The Strange Laws of War

More than 100,000 people have already died during the Syrian civil war, so why has the apparent use of chemical weapons proved a game changer? In a word, Iran.

Yoel Marcus
Yoel Marcus
Yoel Marcus
Yoel Marcus

After these lines have been written, U.S. Tomahawk cruise missiles may have landed in Syria, and maybe not.

In any event, at this stage everyone is warning everyone else. The Americans are warning Iran not to intervene. The Iranians are warning President Barack Obama not to stick his nose into what is happening in Syria and reminding him of America’s failure in Iraq. Russia is warning America not to bomb Syria, and America is telling President Vladimir Putin, not very politely, to keep his nose out. U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is warning Israel - in friendship, of course - not to intervene. Syrian President Bashar Assad is threatening that, if Israel attacks, Syria will pay it back in spades. Please don't answer and don't react, America is telling us.

Assad's phone call to the commander of a chemical weapons unit implies that the commander - the alter ego of “Chemical Ali” (Ali Hassan al-Majid), the infamous Iraqi officer who ordered a poison gas attack on a Kurdish village - may have been acting on his own, or may have erred in the amounts used. Because it certainly wasn't smart to carry out such a murderous attack just as a delegation of UN inspectors was in the area. It's not like Assad, who is no fool.

More than 100,000 people have reportedly been killed in Syria, without the intervention of the enlightened world. The greatest bleeding hearts don't know exactly why and for what they are killing one another in one of the more stable regimes in our region. Those 100,000 died mainly from conventional weapons, in aerial bombings, from the firing of tanks and snipers, without much distinction as to whether the targets were civilian, residential buildings, buses, schools or hospitals.

So what - killing with conventional weapons is allowed but killing with chemical weapons is prohibited? Gas has a bad name dating from World War I. But compared to the present-day nuclear threat, gas is primitive and limited. Japan would not have surrendered had it been attacked with two chemical bombs instead of nuclear ones in 1945.

Did you know that many international conventions include endless restrictions on the use of "simple" conventional weapons? For example, it is forbidden to use dum-dum (or expanding) bullets, phosphorus bombs, laser rays and bombs containing parts that cannot be identified with X-rays. It is forbidden to plant mines in civilian areas; supersonic booms are forbidden in civilian areas, because of the physical and emotional damage to those at close range; not to mention the use of children as live shields - a method that was customary in Roman times and the occupied territories during the intifadas.

Murder really does have strange rules and exceptions. Chemical weapons are limited but portable, and very useful to terrorists. Not that we are here to make light of chemical weapons, which don't distinguish between a civilian and a soldier. But legal bombs also commit genocide, especially in putsches against governments and in the surrounding revenge of governments against rebels. They didn't use chemical weapons in Tahrir Square.

The greater the bloodletting in Syria, the more eyes have turned to U.S. President Barack Obama. The malicious gossips said that after withdrawing the army from several war zones, he wouldn’t dare to become involved in another war. In an interview on CNN, he said the murder of 100,000 people in Syria was "troublesome." “Troublesome? Is that all?” asked his critics. One of them described that speech as a nadir in U.S. foreign policy. But the horrifying sight of row upon row of dead bodies, including dozens of children, did the job.

Obama changed his mind about exercising force for two reasons: First, to stop the erosion of his credibility as a world leader; second, as a deterrent against the use of chemical weapons and in order not to pave the way for the Iranian use of nuclear weapons. The result is a punishment for Syria. The objective is a warning to Iran.

But when Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon suddenly comes out with a threat against Syria, we Israelis have reason for concern. There is nothing more foolish than to stick our noses between Assad and the rebels, between a rock and a hard place.

U.S. President Barack Obama

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