The drum beats for Western intervention in the Syrian civil war have grown louder in the last few days. Not because 70,000 to 100,000 people are dead, with more than a million dispersed as refugees. But because it is claimed the regime of Bashar al-Assad is using chemical weapons.
It has long been known that Syria possesses the largest stockpile of chemical munitions in the Middle East, and the fourth largest such arsenal in the world. Syria’s stockpile of sarin nerve gas runs to more than a thousand tons, with some of it ready to use as bombs or warheads for Scud rockets.
Sarin is an odourless, colourless gas that is 500 times more deadly than cyanide.
Warning: President Bashar al-Assad had been warned by Western leaders that using chemical weapons would be crossing a ‘red line’
Heavier than air, it floats downwards, and enters the body through inhalation or by being absorbed through the skin.
Deadly in doses of above 0.5 milligrams, it causes convulsions, frothing at the mouth and vomiting, and kills after about five minutes. It is a ghastly way to die.
Invented in Germany in 1938, sarin has been used twice in recent years.
In 1988 Iraq’s Saddam Hussein deployed the gas against the Kurdish city of Halabja, killing more than 5,000 people.
In 1994-95 the Japanese terror cult Aum Shinrikyo used sarin in a district of Matsumoto – a town near where many members of the judiciary lived – and then on the Tokyo subway. About 20 people were killed and thousands injured in these attacks.
Last December, Western intelligence agencies reported that forces of Bashar al-Assad were mixing chemicals to load into munitions such as bombs and artillery shells.
Under pressure to respond, Barack Obama announced that actual use of such weapons would be a ‘red line’ that Assad would cross at his own peril since use of chemical weapons is a war crime.
He went on to warn it would be a ‘game changer’, while last month Britain showed it was taking the threat seriously by announcing it was to airlift hundreds of chemical-weapon detection and protection kits to Syrian rebels.
Now, with reports coming in that Assad’s forces may have used sarin-filled artillery shells, Obama and David Cameron’s bluff appears to have been called.
While Cameron claimed the Government would be careful not to repeat the mistakes of Iraq – when Tony Blair used the threat of chemical weapons to invade (even though it became clear the threat never existed) – there are clear signs that we are becoming ever-more deeply involved in Syria. And this should worry us all.
Obama’s administration has so far been resisting calls to intervene in this murderous conflict, and he must now regret having made those comments about a ‘red line’ because they will only increase the pressure to do so. America’s fellow UN Security Council members, Russia and China, are implacably opposed to outside intervention in Syria.
They believe they were conned by Britain and France over Libya, where a ‘duty to protect’ civilians mysteriously mutated into Western-organised regime change and the murder of Gaddafi.
The result is that ‘liberated’ Libya is now plagued by armed militias and jihadist terrorism – a fate that has only served to inspire Islamists in other countries. To allow them to flourish in Syria could lead to a catastrophic domino-effect of insurgency and regime change throughout the Middle East.
The US is already deeply worried about extremists from the Sunni branch of Islam fighting on the Syrian rebel side and the prospect that, if Assad is ousted, Syria might disintegrate into separate and warring mini-states.
This in turn could lead to the Sunnis in neighbouring Iraq deciding on an armed breakaway too for, having ruled Iraq under Saddam, they are now treated like second class citizens by their historic rivals, the Shia branch which dominates the government.
David Cameron said the use of chemical weapons in Syria crossed a ‘red line’ for Britain and its allies
The Sunni Kurds, who effectively have their own quasi-independent state in northern Iraq, would be likely to follow.
In that event, all the US blood and treasure expended to maintain Iraq as a unitary state would have been in vain.
Some of these sectarian conflicts would almost certainly be replayed in other neighbouring countries, such as Lebanon.
And if the extremists gained a foothold in a new government in Damascus, how long would the ruling monarchy in Jordan, a vital British ally, survive?
The backdrop to all this is a struggle for dominance of the entire region being waged by Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, and its pint-sized accomplice in Qatar, not to speak of the Muslim Brotherhood government of Turkey, which has visions of restoring the power of the pre-First World War Ottoman Empire.
America will want to carefully evaluate intelligence over the claims of chemical weapons use after intelligence was so grotesquely abused to support the case for the Iraq War.
In the case of Syria, it is British, French, Qatari and Israeli intelligence services that are most bullish about claims that Assad’s forces have used chemical munitions.
Yet it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Syrian rebels – who are no saints – have used them for propaganda purposes to gain Western support.
It is odd, for example, that the chemicals have reportedly been used in low levels in urban contexts such as the city of Aleppo – chemical weapons are more suited to laying low huge numbers of enemies on an open battlefield.
President Barack Obama has said that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a ‘game changer’
On the other hand, Assad could simply be testing Obama’s ‘red lines’.
Whatever the case, Cameron’s government is once again full of moralising outrage, raising fears that it might soon be willing to send our war-weary forces into yet another hopeless conflict in the Middle East.
Why this sectarian civil war concerns us, rather than Arab armies we regularly equip with billions of pounds worth of high-tech weaponry, remains a mystery to many British people.
And if Cameron follows up his ramped-up rhetoric by sending in troops, the result would be nothing less than a catastrophe.