’ are conducting a war of attrition against Syrian civilians. The Eye for an Eye brand of justice used to refer to the punishment of perpetrators. It didn’t mean wreaking vengeance upon the first person, or group of people, whom the aggrieved encountered. And it certainly never meant perpetrating random acts of mass murder upon people who couldn’t possibly be guilty,

    I can’t begin to tell you how surprised I’m not that Obama’s anti-Assad ‘rebels’ can blithely implement the Fallujah option and brag about their criminal psychopathy in advance, and in public – just like their American sponsors.

    Will there ever be a Nobel Prize for this sort of Humanitarian Intervention?

  5. According to the Wall Street Journal, the data stamp on You Tube videos is Pacific Time, not local time.

  6. Stephen,

    I am a bit surprised you do not mention the claim the Russian Foreign Office and others have made to the effect that rebel “evidence” that the Syrian government used chemical weapons appeared on the internet one day BEFORE the alleged attacks.

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