Chemical weapons and selective outrage

It is extremely dangerous to focus only on the crimes of one’s rival. Doing so will have far-reaching consequences

Maria Dubovikova
Maria Dubovikova
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Using chemical weapons against civilians, torture, mass executions, beheading children - these crimes are committed not only by terrorist and jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq, but also by U.S.-backed, so-called moderate opposition groups.

On Aug. 2, Harakat Nour al-Zenki - which is affiliated to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) - reportedly launched an attack in Idlib province using toxic substances. Seven people were killed, and 20 were taken to hospital with severe breathing problems. Some reports say the substance was chlorine gas, but this is unverified.

Rebel-linked media have accused the Syrian army of the attack, saying the gas was in cylinders dropped on residential areas in the city of Saraqeb. Accusations against Russia are nonsensical. That same day, there was a chemical attack in Aleppo. Five civilians were killed, and eight others reportedly suffered from suffocation. If rebels carried out this terrorist act, they are most likely responsible for the one in Idlib.

Moscow has accused Washington of ignoring crimes committed by U.S.-backed rebels. Previously, Harakat Nour al-Zenki beheaded a 10-year-old, claiming he was a soldier in the Syrian army.

The U.S. State Department condemned any use of chemical weapons, but its spokesman said: “One incident here and there wouldn’t necessarily make you a terrorist group.” So you are not a terrorist if you behead a child or use chemical weapons once or twice. It seems Washington was satisfied with Harakat Nour al-Zenki’s explanation that it beheaded the child by mistake.

It is extremely dangerous to focus only on the crimes of one’s rival. Doing so will have far-reaching consequences.

Maria Dubovikova

The rebels’ breaking of the army siege of Aleppo on Saturday was praised by the media as a huge success. What is concealed is that the breakthrough happened mainly because of Jaish al-Fatah, whose ranks include Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly Al-Nusra Front), which is labeled by the international community as a terrorist group.

Jaish al-Fatah includes other Islamist groups, such as Ahrar al-Sham, that can hardly be called moderate, but who cares as long as they can effectively fight the Syrian regime?

The United States had the same approach in Afghanistan during Russia’s intervention there, using Islamist fighters against the Soviets without calculating the consequences.

This approach is extremely dangerous in the framework of Syria and Iraq, especially when there is no clear understanding of how to deal with extremists if they succeed.


The aforementioned chemical attacks should not just be condemned - as Washington has become used to doing - but thoroughly investigated. They are not the first in Syria committed by rebels, according to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), whose investigation showed that the gas used was different than the one formerly owned by the regime.

Chemical attacks have become a media-focused rebel strategy of provocations that enable accusations against the regime. Damascus itself gave the rebels this trump card, having carried out a deadly chemical attack in a rebel-held area in 2013, after which the regime’s entire chemical weapons arsenal was taken from Syria and destroyed.

It is common knowledge that rebels are smuggling chemicals, much of them via Turkey. Most of them belonged to Libya under Muammar Qaddafi. The sources of chemical weapons in Syria should be investigated and totally cut. Groups carrying out chemical attacks and crimes against humanity should be immediately denied support from the U.S.-led coalition and listed as terrorist groups. This would be a good motivation to not cross the red line.

None of this is meant to distract attention from the regime’s crimes, but it is extremely dangerous to focus only on the crimes of one’s rival. Doing so will have far-reaching consequences.

Maria Dubovikova is a President of IMESClub and CEO of MEPFoundation. Alumni of MGIMO (Moscow State Institute of International Relations [University] of Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia), now she is a PhD Candidate there. Her research fields are in Russian foreign policy in the Middle East, Euro-Arab dialogue, policy in France and the U.S. towards the Mediterranean, France-Russia bilateral relations, humanitarian cooperation and open diplomacy. She can be followed on Twitter: @politblogme

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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