I cannot say how many times I have heard people assert that there is ‘little doubt’ the Syrian government used chemical weapons – in fact I just heard this tricky phrase on the BBC’s radio news.
How does one quantify doubt? How much doubt does there have to be, when a quite possibly unlimited war is in question? If there is doubt of any kind, surely we shouldn’t be broadcasting or writing as if there were no doubt, let alone talking about embroiling ourselves in a vast and probably endless sectarian war between Shia and Sunni, now rapidly catching fire in the region?
Easy enough to lob a cruise missile into Syria from a submarine, no doubt. But what sort of child imagines it would end there? If the missiles failed to shift President Assad, what next? And there are other horrible possibilities I will leave it to you to work out.
We have been told that such things surely couldn’t have been faked, except by incredibly skilled technicians. But the Syrian ‘rebels’ (in fact a salad of Sunni extremists backed by Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf States, and egged on by two major Arab TV stations) are not short of money or propaganda skills.
Then there is the logic of it. President Assad has in fact denied that his government is responsible. The denial is by no means incredible. He knows (for it has been made clear so many times, not least on the precedent of Saddam Hussein’s Halabja massacre, as well as by President Barack Obama’s statement that such an attack would constitute a ‘red line’) that such an attack would provide the pretext for a ‘Western’ intervention in his country.
It would allow the USA, Britain and France to bypass the UN Security Council, and the vetoes of China and Russia against any UN-sponsored intervention. Mr Assad knows that a UN inspection team is on hand in Damascus. He also knows (and so do the rebels) that the fighting in the Damascus suburbs makes it very difficult for that team to reach the site of the alleged massacre. He does not control these suburbs, and cannot guarantee the UN team’s safety( at the time of writing the UN experts have withdrawn after they were fired upon, allegedly by rebels) . If he is to be required to prove his innocence, it will be very difficult. Thus, a media presumption of guilt, readily swallowed by vainglorious and posturing politicians (the sort we mostly have these days) is very likely.
In those circumstances, what could possibly have possessed him to do something so completely crazy? He was, until this event, actually doing quite well in his war against the Sunni rebels. Any conceivable gains from using chemical weapons would be cancelled out a million times by the diplomatic risk. It does not make sense. Mr Assad is not Saddam Hussein, or some mad carpet-biting dictator, but a reasonably intelligent, medically-trained person who has no detectable reason to act in such an illogical and self-damaging fashion.
The rebels, on the other hand (in many cases non-Syrian jihadists who are much disliked by many ordinary Syrians because of the misery they have brought upon them) , have many good reasons to stage such an attack .
Hitchens goes on to say that it’s possible, obviously, that Assad’s government really did launch a chemical attack upon its own people. That would have been a lunatic thing to have done, and it still wouldn’t justify Western involvement in another Mideast war, but still, before we haul off and do this again, shouldn’t we be extremely skeptical, based on past experience? Last year, the CIA explained how it had gotten Iraq’s WMD situation wrong.  Remember Colin Powell’s UN speech, in which he said the US had irrefutable evidence that Iraq had WMDs? Untrue.  The CIA source called “Curveball,” on whose word the case was largely built, later admitted that he made it all up.
I agree with Hitchens: even if the Assad regime did this evil thing, it is not worth the United States involving itself in a Mideast war. But given how easily we were dragged into Iraq, we shouldn’t be so quick to believe the scariest thing.
John Kerry says evidence of Assad’s guilt is “undeniable.”  Colin Powell said evidence for Iraq’s WMD program was “irrefutable.” We’ve heard it before.