Accusations Continue, But Still No Evidence of a Syrian Military Gas Attack

By Stephen Gowans

Two days after a possible chemical weapons attack in Syria we know that:

• The United States does not have “conclusive evidence that the (Syrian) government was behind poison-gas attacks.” [Wall Street Journal, 1]
• “Neither the United States nor European countries…have a ‘smoking gun’ proving that Mr. Assad’s troops used chemical weapons in the attack.” [New York Times, 2]
• The State Department doesn’t know “If these reports are true.” [New York Times, 3]
• The White House is trying to “ascertain the facts.” [Wall Street Journal, 4]

All the same, the absence of evidence hasn’t stopped the Pentagon “from updating target lists for possible airstrikes on a range of Syrian government and military installations”; [5] hasn’t stopped Britain and France from accusing the Syrian government of carrying out an atrocity; and hasn’t diminished the enthusiasm of newspaper editors for declaring Assad guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt.

“There is no doubt,” intoned the editors of one newspaper–with an omniscience denied to lesser mortals, including, it seems, US officials who are still trying “to ascertain the facts”—“that chemical weapons were used” and that Assad “committed the atrocity.” [6]

In a editorial, The Guardian avers that the Syrian military “is the only combatant with the capability to use chemical weapons on this scale.” Yet The Wall Street Journal’s Margaret Coker and Christopher Rhoads report that “Islamist rebel brigades have several times been reported to have gained control of stockpiles of chemicals, including sarin.” [7]

That might account for why the White House admitted two months ago that while it believed chemical weapons had been used in Syria, it has no evidence to indicate “who was responsible for (their) dissemination.” [8]

And given that the US president claimed chemical weapons use by the Syrian military would be a red line, the rebels have a motivation to stage a sarin attack and blame it on government forces to bring the United States into the conflict more forcefully on their side.

For the Syrian government, however, the calculus is entirely different. Using chemical weapons would simply hand the United States a pretext to more muscularly intervene in Syria’s internal affairs. Since this is decidedly against Damascus’s interests, we should be skeptical of any claim that the Syrian government is defying Obama’s red line.

Another reason for skepticism: Why use chemical weapons to produce the limited number of casualties that have been attributed to chemical agents use in Syria, when conventional weapons can just as easily produce casualties of the same magnitude—without proffering an excuse to Western countries to launch air strikes?

Last month, the New York Times’ Rick Gladstone reported on a study which “found evidence of crudely manufactured sarin, a nerve agent, delivered via an unguided projectile with a crude explosive charge — not the sort of munitions stockpiled by the Syrian military.” [9]

So, no, the Syrian military is not the only combatant capable of using chemical weapons in Syria. But unlike the rebels, it has no motive to do so, and compelling reasons not to.

That’s not to say that chemical weapons were used, rebel forces used them, and the Syrian military did not. The evidence is murky.

But that’s the point. The rush to blame the Syrian military, and to update target lists for possible airstrikes, on the basis of no evidence, smacks of political motivation.

Clearly, the United States, France and Britain want public opinion on their side for stepped up intervention in Syria. They’ve decided to declare Assad and the Syrian military guilty of using a weapon of mass destruction.

But the conviction of guilt, as is evident through the statements of politicians and reporting of newspapers, rests on no sound evidentiary basis—indeed, on no evidence at all.

1. Adam Entous, Julian E. Barnes and Inti Landauro, “U.S. weighs plans to punish Assad”, The Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2013
2 Mark Landler, Mark Mazzetti and Alissa J. Rubin, “Obama officials weigh response to Syria assault”, The New York Times, August 22, 2013
3. Landler, Mazzetti and Rubin.
4. Entous, Barnes and Landauro.
5. Entous, Barnes and Landauro.
6. “Syria: chemical weapons with impunity”, The Guardian, August 22, 2013.
7. Margaret Coker and Christopher Rhoads, “Chemical agents reflect brutal tactics in Syria”, The Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2013
8. Statement by Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes on Syrian Chemical Weapons Use, June 13, 2013,
9. Rick Gladstone, “Russia says study suggests Syria rebels used sarin”, The New York Times, July 9, 2013

7 thoughts on “Accusations Continue, But Still No Evidence of a Syrian Military Gas Attack

  1. Niel,I still dont get how you would think that the russian leadership would come to the aid of the Syrian government if attacked by the US when the russian leadership cant or wont come to the aid of its beleaguered citizens in the eastern ukraine.I think you should look for other reasons the US hasnt bombed Syria other than a fear of the current russian leadership.

  2. I suspect you’ve been scared (by the unconvincing bluster) into forgetting many things. Here are four of them

    1. The Superpower myth hasn’t been put to the test since America was fought to a standstill in Korea.
    2. The myth’s foundations rest on nothing more spectacular or courageous than smearing the leader of a military midget and using the lies to justify destroying that country’s ability to function.
    3. Russia (and China) are on the same regime-change/breakup list as Iraq, Libya, Syria and Iran – albeit right at the tail end.
    4. What the Americans (and their eerily inept friends, UK & France et al) are pretending not to notice is that Russia (and Chine) can no longer afford to ignore the threat posed by US daydreams of super-power-dom and are as ready as they’ll ever be to make a stand.

    I think they will. You think they won’t. Time will tell.

  3. Interesting Neil..However,the current Russian leadership did stuff all when Serbia was being destroyed and even less when Gaddafi was being attacked,why should they leap into action now ?The Russian leadership are whores and are simply not the same as the USSR.No, i dont think imperialism needs to worry too much about Putin and Medvedev.They are class buddies and when push comes to shove they will fold..

  4. Reblogged this on PUMABydesign001's Blog and commented:
    Not to downplay the horrific acts being committed in Syria but is all of this really about the Muslim Brotherhood’s genocidal assault of Coptic Christians in Egypt and Christians in Africa? You know, in don’t look over there, look over here kind of way.

  5. All the same, the absence of evidence hasn’t stopped the Pentagon “from updating target lists for possible airstrikes on a range of Syrian government and military installations”

    Forgive me for laboring the point but statements of this kind are unique to the Americans and beg one of two questions:
    “Why tell us?”
    “Who are you kidding?”

    It seems safe to assume that the Pentagon’s ‘target list’ for Syria predates G W Bush’s nomination of Syria as part of an Axis of Evil in 2001, If the Americans had a coherent and bullet proof plan to add Syria to the list of countries they’ve bombed back to the Stone Age since WWII (to save them from imaginary horrors) they’d be putting it into action, not talking about it. With Russia lurking nearby, it would certainly be sensible for the Pentagon to revise the ‘target list’ – particularly with a view to the possible repercussions should they be unlucky enough to bomb a target of which Russia disapproved.

    Since the Russians have made it clear that they won’t approve of Americans, or anyone else, destroying ‘targets’ in Syria, the most likely result of the Pentagon’s update would have involved reducing the ‘target list’ from several hundred items to none. Or maybe they just dropped it into a shredder. Which ever it was the fact remains that it will probably take quite a while for the Americans to adjust to the fact that their Power was not quite as Super as they imagined, and told us, it was.

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