The gas attack that killed over a thousand Syrians on August 21 was sufficiently unpleasant to arouse the world’s conscience, but there is still a lot of disagreement over who did it. The common view in the western press is that Assad did it, though why he should have done so is a mystery. As evidence there are spent missiles that carried the gas with Russian markings, and some telephone intercepts supplied by the Israelis. Israel wanted us to punish Assad with an aerial bombardment so there’s no question as to their motive in providing us with this evidence.
Russia wanted us not to bomb Syria so they had a good reason to claim Assad didn’t do it. As evidence they cite documentation, which as far as I know they haven’t yet produced, showing that the spent missiles were exported long ago to Libya and Yemen, among other places, where they could have been picked up by terrorist groups now opposing Assad in Syria. So one or another of the much-divided rebel groups may have gassed their own people to frame Assad and encourage the Americans to launch the bombardment.
The UN has investigated the attack and confirms that it happened but has not given a verdict as to exactly who was responsible.
Perhaps the most plausible explanation is that neither Assad nor the rebels was responsible. Both recordings of telephone intercepts and shipping documents can be forged. As far as I am concerned the only solid fact in the whole tangled web is that Syria is a maelstrom of minorities who mostly hate each other. Recent events have brought this simmering pot to a boil and blood lust has seized the land.
Back in 1952 I arrived in Damascus for a three year stint with our embassy there. Pretty soon there was an independence day and the inevitable parade, where the boss, Adib Shishekli, sat in the reviewing stand with other notables, including the foreign diplomats, as the mighty Syrian army clanked past. It included a column of rather rusty World War II vintage tanks. The column turned sharp right after it passed the stands, and headed into town. One tank collapsed while making the turn and fell into the Barada River, taking part of the reviewing stands with it. An embarrassment for most Syrians, rather more serious for the people in that part of the stands. Shishekli was not pleased.
As I recall that unpleasant incident, it occurs to me that perhaps something similar happened the other day in the Ghouta, not far from where the parade occurred sixty-odd years ago. Somebody in Assad’s mighty army screwed up. Perhaps an equipment malfunction, perhaps an overzealous officer whose enthusiasm for the cause overpowered his judgment. Anyway, the dirty deed happened, to the genuine dismay of the Syrians up the line, and the confusion and horror of the rest of the world.
It makes me wonder that we all survived the Cold War. And it also makes me wonder whether after all, our survival is best assured by relying for the most part on an overwhelmingly complicated, not to say expensive, military machine.
Carl Coon 9/23/13