Syria and Chemical Weapons: What Do We Know?

abc-assad-chemIf you watched ABC World News last night (6/13/13), the story of Syria and the use of chemical weapons had  shifted pretty dramatically. Anchor David Muir declared at the top of the show: “The White House now confirming Syria’s president has in fact used chemical weapons to kill.”

 And moments later:

The White House confirming what U.S. authorities have long suspected: that Syria’s president has used chemical weapons on his own people.

That’s a curious definition of “confirmation”–these remain claims, backed by what we are told is more solid intelligence than the government had previously claimed. But it’s not “confirmation,” any more so than Colin Powell “confirmed” Iraq’s WMDs at his United Nations address in 2003.

So what do we know? Yesterday the New York Times posted an article about U.S. intelligence agencies becoming more confident about their assessments of several suspect chemical weapons attacks. What used to be reported “varying degrees of confidence” was now “high confidence.”

But the intelligence remains, at this point, at arm’s length. The Times piece (which last night was headlined “Syria Has Used Chemical Arms on Rebels, U.S. and EU Say”) put it this way (6/14/13):

According to a CIA report, which was described by an American official who declined to be identified, the United States has acquired blood, urine and hair samples from two Syrian rebels–one dead and one wounded–who were in a firefight with Syrian government forces in mid-March northeast of Damascus. The samples showed that the rebels were exposed to sarin.

That could all be entirely accurate. But at face value, what we know is that someone anonymously described to the Times what this document supposedly says.  The Obama administration released a statement reinforcing that position, but it is unclear how much evidence exists–because we are apparently not being allowed to see it.

And it is important to note that even when U.S. intelligence was more tentative, media accounts portrayed it as definitiveUSA Today had the headline “U.S. Now Says Syria Has Used Chemical Weapons” back in April; the New York Times went with “”White House Says Syria Has Used Chemical Arms.”

The Russian government, meanwhile, is unconvinced (Guardian, 6/14/13):

Yuri Ushakov, foreign policy adviser to Vladimir Putin, said U.S. officials had briefed Russia on the allegations against Assad. “But I will say frankly that what was presented to us by the Americans does not look convincing,” he said. “It would be hard even to call them facts.”

No one should take his word for it, of course. But history shows that U.S. government assertions about the WMDs of official enemies need to be treated skeptically as well.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.