A member of a rebel group called the Martyr Al-Abbas throws a handmade weapon in Aleppo June 11, 2013. (Reuters/Muzaffar Salman)
I asked yesterday over at my blog if McClatchy reporters and editors, following their example during the run-up to the Iraq war (actually then with Knight Ridder), would be among the few to raise deep questions about “slam dunk” proof offered by the White House on Assad’s use of chemical agents. Reporters there, especially Jonathan Landay, had done that last month and the month before. But now after the full White House “confirmation”?
The first indication comes in this new piece by Matthew Schofield, which flatly states that experts are skeptical of the new Obama claims.
Chemical weapons experts voiced skepticism Friday about U.S. claims that the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad had used the nerve agent sarin against rebels on at least four occasions this spring, saying that while the use of such a weapon is always possible, they’ve yet to see the telltale signs of a sarin gas attack, despite months of scrutiny.
“It’s not unlike Sherlock Holmes and the dog that didn’t bark,” said Jean Pascal Zanders, a leading expert on chemical weapons who until recently was a senior research fellow at the European Union’s Institute for Security Studies. “It’s not just that we can’t prove a sarin attack, it’s that we’re not seeing what we would expect to see from a sarin attack.”
Foremost among those missing items, Zanders said, are cellphone photos and videos of the attacks or the immediate aftermath.
“In a world where even the secret execution of Saddam Hussein was taped by someone, it doesn’t make sense that we don’t see videos, that we don’t see photos, showing bodies of the dead, and the reddened faces and the bluish extremities of the affected,” he said.
Other experts said that while they were willing to give the U.S. intelligence community the benefit of the doubt, the Obama administration has yet to offer details of what evidence it has and how it obtained it.
Other news outlets so far have swallowed the White House evidence whole or in part, with many not even questioning the timing—just as the rebels, once supposedly on the verge of winning, now seem headed for defeat. In fact, the “red line” that seemed to have been crossed was the fate of the rebels heading suddenly downward. For a change, Politico had the strongest suggestion of that this morning.
The New York Times editorial tonight sadly states as fact that the use of sarin “was confirmed by American intelligence.” Well, we’ve been down that road before. But the paper at least warned of the pitfalls ahead: ‘It is irresponsible for critics like Mr. McCain and Mr. Clinton to fault Mr. Obama without explaining how the United States can change the course of that brutal civil war without being dragged too far into it.
“Like most Americans, we are deeply uneasy about getting pulled into yet another war in the Middle East. Those urging stronger action seemed to have learned nothing from the past decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, which has sapped the United States and has produced results that are ambiguous at best.”
And here, the reliable Hannah Allam of McClatchy probes serious concerns about our partners in Syria.
Go here for Patrick Cockburn, Kevin Drum and Fareed Zakaria highlighting the dangers of intervention and/or relying on sketchy evidence.
New editon of my book on the Iraq (and media) debacle, "So Wrong for So Long," here.