Representative Mike Rogers, chairman of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee, recently told CNN there was a "high probability" that chemical weapons had been used in Syria, with both rebel forces and government officials reported that the other side was the actual perpetrator.
But U.S. and Israeli intelligence have not been able to agree this week, with Pentagon spokesman George Little saying, "I have no information at this time to corroborate any claims that chemical weapons have been used in Syria," and Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni contending, "It is clear for us here in Israel" that chemical weapons have been used.
While stories this week have widely cited President Obama's "red line" that would "change [his] calculus," a sentiment among Syrians was reported a to the effect that chemical weapons would not change anything for the worse -- "we are dead either way."
This is an ill-advised conclusion, to say the least. I have seen the far-reaching effects of chemical weapons first-hand after years in Iraq living with the aftermath of Saddam Hussein's chemical attacks and widespread claims that American and British weapons have contaminated the environment. Any similar deployment of chemical weapons in Syrian is bound to have far-reaching implications that extend far into the future.
Here are three reasons why the usage of chemical weapons would mark a serious turning point in Syria:
1. They might detour the most effective military interventions and draw out the conflict.
In 1991, chemical weapons stockpiles were among the widely speculated reasons President Bush decided not to go all the way to Baghdad to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Bush's caution, due to Saddam's known usage of chemical weapons, resulted in the extension of the sanctions era until the 2003 invasion, further destroying Iraq and giving "hooks" for the regime to foment more hatred against America and the West.
One of the lessons from Iraq has to be the conclusion that boots on the ground in 1991 would have bypassed years of instability, saved billions of dollars, prevented the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives, and would have decreased the fodder that stoked the flames of al-Qaeda for the last two decades.
But even as talk of chemical weapons triggers American willpower for military intervention, the chemical weapons could actually deter the most effective forms of military intervention, protract the conflict, and complicate things further for years to come.
2. They could lead to a spike in birth defects, cancers, as well as other health and environment concerns.
A 2010 study in Conflict & Health journal concluded Saddam Hussein's usage of sulphur mustard gas had "a generational effect" and that the effects of exposure might "impact child health and development in the long-term."
The suspicion that chemical weapons (and chemical toxicity resulting from other modern weapons) has been bolstered by my six years in Iraq seeking to save the lives of children from Halabja, the site of Saddam's notorious chemical attack, Basra, a major recipient of U.S. bombing in 1990, and Fallujah, the site of the Iraq War's most notorious battle.
Studies out of Fallujah since the Americans seized the city in 2004 have variously cited increases in cancer, infant mortality, and a "remarkable reduction" in the number of boys born for every girl.
Claims of increased illness related to fighting in Iraq have emanated from the ranks of Iraqi neighborhoods, Iranian soldiers, and Western military for thirty years. The long-tail effects of chemical weapons continue to plague Iraq today, burdening a decimated health care system, and providing horrifying visual fodder for extremists who would incite hatred against the West.
If chemical weapons have been used in Syria, we could see more of the same.
3. They could lead to retaliatory usage of chemical weapons.
With both Syrian government officials and rebel voices claiming that the other side has used chemical weapons, we are currently left to speculate as to who controls stockpiles, which reported include the mutagenic and carcinogenic sulfur mustard gas, as well as nerve agents sarin and VX. If either side demonstrates a willingness to use these weapons, it could lead to an escalation in which the other side lashes out in kind.
The Syrian government's claims against the rebels establish a pretext for future government deployment, and although the Obama Administration has been dovish on arming rebels to date, the rebel claims alone could provide a pretext for American intervention, just as President Bush repeatedly employed "the Kurd card" to justify preemption in Iraq.
In the event that Iranian-backed regime elements and terrorist-backed rebels proliferate their usage of chemical weapons, options for Western military intervention would be further complicated, and the long-tail effects of these horrible weapons would extend even further.
At present, most experts remain skeptical that either side of the Syrian conflict has employed chemical weapons and are awaiting results from the upcoming UN investigation, but the "red line," if crossed, portends far more ill than anyone is actually talking about. Just ask the people of Iraq.