Obama's Red Lines Hold Up; Syrian CW Claims Do Not
Evidence of chemical warfare simply does not hold up. Obama's red line is not wavering. Western democracies cannot afford another Curveball. If transatlantic leaders believe that 80,000 dead in the civil war are insufficient to justify military intervention under humanitarian law, then why would a few fatalities from (supposed) chemical weapons sway the international community? Is it perhaps that "80,000" is already a "statistic," while politicians are looking for a "tragedy"?
Possible use of chemical weapons (CWs) in Syria once again became a hot topic after the White House, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry suggested on 25 April that the US has proof to support the allegations. Using extremely cautious phrasing, Hagel said that US intelligence agencies have "some degree of varying confidence" in the evidence. He echoed the contents of letters the White House had sent earlier to Senators Carl Levin and John McCain. Since then the discussion of claimed CW use in Syria has less to do with the allegations themselves than whether Syria had crossed the red line drawn by President Barack Obama in August of last year. Particularly proponents of military intervention or arming the insurgents accuse Obama of weak resolve and point to possible diplomatic and military implications for addressing Iran's unwillingness to scale back its nuclear program.
In the heat of the discussions one may easily overlook that since the start of the Syrian civil war over two years ago, there have been only six site- and time-specific allegations of chemical warfare: one towards the end of December 2012, three in March 2013 (including the one of 19 March, which led the Syrian government to request the UN Secretary General to launch an investigation against the rebels), and two in April. However, despite the ubiquity of camera-equipped smart phones in the Arab world, the accusations lack density. Few pictures and film fragments are available and they cover even fewer locations. They show no bodies and no sites of attack. Symptoms as filmed do not correspond with those normally associated with exposure to the claimed agents, whether chlorine or sarin. To state it crudely, based on publicly available information, nothing points conclusively to a single CW incident and for each claim plausible alternative explanations still await refutation.
This is not to say that nothing has happened. For example, production and storage sites might have been hit, thereby releasing toxic chemicals that affect nearby people. Of the forensic samples from incident sites some governments appear to possess, the provenance is uncertain. The White House letters state that the "chain of custody is not clear," which suggests that the US obtained its samples or analyses from sources other than US operatives on the ground. Possibly from the UK; possibly from Israel. The Foreign Office quickly supported the White House statement, stating that Britain has "limited but persuasive" evidence of the use of chemical weapons in Syria, including sarin gas. It recognized that independent verification of the allegations by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is necessary, but its evidence formed sufficient basis for the UK to have requested UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to widen his investigation after Syrian President Bashir al-Assad's original request.
Obama's red line for greater involvement in the conflict is not wavering. The evidence of chemical warfare simply does not hold up. Unfortunately, the UN and OPCW inspectors gained no access to Syria and have now left their staging area in Cyprus. Western democracies cannot afford to be knocked down by another Curveball, especially not 10 years after the invasion of Iraq, which was based on very flawed claims of chemical and biological armament programs. If Western leaders believe that 80,000 dead in the civil war are insufficient to justify foreign military intervention under humanitarian law, then why would a few scores of fatalities from (supposed) chemical attacks sway the international community, represented by the UN and other regional security and humanitarian institutions? Is it perhaps that "eighty thousand" already represents a "statistic," while politicians today are desperately looking for a "tragedy"?
Dr Jean Pascal Zanders directs The Trench, an initiative dedicated to investigating the future of disarmament. He was previously Senior Research fellow at the European Union Institute for Security Studies (2008–2013), Director of the BioWeapons Prevention Project (2003–2008) and Leader of the Chemical and Biological Warfare Project of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (1996–2003).