The war rhetoric the United States and Russia are firing at each other over allegations that the Bashar al-Assad regime regularly uses chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war has brought into question the efficacy of the campaign to eliminate the use of chemical weapons.
In 2013, Syria declared that it had ratified the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) banning the production, storage and use of chemical weapons. The declaration came as the Syrian regime faced a military response from the US and its allies for the alleged use of chemical weapons on civilian targets. The declaration, together with Russia’s diplomatic power and the US government’s vacillation, averted the attack by Western powers.
Yet, time and again, the Syrian regime is accused of using chemical weapons on civilian centres. Often the allegations lack concrete evidence, though the anti-government forces make available to the international media footage showing in gruesome detail how the victims of the chemical weapon attack suffer.
When, in April last year, the Syrian government came under international censure for allegedly using chemical weapons on a rebel stronghold, the US defence Secretary James Mattis was asked whether he had any evidence to back the allegations. He said the US had “no evidence” that the Syrian government used the banned nerve agent Sarin against its own people, but acknowledged that the US was going by the evidence provided by “aid groups and others”. By the way, “the others” probably referred to rebels linked to ISIS and al-Qaeda. Despite the lack of evidence, United States President Donald Trump later ordered a Tomahawk missile attack on Syria.
However, United Nations investigators have said that in the Syrian conflict both the regime and the rebels have used chemical weapons. There is another counter narration, according to which civilians become victims when explosions, accidental or otherwise, go off in stores where rebels have haphazardly stockpiled chemical weapons.
This week, in the face of allegations that Syria had once again used chemical weapons on Douma, the last rebel stronghold in Eastern Ghouta, President Trump rushed to tweet, blaming Russia, Iran and Syria, once again going by the so-called evidence provided by “the West-backed aid groups and others”. On Monday, he warned that the alleged incident would “be met forcefully”. Russia responded by threatening not only to shoot down incoming US missiles but to attack the base from where the missiles were fired.
On Wednesday, the US President dared Russia to do what it could. In a tweet, he said: “Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and “smart!” You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!”
Scoffing at the US, Russia said missiles should target terrorists, not a legitimate government. Some analysts say by regularly attacking Syrian military targets, the US and Israel act like the air force of the “terrorists”.
At the United Nations Security Council on Monday, US envoy Nikki Haley told Russia that whether the UN Security Council acted or not, “either way, the United States will respond”. Unmoved, Russian representative Vassily Nebenzia said the incident was staged and warned that any military response by the West could have “grave repercussions”. He invited investigators from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to visit Syria, promising them that Russia would guarantee their safety. On Tuesday, Russia vetoed the US-backed resolution that called for an investigation and follow up action.
But, once again, the controversy rages, while the hawks make little effort to sift the evidence. Why should Syria use chemical weapons when it was in the final stages of scoring an overwhelming victory against the rebels? Under a deal negotiated by Russia, the rebels have been provided safe passage out of their last stronghold in Douma, a suburb of Damascus. If so, why should Assad commit hara-kiri and court the wrath of the world community, unless he also had a plan to eliminate the rebels so that they would not reappear from another place?
Russian experts who visited Douma claim that there was no evidence of any chemical weapon being used. The OPCW also has no clue as to who did it. It is still investigating the case.
One may say the Russians were biased and they fabricated the story to exonerate Assad. For argument’s sake, let’s assume that Assad and his Russian backers were rogues. But does this make those who bring the allegations saints? On many occasions, the pictures and footage provided by “aid groups and others” to pin war crimes allegations on the Syrian regime have turned out to be fake.
There appears to be a parallel between the Syrian story and the ongoing diplomatic spat between Russia and Britain over the alleged poisoning of a Russian spy-turned British double agent and his daughter. Britain is yet to provide the evidence to back the allegation that Russia carried out the poison attack. Rendering the British position weak, Britain’s defence laboratory Porton Down said it could not verify the precise source of the Novichok nerve agent used in the attack.
With the British case still wide open, reason dictates that suspicion cannot be on Russia alone. One cannot rule out the possibility of other state actors carrying out the attack and then joining in the chorus to blame Russia. Even Britain is a possible suspect, given the West’s dire need to check Russia’s ambitious drive to regain its superpower status to be on par with the US.
The alleged chemical attacks in Syria, the mysterious poison attack on the British double agent and last year’s death of a prominent North Korean dissident after a nerve agent attack at the Kuala Lumpur airport point to the failure of international efforts to eliminate chemical weapons, though 20 years have passed since the Chemical Weapons Convention came into force.
The OPCW, though it has won the Nobel Peace Prize for its work, has a long way to go in bringing about a world without chemical weapons. The biggest impediment to achieve this goal is power politics characterized by big powers subjugating small powers.
Sovereignty of small states is a myth. If small states attempt to defy a big state, it is inevitable that they will become a target for hostile activity by the big state scorned. It is also inevitable that Middle powers, or emerging powers, would resort to chemical, nuclear or biological weapons or weapons of mass destruction to deter attacks from a hostile big power. If anyone needs proof, look at North Korea. It has averted a US invasion or attack because it has chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
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