According to the NY Times, American officials said Wednesday there was no “smoking gun” that directly links President Bashar al-Assad to the chemical attack in a suburb of Damascus August 21, when hundreds of people were reported to have been killed. The officials tried to “lower expectations about the public intelligence presentation,” cautioning it would not contain “specific electronic intercepts of communications between Syrian commanders or detailed reporting from spies and sources on the ground.”
This despite the news we read on Wednesday that the U.S. government possesses intelligence intercepts implicating the Syrian government in the chemical attack.
According to the online blog of Foreign Policy, American intelligence have recordings of a series of “panicked conversations” between an official at the Syrian Defense Ministry and the commander of a chemical weapons unit right after the attack.
According to the Times, Administration officials are saying that those panicked conversations are proof that the assault was not the result of a rogue unit acting on its own. But they’re not releasing the tape, and as the Times puts it: “It is unclear how much detail about these communications, if any, will be made public.”
If that tape had a real smoking gun in it, I tend to believe they would have released it.
But even without hard evidence tying Assad to the chemical attack, Administration officials told the Times, Assad bears the ultimate responsibility for the actions of his troops and should be held accountable.
“The commander in chief of any military is ultimately responsible for decisions made under their leadership,” State Department’s deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf asserted — even if, she added, “He’s not the one who pushes the button or says ‘go’ on this.”
What if it wasn’t his officers pushing those buttons? What if Assad’s seemingly ridiculous claims that he was framed turn out to be true?
The argument pushed by the Russians in support of this widely rejected idea, has to do with the reason evil despots—like Hafez al-Assad, the departed Syrian despot, and Saddam Hussein–choose to disregard all the international conventions in all the books and to use chemical weapons on their own people: they’re desperate. Tens of thousands of residents in some faraway region are pushing back your army and you need to cool things down quickly and decisively – you bring down the skin burning death on their poor souls.
But Bashar al-Assad is winning these days—goes the Russian argument—he actually has a chance, on paper, to take back much of his lost territory and to reestablish himself once more as the legitimate ruler of much of Syria. What reason does he have to sabotage his future relationship with the West through such a stupid violation of all that the West seems to cherish?
On the other hand, if you’re a desperate rebel army on the run, and the government army is reclaiming areas you’ve labored so hard to conquer – what simpler way is there for you to trap the enemy in a political quagmire from which he may never recover?
Unless the Administration doesn’t want a smoking gun.
In an interview on the PBS “NewsHour,” President Obama said he still had not made a decision about military action. He did indicate that, even if he gives the go ahead, the military strike could be a “shot across the bow, saying ‘stop doing this,’ that can have a positive impact on our national security over the long term.”
I wouldn’t be surprised if there are discussions going on between Washington, Damascus and, very likely, Moscow, as to which specific targets are going to be hit, and how many Tomahawks exactly will be spewing well coordinated hell-fire, and then everybody can go home, and the emergency will be officially over.