Chemical lessons from history: Jack Lopresti MP

The focus on Assad’s use of chemical weapons may lead some to conclude that we are talking about relatively small numbers of people compared to conventional weapons. That misses the point and the possibilities of much larger-scale deaths there and elsewhere if the line is flunked, as does the example of a people from just thirty years ago.

Deterring and punishing the use of chemical weapons is important whatever the numbers. Chemical weapons cannot distinguish between combatants and civilians. The effects are barbarically cruel for those killed and those who survive are afflicted in deep ways for the rest of their often shortened lives.

In Douma, an estimated 70 people perished painfully and 500 were injured, a term that covers a wide range of illness from the thankfully temporary to chronic and psychological conditions that cross generations, ruin lives, affect babies born to those affected, and cast a long shadow over whole families.

But you don’t have to go far to hear about how chemical weapons can murder people on a more industrial scale and to see that the impact can be measured in decades. Just next door is Iraqi Kurdistan, which on 14 April marked Anfal Day.

Anfal is Arabic for the Spoils of War, and is taken from a verse in the Koran. It was the name of the campaign waged against the Kurds by Saddam Hussein’s regime and led by his cousin, a general known as Chemical Ali.

He led a campaign aimed in part or in whole to eliminate the Kurds. Readers may be aware that the Commons formally and unanimously decided in February 2013 that this amounted to genocide, a term that is and never should be used lightly.

Anfal was partly conventional but also partly based on chemical weapons. The most notorious example of both was the attack in March 1988 on the town of Halabja, near Slemani and the Iranian border.

Iraqi jets first bombed the town with ordinary ordnance which killed some and blew out doors and windows in many houses. This was deliberate because the second wave of attacks consisted of sarin and mustard gas shells. Houses without doors and windows provided no shelter from the gases for those inside and those in basements suffered more as the heavier than air chemical gases sunk to the lowest possible level.

About 5,000 people were killed almost instantly and many thousands were injured, some very seriously and they have terrible lives, if they have survived, many decades later.

But five thousand villages were also razed to the ground and many of them were attacked by chemical weapons. Another continuing result of the Anfal was the destruction of the traditional backbone of the Kurdistan Region – the countryside, which was declared a free fire zone and from which Kurds were forced to leave, often for ramshackle and so-called obligatory collective villages in the cities, which are best described as concentration camps.

Generations of Kurds have now been in cities for several decades and the plentiful agricultural potential of the Kurdistan Region has been stymied ever since despite it once having been the bread basket of Iraq.

The genocide against the Kurds relied heavily on chemical weapons and highlights the horrors and scale of chemical warfare. Fatalities and casualties were smaller in Syria. Seeking to uphold the civilisational taboo on using chemical weapons could not only prevent further use in Syria but also send a powerful signal to others now or in the future that they may pay a price for using these odious, indiscriminate, and barbaric weapons. The example of the use of chemical weapons in the Anfal genocide against the Kurds should make us determined to hold the line on chemical weapons as a moral priority. Punishing Assad was a legitimate and necessary act.

Jack Lopresti is the Conservative MP for Filton and Bradley Stoke and Chairman of the APPG on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq

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