Chemical Weapons Charade in Syria
Let us be clear. The United States can verify absolutely nothing about the use of chemical weapons (CWs) in Syria. Any suggestion to the contrary is entirely false.
Don’t take it from me – here is what US officials have to say about the subject:
A mere 24 hours after Washington heavyweights from the White House, Pentagon, and State Department brushed aside Israeli allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and the White House changed their minds. They now believe “with varying degrees of confidence” that CWs have been used “on a small scale” inside Syria.
For the uninitiated, “varying degrees of confidence” can mean anything from “no confidence whatsoever” to “the Israelis told us” – which, translated, also means “no confidence whatsoever.”
Too cavalier? I don’t think so. The White House introduced another important caveat in its detailed briefing on Thursday:
“This assessment is based in part on physiological samples. Our standard of evidence must build on these intelligence assessments as we seek to establish credible and corroborated facts. For example the chain of custody is not clear so we cannot confirm how the exposure occurred and under what conditions.”
“The chain of custody is not clear.” That is the single most important phrase in this whole exercise. It is the only phrase that journalists need consider – everything else is conjecture of WMDs-in-Iraq proportions.
I asked a State Department spokesperson the following: “Does it mean you don't know who has had access to the sample before it reached you? Or that the sample has not been contaminated along the way?”
He responded: “It could mean both.”
Chuck Hagel expands on that jaw-dropping admission: “We cannot confirm the origin of these weapons.” Although he goes on to conclude anyway: “but we do believe that any use of chemical weapons in Syria would very likely have originated with the Assad regime.”
Four-year-olds shouldn’t have confidence in the US intelligence community at this point. Yet we are supposed to believe that the Syrian government must be behind a chemical weapons attack because Hagel says so.
Let’s consider the facts. The Syrian government has clearly stated it would not use chemical weapons during the crisis “regardless of the developments” unless “Syria faces external aggression.”
The US and other western states have warned for more than a year now that as the government of Bashar al-Assad begins to "topple," the likelihood of using CWs as a desperate last measure will increase.
The White House reiterated this point yesterday: “Given our concern that as the situation deteriorated and the regime became more desperate, they may use some of their significant stockpiles of chemical weapons.”
Assad’s government is clearly not on its last leg. If anything, the Syrian army has made tremendous gains in the past few weeks by thwarting rebel plans to storm Damascus, pushing them out of key surrounding suburbs, and cutting off their supply lines in different parts of the country.
This recent reversal of fortunes tends to validate the observations of those who have met with Assad and say the president remains confident that he can repel rebel forces whenever and wherever he chooses to do so.
Which frankly removes a major “motive” from any calculation by the Syrian government to use chemical weapons against civilians.
The constant reference to CWs in this conflict is suspect – there is no conceivable military advantage to be gained from the use of these munitions. Writing for Foreign Policy in December, Charles Blair says using CWs against rebels makes no tactical or strategic sense:
“The regime would risk losing Russian and Chinese support, legitimizing foreign military intervention, and, ultimately, hastening its own end. As one Syrian official said, ‘We would not commit suicide.’”
In fact, there is plenty of evidence that the government has calibrated its military responses throughout this conflict to avoid scenarios that would create a pretext for foreign military intervention on “humanitarian grounds.”
Just as there is evidence aplenty that rebel forces will go to great lengths to create a pretext for foreign intervention that would help them oust Assad.
On March 19, a suspected chemical weapons attack near Aleppo prompted the Syrian government to ask the United Nations to launch an investigation. Witnesses reported the “smell of chlorine in the air,” which led to speculation that this could have been a rebel-led attack given that opposition militias had seized Syria’s only chlorine gas bottling plant, east of Aleppo, that August.
The use of chlorine gas-based explosives by insurgents was seen not so long ago in Iraq, where attacks against both authorities and civilians are traceable to 2006. US military spokespeople, at the time, claimed that insurgent tactics had become deadlier, seeking to draw maximum attention and impose widespread suffering.
The Iraq connection and insurgent tactics there are important to the Syrian conflict because of the influx of jihadist rebels flooding over the Iraqi border, bringing with them experience and know-how from fighting the US occupation. That border also allegedly hosts training camps for groups in both countries allied with al-Qaeda – a development that has come to light since a recent announcement linking al-Nusra Front to al-Qaeda’s central group.
The White House’s allegations on Thursday specified a sarin gas connection to at least one other suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria. Even if this were true, a clear-cut connection linking the use of a CW explosive to the Syrian government is not at all inevitable. In 2004, an IED roadside bomb – a common insurgent tactic – containing the nerve agent was detonated in Iraq. There are no guarantees whatsoever that chemical munitions have not found their way into the hands of rogue elements – or in fact that they are not producing them in small quantities themselves.
At this point, almost everything being discussed in relation to chemical weapons inside Syria is conjecture – and to be honest – highly suspect.
The Times of London (which is behind a paywall so I cannot link to it) just published a detailed and timely “investigation” of an alleged CW attack in Aleppo, claiming: “the Syrian regime prefers to gas its opponents in this small-scale way, testing the elasticity of President Obama’s ‘red line.’”
The article then goes on to describe the harrowing account of what appears to be a sarin gas attack from a victim, witnesses, and medical staff. But experts are now questioning these accounts, saying that the evidence is “far from conclusive.”
In reference to the video of the alleged CW attack referenced by The Times, Jean Pascal Zanders, a senior researcher at the European Union Institute for Security Studies, tells McClatchy News that there are red flags in the footage.
“Why only one person?” he said, referring to the video showing one patient it said was a victim. “Why do I find the hospital setting, again, unlike what I would expect in a case of chemical exposure? Why is the guy ‘foaming’ in the hospital, considering the rapid action of sarin.” Zanders explained that without an antidote, death is possible within one minute after exposure to sarin.”
The Times article then gets even stranger. To quote:
“In the chaos of Syria’s civil war, no hospital in the rebel-held areas has the facilities to test which gas was used. Yet medical sources in northern Syria have told The Times that in the immediate aftermath of the attack a team from “an American medical agency” arrived at the hospital in Afrin. They took hair samples from the casualties for testing at ‘an American laboratory.’
It is likely that these samples formed part of the evidence cited by the US Defence Secretary yesterday.”
Really? A CW attack takes place in the middle of the night in Aleppo, and in its “immediate aftermath” an “American medical agency” arrives to collect samples for testing?
In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Free Syrian Army Chief of Staff General Salim Idriss says that Israel is knowledgeable about the Syrian government’s use of CWs, because the Mossad has agents in the country: “Israel has this information because there are many, many members of security services who are now very active in Syria.”
Idriss is, of course, referencing the statements by Israel this week that kicked off all the recent speculation on Syrian CWs:
Israeli army intelligence analyst Brig. Gen. Itai Brun has been quoted far and wide on this issue, mainly referencing the April Aleppo incident highlighted by The Times and debunked by experts.
It is likely that all the speculation in the past few days revolves around an incident that is looking more and more like the “false flag” operations anti-rebel Syrians have been warning about this past year. Given where the “evidence” is coming from, and the alleged presence of a western or American “medical agency” present on the ground, it is quite remarkable that Washington went full-court press on this.
It is almost as bad as the account in 2011 of a middle-aged, Iranian-American, ex-car dealer who, by virtue of some familial relationship with a member of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, decided to collude with a Mexican drug cartel to plot the assassination of the Saudi ambassador in Washington at a popular DC eatery.
Having just passed the ten year anniversary of an Iraqi invasion and occupation based entirely on false and falsified data on Weapons of Mass Destruction, western media needs not to be asking about “red lines” as much as for iron-clad evidence.
Sharmine Narwani is a commentary writer and political analyst covering the Middle East. You can follow Sharmine on twitter @snarwani.