Syria and the myths of WMD
The West’s conventional firepower, used against regimes with WMD, is far more destructive than any WMD.
Support for imperialist interventions used to be mustered in terms of nationalism and national interests. But over the past couple of decades, the terms have shifted. Today, Western states are far more likely to solicit support for a foreign venture in terms of our fears, our insecurities, our sense of ever-proliferating threats. What if there are agents of terror waiting in the wings? What if a crazy dictator uses a biological weapon? In short, the politics of nationhood has long since given way to the politics of fear. And nowhere is this more apparent than in that peculiarly contemporary Western obsession with those nightmarish words: weapons of mass destruction.
Indeed, the current political discussion around Syria, especially the arguments for and against intervention, is being conducted almost entirely in terms of one species of WMD, namely chemical weapons. (The other two types of WMD are nuclear and biological.) Initially, we had those in the US and UK who were keen on military intervention seizing upon the various Western intelligence agency reports of Syrian government forces possibly using the chemical weapon, sarin gas. That, so the argument went, was a step too far; a step over US president Barack Obama’s ‘red line’, the point at which Assad’s war against the rebels would become a war crime. The point, that is, at which Western military intervention would be justified.
Then, last week, UN human rights investigator Carla del Ponte threw a spanner in the works when she told Swiss radio that it might not only be Assad, the bad guy, who is not doing war by the rules laid out in the Geneva Convention. The would-be good guys, the rebels many in the West have talked about supporting, may have been killing people by illegal means, too, she said. ‘According to the testimonies we have gathered, the rebels have used chemical weapons, making use of sarin gas… We still have to deepen our investigation, verify and confirm (the findings) through new witness testimony, but according to what we have established so far, it is at the moment opponents of the regime who are using sarin.’
This new allegation may have disrupted attempts to impose a black-and-white narrative on the conflict, but it did little to dampen enthusiasm for a new military adventure in the Middle East. Instead, the idea that chemical weapons could have fallen into the ‘wrong hands’, in this case the evil mitts of al-Qaeda-supporting rebel factions such as al-Nusra, was a prompt for all sorts of fearful ‘what ifs?’. Now the concern, as one report put it, ‘is not just that President Assad might start using his chemical arsenal in much greater quantities… [It is also] the prospect of it falling into even less benign hands.’ A columnist at Time magazine drew out the interventionist implications: ‘[Rebels’ use of chemical weapons] could force Obama into the deeper engagement he has long resisted: the alarming prospect that radical Islamists could acquire Syrian chemical weapons and try to use them beyond Syria’s borders, perhaps even within the US.’
So, once again, the idea that the West needs to get stuck into another country to protect us from rogue WMD is gathering pace. Once again, the threat of devastating weaponry in malignant hands, be they those of Assad or al-Qaeda, is being used to justify potential intervention. Once again, fear is providing the ground on which support for a foreign intervention is to be mobilised.
I say once again, because we have seen this happen all too often over the past couple of decades. We saw it most famously in Iraq in 2003, when dodgy dossiers and a mythical stockpile of WMD provided the basis for the ill-fated US-led invasion. And we saw something similar underpinning the far lower-profile interventions in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, where drone killings and small-scale military operations are justified on equally fear-laden foundations. Throughout the era of the ‘war on terror’, the fear-fuelled political rhetoric has been consistent. Back in 2003, then US president George W Bush spoke of terrorists who, ‘if they ever gained weapons of mass destruction’, would ‘kill hundreds of thousands, without hesitation and without mercy’. Several years later, Obama echoed his predecessor, announcing in his 2010 National Security Strategy that ‘there is no greater threat to the American people than weapons of mass destruction’.
Yet here’s the thing, the fly in the fearmongering ointment, the reason why we always ought to treat WMD claims, the bedrock of fear-assuaging foreign interventions, with caution: WMD are simply not what they are said to be. Yes, chemical or biological warheads are weapons, but weapons capable of mass destruction? No, not really. The brutal truth of the matter is that conventional weapons are far more destructive.
Western officials and observers frequently fret about terrorists getting hold of the third member of the WMD family, nuclear weapons (although this is not really an issue in nuclear weapon-free Syria). The fearmongering around terrorists and nuclear weapons is especially absurd. Pakistan, a state with a huge amount of military and scientific expertise, took 20 years to collate the necessary materials to detonate its first test nuke. The belief that a rag-bag collection of al-Qaeda fanboys might be able to achieve something similar is simply outlandish.
But what of a ‘dirty bomb’, where radioactive material might be used in combination with conventional explosives? Western officialdom, not to mention 24 scriptwriters, were certainly somewhat obsessed with dirty bombs during the Noughties. Yet obsession with a nightmarish idea is not the same thing as a focus on an established fact. So far, no dirty bombs have been discovered, let alone used. Which is hardly a surprise. As Stephen Schwartz, then publisher and executive director of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, explained to Brendan O’Neill in 2004, the dangerous radioactive materials capable of causing mass destruction ‘are unlikely to be used by terrorists in constructing [a dirty bomb], because doing so would expose the terrorists to levels of radiation so great that they would die long before they finished building and using their bomb’. This means that the types of radioactive material left that could be used to make dirty bomb simply wouldn’t cause much in the way of mass destruction.
The threat of biological weapons is equally overplayed. So while the British government has spent millions since the early Noughties on smallpox vaccines, and training to deal with a smallpox outbreak, there is no evidence that terrorists have ever had access to smallpox. Five people were killed in the US by so-called WMD in the mid-Noughties, as a result of handling letters laced with anthrax; but again, that hardly counts as ‘mass destruction’.
And so we come to chemical weapons, the focus of so much of the debate around Syria. From the interventionist handwringing about their alleged use, and their potential deployment by terrorists, you could be forgiven for thinking that chemical weapons are uniquely destructive, while those who deploy them are uniquely unconscionable. But there is very little, if any, evidence to bear out this view of chemical weapons.
Of course, the signal example of a state deploying such weapons against people is that of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime, which used gas against the Kurds of Halabja in 1988. Yet, as revealed a few years ago by Professor David Rapoport, a professor of political science at the University of California, the circumstances of the slaughter are as unclear as the death toll (which veers between 400 and over 5,000): ‘The fighter planes that attacked the civilians used conventional as well as unconventional weapons; I have seen no study which explores how many were killed by chemicals and how many were killed by firepower. We all find these attacks repulsive, but the death toll may actually have been greater if conventional bombs only were used.’
In fact, the fearful fetishising of chemical weapons is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the past, chemical weapons were viewed as less harmful than conventional weapons. As two US army chiefs, Amos Fries and Clarence West, put it in 1921: ‘Instead of being the most horrible form of warfare, it is the most humane, because it disables far more than it kills – that is, it has a low fatality ratio.’
There are still some today who are prepared to reveal the frightening truth: that chemical weapons are not weapons of mass destruction. A British army bomb disposal expert struck a particularly phlegmatic tone in a 2007 Register piece: ‘Far from possessing any special deadliness, chemical warheads are less potent than ordinary conventional-explosive ones. Calling them “WMD”, which suggests they are in some way equivalent to nuclear bombs, is simply ridiculous.’ He concluded: ‘So, if your aim is to kill and injure as many people as possible, you’d be a fool to use chemicals. And yet chemicals are rated as WMD, while ordinary explosives aren’t.’
As opposed to biological weapons, the odd anthrax or ricin case aside, chemical weapons have actually been used for terroristic purposes. Yet the examples merely prove how minimally destructive they are. For instance, al-Qaeda-related groups in Iraq detonated a series of 16 chlorine bombs in Iraq from late 2006 to mid-2007. Yet of the tens of Iraqis who died in the attacks, none did so because of the gas; they died because of the explosions. Even the infamous Tokyo subway sarin-gas attack in 1995, carried out by doomsday weirdoes Aum Shinryko, does not illustrate the potency of chemical weapons. The 12 who died did so because they came into contact with the liquid, not through inhaling the gas. As a means of killing hundreds of people, chemical weapons have consistently proved themselves extremely ineffective.
So, as the heat is turned up over chemical weapons in Syria, it’s worth treating the ensuing claims with extreme caution. The fact remains that such weapons are, in almost all cases, less destructive than conventional weapons. WMD is a misnomer born not of any tangibly apocalyptic threat, but of today’s politics of fear. The one thing that will be truly destructive, however, is further Western intervention in Syria. Just ask the inhabitants of Iraq.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.