Chemical Weapons, Toxic Discourse

In a letter responding to inquiries by Arizona Sen. John McCain, a  hawkish advocate for U.S. intervention in Syria for the better part of two years  (independently of the “chemical weapons” question, which is merely his latest pretext for U.S. involvement), the White House stated that there is intelligence suggesting that chemical weapons have been used in Syria. McCain interpreted this as an admission that the al-Asad regime has crossed the President’s “red line,”  confirming long-held assertions by the British, French, and opposition activists—as well as recent Israeli “intelligence.” According to McCain, the U.S. is left with no credible option except to intervene; a number of other congressmen were quick to jump on that bandwagon.

It is troubling that all of the groups endorsing this intel have an interest in getting the U.S. more deeply involved. Like McCain, France’s Hollande has been a staunch and long-time advocate for international intervention. In Nov. 2012, Britain began moving towards a no-fly zone. Last month, Britain and France declared their intention to begin arming the rebels, defying EU embargoes which forbid this, and showing a total disregard for  the UN’s call to the Arab League and their Western allies to stop providing arms, supplies, and training to the rebels. Israel has been quietly pushing the U.S. towards intervention since August 2012.  So it should not be surprising that these same groups find the “evidence” of Syrian chemical weapons use highly credible: the intelligence has been heavily politicized.  Having reviewed all of the evidence, the U.N. declared that it falls well-below appropriate standards. A review of the Obama Administration’s letter reveals why:

According to the White House,  the intelligence suggests “with varying degrees of confidence” that chemical weapons have been used in Syria—however, it is unclear under what circumstances these weapons were deployed, or by whom–although the Administration assumes it would have been the Syrian government who used them. One small problem: the regime has absolutely nothing to gain in resorting to these tactics. Contrary to the media rhetoric over the last two years, the al-Asad regime is not desperate or on its “last legs.” In fact, it has been steadily gaining ground for months, ever since they decisively crushed a major assault on Damascus in December 2012. The very last thing they would want to do is upset this momentum or risk increased foreign intervention for the sake of killing dozens in a “small scale” attack. They do not need chemical weapons, at the moment.

However, due to this very momentum, paired with their own growing irrelevance within the opposition, the SNC and FSA are in desperate need for more support. They have long been demanding heavy weapons, a no-fly zone, and greater logistical assistance.  They immediately seized upon the White House letter to renew their demands.  The problem? The “physiological evidence” cited in the letter  was provided by the FSA—that is, by the very people trying to leverage this intel into arms and support.  For this reason, the Administration acknowledged problems in the “chain of custody” of the evidence–showing a sensitivity to public distrust after the Iraq invasion, even as the disclosure of the letter to the press was intended to get the public accustomed to the idea of an intervention.

Part of the problem with “red line” talk is that it could incentivize the rebels to deploy chemical weapons and blame the regime in the hopes of spurring Western intervention. The regime has repeatedly accused the rebels of attempting this.  Setting “red lines” for intervention creates these moral hazards, even as the Administration’s rhetoric increasingly paints them into a corner on how to respond to these events.  Of course, if CBS News is to be believed, the U.S.-led  ”master plan” to take Damascus is already underway (since well-before the current controversy), with up to 20,000 U.S. troops being prepared for deployment, rendering it somewhat irrelevant vis a vis U.S. intervention whether or not the regime deployed chemical weapons. But for the record, they probably didn’t.



On 6/13/2013 the Obama Administration officially stated that the al-Asad regime had, in fact, crossed their “red line” by using chemical weapons in Syria. They did not cite any further incidences or new evidence–they simply changed their evaluation on the credibility and significance of the previous evidence. Likely, this move was due to the extraordinary gains by the regime over the last six months, culminating in their decisive victory in al-Qusayr, which made it obvious that the rebels were going to need much more, and more direct assistance in order to ensure regime change in Syria–especially as the Syrian Army is preparing to retake the critical city of Aleppo.

However, this particular pretext is perplexing.

A U.N. investigation into the matter concluded that there was no evidence of the regime having used chemical weapons;  instead, the evidence seemed to suggest that the weapons were deployed by the rebels. These findings were recently complimented by the Turkish government’s arrest of a group suspected of having ties to the al-Nusra Front who were found with Sarin gas in their possession. Of course, far be it for the media to provide any significant questioning on these narratives, despite the similar misinformation that led to U.S. involvement in the Iraq war.  Then, too, the U.S. and the U.N. had diametrically opposed evaluations of WMD evidence–but then, as now, the White House has been putting out an Orwellian version of events, claiming there is no evidence the rebels used the weapons, and strong evidence the regime did. But at least after this invasion, they’ll actually find chemical weapons in Syria, regardless of whether the regime ever used them in this conflict. In fact,  in a rare moment of candor, the White House would go on to admit that the decision to arm the rebels was made weeks ago, and that this “re-evaluation” of the chemical weapons evidence served as a pretext for this action.

What is most disturbing, perhaps, is that these actions are being carried out by Barack Obama, who rose to national prominence precisely because of his vitriolic opposition to the war in Iraq; he argued at the time that the Bush Administration was using Saddam’s tyranny and the threat of WMD’s as a mere pretext for instantiating his vision for the Middle East, manipulating the intelligence towards this end–how the times have changed! On the whole, there has been very little separating the foreign policy of Barack Obama from his predecessor.


Originally published 4/28/2013 on SISMEC
Syndicated 4/29/2013 by Your Middle East
Syndicated 6/14/2013 by Syria Report

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