How Sure Are We That It Was Assad Who Used the Gas?

 

Pretty sure, it seems.

I received an email this morning from Ricochet member Manfred Arcane, who asked if there is any validity to the allegation that it was the rebels, and not the Assad regime, who used gas against Syrian civilians on August 21st.

To answer this question, I got in touch with regional experts (and previous podcast guests) Michael Totten and Jonathan Spyer. Michael told me that the Israelis intercepted signal intelligence from Syria and have recordings of regime officials discussing the chemical attacks, a welcome bit of hard evidence amid all the speculation. Jonathan sent me a link to a page on which a variety of chemical weapons specialists respond to the claim. The specialists are Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, the Former Commander of UK CBRN Forces and COO of SecureBio; Gwyn Winfield of the specialist magazine CBRNe World; Steve Johnson of Explosive and Hazardous Forensics at Cranfield University; and Dan Kaszeta, a veteran of the US Army Chemical Corps. All four believe, albeit with some reservations, that the odds are strongly in favor of the supposition that the Assad regime was responsible for the gas attack. 

There’s no shortage of remaining reasons to be queasy about a US military strike on Syria, but at least we can be reasonably certain that the precipitating incident is not being grossly misinterpreted.

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  1. Profile Photo Member
    @Zafar

    Judith – the technical comments in the references are….technical, but among them:

    “Why risk escalating the conflict, especially when Assad has more agent and better protection and training?”

    Isn’t that precisely why the Rebels (??) would want to get the West to do some damage to the Regime to ‘punish Asad’?  Not when they were winning, but because they were losing.

    • #1
  2. Profile Photo Contributor
    @judithlevy

    Zafar, I take your point, but there is something to be said (as Michael said to me this morning) for taking an Occam’s Razor approach to this question. On the one hand, we’ve got a regime that has chemical weapons, that has no qualms about using chemical weapons, and that is suspected of using chemical weapons. And on the other, we have rebels who don’t to our knowledge have chemical weapons suspected either of acquiring them and suffering a terrible accident, or of acquiring and using them to assault their own side in keeping with a grotesque and extremely risky strategy to coax a reluctant distant giant into rallying to their aid. This is the Middle East, of course, so that latter scenario is by no means out of the question, but between the two, it’s much less likely. Particularly when there’s intelligence leading to the opposite conclusion (unless you believe the Israelis are lying, which makes no strategic sense at all).

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  3. Profile Photo Member
    @

    FWIW:  Obama’s capricious drone-bombing campaign has cost the lives of more non-combatants than (thus far) Assad’s use of chemical weapons.

    This, of course, does nothing to persuade those whose selective  indignation, reflexive moral grandstanding, and mindless devotion to The One have them clamoring for an unspecified –but “just muscular enough”– bombing of Syria.

    • #3
  4. Profile Photo Inactive
    @MarionEvans

    After Iraq, the evidence has to be stronger than one blog’s unnamed source and another blog’s citing a few experts and their hunches. Anything is possible. The perpetrators could probably fake communications to make them look like regime conversations.The case for intervention precedes the CW attack and has to do with Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis attacking US targets over the years.

    • #4
  5. Profile Photo Coolidge
    @ctlaw

    “Michael told me that the Israelis intercepted signal intelligence from Syria and have recordings of regime officials discussing the chemical attacks, a welcome bit of hard evidence amid all the speculation. ”

    That sentence would cover one official asking the other after the fact about how the rebels launched the attack. Were orders or other specific advance communications intercepted? Somebody is either a poor journalist or a good propagandist.

    There should be  nothing welcome about that “intelligence” to you. It is a red flag that anything that goes wrong will be blamed on Israel.

    The rebels have acquired all sorts of weapons from the regime. Why not chemical weapons?

    • #5
  6. Profile Photo Member
    @Zafar

    Why would Asad use chemical weapons?

    He was killing plenty of civilians before this, using other methods, and without crossing any red lines.  He was even killing enough people (civilians and others) to be….winning?

    So why would he unnecessarily cross a red line?

    Judith Levy, Ed.: Zafar, I take your point, but there is something to be said (as Michael said to me this morning) for taking an Occam’s Razor approach to this question.

    That’s the discrepancy at the heart of the accusation.  There’s no motive. 

    • #6
  7. Profile Photo Contributor
    @judithlevy
    Zafar: Why would Asad use chemical weapons?

    He was killing plenty of civilians before this, using other methods, and without crossing any red lines.  He was even killing enough people (civilians and others) to be….winning?

    So why would heunnecessarilycross a red line?

    Judith Levy, Ed.: Zafar, I take your point, but there is something to be said (as Michael said to me this morning) for taking an Occam’s Razor approach to this question.

    That’s the discrepancy at the heart of the accusation.  There’s no motive. 

    There is for Russia. Russia is backing Assad, and it’s very much in their interest to force Obama to reveal himself as catastrophically weak (to say nothing of catastrophically playable). 

    • #7
  8. Profile Photo Contributor
    @judithlevy
    ctlaw: There should be  nothing welcome about that “intelligence” to you. It is a red flag that anything that goes wrong will be blamed on Israel.

    That is only one reason why this intelligence is hardly “welcome” to me. The other is that I fear a summary crushing of Assad that results in a quick rebel win. There are enough jihadists on the rebel side to make me very uncomfortable, to say the least. 

    That is obviously not meant to be taken as an endorsement of the disgusting Assad; my point is simply that both sides pose serious threats to Israel, and the jihadists (if they get the chance) might be the more dangerous. There aren’t enough up there yet to take the place over completely, but a decisive blow struck from outside could result in a swarm of jihadists into Syria.

    • #8
  9. Profile Photo Inactive
    @MarionEvans

    Judith: “Obama catastrophically weak and playable.”Aaand you base this assertion on what?

    • #9
  10. Profile Photo Member
    @DuaneOyen

    The way I see it, if it were the rebels using the chemical weapons (on their own families), they had to be Saddam’s WMD dug back up out of the Beqaa Valley.

    • #10
  11. Profile Photo Moderator
    @JamesOfEngland
    Zafar: Why would Asad use chemical weapons?

    He was killing plenty of civilians before this, using other methods, and without crossing any red lines.  He was even killing enough people (civilians and others) to be….winning?

    So why would heunnecessarilycross a red line?

    Civil wars are more fluid than wars between states in terms of alliance. Civil wars that shed blood on this scale help reduce people’s idealism; there are a lot of Syrians for whom the question of who to support comes down fairly purely to a matter of the likely safety of their families.

    One of the arguments for joining the moderate rebels was that the US would eventually support them. Even if it was wrong, that belief supported recruitment and power. If Assad correctly believed that the US would not act, or would act only trivially, then demonstrating this makes sense. US non-involvement also promotes AQ over moderates, and this may also help Assad.

    Demonstrating that he’s more ruthless and more cruel than his enemies similarly makes sense. Recall that the last Assad use of chemical weapons, at Hama, brought decades of relatively uncontested rule.

    • #11
  12. Profile Photo Inactive
    @ManfredArcane

    Whoa, this is ridiculous, Sir.  1,400 people?  No way our drones have killed anywhere near that many, during Zero’s tenure.  If you have information to the contrary, let’s hear it, otherwise you need a cold shower.

    Also, our drone strikes are “targeted” strikes, these missile attacks are totally indiscriminate in who they kill.  They are Terror Weapons, writ large, no?

    Drone strikes are a brilliant tactic to keep the malevolent out of circulation as much as possible, IMHO.  They lack for judicial process, sure, but wars can not be made anti-septic, sorry.  Look at the Tokyo and Dresden bombings.  Assad (if he is the perpetrator) is using that old bombardment technology, whereas drones are more like a sniper rifle, selective in its killing scope.

    Regards,

    M. Arcane

    MMPadre: FWIW:  Obama’s capricious drone-bombing campaign has cost the lives of more non-combatants than (thus far) Assad’s use of chemical weapons.

    This, of course, does nothing to persuade those whose selective  indignation, reflexive moral grandstanding, and mindless devotion to The One have them clamoring for an unspecified –but “just muscular enough”– bombing of Syria. · 2 hours ago

    • #12
  13. Profile Photo Inactive
    @NickStuart

    Quoth HRC “What difference, at this point, does it make?” [never gets old, never goes out of style]

    The people of the United States had the choice to retire Pres. Obama in 2012, and chose to renew his contract for another 4 years.

    It’s like getting on a roller coaster. When the bars clamp down around you, and the coaster starts its ascent of the first hill, it’s too late to change you mind. Now we can only pray the damn thing doesn’t jump the track. 

    Screaming really loud helps relieve the tension though.

    • #13
  14. Profile Photo Inactive
    @ManfredArcane

    Ms. Levy

    Interesting perspective in those last lines, as you interviewed Michael Totten a few months back (great interview BTW) and he, at that time was of the opposite opinion, namely that the rebels would be, A Fortiori?, at least as good as Assad, and most probably better.  Do you think he has changed his mind, or do you just disagree with him?  Or is it the ‘jihadist pull’ phenomenon that you (reasonably) posit may follow any strike by the US a uniquely new element here?

    Regards

    M. Arcane

    Judith Levy, Ed.

    ctlaw: 

    …The other is that I fear a summary crushing of Assad that results in a quick rebel win. There are enough jihadists on the rebel side to make me very uncomfortable, to say the least. 

    That is obviously not meant to be taken as an endorsement of the disgusting Assad; my point is simply that both sides pose serious threats to Israel, and the jihadists (if they get the chance) might be the more dangerous. There aren’t enough up there yet to take the place over completely, but a decisive blow struck from outside could result in a swarm of jihadists into Syria. · 1 hour ago

    • #14
  15. Profile Photo Inactive
    @ManfredArcane

    Ms. Levy,

    Thanks for this thread, and your hard work investigating the matter. But in writing to you, I wasn’t trying to impute that the rebels were the culprits for this particular latest  instance of poison gas usage (a missile attack, evidentially), but only that they may have been so for an earlier use of sarin gas back in May. If anyone has access to the lady who was investigating the earlier inquiry, and held this conviction, querying her would tie up all the loose ends (as your Evan Adair might think of it :)) ( The lady in question (see link below) is: Carla del Ponte, a member of the U.N. Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria).

    Established as true, or even seriously suspected so, it could severely undermine Causus Belli.Source: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2013/may/6/syrian-rebels-used-sarin-nerve-gas-not-assads-regi/#.UiHx6giKPhE.facebook
    Judith Levy, Ed.: Pretty sure, it seems.

    I received an email this morning from Ricochet member Manfred Arcane, who asked if there is any validity to the allegation that it was the rebels, and not the Assad regime, who used gas against Syrian civilians on August 21st.

    • #15
  16. Profile Photo Inactive
    @TheMugwump

    My late father was a Korean War veteran and generally reticent about his combat experience.  I remember just once listening to him offer an opinion, as it were during the debate about using napalm in Vietnam.  His words went something like “it’s no more humane to shove a piece of cold steel through a man’s guts than to burn him to death.”

    How does a chemical attack change anything about Syria?  We know Assad is a nasty piece of work.  We also know that civilians including women and children are routinely murdered.  That’s the way war is fought in this part of the world.  Once again the president’s reaction amounts to moral preening.  It’s apparently okay to indiscriminately bomb civilian districts, but somehow the use of gas crosses a line?  

    The president’s red line was phony from the beginning, just another show of his avowed moral superiority, and now he’s got himself boxed in.  No thought was given to action should Assad actually use chemical weapons.  The Syrian people will continue to bleed while western leaders posture.  Meanwhile, the world’s thugs know that America is the land of empty rhetoric.  Tragic.    

    • #16
  17. Profile Photo Inactive
    @ManfredArcane

    Such cogent analysis.  Well, done, Sir.

    M. Arcane

    The Mugwump: My late father was a Korean War veteran and generally reticent about his combat experience.  … during the debate about using napalm in Vietnam.  His words went something like “it’s no more humane to shove a piece of cold steel through a man’s guts than to burn him to death.”

    How does a chemical attack change anything about Syria?  We know Assad is a nasty piece of work.  We also know that civilians including women and children are routinely murdered.  That’s the way war is fought in this part of the world.  Once again the president’s reaction amounts to moral preening.  It’s apparently okay to indiscriminately bomb civilian districts, but somehow the use of gas crosses a line?  

    The president’s red line was phony from the beginning, just another show of his avowed moral superiority, and now he’s got himself boxed in.  No thought was given to action should Assad actually use chemical weapons.  The Syrian people will continue to bleed while western leaders posture.  Meanwhile, the world’s thugs know that America is the land of empty rhetoric.  Tragic.     · 4 minutes ago

    • #17
  18. Profile Photo Inactive
    @ManfredArcane

    The only reason now to attack Syria, IMO, is to show Iran that we mean what we say when we/Obama commits to doing so vis-a-vis Iran, if, and when, their nuclear bomb aspirations reach fulfillment.  Though I freely admit, there seems precious little evidence that they currently are responding to our tactics of sanctions, world condemnation, etc., so perhaps even this is a weak reed on which to base an attack.

    • #18
  19. Profile Photo Member
    @Zafar

    Which has nothing to do with Syrian civilian deaths (by chemical weapons or by other means, at the hands of the Govt/the rebels/???).

    Manfred Arcane: The only reason now to attack Syria, IMO, is to show Iran that we mean what we say

    I agree it’s important that the world know that America means what it says, but it’s also important that the world respects why America says what it says.  Right now I don’t think even America respects that wrt bombing Syria.

    • #19
  20. Profile Photo Inactive
    @ManfredArcane

    You don’t think that killing 1,400 civilians, women and children, with a gas attack, proscribed by International Law for almost a century, isn’t sufficient reason for the International community, which sort of devolves on the US then, to act?

    Zafar: Which has nothing to do with Syrian civilian deaths (by chemical weapons or by other means, at the hands of the Govt/the rebels/???).

    Manfred Arcane: The only reason now to attack Syria, IMO, is to show Iran that we mean what we say

    I agree it’s important that the world know that America means what it says, but it’s also important that the world respects whyAmerica says what it says.  Right now I don’t think even America respects that wrt bombing Syria. · 6 minutes ago

    • #20
  21. Profile Photo Inactive
    @MothershipGreg

    As Totten notes in a comment on his latest post at World Affairs Journal:

    No. The “Cui Bono” question is precisely what leads to most Middle Eastern conspiracy theories. Believe me, I’ve heard them all and I know how they work.

    After duly noting that, the Administration should present the evidence in a coherent manner.  I’m doubtful that that will happen (has John Kerry ever made a coherent argument for anything in his life?)

    • #21
  22. Profile Photo Inactive
    @rayconandlindacon

    “You don’t think that killing 1,400 civilians, women and children, with a gas attack, proscribed by International Law for almost a century, isn’t sufficient reason for the International community, which sort of devolves on the US then, to act?”

    International Law?  This presupposes an enforcer of said law.  Is not the recognized enforcer of said law the United Nations?  Is this not a matter for the UN to act on?  Not that they will.  

    Given the quagmire we are entering here is yet another Middle-East mess in which we are seeking to get the Islamist world to engage in Western Civilized behavior that Islam rejects.

    Are we mad?

    Ron Paul appears to be the only sane American left, by this measure.

    • #22
  23. Profile Photo Member
    @

    The Lightbringer’s equivocations are further evidence of what Putin has described as his weakness and therefore his danger to the world. His off-the-cuff comment about a red line might have unintended consequences as far away as South Korea, and the Iranians certainly have taken a lesson from it. Unlink the man from the Teleprompter unspooling some speechwriter’s words for him to read and his foot begins its journey to his mouth. His talk about “my army” — and of course his navy, air force and marines — that will do the fighting because of his missteps suggests megalomania rather than a Constitutional understanding of his role. We’re losing allies right and left, drowning in debt, being smothered in regulations, facing yet another fiscal cliff, are more racially divided, spied on, subject to IRS outrages and — well, you run out of breath after a while. Where’s Hillary, by the way? Wasn’t she secretary of state not so long ago? She called Basher Assad “a reformer,” I seem to recall. Benghazi seems to have dropped that blunder down the state media’s memory hole. Along with Benghazi, come to think of it.

    • #23
  24. Profile Photo Coolidge
    @ctlaw

    Judith,

    Do your kids have their gas masks and chemical suits?

    Apparently, Obama is setting you up as acceptable targets for chemical weapons. According to SecState John F. Kerry (who is very experienced in the use of botulinum toxin): “Make no mistake: President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people.”

    Presumably, Israelis won’t qualify as “vulnerable”.

    • #24
  25. Profile Photo Member
    @Zafar

    I’d be delighted if the international community (or the US) acted to stop the killing of civilians. (We’re a little late in Syria, and there are some other countries out there too.)

    The ‘red line’ of killing civilians with chemical weapons instead of with more conventional bombs seems arbitrary, but maybe I just don’t understand.

    Bombing Syria (and doubtless killing more civilians) doesn’t seem like a rational response –  if the issue is civilian deaths.  If the objective is something else (letting Iran know that the West means business, ????) then it’s understandable but I admit I still find it appalling.

    Manfred Arcane: You don’t think that killing 1,400 civilians, women and children, with a gas attack, proscribed by International Law for almost a century, isn’t sufficient reason for the International community, which sort of devolves on the US then, to act?

    • #25
  26. Profile Photo Inactive
    @ManfredArcane

    You may not have followed my earlier remarks.  I was disputing Zafar’s insinuation that I was finding justification for the US to attack Syria on grounds unrelated to any atrocity Assad’s folks may have perpetrated.  I intended merely with my second comment to declare we have sufficient moral grounds for attacking, but I don’t advocate doing so based solely on moral grounds, rather only if we considered it in our interests to do so.  That’s a big IF.  I previously submitted that there may be a different, sufficient reason for doing so (to make Iran understand we mean business with respect to its nuclear program).

    Otherwise, I, like you want to stay out of the situation.

    raycon and lindacon: “You don’t think that killing 1,400 civilians, women and children, with a gas attack, proscribed by International Law for almost a century, isn’t sufficient reason for the International community, which sort of devolves on the US then, to act?”

    International Law?…  Is not the recognizedenforcerofsaidlawtheUnitedNations?  

    Given the quagmire we are entering here is yet another Middle-East mess in which we are seeking to get the Islamist world to engage inWesternCivilizedbehaviorthatIslamrejects.

    Arewemad?

    RonPaulappearstobetheonlysaneAmericanleft,bythismeasure. 

    • #26
  27. Profile Photo Inactive
    @ManfredArcane

    ????: “letting Iran know that the West means business, ????”

    You do understand how ugly the world is going to be if Iran’ mullahs get nukes, right?  Are we at least on the same page there?

    Zafar: I’d be delighted if the international community (or the US) acted to stop the killing of civilians. (We’re a little late in Syria, and there are some other countries out there too.)

    The ‘red line’ of killing civilians with chemical weapons instead of with more conventional bombs seems arbitrary, but maybe I just don’t understand.

    Bombing Syria (and doubtless killing more civilians) doesn’t seem like a rational response –  ifthe issue is civilian deaths.  If the objective is something else (letting Iran know that the West means business, ????) then it’s understandable but I admit I still find it appalling. · 0 minutes ago

    Manfred Arcane: You don’t think that killing 1,400 civilians, women and children, with a gas attack, proscribed by International Law for almost a century, isn’t sufficient reason for the International community, which sort of devolves on the US then, to act?

    • #27
  28. Profile Photo Inactive
    @ManfredArcane

    Yes.  Sweeeeeeeet.  Oh are the Reps going to get a lot of mileage out of the quote in a couple of years.  (Yes, there is a God in Heaven!)

    Jerry Carroll: …Where’s Hillary, by the way? Wasn’t she secretary of state not so long ago? She called Basher Assad “a reformer,” I seem to recall. Benghazi seems to have dropped that blunder down the state media’s memory hole. Along with Benghazi, come to think of it. · 24 minutes ago

    • #28
  29. Profile Photo Member
    @Grendel

    There are news reports that the Saudis gave chemical weapons to  Syrian insurgents, without revealing their nature.  The untrained and unsuspecting rebels mishandled the weapons and caused the deaths and injuries.

    I don’t know enough about the technology to know whether the sort of accident implied in this report is plausible:

    http://www.infowars.com/rebels-admit-responsibility-for-chemical-weapons-attack/

    Rebels Admit Responsibility for Chemical Weapons Attack

    Militants tell AP reporter they mishandled Saudi-supplied chemical weapons, causing accident

    Paul Joseph WatsonInfowars.comAugust 30, 2013

    Syrian rebels in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta have admitted to Associated Press correspondent Dale Gavlak that they were responsible for last week’s chemical weapons incident which western powers have blamed on Bashar Al-Assad’s forces, revealing that the casualties were the result of an accident caused by rebels mishandling chemical weapons provided to them by Saudi Arabia.

    • #29
  30. Profile Photo Inactive
    @JamesGawron
    Grendel: There are news reports that the Saudis gave chemical weapons to  Syrian insurgents, without revealing their nature.  The untrained and unsuspecting rebels mishandled the weapons and caused the deaths and injuries.

    I don’t know enough about the technology to know whether the sort of accident implied in this report is plausible:

    http://www.infowars.com/rebels-admit-responsibility-for-chemical-weapons-attack/

    Rebels Admit Responsibility for Chemical Weapons Attack

    Militants tell AP reporter they mishandled Saudi-supplied chemical weapons, causing accident

    Paul Joseph Watson Infowars.comAugust 30, 2013

    Syrian rebels in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta have admitted to Associated Press correspondent Dale Gavlak that they were responsible for last week’s chemical weapons incident which western powers have blamed on Bashar Al-Assad’s forces, revealing that the casualties were the result of an accident caused by rebels mishandling chemical weapons provided to them by Saudi Arabia.

    3 minutes ago

    cont.

    • #30
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