Nafeez Ahmed writes:
On 21 August, hundreds – perhaps over a thousand – people were killed in a chemical weapon attack in Ghouta, Damascus, prompting the U.S., UK, Israel and France to raise the spectre of military strikes against Bashir al Assad’s forces which, they say, carried out the attack.To be sure, the latest episode is merely one more horrific event in a conflict that has increasingly taken on genocidal characteristics. The case for action at first glance is indisputable. The UN now confirms a death toll over 100,000 people, the vast majority of whom have been killed by Assad’s troops. An estimated 4.5 million people have been displaced from their homes. International observers have overwhelmingly confirmed Assad’s complicity in the preponderance of war crimes and crimes against humanity against the Syrian people. The illegitimacy of his regime, and the legitimacy of the uprising against it, is clear.But the interests of the west are a different matter.Chemical confusionWhile the U.S. and Israel have taken a lead in claiming firm evidence that the latest attack was indeed a deployment of chemical weapons by Assad’s regime, justifying a military intervention of some sort, questions remain.The main evidence cited by the U.S. linking the attacks to Syria are intercepted phone calls among other intelligence, the bulk of which was provided by Israel. “Last Wednesday, in the hours after a horrific chemical attack east of Damascus,” reported Foreign Policy, “an official at the Syrian Ministry of Defense exchanged panicked phone calls with a leader of a chemical weapons unit, demanding answers for a nerve agent strike that killed more than 1,000 people.”This account is hardly decisive proof of Assad’s culpability in the attack – what one can reasonably determine here is that Syrian defense officials do not seem to have issued specific orders for such a strike, and were attempting to investigate whether their own chemical weapons unit was indeed responsible.On the attack itself, experts are unanimous that the shocking footage of civilians, including children, suffering the effects of some sort of chemical attack, is real – but remain divided on whether it involved military-grade chemical weapons associated with Assad’s arsenal, or were a more amateur concoction potentially linked to the rebels.Many independent chemical weapons experts point out the insufficiency of evidence to draw any firm conclusions. Steven Johnson, chemical explosives experts at Cranfield Forensic Institute, pointed to inconsistencies in the video footage and the symptoms displayed by victims, raising questions about the nature of the agents used. Although trauma to the nervous system was clear: “At this stage everyone wants a ‘yes-no’ answer to chemical attack. But it is too early to draw a conclusion just from these videos.”Dan Kaszeta, a former officer of the U.S. Army’s Chemical Corps, said: “None of the people treating the casualties or photographing them are wearing any sort of chemical-warfare protective gear, and despite that, none of them seem to be harmed… there are none of the other signs you would expect to see in the aftermath of a chemical attack, such as intermediate levels of casualties, severe visual problems, vomiting and loss of bowel control.”Gwyn Winfield of chemical weapons journal CBRNe World said it was difficult to pin down a specific chemical from the symptoms seen in footage, but suggested it could be either a chemical weapon or a riot control agent: “The lack of conventional munition marks does suggest that it was a non-conventional munition, or an RCA (riot control agent) in a confined space, but who fired it and what it was has yet to be proved.”Other experts cited by Agence France Presse (AFP) concur with these assessments – either disagreeing that the footage proved military-grade chemical weapons, or noting the inadequacy of evidence implicating a specific perpetrator.What little evidence is available in the public record on past deployment of chemical agents has implicated both Assad and the rebels – not the Free Syrian Army (FSA) as a whole, but rather militant jihadist factions linked to al-Qaeda and funded by the likes of Saudi Arabia and Qatar.In March this year, a major attack on the predominantly Shi’a town of Khan al-Assal killing 26 people including civilians and Syrian soldiers was apparently committed by rebels “with al-Qaeda sympathies.” U.S. weapons experts suspected that the victims were exposed to a “caustic” agent such as chlorine, not a military-grade chemical weapon but “an improvised chemical device.” As the Telegraph reports: “There has been extensive experimentation by insurgents in Iraq in the use of chlorine.”Indeed, in May 2007, al-Qaeda in Iraq had attempted a series of suicide attacks using bombs built from chlorine gas containers. Last year, Syrian jihadist groups led by the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusrah Front, linked to Iraqi al-Qaeda forces, captured several Syrian military bases stocking Scud and anti-aircraft missiles, as well as a chlorine factory near Aleppo.Yet eyewitness reports from victims and doctors have also alleged many other instances of chemical weapons attacks attributed by locals to Syrian government forces.Just three months before the most recent attack, however, former war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte, an independent UN war crimes investigator on Syria, told Channel 4 that evidence derived from interviews with victims, doctors and field hospitals confirmed that rebels had used the nerve agent sarin:
“I have seen that there are concrete suspicions if not irrefutable proof that there has been use of sarin gas… This use was made by the opponent rebels and not from the governmental authorities.”According to Channel 4, “she had not found evidence of sarin’s use by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.”Meanwhile, the latest UN report released in June 2013 confirms several allegations of chemical weapons attacks but concludes it:
“… has not been possible, on the evidence available, to determine the precise chemical agents used, their delivery systems or the perpetrator.”Further complicating the matter, Dave Gavlak, a veteran Middle East correspondent for Associated Press, cites interviews with “doctors, Ghouta residents, rebel fighters and their families” who believe that “certain rebels received chemical weapons via the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, and were responsible for carrying out the gas attack.” The arms were reportedly given by al-Nusrah fighters to ordinary rebels without informing them of their nature. “More than a dozen rebels interviewed reported that their salaries came from the Saudi government.” Gavlak’s report comes with the caveat that some of its information “cannot be independently verified.”
Could it be disinformation planted by Assad agents in Damascus, as happened with the Houla massacre?
Read more here.