Readers who follow our debates here know that I am a naysayer on U.S. intervention in Syria because I believe there are no vital American interests at stake. For us, the so-called rebels, dominated by Sunni Islamic supremacists (prominently including the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda affiliates) are every bit as bad as, if not worse than, the Iran-backed Assad regime. We have no interest in either side’s winning; in fact, since the conflict is weakening both of them, our interests are served by staying out of the way as long as they insist on having at each other.
The pro-intervention camp, which is led by Senator McCain (he of the equally unwise Libyan intervention that brought us Benghazi), now includes NR’s editors (albeit with a good deal less enthusiasm). This camp contend that the case for American involvement (actually, more American involvement — we are already quite involved) has been strengthened by the Assad regime’s reported use of chemical weapons. Unfortunately, as I countered last week, this case is more premised on a reckless remark made by President Obama than any real American interest. As is his wont, Obama said something he did not mean for purposes of political expediency, namely, that the regime’s use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” for him, and thus counsel a shift toward (more) intervention in behalf of the rebels. But as I pointed out in last week’s post, (a) it is by no means clear that the regime used chemical weapons, (b) even if it did, the kinds of weapons it uses do not alter the anti-American character of the opposition, and (c) the al-Qaeda elements of that opposition have sought chemical weapons for decades (and, by the way, would be a lot more likely to use them against us than would Assad).
Now, a U.N. investigation is alleging that it was the rebels, not Assad, who used chemical weapons. As reported yesterday in the Hill:
United Nations human rights investigators said Sunday they have gathered testimony from outside Syria suggesting rebels, not Bashar Assad’s regime, may have used chemical weapons.
“Our investigators have been in neighboring countries interviewing victims, doctors and field hospitals and, according to their report of last week which I have seen, there are strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas, from the way the victims were treated,” Carla Del Ponte, a member of the independent commission of inquiry on Syria, told Swiss-Italian television. “This was use on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities.” . . .
Don’t get me wrong. I would not exactly bet the farm on a U.N. investigation. The Assad regime has the open backing of Iran and the quiet support of Security Council members Russia and China. The U.N. has a history of phonying up evidence in order to derail American action. Moreover, Obama clearly does not want to get more involved in Syria, and the administration could well (and cynically) be working behind the scenes to exculpate Assad in order to reduce the pressure for more American action. There could be plenty of shenanigans going on to influence the U.N. report. On the other hand, though, there has been no compelling demonstration that Assad’s forces used sarin gas. Secretary Chuck Hagel put the intelligence community’s take on the possibility at “some degree of varying confidence” — not exactly a lock. For all we know, the U.N. investigators could be on to something.
The sad reality is: Every major actor in this process has a penchant for politicizing intelligence. We are probably not going to know what happened. What is apparent is that, in the absence of strong U.S. interests, it would be foolish to premise costly American action on a claim of dubious validity.