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Chemical Weapons Hypocrisy

Oh, the hypocrisy of it. The ignoble aims. The distraction. The outrageous lies and excuses.

I’m not talking about America’s tweet-from-the-hip president and his desire to escape from the cops’ raid on his lawyer’s office – there’s a Russian connection, all right.

And I’m not talking about his latest sleaze. Life with Melania might not be great at the moment. More distracting to sit with the generals and ex-generals and talk tough about Russia and Syria.

I’m not talking about Theresa May, who wants to step out of the Brexit ditch with any distractions of her own: Salisbury attacks, Douma – even Trump. So Trump telephoned Macron, when the poor lady thought she’d won his hand. What is this nonsense?

Macron has now hitched his own wagon to the Saudis against Iranian “expansionism” – and no doubt arms sales to the Kingdom have something to do with it. But how sad that the desire of young French presidents to act like Napoleon (I can think of a few others) means that they devote themselves to joining in a war, rather than pleading against it.

Now we have our spokespersons and ministers raging about the need to prevent the “normalisation” of chemical warfare, to prevent it becoming a part of ordinary warfare, a return to the terrible days of the First World War.

This does not mean any excuses for the Syrian government – though I suspect, having seen Russia’s Syrian involvement with my own eyes, that Putin might have been getting impatient about ending the war and wanted to eradicate those in the last tunnels of Douma rather than wait through more weeks of fighting. Remember the cruelty of Grozny.

But we all know the problems of proof when it comes to chemicals and gas. Like depleted uranium – which we used to use in our munitions – it doesn’t, like a shell fragment or a bomb casing, leave a tell-tale hunk of metal with an address on it. When all this started with the first gas attack in Damascus, the Russians identified it as gas munitions manufactured in the Soviet Union – but sent to Libya, not to Syria.

But it’s a different war that I’m remembering today. It’s the Iran-Iraq war between 1980 and 1988, when Saddam Hussein invaded Iran. When the Iranians re-crossed their own border and stormed into Iraq years later, Saddam used gas on thousands of Iranian soldiers – and civilians, for there were nurses and doctors at the war front.

Funny how we forget this now. We don’t talk about it. We have forgotten all about it. Talk about the “normalisation” of chemical warfare – this was it!

But in our desire to concentrate minds on Syria, we’re not mentioning the Iran gassings – Iran being another one of our present-day enemies, of course – and this may be because of our lack of official memory.

More likely it’s because of what happened: the institutionalisation of chemical warfare, the use of chemicals by Saddam who was then an ally of the West and of all the Gulf Sunni states, our frontline Sunni hero. The thousands of Iranian soldiers who were to die were referred to on Iraqi radio after they crossed the frontier. The “Persian insects” had crossed the border, it announced. And that’s how they were treated.

For the precursors for the Iraqi gas came largely from the United States – one from New Jersey –  and US military personnel later visited the battlefront without making any comments about the chemicals which were sold to the Iraqi regime, of course, for “agricultural” purposes. That’s how to deal with insects, is it not?

Yet not a soul today is mentioning this terrible war, which was fought with our total acquiescence. It’s almost an “exclusive” to mention the conflict at all, so religiously have we forgotten it. That was the real “normalisation”, and we allowed it to happen. Religious indeed, for it was the first great battle of the Sunni-Shia war of our time. But it was real.

Of the thousands of Iranians who were asphyxiated, a few survivors were even sent to British hospitals for treatment. I travelled with others on a military train through the desert to Tehran, the railway compartments packed with unsmiling young men who coughed mucus and blood into white bandages as they read miniature Korans.

They had blisters on their skin and, horrifically, more blisters on top of the first blisters. I wrote a series of articles about this obscenity for The Times, which I then worked for. The Foreign Office later told my editors that my articles were “not helpful”.

No such discretion today. No fear of being out to get Saddam then – because in those days, of course, the good guys were using the chemicals. Don’t we remember the Kurds of Halabja who were gassed by Saddam, with gas which the CIA told its officers to claim was used by the Iranians?

For this war crime, Saddam should have been tried. He was indeed a “gas-killing animal”. But he was hanged for a smaller massacre with conventional weapons – because, I have always suspected, we didn’t want him exposing his gas warfare partners in an open court.

So there we are. May holds a “war cabinet”, for heaven’s sakes, as if our losses were mounting on the Somme in 1916, or Dorniers were flying out of occupied France to blitz London in 1940.

What is this childish prime minister doing? Older, wiser Conservatives will have spotted the juvenile quality of this nonsense, and want a debate in Parliament. How could May follow an American president who the world knows is crackers, insane, chronically unstable, but whose childish messages – about missiles that are “nice and new and ‘smart’” – are even taken seriously by many of my colleagues in the US? We should perhaps be even more worried about what happens if he does turn away from the Iran nuclear deal.

This is a very bad moment in Middle East history – and, as usual, it is the Palestinians who will suffer, their own tragedy utterly forgotten amid this madness. So we are going to “war”, are we? And how do we get out of this war once we have started it? Any plans, anyone? What if there’s a gigantic screw-up, which wars do tend to usually produce? What happens then?

Well, I guess Russia comes to the rescue, just as it did for Obama when gas was used for the first time in the Syrian war.

More articles by:

Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared. 

February 19, 2019
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