Magazine article The New Yorker

Crossing the Line

Magazine article The New Yorker

Crossing the Line

Article excerpt

Early in 1987, Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi President, decided to clear out scores of Kurdish villages, in order to undermine separatist rebels. He asked Ali Hassan al-Majid, a general and a first cousin, to lead the project. In tape recordings later produced by Iraqi prosecutors, Majid told Baath Party colleagues that the novelty and the terror of chemical weapons would "threaten" the Kurds and "motivate them to surrender." On April 16th of that year, Iraq became the first nation ever to drop gas bombs on its own citizens; the gassing campaign lasted two years and killed thousands of people. "I will kill them all with chemical weapons!" Majid told his colleagues. "Who is going to say anything? The international community? Fuck them! The international community and those who listen to them!"

Two weeks ago, on August 21st, a poison-gas attack killed more than fourteen hundred civilians in the suburbs of Damascus, Syria's capital. President Obama, in fashioning a response, has been burdened by the United States' recent history with Iraq. The Administration of Ronald Reagan stood by as "Chemical Ali" waged his campaign against the Kurds. Fifteen years later, to justify an invasion of Iraq, the Administration of George W. Bush infamously claimed that Saddam Hussein still possessed chemical and biological arms. It soon became apparent that Saddam had abandoned them. That tragic war has rightly raised the standards of proof that Obama must meet to credibly propose military action in the Middle East, particularly if the casus belli concerns unconventional arms.

The Obama Administration, Britain, and France say there is little doubt that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is responsible for the recent slaughter, although they concede that the evidence is not airtight. The video imagery of the aftermath is indelible: unbloodied corpses, including toddlers', in white shrouds; hospital patients choking and drooling. The chances that rebels were responsible seem slim to nonexistent. Yet last Thursday Britain's Parliament, citing the West's failures in Iraq, voted to reject an attack on Syria for now, because a majority did not judge the available evidence of Assad's guilt to be definitive.

Last year, President Obama said that he would consider the use of chemical arms during Syria's civil war a "red line" that, if crossed, would require American action. Last week, the President and his Secretary of State, John Kerry, sounded as though they had decided to strike against Assad. The dilemma they confront is a mercifully rare one. Since the First World War, there have been fewer than a dozen wars or acts of terrorism involving chemical arms. Before Syria, the last such attack occurred in 1995, when Aum Shinrikyo, a millenarian cult, released sarin gas into Tokyo's subway because its leaders believed that mass killing would catalyze the apocalypse.

It is hard to grasp why any rational person would use chemical weapons, even amid the terrible exigencies of war. Gas weapons cannot be aimed in order to spare children or other noncombatants. They cause fear and prolonged suffering in victims, and cripple some survivors. They can contaminate the environment with poisons that last beyond a war's end. And, because gases travel unpredictably on the wind, the weapons' utility on a battlefield is limited. …

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