The U.S. ambassador to Syria says there’s no evidence that chemical weapons were used yesterday. Via NRO, Israel’s minister of intelligence says it’s “apparently clear” that they were used. As you’ll see below, Mike Rogers, who’s probably the best informed Republican pol in the government right now on intel matters, agrees with him. But at least one weapons expert does not:
There are no images of the site of the attack; just of some affected people. These people do not show outward symptoms of a CW attack. Definitely not mustard; definitely not a nerve agent.
There are far too many people, including non-medical staff, around the affected persons. Apart from a surgical mask, nobody wears any protective garment or gas masks. If there would have been a CW attack with one of the agents known (or believed) to be in Syria’s arsenal, then most of the people present would have been fatally or seriously contaminated…
Present-day battlefields are extremely toxic. Many materials may be propelled into the air and inhaled by bystanders. If some (toxic) chemical container were hit by a shell, then bystanders could be badly affected, as we have seen in a variety of recent internal conflicts (former Yugoslavia; Sri Lanka; Iraq; etc.).
The same expert, as well as several U.S. officials, say it’s highly unlikely that the rebels were responsible for any chemical attack. Not so, says Russia, which has been Assad’s most stalwart supporter throughout the war (apart from Iran, of course); they’re backing the regime’s claim that chemicals were in fact used and that the rebels were in fact responsible, which may be Moscow’s desperate attempt to plant enough doubt in the west about culpability to get the U.S. and NATO to think twice about intervening now. Complicating all of this is the fact that, even if a chemical agent was used, it might not have been lethal by design. Remember the last scare story about gas being used in Syria, replete with several fatalities? The culprit in that case was, allegedly, a nonlethal compound known as Agent 15 (or something very similar). Agent 15 is an incapacitating agent, not a weapon of death, although apparently fatalities are possible in cases of extremely adverse reaction. Is that what happened here? Assad’s side fired off something built for crowd control but, either because the space was confined or because the agent itself wasn’t processed properly, it ended up killing some of the targets?
One of the odder elements in the reports of Syrian chemical weapons use since December is that the death toll in each instance hasn’t been very high. They’re supposed to be weapons of mass destruction, but the destruction in each case is comparable to a car bomb. If you’re Assad and you’re prepared to finally take the plunge on WMD, knowing what it will mean for western intervention, why would you limit your initial use to a small-scale attack? If the price of using gas is the U.S. Air Force bombing your palace and your military bases, you should want to make the most of your first strike by using it to try to significantly weaken the opposition, no? And yet we haven’t seen that, although Rogers is clearly worried about it. Let me re-pose a question from yesterday’s post, too: If U.S. intervention is the chief deterrent against Assad using WMDs, what happens if we take Rogers’s advice and intervene now over a dubious incident yesterday in Aleppo? What’s left at that point to deter Assad from unloading his chemical weapons arsenal? As things stand now, there’s some small chance he’ll end up as the ruler of an Alawite enclave inside what’s currently known as Syria per a negotiated settlement. If the west commits to attacking him as an WMD outlaw, that possibility is gone; they’ll have to pursue him to the end, partly to save face and partly as an example to other regimes that using WMD means signing your own death warrant. And Assad knows that, so again — if we send in bombers to take out his weapons, what incentive does he have at that point not to use whichever weapons end up surviving the initial bombing run?
As further reading, here’s a nice WaPo piece about how our de facto allies in the Syrian opposition are busy imposing sharia in territories they control. One of the strongholds of the jihadist forces inside the rebel ranks is Aleppo, the same city where the rebels were accused by Assad’s spokesman of using chemical weapons yesterday.
In Syria, both sides have more to gain from the belief that the other side used chemical weapons than from using those weapons themselves.
— Jim Geraghty (@jimgeraghty) March 20, 2013