In other words, victims from one location could have rushed to clinics in other neighborhoods, creating the impression of a more widespread attack than actually occurred. That possibility would seem to be underscored by the divergent findings of the UN inspectors when they took soil and other environmental samples from the southern and eastern areas and got strikingly different results.
The UN inspectors also revealed how dependent they were on Syrian rebels for access to the areas of the alleged chemical attacks and to witnesses, with one rebel commander even asked to take "custody" of the UN inspection.
At the suspected attack sites, the inspectors also detected signs that evidence had been "moved" and "possibly manipulated." Regarding the Moadamiyah area, the UN report noted, "Fragments [of rockets] and other possible evidence have clearly been handled/moved prior to the arrival of the investigative team."
In the Zamalka/Ein Tarma neighborhood, where a crudely made missile apparently delivered the poison gas, the inspectors stated that "the locations have been well traveled by other individuals prior to the arrival of the Mission. ... During the time spent at these locations, individuals arrived carrying other suspected munitions indicating that such potential evidence is being moved and possibly manipulated."
Media's Conventional Wisdom
The UN inspectors did not draw any specific conclusion from their research as to whether Syrian government forces or the rebels were responsible for the hundreds of civilian deaths that resulted from the apparent use of Sarin gas. However, major U.S. news outlets, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, concluded that the findings implicated the Syrian government.
Those accounts cited weapons "experts" as asserting that the type of missiles used and the supposed sophistication of the Sarin were beyond the known capabilities of the rebels. The articles also said the rough calculations by the UN inspectors of the likely missile trajectories suggested that the launches occurred in government-controlled areas with the missiles landing in areas where the rebels dominate.
These mainstream U.S. news reports did not cite the cautionary comments contained in the UN report about possible tampering with evidence, nor did they take into account the conflicting lab results in Moadamiyah compared with Zamalka/Ein Tarma, nor the fact that the OPCW's director-general is a career Turkish diplomat. [For more on rebel capabilities, see Consortiumnews.com's "Do Syrian Rebels Have Sarin?"]
Reinforcing the Assad-did-it conventional wisdom, Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama moved to assign any remaining doubters to the loony bin of conspiracy theorists. "We really don't have time today to pretend that anyone can have their own set of facts," Kerry sniffed in response to continuing Russian government's doubts.
President Obama drove home the same point in his annual address to the UN General Assembly: "It's an insult to human reason and to the legitimacy of this institution to suggest that anyone other than the regime carried out this attack."
Yet, the doubters reportedly include U.S. intelligence analysts, who I'm told have briefed Obama personally about the uncertainty of the evidence. Clearly, if the Obama administration had the entire intelligence community onboard, there would have been no need for such a dodgy dossier as the "Government Assessment" posted by the White House press office on Aug. 30, rather than a National Intelligence Estimate that would have reflected the views of the 16 intelligence agencies and been released by the Director of National Intelligence.
Doubts in the Field
And, Robert Fisk, a veteran reporter for London's Independent newspaper, found a lack of consensus among UN officials and other international observers in Damascus -- despite the career risks that they faced by deviating from the conventional wisdom on Assad's guilt.
"In a country -- indeed a world -- where propaganda is more influential than truth, discovering the origin of the chemicals that suffocated so many Syrians a month ago is an investigation fraught with journalistic perils," Fisk wrote...
"Nevertheless, it also has to be said that grave doubts are being expressed by the UN and other international organisations in Damascus that the sarin gas missiles were fired by Assad's army.
"While these international employees cannot be identified, some of them were in Damascus on 21 August and asked a series of questions to which no one has yet supplied an answer. Why, for example, would Syria wait until the UN inspectors were ensconced in Damascus on 18 August before using sarin gas little more than two days later -- and only four miles from the hotel in which the UN had just checked in?
"Having thus presented the UN with evidence of the use of sarin -- which the inspectors quickly acquired at the scene -- the Assad regime, if guilty, would surely have realised that a military attack would be staged by Western nations.