Over the last few days, the United States, pushed along by an assortment of Western and Middle Eastern allies, has been moving unmistakably toward an imminent military intervention in Syria. While the development has obviously been spurred by the horrifying Aug. 21 chemical attack in Damascus, which killed over 300 people and sickened at least 3,500, the rapidity with which the intervention plans are being developed brings several questions to mind.
1. Secretary of State Kerry said yesterday that the US will soon produce information to back up its claim that the Assad regime perpetrated the recent chemical attack. When will the proof be produced, and what is it?
2. Kerry also accused the Assad regime of cynically covering up evidence by continuing to bomb the attack sites, and of not giving the UN investigators immediate access to the sites. He further cited a sniper attack on the UN convoy as evidence of obstruction. Since the site of the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack is in territory that has been a rebel stronghold for months, is it reasonable for the US to have made this claim?
3. Is there a possibility that the Aug. 21 attack was an accidental hit — of chemical stocks belonging to either the regime or the rebels — by the undisputed massive regime bombardment in the area at the time? It is known that the regime has been frequently moving its chemical weapons to keep them out of rebel hands, and it is also known that rebel fighters, including al Qaeda-linked groups, have sought and reportedly had access to chemical weapons. [See Threat Matrix report, Questions about alleged gas attack in Syria.] The Al Nusrah Front is known to have pursued chemical weapons; credible reports of the group plotting to conduct sarin and mustard gas attacks have emerged from Iraq and Turkey over the past several months.
4. Why is the US so quickly dismissing the UN investigative effort as too late to deliver credible results about the Aug. 21 attack despite the fact that the team had arrived on Aug. 18 to investigate months-old complaints of chemical weapons attacks, including one lodged by the regime in March?
5. Is there a way to rule out the possibility, given the timing of the Aug. 21 attack, that it could have been perpetrated by rebel groups seeking to draw the US into a military intervention against the Assad regime?
6. The regime has much to lose by mounting chemical weapon attacks, and especially while UN inspectors are in country and the world’s eyes are turned toward Syria. Why now? Is the basic vagueness of the US’s accusation due to a Western decision that now is the time to intervene militarily, regardless of who perpetrated the attack, since there is clearly a very distinct danger of the spread of chemical warfare in the region at this point?
Rebel reports of another attack today, this time allegedly involving phosphorous and napalm in Aleppo, do not add clarity to an already very murky picture.
7. What is the US’s endgame in Syria? Reports are emerging that the Obama administration seeks to “punish” Assad for using chemical weapons. Is this sound strategy, or a tactic that can potentially backfire?
8. What happens if the US actually succeeds in killing Assad and overthrowing the government? Will Islamist terror groups such as the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic State of Iraq dominate the political scene in Syria, as they have dominated the fighting? And if so, is that in the best interests of the US and the West, or, for that matter, those of Syria and the region? The West’s efforts for a resolution to the conflict in Syria ultimately hang upon the fragile hope that moderate forces will prevail, in a situation where the two strongest military forces, the Assad regime and its largely Islamist opponents, each offer only harsh alternatives.