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Essay: Poison Gas Accusations Greatly Raise Syria Stakes

Drew Angerer
Getty Images News
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley holds up photos of victims of the Syrian chemical attack during a meeting of the United Nations Security Council at U.N. headquarters, April 5, 2017 in New York City.

This week, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson traveled to Russia. His mission was to convince the Putin administration to back off from its support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is accused of using poison gas on his own citizens as that country’s civil war continues.

Lake Effect essayist Art Cyr says those accusations greatly escalate the stakes in Syria:

“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 Syria 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.

Foreign policy contributor Art Cyr is a professor of political economy and world business and director of the Clausen Center for World Business at Carthage College in Kenosha.

Arthur I. Cyr is Director of the Clausen Center for World Business and Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Kenosha. Previously he was President of the Chicago World Trade Center, the Vice President of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, a faculty member and executive at UCLA, and an executive at the Ford Foundation. His publications include the book After the Cold War - American Foreign Policy, Europe and Asia (Macmillan and NYU Press).