On Chemical Weapons and Military Intervention

Chemical weapons seem to have been used in the Syrian Civil War last week, probably by Syrian government forces.

Médecins sans frontières (MSF), known in English as Doctors Without Borders, has issued a statement confirming that approximately 3,600 Syrian civilians have been treated for neurotoxic symptoms consistent with chemical weapons. MSF states that “Patients were treated using MSF-supplied atropine, a drug used to treat neurotoxic symptoms. MSF is now trying to replenish the facilities’ empty stocks and provide additional medical supplies and guidance.”


Dr. Bart Janssens of MSF indicates that “MSF can neither scientifically confirm the cause of these symptoms nor establish who is responsible for the attack.” But, Janssens argues that “the reported symptoms of the patients, in addition to the epidemiological pattern of the events—characterised by the massive influx of patients in a short period of time, the origin of the patients, and the contamination of medical and first aid workers—strongly indicate mass exposure to a neurotoxic agent. This would constitute a violation of international humanitarian law, which absolutely prohibits the use of chemical and biological weapons.”

A United Nations (UN) team has been deployed to Syria to investigate the site of the alleged chemical weapons attack. The UN team has already attempted to reach the site, but had to turn back after coming under fire by snipers, according to the BBC.

Amid vociferous calls for military intervention in the Syrian Civil War, following this alleged chemical weapons attack, comes a potent historical reminder of the politics of chemical weapons.

Newly available documents show that the CIA knew of Iraqi chemical weapons stockpiles during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. Further, the CIA provided Saddam Hussein with military intelligence on the Iranian Army’s positions, even though the CIA was predicting that Hussein would order chemical weapon attacks on the Iranian soldiers.


According to Foreign Policy, “In contrast to today’s wrenching debate over whether the United States should intervene to stop alleged chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian government, the United States applied a cold calculus three decades ago to Hussein’s widespread use of chemical weapons against his enemies and his own people. The Reagan administration decided that it was better to let the attacks continue if they might turn the tide of the war. And even if they were discovered, the CIA wagered that international outrage and condemnation would be muted.”

For the MSF statement, see its website. BBC reports on the UN team’s attempts to investigate the alleged chemical attack. Foreign Policy reports on the CIA’s assistance to Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War.

This entry was posted in Civilians and Refugees in War, European Union, History of Violence, Human Rights, Laws of War, Strategy and International Politics, War, Culture, and Society. Bookmark the permalink.

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