Who turned on the gas?

Obama plays God, seeks to smite Syria
for its sin, but some evidence points to
rebels—& Saudi suppliers—as culprits

A WALL commentary

In pushing for a “small, limited” attack on Syria — to punish  President Assad for his supposed use of chemical weapons — President Obama and subordinates seem to have aimed at the wrong foe.

They call it “undeniable” that Assad was the culprit. But how could it be undeniable when Assad denied it? He admitted possessing such weapons but not using them. Syria and its ally, Russia, both blamed the rebels for the gas attack, August 21, 2013, which killed hundreds of civilians.

By the way, the U.S. possesses chemical weapons too, and has used them. Iraqis, Afghans, Vietnamese, and others have been victims of such weapons as napalm, white phosphorus, and radioactive “depleted” uranium, let alone cluster bombs, fuel air explosive bombs, and other mass killing devices. Civilians in the hundred of thousands succumbed to George W. Bush’s second war — launched over Iraq’s imaginary “weapons of mass destruction.” The U.S. killed millions in Indochina and Korea. Truman obliterated two Japanese cities with atomic bombs.

          One piece of evidence that the Obama administration has ignored consists of interviews conducted in Syria by the Minnesota-based news outfit Mint Press News. A story by Dale Gavlak and Yahya Ababneh, August 29, presents a picture of chemical weapons and financing given to Syrian rebels by Saudi Arabia through Prince Bandar.

Ababneh interviewed some dozen rebels who, he reported, said the Saudi government paid their salaries. The interviews suggest that rebels fatally used the weapons, which had been supplied by the Saudis. They further suggest that the rebels may not have fully understood those weapons. See: EXCLUSIVE: Syrians in Ghouta Claim Saudi-Supplied Rebels Behind Chemical Attack / Rebels and local residents in Ghouta accuse Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan of providing chemical weapons to an al-Qaida linked rebel group.”

Last spring, evidence that rebels had used the nerve agent sarin emerged from interviews that human rights investigators conducted with Syrian victims, doctors, and medical workers. So reported the Reuters news agency from Geneva on May 5. Carla Del Ponte, a member of the United Nations independent commission of inquiry on Syria, said investigators had received indications of the gas’s “use on the part of the rebels, not by the government authorities.”


AP doubts U.S. claims

The Associated Press expressed skepticism about the U.S. claims. In a September 8 story from Beirut headed “Doubts linger over Syria gas attack responsibility,” Zeina Karam and Kimberly Dozier refused to accept official U.S. claims that it had intelligence to connect the Syrian government to the unleashing of the chemical weapons.

 “… The public has yet to see a single piece of concrete evidence produced by U.S. intelligence — no satellite imagery, no transcripts of Syrian military communications,” they wrote. A week after Secretary of State John Kerry presented the administration’s case against Assad, the American people “haven’t seen a shred of his proof.”

Multiple U.S. officials told AP  that there was no direct link between Assad and the unleashing of fatal chemicals. Moreover, U.S. intelligence admitted that it could not keep track of all chemical weapons in Syria, leaving open the possibility of insurgent possession.

Among pros and cons in the story was a comment by Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese army general, who heads the Beirut-based Middle East Center for Studies and Political Research. He questioned the U.S. contention that the rebels could not have launched such sophisticated weapons. Among about 70,000 defectors from the Syrian military, many now fighting for the opposition, some could have been trained to fit rockets or artillery shells with chemical agents, in Jaber’s view. He said Syrian rebels had acquired chemical weapons from Saudis, who had bought them from Libyan tribes following the fall of Khadafi.

AP compared the Obama administration’s case for military action against Syria to the Bush administration’s case against Iraq, in which false data about so-called weapons of mass destruction were used to justify Bush’s 2003 invasion. The Obama administration claimed that satellite imagery and intercepted communications showed Syrian government guilt, yet it denied multiple requests from AP to see them.


‘Unbelievably small, limited’ slaughter

In trying to convince the American people to trust a war-hungry branch of government that had lied to them for generations, Secretary Kerry made a point of minimizing the war that he and the president were cooking up. It would be an “unbelievably small, limited” attack. He stopped just short of adding, “It will consist of only of a few pistol shots,” or quoting the commandment that says, “Thou shalt not kill, except in a small, limited way.”

          The Pentagon, however, wants a war it can be proud of. So in a September 7 Los Angeles Times story by David S. Cloud, officers discussed plans for “a heavy barrage of missile strikes followed soon after by more attacks on targets that the opening salvos missed or failed to destroy.” The projectiles would be fired from five warships in the Mediterranean Sea, four warships in the Red Sea, and perhaps Air Force bombers too.

The initial barrage would take three days, after which the U.S. military would hit any of 50 targets still standing, or maybe choose new ones to assure that Assad suffered significant losses. Then, if Assad retaliated — and he has threatened to retaliate if attacked — he would be hit again. They did not say what would happen if Syria’s ally, Russia, retaliated. (Notice how military brass talk of fighting one man, though in reality many men, along with children and women, become their victims.)

          At first, the Syrians were allowed no way out. They had never threatened or endangered the U.S. in any way, yet they were to be bombed, and that was that. Obama had spoken. It would be unmitigated aggression, contrary to U.S. treaty obligations. Take the United Nations Charter, requiring members to “refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force …” (Article 2).

 On September 9, a reporter asked Secretary Kerry if there was anything Assad could do to avoid a U.S. attack. Kerry said, “Sure. He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week, turn it over, all of it without delay, and allow the full and total accounting.” Kerry added gratuitously, “But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done.” An aide later explained that in advising Assad, Kerry was talking hypothetically. Clearly he was not talking sincerely.

           But Russia’s Putin seized the idea. That very day, he asked Syria to put its stockpile of chemical weapons under international control so it could be destroyed. Within hours, Assad agreed. Obama went along. Putin was doing both Assad and Obama a favor.

            It had evidently been a public outcry against a new war that prompted Obama to seek congressional support and prompted Congress to put its foot down. Millions of Americans responded to Obama’s threat with written and voiced messages, overwhelmingly against war with Syria. No vote was taken in either the Senate or the House of Representatives, because the outlook seemed dim for the (pro-war) leadership in both houses.



            On September 14, Russia and the U.S. reached an agreement. Syria would list its chemical weapons within a week. There would be inspection by November and removal and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, agents, and facilities by mid 2014. The UN Security Council would supervise and, in case of noncompliance, it should impose measures under the Charter. Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, noted that the agreement said nothing of force or automatic sanctions.

            But war, not peace, remains on Obama’s lips: “If diplomacy fails, the United States remains prepared to act” (i.e. bomb), he said, ignoring the constitutional role of Congress. He is not an impartial observer of the Syrian civil war. On August 15, Obama came out for regime change: “…The time has come for President Assad to step aside.” And the CIA has been delivering light machine guns and other small arms to Syrian rebels for several weeks. The agency has also arranged to get the rebels antitank weapons, like rocket-propelled grenades. It is not clear how the weapons could be kept out of the hands of those rebels who are al-Qaeda adherents.

On September 10, Thom Hartmann, national talk-show host, commented about Obama’s comment a year earlier that Syria would cross a “red line” if it used chemical weapons. The purpose of the remark, Hartmann said, was to look tough in the election. In making the remark, he added, Obama handed the Syrian rebels a weapon: It was the tip that all they had to do to get Americans into the civil war on their side was to make it look as though the regime had used chemical weapons.

Hartmann drew a parallel between Obama’s off-the-cuff remark and action – the planning of an act of war – and what John F. Kennedy said and did in the sixties: The Cuban missile crisis stemmed from Kennedy’s tough words during his election campaign, in which he accused Nixon of being weak on Communism. So when news of the Soviet missiles in Cuba came out, Kennedy felt he had to follow through by acting tough.

It can be argued that each man risked war – possibly a nuclear world war – to save face after each man shot his mouth off for the sake of politics.


Letter to Obama

          The San Francisco-based War and Law League (WALL) faxed many letters to Congress and the following, on August 29, to President Barack Obama:

            Innocent people are dying in Syria. So why go there and kill more? We think that as a peace-prize recipient, you should be trying to end the bloodshed, not add to it.


          Some presidents have acted as peacemakers: Bill Clinton arranged mediation to settle the internal strife in Northern Ireland. Jimmy Carter helped to end the Egypt-Israel hostility. Theodore Roosevelt mediated the end of the Russo-Japanese war.


           You say chemical weapons were used. Can we be holier-than-thou? The U.S. has long used chemical weapons in war: napalm, radioactive-uranium shells, white phosphorus bombs, etc. Under Reagan, the U.S. arranged to supply Iraq with gas and biological weapons for its war on Iran.


           As the late reporter Helen Thomas asked President Reagan, following his attack on Grenada, “What right do we have invade a foreign country?”


           We dispute the argument that the credibility of the U.S. requires that it attack a foreign country. The reverse is true:


           In the U.N. Charter, a binding treaty of the U.S. we pledged to settle disputes only by peaceful means (Articles 2 and 33). In the Kellogg-Briand Peace Pact (1928), we renounced war as an instrument of national policy.


            The U.S. Constitution authorized only Congress – not the president – to decide whether or not to take any military action. The aim was to make it hard for just one man to hurry us into war (according to framers James Madison and James Wilson).


             And which of the Ten Commandments says, “Thou shalt kill”?

             The credibility of the United States requires peace.

Written Sept. 12, 2013. Modified Sept. 16