A third possibility in Syria

The debate over Syria in the US, such as it is, seems to center around whether chemical weapons were used in Ghouta and by whom. The Obama administration says it is convinced that they were used and that the Syrian government did it and that this justifies military action against the Syrian government, though what that action will be and what it seeks to achieve has not been clearly articulated. Furthermore, even if what they say is true, that does not make a US attack on that country legal.

But not everyone is convinced that the US has made its case. In fact, there is a great deal of skepticism all over the globe because as usual, the US simply says, “We have the evidence. Trust us.” Anyone who takes the word of the US and UK governments at face value on matters of war, given their appalling history, is gullible to a dangerous degree. In fact, these two governments have shown themselves to be such liars that they need to meet a higher bar of evidence than what would normally be required. In fact, only an agency completely independent of the US and UK governments can claim any credibility.

Suppose the UN inspectors do report that chemical agents were used. What then?

It may well be true that the Syrian government has the chemical weapons and the ability to deploy them. It is the question of motive that raises questions. From all reports, they were already winning, at least slowly, the war against the rebel forces. They knew that Obama had drawn a ‘red line’ on chemical weapons. The UN inspectors were already in Syria and near Ghouta. So why would they use these weapons at that time and at that place? It just does not seem rational.

On the other hand, the rebels had every motive for using them as a ‘false flag’ operation to draw the US into the war and bolster their own fortunes. The weakness of the case against the rebels is that it is not clear that they have the capacity to manufacture these particular agents and deploy them in the manner shown.

Juan Cole says that there may be a third option that is plausible.

Then Obama’s own intelligence links cast doubt on whether President Bashar al-Assad had actively ordered the chemical weapons attack of August 21, which seems more likely the action of a local colonel who either went rogue or made an error in mixing too much sarin into crowd control gases. The Ministry of Defense seems to have upbraided him.

So if it turns out that a lower–level Syrian military official was responsible and has been reprimanded, where does that leave the US government? I am certain that it will not change US rhetoric in the least and that they will continue to blame the Syrian government by saying that those at the highest levels must be held responsible for the actions of those below them, even if those actions were not ordered at the highest levels..

The fact that this will be a double standard will not faze them in the least because Obama has shown himself to be perfectly comfortable as a hypocrite. After all, the US government is the first to wash its hands of responsibility for any criminal actions taken by its agents, as we can see from the war crimes committed by it in its various wars. Even though people as high as vice president Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were the architects of the torture program run by the US, no high level official was ever punished for that or for the atrocious acts committed at Abu Ghraib, Bagram, Guantanamo, and elsewhere because Obama speciously declared that in those cases “we must look forward, not backward.” How convenient!

It has long been the practice of the US government that it decides what it wants to do for various reasons that it may or may not share with the public wholly or in part, and then manufactures the case for it, lying if necessary. If they can get the UN on board with its action, then the UN is hailed as a force for good. If the UN fails to go along, it is condemned as useless and a waste of money. If the US can get some allies to go along, then it tries to claim multinational legitimacy. If that fails, then it claims that the responsibility to uphold high moral principle has to be borne it alone.

That is the brutal reality of US foreign policy.


  1. machintelligence says

    who either went rogue or made an error in mixing too much sarin into crowd control gases.

    Mismarked munitions or an unauthorized use are far more likely. FFS why would anyone mix nerve agents with crowd control gases?

  2. colnago80 says

    Now how could Prof. Singham miss this one. Former Chief of Staff to Colin Powell, Lawrence Wilkerson, claims that the alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria could have been a false flag operation by Israel (reminiscent of the Lavon Affair in the 1950s). I’m sure that Don Williams, recently given the heave ho over at Ed Brayton’s blog, would salivate over this one. Certainly something that the good professor would find to his liking.


  3. intergalacticmedium says

    Does it matter how children are being murdered? If it is happening on an industrial scale with a revolt being started after peaceful protesters were mowed down in the streets for weeks before they even picked up weapons. Intervention seems like the moral choice to me as in Libya because the rebels have a huge amount of popular support, they need it to fight a modern army like Syrias, controlling 60% of the land area and 40% of the population zones. The neoconservative bullshit is no doubt saturating the system but we can not use it as an excuse for inaction when many lives are at risk and a rational case for entry can be made.

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    colnago80/slc1 @ # 2: … Lawrence Wilkerson, claims that the alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria could have been a false flag operation by Israel …

    Following your link: Wilkerson reportedly made that suggestion about another situation half a year ago. Implying that he said it regarding the present atrocity does not serve any perceptible honest purpose.

    intergalacticmedium @ # 3 – Pls do some thinking about how many children will be murdered directly & indirectly in consequence of US missiles and bombs attacking Syria. Haven’t we already killed enough Arab kids in Iraq, Libya, and Palestine?

  5. colnago80 says

    Fair enough but, if indeed, the first reported use back in May was a false flag operation, who’s to say that the current one wasn’t also? I would argue that the May incident didn’t get the reaction they were looking for so they ramped up the atrocity level.

    Actually, the entire problem with blaming this on Israel is that the officials there are divided on whether the removal of Assad is a good thing. After all, the US and Israel spent the last 40 years tacitly supporting the Assad regime because it kept things quiet on the Golan Highths front.

  6. Jeffrey Johnson says

    what that action will be and what it seeks to achieve has not been clearly articulated.

    There is no way the exact nature of the actions would be publicly released in advance. The general nature has been articulated: this is not an invasion, it is not an attempt to decide the war or sway the outcome one way or the other, it is a limited strike designed for one narrow objective. And that objective has been clearly articulated: it is to deter Assad and others from using chemical weapons in the future. It is a decisive statement that exterminating people like roaches with gas will not be tolerated. It seems like a willful choice to ignore what has been made publicly obvious by saying that the objective has not been clearly articulated.

    Regarding legality, the legality of using chemical weapons is dubious, and at this point, given the brutal carnage that Assad has unleashed against peaceful protests and his unflinching choice to try to maintain power by uncompromising violent destruction of lives, civil concepts like “legality” seem to have been abandoned long ago in this conflict. If someone can make a case that the US intervention is “illegal” it doesn’t much bother me in this case if it manages to prevent further use of chemical weapons. I think Assad’s own criminality means he has sacrificed the rights to be accorded the respect of legal protections.

    the rebels had every motive for using them as a ‘false flag’ operation to draw the US into the war and bolster their own fortunes.

    This is the very obvious first concern of any intelligence analysis of chemical weapons use. Uncertainty about this is exactly the reason why around 30 previous small scale potential usages of chemical weapons did not trigger such a response. And this care has elicited mockery from many observers, claiming this instance is no different from prior instances of chemical weapons use, and that therefore this is proof that there must be some other motivation for attacking now rather than after the previous usages of chemical weapons. Such arguments completely ignore the possibility of such an obvious false flag charade.

    The evidence appears to show that this usage is quite different, being much larger in scale, the body of evidence being too large for the rebels to have fabricated. Plus it is backed up by sattelite data corroborating troop movements and locations corresponding to the unit known to have chemical weapons expertise, and the firing of missiles observed from those troop locations targeting the sites where the awful effects of chemical weapons were documented.

    Regarding the “rogue colonel” theory, I think that shouldn’t matter. The Syrian government, whether under Assad’s explicit direction or not, has stockpiled and maintained the capability to use chemical weapons. This enabled the rogue colonel to act. The actions will target Syria’s ability to use chemical weapons, and will be a punishment for the Syrian government’s usage of chemical weapons, designed to send a message to other governments everywhere. The issue isn’t really whether Assad himself is directly responsible. He’s responsible for that colonel being in charge, and for the weapons being available. The objective is the same whether it was a rogue colonol or Assad who gave the command.

    The fact that this will be a double standard will not faze them in the least because Obama has shown himself to be perfectly comfortable as a hypocrite.

    Not sure what double standard or hypocrisy you are referring to here. If you mean the US tolerating use of chemical weapons by Hussein in the past, that makes the US hypocritical, not Obama, who has never been involved in supporting the usage of chemical weapons. If you mean, as the rest of the paragraph implies, that the US has tried to isolate responsibility for torture by blaming a few rogue prison guards, then yes, that was hypocrisy. The US has been hypocritical throughout its history, just as every other government and person has often been hypocritical. I’m not defending hypocrisy, and we should call it out and criticize it. But hypocrisy is not unique to the US, nor to Obama. I think Obama has been far less hypocritical than the previous US regime.

    Nobody bought the attempt to blame a few bad apples. The United States has suffered immense loss of credibility internationally, and who knows how long it might take us to recover from that? Even if Bush and Rumsfeld and Cheney thought they were deflecting blame, and even if they weren’t prosecuted and jailed as war criminals, the stigma is attached to the United States and everything the US does. We all have paid a price of collective responsibility for what happened, not only for the torture, but for failing to punish the perpetrators. Just as the rogue agent theory has not worked for the US, it shouldn’t work for Syria.

    That Obama did not try to punish Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and other architects of the torture regime is a sore point with me too. I can only say that I don’t know what the consequences might have been if he had tried to do that. Such torture prosecutions might have embroiled the nation in a bitter partisan fight and possibly ended up without any legal consequences against the suspects. The cases were not exactly slam dunks, not because they didn’t do it, but because they may have successfully argued that they did not exceed their authority, as awful as that sounds. We won’t really know the full details of Obama’s decision process on that until long after his Presidency is over. Short story: I think he was damned if he did, and damned if he didn’t, and he tried to choose the least damning. Call it cowardice or realism, depending on your perspective. The impacts of such a move could have extended far beyond just political damage to Obama or Democrats. It could have interfered with everything the government was trying to do, which could have impacted the economy and health care. One has to answer the question, what was more valuable?

    In fact, there is a great deal of skepticism all over the globe because as usual, the US simply says, “We have the evidence. Trust us.”

    To equate this situation with the Iraq WMD situation only works as a very superficial comparison. In that case you had an administration packed full of people who had been aching to invade Iraq and depose Saddam for over a decade. Their motivations were so strong, and they were so certain they were right, that they were willling to do or say anything to accomplish that goal. In that case what was at stake was a massive invasion of a country, and they had fairly transparent motives besides the WMD pretext.

    With Syria, it has not been a decades long priority of anyone in the Obama administration to launch missiles at Syria. If it weren’t for the brutal civil war there, and Assad’s use of chemical weapons, nobody would be thinking about launching missiles at Syria or trying to overthrow Assad. So there existed no advance motive to fabricate justifying evidence. Instead this is a major headache for Obama, who got into this situation because to his credit he feels strongly opposed to the use of chemical weapons and is simply not willing to turn a blind eye. He already had a history as Senator of working to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons and materials, and chemical and biological weapons as well.

    And there is good reason for this that goes beyond Syria. If any usage of chemical weapons in the world leads to such extremely negative consequences as a costly bombing or missile attack in retaliation, it will not only provide deterrence to Assad from using them again, but it means that anyone who has the desire to spend money and effort stockpiling such weapons will think twice about it if it is generally known that using them will lead to such severe consequences.

    If the US has fallen short of this level of moral concern in the past, that doesn’t necessarily constitute an argument for neglecting to take a stand now. So we could really only call this hypocrisy if in fact the entire concern about chemical weapons were completely disingenuous, and being used as a cover in order to acheive some other strategic goal. And it’s hard to see what that would be in this case. Obama is suffering politically from this. The US has nothing really to gain strategically by attacking Assad. Our best options from a pure foreign policy realism stand point appear to be to simply let the Syrians and the regional powers sort this out, while keeping a close eye on things to make sure it doesn’t spread and get out of hand. We simply don’t stand to gain from getting involved, except to the extent that we succeed in deterring futher proliferation and use of chemical weapons on the planet.

    Given that we seem to have little else to gain from an attack on Assad, it seems to me likely that this is really about deterring usage of chemical weapons, not only for Assad but for others, and it seems that is the only possible concrete objective we could acheive by such an attack.

    This Washington Post article by Max Fisher is a good basic informative primer on the situation in Syria, if anyone doesn’t think they are completely up on all the details of what is going on there: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2013/08/29/9-questions-about-syria-you-were-too-embarrassed-to-ask/?tid=pm_pop

  7. 2up2down2furious says

    In response to the pro-war talking point that only Assad had the capability to use CWs, I’ve always brought up that perhaps the rebels allies in the GCC countries or elsewhere, and the MintPress article seemed to buttress my suspicions.

    Having said that, I had never heard of MintPress before reading this article. I don’t know anything about their track record, so I can’t help but be skeptical of the MP account as well. There’s a lot of uncertainty with regard to Syria and given the messiness of the situation and the opacity of just about all actors in the conflict (Syria itself, Iran, Turkey, the USA, Russia, Saudi, etc.) it may be many years before we get the full picture.

  8. Jeffrey Johnson says

    Interesting but it sounds implausible to me that chemical weapons would be delivered so carelessly with nobody trained to handle them being in on the deal. It would mean the Bandar is a complete idiot, which seems unlikely to me.

    One bit at the bottom of the article that deserves mention is the disclaimer: “Some information in this article could not be independently verified. Mint Press News will continue to provide further information and updates .”

    What is not indicated is which information exactly.

    Considering that 1400 people were killed and many more sickened, it doesn’t seem like the result of an “own goal” explosion in a storage tunnel. It sounds like the weapons were dispersed, i.e. skillfully deployed.

    Another bit of information, which our intelligence sources have probably checked, would be who are the victims? Are they Alawites or Sunnis? Is it easy to believe rebels would intentionally kill so many of their own supporters to pull this off? Or could they accidentally kill so many?

    One might also consider that some of the information making it into these articles could easily have been produced by Assad propaganda agents. This would be far easier to do than to stage a false flag chemical attack on this scale.

    I’m not saying I know any of these things to be true. I’m just pointing out that the conspiracy minded approach to this cuts both ways. I have to fall back on the analysis that asks “how would the US benefit from creating a phony story, making a public issue out of these chemical attacks?” Is it really in our best interests to openly attack Syria rather than work behind the scenes through Jordan and Saudi Arabia? Especially when Bandar appears, according to this article, to have so much clout and ability to both fund the rebels and possibly influence and even coerce the Russians?

  9. Pierce R. Butler says

    Golan Heights Schmolan Schmeights – CIA et al rendered uncooperative interrogatees for torture via special flights to Damascus for decades.

    Last I heard, nothing new about this sordid relationship has come out from the present crisis. How nice that Assad and Obama can still find shared interests and lasting discretion in their relationship…

    Mossad apparently does such work in-house, but doubtless has a history in that ancient land kept in files not available to PFCs or new hires.

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