Chemical weapons were used against civilians in dozens of communities all across northern Iraq within the Kurdistan Region, from up near the border with Turkey in the northwest to down near the border with Iran in the southeast, culminating in the infamous use at Halabja.

 

 

The International Herald Tribune/The New York Times

May 1, 2013

Echoes of Saddam’s War in Dilemma Over Syria’s Chemical Weapons

 

By HARVEY MORRIS

 

 

Associated Press A Kurdish woman at a monument for the dead in Halabja.

ERBIL, Iraq — A team of United Nations experts was still waiting in Cyprus on Wednesday to hear whether Syria will grant it unfettered access to investigate reports that chemical weapons have been used in the country’s civil war.

The mission has been stalled by disagreements about the scope of the inquiry, which the Damascus government wants to limit to a single alleged incident in Aleppo.

The government and the rebels have each accused the other of using the banned weapons, and President Obama said proof of their systematic use by the Syrian military would be a “game changer” in U.S. involvement in the conflict.

The reports from Syria have a particular resonance in this Kurdish region of northern Iraq, which suffered the worst ever slaughter by chemical and nerve agents, 25 years ago at the town of Halabja, in which more than 5,000 people died.

At that time, a brutal 8-year war between Iraq and Iran was nearing its end and there was little appetite in the West for assigning blame to the perpetrator — the government of President Saddam Hussein of Iraq.

The U.S. and its allies proclaimed a neutral stance in the conflict, but by the end had effectively tilted toward Iraq, having acknowledged that Mr. Hussein’s invasion of his neighbor at least had the merit of curtailing Iran’s ability to export its Islamic revolution.

Throughout the war no international action was taken on Iraq’s chemical weapons, despite evidence they had been used long before Halabja.

In 1988, amid unlikely claims in Western capitals that Iran might have been responsible for the Halabja attack, a U.N. Security Council resolution was passed, which failed to single out Iraq or to impose sanctions on Baghdad.

Once a cease-fire was called that year, and as Western companies eyed contracts for postwar Iraqi construction, there was even less motive to take action on the government’s use of chemical weapons against Iranian forces and its own Kurdish population.

Attitudes changed, of course, when Mr. Hussein occupied Kuwait in 1990 until being forced out by a U.S.-led coalition.

The motive for the second U.S.-led war against him in 2003 was his alleged possession of chemical weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, which turned out to be based on flimsier evidence than that which was largely ignored at the time of the Halabja massacre.

Some commentators have now identified a new reluctance by Western leaders to make a definitive judgment about Syria’s alleged chemical weapons use, for fear it would force them into tougher action against Damascus.

Mr. Obama said on Tuesday, “What we now have is evidence that chemical weapons have been used inside of Syria, but we don’t know how they were used, when they were used, who used them.”

Before taking decisions about further action, he said, “I’ve got to make sure I’ve got the facts.”

The U.S. and other governments have been collecting evidence to try to establish the facts.

But, as Gordon Corera, the BBC’s security correspondent noted this week, politicians are being cautious about overselling their level of certainty in the light of the 2003 Iraq war “when too much was based on too little hard information and all the caveats and cautions surrounding intelligence were lost.”

“This time political leaders — especially in Washington — seem much more reluctant to intervene,” Mr. Corera wrote this week, “and so the emphasis is precisely on the caveats and cautions.”

Wladimir van Wilgenburg, writing for Rudaw, a Kurdish news Web site, asked what had happened to President Obama’s red line that he had drawn for any regime that dared to use poison gas against its people.

“If this were a playground dare, the only face-saving gesture would have been for Obama to punch the bully in the nose,” Mr. van Wilgenburg wrote this week. “But because politics is based on interests, not principles, the debate now is over whether the bully crossed the whole line, or just stepped over with his toe.”

He quoted Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former commanding officer of the British Army’s chemical weapons unit, as saying he believed the Assad government would limit use of chemical weapons to gaining local tactical advantages against the rebels. “The regime’s posture is that they think the red line is quite wide, and hope it is very wide,” he said.

Mr. de Bretton-Gordon said he believed only an attack on the scale of Halabja would provoke international intervention.

In 1988, even reports and pictures of the slaughter at Halabja proved insufficient for the international community to set aside political expediency and take action against the Saddam Hussein regime.

After the cease-fire, the Iraqi regime launched a wide-scale offensive against its own Kurdish population, deemed to have supported Iran during the 8-year war.

The response from Western governments was more forthright than after Halabja. George Schultz, the U.S. secretary of state, told the Iraqis he had conclusive proof that they had used chemical weapons.

But, once again, the Security Council failed to take action against the offending regime.

The Washington Post

1 May 13

U.N. faces ghost of Iraq in evaluating chemical weapons use in Syria

 

By Colum Lynch

 

UNITED NATIONS — A few days ago, a little-known Swedish scientist with a career devoted to studying lethal warfare agents paid a quiet visit to London. He was there to examine evidence that British officials believe shows that Syrian forces used chemical weapons against their own people.

Ake Sellstrom’s confidential mission marked the first stage in a fledgling U.N. investigation into claims that the nerve agent sarin was used in battles in at least three Syrian cities since last December. The inquiry has once again thrust the United Nations into the center of a hunt for weapons of mass destruction.

For U.N. inspectors, the new inquiry is reminiscent of the days when they scoured Iraq’s deserts and industrial parks more than a decade ago in pursuit of lethal stockpiles of chemical weapons that had long before been destroyed and nuclear facilities that no longer existed.

There are, to be sure, stark differences between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and President Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. For one, the United States, which led the push for war in Iraq, appears reluctant to enter the war in Syria. For another, U.N. inspectors may never be permitted to step foot in Syria to examine the sites in question, making it extremely difficult to establish definitively whether chemical weapons were used and by whom.

But officials at U.N. headquarters also see the parallels and potential pitfalls between Iraq and Syria. Among them is a big-power rift between the United States and Russia and the reactivation of several veterans of the Iraq inspections, including Sellstrom.

As happened with Iraq, any findings by the U.N. team will fuel an international debate about the wisdom of military intervention in Syria. Its conclusions also will test the reliability of Western intelligence agencies, particularly in the United States and Britain, whose flawed intelligence served as the basis for the American-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

“The echoes of weapons inspections in Iraq are inescapable,” said Carne Ross, a former British diplomat, who managed his government’s Iraq policy at the United Nations from 1997 to 2002.

“We were played, right?” said Patricia Lewis, an expert on biological, chemical and nuclear weapons at London’s Chatham House, suggesting that the abuses of intelligence in Iraq will cast a shadow over the findings on Syria. “We were badly burned by people coming out of Iraq telling us stuff that wasn’t true, either out of enthusiasm or malice or ego. Nobody outside the West believes the intelligence services of the West any more.”

President Obama has said repeatedly that Syria’s use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line,” prompting an unspecified response. But Obama, who opposed the Iraq war, has also underscored the limits of intelligence and the need for concrete evidence.

In a letter to key lawmakers last week, the White House said U.S. intelligence agencies believe the Syrian government likely used chemical weapons on a small scale. But the letter said U.S. officials are seeking further proof and endorsed a “comprehensive United Nations investigation that can credibly evaluate the evidence and establish what took place.”

Dueling allegations

In late March, the Assad government asked the United Nations to investigate its claims that opposition fighters attacked Syrian forces with chemical weapons in the town of Khan al Assel, near the city of Aleppo. Negotiations over the scope of the U.N. investigation stalled after U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon accepted a subsequent request by Britain and France for a broader inquiry, which would also examine claims by opposition forces that Syrian authorities used chemical weapons.

Syria’s U.N. ambassador, Bashar Al Jaafari, said his government has proof that chemical weapons were used at Khan al Assel. “We have victims, we have bodies, we have wounded,” he said at a press conference here on Tuesday.

Jaafari said the government opposes the expanded U.N. mission, citing concern that it would mark the beginning of an open-ended investigation leading nowhere. “What happened in Iraq is still alive in our minds,” he said.

Experts say detecting the use of chemical weapons grows more difficult as time passes. If the U.N. team doesn’t get into Syria at all, the job will be even harder.

Either way, the task will test Sellstrom’s technical and diplomatic skills as he seeks to stitch together the threads of evidence — primarily soil samples, blood and hair from suspected victims, and witness testimony — to come up with conclusive answers.

He will be working with a much smaller team — about 15 chemists, munitions experts and doctors — than the team deployed to Iraq. In the coming weeks, they are expected to travel to key capitals to examine the findings of intelligence services and interview refugees who may have witnessed, or been exposed to, the use of chemical weapons.

A possible maelstrom

Those who know the Swedish scientist say he will follow the evidence where it leads and that he is unlikely to be intimidated or swayed either by Syrian combatants whose claims he is testing or the big powers that will be supplying him with evidence.

The Iraq inspectors reported to the Security Council, but Sellstrom and his team may have more latitude because they were appointed directly by Ban.

Still, insiders caution, Sellstrom risks being drawn into a major-power squabble over the course of inspections, particularly if the team is unable to come up with a definitive conclusion.

“I hope he knows the maelstrom he’s being thrown into,” said Charles Duelfer, a former U.N. weapons inspector who headed the CIA’s monumental review of Iraq’s weapons program.

Duelfer said Sellstrom is a “serious, objective inspector type. He’s not a politician, a diplomat or a lawyer. One of his challenges is going to be figuring how to maneuver in that intersection between political science and physical science.”

Obama’s designation of a red line on Syria’s chemical activities is likely to place a burden on Sellstrom, Duelfer said, who added that such ultimatums “tend to be attached to a trigger.” In Iraq, he noted, “the finger on the trigger turned out to be weapons inspectors. The way its headed that same dynamic will apply to poor Ake.”

Even if Sellstrom’s team can secure compelling evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria, Duelfer said, it will be nearly impossible to demonstrate with absolute certainty who used them if the U.N. team is not allowed into the country. “You can get to a moderate to high confidence that sarin was used, but then you still don’t know the return address,” he said.

 

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