The use of biological and chemical weapons has been condemned worldwide (biological – 1972, and chemical – 1993).
Syria did not sign the 1993 agreement, and stands accused of having used such weapons in August, and on at least one earlier occasion in March. Sarin gas, thought to be what was used, is a nerve agent that kills by paralyzing the muscles that control breathing. The chemical was discovered prior to the Second World War but never used then; it has since. It is much more toxic than chlorine and mustard gases used during the world wars but is nowhere near the most toxic biochemical weapon available today.
Biochemical warfare has been with us since ancient times. Before the dawn of written history, wells were deliberately poisoned with dead animals or toxic fungus. Hannibal of Carthage directed his troops to pitch clay pots filled with venomous snakes onto enemy ships. In the New World, smallpox was spread through the distribution of contaminated blankets.
During the 14th century, the devastating spread of the deadly Black Plague into the Mediterranean basin was said to have been a result of biochemical warfare – the Mongols loaded the corpses of plague victims onto catapults and launched them into the besieged city of Caffa, in Crimea. Survivors of the siege fled the city, carrying with them the disease that eventually wiped out as much as a third of the population of Europe.
The story of Caffa draws attention to the main problem with biochemical weapons. While hellishly effective, they are also hellishly difficult to control. The Mongols were trying to capture a city, and in doing so, let loose an uncontrollable scourge that changed the course of history.
Unlike a mechanical weapon like a knife or bullet, biochemical weapons are only a shift of the wind or scientific miscalculation away from wreaking havoc on innocent people or one’s own forces – even, as was the case with Caffa, the world. And there is always the danger the enemy will respond in kind.
The use of sarin gas in Syria was not unexpected. Biochemical weapons have been used in the Middle East in recent years, primarily by Iraq, a country that borders Syria. News reports coming from the Middle East indicate growing desperation of the Assad government in the face of its inability to quell protests. The more desperate the situation, the greater the likelihood banned weapons will be used.
The situation in Syria cried out for outside intervention long before the attack with sarin gas. The influx of an estimated two million Syrian refugees into neighbouring countries has dramatically increased the instability of the entire area in what is being called a horrendous humanitarian disaster. What started as a grassroots movement against the Assad government is increasingly involving Islamic extremist groups. Israel is becoming very nervous, and will undoubtedly defend itself if threatened, with whatever force it deems necessary.
The United Nations will clearly not be taking action; Russia continues to block any suggestion of military intervention. At the same time, the use of chemical weapons marks the crossing of an invisible line. Someone needs to act, before more sarin - or something worse - is used. The United States and France appear to be the only countries with the will and means to intervene.
The memory of the Bush government using faulty information to drag its allies into an invasion of Iraq – Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction” that were never found – remains painful. Britain will not support military intervention this time, and the American president is not going to have an easy task getting permission to act from his own government.
At the same time, we must not forget the “boy who cried wolf” was not slapped on the wrist for lying to get the attention he wanted. He was killed and eaten by the monster. And the creature undoubtedly continued its ravenous attack on other villagers.
In today’s global village, the use of deadly sarin gas by an out-of-control regime at least opens the possibility of biochemicals being used here. We find ourselves hoping the Obama government will take effective action in Syria soon. A history lesson is in order. Turn the page to Caffa, subhead: ‘uncontrollable scourge’ – something to consider on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attack.