It has been just over a quarter century since Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his defense minister Ali Hassan al-Majid, better known as “Chemical Ali,” ordered and executed the chemical weapons bombardment of Halabja, an Iraqi Kurdish town in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains, along the Iran-Iraq border. At the time, Iran and Iraq were engaged in their brutal war. Many American politicians were willing to blame the fog of war and several suggested that Iran rather than Iraq could be to blame. That was nonsense in the case of Halabja at least, but demanding ever more time to investigate became a good excuse for doing nothing. Many realists argued that Iraq’s containment of Iran should effectively give Saddam Hussein a free pass and, even after the war ended, the United States and Europe did their best to take no action in the face of the chemical weapons use.
As an aside, how disappointing it is that the (Iraqi) Kurdistan Regional Government that now governs Halabja has been so silent on the chemical weapons strikes inside Syria. The ethnicity of the victim should not matter: It is the lack of response when the chemical weapons red line is crossed which lowers the threshold to the repeat of history.
Alas, when it comes to both the targeting of civilians and the lack of U.S. response, it’s déjà vu all over again. The Obama administration seems not to want to upset Russia or China in its response; after all, mightn’t that not upset diplomacy, Secretary of State John Kerry likely argues. And Ambassador Samatha Power—whose claim to fame comes from her book on genocide—has been a Twitter warrior from her seat at the United Nations, but she has not been willing to put her job or ambition on the line. Perhaps someone will someday write a sequel in which she comes off as cynical, detached, and careerist, as did the UN bureaucrats and Clinton administration officials about whom she once wrote.
The world is lucky it has taken 25 years for a madman to again target civilians on this scale with chemical munitions. This does not mean that the United States should arm the opposition or intervene directly in the conflict with boots on the ground—not only would that lead to mission creep, but the organized opposition has radicalized and is really not much better than Assad himself—but there should be symbolic action against the regime if for no other reason than to restore the credibility of red lines and make clear how unacceptable chemical weapons are. U.S. airpower might be used to target Syrian airfields and Bashar al-Assad’s palaces. If the Israelis can strike multiple times into Syria with nary an anti-aircraft battery going off inside Syria, then there is no reason why the United States might not demonstrate the same capability. One thing is certain: the cost of no response may ultimately become an invitation to increase exponentially the use of chemical weapons against civilians.