A U.N. chemical weapons expert, wearing a gas mask, holds a plastic bag containing samples from one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack in the Ain Tarma neighbourhood of Damascus August 29, 2013. A team of U.N. experts left their Damascus h
Do we really know who did it?
This story broke over the weekend, but it didn't get much play in the American media. Which is curious in that it calls into question the entire rationale for going to war with Syria. The strategy has been dubious from the start, but the ostensible casus belli hasn't received nearly enough scrutiny. It should.

As reported by Reuters:

Syrian government forces may have carried out a chemical weapons attack close to Damascus without the personal permission of President Bashar al-Assad, Germany's Bild am Sonntag paper reported on Sunday, citing German intelligence.

Syrian brigade and division commanders had been asking the Presidential Palace to allow them to use chemical weapons for the last four-and-a-half months, according to radio messages intercepted by German spies, but permission had always been denied, the paper said.

This could mean Assad may not have personally approved the attack close to Damascus on August 21 in which more than 1,400 are estimated to have been killed, intelligence officers suggested.

The Germans earlier had believed Assad responsible, but that was based on one intercepted phone call between a Hezbollah commander and an official at an unidentified Iranian embassy. This new report seems more comprehensive and more credible, given that it is based on intercepted messages between Syrian commanders and Syria's Presidential Palace. As McClatchy explained, on Monday:
The report in Bild am Sonntag, which is a widely read and influential national Sunday newspaper, reported that the head of the German Foreign Intelligence agency, Gerhard Schindler, last week told a select group of German lawmakers that intercepted communications had convinced German intelligence officials that Assad did not order or approve what is believed to be a sarin gas attack on Aug. 21 that killed hundreds of people in Damascus’ eastern suburbs.
The Reuters report also says that General Volker Wieker, the chief of staff of Germany's armed forces, has told German lawmakers that al-Qaeda's influence on Syrian rebel forces continually grows stronger, while The Guardian on Sunday reported that Syrian rebel groups that have been fighting Assad now are preparing to fight the United States, too. Which again raises the question of who the United States would be fighting for, and who it would be empowering, should it start bombing.

Let's hope that all questions of a U.S attack are rendered moot by the new tentative plan to have Syria place its chemical weapons under international control. No matter who is responsible for the chemical attack, Assad has been slaughtering his people by socially acceptable conventional means, and by any standard it would be a very good thing for his chemical weapons to be neutralized. But regardless of the new plan's success or failure, we need to know what actually happened on Aug. 21.

If this entire crisis is supposed to have been triggered by Assad's having used chemical weapons, it would be a good idea to begin by making sure that Assad really did it. This is about war, and it should not be taken lightly. The Progressive Caucus has a list of 67 good questions for the White House to answer, but the first question should be the most basic: How do we know Assad is responsible? This German report raises questions that demand convincing answers.

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