To some, U.S. case for Syrian chemical attack has too many holes

McClatchy reports: The Obama administration’s public case for attacking Syria is riddled with inconsistencies and hinges mainly on circumstantial evidence, undermining U.S. efforts this week to build support at home and abroad for a punitive strike against Bashar Assad’s regime.

The case Secretary of State John Kerry laid out last Friday contained claims that were disputed by the United Nations, inconsistent in some details with British and French intelligence reports or lacking sufficient transparency for international chemical weapons experts to accept at face value.

After the false weapons claims preceding the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the threshold for evidence to support intervention is exceedingly high. And while there’s little dispute that a chemical agent was used in an Aug. 21 attack outside of Damascus – and probably on a smaller scale before that – there are calls from many quarters for independent, scientific evidence to support the U.S. narrative that the Assad regime used sarin gas in an operation that killed 1,429 people, including more than 400 children.

Some of the U.S. points in question:

The Obama administration dismissed the value of a U.N. inspection team’s work by saying that the investigators arrived too late for the findings to be credible and wouldn’t provide any information the United State didn’t already have.

U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq countered that it was “rare” for such an investigation to begin within such a short time and said that “the passage of such few days does not affect the opportunities to collect valuable samples,” according to the U.N.’s website. For example, Haq added, sarin can be detected in biomedical samples for months after its use.

The U.S. claims that sarin was used in the Aug. 21 attack, citing a positive test on first responders’ hair and blood – samples “that were provided to the United States,” Kerry said on television Sunday without elaboration on the collection methods.

Experts say the evidence deteriorates over time, but that it’s simply untrue that there wouldn’t be any value in an investigation five days after an alleged attack. As a New York Times report noted, two human rights groups dispatched a forensics team to northern Iraq in 1992 and found trace evidence of sarin as well as mustard gas – four years after a chemical attack.

The U.S. assertion also was disputed in an intelligence summary the British government made public last week. “There is no immediate time limit over which environmental or physiological samples would have degraded beyond usefulness,” according to the report, which was distributed to Parliament ahead of its vote not to permit Britain to participate in any strike.

Another point of dispute is the death toll from the alleged attacks on Aug. 21. Neither Kerry’s remarks nor the unclassified version of the U.S. intelligence he referenced explained how the U.S. reached a tally of 1,429, including 426 children. The only attribution was “a preliminary government assessment.”

Anthony Cordesman, a former senior defense official who’s now with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, took aim at the death toll discrepancies in an essay published Sunday.

He criticized Kerry as being “sandbagged into using an absurdly over-precise number” of 1,429, and noted that the number didn’t agree with either the British assessment of “at least 350 fatalities” or other Syrian opposition sources, namely the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has confirmed 502 dead, including about 100 children and “tens” of rebel fighters, and has demanded that Kerry provide the names of the victims included in the U.S. tally.

“President Obama was then forced to round off the number at ‘well over 1,000 people’ – creating a mix of contradictions over the most basic facts,” Cordesman wrote. He added that the blunder was reminiscent of “the mistakes the U.S. made in preparing Secretary (Colin) Powell’s speech to the U.N. on Iraq in 2003.”

An unclassified version of a French intelligence report on Syria that was released Monday hardly cleared things up; France confirmed only 281 fatalities, though it more broadly agreed with the United States that the regime had used chemical weapons in the Aug. 21 attack.

Another eyebrow-raising administration claim was that U.S. intelligence had “collected streams of human, signals and geospatial intelligence” that showed the regime preparing for an attack three days before the event. The U.S. assessment says regime personnel were in an area known to be used to “mix chemical weapons, including sarin,” and that regime forces prepared for the Aug. 21 attack by putting on gas masks.

That claim raises two questions: Why didn’t the U.S. warn rebels about the impending attack and save hundreds of lives? And why did the administration keep mum about the suspicious activity when on at least one previous occasion U.S. officials have raised an international fuss when they observed similar actions?

On Dec. 3, 2012, after U.S. officials said they detected Syria mixing ingredients for chemical weapons, President Barack Obama repeated his warning to Assad that the use of such arms would be an unacceptable breach of the red line he’d imposed that summer. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton chimed in, and the United Nations withdrew all nonessential staff from Syria.

Last month’s suspicious activity, however, wasn’t raised publicly until after the deadly attack. And Syrian opposition figures say the rebels weren’t warned in advance in order to protect civilians in the area.

“When I read the administration’s memo, it was very compelling, but they knew three days before the attack and never alerted anyone in the area,” said Radwan Ziadeh, a Syrian opposition activist who runs the Washington-based Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “Everyone was watching this evidence but didn’t take any action?” [Continue reading…]

Among the plethora of conspiracy theories around what virtually no one now disputes was a chemical weapons atrocity in Damascus on August 21, the question Ziadeh raises comes closest to what many observers will view as a smoking gun: the idea that Washington received advance notice of the chemical attack and did nothing to prevent it. Why would no one have raised the alarm?

Why, because of course the attack provided the long-sought pretext for U.S. intervention in Syria!

In my struggle against the automatons who keep on relentlessly pressing this pretext argument, I fear that I might tire before they do, but here we go one more time.

The only way the pretext argument makes sense is if one ignores the political evidence that has been accumulating for the last two years. That evidence represents two things:

1. The non-existence of any political will among Western governments to become directly militarily engaged in the war in Syria.

2. Repeated and unambiguous declarations that neither the U.S. nor its allies has any intention of directly intervening.

Intervention in its most assertive form has not risen above commitments to supply opposition forces with weapons and yet even these commitments when made by the U.S. have yet to be translated into action.

There is no evidence that President Obama’s attitude towards Syria differs much from that of the average America — that Syria has come to represent a problem for which no one has a solution; that the war has no impact on America; and that most people would rather ignore what’s happening.

For a man supposedly in search of a pretext to launch another Middle East war, Obama is doing one hell of a job presenting a conflicting image. Having made his momentous decision to launch an attack, he immediately puts off acting on that decision, hands the issue over to Congress but sees no reason why they need cut short their vacation. And likewise, he sees no reason to postpone his next round of golf.

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16 thoughts on “To some, U.S. case for Syrian chemical attack has too many holes

  1. Steve Zerger

    If the intelligence in question was actually provided by Israeli sources after the fact, then the pretext argument works doesn’t it?

  2. Paul Woodward

    U.S. and Israeli interests in Syria become more transparent by the day. No statement is clearer than this line from an editorial in the Jerusalem Post this week:

    [T]he West has no real geopolitical interests in ending the Syrian conflict.

    I don’t know anyone who would dispute that the conflict has reached close to a stalemate. A conflict in stalemate is destined to continue, so why intervene? Especially when such a move has such little public support.

    Obama’s plan to intervene has what is almost certainly an unachievable goal: to make sure Assad guards his CW carefully and never uses them again. And the only reason Obama landed himself in this situation was because he stupidly postured as a tough guy who could lay down “red lines” without recognizing that he’d end up being forced to back up his word.

  3. rosemerry

    I don’t remember the USA threatening to bomb Israel when the 1400 Palestinians in Gaza were killed by Israeli chemical weapons including white phosphorus during “Cast lead”. The recent 1000 Egyptians killed by the US-backed military in Egypt draw no cut in US supplies, but a sudden “red line” has to make the USA, with absolutely no risk of being attacked, jump in and destroy even more lives.

  4. Steve Zerger

    The Israelis are likely more comfortable with Assad than with the potential alternatives. But in their calculus this would be weighed against the possibility of drawing the U.S. into a war against Iran’s proxies with the possibility of enlarging the conflict to include Iran itself. Stalemates can’t go on forever. The calls for a broad, open-ended response for the purpose of changing the overall strategic dynamic of the entire region are already being made – Krauthammer, today’s WSJ and others.

  5. Joe

    But Paul, it was YOU who SUPPORTED the ‘rebels’ for MONTHS on your blog, as you did in Libya.

    I bet you won’t publish my comment.

  6. Paul Woodward

    Supported the rebels — and still do.

    But how is that possible, asks “Joe,” utterly befuddled. Doesn’t supporting the rebels mean supporting a U.S. intervention?

    It could, but not if the intervention that is being proposed looks like it will end up making Assad the beneficiary.

    And let’s be clear, because this point has failed to register among so many observers: the United States government does not want Bashar al Assad to fall from power — at least not until such a time that the U.S. can determine who takes his place. That time is nowhere near.

    This idea “intervention” has been given the status of a religious doctrine. Do you “believe” in intervention? Or, can’t you see that intervention is evil?

    Even among those who are supposedly intervention’s most zealous proponents — people like Samantha Powers — I don’t think they are any where near as zealous as their opponents. In other words, there seem to be some people who regard intervention in any circumstances whatsoever as wrong, whereas there are others who based on the circumstances may sometimes think its appropriate. The ideological proponents of intervention — the people who support intervention any time, anywhere — don’t exist.

  7. Joe

    If you support Salafists, Wahabists and the rag tag army of Gulf Sunni conservative reactionaries,mercenaries , thieves, killers, and criminals that make up the ‘rebels’, then you might aswell throw your lot in with Kerry, Cameron, Obama and Netenyahu then.

    At least you are honest about your hawkish stance.

  8. Joe

    If you support Salafists, Wahabists and the rag tag army of Gulf Sunni conservative reactionaries,mercenaries , thieves, killers, and criminals that make up the ‘rebels’, then you might aswell throw your lot in with Kerry, Cameron, Obama and Netenyahu then.

    At least you are honest about your hawkish stance.

    Bet you won’t post it Paul.

  9. Joe

    Paul wrote – “Supported the rebels — and still do.”

    Care to tell us how you think extreme Salafists and Gulf /UK/US backed mercenaries would run Syria Paul ?
    I am not at all sure what possible good you could see in the ‘rebels.’

  10. Joe

    That’s all very well Paul, but the ‘majority’ rebel force challenging the minority Allawites are not even Syrians for the most part — they are largely Chechen mercenaries, restless and ignorant Saudi Salafi youth, Iraqi Al Qaida (ideal for the murderous job, having been psyschologically devastated by the Iraw War tragedy) , and a rag tag bunch of Libyan ex prisoners, with a lesser number of dysfunctional British and German and Norwegian misfits.

    I dread the Syria these ‘rebels’ are planning to establish.

    As you know, Syria is home to one of the most ancient Christian orders, and a number of other ancient sects exist there — for all his obvious faults, Assad protected them. If the ‘rebels’ succeed with the help of Kerry’s bombs and Cameron’s toxic gas, these sects will be under massive threat.

  11. Joe

    “There’s never been a state in which minority rule is sustainable.”

    That is questionable — governments which rule by force and cliques ( Nth Korea for example) are a minority and they manage to rule a vast majority of their people who rarely wield any power to effect any change whatsoever. Our own Western governments, with their think tanks and loby groups also are a tiny minority and they manage to rule us very well and view the majority with contempt.

  12. Paul Woodward

    It’s very easy to make assertions about the make-up of the opposition and to claim that it is now dominated by foreign elements, but if you’re going to make a statistical claim then you should have some evidence to back it up with.

  13. Paul Woodward

    Mother Agnes Mariam — a Palestinian Christian. No doubt every word that passes her lips is the gospel truth. Or maybe not.

    Irish Times, August 17, 2012
    MARY FITZGERALD, Foreign Affairs Correspondent

    AN ITALIAN Jesuit expelled from Syria in June due to his outspoken criticism of government violence has accused a controversial nun who visited Ireland last week of peddling “regime lies” about the crisis there.

    Fr Paolo Dall’Oglio, who lived in Syria for 30 years and has been heavily involved in interfaith work in the country, described Mother Agnes Mariam as “an instrument” of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. “She has been consistent in assuming and spreading the lies of the regime, and promoting it through the power of her religious persona,” he told The Irish Times yesterday. “She knows how to cover up the brutality of the regime.”

    During her four-day visit to Ireland last week, Mother Agnes Mariam, who is superior at the Melkite Greek Catholic monastery in Syria, gave media interviews in which she claimed Christians in Syria were facing “extinction” and that rebels battling Assad were predominantly foreigners linked with al-Qaeda.

    Fr Dall’Oglio, who has spent time with opposition activists in several restive parts of Syria, said these claims were “ridiculous” and constituted regime propaganda.

    “I have been there, I know the people, including the youth, who are working for the revolution, and I know that what she is saying is insane. It corresponds with the regime version of the facts,” he said.

    Mother Agnes Mariam, who visited Dublin and Belfast, had separate meetings with representatives of the Irish Bishops Conference justice and peace committee, Sinn Féin TD Seán Crowe, Nobel peace laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire, and an official from the Department of Foreign Affairs.

    One of her interlocutors here was taken aback when the nun claimed during their meeting that the Houla massacre, in which more than 100 civilians, more than half of them children, were killed, was an elaborate hoax concocted by rebels. This week a UN commission of inquiry concluded that Syrian government forces and the pro-Assad militia known as shabiha were responsible for the massacre.

    In March, Mother Agnes Mariam was accused of running a “misinformation campaign” by a US-based Syrian opposition group called Syrian Christians for Democracy.

    It said she maintains “close ties” to the Assad family and alleged she had fed selected visiting journalists “distorted facts and fake testimonies for the sole purpose of tarnishing the opposition’s image”.

    The group referred to the role of a number of Christians in the Syrian uprising.

    “Mother Agnes and those helping her are harming the Syrian people by disseminating negative pro-Assad propaganda and tearing at Syria’s social and religious fabrics,” it said. “The Christians in Syria, as well as the rest of the population, are in need of undivided support, backing, and funding. They do not need divisive rumours and the propagation of inaccurate information.”

    Mother Agnes Mariam’s trip to Ireland was organised by Alan Lonergan, who acts as churches liaison officer with Sadaka, an Irish pro-Palestinian advocacy group, though he arranged the visit in a personal capacity.

    “The impression people have of what is happening in Syria is very black and white,” he said. “We need to examine more of the grey area.”

  14. Paul Woodward

    The issue is sustainability. Minority rule means the forcible imposition of inequality. The more forceful that is, the less capable it is of adaptation. Things that can’t adapt — that can’t change in response to the changing conditions around them — eventually break.

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