Syria: a civil war or a war on cities?
Pressenza publishes this statement from two representatives of the Mayor’s for Peace organisation. Blaming elements on both the government and opposition side of the conflict for the barbarities of war, the Mayors appeal for the elimination of weapons of mass destruction.
We all breathed a great sigh of relief when the mutual bombardment in Gaza and southern Israel ended, but meanwhile, the civil war in Syria gets uglier and uglier. As the restraints of common decency are stripped away one by one, how long will it be before chemical weapons are used? We ask this question because our cities have known the scourge of chemical weapons (Ypres 1915; Halabja 1988) and because we are part of an international network, Mayors for Peace, of over five thousand cities worldwide that want all weapons of mass destruction eliminated without delay. Our 2020 Vision Campaign leadership has issued a statement: “Syrian Cities Are Not Targets,” upon which this piece is based.
Mayors for Peace was founded by the Mayors for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It took two fundamental preconditions for the use of nuclear weapons on these cities at the end of WWII. One is obvious: the availability of the weapon; as soon as it was available, it was used. It had been agreed at Potsdam that the Soviet Union would declare war on Japan on August 7th and immediately open a new front against the already beleaguered Imperial Army, yet the atomic attack was not held back even a single day to see if this strategic turn of events would compel Japan’s surrender.
The second condition is less obvious: moral and legal barriers to attacks on populated areas had crumbled in the course of a four-year war. Germany was the first to attack a city with the intent to incinerate it and anyone who might be trapped in it. The target was Stalingrad (now Volgograd) and over 40,000 civilians perished during the first night of firebombing by the Luftwaffe. It wasn’t long before the British Royal Air Force emulated and perfected this tactic, using it against a dozen German cities, most famously Hamburg and Dresden. The American Air Force adopted it in the Pacific Theatre when their planes came within striking distance of Japan. Over fifty thousand people perished in the fire which consumed a large part of Tokyo. Indeed, only a handful of Japanese cities large enough to create firestorms remained as the nuclear bombs went into production back in the United States. They were being ‘saved’ for a special fate.
So, on August 6th, it was only an amoral baby step from conventional firebombing to atomic bombing.
In the Iran-Iraq War, Iraq soon began bombarding Iranian cities while also using chemical weapons on the battlefield. Saddam Hussein asked in the meeting on Oct. 1, 1980, which discussed the bombardment of Abadan, in southern Iran, “Do you have cannons that shell air bursts to fall on them while they are in the streets? We want their casualties to be high.”
It was only an amoral baby step to using chemical weapons on Kurdish Iraqi cities that defied Baghdad. Several family members of one of the authors died from sarin, tabun, and VX nerve agents in Halabja, along with thousands of other civilians.
After how many tens of thousands of deaths caused by daily aerial and artillery bombardment will that amoral baby step be taken by the Syrian Government? President Obama has declared this a ‘red-line’. But the red-line – attacking populated areas with explosive force has already been crossed. Thus, our organization’s statement – if cities will not stand up for cities, then who will?
The opposition is not blameless either. Lacking an air force, they have fired mortars and ground rockets into populated areas. The fact that they protested nonviolently for months before taking up arms, does not make such actions any less reprehensible or illegal. And we have nothing but disgust for the terrorist elements on both ‘sides’ who explode bombs in crowds to stoke sectarian hatred. The world must work harder to uphold international humanitarian law and the rules of war. The war in Syria makes it very clear that far too little has been done. Be it Gaza or Syria, as mayors, we are sickened by the daily news videos of small mushroom clouds billowing from densely populated neighbourhoods. The media should without hesitation label each and every one of these attacks criminal, not just document them matter-of-factly.
At the same time, we need to learn the lesson that as long as weapons of mass destruction are available they will sooner or later be used. There should be a great international push to universalize the Chemical Weapons Convention, and also for entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The Helsinki talks on a Middle East Zone of Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction should convene and begin talks without delay; as should the Working Group established last month by the General Assembly to consider proposals to take forward multilateral negotiations for a world free of nuclear weapons.
As long as chemical and nuclear weapons exist, cities are living on borrowed time. As long as nuclear weapons exist, the world lives on borrowed time; the incineration of as few as two dozen major cities could trigger catastrophic climate change, leading to global famine on a scale far surpassing any in recorded history.
Over one billion people live in the cities affiliated with Mayors for Peace. We are ready for the abolition of all weapons of mass destruction. What are our governments waiting for?
Luc Dehaene, Mayor of Ypres, Belgium
Khder Kareem, Mayor of Halabja, Iraq