The real warning in Syrian chemical weapons claims

The speed with which some US politicians and reporters are buying in to claims of chemical weapons attacks in Syria is a reminder to take a hard look at intelligence claims before rushing into another war.

Aleppo Media Center/AP
In this citizen journalism image black smoke rises from a building due to Syrian government forces shelling, in Aleppo, Syria, March 19. The Syrian government and rebel fighters each blame the other for introducing chemical weapons to a battlefield that has already claimed 70,000 Syrian lives, most civilians.

The Syrian government today asked the United Nations to investigate allegations, completely unproven and unsubstantiated to this point, that a chemical weapon of some sort was used near Aleppo earlier this week.

The government and rebel fighters both immediately jumped on those allegations, each blaming the other for introducing chemical weapons to a battlefield that has already claimed 70,000 Syrian lives, most civilians.

"Yesterday I received a formal request from the Syrian authorities requesting a specialized, impartial, and independent mission to investigate the alleged use of chemical weapons," UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told reporters this morning. Mr. Moon said he was working with the World Health Organization, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and other groups to create an investigating team.

There's no question that the Syrian government possesses chemical weapons, and speculation about whether President Bashar al-Assad might decide to use them has long loomed over the country's bloody civil war, as have worries that his government might lose control of its stockpiles to jihadis or criminals.

The US and others have been working for more than a year on contingency plans for dealing with Syria's chemical weapons if there should be regime collapse. The Obama administration has repeatedly insisted their use would mean that Assad had crossed a "red line," strongly implying that America might get directly involved in the war there if they were used.

"Once we establish the facts, I have made clear that the use of chemical weapons is a game changer," President Obama said yesterday in Israel.

So far, facts have been thin. The Christian Science Monitor's Nicholas Blanford reported yesterday that, as best as experts can make out, no chemical weapons were used this week, at least not as they're commonly understood.

Video footage and eyewitness accounts suggest that if a chemical agent was used in a missile attack on Khan al-Aasal that reportedly killed 31 people and wounded more than 100, it was most likely a riot-control agent designed to cause irritation, which is not generally lethal.

“In the end, all I can say with confidence is that whatever the conventional or non-conventional munition was, it was not a CW [Chemical Weapons] agent as defined by the CWC [Chemical Weapons Convention],” says Charles Blair, senior fellow for state and non-state threats at the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists.

But the response from some quarters of the US to the allegations are instructive: Almost exactly a decade after the US decision to invade Iraq to seize chemical and biological weapons stockpiles that turned out not to exist, arguments for war on flimsy or non-existent evidence are still stridently made, with little challenge from US-based reporters. 

On Tuesday night, Rep. Mike Rogers (R) of Michigan, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, took to CNN to declare he was mostly convinced that chemical weapons had been used.

"I have a high probability to believe that chemical weapons were used," he said. "We need that final verification, but given everything we know over the last year and a half, I ... would come to the conclusion that they are either positioned for use, and ready to do that, or in fact have been used ... we need to step up in the world community to prevent a humanitarian disaster we haven't seen since Halabja 25 years ago in Iraq, where they killed 30,000 people with chemical weapons."

Those assertions were not backed up by an offered evidence, nor was the method by which he had determined a "high probability" explained. Wolf Blitzer, the host of the show that Representative Rogers appeared on, did not challenge his assertions or follow up by asking for evidence, moving quickly to ask Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, if she agreed with Rogers. She said she did.

"I agree with the comments that Chairman Rogers has made. We hear all this in a classified session, this is highly classified, we have been advised to be very careful with what we say. I'm told that the White House has been briefed the same thing that we have been briefed. What I said earlier is that the White House has to make some decisions in this. I think the days are becoming more desperate, the regime is more desperate, we know where the chemical weapons are. It's not a secret that they're there and I think the probablities are very high that we're going into some very dark times and the White House has to be prepared."

Mr. Blitzer likewise did not challenge Senator Feinstein's assertions, simply asking her if she thought the US was about to intervene militarily to destroy Syria's chemical weapons. She said she didn't know. Blitzer then asked Rogers if he would support US military action. He said yes, "if we prove beyond a shadow of a doubt" that Syria used chemical weapons.

"Trust us" was essentially the position of US politicians who insisted a decade ago that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was likely to use them. Then, the US press in general did a very poor job of challenging these claims. Feinstein voted in favor of the October 2002 resolution authorizing war against Iraq, saying at the time that "disarming Iraq under Saddam Hussein is necessary and vital to the safety and security of America, the Persian Gulf and the Middle East – let there be no doubt about this."

Rogers likewise voted to authorize the Iraq war.

Lost in all the discussion about what the US, and other global players, should do about Syria's chemical weapons is the toll of the war there with just conventional weapons in play. On top of the 70,000 dead and many more maimed and wounded, more than 1 million Syrians are refugees. In the past two months, about 5,000 Syrians a day have fled to neighboring countries such as Jordan and Turkey.

While a dramatic escalation in the death toll could lead to a strong moral argument for action, it hardly matters if people are dying at the hands of chemical weapons, or mortars, or cluster bombs. They're dying.

At any rate, the US press, the US public, and, yes, US politicians need to do a better job this time in questioning intelligence claims and dire warnings, as the country edges closer to involvement in another war.

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