On August 23, 2013 in the north Eastern Suburbs of Damascus, Syria, something terrible happened. At 2:30 am, the residents of that area awoke to the horrific sight of their neighbors showing signs of being exposed to Sarin Gas. Since the first widespread use in World War One, chemical agents have been generally agreed to be one of the worst forms of weapons second only to nuclear bombs in their devastating effects. Almost every nation on Earth has signed onto the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) which basically outlaws the use of such weapons in case of war between states or resistance within it. However, there have been some serious abuses of this general convention, recent memory recalls Iraqi forces in the Iran-Iraq war using these terrible agents against Iranian targets and against civilians and resistance fighters in the Kurdish village of Halabja.
Who Has Chemical Weapons in Syria?
Syria has not signed nor ratified the CWC. Although denying it publicly, in 2012 the government of Syria did admit that it had stockpiles of chemical weapons, but only reserved them as a deterrent to outside attack, which they view mostly likely coming from Israel. While their fear of Israeli attack is not illegitimate given the belligerence of Israel and the position of it’s greatest ally, the U.S., the manufacture and possession of these weapons is a stain on their image, just as it is for any other nation (including the U.S. and Russia) that possesses these heinous weapons of mass destruction.
At the outset of the war, Syrian ally Russia had confirmed that the stockpiles of chemical weapons had been collected and secured by the regime. However, in December of 2012 there were reports that the Al-Nursa Front (and Islamist fighting group in Syria) captured a chemical weapons facility outside Aleppo. As far as I can find, this is the only report of a non-regime force with access to chemical weapon manufacturing capabilities.
Use of Chemical Weapons in Syria
There have been many allegations of the use of weapons in the civil war. However, many of these allegations have been hard to confirm. Here is a quick list:
- March 2013, Khan al-Asal district in Aleppo and the Al Atebeh suburbs of Damascus, with both sides accusing each other of carrying out the attack.
- April 2013, another chemical attack was reported, this time in Saraqib. Both Sides accused each other.
- August 2013, the area of Ghouta, Damascus.
The Intelligence about the Attacks – A tug of war with the truth
There have been conflicting reports from both the regime and “the resistance” (more on these terms below) and their respective allies. Here is a quick list to illustrate this point.
- After the “attack” in December 2012 the U.S. claimed “the reporting we have seen from media sources regarding alleged chemical weapons incidents in Syria has not been consistent with what we believe to be true about the Syrian chemical weapons program”. Although a secret cable stated that they did.
- After the attack in March of 2013 the U.S. claimed there had been no substantive evidence of chemical warfare in Syria. Russia however, said there was a chemical weapon attack and accused “the rebels”.
- In early April 2013- Zahir al-Sakit, a defected Syrian army general from the chemical weapons branch, said he was instructed to use chemical weapons during a battle with the FSA in the southwestern area of Hauran.
- Israel also claimed that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons in March near Aleppo and Damascus.
- The Times reported that British military scientists found evidence of chemical attacks, but couldn’t determine who was behind them.
- In early April the New York Times reported that the Obama administration had been made aware of intelligence by its allies, but refused to acknowledge the purported use of chemical weapons. By late April the U.S switched its public position and started claiming that Assad regime had likely used chemical weapons. Obama administration denies the claim that the rebels even could have used chemical weapons.
- Le Monde reporters claimed that they personally witnessed the Syrian army’s use of chemical weapons on civilians.
- A U.N. report stated that there are “reasonable grounds” to believe that limited amounts of chemical weapons have been used in at least four attacks in the civil war, but couldn’t determine who used them.
- By June of 2013, the U.S. had fully solidified its position. It claims to have “proof” the Assad government used chemical weapons on multiple occasions on “rebel forces.”
- In July 2013, Russia formally submitted its evidence of the attacks at Khan al-Assal to the United Nations. The contention is the “rebels” used chemical against, not the regime.
- After the attacks in Ghouta, the UN asked Syria for permission to enter the area of the attacks. Syria agrees and the UN inspectors come under fire at the site (in “buffer” territory between regime and rebel areas) and have a difficult time getting good samples due to significant shelling “from regime forces” after the alleged attack.
- Before the UN report is compiled, the US releases a report. This four page “report” claimed that U.S. Intelligence had classified but irrefutable proof that regime forces conducted the attack. No evidence is actually given in the report. it is used as the justification for likely military action.
Who is fighting is Syria?
In media reports we are so often bombarded by euphemisms and unclear statements. We hear about “regime forces” and “Rebel Forces” The “FSA” and the “SNC”. But who are these groups? What do they want? Why are they fighting? Who is, as some mebers of the U.S. Congress have stated, the “vetted opposition forces?”
Why does this matter? Because without knowing who is fighting, we can’t understand what is actually going on, and what the possibilities are. Therefore, I hope to shed a little light on this.
“The Regime” – Forces who protect the ruling elite of the country, specifically the Ba’athist party and the ruling “coalition of “leftist” parties. The fighting force is the Syrian Army. Armed mostly with Russian, Chinese and other post-soviet weapons systems, the army is well trained and well armed. Conscription is mandatory in Syria, so much of the force is made up of draftees.
“National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces” – Is the opposition parliamentary organization of those wishing to oust the regime. It seeks to be recognized as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. It is largely ineffective and is prone to foreign intervention from Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The members include: Muslim Brotherhood, Coalition of Secular and Democratic Syrians, Damascus Declaration, Syrian Democratic People’s Party, Supreme Council of the Syrian Revolution, among others.
“The FSA” – The Free Syrian army is a military organization loose organization of different groups opposed to the regime. It supports the Syrian national council and National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.
“The Syrian National Council” – Is a political organization of different groups opposed to the regime, most notably, the Syrian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Assyrian Democratic Organization,some Kurdish dissidents, and many of the the Local Coordination Committees (LCCs). It is generally fractured and ineffectual, although holding a majority of the National Coalition.
Most importantly in this group is the LCC’s. These local committees are the heart of the Syrian revolution as the exist in area which have resisted both the rule of the regime and the rule of the National Coalition. They are independent and where real democracy resides in Syria.
Syrian Revolution General Commission – A network of over 40 groups which is not aligned to the national coalition because they see it as ineffective and splintered beyond reproach.
Syrian Islamic Front – an umbrella groups of Jihadists in Syria fighting to overthrow Assad and create and Islamic republic like Iran.
Syrian Islamic Liberation Front – Another Islamist group which has among it the greatest number and the most well armed of all of the resistance fighting groups with numbers in the tens of thousands.
Al Nursa Front – this is arguably the most powerful armed group in Syria . Many of it’s fighters are veterans of the Iraqi resistance against the U.S. occupation and are looking to overthrow Assad and create an Islamic Caliphate. It has claimed responsibility for many suicide attacks and car bombing in Syria.
The point of getting this out there is to show that when we hear in the media about “the oppositions” or “Rebels” or even the “FSA” these are being used in place of specific names, because either the editors of our papers or broadcasts do not believe we can understand the difference, or they believe that the lion share of us just don’t care. The real reason that this is not explained to us is that these groups are, in many ways, not much better than Assad’s forces, and it is hard to know or find who “the good guys” really are. Therefore, if you just use the term “the opposition” it makes it easy to pretend like these diverse groups are all united together in the same goal and that, given the rhetoric against Assad, they are “the good guys”.
Arguably they are united. United in the desire to overthrow the Assad regime. However, their tactics and revolutionary ambitions are significantly different. This matters, because revolutions do not stop when the dictator is deposed (see the example from Egypt and Libya), in many ways, that is where the revolution really begins.
Why we should beskeptical – the “Just Trust Us” doctrine
Given the tumultuous history of “intelligence” reports especially centered around Iraq (which shares a border with Syria and is home to countless Syrian refugees) the only rational position towards the Obama administrations oscillating position on chemical weapons in Syria is skepticism. In this case, as it was for Iraq, we are given a “Just Trust Me” approach from our government. Instead of providing evidence for it’s assertions the arrogant officials in the pristine halls of American government don’t tell us what evidence they have, or how they are certain of what they are telling us, they simply tell us, “We know!”
No actual evidence has been presented for the case against Assad. What we are given by our government is a platter of meaningless words, harsh rhetoric and a 4 page document which essentially says “We know this happened the way we say it did. We are the U.S. intelligence community. Trust us.” It is a slap in the face to any intelligent, critical individual and does nothing to make a legitimate case to take the lives of another nations citizens.
When another permanent member of the security council, albeit with it’s own objectives regarding the Syrian Civil war, claims to have evidence exactly opposing our own, it seems only logical that we would bring our evidence into a fair forum and pit it against its opposition. This kind of honest, intellectual debate can assure us, and those who may soon see bombs falling on their homes, that the narrative being shoved down the throats of the American people and the rest of the world is really the truth.
Given the recent history of the abuses of both dictatorial regimes (like the Ba’athists in Iraq) and Islamic fundamentalists (the largest resistance fighters in Syria) and the fact that there exists evidence that both groups had access to these weapons, the use of chemical weapons by either side seems more than legitimate to postulate. This is why is behooves both Russia and the U.S. to state plainly the evidence they have in making their case.
The Failure of the Media
If one reviews all the major news outlets regarding this debate, we are given a clear bait and switch. We are told that Russia denies the allegations of the US and then we get what the U.S. believes. There is no evidence given to test, and no questions asked.
What is now being quoted is John Kerry’s recent speech where he uses the phrase, “We know” 24 times! And all without a shred of justification!
Here are some examples of how they are used:
“We know where the rockets were launched from, and at what time. We know where they landed, and when. We know rockets came only from regime-controlled areas, and went only to opposition-controlled or contested neighborhoods.”
Really?! How? Can you tell us?
No, that information is classified. Trust us, we just know.
“With our own eyes we have seen the thousands of reports from 11 separate sites in the Damascus suburbs.”
Really?! Can we see those reports?
Again: “We know that a senior regime official who knew about the attack confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime, reviewed the impact and actually was afraid that they would be discovered.”
Who is this official? What’s his name? How do you know him? Can we talk to him?
Can’t tell. That’s secret. Classified. Of course not!
Then he has the audacity to say: “In all of these things that I have listed, in all of these things that we know, all of that, the American intelligence community has high confidence, high confidence this is common sense, this is evidence, these are facts.” Mr. Secretary, you cannot just say words from your podium with that pretty seal and pretend that makes them facts. No, instead you need to give us evidence!
Most notably he urged us to “Read for yourself, everyone, those listening, all of you, read for yourselves the evidence from thousands of sources, evidence that is already publicly available, and read for yourselves the verdict reached by our intelligence community about the chemical weapons attack the Assad regime inflicted on the opposition and on opposition-controlled or contested neighborhoods in the Damascus suburbs on the early morning of August 21st.” I too urge you to read it, it s four pages long and contains no evidence at all!
He also reminds us of our infancy “But still, in order to protect sources and methods, some of what we know will only be released to members of Congress, the representatives of the American people.”
The most despicable part of this speech, and the real “just trust us” moment is when he said, “So the primary question is really no longer, what do we know. The question is what are we — we collectively — what are we in the world going to do about it.”
And where is the U.S. media on this? Nowhere. Instead of asking these very simple questions, Mr. Kerry’s speech is just repeated, or President Putin’s refutation asserted. There is no investigation, no asking of questions, no testing of claims; just repetition of the same nothingness; “The US thinks this, Russia thinks this, the UN inspectors are in Lebanon, etc, etc, etc”
This is failure of every pillar of power in the modern state, the legislative branch for not demanding oversight, the executive for simply asserting things with no evidence, the media for not asking any questions and the courts which should finally assert that any military action is an act of war and should be part of a declaration of such from congress.
We should all be opposed to dictatorships and actions taken by governments against it’s people. That may well have happened in Damascus, but it happening here too. We should oppose all governments that lie to their people, or tell them they can’t handle the truth. We should say no to lies (or statements without evidence) that justify murder, whether that be from a Ba’athist thug, or an American Democrat. Both the American and Syrian governments are packed full of liars, elitists and warmongers, and it’s about time the winds of the Arab Spring cool the hot air of America’s belligerent and faithful militarism before we see more bodies of children and innocent people on the streets of Syria.