The dictator Saddam Hussein, while enjoying western logistical support during the 1980’s Iraq-Iran war indiscriminately gassed his own Kurdish population using nerve agents including mustard gas, tabun, cyanide and VX. In part this was to simply suppress and teach a lesson to the Kurdish population who had allegiances with Iran during the war.
During this time Italy also provided several billion dollars in funding for Iraqi military procurement through the Banca Nazionale del Lavaro (BNL). Such a criminal act was partially a consequence of the strength that such western support emboldened in Saddam’s regime. It allowed him to become a force in the Middle East and, essentially, it was only when he embarked on the invasion of Kuwait that his western allies thought to change their view and attitude towards him.
Syria today represents a similar element of Russia’s own geo-political objectives. In an interview with Neil Conan for Foreign Affairs Fiona Hill highlights the reasons for Putin’s support of Assad which trace back to the conflict in Chechnya. During its second phase from 1999-2000 of extremist movements from external countries, including Syria were a exacerbating element in the conflict.
Central to his motives in the Middle East is to avoid the collapse of the Syrian state. If he had lost in Chechnya then its consequences would have severely compromised the existence of the Russian state. Therefore he sees Syria facing the same challenges. The chaotic results of its collapse would certainly be felt widely including in Russia who has experienced extremism in the past as I have described.
In this situation Russia risks supporting a Middle East regime which is potentially willing to use both conventional and chemical weapons against his own people whilst hiding behind its own geo-political agenda as like the west did for Saddam during the 1980’s.
Currently the Syrian civil war has no foreseeable end in immediate sight. The question is therefore what Russian, in combination with Iran’s support of Assad will eventually lead to as the regime gets potentially ever more desperate and outnumbered. The growing influence of extremist groups within the opposition certainly suggests that their actions may provoke a more extreme response from the regime. Putin himself reduced the Chechyn capital city, Grozny to rubble to keep the Russian Federation together. Assad has already inflicted a similarly destructive attack on Homs in his pursuit to destroy the rebel opposition. Reflecting once more on the historical issue of Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons the future consequences of the Syrian conflict could be even more potentially horrific than the 1988 massacre in Halajba given its wider scope.
Another important factor to remember is that the regimes military capability – including air power – is equal and probably even greater than that of Iraq’s in 1988 depending on varying analysis. Furthermore it took three years for the imposition by Britain and the US of a no-fly zone over northern Iraq. There certainly doesn’t currently appear to be the political will necessary to impose a no-fly zone in Syria due to a, admittedly, understandable fear of Syrian air defence capability and the casualties we may suffer as a result. Yet our political leaders only have to look at history to see the cruel and shocking effects of chemical warfare.
When John Simpson visited Halajba in 1988 he described seeing a women “whose body was twisted almost into a circle, the back of her head touching her feet… her face was contorted in agony”
Ultimately we have to ask ourselves a question – Will the emboldening support from Russia and Iran eventually lead to the death of 10,000 or 20,000 Syrians in such a horrific manner in addition to the 5,000 Iraqi victims of 1988? This may be the result if western nations wait three years to impose a no-fly zone in Syria.
As a final statement I realise that any military action against Syria cannot be applied without proper consideration and reflection. The lessons of the Iraq war – itself a war crime in many aspects – are many and I personally find the loss of innocent Iraqi lives deplorable. But as history also tells us the support of a regime such as Saddam’s however can result in equally disturbing results, some of which are the effects of chemical weapons.