Lost: Specificity of Responsibility

Carla Del Ponte of the United Nations’ Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria today said there are serious suspicions that the chemical weapon sarin has been used in Syria, but by rebels rather than the government, to her total surprise.  General Salim Idris of the Free Syrian Army responded that the remarks were “an injustice to the rebels and a provocation to the Syrian people’s feelings” (here in English, here in Arabic).  The UN commission has issued a terse statement saying its findings are not ready, which the BBC’s Imogen Foulkes interprets plausibly enough to suggest that Del Ponte’s remarks caught the commission by surprise.  But, as I raised the possibility in an earlier post, the allegations of chemical weapons usage raise more questions than answers.

I have three questions, and a plausible answer only to one of them:

1. When “the rebels” have done something, who are we talking about?  Is Del Ponte suggesting that the Free Syrian Army is using sarin, against the protestations of Salim Idris?  Or is it some other group (Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, Jabhat al-Nusra, Syrian Islamic Front, etc.)?  “The rebels” are a diverse group of organizations with very different structures, priorities, methods, and goals, apart from the single shared goal of bringing down the Assad regime.

2. How can the commission tell who has used the sarin?  The only method cited by the articles were interviews with exiles and refugees, but unless some of those interviewed were themselves rebels who confessed to deploying the chemical weapon, it is not clear how the responsibility could be inferred.  Certainly the use of sarin could be inferred based on a description of symptoms, but in a battle scenario it is very difficult to tell afterwards who did what to whom, as the phenomenon of “friendly fire” amply demonstrates.  If chemical weapons are used, anyone nearby regardless of whether they support or oppose the regime will suffer, so the identify of the victim cannot indicate the weapon’s use by the opposing side.  Del Ponte did not give any indication as to when or where the alleged use of sarin occurred, or under what circumstances, so it is unclear how the commission is able to distinguish regime from rebel usage.

3. Given that the commission’s report is not due yet, and Del Ponte herself emphasized that there are “strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof,” while her comments seemed to catch the commission off guard, according to Foulkes’ interpretation, why did she make these allegations now?

I suspect this is related to the Israeli airstrikes against Syria over the weekend, and mounting pressure on the US government to arm “the rebels,” amid concerns of high-powered weapons falling into the hands of the terrorist component of “the rebels.”  Del Ponte’s remarks were probably designed to caution against rash Western military intervention, to indicate that the evidence of sarin used could go both ways (she did not rule out that the regime had also used the chemical weapon).  How much do we really know about what is going on in Syria?  How much can we discern among different armed groups, in order to supply weapons only, as John McCain advocated yesterday, to “the right people in Syria who are fighting for obviously the things we believe in”?  I think these are important questions, and I wonder if Del Ponte’s remarks were designed to slow things down after earlier news reports of chemical weapons usage by the Assad regime and Israeli airstrikes had sped up the expected decision timetable.

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