How genuine is the West’s concern about the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria last week? Did they constitute a “line in the sand”, a crime so egregious that military strikes by Washington, London and Paris were necessary and morally justified? The historical record would suggest exactly the opposite.
According to Foreign Policy, in the 1980s Washington knew about but did nothing to stop a series of nerve gas attacks by Saddam Hussein which were far more deadly than anything that occurred in Syria last week or this time last year.
Declassified CIA files are, according to the respected policy journal, “tantamount to an official American admission of complicity in some of the most gruesome chemical weapons attacks ever launched.” Determined to see Iran defeated by its neighbour, the Reagan Administration was happy to ignore these crimes while intensifying intelligence and logistical support for the tyrant in Baghdad. This was despite the ban on chemical weapons in wars under the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which commits parties to “exert every effort to induce other States to accede to the agreement.” The US ratified the protocol in 1975.
How did the West respond to Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against the Kurdish civilians of Halabja on 17 March, 1988 when over 5,000 people were poisoned. Outrage, condemnation, missile attacks? Again, the very opposite was the case.
First, Washington disingenuously blamed Iran – knowing all along exactly who was responsible for the crime. It then continued to shower Saddam with “$5 billion in food credits, technology, and industrial products, most coming after it began to use mustard, cyanide, and nerve gases against both Iranians and dissident Kurds” (historian Gabriel Kolko). After the attack on Halabja, Saddam was rewarded by George Bush 1 with new lines of credit and praise from his Assistant Secretary of State John Kelly, who described their friend as “a source of moderation in the region.”
Twenty months after this horrific attack, Washington was still providing Baghdad with dual-use licensed materials, including chemical precursors, biological warfare-related materials and missile guidance equipment – enabling Saddam to develop his WMD programs which were later scrapped.
During the worst decade of Saddam’s rule (1980-90), the UK sold Iraq £2.3 billion in machinery and transport equipment and £3.5 billion in trade credits, supporting the creation of a local arms industry and freeing up valuable resources for the Iraqi military. London responded to the atrocity in Halabja by refusing to criticise Saddam, doubling export credits to Baghdad and relaxing export guidelines, making it easier to sell arms to Iraq. So much for moral outrage and “lines in the sand”.
In response to last week’s as yet unproven CW strike in Eastern Ghouta, one might have expected to see some caution expressed by Western mainstream media before accepting Theresa May’s and Donald Trump’s assurances that such an attack had actually taken place. After all, they had been deceived by Tony Blair and George W. Bush about Saddam’s WMD in 2003, which included the manipulation and “sexing up” of faulty intelligence. Instead of scepticism we again saw uncritical stenography at work. There is going to be a lot of egg on a lot of faces if it transpires that no chemical attack actually occurred, and the embarrassment won’t be confined to politicians. To say nothing of the enormous geo-political trauma that will ensue.
If they cannot remember what happened 15 years ago in London and Washington, It is probably asking too much of our media to recall what took place in Halabja 30 years before, and specifically how the US and UK responded to that horrendous gassing. If they did resist official amnesia and were able to rescue the event from the memory hole of modern history, they might have a very different view of what Western political elites actually think about the use of chemical weapons. They really don’t care.