Establishing Credibility on Syria

August 31, 2013 § 1 Comment

LUCY: This time you can trust me. See? Here’s a signed document testifying that I promise not to pull it away.

CHARLIE: It IS signed. It’s a signed document! I guess if you have a signed document in your possession, you can’t go wrong.

Secretary of State John Kerry announced yesterday before the world that the U.S. possessed intelligence — presented with “high confidence” in the latest unclassified intelligence report — which undeniably linked the Syrian government to the alleged gas attacks in the suburbs of Damascus. Since it is not specified, such intelligence most likely emanates from, among other sources, signal interceptions by Unit 8200 of the Israeli Military Intelligence Corps, as it was reported in the German online magazine Focus. It is known that there is a tight relationship between Israeli and U.S. intelligence services, but it is also known that Israel is the probable source of the fraudulent “smoking laptop” documents on the alleged Iranian nuclear weapons program, which seemed to have been laundered through the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MeK) — consequently, the credibility of such statements should be questioned by any rational person. The logic operating here is simple, expressed in my opinion clearly by Barbara Tuchman in her book The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, by way of Arthur Silber:

Acquiescence in Executive war, he wrote, comes from the belief that the government possesses secret information that gives it special insight in determining policy. Not only was this questionable, but major policy decisions turn “not upon available facts but upon judgment,” with which policy-makers are no better endowed than the intelligent citizen. […] The belief that government knows best was voiced just at this time by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who said on resumption of the bombing, “We ought to all support the President. He is the man who has all the information and knowledge of what we are up against.” This is a comforting assumption that relieves people from taking a stand. It is usually invalid, especially in foreign affairs.

It behooves us to recall how the politicized intelligence surrounding Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) was intended to provide a pretext for invasion rather than an objective appraisal of Saddam’s capabilities. The September Dossier from Downing Street is but one example among many. Stating the case bluntly, Major General Michael Laurie reportedly admitted during the Chilcot Inquiry that he had understood the “purpose of the dossier was precisely to make a case for war, rather than setting out the available intelligence.” Repeating the events preceding the 2003 invasion of Iraq, U.S. officials recently privately urged UN experts to leave Syria, confident that such inspections were “pointless because the chemical weapons evidence already was conclusive.” Such a signal was a clear message that the U.S. is impatient, and has the firm intention to launch strikes, before an independent investigation could determine with precision what happened — which is, of course, the point.

Leaving aside any determination of guilt, despite the propaganda from all sides, it will take some time to run the tests on samples to even determine what substance was used. A recent UN inquiry [PDF] into the Syrian civil war states that, although both sides in the conflict are alleged to have used chemical weapons, conclusive findings “may be reached only after testing samples taken directly from victims or the site.” Days after an initial Medecins Sans Frontieres press release, in which MSF director Bart Janssens is quoted saying that “MSF can neither scientifically confirm the cause of these symptoms nor establish who is responsible for the attack,” an August 28 press release expressed concern that their earlier statements were being used for political purposes, and that with the investigation underway, it was too early to determine with any certainty responsibility for the attacks. It’s a reasonable concern, and will therefore probably be ignored. No matter, when the righteous mission of punishing an enemy comes into view, there is little time for investigating facts. Trust us!

Although a timid but unexpected outbreak of democratic ideals in the British parliament has somewhat frustrated U.S. plans to immediately launch attacks against the Syrian government, the UK’s legal justification for triggering military action was already laid out: humanitarian intervention: “the aim is to relieve humanitarian suffering by deterring or disrupting the further use of chemical weapons.” The paper asserts that there is “no practicable alternative to the use of force” — a dubious assertion, given that one alternative might be to stop fueling the conflict by giving aid, intelligence and training to opposition groups with the goal of removing Assad from power, a project lavishly supported by the Saudi monarchy, among others. Humanitarian intervention (or “R2P”, Responsibility to Protect), however, is not currently an accepted doctrine of international law, and the UK attempt to bypass the UN Security Council is described by lecturer in international law Dapo Akande as nothing short of “fanciful.”

What cannot be claimed with any credibility is that Washington opposes the use of chemical weapons on principle. Putting aside its own abuses in the past, allies are also immune from such public condemnation: adding to an already rich record of declassified documents relating U.S. support for Saddam Hussein throughout his worst crimes, including the regular use of gas against Iranian forces and Kurdish civilians, recently declassified C.I.A. documents further emphasize that the use of gas — when serious interests are at stake — is surely, in the words of Col. Walter P. Lang, “not a matter of deep strategic concern.” During his statement Kerry did accurately express the primary concern, though: that “it matters here if nothing is done. It matters if the world speaks out in condemnation and then nothing happens.” Echoing Kerry’s statement, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius warned that U.S. “credibility” is at stake if the world begins to “doubt the credibility of U.S. power.” Former Ambassador to Morocco Marc Ginsberg similarly scolded the Obama administration for “putting ‘the United States’ credibility’ on the line.” The particular credibility mentioned here, however, has little to do with demonstrating to the world that statements emanating from Washington can be reasonably assumed to be accurate, and more to do with demonstrating that threats of punishment will indeed be carried out. In other words, failing to occasionally act on his promises will undermine the master’s authority, which is indeed a very real problem.


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Update: The Daily Record has revealed that Britain issued export licenses for potassium fluoride and sodium fluoride, both chemical precursors which can be used to synthesize nerve agents such as sarin gas, as late as January 2013, well into the Syrian civil war. Although such chemicals also have other industrial uses, fluoride is the “key to making these munitions,” according to an environmental toxicology expert at Leeds University. It seems they would be characterized as “dual-use” items, and the licenses were revoked only after the European Union imposed sanctions on the Syrian government. Although the irony of the UK government’s military intervention being ostensibly triggered by events (chemical warfare) to which it may well have itself directly or indirectly contributed is not lost on observers, it should not be so surprising. The events fit into a general pattern of Western hypocrisy, whereby leaders publicly denounce repressive actions in one place while indirectly contributing to them elsewhere — such as David Cameron’s acting as a “travelling salesman for the arms industry” to several Gulf states, as he did in 2012, to cite but one example.

Such events might also recall the sale of dual-use items and technologies to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, sales rising to a figure of $1.5 billion during the period between 1985 and 1990, as documented in a February 1994 GAO report. In 2002, it was reported that U.S. and German companies were among the major suppliers of Saddam Hussein’s regime, including Hewlett Packard, Honeywell, Rockwell, Bechtel, ICS and Unisys, as well as Daimler-Benz, MAN and Siemens, according to the German daily Die tageszeitung. U.S. export controls “suffered a massive breakdown” preceding the first Gulf War, according to Gary Milhollin of the Wisconsin Project, and much of the equipment subsequently destroyed during the strikes was in fact made in the U.S.A. We also know that, although the U.S. had an official policy of neutrality during the Iran-Iraq war, the C.I.A. was in fact tasked with ensuring that Iraq continued to be supplied with the necessary components to maintain its military weaponry.

An added irony is that the Obama administration is seeking vague Congressional authorization to use military force — the powers of which, as Jack Goldsmith states, are dangerously broad (where ever have we seen that before?) — in order to “prevent or deter the use or proliferation (including the transfer to terrorist groups or other state or non-state actors), within, to or from Syria, of any weapon of mass destruction, including chemical or biological weapons or components of or materials used in such weapons” [emphasis mine] — such an authorization, though, as b at Moon of Alabama points out, would not guarantee that such military action complies with international law.

— h/t Marcy Wheeler (@emptywheel)


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Update II: Disinformation and misinformation assume such a large role in the discussion around armed conflict because propaganda is always an integral part of the war effort, but also partly because there are always individuals who are more than eager to accept information which fits their preconceived notions, even if there is little evidence to support it. The gruesome photograph published by the BBC in 2012, mistakenly linked to the Houla massacre, recently recycled and spread on Facebook, is but one striking example of the pitfalls awaiting those impatient to have their beliefs vindicated. One should never underestimate the imagination and capacity of either side in a conflict to fabricate and spread propaganda, and the Syrian civil war has shown all sides using it skilfully to their advantage.

Those who would like to discourage any foreign military intervention, aware that the U.S. and the UK have aligned themselves with the various rebel groups (which comprise jihadist elements close to al-Qa’ida), will readily accept as accurate reports attributing the recent gas attacks to opposition groups, even if evidence is minimal or nonexistent. Such thinking is understandable, as any portrayal painting the various Syrian opposition movements in a negative light will discourage the public, and politicians, from supporting policies which only appear to strengthen a band of extremists and fanatics. Such concerns aren’t without merit — the simple fact of the matter is that, the U.S. government, in its overriding objective to curb Iranian (and therefore Shiite, and by extension, Hezbollah) influence, seems to have inserted itself into a complex regional sectarian conflict, in which it has, in the words of Patrick Cockburn, entered into a “de facto alliance with al-Qa’ida.”

An article penned by Seymour Hersh in 2007 for the New Yorker magazine paints a picture which anyone following events in the Middle East even casually might recognize:

To undermine Iran, which is predominantly Shiite, the Bush Administration has decided, in effect, to reconfigure its priorities in the Middle East. In Lebanon, the Administration has coöperated with Saudi Arabia’s government, which is Sunni, in clandestine operations that are intended to weaken Hezbollah, the Shiite organization that is backed by Iran. The U.S. has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria. A by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda. […]

Nasr went on, “The Saudis have considerable financial means, and have deep relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis”—Sunni extremists who view Shiites as apostates. “The last time Iran was a threat, the Saudis were able to mobilize the worst kinds of Islamic radicals. Once you get them out of the box, you can’t put them back.”

None of this, however, is proof of anything, much less a substitute for actual scientific evidence relevant to the 21 August attack in the suburbs of Damascus, on which Eliot Higgins (Brown Moses blog) has provided useful discussion from several chemical weapons specialists, responding to allegations in a recent article. Also of interest is the recent claim by Secretary of State Kerry that “first responders” have provided “samples of hair and blood” which “have been tested and they have reported positive for signatures of sarin” — which seems to contradict recent statements by chemical weapons expert Rolf Trapp, who states that the operation is much more delicate than Kerry’s statement implies: “The analysis itself cannot be done in two or three days. The quality requirements are considerable. Small mistakes can render the whole report useless. Somewhere around two to three weeks is probably realistic.” Kerry might be telling the truth, but we’ve seen the Secretary of State lie before.

What I would like to emphasize more generally is that military intervention is not necessarily justified, regardless of who the perpetrator is — and therefore asserting that opposition groups may have been responsible is in my opinion no argument against intervention, which would remain immoral, unwise and illegal, no matter how many elaborate theories are concocted by subservient legal advisers or congressional authorizations rubber stamp the aggression.

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