The Assad smokescreen

In an interview with Der Spiegel this week, Bashar al-Assad was questioned about the August 21 chemical weapons attack outside Damascus:

SPIEGEL: President Obama said after the investigation into this crime by the United Nations that there was “no doubt” that your regime used chemical weapons on Aug. 21 in an attack that killed more than 1,000 people.

Assad: Once again, I dare Obama to give a single piece of evidence, a single shred. The only thing he has is lies.

SPIEGEL: But the conclusions of the UN inspectors …

Assad: What conclusions? When the inspectors came to Syria, we asked them to continue the investigation. We are hoping for an explanation of who is responsible for this act.

SPIEGEL: Based on the trajectory of the rockets, it is possible to calculate where they were fired from — namely the positions of your Fourth Division.

Assad: That doesn’t prove anything, because the terrorists could be anywhere. You can find them in Damascus now. They could even launch a missile from near my house.

SPIEGEL: But your opponents are not capable of firing weapons containing Sarin. That requires military equipment, training and precision.

Assad: Who said that they are not capable? In the 1990s, terrorists used Sarin gas in an attack in Tokyo. They call it “kitchen gas” because it can be made anywhere.

SPIEGEL: But you really can’t compare these two Sarin attacks — they aren’t comparable. This was a military action.

Assad: No one can say with certainty that rockets were used — we do not have any evidence. The only thing certain is that Sarin was released. Perhaps that happened when one of our rockets struck one of the terrorists’ positions? Or perhaps they made an error while they were handling it and something happened.

“… some of the fighters handled the weapons improperly and set off the explosions” — remember that line?

It comes from the infamous Mint Press report that has since been disowned by Dale Gavlak, but whose name still appears in the byline.

So, here we have the Syrian president on the one hand asserting that there isn’t a “single piece of evidence” implicating his regime in the chemical attack, while on the other hand churning rumors about the attack first promulgated by a small website in Minnesota.

The Syrian state still retains significant power, yet apparently when it comes to the challenge of gathering evidence about the August attack it’s only tool of investigation is the internet.

Some observers might counter that in this case, since the location of the attack remains under rebel control, the regime can do no more than cite media reports, but this method of deflecting accusations by citing contrary claims from the media, long predates the revolution.

Back in 2007, after it was revealed in the Western media that on September 6, Israel had launched an attack on what was claimed to be a nuclear reactor under construction in the Deir ez-Zor region, the Syrian Vice-President Faruq Al Shara refuted the claim by asserting that the Arab Center for the Studies of Arid zones and Dry lands had in fact been the target. AFP quoted him:

“The images prove that the target that was attacked by air force jets in Syria was an academic research centre for the study of arid soil,” Shara told a news conference in Damascus.

“The last report appeared in European, American, and also a few Arab media outlets, and it noted that the attack was carried out at a research centre in Deir Ezzor.

“When I saw the photograph, it became evident that we were talking about the Desert Lands Research Center, a center that belongs to the Arab League. This is the picture, you can see it, and it proves that everything that was said about this attack was wrong.”

When the center itself denied that it had been attacked, Assad — in an interview with the BBC — claimed that the target had been an unused military building.

But if the Syrian government genuinely had nothing to hide, it had no need to rely on second-hand evidence or unsubstantiated claims — it could have swiftly invited international media to visit the site of the Israeli attack and also brought in UN inspectors to confirm that a nuclear reactor had not been under construction. After all, the IAEA strongly objected to Israel’s unilateral action, arguing that Israeli and U.S. concerns should have triggered IAEA inspections while the facility was still intact.

But instead of jumping on an opportunity to show the world that Syria had been the victim of unprovoked aggression, Assad sent in bulldozers to bury the evidence.

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