Al Qaeda’s Arms Supplier
One does not need to support people who not only kill their enemies, but open up their bodies, eat their intestines in front of the public and cameras. Are these the people you want to support? Is it them you want to supply with weapons? Then this probably has little relation to humanitarian values that have been preached in Europe for hundreds of years.–Russian president Vladimir Putin 
By Stephen Gowans
The way the White House and US media tell the story, the Syrian government crossed a red line by using chemical weapons, triggering a US decision to arm the Syrian rebellion, dominated by the Al Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front. The way it almost certainly happened is that rebel setbacks triggered a decision to arm the rebels, and that laughably weak evidence of Syrian forces using chemical weapons was used to justify it.
There are three reasons to believe the second account and to reject the first.
#1. The evidence that the Syrian government used chemical weapons is no more cogent today than it was two months ago when the White House dismissed the same evidence as inconclusive.
Back then, France said it had evidence that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons. It consisted of: reports by rebels of chemical attacks; the alleged victims exhibiting symptoms consistent with sarin gas exposure; tissue samples testing positive for exposure to the nerve agent.
At the time, the White House rejected the evidence, correctly characterizing it as nothing more than “shreds and shards of information that could be possibly linked to chemical weapons,” but inconclusive.  The evidence’s weakness turned on ambiguity in “the chain of custody” so that US officials could not “confirm how the exposure occurred and under what conditions.” Washington’s scepticism was based on concerns of the rebels possibly tainting the tissue samples to draw the United States more fully into the conflict. And the White House noted that “the detection of chemical agents doesn’t necessarily mean they were used in an attack by the Syrian regime.”  The rebels may have had access to sarin gas, to which they were exposed accidentally. Tissues samples may have been deliberately contaminated.
On Thursday, in the wake of the rebels suffering a major military setback, Washington did an about-face. The US deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes announced that the US intelligence community had assessed “that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year.”  Obama’s infamous red line had been crossed, and the United States was free to step up its (already substantial) involvement in the Syrian conflict.
Rhodes said the assessment was based on three pieces of information.
• “Reporting regarding Syrian officials planning and executing chemical weapons attacks.”
• “Descriptions of physiological symptoms that are consistent with exposure to a chemical weapons agent.”
• “Laboratory analysis of physiological samples obtained from a number of individuals, which revealed exposure to sarin.” 
In other words, someone (likely the rebels) said Syrian forces used chemical weapons, the alleged victims displayed symptoms consistent with exposure to a chemical agent, and tissue samples tested positive for sarin. This was the same evidence the White House rejected as inconclusive two months ago.
#2. Echoing the White House’s previous scepticism, Rhodes acknowledged that the evidence does not “tell us how or where the individuals were exposed or who was responsible.”  In other words, the evidence hasn’t changed, and nor has its weakness. What has changed is the White House’s evidentiary bar. It has slipped, and is lying on the floor.
#3. The Wall Street Journal reported that the decision to directly arm the rebels “according to people familiar with it, was the product of two months of increasingly unsettling assessment about the war that propelled the president to do something he had previously argued would be a mistake.” A crucial factor in the White House volte-face was “growing U.S. concerns about large-scale battlefield deployment of militants from the Iran-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah—an appearance that alarmed Israel and caught the Americans by surprise—and President Bashar al-Assad’s more recent battlefield gains.” 
So, if we put points 1, 2 and 3 together: Assad is winning. The evidence that Syrian forces have used chemical agents hasn’t changed, and the concerns about it remain. But needing a pretext to step up US involvement in Syria to prevent an Assad victory, the White House lowered the evidentiary bar. Weak evidence, never strong enough to warrant the conclusion Assad had crossed a red line suddenly became good enough. Through this neat trick—if the evidence is the same, change the conclusion you draw from it to suit your policy—the White House has handed itself a pretext to arm rebel forces dominated by Al-Qaeda terrorists.
There are three matters that should also be considered.
First, it never made sense, either militarily or politically, for Syrian forces to use chemical weapons. Their use would present the US with a pretext to escalate its intervention in Syria, an outcome the Syrian government would surely like to avoid. On the other hand, once Obama announced his red line, the rebels were handed a compelling reason to fabricate evidence of chemical weapons use by Syrian forces to draw the US more decisively into the conflict.
Second, the evidence of the use of chemical weapons points, not to Syrian forces, but to the rebels. According to Carla Del Ponte, a member of the United Nations independent commission of inquiry on Syria, “We collected some witness testimony that made to appear that some chemical weapons were used, in particular nerving (sic) gas and what appears to our investigation (was) that that was used by the opponents, by the rebels.”  In contrast, Del Ponte said the commission had “no indication at all that the government, the authorities of the Syrian government, had used chemical weapons.” 
Third, even if Syrian generals are obtuse enough to make the political and military blunder of using chemical agents in battle, a US intervention in response would hardly be justified. US regime change policy in Syria antedates Syria’s civil war. The outbreak of the “Arab Spring” in Syria, and Damascus’s response to it, didn’t trigger US efforts to force Assad from power. US regime change policy, linked to Damascus’s refusal to become a “peace-partner” with Israel, its alliance with Iran and Hezbollah, and its refusal to fully open its economy to US capital, existed long before the Syrian government cracked down on opposition forces. In fact, one element of US foreign policy was to encourage opposition to the Assad government,  that is, to foment the kind of civil unrest that eventually morphed into a full blown civil war. Washington isn’t intervening in a Syrian conflict which it, itself, has had a hand in igniting, in order to stop Syrian forces from using chemical weapons (which they very likely haven’t used anyway) but for entirely self-serving reasons related to US commercial, financial and geo-strategic goals.
Finally, it should be noted that the White House accompanied its announcement that it would directly arm the Al-Qaeda-led rebel force in Syria with gob-smacking chutzpah. The action it was taking, it said, would advance US objectives of “countering terrorist activity.”  Arming Al-Qaeda, while at the same time countering terrorist activity, is as neat a trick as conjuring a pretext for action by simply changing the label on evidence from low confidence to high confidence.
1. “G8 summit begins: Vladimir Putin accuses David Cameron of betraying humanitarian values by supporting Syrian rebels,” The Independent (UK), June 17, 2013.
2. Jay Solomon, “Obama cools opposition’s hopes in Syria”, The Wall Street Journal, April 26, 2013.
3. Adam Entous, “U.S. believes Syria used gas”, The Wall Street Journal, April 25, 2013.
4. Statement by Ben Rhodes, the US deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, on chemical weapons. The Guardian (UK), June 13, 2013.
6. Rhodes. Note also that according to the New York Times, (“U.S. to keep warplanes in Jordan, pressing Syria,” June 15, 2013) “Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said that the evidence the Obama administration had relied on in making its charges of chemical weapons use was unreliable because the samples were not properly monitored until they reached a laboratory. ‘There are rules of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which are based on the fact that samples of blood, urine, soil, clothing are considered serious proof only if the samples were taken by experts, and if these experts controlled these samples all the time while they are transported to a proper laboratory,’ he said.”
7. Adam Entous, “Behind Obama’s about-face on Syria”, The Wall Street Journal, June 15, 2013.
8. “UN: ‘Strong suspicions’ that Syrian rebels have used sarin nerve gas,” Euronews, May 6, 2013.
9. “UN’s Del Ponte says evidence Syria rebels ‘used sarin’”, BBC News, May 6, 2013.
10. Craig Whitlock, “U.S. secretly backed Syrian opposition groups, cables released by Wikileaks show”, The Washington Post, April 17, 2011.