While the world argues about chemical weapons, Syrian civilians are still being slaughtered by the regime

Despite the fact that Carla del Ponte, a former prosecutor for U.N. tribunals investigating war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, has talked only of "suspicions" regarding the Syrian opposition's possible use of chemical weapons, her comments have gained a lot of attention over the weekend.

Despite the fact that Carla del Ponte, a former prosecutor for U.N. tribunals investigating war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, has talked only of “suspicions” regarding the Syrian opposition’s possible use of chemical weapons, her comments have gained a lot of attention over the weekend.

Her remarks upstaged the news, hardly talked about by anyone, that there has been a recent slaughter of hundreds of civilians in Banias, where it has been asserted that “Assad’s shabihas are attempting to create an ethically cleansed zoom of retreat”.

Within hours of her statement, two were made to counteract its main message.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said: “We find it highly likely that any chemical weapon use that has taken place in Syria was done by the Assad regime”, while the U.N. commission said it: “has not reached conclusive findings as to the use of chemical weapons in Syria by any parties to the conflict”.

Even without ‘incontrovertible proof’, which she admits, her words have confirmed the bias of commentators wishing to weaken the perception of the anti-Assad forces on an international stage – on the eve of possible action taken by the US.

Confirmation bias

It was noted on the BBC over the weekend that del Ponte is not on the investigating team for the UN looking into chemical weapon use. In fact that team quickly made a statement of their own, essentially saying her comments were unfounded.

This of course does not mean she is in no position to comment, but it must be reminded that she speaks for herself, through her own prejudices.

Her statement, now, has made rather dubious commentators very excited. Theodore and Walid Shoebat, the latter the author of a new book entitled The Case For Islamophobia, said in a blog post today that “our conclusions have been confirmed”.

Last month they also declared that Syrian Islamist rebels had been using chemical weapons, not the Syrian government.

This is backed up, they believe, by del Ponte’s comment that “Syrian rebel forces used nerve agent sarin as a weapon”.

Their conclusions, however, were gloriously taken down last month by Eliot Higgins of the now world famous Brown Moses blog.

In a post entitled A Great Example Of How Not To Write About Chemical Weapons And Arms In Syria, he said, of the Shoebat pair’s post, that:

“We have a selection of videos that don’t support anything the authors claim, along with a few theories on the Khan al-Assal attack that don’t really seem to be based on much more than claims made by the Syrian government and a extremely limited understanding of the DIY weapons used by the Syrian opposition and chlorine based weapons.”

The debate about al-Qaeda and chemical weapons

In del Ponte’s statement we have as yet unsubstantiated suspicions which people who really want to believe it are already running with. Other debates that have taken place in the US press have, for example, focused on al-Qaeda getting hold of weapons of mass destruction in Syria.

Based quite literally on no evidence at all, an article from Russia Today – the Kremlin funded televison station – has pondered upon whether chemical weapons could have come in from Turkey to opposition forces.

Why does the author believe this? Because Turkey has previously used chemical weapons on Kurdish militia, and it also happens to support the Syrian rebels – ergo, this is all the evidence we need.

The only thing stopping German journalist Manuel Ochsenreiter, who spoke to Russia Today, from believing that Syrian rebels could get hold of chemical weapons that are already ready inside Syria, was that “the stockpile is heavily guarded”.

Assad of course denies having chemical weapons, saying America has form when it comes to unsubstantiable claims about a Middle Eastern country’s weaponry. On this he may have a point, but this says nothing about his case; last year he warned that his regime might use chemical weapons to stop so-called “external aggression”. He then had to back peddle after the Kremlin were, as Wired reported at the time, “pissed off”.

But on the assumption that Assad does have access to chemical weapons (fairly strong, I’d say), Michael Crowley for Time has said “there’s no guarantee that the radical jihadists of al Nusra won’t overtake a chemical site, especially if the Assad regime and its military infrastructure should collapse”.

This further proves that in Syria, evidence-based reporting is not needed, but an active imagination of the possible.

Admittedly, however, there’s a problem of evidence on the side of those sympathetic to the rebels, too. Philip Hammond recently said that “western intelligence services would probably have to wait for a further chemical attack before gathering enough information to trace it back to the government”.

Whatever our suspicions on either side, the intelligence in Syria is taking too long to be turned into action. We are only left to say that Assad has been told off for being too open about his chemical weapon stockpile before and those on his side have limited, if completely flimsy, “evidence” to suggest these weapons are being used only by rebels.

Syrians being killed by their government’s army are sat in the middle of this debate, waiting.

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