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JP Grace: Should US punish Syrian government?

Sep. 09, 2013 @ 11:40 PM

"All's fair in love and war" has been a commonplace sentiment for centuries, dating to 1568 when the Renaissance playwright and poet John Lyly published a similar line in his play "Euphues."

That, however, was before the advent of mustard gas, sarin nerve gas and other chemical agents used in warfare and that now rank as "weapons of mass destruction."

World War I buffs will recall Mussolini's troops blanketing a battlefield with mustard gas to push back assaulting allied troops, and photos of Brits and U.S. doughboys in gas masks fighting their way through the poisonous fog.

The United States itself was widely criticized by world leaders, peace advocates and academics for its use of napalm and Agent Orange defoliating chemicals in Vietnam, resulting in horrifying deaths to enemy soldiers and innocents alike.

Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein, once "America's guy" in Iraq's war with Iran, ended up by getting a free pass from western powers in his brutal 1988 gassing of Iraqi Kurds. Some 5,000 Kurds died from Saddam's gas attacks.

Though voices were raised against the gassing, neither Ronald Reagan's White House nor any other world power bestirred itself to threaten reprisals.

The Geneva convention of 1925 and a more recent international treaty in 1993 inked in strict bans on the use of chemical weapons, with over 129 nations as signatories including the United States and Russia.

Fast forward to our current plight vis-à-vis the multiple uses of chemical agents, largely sarin nerve gas, by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad's forces, according to U.S. and British intelligence reports.

Over 1,400 Syrians including 400 children are said to have died in the latest volley of nerve gas, on Aug. 21.

U.S. Navy destroyers and aircraft carriers now sit poised in the eastern Mediterranean Sea to punish Assad's forces with volleys of Tomahawk cruise missiles, awaiting an order from President Barack Obama.

Obviously the missiles would target Syrian command and control centers and troop concentrations, not chemical weapons compounds which, if hit by bombs, would simply spew poisonous gas indiscriminately over the landscape.

Obama addresses the nation -- and the world, in effect -- tonight to make his case for a punitive strike against Assad.

U.S. lawmakers in Congress who will soon vote for or against a strike, and even more so, the American public, are strongly skeptical that a strike will deter further gas attacks by Assad. Rather, the fear is that America will be drawn into yet another protracted war in the Middle East, with eventual boots on the ground and massive casualties.

France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and a number of other Arab states have "come on board" with the United States. Israel is strongly supportive of punitive strikes.

Iran, Russia and China, meanwhile, contest the evidence that it was Assad, not Syrian rebels, who deployed chemical weapons and these governments have been campaigning against an American reprisal.

Where a strike would take us remains an open question. One good guess, however, is that an onslaught of cruise missiles over a period of up to 90 days would degrade Assad's military capabilities quite substantially. How he would react to this is unclear. Assad seems unpredictable, even irrational, and bent on clinging tenaciously to the reins of power in an ancient land he has been ruling as if by birthright.

Please pray for the Syrian people and our president and our Congress.

John Patrick Grace served as an Associated Press foreign correspondent based in Rome in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He has visited and reported from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel.

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