Unsubstantiated rumors and accusations of chemical weapons coming out of Syria on Tuesday had U.S. lawmakers talking openly about military intervention in another Middle East country even as the world marked the tenth anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq which the Bush administration largely justified with falsified claims of similar weapons of mass destruction.
Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), for one, asked by Foreign Policy if US ground forces should be sent to Syria to secure stores of alleged chemical weapons, responded in the affirmative.
"Absolutely, you've got to get on the ground. There is no substitute for securing these weapons," he said. "I don't care what it takes. We need partners in the region. But I'm here to say, if the choice is to send in troops to secure the weapons sites versus allowing chemical weapons to get in the hands of some of the most violent people in the world, I vote to cut this off before it becomes a problem."
And as the Associated Press reports:
Later in the evening, the heads of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), joined forces on CNN to say that they believed chemical weapons had likely been used, without offering evidence. They said the White House should consider military action.
But, as reporting by the Los Angeles Times explains, the use or even existence of chemical weapons on the battle field in Syria is currently a hotly contested media game between the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad and the opposition forces aligned against him.
From the LA Times:
Syria's state-run news agency said Al Qaeda-linked "terrorists" — its standard term for the armed opposition — had fired a chemical armed rocket early Tuesday that killed 25 and injured 110.
The missile, launched from a rebel-controlled district, fell about 300 yards from its apparent intended target, a military post outside Aleppo, the government said.
It said the explosion unleashed a gas that caused those who inhaled it to have convulsions and lose consciousness. The state media showed images of patients said to be suffering from irregular breathing, neurological disorders and other symptoms consistent with a chemical attack.
The government seemed to link the strike to a previous rebel seizure of a factory in Aleppo that contained tons of chlorine, a chemical employed in water purification and industrial purposes that was also used in World War I as a toxic gas. Experts say chlorine gas is not an especially effective weapon because it disperses quickly in the air.
Opposition spokesmen labeled the attack a government scheme to discredit the opposition and pave the way for even larger chemical bombardment.
Responding to the news stories, UN spokesman Martin Nesirky told reporters: "We're aware of the reports but we're not in a position to confirm them."
The White House, too, was cautious with Obama's Press Secretary Jay Carney stating, "We are evaluating the charges that are being made and the allegations, consulting closely with our partners in the region and in the international community. But we have no evidence to substantiate that charge, that the opposition has used chemical weapons."
And as the Associated Press points out:
... a separate study published Tuesday, the Rand Corp., a military think tank, suggested that the Assad regime still faces significant disincentives against using chemical weapons. The prospect of American intervention, the report said, may be enough to prevent Assad from using chemical weapons. Using those weapons may be worsened if the unconventional warfare prompts Syria to lose the diplomatic protection of Russia and China.
The evidence that Tuesday's attack used chemical weapons remained sketchy.
A Reuters photographer on the scene of the attack in Aleppo told the news agency that women and children reported a strong smell of chlorine in the air. A British expert quoted by Voice of America said the smell of chlorine is not uncommon in a conventional weapons attack and was far from conclusive.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Ziad Haddad, a medic based in Aleppo who treated some civilians after the attack, said he believed they had likely been exposed to a pesticide rather than a chemical weapon like Sarin or VX gas.
"Victims spoke of pungent smell. Chemical weapons are usually odorless," Haddad said. “Moreover, the number of deaths is small compared to those who would have died had chemical weapons been used."