The mistake we did not make again

In September 2013 it became clear that toxic gasses (mustard- and sarin-) had been used in the Syrian conflict between president Bashar al-Assad and the rebel factions. It remained, and still remains, unclear however which side made use of this horrific weapon, that has the effect of burning (mustard) and paralyzing (sarin) people, ultimately leading to death. The use of poisonous gas in the conflict was considered a ''war crime'' by UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon.

Tuesday 11 February 2014

The White House quickly pointed towards president Assad as perpetrator, the first reasons being the indication that the gas supposedly had been fired from presidential-controlled parts of Damascus, and launched into a rebel-held part of Damascus. According to Susan Rice, national security advisor of president Obama, the ‘technical evidence’ was significant: a high quality gas was used, launched with a particular rocket.1 The statement was later confirmed by Secretary of State John Kerry, who called the attack of August 21st a ”moral obscenity”, and added that ”the US and its allies are considering a response including possible military strikes on Syria”.2 The use of poisonous gas was considered a ‘red line’ by the Obama administration. France then became the most prominent partaker in the United States war talks, while the United Kingdom – through a vote in the House of Commons – decided not to help intervene in Syria.3 Ultimately, a lapsus linguae by John Kerry prevented an intervention on Syrian grounds, as he stated that Assad’s ‘surrender of his chemical weapons could prevent a US attack’.4 The remark was made as some kind of rhetoric joke, but was directly acted upon – in all seriousness – by Assad and Russia.

Soon after the declarations by the Americans, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated in The Washington Post that Russian forensics had collected evidence suggesting the gas was used by rebel factions. The evidence was based on the findings that the gas was ‘badly produced and was launched with missiles the presidential army does not use’.5 President Putin even took up his pen and wrote a very confrontational column for the New York Times, in which he urged the Americans not to surpass the members of the Security Council of the United Nations.6

The statements from both camps are clearly made because of strategic interests. Western countries have stood by the rebels since the beginning of the uprising, always supporting calls for democracy or the fall of a dictator. On the other hand, Russia has always supported Bashar al-Assad, seeing the president as an important ally in the Middle East, whereas most other Middle Eastern countries are ‘in the Western camp’.

Yesterday a study with the title ”Possible Implications of Faulty US Technical Intelligence” by former UN weapons inspector Richard Lloyd and MIT professor Theodore Postol was published. The study re-examined the technical evidence on which the Obama administration had based its statements concerning the gas attack. Referring to John Kerry’s remarks on the location from where the rockets were fired – ‘the heart of the presidential-controlled areas of Damascus’ – the researchers calculated that the used missiles could never have reached the rebel-held Khan al-Assal neighborhood where the missiles landed. This leaves the possibility of the use of a mobile missile-launch-system. Such a system could also be used by less well organized factions, as it is quite easily obtained and used – yet of course still being very dangerous. Professor Postol stated in an interview with the Dutch Radio 1 that he is very concerned with the current dynamics in American politics, the earlier justification of going to war in Syria towards the senate, and the lack of attention that is paid to wrong intelligence: ”I remain stunned by the American governance failure to react to this in any way. This actually causes me to become more concerned about the state of American leadership.”7

Altogether it appears that the intelligence on which the Obama administration was willing to go to war in Syria, was at least questionable. The same went for the war in Iraq in 2004, that later turned out to have been started on completely false allegations. Whether Iraq and Syria are better off with or without Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad respectively, is of secondary importance. With regards to the consequences that might have taken place, invading a country based on vague or even erroneous intelligence is a mistake ‘the West’ did not make again.

  1. Al-Jazeera, ”UN confirms sarin gas used in Syria attack, visited 10 Feb. 2014.
  2. BBC, ”Syria chemical attack undeniable, says John Kerry, visited 10 Feb. 2014.
  3. Brett Logiurato, ”UK Parliament Stunningly Rejects David Cameron on Syria,”Business Insider, visited 10 Feb. 2014.
  4. Arshad Mohammed, ”Kerry: Syrian surrender of chemical arms could stop U.S. attack,”Reuters, visited 10 Feb. 2014.
  5. Rick Gladstone, ”Russia Says Study Suggests Syria Rebels Used Sarin,”The New York Times, visited 10 Feb. 2014.
  6. Vladimir V. Putin, ”A Plea for Caution from Russia. What Putin Has to Say to Americans About Syria,”The New York Times, visited 10 Feb. 2014.
  7. Radio 1, ”Wie gebruikte sarin in Syrië?, visited 10 Feb. 2014.

intelligence, iraq, John Kerry, Putin, Russia, Syria, US

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