Original at Consortium News
Last summer, following a sarin nerve gas attack that left hundreds dead in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on Aug. 21, it seemed that U.S. intervention in Syria was a foregone conclusion. Having witnessed the scenario play out time and again in recent years as the United States has prepared for military action against various countries, it was clear in late August and early September 2013 that all signs were pointing to a looming attack, that the decision had been made to commit the U.S. on a path of military action, and that there was likely little that could be done to stop it.
A list of possible targets for a military strike was reportedly circulating in the White House and the Pentagon was moving warships into place in the eastern Mediterranean, following the general pattern of U.S. preparations before a strike. Reminiscent of George W. Bush's push for war with Iraq a decade earlier, President Barack Obama even gave a speech at the United Nations unequivocally blaming the Bashar al-Assad regime for the attack, which Obama said would undermine the international norm against chemical weapons if left unchecked.
Yet, while pushing hard for military action, officials were also attempting to assure a war-weary American public that the U.S. intervention in Syria was necessary and right, and perhaps more importantly, that it would be limited in scope. The attack would primarily serve as punishment for Syria's alleged use of chemical weapons and as a deterrent, according to a report in the Washington Post citing administration officials, seeking to keep the U.S. from deeper involvement in the Syrian civil war.
But there were a couple of major problems for the U.S. war planners, one of which being the widespread opposition to a military strike among the American people, with only nine percent supporting an attack and 60 percent saying Congress should vote against authorizing President Obama's war plans. Another dilemma was the considerable doubt surrounding the main casus belli for the war -- the fact that there was no hard evidence to implicate the Bashar al-Assad regime in the Aug. 21 chemical attack.
It was this chemical attack that Obama claimed must be responded to, having crossed a proverbial "red line" that the President had earlier stated would compel the United States to intervene in the conflict. A senior Obama administration official said on Aug. 25 that "based on the reported number of victims, reported symptoms of those who were killed or injured, witness accounts and other facts gathered by open sources, the U.S. intelligence community, and international partners, there is very little doubt at this point that a chemical weapon was used by the Syrian regime against civilians in this incident."
Independent experts, however, pointed out that there was no way to be able to decisively assign blame simply based on the visual evidence provided by YouTube videos without forensic data. "It's very difficult from a visual context to ascertain what's going on," said Federation of American Scientists fellow Charles Blair.
"In fact, it's impossible to draw any sort of definitive conclusion," he continued. "Some governments have relied entirely on visual confirmation to assert that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons but essentially what you need to do is you need to get people from the UN, for the prohibition of chemical weapons to go to these sites and conduct highly rigorous scientific investigations."
But the U.S. government seemed reluctant to even give that investigation a chance to succeed, with an Obama administration official saying that a Syrian promise to allow United Nations inspectors access to the site of the attack was "too late to be credible." Essentially, the U.S. was itself undermining the credibility of the UN investigation and pre-empting its findings with its own "assessments" relying on appeals to "conscience" and "common sense."
As Secretary of State John Kerry stated on Aug. 26, "while investigators are gathering additional evidence on the ground, our understanding of what has already happened in Syria is grounded in facts informed by conscience and guided by common sense." Pointing out that the victims' symptoms "strongly indicate[d] that ... that chemical weapons were used in Syria," Kerry noted that "the Syrian regime maintains custody of these chemical weapons."
"We know that the Syrian regime has the capacity to do this with rockets. We know that the regime has been determined to clear the opposition from those very places where the attacks took place. And with our own eyes, we have all of us become witnesses," he said.
But while the United States was insisting that the regime in Damascus was responsible, based on dubious reasoning and inconclusive evidence, Assad denied any involvement, and Russia publicly raised the possibility of a "false flag" operation by the Syrian anti-government rebels.
"No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria," wrote Russian President Vladimir Putin in a New York Times op-ed. "But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists."
As Russia's Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin asked, "Why would the Syrian government use chemical weapons on August 21? To cross the red line drawn by Washington and invite a missile strike upon itself? Why would the opposition use chemical weapons? Exactly because of the red line. To provoke foreign military intervention in the Syrian conflict."
Indeed, it was this logic that seemed to make the most sense, not the narrative being promoted by Official Washington. "Firstly, the timing is odd, bordering on suspicious," wrote BBC correspondent Frank Gardner. "Why would the Assad government, which has recently been retaking ground from the rebels, carry out a chemical attack while UN weapons inspectors are in the country?"