Syria has used chemical weapons, US says. Are we going to war?

Syria has used chemical weapons - sarin nerve gas, to be exact – against its own people, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said today.

And while Hagel’s pronouncement at first appeared somewhat uncertain - “The U.S. intelligence community assesses with some degree of varying confidence the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin” – it’s being taken by the media as meaning the US is certain.

I still find the notion troubling, that “varying degrees of confidence” means “it’s true.”

Interestingly, just yesterday Hagel, channeling his inn-er Biden, said that he was skeptical of Israel’s claims to have found such evidence, which means that Hagel either got new evidence, or got a talking to.

“Suspicions are one thing,” Hagel told reporters traveling with him. “Evidence is another.”

Or not.

Syrian Syria chemical weapons

Syria via Shutterestock

Someone mentioned to me on Twitter, and I have to admit that I had the same thought, that this sounds an awful like “Iraq has WMD.”

I don’t want to go there, I’m not an anti-government conspiracy nut who assumes the government always lies, or always gets it wrong.  In fact, I’m actually a bit of a hawk on foreign policy matters.

But, I don’t like being lied to.  And I don’t like statements such as “assesses with some degree of varying confidence.”  To me, means “we’re kinda sorta maybe certain.”

CNN just showed Hagel’s impromptu presser earlier today, and the Defense Secretary was asked about the apparently hedging in the statement:

“It means that we still have some uncertainties about what was used, what kind of chemical was used, where it was used, who used it. In talking to our intelligence people here the last couple of hours they have a reasonable amount of confidence that some amount of chemical weapons was used.”

Even that uncertainty was uncertain.  We’re uncertain what was used – as in, whether or not it was a chemical weapon? – or only uncertain as to WHICH chemical weapon was used?  And who used it – meaning, whether it was the Syrian military – who else could it be?

If we’re certain that the Syrian government used some kind of chemical weapon against its people, then we should just say that.  But I’m troubled by discussions of “uncertain confidence” when speaking of Middle Eastern countries having and using chemical weapons.  Sounds all too familiar.

CNN is now saying that the US feels “intelligent assessments” are not enough – they want facts, proof.  Me too.

Now, I understand how intelligence assessments work, and you don’t always have certainty – it’s a bit like predicting the weather, or reading the tea leaves in politics (it’s a lot like reading the tea leaves in politics).  You have to make a judgment based on the sometimes-imperfect information you have. And that assessment could very likely include a probability of certainty.

That’s okay.  But, as with the Boston Marathon bombing coverage last week, when the stakes are high, you have to be much more careful about what uncertain information you make public, as the consequences of being wrong are much graver.

So I don’t fault the intelligence assessment.  I fault the immediate conclusion that this assessment means that Syria HAS used chemical weapons.  In fact, the assessment sounds like a strong “may,” “probably,” or “likely” – rather than a “has.”

And when John McCain goes on TV, like he just has, and says he’s “certain” that Assad has used chemical weapons, that’s enough for me to want someone to double-check.

Why does this all matter?  Because President Obama has earlier said that if President Assad uses chemical weapons against his people, that would be a “game changer” in terms of whether the US intervenes in the Syrian civil war.

And I’m for helping the Syrian people, if we can, if it makes sense (if such help will help achieve a positive outcome).  But damn, we’re cutting Medicare and Social Security, the sequester is bleeding government agencies dry, but we always find money when it comes to blowing something up.


Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown (1989); and worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, and as a stringer for the Economist. Frequent TV pundit: O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline & Reliable Sources. Bio, .

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  • Naja pallida

    I think ‘sucker’ is probably way too vague a term, but we were actively funding anti-Soviet factions in Afghanistan at the time, which no doubt lead to increases in political tension and eventually violence.

  • Naja pallida

    Yes, the UN is a forum for alleviating frictions… between “lesser” nations. When nations have grievances against the Big Five, they’re essentially ignored, or strong-armed into taking a side. Iraq is a pretty good example of the failures of the UN. When many high-level people in the UN were calling our actions in Iraq entirely illegal and against the UN charter, the Security Council voted against the invasion… yet, we did it anyway, because we don’t really care what the UN has to say about our actions. Our government’s view has always been that they should be beholden to us, not the other way around. The rest of the world would probably disagree with that assessment, but we don’t let them.

    Not sure what my comment had to do with “dumping on the country”, but who am I to stand in the way if you want to argue against something in your own mind.

  • Ford Prefect

    I’m afraid that stability was never in the cards. The mistake made by the US, Israel, the Saudis and Qataris (all of whom are supporting different factions in their ready made civil war) was that this would be over quickly. All of them were and are wrong.

    The Israelis and Americans want Assad gone so they can attack Iran. They apparently gave no thought as to which faction would end up in power, which is why it turned out we were (ironically) supporting elements of Al Qaeda, among others. The Saudis want Wahabbi islamists in power. The Qataris want Muslim Brotherhood. Secularists simply don’t count in all this, even though the administration says they’re supporting “moderates.” There are no moderates in a civil war. Only those who survive and those who don’t.

    Undoubtedly, this is why the US Army is setting up a Division HQ in Jordan. Israel finally figured out they’ll end up with jihadists in charge of Syria who want to take back the Golan Heights, for starters.

    It’s a lovely little catastrophe these folks have given the region.

  • Badgerite

    So, even in liberal candy land, concern for human rights stops at the border or at the phrase ‘vital national interests’. Interesting!

  • Badgerite

    Ok. This one I have never heard before. How, exactly, did we ‘sucker’ the Russians into their war in Afghanistan? It seems to me the US Government protested rather loudly against that one, at the time.

  • Badgerite

    I would give this to GW. That his ‘bullshit war with Iraq’ probably turned out far better than Vietnam. There are some people that were saved by that war as well as there were people who were killed. The Kurds and the Marsh Arabs come to mind. The Marsh Arabs, Saddam was in the process of annihilating and the Kurds were certainly on his ‘to do’ list for the future. Clearly, there is still a low grade civil war going on there. But there was always a low grade civil war going on there since he came to power. It was just that Saddam had all of the power and was quite ruthless in using it. And if Saddam were still in power, what do you think would be going on in Iraq now? The difference between him and Assad, is that Saddam would not hold back. Anything.

  • Badgerite

    So, in your opinion, that is all that has been going on in Syria these days? Wedding parties? What, have you been living in a cave?

  • Badgerite

    Compliments on the phrase ‘liberal candy land’. I wish I had thought of it. I love liberal candy land. I am a card carrying member of liberal candy land. But every once in a while, real world conditions must encroach. I would only ask of the powers that be that when that happens to keep in mind that the long term interest of international and regional stability are most always aligned with respect for human rights. But to act, as many in comments seem to do, like these are easy issues to determine and to resolve, is ludicrous.

  • Badgerite

    Please keep in mind while dumping on the country you presumably live in and whose liberties you avail yourselves of, the UN would not even exist without the United States. I am, by no means, a UN basher, but I believe the organization did, at the time when Sudan was behind vicious attacks on the populace of Danfur, give Sudan a seat on the UN Commission on Human Rights, or some such committee. There may have been resolutions against the slaughter, but I don’t remember any. And the UN is there to provide a forum for alleviating frictions in the world by means other than war as much as to further the concepts of human liberties. The former is not likely to occur if the opinions of the most powerful countries on the planet can be over-ridden by a plurality of smaller, less powerful ones. It is not a ‘figurehead’ organization. But it is not a soverieign legislative body either. And it never will be. At least, not in the foreseeable future.

  • http://www.facebook.com/eve.condon Eve Wartenberg Condon

    I guess it’s the idealist in me. If our government weren’t so dysfunctional and our military less bloated, maybe we could assist without screwing it up, but I’ve been accused of living in liberal candy land before…

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    I could, but that particular excuse has been used many times before — going all the way back in my own memory to Viet Nam — and it never works out that way. Nor is long-term stability and protecting refugees ever the real reason for war.

  • http://www.facebook.com/zachary.smith.3914207 Zachary Smith

    From a google news search for keywords Syria and sarin, I found this:

    http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2013/04/sarin-tainted-blood/

    And guess what? The blood tests turned up positive. Well, it could be a lie from the gitgo. Somebody fabricated some results using their trusty word processor. Or some tainted blood might actually exist – brought straight from some chem-war lab in an undisclosed location. Finally, perhaps the tests were made, and they were well done, and the tested individuals were walking around with traces of sarin in their system.

    I’m quite sure there are charts for ‘dosing’ a person with sub-lethal doses of nerve gas. Just spray X micrograms on the skin, and Voila!

    Now who might do that kind of thing? Somebody who wants the US to ‘whack’ Assad like this nation did to Saddam? And who in the area would have access to sarin? Probably just about everybody. Saudi Arabia would have it for sure, and so would Israel. And they both sure-enough have motives.

    If BHO has decided to add some more oak leaves to his Nobel Peace Medal, even the US could have flown over a few grams of sarin. As the Japanese terrorists proved some years back, the stuff can be created by amateurs. Quite possibly the friendly peace-loving guys fighting Assad made it themselves. Not that they’d likely have to bother – a single defector from the Assad regime could have brought along all that was needed for such a hypothetical adventure. Conclusion: there is no telling where the stuff came from, despite the certainty you saw in the link.

    Motives are of importance here. The Syrian regime has precisely zero interest in drawing in more forces to fight against it. And in the event they did decide to use nerve gas, why bother with itty bitty amounts? The old phrase “you get hanged for a sheep, same as a lamb” applies here, so if they were going to break out the Chemicals, why not do so on a scale which might really help them?

    IMO we’re looking at another Great Adventure like GWB’s Bullshit War with Iraq. And as we all recall, that one turned out so very well.

  • http://www.facebook.com/eve.condon Eve Wartenberg Condon

    you could see it as an investment in keeping the region stable, since the fighting and tide of refugees are spilling into the neighboring countries and Al Quada’s set up shop within the resistance.

  • http://www.facebook.com/eve.condon Eve Wartenberg Condon

    I think it’s a question of degrees. From what I understand, the sectarianism in Syria has grown as the conflict’s dragged on. Human rights groups that have been observing the situation report that as the war continues and sectarianism picks up speed, it is becoming more and more difficult to provide aid. I’m not saying things were hunky dory two years ago, but they’re worse now.

  • Naja pallida

    You make it sound as if those disparate factions didn’t have different goals in the first place. Same thing happened in Iraq. Same thing happened in Egypt. Same thing happened in Libya. The only thing all the various groups, be they religious or political, had keeping them together was the hatred of their dictator.

  • http://www.facebook.com/eve.condon Eve Wartenberg Condon

    wish I could disagree with that, but I can’t.

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    In the old ‘Guns vs Butter’ equation, the United States chose to favor the Guns half a long time ago. Which is why there is always money to pay for bombs and planes and troops to go invade other people’s countries, whether they want us to or not, but not enough to pay for a decent “dignity-grade” universal retirement pension for our citizens or health care for all of us or college educations or any of the other quality-of-life stuff most other advanced nations make a far higher priority.

    I know this makes me sound like an isolationist — and maybe in my increasing decrepitude, I’m morphing into one — but why are other people’s civil wars nearly always framed as a problem requiring American taxpayer sacrifices and the intervention of our blood, sweat, and tears?

  • cambridgemac

    Yeah, two demented young men were gonna drive down to Times Square with bombs in the car. Run, everybody, Run! If it were Bonnie and Clyde, instead of Dzhokar and Tamerlan, this wouldn’t be working at all for the War Machine. And would somebody please tell me the political goals of the Tsernaev brothers? Because if they didn’t have political goals or a program, it ain’t terrorism.

  • Michael in Cambridge

    John – “Varying degrees of certainty” means it’s truthy. Not exactly true, but good enough for the Big Boys and just SHUT UP SHUT UP. Pretty soon we’ll be saluting as the drones head for wedding parties in Syria (preventing the next generation of Terrists) and Obama and his buddies quietly slip through the chained CPI, cut Medicare, and then on to Wall Street and MILLION DOLLAR A YEAR jobs! Yay!

  • http://www.facebook.com/eve.condon Eve Wartenberg Condon

    I fear we’ve waited too long to get involved to help anyone anymore. The resistance has become so sectarian that the country will disintegrate further after they topple Assad and the factions have nothing left to unite them. We should have armed them and supported them early, before Al Quada infiltrated the war. Whatever we do or do not do now, it’s too little too late.

  • goulo

    The US is crazy again after the Boston bombing, analogous to after 9/11, so I’m not surprised to see the US government hyping another Middle East war to take advantage of increased anti-Muslim sentiment… I won’t be surprised to see more saber-rattling at Iran also.

  • http://adgitadiaries.com/ karmanot

    Both China and Russia have brilliantly played the neo-con colonialists.

  • http://adgitadiaries.com/ karmanot

    Good one Z. These modernist crusades again the ‘generic’ Muslim state under the guise of terrorist prevention are as doomed to failure as back then, insuring centuries of enmity between the West and the Middle East. My guess is that it will bring the collapse of America as the world power.

  • pappyvet

    After the last WMD debacle, we need to tread carefully ,I am all for the Syrian people but we cannot do this tapdance again.

  • Zorba
  • Bill_Perdue

    The US is systematically destroying every Arab and muslim regime that could conceivably challenge their attempt to gain energy hegemony in the region or challenge the zionists ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.

  • nicho

    They still haven’t forgotten how we suckered them into their war in Afghanistan. Unlike Americans, Russians have very long memories.

  • Naja pallida

    In theory, yes, but as long as there are countries with veto powers on the Security Council, the UN will always be nothing more than a figurehead organization, readily ignored by those countries that have that veto power.

  • Naja pallida

    Russia is only interested in its economic and strategic interests, and at this point doesn’t really seem care whether those come from the Assad regime, or some other regime, as long as they are maintained. They aren’t really in a position to be able to jump into a foreign war, so are probably hoping we will be the ones dumb enough to foot the bill to bring more relative stability to their interests.

  • http://adgitadiaries.com/ karmanot

    How could any sane person believe anything coming out these days. FOX, the most popular media outlet for dittos is the equivalent of the old Pravda and the other cables not far behind.. While, we have one of the most efficient, well equipped and powerful police states on earth, the FBI /CIA still can’t ferret out terrorists even when Mother Russia puts them on the watch list and gives us multiple warnings. Excepting suspicious babies, children and the elderly with metal hip transplants at TSA Keystone cops terminals. The only successful FBI or CIA arrests have been those they set up as entrapment. This would be hilarious if it weren’t so pathetic and evident of the collapse of just law and competent applications of encroaching fascism.

  • pappyvet

    Very disturbing, now CNN has Bloomberg on talking about a bomb plot in New York.
    I see a very hot summer coming

  • Drew2u

    Isn’t this where the U.N. is supposed to lead the charge in decisions like this vs the US cowboying it up vigilante style?

  • nicho

    Well, we can make a deal with Russia to let them keep their ports. Russia’s really not a threat to us. They’ve got enough fish to fry maintaining their borders and dealing with their home-grown dissidents.

  • theophrastvs

    anytime policy with Syria is considered we really must not forget the 600 pound gorilla in the room: Russia; who thinks Syria is one of their few warm water ports, and last we heard had war ships parked there. so “oops we shot down a helicopter and it landed on a Russian ship/warehouse/bunch-of-Russian nationals” …this is how much larger conflicts get started.

  • Ford Prefect

    Hagel’s remarks are neither surprising, nor inconsistent with the administration’s gradual tip-toeing into Syria. The Army’s 1st Armored Division is setting up a Division HQ in Jordan, so what does that tell you?

    As for “everybody,” I’m assuming you’re talking about the media and Party apparatchiks, because anyone with any understanding of this question of chemical weapons is at least skeptical. Hagel’s own phrasing indicates he cannot supply any evidence to support his weaselly claims, framed as “suspicions.” What the hell, it worked for Iraq, right?

    Does anyone now doubt that Hagel’s previous “war skepticism” is being played up to legitimize Iraq-Two-Point-D’oh?

    On 18 April, DCI Clapper was asked in congress whether the IC thought Syria had used chemical weapons. His response was, “That’s a policy question and not one for intelligence to comment on.” IOW, it doesn’t really matter if it’s true or not. Policy will decide that, not evidence.

  • nicho

    Well, we can rest assured that the US government would never attack US citizens — oh, wait a minute. Never mind.

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