‘A cowardly form of warfare,” said Lt.-Gen. Sir Charles Ferguson of the German Army’s chlorine-gas attack in a Belgian battlefield during World War I.
The spring 1915 attack in Ypres, the first large-scale triggering of gas after several smaller beginnings the previous year, left 6,000 French casualties and a perplexed British high command, whose conclusion was that it had better get some gas of its own.
The French generals who first spewed gas on the Great War’s trenches were thus joined by many others who blanketed battlefields with the toxic clouds that by 1918 had killed 1.3 million troops. It has been a century since these events, but they are still recalled as a supremely traumatic war’s lowest moral ebb.
That this aspect of the precedent matters little to the perpetrators of this week’s gas attack in northwestern Syria should surprise no one, considering the Syrian civil war’s norms. What is less obvious is the Syrian disregard for gas’s proven failure to deliver strategic goods, and its tendency to foreshadow ultimate demise.
THE EXTENSIVE use of gas during World War I generated no strategic turning point, including in that battle in Belgium, which the Germans actually lost.
In the Armageddon that was ultimately decided by the emergence of the tank, gas’s military effect never exceeded the momentary and the local.
So strategically ineffective was gas in World War I that it never arrived on World War II’s countless battlefields, other than in several Asian skirmishes that did not involve Western armies, and one marginal German-Russian clash in Crimea.
The conventional military wisdom by then was that gas would be effective as a defensive rather than offensive weapon. That is why the British are believed to have planned to use it, in case the Germans climbed their shores. The German military, for its part, did not use gas even to fend off Normandy’s invasion, having assumed the Allies would respond with an even more lethal gas attack.
Despite these precedents, gas has been deployed repeatedly in displays of great frustration and little effect by Cuban forces in Angola, and apparently also by the Red Army in Afghanistan. Neither offset both armies’ eventual defeats.
Arab leaders’ deployment of gas produced no better results.
Gamal Abdel Nasser’s gas attacks in Yemen in the mid-1960s did nothing to prevent his embarrassing retreat in 1967. Though he killed this way more than a thousand Yemenis, the Egyptian Army was forced to withdraw from the arena, where it lost 10,000 troops while failing to topple the Arab monarchies on which Nasser had waged war.
Saddam Hussein’s attacks during the war with Iran were even more ill-fated. Saddam killed thousands of Iranian troops by showering them with gas, but the chemicals failed to decide the war, which ended in a tie. His attack in 1988 on his own Kurdish citizens, which left 5,000 dead in the town of Halabja, only helped stoke their enmity, and certainly did not help prevent their effective secession last decade.
Moreover, Saddam’s gassing of his own citizens made him lose the precious support he enjoyed in Western capitals, where he had been accepted as a reasonable counterweight to Ayatollah Khomeini’s regional sway.
Now, despite all these recollections, Syrian President Bashar Assad is marching into his predecessors’ political dead-ends. Why?
ASSAD’S GAS delivery is part of a strategic vision.
The location of the attacks this week, the town of Khan Sheikhoun, is just east of the Nusayriyah Mountains, the Alawite minority’s stronghold east of Syria’s Mediterranean coastline. At the same time, the town also sits smack on the M5 highway, Syria’s most important artery, which runs from the Jordanian border through Damascus and Homs to Aleppo.
The gas attack and the hospital bombings that followed it are part of an ethnic-cleansing effort that is designed to chase Sunni populations to the east of this north-south axis and replace them with Shi’ite Arabs from Iraq.
The quest to remap Syria ethnically has been raised by Iranian negotiators in talks with the Syrian opposition. The Iranian rationale is clear. Having already consolidated its political grip on Baghdad, Tehran now wants to extend its reach to the Mediterranean, by cultivating a belt of predominantly Shi’ite communities checkered by an assortment of subservient non-Sunni minorities.
Assad’s interest in this scheme is obvious. He will rule over a shrunken but much more cohesive Syria.
The problem is his other great ally, Russia. Iran’s plan leads to a clash of imperial wills with Moscow.
Moscow’s entry into the Syrian war was sparked by NATO’s removal of Russian ally Muammar Gaddafi, but the Kremlin’s deeper motivation was the historic Russian quest for a warm-water seaport. All czars since Peter the Great sought such a maritime prize, but Russia won it only 250 years after his death, when Hafez Assad leased the Tartus seaport to the USSR.
This is what Vladimir Putin was out to secure when he unleashed his fighter jets on Assad’s rebels, and this is what the Iranians are now threatening, whether consciously or not.
Israeli intelligence believes the Iranians are out to build their own seaport in Syria. That is what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Putin during their meeting in Moscow last month. Netanyahu would not peddle such a report to the Kremlin, had it not been convincingly substantiated.
THE IRANIAN ambition is impressive, but it is also the kind of overextension that brought down much greater imperialists, from the Ottomans and the Soviets to the Habsburgs and the Romans. It is also what happened to the Persian Empire when it last reached the Mediterranean.
After defeating a Byzantine army in today’s southeastern Turkey, the Persians rolled down the Mediterranean coast all the way to Alexandria, and later also laid siege to what now is Istanbul, only to soon make way for the Arab armies that swept the Middle East while converting it to Islam. The Persians were pushed back east, where they remained for the following 14 centuries.
Now the mullahs want to restore that imperial reach. Alas, the Iranian march to the Mediterranean is bound to end no better than that medieval drive, because it provokes the Arab world, Russia and Turkey all at once.
The Syrian coastline is short, hardly half the length of Israel’s.
The Russians will not want the ayatollahs’ vessels parking alongside theirs. Backing and feeding Assad’s violence, as Moscow does consistently, is one thing. Accommodating Tehran’s imperial intrusion is an entirely different thing.
And just as the Syrian coastline is short, Arab memory is long. The Sunni Arabs along with the Sunni Turks know all too well the parts of Persian history that are relevant to them. They understand what Iran is up to and ultimately – one way or another – will stand in its way.
A hint of this was offered this week by two little-noticed responses to the gas attack in northern Syria. One was the Arab League’s, which called the attack “a major crime,” and the other was Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s, which blamed “the world” for “letting such a regime do what it is doing.”
Hariri represents Lebanon’s Sunni minority, and his statement echoes its fear of isolation within a prospective, Iranian-led Shi’ite belt.
BACK IN DAMASCUS, Assad seems to be underestimating these sensitivities.
Shooting from behind his Russian patron’s apron, the Syrian strongman evidently assumes he can pretty much do on the battlefield whatever he pleases. He may be right concerning condemnations he heard this week from the Vatican, the European Union, and the UN, and also concerning Donald Trump’s blurry statement that the attack “crossed many redlines.”
Yet in terms of its aims, Assad’s gas attack is part of a political march of folly that harks back nearly half a century.
Curiously enough, the Iranian effort to cultivate a shrunken but Shi’ite-dominated Syria is the inversion of Hafez Assad’s quest to create a Greater Syria which was to include Lebanon, Jordan and Israel.
The elder Assad’s Greater Syria dream concealed a scheme to impose his Alawite minority on a Sunni majority four times its size. It was a political deformity that ultimately bred the majority’s uprising against the minority’s oppression.
Today’s Smaller Syria scheme might have been a plausible plan for life after Greater Syria’s death, had it not involved the same methods that shattered Syria’s previous design.
There were some 12 million Sunni Arabs in prewar Syria, and 25 million on both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi border. Though a good one-tenth of them are now refugees anywhere between Jordan and Sweden, the critical mass are going nowhere, and are burning with hatred for Assad and his sponsors.
That is why the Smaller Syria plot will go the way of the Greater Syria quest. Like previous gas-fueled military misadventures, this one will also prove that chemical warfare is political alchemy.