After several days of dilly-dallying and international pressure, the Syrian government has agreed to permit a team of United Nations experts to visit rebel-held suburbs of Damascus – scene of an apparent chemical attack last week. One immediate consequence has been to overshadow all previous chemical attacks which the UN inspectors had gone there to investigate. The debate in the western media and official circles has turned to the latest atrocity – "a chemical attack" carried out by Assad forces. It is odd that politicians in London and Paris should be so certain before independent information was available, and the UN team was able to visit the area.
An intense propaganda battle is under way alongside Syria's murderous war. For several days, Assad's government was resistant to allowing UN inspectors into the area. The opposition was eager to guarantee them safe passage through parts it controls. Then the French charity Medicines Sans Frontieres (MSF) said it had reports that a neurotoxic agent was apparently used in the attack.
More than 3,500 patients had symptoms of gas poisoning, and about 350 victims had died in three hospitals that the charity supports in Damascus. The MSF director Bart Janssens was cautious in saying that he "can neither scientifically confirm the cause … nor establish who is responsible". But his comments probably forced the Syrian government to respond. Damascus claimed that its troops had entered "the tunnels of the terrorists" and discovered "chemical agents". Government forces were supposed to have been busy rescuing "people who were suffocating".
Tragedy and propaganda often are close companions in war. More reasonable voices have argued that, given the circumstances, the "burden of proof" lies with President Assad. His government had an obligation, legal and moral, to let the UN experts travel to the site, only a short drive from the centre of Damascus. Of course, the possibility of an al-Qaeda-affiliated group being responsible could not be ruled out. In a sign that some elements in the Syrian opposition had chemical agents, Turkish police were reported to have found sarin gas with members of al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda associate fighting in Syria, and had made a number of arrests last May.
A theatre of war such as Syria, with competing players, has many risks of escalation, but two are particularly potent. One is a propensity of those who are already committed to seeing only what fits their argument; the other a tendency to resort to reasoning that sounds too earnest to be objective and credible. After the experience of Iraq, those interested in truth instead of geopolitical gain should be weary of excessive ideological commitment and immoderate sincerity. For both tendencies are partly responsible for the mess in the Middle East.
Without the UN chemical weapons experts inspecting the site, questioning the parties and examining the evidence, President Assad and the opposition must expect some fingerpointing. Delays in the UN team reaching the site would not serve Assad's interest in particular. It is known that certain poisonous agents decompose within a short time, and the longer it takes for the UN experts to gather evidence, the more diluted the evidence. Whose interest is it going to serve?
There is speculation that someone close to Bashar al-Assad may be the mastermind behind the apparent attack. This is what the Syrian opposition would like to see, for nothing less would likely persuade President Obama to order a direct military intervention.
The Independent's Middle East specialist Patrick Cockburn is known for his sceptical reporting about "chemical attacks" of the past. Cockburn wrote that "it is difficult to think of any action by the Damascus government more self-destructive than the Syrian army launching a massive chemical-weapons attack on rebel-held districts in its own capital. Yet the evidence is piling up that this is exactly what happened… and that the Syrian army fired rockets or shells containing poison gas which killed hundreds of people in the east of the city". The opposition may be capable of manufacturing evidence of government atrocities, according to Cockburn, but it is highly unlikely it could do so on such a large scale as this.
An intriguing but opposite analysis came from Dan Kaszeta, a former officer of the US Army's Chemical Corps, now a leading private consultant. Kaszeta argued that a number of vital details were missing from the video footage so far. Writing in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz (paywall), Kaszeta said, "None of the people treating casualties and photographing them are wearing any sort of chemical-warfare protective gear," and "despite that, none of them seem to be harmed".
In this fog of confusion, two fundamental questions remain, and they are unlikely to be answered conclusively until the UN investigations are complete. The first question concerns whether chemical weapons were indeed used; the second is about the identity of those responsible for the attack.
Let us suppose that a neurotoxic agent was used, as a respected charity like MSF has suggested. Then who carries the responsibility? Was it an act of Syria's Baathist leadership that felt emboldened by strong Chinese and Russian opposition to Western moves to get the Security Council's approval for military action in Syria? Or was it the work of some fringe opposition group, desperate to provoke a Western response against the Assad regime?
Did someone in Assad's inner circle think that the mood in Washington and London had turned decisively against Islamists in the Middle East, as Egypt's military coup and its aftermath indicated? Or did someone in the opposition believe that President Obama, under pressure from domestic hawks and Britain and France, could be forced to change his mind? Did Damascus calculate that the United States would not intervene if no Security Council approval was forthcoming? Or was there a calculation of some among the adversaries that Obama's reluctance was temporary? Such questions will linger whatever else happens in coming days and weeks.
Deepak Tripathi, fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, is a British historian of the Middle East, the Cold War and America in the post-Soviet world.