Chem weapons deployed by Syrian rebels, or maybe Assad, or maybe not

There are clouds of something billowing over Syria, but everyone is still scrambling to figure out if it’s chemical weapons, or just blue smoke and mirrors.

The Israeli Minister of Intelligence and Strategic Affairs, Yuval Steinitz, says it is “apparently clear” that chemical weapons were recently employed, according to the Associated Press:

Steinitz, who was speaking to Army Radio, did not say how he came to the conclusion that the weapons were used. He would not comment on whether it was Assad forces or the rebels that used them, saying it was not important.

A senior defense official told the Associated Press that he concurred chemical weapons had been used, basing that on intelligence reports. He would not elaborate. He spoke anonymously because he is not allowed to speak to the media.

Ah, so that’s what “apparently clear” means.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI), chair of the House Intelligence Committee, also sees the situation with apparent clarity, asserting there is “some forensic evidence” that at least small amounts of chemical ordnance have been dispensed in the ongoing Syrian rebellion, which is now approaching its second anniversary.  From CBS News:

“I think there’s a high probability that a chemical agent was used in Aleppo,” he said when pushed on the issue on “CBS This Morning,” but added he would like to see forensic evidence to substantiate the claims.

The Obama administration, on the other hand, has said they are still assessing the evidence on the alleged attack in Aleppo, and that there is nothing yet to substantiate the claims of a chemical weapon being used. Chemical weapons experts have also cast serious doubts on the claims.

Chemical weapons expert and chief operating officer of SecureBio, Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, told on Tuesday that based on video he had seen of victims in Aleppo hospitals, the symptoms were “not really those that are identified with nerve agents or mustard gas, which are the ones most likely to be used” inside Syria.

More details on the Administration position from Reuters:

“We are looking carefully at allegations of … chemical weapons use, we are evaluating them,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.

“We have no evidence to substantiate the charge that the opposition has used chemical weapons,” he said.

“We are deeply skeptical of a regime that has lost all credibility and we would also warn the regime against making these kinds of charges as any kind of pretext or cover for its use of chemical weapons.”

The State Department echoed those comments and the Pentagon said it was monitoring the situation.

“I have no information at this time to corroborate any claims that chemical weapons have been used in Syria,” Pentagon spokesman George Little said. “The use of chemical weapons in Syria would be deplorable.”

Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, is skeptical of the chemical warfare claims: “So far, we have no evidence which substantiates the reports that chemical weapons were used yesterday. But I want to underline that we are looking very carefully at these reports.”

As for who might be doing the alleged gassing, the rebels and Syrian government are lobbing accusations at each other, which is not a surprise.  From the Washington Post:

Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said rebels fired “a rocket containing poison gases” at the town of Khan al-Assal, southwest of Aleppo, from a part of the city they control. The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) said 25 people were killed and 86 injured in the attack. Rebels, in turn, accused forces loyal to Assad of firing a Scud missile containing deadly chemicals.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 26 people died, including 16 soldiers. But the observatory’s director, who uses the pseudonym Rami Abdulrahman, said he could only “confirm that there was a rocket attack but not that any chemicals were used.”

The use of weapons of mass destruction has long been held out as a “red line” that cannot be crossed by a variety of world leaders, including President Obama.  Rep. Rogers is ambivalent, to put it mildly, about precisely what the “world community” (meaning America) is prepared to do about it, as quoted by CBS:

“If we’re ever going to have a diplomatic solution where this regime doesn’t get to the point where it uses mass quantities of chemical weapons, we’ve got to rebuild our credibility,” he said. “One way to do that is to remove their capability to use chemical weapons on civilians.”

But Rogers denied that removing the capability to use chemical weapons would require deploying U.S. troops to Syria. “We have lots of capabilities in the United States arsenal, where it wouldn’t require boots on the ground… we do have the ability to remove their capability of using these particular weapons.”

He added that if U.S. intelligence has confirmed evidence of the intended future use of chemical weapons, a failure to act would be catastrophic.

“If we know of their intention to use these chemical weapons and don’t do anything about it, that is a stain on our national character.”

In other words, it is apparently clear that we either will, or will not, use military force to confiscate the chemical stockpiles that either have, or have not, been tapped by either Syria’s dictator or the more ruthless elements among the opposition.