In a makeshift monitoring station atop Mount Zimnako, an Iraqi intelligence officer who was listening for the code words pulled on his gas mask and gazed down at the valley as Saddam Hussein’s Air Force began raining deadly nerve gas upon 80,000 fellow Iraqis.
“I saw people inside Halabja through binoculars,” recalled the intelligence officer, telling his story years later to American television producer Ginny Durrin for the 2003 PBS documentary series “Avoiding Armageddon.” (I was managing editor of the series about weapons of mass destruction and terrorism and wrote a book of the same title.)
“... I told my superiors that there were families and children,” the intelligence officer continued. “But there was no response.”
Today, events in Syria require that we remember the suffering of March 16, 1988, the day Saddam conducted the world’s only massive gassing of a civilian population. Saddam turned Halabja into a living hell, killing most gruesomely some 5,000 Kurdish men, women and children.
Syria possesses a huge arsenal of chemical weapons. And world leaders are now working desperately behind the scenes to prevent a Halabja-type horror from happening in Syria. Or perhaps elsewhere on the planet, if Syrian “loose chemicals” fall into terrorist hands.
Leaders of the United States, NATO, the Middle East and, yes, even Syria’s longtime ally, Russia, are concerned that another despot, the desperate President Bashar al-Assad, may use chemical weapons against his countrymen, women and children.
World leaders are aware they cannot rule out the possibility that Syria’s chemical weapons could end up being used elsewhere. Would-be terrorists are now fighting alongside Syrian freedom fighters. In the chaos that could follow the collapse of Assad’s regime, they could possibly get their hands on warheads from Syria’s arsenal of sarin (a nerve agent), mustard gas and cyanide.
A group known as the Nursa Front, which has direct ties to al-Qaida in Iraq, is known to be fighting alongside rebels in Syria. The Nursa Front is reportedly a bold fighting force that has proven effective in combat. Its fighters, trained by al-Qaida, reportedly get their weapons and funds from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds.
But importantly, the Nursa Front was excluded from a meeting this week convened in Morocco by the United States, France and a few Middle East allies to designate a group known as the Syrian National Coalition. The coalition is the probable successor to Assad’s crippled regime.
President Barack Obama and his top advisers have been reluctant to send weapons to Syria’s rebels supported by the United States and NATO, fearing that the weapons could wind up in the hands of would-be terrorists.
But good options are in short supply. Chemical arsenals cannot be bombarded because that creates a plume that can blow chemical agents over civilians and even other countries.
Meanwhile, Obama has quietly redrawn his famous “red line” pertaining to Syrian chemical weapons. At an Aug. 20 news conference, Obama said: “We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people.” Obama added that it would be “a red line for us and ... there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons.”
Recently, Syria reportedly made moves that could indicate a weaponizing of chemical agents, by mixing some precursor chemicals that had been separately stored. The Obama administration’s response has been to trim its “red line” to be a warning against any “use” of chemical weapons.
Perhaps the ultimate solution may be a privatization, of sorts, of the problem posed by Syria’s chemical arsenal. Recently, Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta presented the Defense Department’s top civilian award to former Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., and Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., whose Nunn-Lugar program has famously secured, dismantled and often destroyed so-called “loose nukes” from the Cold War era. The program also funds the securing of chemical and biological weapons.
A carefully adapted Nunn-Lugar effort may be our best hope for safeguarding Syria’s soon-to-be “loose chemicals.” It could produce a win-win solution — for Syria’s successor regime and a wary, worried world.
Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.