Which Syrian Chemical Attack Account Is More Credible?

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Has Secretary Kerry made a compelling case with evidence?

[Global: Middle East]

Let's compare a couple of accounts of the mass deaths apparently caused by chemical weapons in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on August 21.

One account comes from the U.S. government (8/30/13), introduced by Secretary of State John Kerry.

The other was published by a Minnesota-based news site called Mint Press News (8/29/13).

The government account expresses "high confidence that the Syrian government carried out a chemical weapons attack" on August 21. The Mint report bore the headline "Syrians in Ghouta Claim Saudi-Supplied Rebels Behind Chemical Attack." Which of these two versions should we find more credible?

The U.S. government, of course, has a track record that will incline informed observers to approach its claims with skepticism–particularly when it's making charges about the proscribed weapons of official enemies. Kerry said in his address that "our intelligence community" has been "more than mindful of the Iraq experience"–as should be anyone listening to Kerry's presentation, because the Iraq experience informs us that secretaries of State can express great confidence about matters that they are completely wrong about, and that U.S. intelligence assessments can be based on distortion of evidence and deliberate suppression of contradictory facts.

Comparing Kerry's presentation on Syria and its accompanying document to Colin Powell's speech to the UN on Iraq, though, one is struck by how little specific evidence was included in the case for the Syrian government's use of chemical weapons. It gives the strong impression of being pieced together from drone surveillance and NSA intercepts, supplemented by Twitter messages and YouTube videos, rather than from on-the-ground reporting or human intelligence.

Much of what is offered tries to establish that the victims in Ghouta had been exposed to chemical weapons–a question that indeed had been in some doubt, but had already largely been settled by a report by Doctors Without Borders that reported that thousands of people in the Damascus area had been treated for "neurotoxic symptoms."

On the critical question of who might be responsible for such a chemical attack, Kerry's presentation was much more vague and circumstantial. A key point in the government's white paper is "the detection of rocket launches from regime-controlled territory early in the morning, approximately 90 minutes before the first report of a chemical attack appeared in social media." It's unclear why this is supposed to be persuasive. Do rockets take 90 minutes to reach their targets? Does nerve gas escape from rockets 90 minutes after impact, or, once released, take 90 minutes to cause symptoms?

In a conflict as conscious of the importance of communication as the Syrian Civil War, do citizen journalists wait an hour and a half before reporting an enormous development–the point at which, as Kerry put it, "all hell broke loose in the social media"? Unless there's some reason to expect this kind of a delay, it's very unclear why we should think there's any connection at all between the allegedly observed rocket launches and the later reports of mass poisoning.

 

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