Echoes of Saddam’s War in Dilemma Over Syria’s Chemical Weapons

By HARVEY MORRIS – ERBIL, Iraq — – A team of United Nations experts was still waiting in Cyprus on Wednesday to hear whether Syria will grant it unfettered access to investigate reports that chemical weapons have been used in the country’s civil war.

The mission has been stalled by disagreements about the scope of the inquiry, which the Damascus government wants to limit to a single alleged incident in Aleppo.

The government and the rebels have each accused the other of using the banned weapons, and President Obama said proof of their systematic use by the Syrian military would be a “game changer” in U.S. involvement in the conflict.

The reports from Syria have a particular resonance in this Kurdish region of northern Iraq, which suffered the worst ever slaughter by chemical and nerve agents, 25 years ago at the town of Halabja, in which more than 5,000 people died.

At that time, a brutal 8-year war between Iraq and Iran was nearing its end and there was little appetite in the West for assigning blame to the perpetrator — the government of President Saddam Hussein of Iraq.

The U.S. and its allies proclaimed a neutral stance in the conflict, but by the end had effectively tilted toward Iraq, having acknowledged that Mr. Hussein’s invasion of his neighbor at least had the merit of curtailing Iran’s ability to export its Islamic revolution.Throughout the war no international action was taken on Iraq’s chemical weapons, despite evidence they had been used long before Halabja.

In 1988, amid unlikely claims in Western capitals that Iran might have been responsible for the Halabja attack, a U.N. Security Council resolution was passed, which failed to single out Iraq or to impose sanctions on Baghdad. Once a cease-fire was called that year, and as Western companies eyed contracts for postwar Iraqi construction, there was even less motive to take action on the government’s use of chemical weapons against Iranian forces and its own Kurdish population. Attitudes changed, of course, when Mr. Hussein occupied Kuwait in 1990 until being forced out by a U.S.-led coalition.

The motive for the second U.S.-led war against him in 2003 was his alleged possession of chemical weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, which turned out to be based on flimsier evidence than that which was largely ignored at the time of the Halabja massacre.

Some commentators have now identified a new reluctance by Western leaders to make a definitive judgment about Syria’s alleged chemical weapons use, for fear it would force them into tougher action against Damascus.

Mr. Obama said on Tuesday, “What we now have is evidence that chemical weapons have been used inside of Syria, but we don’t know how they were used, when they were used, who used them.”

Before taking decisions about further action, he said, “I’ve got to make sure I’ve got the facts.” The U.S. and other governments have been collecting evidence to try to establish the facts. But, as Gordon Corera, the BBC’s security correspondent noted this week, politicians are being cautious about overselling their level of certainty in the light of the 2003 Iraq war “when too much was based on too little hard information and all the caveats and cautions surrounding intelligence were lost.”

“This time political leaders — especially in Washington — seem much more reluctant to intervene,” Mr. Corera wrote this week, “and so the emphasis is precisely on the caveats and cautions.”

Wladimir van Wilgenburg, writing for Rudaw, a Kurdish news Web site, asked what had happened to President Obama’s red line that he had drawn for any regime that dared to use poison gas against its people. “If this were a playground dare, the only face-saving gesture would have been for Obama to punch the bully in the nose,” Mr. van Wilgenburg wrote this week. “But because politics is based on interests, not principles, the debate now is over whether the bully crossed the whole line, or just stepped over with his toe.” He quoted Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former commanding officer of the British Army’s chemical weapons unit, as saying he believed the Assad government would limit use of chemical weapons to gaining local tactical advantages against the rebels. “The regime’s posture is that they think the red line is quite wide, and hope it is very wide,” he said.

Mr. de Bretton-Gordon said he believed only an attack on the scale of Halabja would provoke international intervention.

In 1988, even reports and pictures of the slaughter at Halabja proved insufficient for the international community to set aside political expediency and take action against the Saddam Hussein regime. After the cease-fire, the Iraqi regime launched a wide-scale offensive against its own Kurdish population, deemed to have supported Iran during the 8-year war. The response from Western governments was more forthright than after Halabja. George Schultz, the U.S. secretary of state, told the Iraqis he had conclusive proof that they had used chemical weapons. But, once again, the Security Council failed to take action against the offending regime.