The Spectre of Chemical Warfare in the Middle East


March 20, 1988: A Kurdish father holds his baby in his arms in Halabja, northeastern Iraq. Both were killed in an Iraqi chemical attack on the city.

March 20, 1988: A Kurdish father holds his baby in his arms in Halabja, northeastern Iraq. Both were killed in an Iraqi chemical attack on the city.


Bombs could fall anywhere, any time of the day.
They were a nuisance we got used to. In our
dug-out shelters we felt safe, until that haunting

winter twilight when the muffled explosions
deceived us. We came out thinking we’d survived
the bombs but a chalky-yellow powder settled

on our skin, smelling of sweet apples at first,
seemed safe to breathe in. People were going crazy -
laughing, buckling at the knees, twisting, running

to the water source, blinded bumping into trees.
Villagers from the region came to our aid. They said
my son looked strange, as if his eye color had split

out, his face was blistered, blackened. He groaned
like a calf faced with the knife. I was still blind when he
died, could not see him, did not say goodbye.
— Gas Attack, Choman Hardi - 'Anfal'
 

 

The chemical attack at Halabja is a chilling moment in Middle Eastern history. 5,000 Kurdish civilians were casualties in this chemical bombing carried out by the Iraqi regime during the First Persian Gulf War. By this point, the use of chemical weapons by the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein had become second-nature as had the Western powers inclination to ignore the atrocities of Baghdad's chemical weapons program. The First Persian Gulf War, the longest conflict in the 20th century, a largely forgotten war in the collective memory of the Western public and which spanned 1980 to 1988 was a time where the West’s hyper-realist Cold War politics and its alliance with Saddam Hussein trumped human rights and the need to clamp down on the use of chemical weapons in warfare. 

The condemnation and missiles strikes against Damascus, the emphasis on the need to uphold human rights and the calls for regime change and punishing President Bashar al-Assad for utilising chemical warfare stood in stark contrast to the startling silence which accompanied the murderous deployment of chemical weapons by Saddam (our ally) for years against Iranian and Kurdish civilians and soldiers.

In parallel to the war of aggression against Iran, Saddam launched Operation Anfal (The Spoils of War). The campaigns from 1986-1989 were characterised by mass summary executions and mass disappearance of many tens of thousands of non-combatants, including large numbers of women and children, and sometimes the entire population of villages; en-masse deportations; the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of villagers upon the demolition of their homes; and, perhaps most notoriously, the widespread use of chemical weapons, including mustard gas and the nerve agent GB, or Sarin, against the town of Halabja as well as dozens of Kurdish villages, killing many thousands of people, mainly women and children. 

Declassified CIA documents detailing the tacit support for Saddam's atrocities were released during the aftermath of the Ghouta chemical attacks in Syria conducted on 21 August, 2013 and shed light on the Western powers own twisted history in the multi-generational conflict for the Greater Middle East. 

"In 1988, during the waning days of Iraq's war with Iran, the United States learned through satellite imagery that Iran was about to gain a major strategic advantage by exploiting a hole in Iraqi defenses. U.S. intelligence officials conveyed the location of the Iranian troops to Iraq. The Iraqis used mustard gas and sarin prior to four major offensives in early 1988 that relied on U.S. satellite imagery, maps, and other intelligence. These attacks helped to tilt the war in Iraq's favor and bring Iran to the negotiating table, and they ensured that the Reagan administration's long-standing policy of securing an Iraqi victory would succeed."

In the wake of the Idlib chemical attack on 4th April 2017, Western policymakers and commentators should re-read these documents; Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons and his atrocities dwarfed the alleged chemical attacks of President al-Assad. Western actors, states and corporations who made a profit from selling chemical materials and weapons have yet to be held to account for supporting the most devastating chemical attacks in history and Saddam's Chemical Weapons Program. 

The CIA estimated that Iran suffered more than 50,000 casualties from Iraq's use of several chemical weapons, though current estimates suggest 100,000 perished. 250 Kurdish towns and villages were exposed to chemical weapons. 3,500 - 5,000 Kurdish men, women and children were killed and a further 7000-10,000 were wounded at Halabja. The numbers should not distract from the severity of the incidents in Syria as every life lost in war is a tragedy. However, the numbers churned out by Saddam Hussein's military machine tower over the numbers killed by chemical weapons in Syria. 

Not including the thousands who died in the years after, The 5,000 dead at Halabja represented the deadliest deployment of chemical weapons in modern history. The Western powers did nothing to prevent these atrocities, nor were there any repercussions for Saddam and his regime, that is until Baghdad threatened oil-rich Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States in 1991 (three years after the Halabja chemical attack).

 It was only after the Second Persian Gulf War in 1990-1991, once Saddam no longer suited Western security-economic interests, once our leaders realised the damage of arming such a volatile wildcard in the pursuit of short-term agendas, that the bombings began, the demonisation in mainstream media began, the sanctions (which killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis) began, that successive U.S administrations began to 'care' about Iraqi men, women and children's human rights (as demonstrated by our detention centres/torture chambers in Iraq, our brutal counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq, and the West's invasion which acted as a catalyst and crucible for the spread of Salafi-jihadist terror groups across the Middle East).

The frequent revolts by Kurdish, Sunnis and Shiites alike, which culminated in the genocidal slaughter of the Al-Anfal campaign and the butchering of 150,000 Iraqis (predominantly Shiite) in 1991 following the First Gulf War, serve as a reminder of Saddam's chilling record. Saddam cruelty and his wars of aggression in Kuwait (1990) and Iran (1980 - 1988) made him numerous enemies at a regional and international level. These military defeats were married to botched government policies in the 1990s to secure the loyalty of rural areas at the expense of the urban classes produced socio-economic ruin, a blackmarket economy, and rampant unemployment. 

Saddam's carefully constructed tribal relationships and networks of patronage ensured the concentration of political and economic power. It is fair to argue that Saddam's Iraq would have descended into civil war if his regime had existed following the Arab Spring. While Blair and Bush's dire policies shaped the conflicted post-2003 Iraq of today, Saddam's 'U-turns, blunders and megalomanic whimsies...wreaked havoc on the region and the world, but above all on Iraq itself.' Saddam's legacy remains potent and powerful and his impact upon Iraq's diverse communities both harrowing and profound, much like Bashar's legacy will likely impact Syria in the decades to come. Nonetheless while Saddam's removal was entirely welcome on humanitarian grounds, the decision of Blair and Bush to invade without an effective strategy and initiate military operations unsuited for sustained and savage guerrilla and urban combat was fool-hardy.

History is not repeating itself in Syria. History is not repeating itself in Afghanistan. History is not repeating itself in Libya. History is not repeating itself in Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen and beyond. Each conflict has its own context and its own nuances. However history is rhyming very well, and continues to demonstrate the fallacy of Western attitudes, solutions and policymaking in the region which is helping push the Middle East towards a major regional war. 

Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin are not innocent in the Syrian War. They are as responsible as any actor for Syria's descent into chaos. Yet they are not the only ones responsible for the country's collapse. To ignore the Western powers and its regional allies agendas in the region and simply look through the lens of human rights and liberal values without considering other narratives and different perspectives is inviting tragedy. Without objectivity, we fuel ultimatums and destroy compromise - a fundamental in diplomacy. 

The Ghouta and Idlib chemical attacks must be condemned, however the Western powers historic and contemporary claims to support human rights in the Middle East must be treated, to put it gently, with the utmost skepticism. The West have condoned more horrifying crimes than those conducted by Bashar al-Assad. Our policymaking in the First Persian Gulf War and our alliance with Saddam Hussein was perhaps the most grotesque example of this. President Assad's regime, the Kremlin's client, has without a doubt committed atrocities and war crimes in the Syrian War. However, Saddam and 'Chemical' Ali's policies in Iraqi Kurdistan constituted the worst crime of all: genocide.

Saddam and 'Chemical' Ali eventually faced justice for their murderous policies, and Bashar al-Assad will eventually meet justice for his crimes, the question remains: where were the missiles and air-strikes against Saddam when he was murdering tens of thousands of men, women and children with chemical weapons and conducting genocide? Where now are the air-strikes and missiles targeting Saudi Arabia for using cluster bombs (illegal under international law) and pushing Yemen towards famine? 

That the Western powers turned a blind-eye to the genocidal Al-Anfal campaign and over thirty chemical attacks against Iranian civilians, including medical facilities and hospitals, and now have the audacity to condemn and bomb Damascus without a concrete investigation is an insult to the tens of thousands slaughtered by chemical weapons under the Iraqi regime. The historical amnesia in the upper echelons of power across Western capitals, no doubt motivated by geo-politics and strategic manoeuvring, is embarrassing and, above all, contradictory and dangerous. 


Matthew C.K Williams