'Astounding Moral Inequality': The Syrian Gas Issue

09/21/2013 09:50 pm ET | Updated Nov 21, 2013
  • Dr. Charles G. Cogan Associate, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School

Edward R. Murrow, one of a group of prominent Americans who worked in London during and after the blitz to bring the United States into full support of Britain, had the above view of the difference between Nazi Germany and the Allies. Cited in the book Citizens of London, the words could well be applied today to Russia, in its attempt to claim that the Syrian rebels could have been responsible for the horrendous gas attacks of August 21 outside Damascus which killed some 1,400 people. Perhaps it is a characteristic of totalitarian regimes that the Big Lie can be used with such abandon, and with such disregard for world opinion. Though Russia is no longer Communist, under Vladimir Putin it can perhaps be described as a post-totalitarian regime.

The United Nations report on the August 21 gas attacks, while not charged with assigning responsibility, strongly indicates from a technical point of view that the aggression could only have come from the Syrian regime. Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, has characterized the Russian claim as "preposterous." Secretary of State John Kerry, as cited in the New York Times of September 20, stated that, "We really don't have time today to pretend that anyone can have their own set of facts approaching the issue of chemical weapons in Syria".

The irony is that the very proposal by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that Syria give up its chemical weapons was an implicit admission that the government of Bashar al-Assad was the guilty party in the August 21 attacks. For then to stick to the idea that the Syrian rebels could have been the ones responsible is a claim that would have been laughed out of court if it had come from a country other than one as big as Russia.

The moral of the story is that while continuing to negotiate with Mr. Lavrov and his aides, one must keep in mind the "astounding moral inequality" between Russia and the West.