It does now look as though there really was a chemical weapons attack in Syria on 21 August. My skepticism has always been based on the Yellow Rain incident. This involved supposed attacks by the Vietnam and Laos governments against the Hmong who live in the mountains of that region. Something bad clearly happened to those people. But it does not appear to have been a chemical attack, even though everyone was certain at the time.
The problem is that a lot of people are harmed in a lot of different ways when a modern war is underway. And it is indiscriminate. One thing I really hate is how people talk about how we never intentionally kill civilians when we bomb. There is also the ridiculous notion of our “smart bombs” and their accuracy. The truth of the matter is that we don’t actively try to kill civilians, but we don’t make any concessions for them either. I don’t consider our government particularly bad, of course; this is the nature of modern warfare and this is a big reason why we should do everything we can to avoid war.
The report stated, “[C]hemical weapons have been used in the ongoing conflict between the parties in the Syrian Arab Republic, also against civilians, including children, on a relatively large scale.” And according to the Wall Street Journal, “The report also found that the weather conditions on the morning of Aug. 21 may have increased the number of victims because the temperatures had been falling.” This means that the toxins were not mixed well vertically and so hung around on the ground longer. This may explain why the attack didn’t have as high a fatality rate as usual because it was allowed to diffuse horizontally. Also, it would be particularly deadly to those hiding inside buildings—thus the high civilian casualty rate.
The UN weapons inspectors made no claims as to who did it. To me, it’s pretty clear. The rebels would have to be some very callous people to attack their own just for the sake of hopefully getting western support for their cause. Just the same, it doesn’t make sense for Syria to use chemical weapons. As it was, a UN inspection team was already in Syria on the day of the attack to investigate earlier alleged attacks. What’s more, the pro-government forces appear to be winning the war. So it makes no sense for them to use chemical weapons. And that’s why I think they did. I can imagine the rebels wanting to do something like that, but even if they have chemical weapons, they don’t have a lot. The Assad forces do. So I can well imagine some colonel calling for a strike. It didn’t have to come from on high, although it might have. The pure stupidity of such an attack does provide a certain amount of plausible deniability.
Regardless, none of this matters. I get tired of hearing about the supposed 400 children who were killed in that attack. There have doubtless been thousands of children killed by ordinary weapons since this civil war started. We should care about all of them, regardless of their ages and method of death. But it seems to be the clear action plan should involve applying our formidable diplomatic power to ending the civil war. What we’ve done instead is egg on the rebels and talk about how we would like to see “regime change” in Syria. I’m certainly not against that, but it isn’t on offer. An end to the civil war would be good for the Syrian people, and it really doesn’t matter what the United States thinks is in its long term strategic interests.
We could also do more to fight malaria.