Everyone should read this as a reminder of the brutality that states may employ for political ends, whether Ethiopia (1935), Chechnya (1995), Iraq (1998) or Syria (2017). Chemical weapons such as sarin or mustard gas leave horrific injuries, but any deliberate targeting of civilians — such as bombing of hospitals and residential neighborhoods — should IMO be treated as a war crime.
Luke O’Brien is a U.S. Army officer assigned to Aberdeen Proving Ground and is currently a Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Graduate Fellow at National Defense University:
…..Perhaps the most notorious example of this from recent memory, however, was the Iraqi chemical attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja in March 1988, as part of the Anfal Campaign at the end of the Iran-Iraq War. This attack struck the small Kurdish village with both conventional and chemical bombs, including sarin, just as Assad’s forces would nearly 30 years later. The first attacks used normal high-explosive bombs, which both drove civilians into basement shelters as well as broke open the villages windows and doors. These initials attacks were then followed up with chemical munitions, which quickly filled the basement shelters and killed their occupants.
Such brutality was intentional. The attacks were intended to break the back of the Kurdish peshmerga militia by depopulating its support. Commenting on the matter at the time, Iraqi Gen. Ali Hassan al-Majid bragged that he would “kill [all the Kurds] with chemical weapons.” The chemical bombardment of Halabja had its desired effect, with a stream of surviving civilians abandoning the town and fleeing to nearby Iran. This use of chemical weapons, moreover, had another added benefit: driving away civilians and insurgents who had become numb to the effects of conventional weapons…..