The White House's claim of 'proof' that the Syrian government is using chemical weapons faces growing skepticism as many, questioning the faulty evidence and lack of transparency, begin to challenge the motives of an administration clearly eager to intervene.
“You’d be an idiot if you didn’t approach this thing with a bit of caution,” said former UN weapons inspector David Kay, who led the US search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
This growing mistrust follows the Obama administration's announcement last week that officials have 'proof' that the Syrian government under President Bashar al-Assad has been using chemical weapons, thus crossing Obama's "red line" and justifying US military action.
Critics and other skeptical parties are comparing this alleged evidence to America's incorrect claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003.
The so-called proof includes blood, tissue and soil samples "smuggled out of the country by rebels or intelligence operatives," reports The Washington Post, adding, "precisely who acquired the evidence and what methods were used to guard against tampering may be unknowable."
In a story published Thursday, The Washington Post quotes a number of officials who cite this "lack of transparency" as reason to question the credibility of the Obama administration's chemical-weapons claims.
“If you are the opposition and you hear” that the White House has drawn a red line on the use of nerve agents, “you have an interest in giving the impression that some chemical weapons have been used,” Rolf Ekeus, a Swedish scientist who formerly led UN weapons inspections in Iraq, told the Post.
The lack of transparency over how the evidence has been collected and analyzed further prevents independent experts from assessing the authenticity of these findings.
Some of the published reports of chemical weapons “make certain alarm bells ring,” said Jean Pascal Zanders, former research fellow at the European Union Institute for Security Studies.
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“We don’t have the barest of information. There is not even a fact sheet documenting the samples,” he added. “This is an immensely political process, and there is no way of challenging the findings.”
Raising a few eyebrows, this fact has prompted some, including The Nation's Greg Mitchell, to posture that the claims may simply be "used as an excuse for stepping up Syrian intervention."
The United Nations has also remained unconvinced thus far.
“The validity of any information cannot be ensured without convincing evidence of the chain of custody,” said UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon following the White House's announcement of plans to arm the rebel army. According to the UN terms of reference, only evidence personally collected by its inspectors can be used to issue a final judgment.
Zanders told the Post that he's been independently scouring the internet for "photographs, video and news reports" documenting any trademark symptoms of chemical weapon use in Syria. They report:
In a paper he presented last week to the E.U. Non-Proliferation Consortium, he compared photographs documenting Iraq’s 1998 chemical weapons attack against Kurds in the town of Halabja.
The Halabja victims appeared to have died instantaneously from chemical agents, he said, and their bodies showed telltale signs of exposure to sarin: blue lips and fingertips caused by suffocation and a pink hue brought on by excessive sweating and high blood pressure. “No press reports from Syria refer to those descriptions, which is one of the reasons why I am skeptical about those reports,” he said.
“There are so many people who would like us to believe that the regime used chemical weapons,” quipped a former senior US intelligence official who chose not to be identified. “You have to question whether any of those advocates were involved in collecting the evidence.”