Kerry signals US Intervention in Syria, but to What End?

Secretary of State John Kerry strongly suggested in remarks on Monday that President Obama has concluded that the ruling Baath regime in Syria was responsible for poison gas attacks last Wednesday that reportedly left hundreds dead, including non-combatant women and children. He further suggested that the Obama administration intended to respond in some way to this alleged regime atrocity.

AFP reports

Kerry instanced the reports of the Doctors without Borders organization that operates in 3 Damascus-area hospitals.

This is report from Doctors without Borders to which Secretary Kerry was presumably referring:

“MSF can neither scientifically confirm the cause of these symptoms nor establish who is responsible for the attack,” said Dr. Janssens. “However, the reported symptoms of the patients, in addition to the epidemiological pattern of the events—characterized by the massive influx of patients in a short period of time, the origin of the patients, and the contamination of medical and first aid workers—strongly indicate mass exposure to a neurotoxic agent. This would constitute a violation of international humanitarian law, which absolutely prohibits the use of chemical and biological weapons.”

Note that it is not as conclusive as Kerry suggested, though it is very suggestive.

Some have asked why the regime would risk using poison gas when it has been making gains against the rebels. But the regime’s advances are minor and tenuous. It only took the small town of Qusayr with Hizbullah help! And ‘advances’ in Homs were just scorched earth destruction of neighborhoods. They were offset by loss of a major air base near Aleppo, key for resupply of troops up there because roads north are insecure. The regime can only advance here or there, but doesn’t have manpower to take back substantial territory.

My guess is that rebels in Rif Dimashq in outskirts of the capital were making inroads toward Damascus itself. Defensive troops are off tied down in Homs. Since the capital is the real prize and end game, the regime decided to let them know it wouldn’t be allowed. It is the typical behavior of a weak regime facing superior demographic forces (the Alawites are far outnumbered by Sunnis) to deploy unconventional weaponry. Although there was a risk in using the gas, the regime may have felt threatened enough to take the risk, confident that it could muddy the waters afterwards with charges that it was actually the rebels who were behind it.

I don’t find the ‘false flag’ narrative about the gas attack put forward by the Russians plausible. Rebel forces are not disciplined enough to be sure of being able to plot and carry out a mass murder of the families that have been sheltering them in East and West Ghouta and to keep it secret. How could they have been sure no one among them would get cold feet and blow the whistle? Killing hundreds of women and children from your own clans would be objectionable to at least some in any group of fighters. The fighters in Rif Dimashq are not the hardened Jabhat al-Nusra types. Besides, capturing and deploying rocket systems tipped with poison gas is not so easy; even just operating them takes training.

It is not clear what an American intervention would achieve. It is likely that Washington will conduct a limited punitive operation, perhaps hitting regime buildings with Tomahawk missiles. The latter would avoid the regime’s sophisticated anti-aircraft systems, which might be able to fell an F-18 fighter jet.

It should be obvious, however, that any such strike would be a form of retaliation for President al-Assad’s flouting of international law. It would not actually protect Syrians from their government, and it would be unlikely to alter the course of the civil war.

Such a strike would carry with it some dangers for the US. It is not impossible that the Baath would respond by targeting US government facilities or businesses in the region. It is also possible that it would target Israel in revenge. An American strike might bring the Iranian Revolutionary Guards into Syria in greater forces.

But it is also possible that the regime will hunker down and concentrate on surviving its domestic challenge.

Either way, the people of Homs and other contested cities will likely go on suffering the regime’s indiscriminate assaults, and it is unlikely that a few Tomahawk strikes will affect the course of the war.

128 Responses

  1. Syria is one of only a handful of countries who is not a signatory to the treaty banning chemical weapons.

    In June of this year, Pat Buchanan believed the “false flag” characterization and compared allegations of Baathist nerve gas use to the Gulf of Tonkin incident.

    More recently a former Swedish diplomat who had experience in the inspections of Iraq in 1990s found the accusations of use of chemical weapons doubtful given the fact that outside inspection teams were coming to Syria.

    The Russians are not the only ones discounting the likelihood of Baathist chemical weapons deployment.

    • So, there’s Syria’s allies, Pat Buchanan, and a former diplomat with no access to intelligence who is guessing about motives.

      • Sounds really impressive: being on the Inside, with “access to intelligence.” That “access” would just guarantee a proper, honest, wise determination of facts, options and actions.

        On the other hand, it ought to be clear from any number of prior events, on the Great World Stage and in its wings, that “access to intelligence” too often means exactly ZERO, or a significant negative number, to the “implementation of policy.” And even the cognoscenti know and have to acknowledge the weaknesses and frauds inherent in “intelligence.”

    • “In Iraq, we went to war on the basis of lies originally uttered by fakers and conmen. Now it’s war by YouTube. This doesn’t mean that the terrible images of the gassed and dying Syrian civilians are false. It does mean that any evidence to the contrary is going to have to be suppressed. For example, no-one is going to be interested in persistent reports in Beirut that three Hezbollah members – fighting alongside government troops in Damascus – were apparently struck down by the same gas on the same day, supposedly in tunnels. They are now said to be undergoing treatment in a Beirut hospital. So if Syrian government forces used gas, how come Hezbollah men might have been stricken too? Blowback?”

      link to independent.co.uk

      Any news here?

    • A little more detail on the hypocrisy in action:

      “Exclusive: CIA Files Prove America Helped Saddam as He Gassed Iran —
      The U.S. knew Hussein was launching some of the worst chemical attacks in history — and still gave him a hand.”

      link to foreignpolicy.com

      And apparently, along with the rest of the World Community, did not have much to say about Soviet-Empire chemical weapon use in Afghanistan, and maybe Chechnya… link to digitaljournal.com

  2. Dear Prof. Cole,

    would it not make sense to let the UN inspectors complete their work to at least identify which chemical agent was used, whether it was weapons-grade and how it may have been delivered before drawing conclusions on who did it. Your scenario is not implausible but it is clearly just guessing at this point. Militarily attacking a country based on guesswork, without UN authorization, without any clearly defined goals and against the will of the overwhelming majority of Americans is not only a violation of international law but a recipe for disaster.

    DJ

      • I don’t know about “destroyed.” As I understand the chemistry and the nature of the munitions, there will be chemical signatures that modern detectors honestly used can mark, and the ironmongery might be scattered, but the forensic tools out there have done a lot of pinpointing in more “scattered” scenes…

      • Not meaning to be rude, but why would anyone accept the notion that “bombardment of the site of chemical use likely destroyed the evidence”?

        If it is Sarin or VX or some other military-grade nerve agent then the weapon is in the form of an air-dispersed liquid. Why would “bombardment” destroy that in clothing or water supplies?

        Nerve agents aren’t houses: you can’t bomb ‘em away.

        • The chemicals that were used, yes.

          But evidence of the means of delivery – rocket parts, for instance – would be destroyed by heavy bombardment.

          And that is the evidence that would be most useful for ascertaining who carried out the attack.

        • I think Joe is just wrong on this one, and why does he think it necessary to discount or obscure the potential findings of provenance here? Lay aside the degree of “heavy bombardment” he wants to be presumed, which would not be 155mm shells on 5-foot centers in any event: even after the munitions’ remains are worked over and displaced, they will be recognizable. I’m not the only one who has seen, up close, an area that has been “worked over” by HE, including ammo dump explosions, and it would be a careful forensic job, of course, to separate out the nasty and telling parts. But with what is riding on an honest finding of source and responsibility, one has to ask why that effort should be discouraged, disparaged or aborted. Even buildings that are rubble-ized by HE still have recognizable bits, and re-bar and rocket parts are steel and hard alloys and are not reduced to invisibility.

      • You cant destroy chemical particles, thats a lie by the warmongers.

        • One type of weapon, thermobaric, would destroy most evidence of a chem weapon attack. It incinerates everything at high temp and high pressure. This might be what some are thinking of, rather than thinking that high explosive artillery will pulverize evidence to impossibly small bits.
          .

          But I don’t think Syria has that type of weapon.

        • Not only would shelling destroy evidence, but it would also contaminate the site.

          It’s now full of bits from Syrian government artillery and rockets. Which ones are from yesterday, and which ones are from last Wednesday?

          This is all moot, however. The UN team’s mandate doesn’t include determining who launched the attack, only whether one occurred and what chemical was used.

    • “would it not make sense to let the UN inspectors complete their work to at least identify which chemical agent was used, whether it was weapons-grade and how it may have been delivered before drawing conclusions on who did it.”

      The point is not to make sense. It is to avoid the possible inconvenience of discovering the Assad regime is not to blame.

      “Militarily attacking a country based on guesswork, without UN authorization, without any clearly defined goals and against the will of the overwhelming majority of Americans is not only a violation of international law but a recipe for disaster.”

      The United States helped to write those laws, but that doesn’t mean its new leaders have to obey them, especially when they can get away with flouting them. In the case of Iraq, it wasn’t really guesswork about WMDs. Everyone except the gullible knew, or at least considered it a good bet, that Saddam Hussein didn’t have any.

  3. If the Assad regime is close to losing the capital it is hard to see how even a few hundred rebel fighters killed in a gas attack would alter the momentum of the battle. It would have to be true desperation as any NATO bombing would prevent troop reinforcements and allow each regime area to be isolated and overrun.

    On the other hand if the war is stalemated and largely off Western television over the last few months, a gas attack blamed on the regime which pulls in NATO is just what the rebels need.

    • I notice that Secretary Kerry didn’t say anything about the rebels. A series of punitive strikes to deter future chemical warfare attacks may provide some benefit to them, but it is not the same thing as joining up with the rebellion.

      • Agreed. Also, even if it’s unlikely, what if the rebels DID use the gas? Will we treat them the same way we’d treat the regime? Under those circumstances, wouldn’t we be morally obligated to SUPPORT Assad?

  4. A revenge strike on Israel and the entrance of Iranian forces is of course what Netanyahu’s hoping for. Is it possible that Assad used CW to let us know he’s got it and can give it to Al Quaeda?

    • That is even less plausible than Saddam giving them to al Qaeda.

      At least Saddam, in 2002-3, was not actively involved in a shooting war with an al Qaeda affiliate.

      Not to mention, it was already universally known, even before Arab Spring, that Syria had chemical weapons.

      • Well, if the US wanted to give Assad a reason or motivation to supply chemical weapons to al-Quaeda, they could hardly do better than attacking him. Isn’t what they’re supposed to be, a deterrent? If you have a deterrent and don’t use it to deter an attack or to save your own hide, what good is it?

        I like the point raised above — if the Syrian rebels, those good ol’ heart-eating noblemen, use chemical weapons will we then turn on them? Or will we look the other way as we looked the other way when the Iraqis, then our good buddies, gassed the nasty Iranians in the 1980s?

        • Well, if the US wanted to give Assad a reason or motivation to supply chemical weapons to al-Quaeda, they could hardly do better than attacking him.

          Because increasing the military power of the people fighting him would cause him to even further increase their power?

          “I’m being attacked by al Qaeda! Oh no, now I’m being attacked by al Qaeda and the United States! I’d better give chemical weapons to al Qaeda!”

          Donald Rumsfeld’s own Office of Special Plans couldn’t dream up a sillier scenario.

  5. An observer rules out Sarin (and other nerve agents). Possibly a toxic industrial chemical (intentional Bopal)or riot control agent used:

    link to strongpointsecurity.co.uk

    Another observer thinks injuries observed on videos are consistent with a fuel-air-explosive:

    link to syriaanalysis.wordpress.com

    America certainly should not start another war based uncertainty.

    Over 400 people were killed a couple of weeks ago in Egypt and there is no call to invade that country.

    • Yes, exactly. Where is the concern for the Egyptian “regime” that is also currently killing “it’s own people”?

      Hypocrisy on paraded as usual.

    • Actually it wasnt 400 it was well the double, rather closer to 1000. Yes the hypocrisy is striking!

    • The MSF-affiliated doctors who treated the victims reported being contaminated by contact with the victims.

      400 people in Egypt were not killed in a chemical warfare attack. If you object to treating chemical and biological warfare as especially heinous and dangerous, take it up with the Geneva Protocols. It’s funny how no one had a problem with the status of chemical warfare until it became necessary in order to be on the other side of the United States.

      • Yet as noted here in this thread, the US had no problem helping Saddam use chemical weapons against them rotten Iranians, nor really even “his own Kurdish people,” nor did “we” make a big noise about Soviet use of chemical weapons in Afghanistan. Setting this up as some kind of moral mandate just reeks of hypocrisy, and other stuff.

        And some folks have noted that “we” actually helped Saddam, at least, build the Iraqi chemical, biological and nuclear capabilities: I’m sure this stuff is just D F Hippie CT, right? link to counterpunch.org Looks like the profit-takers and geopoliticians in all of NATO and allied colonial-imperial powers had a hand in making the mucking fess, and now want to reposition their halos, and to have the rest of us pay to “stop the evil” that they engendered…

        • 40 miles south of my home, the US Army just found 3 more leaking mustard gas bombs.
          link to denverpost.com

          The Good News ?
          the remaining 800,000 rounds don’t appear to be leaking yet.
          And this is just one of 9 such chem weapons depots across the US.

          Did the USA build 10 million chem weapons with no intention of ever using them ?
          God bless America.

        • Correction, JT: Ronald Reagan’s administration had no problem helping Saddam use chemical weapons.

          Ronald Reagan, in short, sucked. I strongly suggest we do very much the opposite of Ronald Reagan.

          Anyway, it’s good to see that you have your priorities straight: America must learn its lesson about hypocrisy, and the resurgence of chemical warfare as a feature of the modern world is just going to be the price that has to be paid.

          Sorry, Uigher Province 2037: JT McPhee had a point to make about America.

        • Did the USA build 10 million chem weapons with no intention of ever using them ?

          Yes, just as we built thousands of nuclear ICBMs with no intention of ever using them. Deterrence, and deterrence in kind, are concepts that most good international relations texts delve into.

      •  Kerry talks in behalf of US policies which is equal to US policies  under Regan and  the others.
         find moral  reasons, which in turn we discover they are lies , to  invade souverain countries and kill innocent people.
        This film  was seen,to name a few , by the people of Honduras, Iran, afghanistan , Irak , pakistan, Yemen, Lybia… 
        This is  why US is so hated around the world.

        • Kerry talks in behalf of US policies which is equal to US policies under Regan and the others.

          Kerry speaks for the Reagan administration.

          I remember, during the runup to the Iraq War, rolling my eyes at people who brought up the Anfal campaign as a reason for their opinion about the war – as if nothing had changed since then.

          My eyes continue to roll.

          Random Bad Stuff ‘Bout America is not a legitimate reason to allow chemical warfare to return as a feature of modern war and global security. There has to be something beneath rooting for or against teams here.

      • Joe,
        I think the reference is not specific to John Kerry, but to the USA’s claim of national moral superiority.
        While it was folks like Don Rumsfeld and Dick Chaney who were winking in approval, they did it on behalf of you and me, not just the GOP.

        • Brian,

          I’m quite aware that the effort is to smear the entirety of the United States, in order to avoid discussing the Obama administration, John Kerry, and the actual situation and actors we’re dealing with.

          It’s akin to objecting to the prosecution of George Zimmerman on the grounds that Florida law enforcement has done racist things.

      • What has Kerry’s current hyperbolic hypocrisy got to do with whether he worked for “Reagan” (and the Bush League?) The point you’re trying to obscure is that the US government aided, abetted, and was dirt-deep demonstrably involved in chemical warfare (via convenient and eventually disposable and deposable proxy), many times in the “90 year norm.” When “the national interest” made it A-OK, of course…

        • John Kerry’s “hyperbolic rhetoric” (apparently, we’re no longer allowed to say that chemical warfare is bad, Mr. Morality informs us) has a great deal more to do with what is happening now than the actions of non-John Kerry figures a quarter century ago.

          Should Bashar Assad get away with gassing people? Yes, because the Reagan administration blah blah blah. Oh, OK, now I understand why Bashar Assad should be allowed to gas people.

          Or did your point, as usual, have nothing to do with the matter at hand, and function solely, again as usual, as nothing but a chance to chant “USA! USA!” backwards?

  6. It is hardly possible that Assad would lash out at Israel, as Netanyahu would seize the opportunity to pulverize Syria. I think the idea of destroying airfields and fighter jets, which probably can be done with little risk, should be considered.

  7. There are many roads into this conflict in Syria but as yet I have not heard anyone with a realistic plan for getting out again.

    No one is in any doubt that the current Syrian government could be ousted with western military involvement but what does that achieve other than a different form of chaos?

    Frustrating though it might be, there has to be a UN backed plan to end this civil war. None of us like what is going on but it would be an insane decision for the US to get involved without a clear exit plan.

  8. I don’t see any mention here of the strategy of drawing US into the war in order to excite the base of anti-US opinion and more energy for the regime’s struggle. A deliberate provocation designed for US opinion to draw Obama into the strategic mistake of response. i.e. the only way out of the war is to expand the war. Is that plausible, or did I miss the mention, or is it implicit in the whole discussion? It seems like an important point for the US public to understand.

  9. The return of chemical warfare is horror that the entire world should abhor. It cannot be allowed to happen. The 90-year-old norm must be upheld.

    The next monster that thinks about launching a chemical attacks needs to look at the example of Bashar al-Assad and think twice. Otherwise, get ready for a world with a lot more gas attacks.

    • I agree. Time to put Israel and the U.S. on trial for their admitted use of napalm, depleted uranium and phosphorus. Of course their targeting of civilians, illegal wars, and use of assassination and drones are also war crimes equally as immoral as the use of chemical weapons.

      Regarding the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria . . . the most likely culprits are the Western-backed Salafists or Israel.

      Unfortunately Israel and the U.S. prevent any real justice from being done so it’s pointless to argue for the U.N. or other international bodies to seek justice. One can only hope the evildoers rot in hell. There is no justice.

      • From the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993:

        1. “Chemical Weapons” means the following, together or separately:
        (a) Toxic chemicals and their precursors, except where intended for purposes not prohibited under this Convention, as long as the types and quantities are consistent with such purposes;
        (b) Munitions and devices, specifically designed to cause death or other harm through the toxic properties of those toxic chemicals specified in subparagraph (a), which would be released as a result of the employment of such munitions and devices;
        (c) Any equipment specifically designed for use directly in connection with the employment of munitions and devices specified in subparagraph (b).

        Neither napalm, nor DU, nor phosphorus are chemical weapons. Are you under the impression that any of these weapons kill “through the toxic properties of those toxic chemicals?” Why, I wonder, do helicopters fire DU shells at tanks? To poison people?

        Could we please make some minimal effort to acquaint ourselves with what the term “chemical weapons” refers to?

        • Napalm, DU, and white phosphorus are also not found on any of the three Schedules that are appendixes to the Chemical Weapons Convention.

          Of the two “Hey, look over theres!” being bandied about, the one that is merely removed from the situation by time, party, person, and ideology is probably better than the one that is removed from the situation by the laws of physics.

  10. When the clear majority of Americans oppose it, and no US interests are in harm’s way, does a president have the moral authority to wage warfare in our name anyway? I say he does not. Not this one, not his predecessor.

    • I agree with this. Either we’re a democracy or not, and increasingly, it seems that Presidents take us into war with regularity and without regard for public wishes. Except to harness the media for propaganda points. No one likes seeing images of dead or injured children, but will we see these same photos after a US missile/bombing attack? What about the thousands and thousands of civilian Iraqis and Afghans who were blown to smithereens by American munitions and “collateral damage”?

  11. I agree that the rebel fighters would not have carried out a mass murder of families who are feeding and sheltering them. I think Dr. Cole’s assessment, however, is too limited in it’s choices (either it was the Assad regime or the rebels).

    There are additional entities out there with their own separate interests who MIGHT carry out a mass murder of families in order to achieve their goals. Israel may see the introduction of chemical weapons as a way to (eventually) entangle Iran (whom they are convinced is developing nuclear weapons; and Saudi Arabia did not seem very happy with the support their receiving (in arming the rebels) from the West.

    I’m not sure this is an ‘either/or’ (Assad/rebels) scenario…

    • If we’re playing that angle, I nominate Turkey. major weapons supplier/transshipment point for the rebels and has wanted this war for years.

      • I submit that when you hear hoof beats you should think horses, not unicorns.

        Gee, who could have possibly fired chemical shells at the Syrian rebels?

        Not that nice Bashar Assad. That doesn’t make any sense.

  12. JC: “I don’t find the ‘false flag’ narrative about the gas attack put forward by the Russians plausible.”

    There are stories circulating that “Russia’s ambassador in the UN Security Council, Vitaly Churkin, presented conclusive evidence – based on documents and Russian satellite images – of two rockets carrying toxic chemicals, fired from Douma, controlled by the Syrian “rebels”, and landing on East Ghouta.”

    The public comments of the Russians are very forthright in saying that the rebels are responsible.

    Not that it is “unclear” or that Who Done It is “unknowable”.

    The Russians are saying – no beatin’ around the bush, but flat-out saying – that the rebels were responsible.

    Compare and contrast with John Kerry, who says that there was a CW attack, but who doesn’t actually come out and say that Assad was responsible, and who *is* saying that Who Done It is now “unknowable”.

      • What I am pointing out is that the party that *is* signalling its willingness to intervene in that war *isn’t* the party that is making definitive statements regarding who was responsible for these attacks.

        It *is* making definitive statements that a CW attack was carried out, sure, but it *isn’t* making definitive statements that Assad Is The Dude Who Did It.

        Yet that is the country that wants to pitch in. Odd, hey?

      • Where on the fog-of-war timeline are Kerry’s and other US and “allied” spokespersons’ definitive statements?

    • We would have to carefully look at their evidence. The Russians are very partisan about this conflict. They seem to place keeping their client above all else. I do think ALL the evidence should be looked at before taking action. But, this could be deliberate disinformation.

  13. Given the U.S. track record, they should stay out of this conflict. What is really needed is a cease fire. If the U.S. attacks Syria it will also be illegal. Congress has not declared war on Syria and the U.N. security council has not authorized an attack.

    • “Cease-fire?” If one believes the press reports, the target coordinates have already been programmed into the Tomahawks… link to newsmax.com

      A hundred of those “expended,” at a million or more a pop? That will be a nice “procurement authorization” to Raytheon to buy replacements. link to en.wikipedia.org Not on the order of the F-35, of course… All part of your Grand Global Interoperable Network-Centric Everywhere All The Time Battlespace, that by definition seeks all available “intelligence” and “information” (see, “NSA Interoperability”) to let the ergonomic-chair “warfighters” mess up anywhere, any time…

      • JTMcPhee ,

        I was referring to a cease-fire between the groups in Syria.

        “A hundred of those “expended,” at a million or more a pop? ”

        Isn’t it ironic? The U.S. is in the middle of an economic crisis, not unrelated to some earlier misguided wars, and money can’t be spent to help its beleaguered citizens. Yet endless dollars are available for wars to benefit Israel and military contractors. If only we had heeded Eisenhower’s warning…

  14. It could be that the weak and contradictory reactions to previous gas attacks emboldened the regime to use gas again. Likely the regime was not looking to kill as many civilians as the did.

    That being said, I dread US involvement. For every Kosovo there’s an Iraq, an Afghanistan, a Haiti, a Somalia, a Palestine, a Nicaragua, an El Salvador.

  15. The US is contemplating fighting alongside Al Queda to score points in the “great game”. The last time when it was done, 9-11 was a byproduct.
    We the US citizens need to be ready for another version of 9-11 as a byproduct of this impending folly that the government is about to commit.

  16. The “What End” is the real surprise here. Like Saddam, people who get themselves is such kind of a situation in the first place do not see everything as it is.

  17. It’s all about making the US feel good because it “did something” and Obama can use the blood of Syrians to show how tough he is about drawing red lines and posturing as the world’s cop. Of course, there won’t be a word in the media about how the US armed and enabled Iraq’s gas attacks on Iranian troops in the 1980s.

    And if the Syrians dare retaliate against Americans or Israel, it will provide a convenient justification for even more strikes. And the American weapons industries can rejoice, because without Iraq or Afghanistan, how are they going to keep their profits up for 2014? New wars are mandatory!

  18. ” any such strike would be a form of retaliation for President al-Assad’s flouting of international law.”

    Nothing like flouting international law to punish someone for flouting international law… So much for US pretenses of upholding international

    I find Pepe Escobar’s thesis more probable–the government was doing well, so the US has to step in to make sure that the civil war continues.
    link to atimes.com

    As some foreign policy realists have noted, the US interest is in not having either side win. So much for US pretenses of defending human rights!

    • Predictably, when the rebels were winning, the comments were full of explanations about how the US wanted the rebels to win.

      Now that things have reached a rough balance, the same people are explaining that the US wants a stalemate.

      It’s always the same game: look at any given situation, and make up an explanation about how the CIA wanted that all along.

    • Pepe Escobar almost always hits the nail on the head, but in this article he doesn’t say who he thinks used chemical weapons in Damascus. How can he compare this to Iraq?

      The use of chemical weapons can NEVER be tolerated.

      A few days ago, the false-flag scenario painted by some did have some credibility. However, as Professor Cole points out, many more facts have become known and the possibility of a rebel attack is REMOTE.

      Eugene Robinson in today’s Washington Post has written a very good piece…”U.S. Must Act in Syria.”

      Obama and allies should act to send a message to Assad and other tinhorn dictators: DON’T CROSS THIS LINE OR YOU WILL BE HELD RESPONSIBLE.

      As I see it, Obama doesn’t have much of a choice.

      The choice of how to respond will fall on Assad, Russia and Iran. It will be their move and they should think long and hard about it before they make it.

      • “Obama and allies should act to send a message to Assad and other tinhorn dictators: …”

        Washington has two messages for dictators: If they don’t do Washington’s bidding then it is some form of aggression. For the dictators who do Washington’s bidding, it’s all kumbaya even to the point of supplying their death squads with guns and bullets. Or, as noted above, supplying some with chemical weapons to kill their mutual enemies.

        • For the dictators who do Washington’s bidding, it’s all kumbaya even to the point of supplying their death squads with guns and bullets.

          You might want to run that by Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Gadhaffi, and Mohammed ben Ali.

          As it turns out, Barack Obama is not John Foster Dulles.

  19. The Assad regime brought this catastrophe on itself. The demonstrations of the spring of 2011 began peacefully in resonance with the Arab Spring and apparent moves toward democracy in Tunisia and Egypt and expressed the legitimate aspiration of the Syrian people for representative and open government. Rather than perceive the legitimacy of the protest movement, the Assad government chose to use snipers to kill unarmed and peaceful demonstrators and to conduct mass arrests which frequently resulted in torture and people disappearing, not to be seen or heard from again. Assad might have been a Middle East Mikheil Gobachov, Instead he chose to be the loyal scion of the vicious mass murderer the was his father. No one is to blame except the Assad government and his murderous henchmen.

    • Al Jazeera was the catalyst for the Arab Spring. The video images of the protests in Sidi Bouzid where the street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, had set himself ablaze, sparked similar protests and demonstrations in the Tunisian capital. And with its cameras trained on Tihrir Square, in Cairo, those in Homs and Daraa, in Syria, cheered the protest movement which they saw on the TV’s every night and were witnessing the (apparent) success of the demonstrators in transforming 40 year old dictatorships into democratic governments in just a matter of days. Or so it seemed at the time. There was nothing but optimism in the air and the almost certain belief that if the people could do it in Egypt and Tunisia, then the people could do likewise in Syria. None had anticipated that the path would not be so rosy and that two and a half years later there would be 100,000 dead Syrians and the survival of the dictatorship who was willing to kill an unlimited number of people to stay in power.

    • There really doesn’t seem to be an easy climbdown for mideast (or North African) authoritarians. Ben Ali gave up pretty easily, but Tunisia is still after him. Mubarek could have gone Roman, like Qaddafi, and Assad, but they still threw him in jail. This doesn’t allow for any sort of liberalization path to be attractive to these regimes. So they instead go all in on brutal repression instead.

      • Ben Ali, in Tunisia, and Mubarak, in Egypt, were deposed, in both cases, by the militaries, against their wills. The militaries were willing to accept some progressive change in the two states and began to see their leaders as a detriment.

        This has not been the case in Syria where the military is dominated by Alawites and has much at stake in the continuation of things are they are.

      • How about if the World Bank and IMF put up a good-sized fund to hand out to “authoritarians” who’ve outstayed the tolerance of the populations they prey on? Any thoughts on what would be a “fair” inducement? Arafat kept about $4 billion on ice, as I recall, against his “retirement.” To avoid a bad incentive, it might ought to only be applied to those currently in power…

  20. “To what end?”

    Diversion from the military NSA spying on all Americans, and economic anamolies.

    We have let millions be slaughtered over the past decade without a whimper in the press.

    A scent of Rome it would seem.

  21. Hans Blix has voiced concerns and caution along the lines that Juan Cole does here. We can expect no such caution or concern of any kind from the Obama administration, which has shown little awareness that _Americans_ have human rights, much less Arabs or Muslims in the Middle East.

  22. Why do people assume that only the rebels could carry out a false flag? Foreign Intelligence agencies could and would kill “pawns” in their game of chess.

    At least Colin Powell had vials of corn starch, Kerry has nothing.

  23. I heard the theory proposed (and I wish I could remember by whom) that the nihilistic strategy behind the poison gas attack was its very brazenness. The thinking is that the government expects no meaningful response from the international community. And so the failure of the outside world to respond to an act as provocative as launching such an attack while UN inspectors are actually in the country would badly demoralize the opposition. After all, if the international community fails to respond to an act so outrageous, when would it respond? According to this theory, the attack was a way of saying, “Abandon hope. You’re alone. The outside world will not come to your aid under any circumstance.”

    • The “strategy behind the poison gas attack WAS ITS VERY BRAZENESS” is quite a theory.

      How ’bout this one?

      As Professor Cole pointed out, Assad position in Damascus was deteriorating, so he might have felt that taking such a bold step was the best course of action.

      Desperation leading to brazenness.

      Why else would Assad make an all or nothing move like this?

      Obama’s should respond forcefully and do some real damage.

      That would send the right message about using WMDs..

      • Obama could hit him with WMD’s to make the point against using WMD’s.
        I think cluster bombs qualify as WMD’s.

        • Fortunately, the definition of banned weapons is laid down in international law, so we don’t have to rely upon the impressions of blog commenters:

          1. “Chemical Weapons” means the following, together or separately:
          (a) Toxic chemicals and their precursors, except where intended for purposes not prohibited under this Convention, as long as the types and quantities are consistent with such purposes;
          (b) Munitions and devices, specifically designed to cause death or other harm through the toxic properties of those toxic chemicals specified in subparagraph (a), which would be released as a result of the employment of such munitions and devices;
          (c) Any equipment specifically designed for use directly in connection with the employment of munitions and devices specified in subparagraph (b).

  24. Having John Kerry in the forefront pushing for military intervention demonstrates the hypocrisy that attends the debate about Syria. This is from his recent speech:

    “What we saw in Syria last week should shock the conscience of the world. It defies any code of morality. Let me be clear. The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians (see below), the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity. By any standard, it is inexcusable. And despite the excuses and equivocations that some have manufactured, it is undeniable.”

    Cited in “US Complicity in ‘Some of the Most Gruesome Chemical Weapons Attacks’ Revealed
    Foreign Policy magazine provides new details in how the CIA helped Saddam gas Iran” link to commondreams.org

    That was followed by shock and awe (voted for by Senator Kerry) and other unspeakable US crimes in Iraq: Cluster bombs, depleted uranium, torture, indiscriminate killings such as “Collateral Murder” and obliterating wedding parties.

    US bombing of Iraq: The toxic legacy continues; New study links heavy bombing of Falluja and Al Basrah to staggering rise in birth defects, miscarriages – link to commondreams.org

    This is from Paul Craig Roberts:

    “The war criminals in Washington and other Western capitals are determined to maintain their lie that the Syrian government used chemical weapons. Having failed in efforts to intimidate the UN chemical inspectors in Syria, Washington has demanded that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon withdraw the chemical weapons inspectors before they can assess the evidence and make their report. The UN Secretary General stood up to the Washington war criminals and rejected their demand.” link to counterpunch.org

    This is reminiscent of Bush and Cheney having the UN weapons inspectors evicted from Iraq before they could prove the non-existence of WMDs.

  25. I think I’ve seen this movie (at least several times) before. It’s getting a little stale. Can’t we get something else?

  26. The US and its Allies cannot stand idly by while yet another state flaunts the international norm against the use of chemical warfare (a norm which all powers adhered to in WWII) and make a mockery of international deterrence against such weaponry.

    That’s point number one from a realist perspective but for point 2 (h/t to Edward Luttwak) if either side in the Civil War emerges victorious, US national interests suffer.

    Perhaps peversely, and certainly ironically, it is much easier to tailor military action toward enabling stalemate than victory.

    The time to strike is now

    • Now THAT is one concise rendition of The Narrative. Very good! Complete with fist-into-palm, table-thumping conclusion!

    • “The US and its Allies cannot stand idly by while yet another state flaunts the international norm against the use of chemical warfare ”

      Really? Maybe the U.S. should look at its own conduct in this matter. The U.S. used white phosphorous in Fallujah and Israel has used it in Gaza. When the U.S. violates international law, such as invading Iraq and killing 1 million+ people, there is nary a word of protest to be heard.

      “That’s point number one from a realist perspective but for point 2 (h/t to Edward Luttwak) if either side in the Civil War emerges victorious, US national interests suffer.”

      So the carnage should continue for the sake of U.S. (and Israeli?) “interests”. Evidently you encourage mass murder.

    • What is the moral difference between a lungfull of chlorine gas and a machinegun bullet in the belly?

      What is the difference between an aerial bombardment of a city with incendiaries and high explosive and lobbing a few gas shells at a target you want cleared of enemy troops?

      The hysteria about poison gas in ww1 was simply a propaganda tool to vilify the Hun in order to justify starving Germany. It’s that simple. The only problem with poison gas is that it can drift back on your own men and impede them from killing the enemy. It’s a bogus issue and always has been a bogus issue.

      • Shooting a machine gun at the enemy is much less likely to kill hundreds of men, women, and children a mile away if the winds change.

        I notice you switched between “a city” and “a target you want cleared of enemy troops” in your second example. Was this because you needed to throw some civilians into the former situation in order to obscure the difference between the weapons?

        These conveniently-timed denunciations of the almost century-old norm against chemical weapons usage would be a lot more credible if anyone had thought to make them before, oh, last Wednesday.

  27. It seems to me that the US should use airstrikes and missile strikes to really make Assad’s regime pay. It seems likely, given the US capabilities, to make a big dent in Damascus’ defenses and assist the rebels. A few strikes will not achieve anything as Juan says, so the goal should be to achieve something.

    No matter what the outcome of the rebel’s winning, and how Muslim-centric a new regime may be, its go time on taking a stand. I understand the US’ reticence up until now, but Assad’s regime has lost reasons to allow it to continue as it is.

  28. If systemic violence (precision bombing) is going to be used to combat systemic violence (chemical/biological weapons use on civilian populations), wouldn’t it make the most sense to specifically target the potential delivery systems for any future chemical/biological attacks?

    If the bombing was explicitly targeted to eliminate chemical/biological weapons deliver systems (if that’s even possible), then I think a cogent AND LEGAL argument can be made to international bodies that the otherwise suspect “doctrine of pre-emption” can be justified in circumstances such as this.

    Of course, I am presuming that American foreign policy is governed by wisdom and circumspection rather than arrogance, hubris, and greed.

    Sadly, I suspect that the temptation to expand the target base within Syria is overwhelming and precludes an otherwise Solomonic use of limited/proportional force directed at the agents/systems that brought about the dire need to respond.

    The Powell Doctrine will not work here. In its place, we need a brief intervention that is renowned for its speed, precision, and its very low level of casualties.

    This is a razor’s edge here.

    However, after the last decade of American interventionism, unilateralism, and exceptionalism in this part of the world, it would be foolish to suspect that American foreign policy is guided by anything other than pure realpolitik greed for yet more power and control – and none at all for some semblance of justice.

    Alas, the dead here are not to be mourned as persons but celebrated as a casus belli. And so it goes. Cry havoc, and unleash the dogs of war; into the abyss we go. Again.

  29. Kerry is bound by the rules of thew game:
    1. Arabs are inherently bad.
    2. Israel is inherently good.
    3. All outcomes must favor Israel.

    This is why Kerry can’t do, or even imagine, I suppose, the one (category of) act that might actually do some good, and that is . . .

    To do some good. Here are two examples:

    Deliver food aid, cooking oil, tents, etc. to the people of Syria, Iraq, Palestine, etc. who are displaced, to allow them to have adequate nutrition wherever they might be living at the moment.

    Deliver whatever equipment to the people of Gaza so they might have hope of developing an economy, guarantee safe passage of raw materials in and finished goods out.

    Tell Netanyahoo to shut up.

    • Actually, the United States is the world’s largest donor to the Syrian Humanitarian Resistance Response Plan. #2 is Great Britain, #3 Kuwait.

  30. IMHO, Seamus Milne of the Guardian made an important, easily overlooked point.

    Until now, the western camp has been prepared to bleed Syria while Obama has resisted pressure for what he last week called more “difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment”. Now the risk to US red line credibility seems to have tipped him over to back a direct military attack.

    But even if it turns out that regime forces were responsible for Ghouta, that’s unlikely to hold them to account or remove the risk from chemical weapons. More effective would be an extension of the weapons inspectors’ mandate to secure chemical dumps, backed by a united security council, rather than moral grandstanding by governments that have dumped depleted uranium, white phosphorus and Agent Orange around the region and beyond.

    In any case, chemical weapons are far from being the greatest threat to Syria’s people. That is the war itself and the death and destruction that has engulfed the country. If the US, British and French governments were genuinely interested in bringing it to an end – instead of exploiting it to weaken Iran – they would be using their leverage with the rebels and their sponsors to achieve a ceasefire and a negotiated political settlement.

    Guardian: An attack on Syria will only spread the war and killing.

  31. “The US and its Allies cannot stand idly by while yet another state flaunts the international norm against the use of chemical warfare”

    Why not, exactly?

    Even if this accusation is proven it still amounts to a CW attack during an armed insurrection i.e. during a civil war.

    The prohibition against CW during an international armed conflict would still be preserved, and from the PoV of an *outside* actor like “the USA and its Allies) then that is what really counts.

    After all, the British seriously considered poison gas against tribesmen in Mesopotamia in the 1920s, but when WW2 came around they didn’t think of using poison gas against German or Italian troops.

    • The international norm against chemical weapons itself was only developed in the 1920s, with the signing of the Geneva Protocol.

  32. The people who are indignant about this use of chemical weapons that killed how many? 1100? 1200? 1300? are mostly the same people who approved of Binyamin Netanyahu’s Operation Cast Lead in 2008/2009 that killed an estimated 1,400-plus Palestinians, including around 600-700 women and children. When Netanyahu addressed his puppets in Congress after that event they gave him 29 standing ovations. Another of the countless examples of hypocrisy that is rampant among our so-called leadership and accepted by the legion of American consumers. Perhaps, this is evidence of our national insanity.

    One break in this for John Kerry is the fact he can concentrate on Syria now that the Israelis have scuttled Kerry’s vaunted “peace talks” by murdering three Palestinians.

    “Though some intelligence analysts still doubt that the Syrian government launched a chemical attack, the political momentum for a U.S. retaliatory strike may be unstoppable. But the broader framework of the crisis involves the Israeli-Iranian dispute and the future of regional peace, says ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern.” – link to consortiumnews.com

  33. Kerry’s moral posturing on chemical weapons is a joke.

    Recently declassified CIA documents from the National Archive and evidence from intelligence officials confirms the true extent of U.S. knowledge and complicity in Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons use during the Iraq-Iran war. It wasn’t just complicity from the sidelines, chemical precursors were supplied by U.S. companies. Saddam had already been deploying mustard gas against the Iranians when Rumsfeld turned up in Baghdad to beef up the relationship.

    We don’t even have to get into predator drone strikes, dirty wars, Iraq and the decades long history of American military misadventures to make the point that the U.S. is the last country to preach when it comes to the use of “the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people.”

    • Florida law enforcement has done a lot of racist things, and lot more recently than 1988.

      So, really, they lack the moral standing to prosecute George Zimmerman. They should have just let him go, because really, who are they to judge?

      • Why do you keep harping about a century old norm against chemical weapons when that timeline is demonstrably false? Then you dismiss the main example of their use and US complicity while calling for the US to do something about it now.

        • A norm does not cease being a norm because it is occasionally violated. Norms function to reduce the scope and severity of the taboo behavior, even when they fail to prevent it entirely.

          I don’t recall dismissing the example of the Iraqi use, any more than I dismissed the history of racist law enforcement in Florida. What I dismissed is the argument that the old history means the right thing to do is turn a blind eye today.

  34. Arab Politics is very complex. Iran supports Hamas and Hamas backs Muslim Brotherhood. President Barack Obama supports Muslim Brotherhood but Hamas is against President Barack Obama. Turkey and Gulf States including Saudi & Qatar are against President Bashar Hafez al-Assad. But Turkey supports Muslim Brotherhood and is against General Abdel Fattah Saeed Hussein Khalil el-Sisi . But General Abdel Fattah Saeed Hussein Khalil el-Sisi is backed by Gulf States including Saudi & Qatar. Gulf States including Saudi & Qatar support President Barack Obama but President Bashar Hafez al-Assad and General Abdel Fattah Saeed Hussein Khalil el-Sisiare are against Muslim Brotherhood. Welcome to Arab Politics

  35. We need to demonstrate forcefully to dictators everywhere that dismembering people with high explosives is OK, but poisoning them is a war crime.

  36. Using Wikipedia, the rebels had been losing along that Rif Dimashq salient, which was my previous state of awareness, such that Juan Cole’s statement that the rebels were winning prompted me to google it…

    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rif_Dimashq_offensive_(March_2013–present)‎

    • My thesis is that the Homs campaign drained manpower from the capital, heightening its vulnerability.

      A local chem unit commander appears to have gone a little too far; that the Syrian army was behind it is not in doubt, though there is a question as to how high up the decision was made:

      link to thecable.foreignpolicy.com

      • I really think that given the state of public knowledge, it’s hard to be certain of anything. I’m certainly not buying secret agent intercepts, man. In any event, there is not particularly a rush. If there was any sort of good faith measurement of the brightline, then let the boots (UN) on the ground make the *forensic* determination that’s so much more solid.

        Intercepts are not considered real evidence. It’s circumstantial evidence that needs hard evidence to stand up. In the archetypal court trial, you can’t actually convict anyone just because you have an email saying they did so. There are chain of custody issues, mens rea issues, did he/she actually follow through, etc, etc.

  37. Kerry an individual who voted for the Iraq war resolution as well as Biden have the blood of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi people’s blood all over them even though they seem to not have noticed. How absurd that these warmongers are pointing at other warmongers.

    Prof Cole what is the possibility that this could be a Mossad false flag operation? Why would Assad push the Obama stated “red line” just not logical.

  38. The focus on the Egyptian military coup and how many protesters they have killed is sure taking a back seat now.

  39. Your argument about rebels not being able to kill their own makes absolutely no sense. The suicide bombers in Iraq and in Syria targeted without any concerns for collateral civilian casualties of “their own”. Mr. Cole, you are mistaking Jihaddi Salafists with Syrians all along, since these past 2 years.

    • The rebels in places such as Rif Dimashq in the south are local boys on the whole, not like Jabhat al-Nusra in the far north, who are often foreigners. It is different when you’re killing your own cousins.

  40. So US will use DU in its attacks? That is a lot worse.
    Lying About Syria
    link to informationclearinghouse.info
    Blowing The N-Whistle : Depleted Uranium: How Dangerous Is It?
    A former US military researcher tells Gay Alcorn of his crusade to expose the health risks of depleted-uranium weapons used in the Gulf wars.
    link to truth-out.org
    Iraq: War’s Legacy of Cancer
    ttps://www.commondreams.org/views01/0131-05.htm
    Depleted Uranium, Just The Tip of the Iceberg in Serbia
    link to news.bbc.co.uk
    Depleted uranium ‘threatens Balkan cancer epidemic’
    link to english.people.com.cn
    Cancer Cases in Yugoslavia Rise Sharply Due to NATO Bombings

  41. Dear Professor Cole, I am confused. In this 27/8 post you write: “Some have asked why the regime would risk using poison gas when it has been making gains against the rebels. But the regime’s advances are minor and tenuous. It only took the small town of Qusayr with Hizbullah help! And ‘advances’ in Homs were just scorched earth destruction of neighborhoods. They were offset by loss of a major air base near Aleppo, key for resupply of troops up there because roads north are insecure. The regime can only advance here or there, but doesn’t have manpower to take back substantial territory. ”
    Yet in the 25/8 post you wrote:
    “Likewise, the Baath and Hizbullah counter-attacks against the opposition in the past two months have yielded battlefield victories and the reassertion of Damascus over parts of the country that had been lost. Russian support appears to have increased in kind and quality, and Iran is playing the Shiite card. If someone doesn’t intervene soon on the rebel side, Washington hawks realize, the war might soon be over and the pro-Iranian regime will survive (just as Algeria’s did).”
    It seems like a contradiction to me. Could you clarify?
    Thank you.

    • Being a historian, I was speaking in the second instance over a long period, perhaps a decade. In the short term, the regime’s advances are tenuous and would not take pressure off it to deflect rebel advances in Rif Dimashq.

  42. Dear Professor Cole

    Once the Legal Precedent for use of standoff missiles and cruise missiles fired from outside Syrian territory or airspace is established, it is only a short step to the use of the much loved drone strikes to maintain the stalemate.

    Once the Syrian Air Force is degraded then Syrian Armour and Artillery can be eliminated by drones flying from bases in Cyprus, Turkey, and Jordan.

    The bad guys in Al Nusra, Al Qaeda and similar can happily be killed from the comfort of an air conditioned office in Wiltshire or Virginia.

    The war never ends and the Israelis can continue to build Eretz Israel between the Jordan and the Sea.

  43. let the mid east take care of the mid east … unless of course there is a larger secret agenda for america’s intervention

  44. That the U.S. is ready to go to war without waiting to gather evidence is very suspicious. Doesn’t this sound like Iraq Redux? Listen to the news. Note the lack of detail.

    Doctors Without Borders doesn’t have staff at the three hospitals in Damascus; the hospitals are ones to whom they send supplies so they know the workers there, but none of their staff have been able to visit and see the patients. So the full extent of evidence is photos and video and the reports of survivors who say that they don’t know who fired the missiles.

    We need to get blood samples and autopsy results. The area needs to be combed for debris to see if pieces of the missiles and canisters can be found. It makes no sense to go in hurling bombs when for all we know there are chemical weapons stockpiles hidden in places that we might hit. Anyone with half a brain gathers all relevant data first before embarking on a mission that could make things worse.

    All this reminds me of the 2007 interview from Democracy Now where Amy Goodman interviewed General Wesley Clark and Clark says, “So I came back to see him [another general] a few weeks later, and by that time we were bombing in Afghanistan. I said, “Are we still going to war with Iraq?” And he said, “Oh, it’s worse than that.” He reached over on his desk. He picked up a piece of paper. And he said, “I just got this down from upstairs” — meaning the Secretary of Defense’s office — “today.” And he said, “This is a memo that describes how we’re going to take out seven countries in five years, starting with Iraq, and then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and, finishing off, Iran.” I said, “Is it classified?” He said, “Yes, sir.” I said, “Well, don’t show it to me.” And I saw him a year or so ago, and I said, “You remember that?” He said, “Sir, I didn’t show you that memo! I didn’t show it to you!”

    With leaders that Machiavellian, it’s no wonder Americans distrust their government.

  45. joe from Lowell
    08/27/2013 at 8:09 am

    “I notice that Secretary Kerry didn’t say anything about the rebels. A series of punitive strikes to deter future chemical warfare attacks may provide some benefit to them, but it is not the same thing as joining up with the rebellion.”

    Don’t be too sure that certain rebel forces will not be targeted by US military strikes…”Fog of War”, etc…

  46. Israel admitted using phosporous bombs in Lebanon and Gaza in 2006 and was accused of violating international law:

    See link to wsws.org

    Where was the moral outrage by the U.S. State Department then?

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