Since the beginning of December, military gas (sarin, a nerve agent) has claimed a major place in discussion of the civil war in Syria. The Syrian government has admitted to holding major stocks of (unidentified military) gas in or near the areas of fighting the insurrectionary movement.

According to Natalie Nougayrede of the sober French newspaper Le Monde, a dinner last week in Brussels united representatives of the major NATO powers to discuss the Syrian situation and address the question of NATO intervention to deal with the threat that gas might be employed by the government, or that it might in one way or another fall into the hands of terrorist groups, freelance radicals or other governments.

Does NATO intend to intervene?

In the past, the accusation of WMD possession has been the usual formulation when threatening foreign intervention or an attack. We heard the same thing after 9/11 concerning a U.S. invasion of Iraq, at the U.N. no less, from General Colin Powell, then the American secretary of state. He subsequently confessed his lasting shame. There were no nuclear weapons in Iraq.

Is this Syrian story another hoax? In the Iraq case, it was well known that an important group inside the George W. Bush administration wanted an invasion of Iraq, some of them to please Israel, which wanted Iraq destroyed as a major Arab military actor, and whose formidable propaganda operation in the U.S. worked hard to promote the invasion. There also were American nationalist and acquisitive resource motives: searching for control of Iraq's oil resources and of Baghdad as a U.S. strategic military base (both goals eventual failures).

The American position on the Syrian rebellion usually heard is that Barack Obama has no appetite for still another Middle Eastern military intervention, even if the American role were to be "leadership from behind," with minimal risk to American troops.

It is not clear in my mind how you arrange minimal risk for anyone dealing with sarin gas, trying to sequester the munitions and evacuate them, while neutralizing the risk that the Syrian forces guarding them could not make preemptory use of them (or trigger their use elsewhere).

Sarin gas is an agent that attacks the nervous system and paralyzes the heart muscles, thereby killing by suffocation. It was used operationally in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, in 1988 by Iraq against its own Kurdish city of Halabja (5,000 Kurds said to have been killed), and in a 1995 terrorist attack in a Tokyo subway.

Various military and intelligence sources assert that Syria possesses this weapon today, but there is apparently no conclusive evidence, nor is there a convincing military argument for its use, if only because to do so would produce massive retaliation by major states, acting with U.N. endorsement.

There have been reports floated on the Internet accusing the U.S. and Israel, together with NATO and an alleged Sunni (Qatar and Saudi) conspiracy, of instigating this insurrection. But why? Syria is not a resource-rich country.

It has gone along reasonably peacefully with Israel since the 1967 war. Its major interventions in Lebanon have been suspended for some time now. It is not intervening elsewhere in the region, and the sectarian tensions in the country seemed reasonably quiet before the insurrection. It has no reasonable interest in injecting itself into Iran's quarrels with the U.S and Israel. The standards of living, education and health are relatively high for the region, and Syria possesses a sophisticated professional and middle class.

The most convincing reason I can see for the insurrection is popular contagion from the "Arab Springtime": intolerance for corruption and increasing hostility to hereditary family dictatorship enforced by the usual Arab dictatorship's security apparatus.

Why then is NATO planning an intervention to secure the sarin gas, supposedly seconded by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who supposedly said "Why not?" when the plan was broached? Well, why not, Mr. Hague? But then, why? Give us details of the threat. Give us the scenario for such an operation. Give us the story of what will happen next. We would all like to know a little more than we did about Iraq in 2003.

According to Le Monde, the German and Dutch foreign ministers, Guido Westerwelle and Frans Timmermans, were "furious" and seemed to think NATO's Anders Rasmussen and the others were trying to put something over on them. The Turks seemed on board, but French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was skeptical, although in September France had warned that Syrian use of chemical arms would produce "a lightning and massive response."

The French also asked what collaboration NATO had for this intelligence about sarin gas -- which seemed to come only from the U.S. What mandate would NATO have for such an intervention?

What would trigger NATO action: "militarization" of the weapons, meaning arming them with the gas, or actual use? There doesn't seem to have been an answer. Mr. Rasmussen finished off the dinner by saying something to the effect of, "I've heard what all of you have said, but don't be surprised if you find that the plans are being drawn up." Secretary Clinton made no comment.

Clinton's silence is interesting. Barack Obama and his administration have also been very quiet about all this. Is a Christmas surprise being prepared for us? Hasn't the U.S. had enough of undebated presidential wars? It seems to have become the new American style. I am sure that neither Congress nor the Supreme Court will pose any serious objection.

(c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.


William Pfaff, a former editor of Commonweal, is political columnist for the International Herald Tribune in Paris. His most recent book is The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America's Foreign Policy (Walker & Company).

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