The first recorded use of smoke as a weapon of asphyxiation against civilians in the MENA region dates back to the mid-19th century, when French general Bugeaud adopted this “new method” against thousand of people in Algeria: “If they [Algerians] take refuge in their caves”, Bugeaud argued, “then smoke them out like foxes [renards]”.
Seventy years later, the Middle East witnessed its first recorded use of chemical weapons. This occurred during the 1917’s Third Battle of Gaza, when the troops led by General Edmund Allenby fired about 10,000 cans of asphyxiating gas. Their limited impact did not meet Allenby’s expectations. However, the use of gas attracted much attention to the point that – right after the 1920 Iraqi Revolt against the proposed British Mandate of Mesopotamia – Secretary of State for the colonies Winston Churchill noted of being “strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against the uncivilised tribes […] it would spread a lively terror”.
One century and many wars later, the UK, France and the US (whose support for Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons during the Iraq-Iran War has now been ascertained), launched a “US-led humanitarian intervention to protect [Syrian] civilians” against a chemical attack allegedly carried out by the Syrian regime in East Ghouta. Yet, their humanitarian intentions raise serious questions yet to be answered.
The cost of ‘non-intervention’?
The suspected chemical attack of 7 April has been denied by a number of sources, including the doctors serving at the field hospital were the victims have been treated. Nothwithstanding the recurrent war crimes perpetrated by the Syrian regime, the latter’s interest in using chemical weapons in a phase in which Bashar Al-Assad’s forces are advancing and winning the war appears unclear.
It should also be added that conventional weapons (not chemical weapons) are responsible for over 90 per cent of the mass killing of Syrian civilians by the regime and its allies (including Iran and Russia). If anything, the “US-led humanitarian intervention” confirmed that external powers are not so much troubled by the fact that dozens of Syrians die every day. It is mainly how they do so that seems to deserve a special attention, or “reaction”.
And it is indeed in the alleged lack of an earlier “reaction” – the so called “non-interventionist policy” in Syria – that many observers see as a key-component to assess what Syria is currently experiencing. If there was an opportunity for Western powers to make a difference for the better, pointed out British author Andrew Rawnsley, “chance was missed many, many deaths ago”.
London and its allies had indeed plans already before 2011 to use the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood to curb a regime that has been considered by them as a thorn in their sides for decades. In 2011 strategy shifted to West’s allies funding proxies. If anything, the US, Britain and their allies intervened too much and too early, largely to the benefit of Bashar Al-Assad, but also Hezbollah and Iran.
A regional order in the making
It has been noted that in our age of “politics as reality show”, even geopolitics and military raids are often done for show. There is much truth in these words. In this sense it should be noted that a possible chemical attack occurred already in April 2017. Then as today, the US-led strike was preceeded by an announcement made by US President Donald Trump regarding his will to withdraw from Syria and followed by the bombing of an empty Syrian airfield.
And yet, the ongoing “geopolitical show” is underpinned by two very practical aims. The first one might be linked to the 2017–18 Qatar diplomatic crisis. Both the outbreak of the Qatar crisis and the recent US-led strike are in fact meant to provide a clear sign to regional actors to show the consequences that will be faced by those unwilling to align themselves with the anti-Iran front and the tacit agreement that binds Israel to Saudi Arabia and its allies.
In recent months also a number of Saudi sources have come forward contending that Saudi-Israeli relations are “the main gateway” to understanding the “transformations in the region and the backstage deliberations over the Palestinian cause”, including the recent and upcoming developments concerning Jerusalem.
The second aim is rooted in the will to weaken the link between Iran, Turkey and Russia; the three guarantors of the Astana peace process. The latter, in which Russia has played a key role, is perceived by many as a key tool to overcome the fragmentation of Syria and, more generally, the division of large Arab states into small and mostly homogeneous entities incapable of posing any threat.
This political goal is actively supported, directly andor indirectly, by a number of key-figures within the Trump administration, and has been advocated by several influential think tanks in Washington, including Project for the New American Century (PNAC), since the early 2000s.
Among the 25 political figures who signed PNAC’s founding statement of principles in 1997, ten went on to serve in the administration of former US President George W. Bush. Some of them – including Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, John Bolton and Paul Wolfowitz – were charged with highly influential positions that had direct repercussions on key-aspects pertaining to the region. The then president expressed his support for the remodeling of the “greater Middle East” also in his State of the Union speech on 20 January 2004.
The image of a “civilised world” that was witnessing yet another clash in the context of an inherently fanatic “Islamic Orient” was very much present in the articles published in England and France in the early 1860s. Western observers were then describing the massacres which occurred between Christians and Muslims during the 1860 Mount Lebanon civil war.
Then, as today, external (and particularly Western) powers felt the necessity to intervene in the region justifying this through “humanitarian considerations”, and by adopting a self-imposed mission civilisatrice. They were, however, much less ready to acknowledge their own roles and responsabilities, or to ease the humanitarian burden faced by local actors.
Not much has changed in this respect. It is enough to mention that, according to the US State Department, Washington has admitted a total of 11 Syrian refugees in the all 2018. Despite playing a leading role in Syria and the broader region, Russia has granted refugee status to “only one Syrian national since 2011”. These examples represent the rule rather than the exception. Orwell’s celebrated prophecy – “War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength” – could not have found a better manifesto.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.