Syria and Iran: The Danger of Escalation


John Scales Avery – TRANSCEND Media Service

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, we ought to remember that this catastrophic event started as a minor engagement in which the Austrian Empire sought to punish a group of Serbian nationalists. No one involved at the outset of this small conflict had any idea that it would escalate into a world-destroying disaster, which still casts a dark shadow over civilization a century later.

Can we not see a parallel to the intention of the United States to punish the Assad regime in Syria for an alleged use of poison gas? The parallel with the start of World War I is particularly disturbing because the intervening century has witnessed the development of thermonuclear weapons with the capacity to destroy human civilization and much of the biosphere.

The following is a report from Information Clearing House, dated August 26 [2013]:

“As talk and rumors of an impending Western attack against Syria mount, a top Syrian official said Monday that if attacked, his country would react against Israel.

“Speaking to an Arabic-language radio station operated by the United States, Syria’s Deputy Information Minister Halaf Al-Maftah said that Israel would face not only Syria in the event that the US, Britain and France attempted to unseat Bashar al-Assad. A coalition consisting of Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria would respond to any attack against Assad with a response against Israel. In addition, terrorist groups in Syria and Lebanon would attack Israel with full force.”

“Al-Maftah added that Syria has “strategic weapons” that it would use in its attack on Israel. He did not specify what those weapons were.”

“’Syria is ready to deal with all scenarios,’ said Al-Maftah. ‘We consider these declarations of a possible attack as a form of psychological warfare and pressure on Syria. We are not worried about them. We hope that those threatening us will listen closely to what we are saying. We believe that the only solution for the Syrian issue is a political one,’ he added.”

The Obama administration claims that “the use of poison gas cannot be allowed to go unpunished”, but the report of the United Nations inspectors is not due for another two weeks. It is not at all clear that if chemical weapons were used, it was Assad’s government that made the attack. This is especially doubtful because of the fact that the United States tried to persuade UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon not to allow the inspectors to investigate the incident. Also, we can ask what motive Assad could have had in using chemical weapons at a moment when the Obama had declared such use would be a signal for a US attack on Syria. Why should Assad provide Obama with a convenient excuse for greater involvement in the Syrian civil war?

It seems very ironic that the US should take a “moral” position regarding chemical weapons, consiidering the fact that they provided Saddam Hussein with such weapons, and workekd to protect Sadam from international censure when he used them not onlly agains Iran but against his own people.

Both the United States and Britain helped Saddam Hussein’s government to obtain chemical weapons. A chemical plant, called Falluja 2, was built by Britain in 1985, and this plant was used to produce mustard gas and nerve gas. Also, according to the Riegel Report to the US Senate, May 25, (1994), the Reagan Administration turned a blind eye to the export of chemical weapon precursors to Iraq, as well as anthrax and plague cultures that could be used as the basis for biological weapons. According to the Riegel Report, “records available from the supplier for the period 1985 until the present show that during this time, pathogenic (meaning disease producing) and toxigenic (meaning poisonous), and other biological research materials were exported to Iraq perusant to application and licensing by the US Department of Commerce.”

In 1980, encouraged to do so by the fact that Iran had lost its US backing, Saddam Hussein’s government attacked Iran. This was the start of a extremely bloody and destructive war that lasted for eight years, inflicting almost a million casualties on the two nations. Iraq used both mustard gas and the nerve gases Tabun and Sarin against Iran, in violation of the Geneva Protocol.

In 1984, Donald Rumsfeld, Reagan’s newly appointed Middle East Envoy, visited Saddam Hussein to assure him of America’s continuing friendship, despite Iraqi use of poison gas. When (in 1988) Hussein went so far as to use poison gas against civilian citizens of his own country in the Kurdish village of Halabja, the United States worked to prevent international condemnation of the act. Indeed US support for Saddam was so unconditional that he obtained the false impression that he had a free hand to do whatever he liked in the region.

It is no secret that Israel would like the United States to be more involved in the Syrian civil war, as a means of undermining the influuence of Iran in the Middle East. Israel’s leaders, Netanyahu and Barrak, regard Iran as the real enemy, and they have often repeated the threat that Israel would bomb Iran, with or without US support.

Should the conflict spread to Iran, we can recall a statement by  Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh , who is in charge of the Revolutionary Guards missile systems told Iran’s Arabic-language television network that should Israel and Iran engage militarily, “nothing is predictable… and it will turn into World War III”

He added that Iran would deem any Israeli strike to be conducted with US authorisation, so “whether the Zionist regime attacks with or without US knowledge, then we will definitely attack US bases in Bahrain, Qatar and Afghanistan.”

An attack on either Syria or Iran would be both criminal and insane. It would be criminal because it would be a violation of the United Nations Charter and the Nuremberg Principles. It would be insane because it would initiate a conflict that might escalate in an unpredictable way. Such a conflict might easily be the start of a Third World War.

A large-scale conflict in the Middle East could lead to the overthrow of Pakistan’s less-than stable government, thus introducing Pakistan’s nuclear weapons into the conflict on the side of Syria and Iran. China and India, steadfast allies of Syria and Iran, might also become involved.

The destabilization of the Middle East would lead to closure of the the Strait of Hormuz and the price of oil would reach previously unknown heights. The blow of astronomical oil prices could produce a global economic depression of previously unknown dimensions. But the most serious threat of a large-scale conflict in the Middle East remains the possibility of nuclear war.

Must we allow the actions of a few power-blinded politicians to start a conflict that could lead to the deaths of ourselves and our children?


John Scales Avery, Ph.D. is a member of the TRANSCEND Network and Associate Professor Emeritus at the H.C. Ørsted Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He is chairman of both the Danish National Pugwash Group and the Danish Peace Academy and received his training in theoretical physics and theoretical chemistry at M.I.T., the University of Chicago and the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles both on scientific topics and on broader social questions. His most recent book is “Crisis 21: Civilization’s Crisis in the 21st Century.”


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 2 Sep 2013.

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