Pandora’s Sarin Box

By Jack Apollo George

He didn’t want to tell us the story, but he did. The man at the dinner table this summer had dug up the bodies of murdered Kurds in the early nineties. He had recovered samples in order to help prove that Saddam’s regime had been responsible for using Sarin against defenseless citizens. He was then infected by the Sarin in their corpses and lived in agony for years.

An atrocious chemical weapons attack — believed to have been perpetrated using the very same nerve agent, Sarin — took place near Damascus this August. It happened in the midst of the ugly civil war in the Middle Eastern state of Syria that has been ongoing since 2011. Many other states of the region underwent great socio-political upheaval, but in Syria the popular protests only provoked further tyranny. Yet it is now, two and a half years later, with hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced that the West is seriously contemplating intervention.

There was indeed vague talk of it before, however, the frightfully underwhelming prospect of a “limited narrow attack,” coupled with the Obama administration’s arbitrary creation of conveniently flexible red lines make the current plans both pedantic and inefficient.

It is one thing to say that chemical weapons are an abhorrent and inhumane method — an undeniable truth — but quite another to assert that they are so much worse than conventional means of war, so much worse that they justify more war. That line of thought is justified by the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which outlawed the use of chemical weapons following their disastrous introduction to the battlefield during the First World War. But laws of war read like the rules of a sport which makes sense because in times past war was an often respectful and honorable adventure (think Sparta, Napoleon). I am pretty sure, however, that had drones been buzzing around the fields of Verdun, murdering indirectly through the grace of a military geek in an office somewhere in the land of stars and stripes, they too would have been outlawed in 1925. Can one honestly rank the humaneness of different tools of death?

But that philosophical line of thought is far too ideal. Yes, a world without any murderous tools would be perfect — but we have to deal with what is. Chemical weapons, regardless of the side that used them, cannot and must not be tolerated. To deny their future propagation, a firm hand should be shown on Syria. If someone gets away with it, everyone will think it possible. A lid must be kept on the use of chemical weapons. This is a notion void of direct humanism; further pain and suffering would be inflicted upon the Syrian people as a result. Though this idea may be Machiavellian, in the end, more chaos is prevented. I never want anyone I know, let alone love, to have his or her life cut short by an odorless and invisible substance released by conscious evil.

There is talk of a UN mandate being altogether bypassed by Obama and Kerry because the intervention would be on humanitarian grounds. But if the West were seriously doing all this warmongering on humanitarian grounds, we would have intervened years ago, when the killing started. So it is on pure realist political grounds that we go to war. It’s hypocritical but necessary logic.

Any hope for a legal intervention — in terms of international law — backed by the UN could be sabotaged by Syria’s allies (notably, the ever-so-sardonic Russians and now by a US that, at the G20 conference, said that the security council was no longer a “viable path” with which to deal with Syria).

Despite all of the aforementioned obstacles, the main question over Syria remains: who do we actually want to win? The idealists would argue that it doesn’t matter and that the right course of action would always be that which minimizes the total number of lost human lives. But then again, any intervention would always invoke our own interests, and if demonization is extrapolated to its furthest, we will have to make a rather grueling choice between a Dictator and Islamists. If all were dandy, I would advocate an intervention on the side of the Syrian people against those who released the chemical attack without supporting the other side. That would fulfill both a humanitarian mission as well as serving our absolute interests.

For all those not directly concerned, the story of the war thus far has been a succession of finding reasons not to intervene. It is a complex and depressing affair but also extremely easy (and often helpful) to fly peace signs and criticize the foreign policy decisions of one’s own state. Despite the obvious hypocrisies and numerous issues in play, I feel the best — although perhaps not the right — thing is being done. The use of chemical weapons should force our hand in intervening against the side that perpetrated the attack. Showing intolerance is a must.