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Claims of poison gas usage drastically raise Syrian civil war stakes

The brutal continuing civil war in Syria now includes allegations that there has been use of poison gas by the Assad regime. Gas employed in war presents an especially horrifying specter, which in turn risks raising the stakes for both sides.

Since allegations began on March 19, the government and rebel forces have blamed one another for using nerve gas. Various government representatives from within and beyond the Middle East, including intelligence agents, believe gas has been used.

U.S. President Barack Obama has been extremely cautious in dealing with this subject, emphasizing the need for absolute confirmation. Senior American military officials echo the point.

As yet there is no concrete confirmation of the origins of alleged attacks. If Bashar al-Assad and associates have engaged in this particularly heinous criminal behavior, they have powerful reasons to fight even harder to avoid ultimate defeat.

Meanwhile, on May 21 a senior U.S. State Department official told reporters traveling with Secretary of State John Kerry evidence shows Hezbollah and Iran are aiding Syria's forces. Whether these outside forces are directly involved in combat, however, is unclear.

Damascus officials have refused so far to permit international inspectors direct access to the area where attacks allegedly have occurred. A team of experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the World Health Organization is waiting on Cyprus for permission to enter.

Flawed intelligence regarding weapons of mass destruction was used by the George W. Bush administration to justify the invasion of Iraq. Saddam Hussein had used poison gas in a genocidal attack against the Kurds in 1988, which added credibility to these later allegations.

Poison gas, a distinctive weapon, has a distinctive as well as disturbing history. In World War I gas was employed by both sides. The resulting agonizing and grotesque mass deaths, combined with unpredictably of winds, has served to deter using such weapons since.

In World War II, Italy and Japan used gas in Ethiopia and China, but Nazi Germany did not bring this weapon to the battlefield. Adolf Hitler had direct exposure to poison gas during combat in the trenches in World War I.

The long tangled tale of the Vietnam War highlights the extreme uncertainty which can accompany allegations of poison gas use. After withdrawal of U.S. forces, the Hmong were targeted for ruthless retaliation in Laos as well as Vietnam. This fierce ethnic population had been loyal allies of America.

In 1975, reports began to surface that Soviet poison gas was being used against the Hmong. U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig in 1981 charged lethal T-2 mycotoxin was the agent. Independent scientists, however, testified naturally occurring mass bee defecations were responsible for incidents of toxic “yellow rain.”

A 1998 touted CNN report alleged poison gas had been used by U.S. troops in Operation Tailwind, a special operations 1970 strike into Laos. The lurid and implausible story included accusations the main target was a group of American renegade defectors. The story was quickly discredited, and CNN personnel lost their jobs.

An antidote to faulty intelligence anywhere is absolutely to confirm the evidence while strengthening international peacekeeping mechanisms everywhere. Today our circumstances are more promising than in the past. In 1936, a weak and worried International Red Cross refused to release evidence of Italian atrocities in Ethiopia.

Today, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon is mobilizing a broad coalition pressuring Syria to open the door to inspections.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” Contact him at acyr@carthage.edu

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