WASHINGTON -- The Obama administrations public case for attacking Syria is riddled with inconsistencies and hinges mainly on circumstantial evidence, undermining U.S. efforts this week to build support at home and abroad for a punitive strike against Bashar Assads regime.
The case Secretary of State John Kerry laid out last Friday contained claims that were disputed by the United Nations, inconsistent in some details with British and French intelligence reports or lacking sufficient transparency for international chemical weapons experts to accept at face value.
After the false weapons claims preceding the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the threshold for evidence to support intervention is exceedingly high. And while theres little dispute that a chemical agent was used in an Aug. 21 attack outside of Damascus and probably on a smaller scale before that there are calls from many quarters for independent, scientific evidence to support the U.S. narrative that the Assad regime used sarin gas in an operation that killed 1,429 people, including more than 400 children.
Some of the U.S. points in question:
The Obama administration dismissed the value of a U.N. inspection teams work by saying that the investigators arrived too late for the findings to be credible and wouldnt provide any information the United State didnt already have.
U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq countered that it was rare for such an investigation to begin within such a short time and said that the passage of such few days does not affect the opportunities to collect valuable samples, according to the U.N.s website. For example, Haq added, sarin can be detected in biomedical samples for months after its use.
The U.S. claims that sarin was used in the Aug. 21 attack, citing a positive test on first responders hair and blood samples that were provided to the United States, Kerry said on television Sunday without elaboration on the collection methods.
Experts say the evidence deteriorates over time, but that its simply untrue that there wouldnt be any value in an investigation five days after an alleged attack. As a New York Times report noted, two human rights groups dispatched a forensics team to northern Iraq in 1992 and found trace evidence of sarin as well as mustard gas four years after a chemical attack.
The U.S. assertion also was disputed in an intelligence summary the British government made public last week. "There is no immediate time limit over which environmental or physiological samples would have degraded beyond usefulness," according to the report, which was distributed to Parliament ahead of its vote not to permit Britain to participate in any strike.
Another point of dispute is the death toll from the alleged attacks on Aug. 21. Neither Kerrys remarks nor the unclassified version of the U.S. intelligence he referenced explained how the U.S. reached a tally of 1,429, including 426 children. The only attribution was a preliminary government assessment.
Anthony Cordesman, a former senior defense official whos now with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, took aim at the death toll discrepancies in an essay published Sunday.
He criticized Kerry as being sandbagged into using an absurdly over-precise number of 1,429, and noted that the number didnt agree with either the British assessment of at least 350 fatalities or other Syrian opposition sources, namely the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has confirmed 502 dead, including about 100 children and "tens" of rebel fighters, and has demanded that Kerry provide the names of the victims included in the U.S. tally.