The document released on the White House web site to “prove” to the American people that the Syrian government had used poison gas — allegedly the neurotoxin Sarin — to kill hundreds of civilians, is so flawed and lacking in real proof that if it were being used to make a case against a terrorist group it would be too weak to justify an indictment.
For starters, there is no documentary proof offered. Only assertions about evidence which is never actually shown. No maps. No satellite or aerial spy-plane or drone surveillance photos. No identified witnesses with verifiable expertise. All there is in this document is a narrative with assertions like: “The United States Government assesses with high confidence that the Syrian government carried out a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs on August 21, 2013.”
There are coy explanations for the lack of any hard evidence, like: “To protect sources and methods, we cannot publicly release all available intelligence – but what follows is an unclassified summary of the U.S. Intelligence Community’s analysis.”
Remember, we’re talking about a debate over whether to have the US launch a war of aggression against a sovereign nation that poses absolutely no risk either to the US or even to its allies directly abutting Syria. The reality is that this is about launching a war against a country wracked by civil war, not a country that is threatening its neighbors, or US interests and citizens. And make no mistake, a major US bombing campaign against Syria will not be clean and precise. Hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of innocent Syrian men, women and children will be killed, whether by errant bombs and rockets, or by accurate ones that hit targets located near residences.
The first section of the report is devoted to trying to make the case that poison gas, and specifically Sarin, was used in a suburb of Damascus. No actual evidence is presented, though certainly there is evidence available — specifically the reports of physicians working in Syria with Doctors Without Borders. Why those doctors are not identified is never explained, but perhaps it is because to do so would make the lack of identifiable sources for the rest of the argument all the more blatant. In any event, it is probable that Sarin was used and that a considerable number of people were killed or injured by the chemical, but that is no casus belli, since it is not at all clear who is responsible for the release of the deadly chemical–the Syrian government, the rebels, or, as retired Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Bush Secretary of State Colin Powell has suggested, Israel.
Moving along, the White House document becomes even more opaque and useless.
In the “proof of use” section of the precis, the White House writes: “A large body of independent sources indicates that a chemical weapons attack took place in the Damascus suburbs on August 21.”
Not one of those independent sources is identified. Yet on the basis of this vague assertion, the document goes on to say: “We assess with high confidence that the Syrian government carried out the chemical weapons attack against opposition elements in the Damascus suburbs on August 21. We assess that the scenario in which the opposition executed the attack on August 21 is highly unlikely.” Lest anyone think that this falls a good deal short of “proof” or “certainty” or, to use a phrase from the Bush-era campaign for an invasion of Iraq over non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction, a “slam dunk,” the White House goes on to say: “ Our high confidence assessment is the strongest position that the U.S. Intelligence Community can take short of confirmation.”
Actually, what they are saying here is that they do not have confirmation. The rest of the section is just obfuscatory verbiage.
The next section, headed “Background,” makes the entirely circumstantial argument that the Syrian government, and specifically President Bashar al-Assad, was responsible for a Sarin attack in Damascus on Aug. 21 because a) Syria has stockpiles of gas weapons, b) it has used small amounts of poison gas against rebel fighters (no examples given), c) it uses gas when it is caught in a battle stalemate (no examples given), and d) the opposition rebels have never used Sarin (this last point is a deliberate falsehood, since the administration certainly is aware that Carla del Ponte, chief investigator with the UN Human Rights Commission, has reported publicly that Syrian rebels used Sarin gas against civilians last March).
Again, all the arguments are fact and evidence-free, and the inclusion of a falsehood should make any reader particularly skeptical. Besides, there is an excellent, well sourced report from a US publication, Mint Press News in Minnesota, that suggests it was rebel forces which were responsible for the Aug. 21 poison gas, which may have been unintentionally detonated by fighters who didn’t know how to handle toxic weapons allegedly provided by Saudi Arabian intelligence sources.
Under the section titled “Preparation,” the document says” “We have intelligence that leads us to assess” that the Syrian military was preparing to use Sarin gas.” This so-called intelligence includes: “streams of human, signals and geospatial intelligence” allegedly indicating that military personnel were active in an area said by the administration (again on the basis of no evidence offered) to be where Sarin stocks were stored, and that they were wearing gas masks. Not a single photo, reported “signal,” or identified source was given to substantiate these evidentiary claims.
Finally, under the heading “The Attack,” the administration writes that: “Multiple streams of intelligence indicate that the regime executed a rocket and artillery attack against the Damascus suburbs in the early hours of August 21.” That fact in and of itself would mean nothing as Syrian forces have been using tactical rocket fire and artillery against rebel forces for two years running. But then the White House writes, ominously, that these rocket and artillery attacks included “rocket launches from regime controlled territory early in the morning, approximately 90 minutes before the first report of a chemical attack appeared in social media.”
Let’s think about that a moment. 90 minutes is a long time. We’re talking about rockets that land within seconds of launch, and explode on impact. In an age of cell phones and other “social media,” why would it take 90 minutes from that particular rocket launching event for a “first report” of a chemical attack? Is that remotely credible? Why didn’t the administration at least address that peculiar time lapse?
The paper goes on to offer as evidence, some 100 videos it collected from the internet purporting to show visual evidence of the poison gas attack. It goes on to say, “We assess the Syrian opposition does not have the capability to fabricate all of the videos, physical symptoms verified by medical personnel and NGOs, and other information associated with this chemical attack.”
Reading between the lines here, we can assume with, as the White House would put it, “a high degree of confidence,” that many of those videos are in fact fabricated. Since we are not offered even one to view, the assumption might be reasonably made that none are reliable.
In fact, there is no evidence presented in this administration document to support the whole poison gas attack scenario; only assumptions and assertions by the administration based upon evidence which we are told exists but that we cannot see. We are, in other words, being expected to trust the White House. As the administration puts it: “As indicated, there is additional intelligence that remains classified because of sources and methods concerns that is being provided to Congress and international partners.”
Except that at least when it comes to those foreign “partners,” Washington is still not sharing the classified evidence. We know this because in the Aug. 29 presentation made by British Prime Minister David Cameron in his failed attempt to win parliamentary approval for the UK to join the US in a Syrian attack, there was no hard evidence provided, and certainly if any foreign country would have been privy to any hard evidence in the hands of US intelligence, it would have been Britain, and it would have been used by PM Cameron to win the support of Parliament. As well, Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that his US “partner,” in a presentation made to the Russian government, provided no evidence to support the charge that Syria had used Sarin gas.
In a statement made after the US released its intelligence report, Putin said: “I am convinced that (the chemical attack) is nothing more than a provocation by those who want to drag other countries into the Syrian conflict, and who want to win the support of powerful members of the international arena, especially the United States.” He went on to scoff at alleged US intercepts of Syrian communications, saying that such flimsy, ambiguous evidence should not be relied upon in making “fundamental decisions” about using military force against another nation.
As for Congress, after a closed session Sunda in which the White House made its case for war, members reportedly exited the room with some saying the case had not been made and that the evidence presented was sketchy. As Rep. Bennie Thompson, top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee put it, “”In terms of whether not a lot of questions were really answered today? I’d say no.”
Something smells here. If this is the best the White House can come up with to make a case for starting a war with a country that poses no threat to the US, at a time when a majority of Americans opposes starting yet another war in the Middle East, and when most of the world, including America’s closest allies, are backing away from support for an attack, the conclusion has to be that there is no real case against Syria.
Rather, President Obama appears to have oratorically backed himself into a corner by saying he would bomb Syria for what he insists is a war crime it has committed, and now he feels he has to attack, committing an even more serious war crime, in order to defend his “credibility” as a leader.
DAVE LINDORFF is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).