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.

There are 78 comments.

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  1. Profile Photo Inactive
    @NickStuart

    Another imponderable, did Obama’s sudden U-turn on Syria give his sycophantic apologists in the media and blogosphere whiplash? How difficult it must be keeping their lips firmly pressed to his posterior when he makes sudden moves like that.

    • #31
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    @JamesGawron

    cont. from 30

    Grendal,

    I am willing to entertain any source of evidence and follow up.  One point, all chemical weapons are not the same.  There are different versions of Sarin gas.  The hair and blood samples from the victims in hospital will be analyzed with great specificity.

    “According to Abdel-Moneim, the weapons exploded inside a tunnel, killing 12 rebels.”

    The tunnel can be found even if bombed over top.  The bodies can be uncovered and hair samples can be taken.  The Assad government would have every reason to facilitate this.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #32
  3. Profile Photo Inactive
    @ManfredArcane

    Interesting…but, I just googled the journalist, Watson’s 2003 book, and it looks like a total wackjob, conspiracy-theory-type book.  So, that leaves me a bit queasy about crediting his journalism here.  But kudos if he’s right.  Pulitzer Prize, even, eh?

    James Gawron

    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.

    • #33
  4. Profile Photo Inactive
    @JamesGawron
    Nick Stuart: Another imponderable, did Obama’s sudden U-turn on Syria give his sycophantic apologists in the media and blogosphere whiplash? How difficult it must be keeping their lips firmly pressed to his posterior when he makes sudden moves like that. · 1 minute ago

    Nick Stuart

    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.”

    ______________________________

    Nick,

    You have won the descriptive prose style award for this morning.

    Please keep up the good work.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #34
  5. Profile Photo Inactive
    @ManfredArcane

    Boy, folks.  This is getting really, really bad.  Follow this post: http://news.yahoo.com/analysis-russias-putin-sees-chance-turn-tables-obama-134514334.html

    You get a sense from the lecturing described therein that the likes of Putin are able to disburse publicly to this US Administration, to the accompaniment of many, albeit discreetly, nodding heads in the peanut gallery of nations, that Obama’s foibles are beginning to sink to Jimmy Carter-type levels.

    • #35
  6. Profile Photo Moderator
    @JamesOfEngland
    Manfred Arcane: Interesting…but, I just googled the journalist, Watson’s 2003 book, and it looks like a total wackjob, conspiracy-theory-type book.  So, that leaves me a bit queasy about crediting his journalism here.  But kudos if he’s right.  Pulitzer Prize, even, eh?

    James Gawron

    Grendel:

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

    Also, it’s from a 9/11 truther site. It’s one of the depressing things with this sort of news that so many people are happy to discard “bourgeois truth”. My facebook feed has been filled with people openly suggesting that they should push stories suggesting doubt despite strongly suspecting them to be false.

    I’m not saying that Grendel was doing this, but I do suspect that that’s why Watson posted what he did.

    • #36
  7. Profile Photo Moderator
    @JamesOfEngland
    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. ·

    The time to be concerned about the wisdom of the red line was when it was made. Now the important thing is that it was made.

    We may be too late to save the first hundred thousand, but there are no signs of the conflict cooling down, and we might be able to stop a second or third hundred.

    If launching a few strikes, with maybe a thousand deaths, had a 5% chance to prevent the deaths of millions (by deterring Iranian or other nuke development or use) would choosing the thousands appall you?

    • #37
  8. Profile Photo Moderator
    @JamesOfEngland
    Mothership_Greg: 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?) · 2 hours ago

    Kerry was pretty persuasive at getting America to abandon the Vietnamese to their fates. If his competence causes America to be uninvolved this time and Iraq collapses as a result, he will have played critical roles in what may be America’s chief two moral failures of his lifetime.

    • #38
  9. Profile Photo Inactive
    @MarkE
    James Of England

    Manfred Arcane: Interesting…but, I just googled the journalist, Watson’s 2003 book, and it looks like a total wackjob, conspiracy-theory-type book.  So, that leaves me a bit queasy about crediting his journalism here.  But kudos if he’s right.  Pulitzer Prize, even, eh?

    James Gawron

    Grendel:

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

    Also, it’s from a 9/11 truther site. It’s one of the depressing things with this sort of news that so many people are happy to discard “bourgeois truth”. My facebook feed has been filled with people openly suggesting that they should push stories suggesting doubt despite strongly suspecting them to be false.

    I’m not saying that Grendel was doing this, but I do suspect that that’s why Watson posted what he did. · 6 minutes ago

    Not only is it from a 9/11 Truther site, but the guy who wrote it is a 9/11 Truther.  If you think Watson is credible on  this “Syrians gassed their own” story, then I expect you also buy into his story that 9/11 was a Mossad plot.

    • #39
  10. Profile Photo Member
    @Grendel
    Manfred Arcane: Interesting…but, I just googled the journalist, Watson’s 2003 book, and it looks like a total wackjob, conspiracy-theory-type book.  So, that leaves me a bit queasy about crediting his journalism here.  But kudos if he’s right.  Pulitzer Prize, even, eh?

    Watson is repeating a report by Dale Gavlak, who is not a wack-job.  The original story at MintPress News explains that it was a Syrian stringer who was on the ground and talking to people.

    It seems to me that what is going on Syria is a proxy war, a hot spot in the new Cold War between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran (and is Qatar in there somewhere?).  If Obama want to do the Team America–World Police (**** Yeah!)- thing, he should be unloading on the principals, since there is no chance he will be able to winkle Syria from under the paws of both, with or without Assad.

    • #40
  11. Profile Photo Inactive
    @ManfredArcane

    You have a marvelous way with words that I much admire, and your last paragraph seems profoundly true.  If only it was you advising Zero, and not the apparent gaggle of high schoolers that seem to be.

    Grendel

    Manfred Arcane: Interesting…but, I just googled the journalist, Watson’s 2003 book, and it looks like a total wackjob, conspiracy-theory-type book.  So, that leaves me a bit queasy about crediting his journalism here.  But kudos if he’s right.  Pulitzer Prize, even, eh?

    Watson is repeating a report by Dale Gavlak, who is not a wack-job.  The original story at MintPress News explains that it was a Syrian stringer who was on the ground and talking to people.

    It seems to me that what is going on Syria is a proxy war, a hot spot in the new Cold War between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran (and is Qatar in there somewhere?).  If Obama want to do the Team America–World Police (**** Yeah!)- thing, he should be unloading on the principals, since there is no chance he will be able to winkle Syria from under the paws of both, with or without Assad. · 2 minutes ago

    • #41
  12. Profile Photo Moderator
    @JamesOfEngland
    The Mugwump:

    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. 

    It’s not routine. There has been no war as bloody as this (~100k in a year) since the Ottoman Empire finished breaking up. The language used to describe the atrocities is the same even when a conflict is far lower intensity, but the truth described by that language is very different.

    The Iraq-Iran war may have been worse in consequence because, while it was less intense, it lasted much longer than this conflict has, but it does not seem implausible that this conflict might go on for long enough to be more consequential.

    • #42
  13. Profile Photo Moderator
    @JamesOfEngland
    Grendel

    Manfred Arcane:

    Watson is repeating a report by Dale Gavlak, who is not a wack-job.  The original story at MintPress News explains that it was a Syrian stringer who was on the ground and talking to people.

    It seems to me that what is going on Syria is a proxy war, a hot spot in the new Cold War between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran (and is Qatar in there somewhere?).  If Obama want to do the Team America–World Police (**** Yeah!)- thing, he should be unloading on the principals, since there is no chance he will be able to winkle Syria from under the paws of both, with or without Assad. ·

    Iraq’s pretty independent of both, although it is an ally of both. The leader of the chief opposition faction is a Christian. I’m not sure why a Syria that was supported by the West (like Egypt) wouldn’t be able to do something similar.

    That said, I love the idea of bombing the Iranians and taking out their nuclear program as an out of the box way of punishing Assad. This is now my first preference for policies. Works on so many levels!

    • #43
  14. Profile Photo Moderator
    @JamesOfEngland
    Embittered Redleg

    James Of England

    Manfred Arcane:

    James Gawron

    Grendel:

    Not only is it from a 9/11 Truther site, but the guy who wrote it is a 9/11 Truther.  If you think Watson is credible on  this “Syrians gassed their own” story, then I expect you also buy into his story that 9/11 was a Mossad plot. · 39 minutes ago

    Now that Grendel’s posted a more respectable source for the story, this isn’t a criticism of the story, but the internal consistency of that is a little disturbing. If you believe that 9/11 was Jews using Saudi agents, then it wouldn’t be hard to believe that this was Jews using Saudi agents. If Watson’s story takes off in the Middle East, it sounds like it has the ingredients for a very popular take on how the Jews are to blame. Obviously, many people have been blaming them since the Syrian conflict started, but they appear to have lacked a clear narrative.

    How depressing.

    • #44
  15. Profile Photo Member
    @

    M. Arcane,

    I may take that cold shower, but FWIW:

    VOA News

    Air Force Scrubs Drone Data

    L Lewis

    Stanford Law Report

    And using drones is nothing like using snipers, who single out a clearly-identified target and take personal risks.  Obama merely classifies any teenager caught in the blast-radius a “terrorist”.  He. Lies.

    • #45
  16. Profile Photo Moderator
    @JamesOfEngland
    MMPadre: M. Arcane,

    I may take that cold shower, but FWIW:

    VOA News

    Air Force Scrubs Drone Data

    L Lewis

    Stanford Law Report

    And using drones is nothing like using snipers, who single out a clearly-identified target and take personal risks.  Obama merely classifies any teenager caught in the blast-radius a “terrorist”.  He. Lies. · 27 minutes ago

    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.

    The only number for non-combatants I saw in that list was from the first link. “The document lists U.S. drone strikes between 2006 and 2009 and shows at least 147 civilian deaths from the attacks, representing about one-fifth of total fatalities. It says most of the rest were militants.” That sounds like less than 1,400 civilian dead to me.

    Would it be better if drone pilots were in personal danger? I don’t understand that element of your comment.

    • #46
  17. Profile Photo Inactive
    @ManfredArcane

    Hold the press.  Just heard Victor Davis Hansen indicate that Obama’s drone strikes have killed 4000.  More than I realized…but still consider the collateral damage as irreducible wages of war.

    MMPadre: M. Arcane,

    I may take that cold shower, but FWIW:

    VOA News

    Air Force Scrubs Drone Data

    L Lewis

    Stanford Law Report

    And using drones is nothing like using snipers, who single out a clearly-identified target and take personal risks.  Obama merely classifies any teenager caught in the blast-radius a “terrorist”.  He. Lies. · 2 hours ago

    • #47
  18. Profile Photo Contributor
    @JohnGrant

    One of these days we will learn to be reluctant about simply accepting the arguments of foreign intelligence agencies.

    And there is the possibility that the release of the chemical agents was an accident. An accidental release occurred at Bari, Italy in 1943 when a German air raid destroyed an American ship carrying chemical weapons. Hundreds of Americans (and an unknown number of Italian) became casualties as a consequence.

    • #48
  19. Profile Photo Inactive
    @ManWiththeAxe
    James Of England

    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. 

    I wonder if you are confusing the massacre at Hama in Syria, with Saddam’s chemical weapon attack on Halabja in Iraq? I don’t recall that chemical weapons were used in Hama.

    Your point is still valid, inasmuch as no one did anything when Saddam used chemical weapons against his own people or against the Iranians during that long war.

    • #49
  20. Profile Photo Inactive
    @ManWiththeAxe

    If we had found large caches of chemical weapons in Iraq the main arguments against Bush’s invasion would have evaporated.

    Why don’t Assad’s proven large caches of chemical weapons provide adequate rationale for attacking the regime itself, in addition to the humanitarian reasons and the broader (viz. Iran) strategic issues?

    • #50
  21. Profile Photo Member
    @Grendel

    There seem to be several points of exposure.  The story of the accidental dispersion could be true but not generally applicable.

    • #51
  22. Profile Photo Moderator
    @JamesOfEngland
    Howellis

    James Of England

    I wonder if you are confusing the massacre at Hama in Syria, with Saddam’s chemical weapon attack on Halabja in Iraq? I don’t recall that chemical weapons were used in Hama.

    Your point is still valid, inasmuch as no one did anything when Saddam used chemical weapons against his own people or against the Iranians during that long war. · 48 minutes ago

    You’re right. I was meaning that the atrocity at Hama was helpful, but I got hopelessly confused. D’oh. Thanks for correcting me.

    John Grant: One of these days we will learn to be reluctant about simply accepting the arguments of foreign intelligence agencies.

    And there is the possibility that the release of the chemical agents was an accident. An accidental release occurred at Bari, Italy in 1943 when a German air raid destroyed an American ship carrying chemical weapons. Hundreds of Americans (and an unknown number of Italian) became casualties as a consequence. · 

    Like Saddam, but with even less excuse, Assad made an effort to effort to hinder inspections. If he didn’t use them, he clearly wants the world to believe he did. Occam’s Razor says he did.

    • #52
  23. Profile Photo Inactive
    @ManfredArcane

    I don’t think you understand them, Zafar.  Your second sentence is just wrong.  Your third is only partially true.  Since your first sentence is surely true, I would think you would pay more attention in this area.  It is not just who we support, but who we are.  They see some kid listen on the radio to some western music, and they consider us “there”.  Some young girl gets it in her head she wants to grow up and do “western” things, like be educated, be a doctor, run a business or write for Ricochet, or, heaven forfend, be a model, and they consider us “there”.  They hate us for many reasons other than the fact we support the more western leaning elements in those parts.

    Regards,

    M. Arcane

    Zafar: Gay man, Manfred, I’d be shot in the head.  But I don’t see Al Qaida flying a plane into a tower because I’m hanging out unmolested in NYC.  They aren’t motivated enough by who we are at home, it’s because of who we support over there.

    “They are here because we are there” – and ironically that holds true for both theWesternarmedforcesandAl Qaida. 

    • #53
  24. Profile Photo Member
    @Zafar

    I can’t think of an example where bombing one country’s civilians to persuade another country not to develop nuclear weapons has worked in the past.  The logic seems faulty to me.

    James Of England

    We may be too late to save the first hundred thousand, but there are no signs of the conflict cooling down, and we might be able to stop a second or third hundred.

    If launching a few strikes, with maybe a thousand deaths, had a 5% chance to prevent the deaths of millions (by deterring Iranian or other nuke development or use) would choosing the thousands appall you?

    But yes.  I would be less appalled if I thought it would do that.  But I don’t think it will.  

    • #54
  25. Profile Photo Member
    @Zafar

    Colour me cynical but a land invasion looks a lot more inviting when you know the other side doesn’t really have chemical weapons to use on you.

    Howellis: If we had found large caches of chemical weapons in Iraq the main arguments against Bush’s invasion would have evaporated.

    Why don’t Assad’s proven large caches of chemical weapons provide adequate rationale for attacking the regime itself, in addition to the humanitarian reasons and the broader (viz. Iran) strategic issues? 

    The alternative.

    Remember – the world more or less accepted it when Saddam used nerve gas on civilians in Halabja.  From memory, he was fighting Iran at the time.

    • #55
  26. Profile Photo Member
    @

    What part of “clearly identified” do you not understand?  Those personal risks imply a level of commitment, integrity, moral clarity and heroism missing in drone attacks.  It’s what’s known as a “warrior ethos”. Snipers don’t do collateral damage.  A camera at 10,000 feet doesn’t do squat with accuracy.  And a blast radius is not a bullet.  Obama is no better than a gang-banger doing drive-bys, with a similar indifference to who gets killed when he wants to whack somebody.  And I’ll match your sleazy euphemism (collateral damage) with a handy neologism:  blowback.  Obama is Al-Quaida’s best recruiter.

    Finally, I don’t get this idea that sniper fire is morally superior to drone attacks because the sniper takes “personal risks”.  Don’t get that at all.

    MMPadre: M. Arcane,

    I may take that cold shower, butFWIW:

    VOA News

    Air Force Scrubs Drone Data

    L Lewis

    Stanford Law Report

    And using drones is nothing like using snipers, who single out a clearly-identified target and take personal risks.  Obama merely classifies any teenager caught in the blast-radius a “terrorist”.  He. Lies. 

    6 hours ago

    • #56
  27. Profile Photo Member
    @Zafar

    Drones certainly might be!

    MMPadre:

    Obama is Al-Quaida’s best recruiter.

    But careful – you’re edging towards saying that they don’t just hate us because they envy our freedoms.

    • #57
  28. Profile Photo Member
    @Zafar

    “They” hate us for all these things, Manfred, but hate is one thing and acting on that hatred, and against whom, and how, is another.  It’s also giving the West a free pass to say that we just support the most Westernised elements in the ME.  What is Westernised?  A despot like the Shah or Mubarak?  What is so Westernised about them?

    • #58
  29. Profile Photo Inactive
    @ManfredArcane

    Look, snipers are great, when you can get them where you need them, with the intelligence they need to fire.  But, drones are much more flexible, can get where they need to be when the target moves, etc..  

    And, who is going to volunteer to be inserted into, oh, I don’t know, maybe Taliban country in the back of beyond in Pakistan to do the dirty work?  You?  See the difference here, right?  Snipers can’t compare in time on target, movement, and oh yeah, not exposing themselves to death.  That last one means a lot to soldiers …and parents of soldiers (like me).  When your son is out in Indian country doing this stuff, then let’s talk again.

    MMPadre: …  Those personal risks imply a level of commitment, integrity, moral clarity and heroism missing in drone attacks.  It’s what’s known as a “warrior ethos”. Snipers don’t do collateral damage.  A camera at 10,000 feet doesn’t do squat with accuracy.  And a blast radius is not a bullet.  Obama is no better than a gang-banger doing drive-bys, with a similar indifference to who gets killed when he wants to whack somebody.  …

     

    • #59
  30. Profile Photo Inactive
    @ManfredArcane

    Well, it is certainly a hypothesis worth debating.  But just asserting it doesn’t make it true.  And even if it were (which I doubt), it still wouldn’t negate the argument for drones.  As long as you can kill Al Queda as fast as they emerge, you have a tactic that works.  But not knowing what the empirical evidence is, I can’t say you are wrong, just that you haven’t established your case.

    Just curious as to how you would get at the bad guys in Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, etc.?  What’s your strategy?  Let’s say the next Osama Bin Laden is training his current crop of dirty bomb carriers somewhere out in the back of beyond.  What do we do then, IYO?

    MMPadre:  And I’ll match your sleazy euphemism (collateral damage) with a handy neologism:  blowback.  Obama is Al-Quaida’s best recruiter.

    • #60
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