As a side benefit of being laid up in bed for the last few days, I’ve managed to catch up on the arguments being put forward to the U.S. Congress regarding military intervention in Syria. There were a number of well-polished speeches, feisty comments and even attacks on Obama. Nevertheless, I felt that that the arguments skirted around the important issues and didn’t manage to prove ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ that the Syrian government was responsible for the chemical attacks.
John Kerry, the U.S. Secretary of State, blundered his way through most of the questions but successfully managed to dodge those that required concrete answers. Maybe he’s not as hopeless as everyone makes him out to be. But based on all the statements that were provided, I still don’t see any evidence that would pin the blame on Assad’s forces.
For instance, Kerry said that there were many sources that confirmed the use of chemical weapons, however, when pressed to reveal how many of those sources actually proved Assad used the chemical weapons, he avoided the topic altogether citing regional instability. His answers didn’t surprise me at all, but I was surprised to see that nobody challenged or pushed to have these questions answered. Senator Rand Paul put forward a good series of comments, but even he didn’t manage to push Kerry to reveal any evidence on Assad’s guilt.
It seems as though the U.S. is more concerned about being seen as a ‘Paper Tiger’ rather than establishing Assad’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt prior to military intervention.
There was talk of no “boots on the ground”, but various individuals questioned the effectiveness of such an intervention. After all, it would be pointless targeting the chemical weapons because the strike is likely to spread the toxin into the atmosphere causing even more harm. At best, the strikes would need to hit conventional targets in the hope of deterring Assad from further (alleged) use of chemical weapons. It is likely that a land-based attack would still be necessary in order to remove or neutralize the stockpiles.
Let’s not forget that the use of force against Assad’s army and positions is only justified if he is responsible for the attacks. When pushed for answers, Kerry was quick to hide behind a nine-page declassified French intelligence report released on Monday that claimed to show that Assad’s forces launched the attack.
With my limited French, I blundered through the original report and then studied a machine translated version for sections that I couldn’t fully grasp. I was expecting to see the evidence, instead, I found paragraphs containing only inconclusive statements. True, there was a list that outlined which chemical weapons Assad is said to be in possession of, such as: VX gas, sarin and mustard gas, but that’s as far as it went.
The report eluded to the fact that only government forces would be in a position to handle the neurotoxins and that rebel groups lacked any know-how. But even this is sketchy and misleading since most modern chemical weapons are fully sealed and ready for deployment. Even binary chemical weapons, those which consist of two chemicals that are mixed just before or at the time of deployment, can be housed within sealed artillery shells and released as standard munitions. Just take a look at the M687 which the US was still stockpiling till 1997 – you certainly don’t need a chemistry degree or a hazmat suit to fire this type of projectile.
Not even the recently declassified U.S. report, “Government Assessment of the Syrian Government’s Use of Chemical Weapons on August 21, 2013” released by the White House, managed to argue the point further. The closest they got to proof was to suggest that the opposition lacks the capability to flood the social media with fictitious videos:
We assess the Syrian opposition does not have the capability to fabricate all of the videos, physical symptoms verified by medical personnel and NGOs, and other information associated with this chemical attack.
Of course, any sane person could tell that this whole statement is flawed because the Syrian opposition doesn’t need any capability to fabricate the videos. All they [the opposition] need to do, or anybody else for that matter, is fire off a few artillery shells containing the nerve agents. The public, social media and NGOs can take care of the rest. There you have it, evidence. How can a video of symptoms be equal to evidence against Assad? It merely proves that chemical weapons were used.
Getting the U.N. inspection team into Syria was necessary, but I was confused as to why the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said:
The mandate of this team is to determine the use of chemical weapons – whether there was or not the use of chemical weapons. It’s not to determine who has used against whom. We do not have that kind of mandate at this time.
If you’re going to all the trouble of sending an inspection team to Syria, in addition to verifying that a chemical attack took place, wouldn’t the U.N. be interested in establishing who was responsible? After all, if the earlier mentioned U.S. report is anything to go by, we already have so called evidence from “videos, physical symptoms verified by medical personnel and NGOs” that confirm the use of chemical weapons. What exactly was the inspection team’s role here?
I feel for the Syrian civilians caught up in the middle of this conflict and wish for a quick end to all the suffering. But as far as evidence is concerned, I’m not convinced.
We’ve heard of “high confidence” and “highly credible” evidence that led to military intervention; intervention that was later proved to be unjustified. How is this situation any different? At best, everything that’s been presented points to flimsy hearsay.
Evidence or not, it’s important to keep in mind that the use of force is lawful only when in exercise of self-defense in accordance with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter and/or when the Security Council approves such action — NOT whenever the U.S. feels like it.