Are the Syrian rebels the ones using chemical weapons?

A new Reuters report casts doubt on U.S. military intelligence

Published May 6, 2013 12:05PM (EDT)

This piece originally appeared on The Brad Blog.

So, wait. It wasn't the Syrian regime, but rather the Syrian rebels who used sarin nerve gas recently? That's the story being reported tonight by Reuters, from actually named sources among U.N. investigators. But will anybody notice? Or, with Israeli airstrikes already under way, and the neo-cons already demanding another new war, is the news too little, too late...again?

The week before last, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, reading from a letter sent by the White House to Congress, announced that the Administration believes that the Syrian government recently used chemical weapons against its own people. If true, it would be a move which President Obama had previously described as a "red line" and a "game changer" in the Administration's policy on the two-year old civil war still raging in that country.

Hagel's statement was somewhat measured [emphasis added]: "Our intelligence community does assess, with varying degrees of confidence, that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically, the chemical agent sarin."

A few days later, during a Presidential press conference, Obama himself was also measured, even back-tracking somewhat on the claim that it was "the Syrian regime" which used the chemical weapon, as Hagel had initially announced, setting off "Breaking News!" tweets around the globe.

"What we now have is evidence that chemical weapons have been used inside of Syria, but we don't know how they were used, when they were used, who used them. We don't have a chain of custody that establishes what exactly happened," the President said, seemingly responsibly. "And when I am making decisions about America’s national security and the potential for taking additional action in response to chemical weapon use, I've got to make sure I've got the facts."

He went on to decry "rushing to judgement without hard, effective evidence," that he planned to work with "neighboring countries to...establish a clear baseline of facts", and that he had "called on the United Nations to investigate."

But the war genie was already out of the bottle. At least for many in both the corporate media and the neo-con Right...

Sen. John McCain, for example, as is his wont, rushed to whatever TV cameras he could find to announce that the intel, as is, was "a compelling argument for the president to take the measures that a lot of us have been arguing for all along."

Syrian rebels, McCain ominously warned on CNN, need to be given "a safe zone, we need to supply them with weapons going to the right people, and we need to be prepared to secure these caches of chemical weapons in the event that [Syrian leader Bashar al Assad] uses them."

And then, with the war hawks squawking over the last several days, it is now being reported that Israel has launched a series of airstrikes against Syria, on the outskirts of its capital, Damascus.

To date, there has been very little pushback against Israel for having unilaterally done so. In fact, the response from the usual quarters has been just the opposite.

"Now THAT's a red line," CNN's paid contributor and former George W. Bush Press Secretary (and current apologist) Ari Fleischer tweeted in response to news of the first Israeli attack inside of Syria on Friday.

"Next time Pres O says he's drawn a red line, ask if he used invisible ink," tweeted Fleischer the week before, after the Administration's initial announcement of the use of sarin in Syria.

Today, the same man who fought so hard to push the nation towards war overinvisible weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, kept up his courageous war of words in celebration of the second reported Israeli strike. "The power of a red line: it's bright &easy 2see. Message - don't cross it. They don't come in shades & aren't meant 2b erased," CNN's Fleischer bravely chest-thumped from behind the safety of his home office keyboard.

It seems hard to believe that there would be as much of a celebration, or even collective "oh, well, guess we saw that coming," had Syria, for example, flown warplanes over Tel Aviv or Jerusalem to drop bombs inside of that sovereign nation. But, after all, we've been told Assad is very bad guy who is not only said to have killed some 70,000 of his own people in the two year old civil war there (a fact which few seem to dispute), but now we know he's even crossed a "red line" with the "game changing" use of chemical weapons! Who can blame Israel for taking action where, to hear McCain and Fleischer and friends tell it, Obama is just too weak to do so!

Of course, it's far from clear that Israel's attacks had anything whatsoever to do with taking out chemical weapons facilities or stockpiles in Syria. From the various anonymous U.S. and Israeli officials cited by news agencies, Israel was striking "a shipment of missiles destined for Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement ... a consignment of advanced, long-range, ground-to-ground missiles destined for Hezbollah"

"The shipment did not contain chemical weapons, but the missiles were potentially 'game-changing,' one official told the Associated Press," Washington Post is reporting.

(Without citing evidence, the fully-discredited-yet-still-well-paid Fleischer described the missiles as "delivery systems for chemical weapons".)

So, the use of chemical weapons (by whom, we still do not know) is a "game changer". The President failed to act (as the neo-cons tell us), by asking the U.N. to investigate and gather more information before the U.S. goes to war. In the meantime, Israel strikes against "game-changing" weapons in Syria, according to anonymous sources for unproven reasons. And few, if any, rush to cameras to condemn Israel for doing so. Most, including CNN's paid contributors like Fleischer, celebrate their having done so.

But what of those "game changing" chemical weapons? Lo and behold, a report out tonight, based on information from U.N. investigators, seems to indicate that it's the Syrian rebels --- the one that McCain et al are calling for Obama to support immediately --- who may have used the sarin nerve gas which kicked off this entire sequence of events.

From Reuters tonight:

U.N. human rights investigators have gathered testimony from casualties of Syria's civil war and medical staff indicating that rebel forces have used the nerve agent sarin, one of the lead investigators said on Sunday.The United Nations independent commission of inquiry on Syria has not yet seen evidence of government forces having used chemical weapons, which are banned under international law, said commission member Carla Del Ponte.

"Our investigators have been in neighboring countries interviewing victims, doctors and field hospitals and, according to their report of last week which I have seen, there are strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas, from the way the victims were treated," Del Ponte said in an interview with Swiss-Italian television.

"This was use on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities," she added, speaking in Italian.

So, it was the rebels, according to actual named sources, not the Syrian regimewhich may have used the sarin gas that set off the chain of events described above over the past week and a half?

Will anybody bother to notice that report? So far, the courageous Fleischer's Twitter feed has remained silent tonight and Grampa McCain is probably already asleep for the night.

Will McCain and Fleischer and the other war hawks soon retract their chest thumping and sabre rattling in light of the U.N. reports? Will they call for the U.S. to take action against the rebels in Syria who may have used chemical weapons?

Will there be an investigation, any investigation at all, into Israel's aggressive --- some might say, unprovoked --- military actions over the past three days?

Or, as is far more likely, will we all largely ignore the Reuters report on the U.N. investigators' findings entirely and carry on, as is, with our previously scheduled war-mongering and our continuing failure to hold war criminals responsible ... so long as they may potentially include those from either the U.S. or Israel?

By Brad Friedman

Investigative journalist and broadcaster Brad Friedman is the creator and publisher of The BRAD Blog. He has contributed to Mother Jones, The Guardian, Truthout, Huffington Post, The Trial Lawyer magazine and Editor & Publisher.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Reuters Syria The Middle East U.n. Investigation