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While it is an increasing unpopular position to admit to holding, there is still a case to be made for liberal interventionism with regards to upholding international norms and preventing the widespread use of chemical weapons against civilian populations. What however is completely indefensible is the selective and inconsistent way in which the Western world upholds this position. By ignoring the use of chemical weapons on previous occasions, the West has undermined its own ability to negotiate, mediate, and police the use of chemical agents. It is no wonder that the Arab world snorts at lofty moralistic rhetoric from Western political leaders when you consider the atrocities and war crimes we have both committed and tolerated.

As the Syrian crisis enters a stage where negotiation appears to have at least temporarily usurped the prospect of military intervention, the world awaits to see if an agreement that sees Syrian chemical weapons destroyed can be hammered out in order to prevent American-led airstrikes. A key component of the Russian-sponsored plan to be put before the UN Security Council involves Syria signing up to the Chemical Arms Treaty.  While such an event would be widely celebrated in all quarters as a victory, it would ignore the fact that Israel has also not ratified the signing of the treaty, which it signed in 1993.

Attention is now turning towards the Israelis to simultaneously destroy their own stockpiles of chemical weapons and Russia has suggested that if Syria is expected to comply with this international norm, then there is no reason why Israel shouldn’t also. Like the Assad regime in Syria, Israel has also used chemical weapons in the near past, in the 2008-09 air and ground assault on Gaza, which Israel called “Operation Cast Lead”.

Israel would argue that the key difference between the events in Syria in 2013 and those in Gaza in 2008-09 is that the agents used in Syria were Sarin, and Mustard Gas, which are expressly banned by International Law. The chemical used in Operation Cast Lead was White Phosphorus, which is also used to lay down smokescreens to cover troop movements. However, White Phosphorus is also an incendiary which burns upon contact with Oxygen, and it is shockingly clear that even if we were to consider its original intended use dubiously moral, that it has been used as a nerve agent to devastating effect.

A UN fact finding group set up in 2009 found that during the 22 day long assault on the Gaza strip during which between 1100 and 1400 Palestinians died, shells containing White Phosphorus had been used both on a hospital, and inside UNRWA (United Nation Relief and Works Agency) grounds – clearly by anyone’s justification constituted a war crime of heinous proportions.

Israel’s response was to initially deny the allegations, before downplaying the scale of them, until eventually they settled for a denial that civilian populations were deliberately targeted. The report, which is available in full in a link below this article, was widely discredited in the US media.

Compare and contrast the reaction of the Western World to this atrocity and collection of war crimes with the awful events of the last year in Syria.

The Israelis have said that they will not ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention unless the entire region will do so – the chances of which even an optimist will tell you are slim to none. And while both Syria and Israel are being used as pawns in a wider strategic game by Russia and the United States, every one of us that desires to see peace in the region should be happy with any pressure exerted by either Russia or the United States to convince their allies to disarm.

There are clear humanitarian reasons why we should vigorously oppose the spread of, and use of chemical weapons. Unfortunately our ability to make a moral case for intervention in Syria on these grounds is fatally undermined by our own inability to ensure that we ourselves, and our allies, are not at the same time using or condoning the use of these weapons. As someone who believes that the greatest failures of Western foreign policy have been our failure to act in Rwanda and the Congo I find the fact that we have such justifiably diminished credibility a great source of sadness.

Sources:

http://www.latimes.com/world/worldnow/la-fg-wn-israel-chemical-weapons-20130912,0,7379241.story

http://www.policymic.com/articles/37761/israel-claims-syria-used-chemical-weapons-but-israel-has-used-white-phosphorus

http://www.clevelandchallenger.com/u-s-media-suppressed-2009-un-report-showing-israel-using-chemical-weapons-against-palestinians/

http://image.guardian.co.uk/sys-files/Guardian/documents/2009/09/15/UNFFMGCReport.pdf