Monday, May 06, 2013

Mideast Media Sampler 5/06/13: Do We Really Know Syria Insurgents Used Chemical Weapons?

by David Gerstman, contributing blogger at Legal Insurrection

1) Who used the CW?

Overnight, it's been reported that UN investigators believe that it's the rebels, not the government who have been using chemical weapons in Syria. (h/t memeorandum). The Hill reports:
The Syrian government has denied using chemical weapons and initially invited UN inspectors to probe a March attack in the village of Khan al-Asal near Aleppo, saying rebels used chemical weapons in that incident. The regime has refused to allow the inspectors to enter the country, however, after France and Britain demanded that they be allowed to investigate other reported sites of chemical weapons use, notably in the village of Ataybah near Damascus on March 19 and in Homs last December.
It is curious, to say the least, that the Syrian government would only consider allowing inspectors into one area to test for use of chemical weapons. The Hill report states further:
Calls for a greater U.S. role – such as arming vetted rebels and operating a no-fly zone – grew over the weekend after airstrikes, apparently by Israeli warplanes, revealed weaknesses in Syria's vaunted air-defense system. Some lawmakers, however, have long cautioned that the opposition is heavily influenced by Islamists and have cautioned that any government that replaces Assad may be antipathetic to both Israel and the United States.
US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel
US Secretary of Defense Hagel told the media on April 25, 2013,
 in Abu Dhabi that the White House had evidence Syrian
President Assad had used chemical weapons against Syrian rebels.
Credit: Wiki Commons

This report seems awfully convenient for the administration. Antipathy for the United States and Israel was rarely cited by the MSM as a reason to be cautious of the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite reasons for skepticism, that doesn't mean that the charges against the rebels are wrong. But according to another report:
Del Ponte, a former Swiss attorney-general who also served as prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, gave no details as to when or where sarin may have been used.
Right now there's way too little information to bolster the U.N.'s claim.

The New York Times reports Attacks Fuel Debate Over U.S.-Led Effort:
But President Obama has been reluctant to follow the course he took in that case, aides say, partly because of concerns about the strength of air defenses in Syria and partly because the opposition forces include so many jihadist elements. 
So far, Mr. Obama has said he would intervene only if it turned out that Syria had used chemical weapons — the current investigation into the use of sarin gas focuses on Aleppo and Damascus, the capital, in March — or if such use was imminent. Now, one adviser to Mr. Obama said, “it’s become pretty clear to everyone that Assad is calculating whether those weapons might save him.” 
The result is that the narrow goal of preventing the use of chemical weapons is beginning to merge with the broader goals of toppling Mr. Assad and seeking an end to a carnage that is already far greater than what took place in Libya, when Mr. Obama justified American intervention on humanitarian grounds.
Sen. McCain has been pushing for a more active American role against Assad. Now that Israel apparently has successfully breached Syria's air defenses, it appears that the risks of such intervention are lower.

The New York Times is continuing its effort to provide cover for President Obama's failure to act decisively in Syria. Yesterday the paper reported Off-the-Cuff Obama Line Put U.S. in Bind on Syria:
The origins of this dilemma can be traced in large part to a weekend last August, when alarming intelligence reports suggested the besieged Syrian government might be preparing to use chemical weapons. After months of keeping a distance from the conflict, Mr. Obama felt he had to become more directly engaged. 
In a frenetic series of meetings, the White House devised a 48-hour plan to deter President Bashar al-Assad of Syria by using intermediaries like Russia and Iran to send a message that one official summarized as, “Are you crazy?” But when Mr. Obama emerged to issue the public version of the warning, he went further than many aides realized he would.
The effect of the article appeared to be to give the President some room to go back on his red line statement. As Tom Maguire wrote (h/t memeorandum):
Obama lost the nuance? The deepest thinker and shiniest star on the Presidential Christmas tree? C'mon, he knows more than his advisors. They should be listening to him, and clearly they have missed the nuance.
It's interesting, not to say unnerving, that today (if not back when he said it) the Times can find senior officials distancing themselves from the president. Who wants to board a ship the rats are abandoning?
Unnamed presidential advisers are claiming that the President strayed from his talking points. It suggests that the President's advisers are either distancing themselves from him, or giving him the opportunity to back down from his threat.

The problem isn't that President Obama plans or doesn't plan to act against Syria. The problem is that he very clearly set a red line, quite possibly thinking that it would never be reached. Now he's (or at least his supporters in and out of the administration are) looking to distance himself from that ultimatum. This makes him look rash and feckless.
On #Syria, and many other things, America's credibility has taken a serious hit.
— Commentary Magazine (@Commentary) May 6, 2013

2) The Israeli "message"

Why is it that threats against Israel are regularly downplayed by the media?
'Everywhere an #Iranian embassy exists, they plan terror on
— Israel Hayom English (@IsraelHayomEng) May 6, 2013
Typical of this phenomenon is the headline Airstrikes Tied to Israel May Be Message to Iranians reported in the New York Times. The title is awful. By reducing Israel's apparent attack to a "message," it trivializes what Israel did. However the article contains some useful information in a brief statement from Jonathan Spyer:
Analysts said they did not see the airstrikes as the opening of a new war front, or as an attempt to prop up the Syrian rebels against the Syrian government of Mr. Assad. Rather, they tended to see it more as an extension of the long-running “shadow war” against Iran and Hezbollah, a tit-for-tat of terror attacks and assassinations that has stretched over decades and around the world. 
“This shouldn’t be seen as Israel intervening on behalf of the rebels or against Bashar,” said Jonathan Spyer, a senior research fellow at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzilya. “This is an escalation in a conflict we know about, and that is the conflict between Israel and Iran.”
Israeli officials contacted in the prime minister’s office, military command and defense and foreign ministries refused to discuss the strikes on Sunday, strictly following a protocol designed to give adversaries face-saving room to avoid a response. But wire services cited anonymous Israeli sources who confirmed Israel’s responsibility.
Spyer is right. Of course, his statement was used to support an assertion that Israel's war against Iran is simply a "tit for tat." Again the way the New York Times presents Israel's war against Iran trivializes the nature of the threat against Israel.
#German FM at #WJC on #Israel's right to self-defense: “If 1,500 rockets were fired at you … how would you react?”
— Arsen Ostrovsky (@Ostrov_A) May 6, 2013

3) Does the "U" in UN stannd for useless?

I noted that Colum Lynch reported:
Bkmoon: "grave concern" over reports of Israeli air strikes in Syria. UN has no details, and not in position to verify strikes occurred
— columlynch (@columlynch) May 5, 2013
and responded:
Any UN concerns about violations of 1701? MT @columlynch Bkmoon: "grave concern" over reports of Israeli air strikes in Syria.
— David Gerstman (@soccerdhg) May 5, 2013
Lynch tweeted back:
@soccerdhg not explicitly: general reference to need for adherence to relevant SC
— columlynch (@columlynch) May 5, 2013
I don't know if Lynch is in agreement with the Secretary General or not. Does Moon really believe implicitly referring to Security Council resolutions makes them, somehow, effective? After the first Israeli strikes, the New York Times reported Israel Targeted Iranian Missiles in Syria Attack:
Hezbollah is now believed to have more missiles and fighters than it had before its 2006 battle with Israel, when Hezbollah missiles forced a third of Israel’s population into shelters and hit as far south as Haifa. A Pentagon official said in 2010 that Hezbollah’s arsenal was believed to include a small number of Fateh-110s, and additional shipments would add to Hezbollah’s striking power.
A security council resolution has been violated with impunity over the last seven years and all the Secretary General can do is ask for restraint all around? If the resolution was obeyed by Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, Israel would not now be acting. Moon, asking for restraint, is admitting his organization's impotence! Shouldn't he be thanking Israel for enforcing the resolution?

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