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Chemical Weapons Experts Not Sold on US Claim in Syria

We are 'yet to see the telltale signs of a sarin gas attack'

- Jacob Chamberlain, staff writer

There is still a major lack of solid evidence showing that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against rebel forces, chemical weapons experts warned on Friday, saying "they’ve yet to see the telltale signs of a sarin gas attack."

(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) The White House claimed Thursday that they have evidence of chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian government, including the use of sarin, but has not yet published their evidence.

Such an attack, the Obama administration claims, crosses the "red line" over which the U.S. will now increase its "military support" for the rebels.

According to McClatchy News, the Obama administration has their work cut out for them to prove such claims.

McClatchy reports:

Chemical weapons experts voiced skepticism Friday about U.S. claims that the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad had used the nerve agent sarin against rebels on at least four occasions this spring, saying that while the use of such a weapon is always possible, they’ve yet to see the telltale signs of a sarin gas attack, despite months of scrutiny.

“It’s not unlike Sherlock Holmes and the dog that didn’t bark,” said Jean Pascal Zanders, a leading expert on chemical weapons who until recently was a senior research fellow at the European Union’s Institute for Security Studies. “It’s not just that we can’t prove a sarin attack, it’s that we’re not seeing what we would expect to see from a sarin attack.”

Foremost among those missing items, Zanders said, are cellphone photos and videos of the attacks or the immediate aftermath.

“In a world where even the secret execution of Saddam Hussein was taped by someone, it doesn’t make sense that we don’t see videos, that we don’t see photos, showing bodies of the dead, and the reddened faces and the bluish extremities of the affected,” he said.

“Ultimately, without more information, we are left with the need to trust the integrity of the U.S. intelligence community in arriving at its ‘high confidence’ judgment,” Greg Thielmann, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Arms Control Association, told McClatchy in an email.

Thielmann noted that the White House had a lack of a “continuous chain of custody for the physiological samples from those exposed to sarin.”

The statement released by the White House Thursday, "does not eliminate all doubt in my mind,” Thielmann said.

McClatchy continues:

Philip Coyle, a senior scientist at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, said that without hard, public evidence, it’s difficult for experts to assess the validity of the administration’s statement. He added that from what is known, what happened doesn’t look like a series of sarin attacks to him.

“Without blood samples, it’s hard to know,” he said. “But I admit I hope there isn’t a blood sample, because I’m still hopeful that sarin has not been used.”

Even a proponent of the United States providing military assistance to the rebels raised doubts about the possible motive for announcing the chemical weapons conclusion.

In a passionate argument for U.S. involvement in Syria, Anthony Cordesman, a security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, wrote Friday that “the ‘discovery’ that Syria used chemical weapons might be a political ploy.”

Among additional reasons to doubt the administration's chemical weapons claims, given by chemical weapons experts in the McClatchy piece, Zanders said that an earlier report published in a French newspaper that also claimed that chemical weapons have been used, has many holes in it:

Photos and a video accompanying the report showed rebel fighters preparing for chemical attacks by wearing gas masks. Sarin is absorbed through the skin, and even small amounts can kill within minutes.

[Zanders] also expressed skepticism about the article’s description of the lengthy route victims of chemical attacks had to travel to get to treatment, winding through holes in buildings, down streets under heavy fire, before arriving at remote buildings hiding hospitals.

...had sarin been the chemical agent in use, the victims would have been dead long before they reached doctors for treatment.

Zanders also said he’s skeptical of sarin use because there have been no reports of medical personnel or rescuers dying from contact with victims. Residue from sarin gas would be expected to linger on victims and would infect those helping, who often are shown in rebel video wearing no more protection than paper masks.

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