A top Syrian official inside the government of President al-Assad came to the side of President Obama on Wednesday morning by agreeing that a "red line" regarding chemical weapons had been crossed in the country.
Weapons with chemical agents may well have been used, said Syria's Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi in an interview with CNN, but tilted against recent White House statements by claiming it was opposition forces aligned against al-Assad who were employing them as a way to coax the US and others to send in heavy arms and increase their support.
"President Obama says chemical weapons are a red line," al-Zoubi said in the interview. "Then he is in direct accordance with President Assad, who also thinks that chemical weapons are a red line."
Al-Zoubi told CNN that the Syrian armed forces under Assad "would never use" chemical munitions, even "if we had them." He added, "we did not use them, and there will not be a use."
The Syrian government-run media has been hitting home its stance that "terrorists" are handling chemical weapons and then blaming the use of them on the government.
For example, a Syrian Arab News Agency reporter, citing an official source, said Thursday that "terrorists" threw "unknown powder" in Idlib residents' faces to accuse the army of using chemical weapons.
"In the places where there is the opposition," al-Zoubi told CNN, "it is using chemical weapons that evaporate, and you smell it, they are filming it, and they are using it as alleged proof that the Syrian government is doing it."
Though trusting the statements of government officials is always a fools errand for journalists, say critics of recent coverage, it has been the ongoing habit of many US news outlets to give unquestioning deference to US intelligence statements about chemical weapons in Syria.
Meanwhile—and despite two polls in as many days confirming that the American public has no desire and shows little support for deepening US military involvement in Syria—the Associated Press, citing "unnamed sources" in the White House, reports that arguments to send arms into the war torn country were "gaining ground" within the Obama administration.
According to the news agency:
Officials insisted Wednesday that no decisions have been made but said arming the rebels is seen as more likely and preferable than any other military option. One U.S. official described a new "reconsideration" within the administration of the military options. The officials, who all spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss publicly the options under consideration, said most U.S. leaders prefer that the Syrians determine their own fate, so arming the opposition is more palatable than direct U.S. intervention.
The officials who spoke to AP said that concerns that US weapons could fall into the hands of the radical Islamic militias that are fighting within and alongside the Free Syrian Army, the official opposition, have lessened due to new developments, but offered no evidence or meaningful context to what has changed on the ground.
It has been well reported that these Islamic militias—with the Jabhat al-Nusra, or the al-Nusra Front chief among them—have been a key component of the opposition forces, even as the US State Department has labeled them an official terrorist organization with strong ties to Al-Qaeda's ideology and other jihadist networks.
Progressive analysts and experts, however, have continued to argue that sending arms into the region—regardless of who receives them—is ultimately not a solution that will lessen the suffering of the Syrian people or assist in the achievement of a peaceful political settlement.
"We need to move towards demilitarizing, deescalating the number of weapons of all kinds that are flowing into the region, not sending in more weapons and escalating the civil war," said Phyllis Bennis, a senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, this week.
In his talk with CNN, al-Zoubi pointed the finger squarely at al-Nusra for using chemical weapons, saying the Assad regime "had proof" of this and called out the US for its hypocrisy on fighting so-called 'terrorist' groups.
"There seems to be a question as to the position of the United States toward Jabhat al-Nusra and al Qaeda," said al-Zoubi . "America talks about fighting terrorism, but in reality it doesn't seem to be doing so. How can you fight terrorism and count Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organization and at the same time send weapons to these terrorists?"
"If the United States wants to prove anything, they need to show the evidence to us. We are very sure that these weapons have come to Syria from Turkey. This is not a political accusation. This is based on facts. And Jabhat al-Nusra has said that this is true. There are videos that make this clear.
"[Does the US] want to increase terrorism, or do they want to find a pretext to invade Syria? If they are trying to make them stronger, it means that the Western countries are on the same side as the terrorists.
"It is very clear that the United States, France and Turkey have a one-sided way of looking at this."
On Tuesday, a Reuters/Ipsos poll showed that a supreme minority of respondents—just 10 percent—thought US intervention would be a good idea. On Monday, a CBS/NYT poll found similar results, with 62 percent of Americans saying the US has no "responsibility to intervene in Syria."
It's possible, say others, that the public's war-weariness (and wariness) may have trickled up to some US politicians as well.
Historian and Middle East expert Juan Cole on Wednesday cautiously applauded Obama's evident reluctance to arm the Free Syrian Army, saying that the president may have rightly learned the lessons from other recent military misadventures predicated on rushes to judgement, faulty intelligence, and cavalier thinking. Cole writes:
Obama learned from Iraq and Afghanistan that US military intervention in the Middle East doesn’t actually work very well. Iraq is still a security basket case, with over 400 dead in bombings and attacks in April (nowhere near the high of 3000 a month in 2006 when the US was in charge of security, or even as much as contemporary Mexico, where over 1,000 a month have been dying in the drug war — but still no paradise). It has been 11 years and we are still stuck in Afghanistan, nor have we “stood up” a credible Afghan government.
Why people think a US intervention in Syria would go better, I don’t know. They always forget that generals are about winning quickly, even at the cost of civilian lives, and that a lot of carpetbaggers always show up in any war to find ways of profiting from it. Billions were looted from Iraq by American bureaucrat-criminals.
In the context of the AP reporting, it unclear whether or not Cole's applause is premature, but what does seem clear is that US media is strangely unwilling to acknowledge its role in again promoting shaky intelligence about weapons of mass destruction.
Peter Hart, an analyst for the media watchdog group FAIR, says that many of the same familiar patterns that infected the pre-war coverage of Iraq are now emerging around the so called "red line" and the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
As Hart observes:
much of the media conversation [following the accusations about chemical weapons] turned to the question of whether Obama's "red line" had been crossed–with many reporters and pundits suggesting that it had. On August 20 of last year, Obama said this:
A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.
Whatever one thinks of that statement, it's pretty clear that there is not yet proof of the use of a "whole bunch" of such weapons. Even if what is being suggested turns out to be true, it would not appear to meet that standard (which, of course, does not sound like any sort of technical judgment). But the media discussions treat this standard as if it's been met, and that the administration is guilty of backing down.
And, as Hart concludes, of those who may have learned the accessible lessons of the last ten years of US war, it is the media that seem most reluctant to adjust their pattern of behavior. "As the White House has been saying their reticence is informed by the Iraq debacle," he writes, "many pundits don't seem to have learned a similar lesson."