Chemical weapons: in whose hands?

Syria: Toxic weapons and revolutionary illusions

Even if it is true that Assad is employing chemical weapons, writes Peter Manson, Obama does not want to act in a way that would trigger the total breakdown of the Syrian state

What is the truth about the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime against opposition forces? Well, obviously, we do not know.

But the allegations are posing big problems for Barack Obama, with his talk of a “red line” that would trigger “international [read ‘imperialist’] intervention”, should Bashar al-Assad employ poison gas against his internal enemies. The US claims to have found traces of the nerve agent, sarin, on hair and blood samples, while the British ministry of defence facility in Porton Down says they are also discernible in soil samples that have come its way.

It is vaguely claimed that sarin was used in four incidents in Damascus, Aleppo and Homs, while, more specifically, the US-based Syrian Support Group, which backs the opposition Free Syrian Army, said that two “chemical-filled” rockets were fired by regime forces in the town of Daraya on April 25. However, it further states that the agent used was not sarin, but a “simulant” called echothiophate, which is not actually defined as a chemical weapon. Although 105 people were affected, according to the SSG, there were no deaths reported.

What everyone appears to agree on is that, if chemical weapons have been used, then it must have been on a “small scale”. But why Assad would want to employ them in a way that would appear to have no military effect is a mystery. There have been attempts to answer that: the very limited use is a “ploy” to “sow confusion” or to “test the west’s commitment”, just to see how far he can go. Personally I do not find that very convincing. Slightly more persuasive is the notion that the “small scale” use of sarin could be enough to cow some of the rebels, but I do not see why they should be more deterred by that than by heavy artillery or air strikes.

Despite the gung-ho approach of Israel and some US Republicans, most pro-imperialist commentators are agreed that, even if the evidence of sarin usage was cast-iron, which it is not, it would still be far from certain that Assad had authorised its use. It might have been a local commander acting independently, or even elements among the opposition.

Of course, unnamed “experts” claim that Syria has “the largest arsenal of chemical weapons in the Middle East”. But Assad has sneakily hidden them all over the country, so they cannot be easily tracked down. I wonder if these are the same “experts” who confidently declared that Iraq was awash with “weapons of mass destruction” before the 2003 US-led invasion.

When the claims first surfaced last week, US secretary of state John Kerry said that the use of chemical weapons “violates every convention of warfare”. By contrast, a single nuclear bomb capable of razing a huge city to the ground and exterminating millions of people in a few seconds is perfectly acceptable, I assume. But the difference is, of course, that, while the US has a nuclear arsenal, Syria does not. While the US may also hold stockpiles of chemical weapons, unlike Syria it is fully capable of winning a conventional war without resorting to them. In fact they are redundant from its point of view. Which leaves it free to point the finger.

Former Republican presidential candidate John McCain initially demanded the imposition of a ‘no-fly zone’ over Syria and the establishment of “safe areas” within the country. However, by the next day he was admitting that the evidence for chemical weapons “may not be airtight”. What caused the change of tune? A little reflection - and elements within the establishment - might have persuaded him that perhaps there was a problem with his call to “provide weapons to people in the resistance who we trust”.

Now who would they be? While there are clearly many different groups involved in the fighting on the ground, for the imperialists Syria has no single “legitimate opposition”.1 In other words, there are very few “people in the resistance who we trust”.There is, of course, the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is credited, especially amongst exiles, with being the leading force in the Commission for Civilian Protection - an umbrella organisation of local militias which enjoys increasingly close relations with the US state department. However, the US fears a Frankenstein scenario: ie, US weapons falling into the hands of bitter foes.

Amongst such groups is the al Nusra front, which openly avows its connection to al Qa’eda and fights for a religious-dominated greater Syria. Interestingly, the front has been accused by Hossein Amir-Abdollahein, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, of being responsible for the chemical attacks. The US fears that such is the nature of Syria that the fall of the Ba’athist regime will not result in an orderly transition to a MB-dominated government, but a failed state and the fracturing of the country. What would happen then? Small groups like al Nusra could perhaps gets their hands on some of Assad’s chemical weapons. Imagine what their co-thinkers could do with just a small phial of sarin on the New York subway.

This has led some commentators to imply - or even state openly in some cases - that the west should leave well alone. Better the enemy we know … After all, that nice, polite former London student, Bashar al-Assad, is not so bad, especially compared to elements in the opposition. In fact, next to Hafez, his father and predecessor as president, he is almost harmless.

Wishful thinking

Responding to this impasse, there is a tiny article in the latest Socialist Worker written by editor Judith Orr, under the headline, “West won’t help revolt in Syria”.2 That seems to imply a criticism - as though the imperialists ought to help the revolt. However, the article ends with the correct statement: “Western intervention would be a disaster for the ordinary Syrians who are fighting for freedom and democracy.”

But comrade Orr does not go into the reasons why the US is reluctant to intervene, beyond saying: “Obama is worried about the risks of the US getting embroiled in another war in the Middle East.” Why specifically is he “worried”? Yes, because he does not want a direct confrontation with Russia, because he risks provoking Iran and endangering Israel, but also because he is unsure of what will happen post-Assad.

But for Socialist Worker to spell that out would cut across the message it continues to put out and had been emphasising only the week before. The Syrian revolt, far from being dominated by reactionary Islamists, is led by the Local Coordinating Committees, which aim to establish “a civil, pluralistic and democratic state”. Apparently, “Some of these councils serve hundreds of thousands of people ... Across the country they represent millions of Syrians.”3 In fact, according to the Socialist Workers Party, in many areas they are already carrying out the functions of the state. They run the courts and prisons and in some places even the old police force has accepted their authority.

Socialist Worker explains that these councils represent an attempt to “coordinate the many currents inside the revolution - secular, nationalist, leftists, traditional Muslim organisations and some jihadist militias”. Of course, there are other Islamist groups that have “a different vision” and these have unfortunately “grown in popularity”: they want “an ‘Islamic state’ without democracy” and, Socialist Worker reports with no little degree of understatement, “This has led to tensions inside the revolution.”

But, “Despite this, many see the Islamists as allies” and in some regions “Islamists work alongside other currents”. And what they are all agreed on is that they “firmly reject attempts by outside powers to hijack the revolution”.

Unfortunately, all this seems to be wishful thinking. In contrast to two years ago, the LCCs are now more or less eclipsed by the armed militias and the Islamist groups. Which you might think is surprising, seeing that the councils they have set up “represent millions of Syrians”. Last month, however, they did get a mention from US undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs Tara Sonenshine, when she gave a speech entitled ‘Women in the Arab world: do they matter?’

She told the Brookings Institute in Washington: “In Syria, where challenges are enormous, women are making their presence felt. Despite being underrepresented in the resistance leadership, they have organised the Local Coordinating Committees (LCCs) to mobilise non-violent opposition to the regime. We are providing programmes, training and tools to civil service organisations to help them further, as they advance a democratic, pluralistic, free Syria, and organise responses to community needs.”4 Indeed it is an open secret that both the US state department and the UK’s foreign and commonwealth office provide funders through the Office of Syrian Opposition Support.

But the truth is that it is the Islamists who are now dominating the movement to overthrow the Syrian regime. That is hardly surprising. In the Arab world, as elsewhere, progressive forces - particularly those of the working class - are pitifully weak. At the moment they are certainly not up to the task of forming and running democratic, quasi-state organisations.

It goes without saying that communists oppose dictatorial, anti-working class reactionaries like Assad’s Ba’athists. But that does not mean we give carte blanche to every oppositional force or, worse, claim that they are mostly ‘ours’.




1. The Daily Telegraph April 26.

2. Socialist Worker April 30.

3. Socialist Worker April 23.

4. www.state.gov/r/remarks/2013/207084.htm.