The problem with Syria

Mediating historical fact with current speculation

“In times of insurgency, when regimes are in varying stages of collapse,” posed an editorial in the Jerusalem Post this week, “there is a real risk that unsecured weaponry – including weapons of mass destruction – will fall into the wrong hands.” Referring to Syria’s alleged underground stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons-grade material – including mustard gas, anthrax and sarin – the Post here alerts us to a “real danger”: that Syrian rebels might, amidst the maelstrom, wander off with weapons capable of eradicating significant numbers of people, thereby threatening “not just Israel’s security, but the security and stability of the entire region.”

Notwithstanding its nod to the similar circumstances that prompted the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, this article, it must be said, dances around the same rhetorical handbag that first catalysed worldwide suspicion of the existence of Iraqi WMD. Not only are Syrian WMD incredibly difficult to acquire, transport and weaponise by militant groups with marginal expertise and leadership vacuums, but the very existence of these weapons have yet to be determined by any international, legislative authority. Despite all this, “[A] similar danger [to Iraq] exists in Syria” the Post tells us; there is “a real risk”: “ruthless power-seekers [...] roaming the country [...] grab caches of weaponry by the tons”; we are “in the midst of anarchy”.

The alarming thing about this kind of language is that it amounts to an inherent part of the danger itself, not that it alerts us to anything inherently dangerous. The “real risk” here is speculation, as well as partisan politics, in opposition to coverage of the facts or at least presentation of both sides of a debate. Of course, editorial by nature comprises opinion, and this disagreement may stem from a dissatisfaction with the ethics of an article more than its content. Nonetheless, the Post is the most widely-read Anglophone newspaper in Israel and, within the wider discourse on the presence of international WMD, ought to temper its opinions with lessons learnt in Iraq.

IEAE director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, has spoken candidly about the dangers attendant on these forms of speculation, and the Post has subsequently made note of them here. Wildly biased editorial cannot be undone, nor balanced, by short presentations of alternate arguments some days later. What is required are balanced views contained within single expressions, particularly when representative of a publication, and particularly when in relation to issues that have historically given way to invasion, protracted war and loss of life.

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