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Chemical attacks in Syria. Where’s the proof Assad was responsible?

So far, no convincing evidence has been made public proving that Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons to kill hundreds of Syrian people. That has left the door open to alternate scenarios and conspiracy theories.

By Staff writer / September 8, 2013

Members of a UN investigation team take samples of sand near part of a missile. The US insists it has the intelligence to prove a connection between the government of President Bashar al-Assad to the chemical weapons attack last month that killed hundreds of people in Syria. Damascus and its ally Russia push another scenario: that rebels carried out the attack.

United Media Office of Arbeen/AP

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As the Obama administration fights for political and diplomatic support for attacking the regime of Bashar al-Assad over chemical weapons in Syria, one critical issue remains unclear.

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Who, exactly, used these weapons of mass destruction to kill hundreds of Syrians?

So far, no slam-dunk, smoking-gun evidence – the kind that proved to be so elusive in Iraq 10 years ago – has been produced. That has left the door open to alternate scenarios and conspiracy theories about who was responsible – the Assad regime or rebel groups backed by outside forces.

In his initial statement 10 days ago about the use of chemical weapons in Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry was adamant about who was to blame for an attack in the suburbs of Damascus that he said killed 1,429 people, including 426 children.

“We know where the rockets were launched from, and at what time,” Secretary. Kerry said, citing but not detailing intelligence reports. “We know where they landed, and when. We know rockets came only from regime-controlled areas, and went only to opposition-controlled or contested neighborhoods.”
 
“We know that a senior regime official who knew about the attack confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime,” Kerry added.

In blasting what she called a "blatant violation of international law, a war crime, and a crime against humanity,” European Union foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton also pointed a finger at President Assad for the Aug. 21 chemical attack.

"[The Syrian government] is the only one that possesses chemical weapons agents and the means of their delivery in a sufficient quantity," she said Saturday.

Some members of Congress have received classified intelligence briefings, presumably including evidence the Obama administration knows it needs to provide if it’s to win congressional authorization for the use of US military force in Syria.

But publicly, at least, the White House has yet to make its case in any detail, and its latest comments haven’t clarified things.

On Sunday, White House chief of staff Denis McDonough said a "common-sense test" rather than "irrefutable, beyond-a-reasonable-doubt evidence" makes the Syrian government responsible.

"We've seen the video proof of the outcome of those attacks,” Mr. McDonough said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

“All of that leads to a quite strong common-sense test irrespective of the intelligence that suggests that the regime carried this out,” he said. “Now do we have a picture or do we have irrefutable beyond-a-reasonable-doubt evidence? This is not a court of law and intelligence does not work that way. So what we do know and what we know the common-sense test says is [Assad] is responsible for this. He should be held to account."

Part of the problem for President Obama is that showing US evidence in greater detail could reveal sources and methods of intelligence gathering – a problem all administrations have faced over the years, whether it has to do with signals gathering and code breaking, satellite photos, or spies on the ground.

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