Commentary

The WMD Excuse, Again

When it comes to reports of civilian deaths from chemical weapons in opposition-occupied Syrian towns, the Obama White House suddenly claims to be as certain of its own intelligence as the Bush White House was about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction in October 2002. But it is much easier to rush into war, without congressional or popular approval, than it is to get out.

There was far more humility at the Obama White House the last time similar atrocities led the usual suspects to urge the U.S. to become militarily entangled in Syria. Complaining that “Mr. Obama made no response to a previous claim of chemical-weapons use,” a recent editorial in The Economist concludes that “America’s credibility depends on intervening.” Today, President Obama evidently agrees. But intervening cannot avoid taking sides — helping some favored group of thugs to either seize or retain control of the government (meaning the treasury, army, and police). So, which side is the U.S. supposed to take and why?

The previous claim of chemical-weapons attacks, which The Economistnow accuses President Obama of neglecting, occurred in Aleppo on March 13 and 19. One of the four U.N. investigators, Carla Del Ponte, then said the commission had found some evidence only that anti-government rebels may have used chemical weapons, not the government. Even aside from who used which chemicals, there were other war crimes going on in that rebel-occupied area, including an illegal siege, executions, kidnapping, rape, and torture. As the June “Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic” explains, “Since July 2012, anti-Government armed groups in Aleppo have surrounded Nubul and Zahra, blocking food, fuel, and medical supplies to 70,000 residents. As the siege tightened in recent months, the population, especially women and children, began to suffer malnutrition. The wounded and sick cannot receive medical treatment. Persons attempting to leave the villages are often kidnapped, held for ransom, or killed…. Torture has been documented in detention facilities run by the Judicial Council and the Shari’a Board in Aleppo.”

War crimes and moral obscenities abound on both sides of the Syrian civil war, with thousands of civilians dead and many more displaced. Ruthless people are involved, with Iran on the Assad government’s side and al-Qaeda among the opposition. As for chemical warfare, the U.N. commission concluded in June that “it has not been possible, on the evidence available, to determine the precise chemical agents used, their delivery systems or the perpetrator” [emphasis added]: “Conclusive findings … may be reached only after testing samples taken directly from victims or the site of the alleged attack.”

Four days after the latest claim of a chemical attack, the reprehensible Assad government agreed to let U.N. investigators gather the evidence required to determine what sorts of chemicals were used, how they were delivered, and by whom. Without such an investigation, the general public has little information other than dreadful YouTube videos posted by rebels and activists from the Eastern Ghouta region. Get beyond initial revulsion, though, and it becomes clear that those videos provide extremely ambiguous clues about “the precise chemical agents used, their delivery systems or the perpetrator.”

As the New York Times reported, “visual evidence uploaded to YouTube makes it clear that a large number of civilians were killed on Wednesday, including women, children and the elderly. What remained unclear was how they died, and whether they were victims of a conventional chemical agent, like sarin or mustard gas, or if their deaths might have been caused by the use of a weaker agent in a confined space. Video shared online shows graphic images of dozens of dead people, including women and a large number of young children, including babies in diapers, most of whom were said to have suffocated.” Note that suffocation is not a primary symptom of sarin (which causes convulsions and vomiting) or mustard (which causes blistering). Suffocation instead points to “a weaker agent in a confined space,” such as a toxic industrial chemical or chlorine, perhaps in schools or buses. The conspicuous absence of vomit on the floors or clothing makes sarin or any other nerve gas an extremely unlikely culprit.

The White House nevertheless claims little doubt about the delivery mechanism (small rockets rather than confined spaces), which is why they have little doubt about the perpetrator. “U.S. spy agencies … concluded that the type of rocket used was solely in the possession of regime forces, not the opposition.” That is inconclusive. If U.S. spy agencies actually possess such rockets, not just photos supplied by the opposition, why weren’t the rockets examined to determine the agent used? Since the same rockets are used to deliver conventional explosives, their mere existence (even if discovered at the correct time and place) is insufficient to prove they were filled with illegal chemicals. Moreover, rockets and other weapons from regime forces could have been seized by the opposition in battle, as typical spoils of war.

“In Paris,” reports Reuters, “a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army said the rebels believed government forces had fired 29 missiles… . Not all of the missiles appeared to have carried chemical warheads, the FSA spokesman said, but those that did were suspected to have contained sarin, a Russian-made nerve agent called SC3 [which does not exist] and liquid ammonia supplied by Iran [which would never be mixed with sarin]… . Verifying the handful of warhead pictures from the Damascus area, however, is difficult, with the possibility they might be faked or reproduced from previous attacks elsewhere. Some analysts say they doubt the pictured rockets [with warheads of only one or two liters] could have caused the alleged level of casualties. That might suggest the use of a larger weapon such as a Scud ballistic missile.” The Free Syrian Army spokesman claims that only some fraction of 29 missiles (a dozen?) had chemicals in them, and each was supposedly filled with one or two liters of sarin combined with two other agents that make no sense (except to agitate the U.S. by implicating Iran and Russia). This story, hand-fed to the gullible Western media, cannot possibly explain hundreds of people dying, apparently of suffocation. There is obviously much that is not yet known, and may never be known if the U.S. persists in launching missiles first and asking questions never.

The Obama White House has no patience for any independent investigation, much less a subsequent report the public could examine. Instead, a nameless senior White House official told the Washington Post that “the belated decision by the regime to grant access to the U.N. team is too late to be credible, including because the evidence available has been significantly corrupted as a result of the regime’s persistent shelling.” What does five days of shelling have to do with conducting autopsies or testing survivors and their caretakers to determine what chemical was responsible and whether it worked by skin contact or by inhalation? What does five days have to do with interviewing a credible number of witnesses, asking about odors and other key clues, without suspicious supervision? What does five days have to do with proving the precise chemicals allegedly found in an apparently small number of small rocket shells?

By suggesting that evidence from the crime scene is no longer credible after a few days, the White House is arbitrarily ruling out all persistent chemicals, such as mustard or VX. Those agents remain dangerous for a long time, making five days irrelevant. Sarin does evaporate quickly, but its lingering effects on survivors and medical personnel persist. And there would still be evidence of or at least testimony about massive vomiting that has not yet been seen.

Chlorine, which is easily made from bleach and vinegar, is consistent with reports of respiratory distress and suffocation, including photos of children being helped with oxygen. Sarin, by contrast, has effects that are similar to the effect of pesticide on pests — vomiting, diarrhea, and total loss of muscular control — which is inconsistent with the photos. With sufficient exposure, particularly through inhalation in closed spaces, sarin causes convulsions and death within minutes.

As a weapon, sarin is by far most dangerous when inhaled in a confined space, not when dumped randomly into open spaces. In the largest case of chemical or biological terrorism in recent history, 13 people were killed by sarin in 1995 onJapanese subways. Yet recent reports from hospitals run by opposition forces say that 355 people died, out of 3,600 people who were treated for alleged neurotoxic injuries, commonly presumed to have been caused by sarin (VX does not leave injured survivors, it just kills). To stretch Japan’s record 13 fatalities into hundreds of Syrians supposedly killed by sarin in open spaces by a small number of small rockets, with no apparent vomiting or contamination, requires far more explanation than anyone has offered.

Contact with sarin-contaminated clothing or unwashed skin would have seriously threatened the health of medical personnel. Photos and films from opposition activists, however, show the injured and dead wearing presumably contaminated street clothing and being treated by people without gloves, protective clothing, or gas masks. That would be foolhardy, if not suicidal — which makes the scenes suspect. If allowed some time, U.N. investigators could discover whether many medical helpers were contaminated and, if so, interview them about odors and other evidence. If it turns out that most medical helpers were not contaminated, then we have to ask, Why not? Unfortunately, the Obama administration evidently does not want even such obvious and vital questions to be asked. The Obama team has no doubt that U.S. spies already have all the answers, just as the Bush team had no doubt that U.S. spies had all the answers about Saddam’s WMD schemes and stockpiles.

The last WMD hysteria rationalized nearly nine years of war. One simple lesson of the Iraq War should not have to be relearned: Haste makes waste.

Alan Reynolds, a senior fellow with the Cato Institute, was director of economic research with Jack Kemp’s Tax Reform Commission.