NYT on Chemical Weapons and War in Syria

By Michael McGehee | NYTX | May 6, 2013

“We have been very clear to the Assad regime but also to other players on the ground that a red line for us is, we start seeing a whole bunch of weapons moving around or being utilized.” — Obama Threatens Force Against Syria, The New York Times, August 21, 2012

When President Obama spoke these words last August he might have dug himself a hole twice as deep as the one he was in last week.

As four NYT journalists reported on Sunday’s front page article “Off-the-Cuff Obama Line Put U.S. in Bind on Syria”: “Confronted with evidence that chemical weapons have been used in Syria, President Obama now finds himself in a geopolitical box, his credibility at stake with frustratingly few good options.”

If there will be any effort to hold Mr. Obama’s feet to the fire the heat just got hotter.

Buried on page A9 of Monday’s edition of “the paper of record” was a statement by Carla del Ponte, a United Nations human rights investigator looking into the claims that chemical weapons were used in Syria:

The United Nations independent commission of inquiry on Syria has not yet seen evidence of government forces using chemical weapons, which are banned under international law, said Carla Del Ponte, a commission member.

“Our investigators have been in neighboring countries interviewing victims, doctors and field hospitals,” Ms. Del Ponte said in an interview with Swiss-Italian television. “According to their report of last week, which I have seen, there are strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas, from the way the victims were treated.”

“This was use on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities,” she added, speaking in Italian.

Question: Will President Obama hold the rebels accountable for crossing his red line?

In his own words he did say that he has “been very clear to the Assad regime but also to other players on the ground” [emphasis added] that the use of chemical weapons is a red line that even the Times saw last summer as a threat of force.

The question is not likely to be answered in the affirmative. This is the politics of war. For more than two years the rebels have been carrying out terrorist bombings, grisly executions, and other assorted attacks that would likely have had Washington and its allies foaming at the mouths were it the Assad regime who was the perpetrator.

Washington has failed to join the Syrian government in their own War on Terror, even though al Qaeda is active in the country. And it just goes to show as one more example: when al Qaeda is used as a boogeyman for war we should not take the pretext seriously, as in the case of Mali. If al Qaeda is on the same side as Uncle Sam, as they were in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the Balkans in the 1990s, Libya in 2011, and now Syria, then there will be no drone attacks on the terrorists.

And now we see al Qaeda-linked terrorists suspected of using chemical weapons. Don’t look for the U.S. to come to the defense of the Syrian government.

Already we can see the change of attitude reflected at The New York Times.

Not two weeks ago, on April 26, 2013, it was front page news at the NYT that “White House Says It Believes Syria Has Used Chemical Arms.”

From that moment the story became a sensation. It fit well into the parameters of the propaganda system. An official enemy who we are actively trying to overthrow may have used chemical weapons and provided a clear pretext for force. Here comes the march to war.

But when UN investigators looked into the matter and reported that “Syrian Rebels May Have Used Sarin,” the story fell from grace and was pushed to page A9.

This differential treatment signals the death of the “red line” story, which is too bad because it would have been interesting to see The New York Times, or anyone in the mainstream media, investigate how Syrian rebels could have gotten a hold of sarin, especially considering a former Bush official has openly considered the idea of Israel being behind the attack.

The differential treatment may possibly throw a wrench in the drive to war . . . for now. Because, also on page A9 of Monday’s edition of The New York Times is “Attacks on Syria Fuel Debate Over U.S.-Led Airstrikes,” a report of an Israeli attack in Syria:

WASHINGTON — The apparent ease with which Israel struck missile sites and, by Syrian accounts, a major military research center near Damascus in recent days has stoked debate in Washington about whether American-led airstrikes are the logical next step to cripple President Bashar al-Assad’s ability to counter the rebel forces or use chemical weapons.

That option was already being debated in secret by the United States, Britain and France in the days leading to the Israeli strikes, according to American and foreign officials involved in the discussions. On Sunday, Senator John McCain, who has long advocated a much deeper American role in the Syrian civil war, argued that the Israeli attacks, at least one of which appears to have been launched from outside Syrian airspace, weakens the argument that Syria’s air defense system would be a major challenge.

“The Israelis seem to be able to penetrate it fairly easily,” Mr. McCain said on “Fox News Sunday.”

While attacks in Syria might be easier than previously suspected, the justifications for war received a setback. But if history is any guide this is only a minor and temporary one.

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