Chemical Weapons and Modern Warfare in the Middle East
By Alec Woodard
After Syrian president Bashar al-Assad attacked his own people with sarin gas on April 4th, 2017, international coverage of the atrocity exploded. Foreign heads of state condemned the act, including US president Donald Trump. This criticism, while correct to identify the weapons’ use as a horror, distorts American and other wealthy nations’ responsibility for the ongoing use and sale of chemicals for warfare.
International law on chemical weapons stops all but pariah states like Syria from using agents as harmful as sarin gas, but significant damage is caused by less damaging agents like napalm and white phosphorus. Use of white phosphorus for its toxic properties is directly banned by the 1992 chemical weapons convention. Militaries are allowed, under the convention, to use white phosphorus to illuminate the battlefield or provide cover for troops, but this type of use runs contrary to the indiscriminate nature of the weapon whose smoke, spread wide by the method of delivery, causes severe burns on the skin if it makes contact. The 1980 Protocol on Incendiary Weapons – white phosphorus among them – bans use of incendiary weapons in “any concentration of civilians, be it permanent or temporary,” but US forces have explicitly used white phosphorus in civilian areas. The Washington Post published evidence of this from local Syrian human rights group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently on June 9th, 2017. The group’s footage suggested the improper use of white phosphorus by the US military and its partners has continued, this time in the Islamic State’s declared capital of Raqqa where civilians remained trapped as US-backed Syrian forces attempted to gain ground.
The use, sale and proliferation of chemical weapons is present through much of US involvement in the Middle East. The Reagan administration allowed ingredients for chemical weapons to be sold to Saddam Hussein’s regime during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988 in which the US and other western nations supported Iraq despite knowledge of its use of chemical weapons against Iranian civilians. Later, the Bush administration knowingly misled the US public when it used the presence of these “weapons of mass destruction” and the implication of others’ existence to secure support for the US invasion of Iraq. The US military then employed napalm-like munitions in multiple operations in Iraq. Army officials at first denied claims that napalm had been used, then admitted the use of Mark 77 incendiary bombs that are a successor to napalm and have similar effects.
Human Rights Watch, an international human rights monitoring organization, reported that Israel has used white phosphorus in densely populated areas of the Gaza Strip in March 2009, munitions that, they found, were sold by the United States. It is likely that US sales of white phosphorus have continued, as the Washington Post reported in September of 2016 that white phosphorus rounds have been seen along the border of Saudi Arabia and Yemen and the US government confirmed past sales to Saudi Arabia.
Chemical weapons proliferation as allowed by the US and its allies in the Middle East provides fuel for recruitment propaganda for the extremists the US government calls its foremost enemies. It also strengthens the incentive for those enemies to acquire and use chemical weapons themselves, a feat terrorist groups have consistently attempted. This is due to the tit-for-tat nature of war and propaganda. If terror groups’ recruiters can give evidence that foreign militaries use illegal weapons, then civilian populations will be less apt to resist terror groups that use similar weapons both because of the threat to their safety and the illusion of moral equivalence between their potential rulers. The Israeli government’s continued refusal to ratify the 1992 chemical weapons convention, though it is a signatory, is a gap in the web of international treaties which help to build stability in the Middle East. Without this treaty and significant international chemical weapons oversights, true backers of chemical weapons use like Vladimir Putin will continue to defend their abuses by pointing back at Israeli actions.
If the United States and its allies want to help stabilize the Middle East, then their policy toward chemical weapons and civilian casualties in general must change. Rather than exploit loopholes in chemical weapons law or pay huge sums for unaccountable military contractors, the US should increase its provision of direct aid to civilian populations through teacher training and basic medical care. Troop presence alone is necessary but not sufficient to solidify both security and good will toward the actions of the United States and the governments it backs in the Middle East.
If United States’ and its allies’ military strategies do not strictly follow international treaties on chemical weapons, the faltering Islamic State will be replaced by new groups raised by new propaganda. Autocratic governments in Syria and elsewhere will have a ready excuse to continue their brutal forms of warfare. If the Trump administration wants to create peace, it must first appear peaceful.