When it comes to reports of civilian deaths from chemical weapons in opposition-occupied Syrian towns, the Obama White House suddenly claims to be as certain of its own intelligence as the Bush White House was about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction in October 2002. But it is much easier to rush into war, without congressional or popular approval, than it is to get out.
There was far more humility at the Obama White House the last time similar atrocities led the usual suspects to urge the U.S. to become militarily entangled in Syria. Complaining that “Mr. Obama made no response to a previous claim of chemical-weapons use,” a recent editorial in The Economistconcludes that “America’s credibility depends on intervening.” Today, President Obama evidently agrees. But intervening cannot avoid taking sides — helping some favored group of thugs to either seize or retain control of the government (meaning the treasury, army, and police). So, which side is the U.S. supposed to take and why?
The previous claim of chemical-weapons attacks, which The Economist now accuses President Obama of neglecting, occurred in Aleppo on March 13 and 19. One of the four U.N. investigators, Carla Del Ponte, then said the commission had found some evidence only that anti-government rebels may have used chemical weapons, not the government. Even aside from who used which chemicals, there were other war crimes going on in that rebel-occupied area, including an illegal siege, executions, kidnapping, rape, and torture. As the June “Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic”explains, “Since July 2012, anti-Government armed groups in Aleppo have surrounded Nubul and Zahra, blocking food, fuel, and medical supplies to 70,000 residents. As the siege tightened in recent months, the population, especially women and children, began to suffer malnutrition. The wounded and sick cannot receive medical treatment. Persons attempting to leave the villages are often kidnapped, held for ransom, or killed. . . . Torture has been documented in detention facilities run by the Judicial Council and the Shari’a Board in Aleppo.”
War crimes and moral obscenities abound on both sides of the Syrian civil war, with thousands of civilians dead and many more displaced. Ruthless people are involved, with Iran on the Assad government’s side and al-Qaeda among the opposition. As for chemical warfare, the U.N. commission concluded in June that “it has not been possible, on the evidence available, to determine the precise chemical agents used, their delivery systems or the perpetrator” [emphasis added]: “Conclusive findings . . . may be reached only after testing samples taken directly from victims or the site of the alleged attack.”
Four days after the latest claim of a chemical attack, the reprehensible Assad government agreed to let U.N. investigators gather the evidence required to determine what sorts of chemicals were used, how they were delivered, and by whom. Without such an investigation, the general public has little information other than dreadful YouTube videos posted by rebels and activists from the Eastern Ghouta region. Get beyond initial revulsion, though, and it becomes clear that those videos provide extremely ambiguous clues about “the precise chemical agents used, their delivery systems or the perpetrator.”
As the New York Timesreported, “visual evidence uploaded to YouTube makes it clear that a large number of civilians were killed on Wednesday, including women, children and the elderly. What remained unclear was how they died, and whether they were victims of a conventional chemical agent, like sarin or mustard gas, or if their deaths might have been caused by the use of a weaker agent in a confined space. Video shared online shows graphic images of dozens of dead people, including women and a large number of young children, including babies in diapers, most of whom were said to have suffocated.” Note that suffocation is not a primary symptom of sarin (which causes convulsions and vomiting) or mustard (which causes blistering). Suffocation instead points to “a weaker agent in a confined space,” such as a toxic industrial chemical or chlorine, perhaps in schools or buses. The conspicuous absence of vomit on the floors or clothing makes sarin or any other nerve gas an extremely unlikely culprit.
The White House nevertheless claims little doubt about the delivery mechanism (small rockets rather than confined spaces), which is why they have little doubt about the perpetrator. “U.S. spy agencies . . . concluded that the type of rocket used was solely in the possession of regime forces, not the opposition.” That is inconclusive. If U.S. spy agencies actually possess such rockets, not just photos supplied by the opposition, why weren’t the rockets examined to determine the agent used? Since the same rockets are used to deliver conventional explosives, their mere existence (even if discovered at the correct time and place) is insufficient to prove they were filled with illegal chemicals. Moreover, rockets and other weapons from regime forces could have been seized by the opposition in battle, as typical spoils of war.