Chemical weapons in Syria: The Obama Administration’s political ploy?

On 13 June President Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor, Ben Rhodes, stated the US had decided to begin directly arming the Syrian rebels. “The president’s calculus” had changed, he said, because US intelligence had concluded Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons.


Ignoring earlier claims by UN Human rights investigator Carla Del Ponte that Syrian rebels have used chemical weapons, a claim repeated by Russia earlier this week, much of the media quickly fell into line, faithfully repeating the White House narrative. The Guardian, that shining beacon of liberalism and reason, said this about the US claims of chemical weapons use: “That use is an outrage and is against international agreements. It adds to the charge sheet against the Assad regime.”


Case closed, then? Not according to the pro-intervention Anthony Cordesman from the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The ‘discovery’ that Syria used chemical weapons may well be a political ploy”, he noted. “It seems very likely that the administration has had virtually all the same evidence for weeks if not months.” Cordesman’s hunch seemed to be confirmed by the Washington Post, which noted the day after the White House’s announcement that “the determination to send weapons had been taken weeks ago.” According to the report “Obama ordered officials in late April to begin planning what weaponry to send and how to deliver it” because of gains made by Syrian government forces.


What about the evidence Assad has used chemical weapons? With the rest of the media booting up their Iraq 2.0 journalism programme McClatchy’s Washington Bureau has actually been doing their job, publishing a report on 19 June titled ‘Chemical weapons experts still sceptical about US claim that Syria used sarin gas’.


“It’s not just that we can’t prove a sarin attack”, said Jean Pascal Zanders, former director of the BioWeapons Prevention Project. “It’s that we’re not seeing what we would expect to from a sarin attack.” Speaking of Philip Coyle, a senior scientist at the Center for Arms Control, the report noted “what happened doesn’t look like a series of sarin attacks to him.” Finally, McClatchy quoted Greg Theilmann, a former intelligence officer at the State Department, who guessed Obama’s claim was correct. However, Theilmann conceded the White House statement “was carefully worded” and acknowledged the lack of a “continuous chain of custody for the physiological samples from those exposed to sarin.”


The Washington Post put yet more holes in the US case the following day. US claims about Assad using chemical weapons “rest on unverifiable claims… according to diplomats and experts”, reported The Post. The story went on to note “the nature of the physical evidence – as well as the secrecy over how it was collected and analysed – has opened up the administration to criticism by independent experts.”


With these expert voices absent from the debate in the UK, YouGov found 60 per cent of the UK public believe Assad’s troops “have probably used chemical weapons”. But while the US and UK Governments seem intent on celebrating the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq by escalating the war in Syria, the general public in both countries are still strongly opposed to sending arms. A June Pew Research Poll earlier found 70 per cent of Americans are opposed to arming the rebels – up from 63 per cent in March 2012. In the UK, a recent Sunday Times poll found just 15 per cent of Britons supported providing arms to the Syrian rebels.


Most people don’t realise many establishment experts are also opposed. A United Nations news report noted that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon argued "More arms would only mean more deaths and destruction.” Javier Solana and Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, both former NATO Secretary Generals, concur: "Western military engagement in Syria is likely to provoke further escalation on all sides, deepening the civil war and strengthening the forces of extremism, sectarianism and criminality gaining strength across the country.”


This public opposition is, of course, the likely reason for what Cordesman describes as the US and UK’s government “political ploy”. Much like the huge propaganda campaign directed against the British public in 2003, today we are once again being told to trust the Western intelligence services.


But the Government have made a tactical error. Ignoring earlier assurances made by his Foreign Secretary, David Cameron now says Parliament might not get a vote on arming the rebels. This is surely a response to the fact the parliamentary arithmetic shows the government may be facing an embarrassing defeat. Therefore it is the job of everyone opposed to arming the rebels to pressure the Government to have the vote – and to pressure the Labour and Liberal Democrat leaderships to stand firm in their current opposition.



Ian Sinclair is the author of ‘The march that shook Blair: An oral history of 15 February 2003’, published by Peace News Press. and

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