Leon Wieseltier reminds us that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about:
In this spirit of obnoxious relentlessness, I want to say: Syria Syria Syria. But this is more than the peroration that Carthage must be destroyed. There is now a variation on the theme: call it the vanishing red line. It appears that in March a chemical weapon was used in Khan al-Asal in the province of Aleppo. It is not clear what kind of chemical it was. There was a stench of chlorine at the atrocity, where 25 people were killed, and those who survived it suffered respiratory problems of varying severity. Nobody believes that the poisoned rocket was fired by the rebels [bold mine-DL].
In fact, there is some reason to think that anti-Assad forces may have been responsible for this particular attack. The Daily Telegraph reported this last month:
The military’s version of events is that the home-made rocket was fired at a military checkpoint situated at the entrance to the town. The immediate effects were to induce vomiting, fainting , suffocation and seizures among those in the immediate area.
A second source – a medic at the local civilian hospital – said that he personally witnessed Syrian army helping those wounded and dealing with fatalities at the scene. That Syrian soldiers were among the reported 26 deaths has not been disputed by either side [bold mine-DL].
The military source who spoke to Channel 4 News confirmed that artillery reports from the Syrian Army suggest a small rocket was fired from the vicinity of Al-Bab, a district close to Aleppo that is controlled by Jabhat al-Nusra – a jihadist group said to be linked with al-Qaeda and deemed a “terrorist organisation” by the US.
It is not hard to imagine that a jihadist group could build a crude device using harmful chemicals and then use it in an attack, and in this case that may be what happened. That is a disturbing development, but it is not one that obviously shows that the U.S. should plunge into the Syrian conflict, which is what Wieseltier so desperately wants it to mean. An equally important point is that the attack in question would not have represented a crossing of the administration’s “red line” even if regime forces were responsible for it. From the Telegraph report:
The American and independent weapons analysts do not believe that the regime or rebels used advanced chemical weapons last week, after studying initial intelligence reports and video coverage of survivors on state-run television.
However, they suspect that the victims were deliberately exposed to a “caustic” agent such as chlorine. This does not count as a chemical weapon, under terms laid down by international treaties, but as an improvised chemical device would represent a major escalation in the conflict [bold mine-DL].
Aryn Baker at Time reported additional details earlier this month:
The opposition, though it also says it would never use chemical weapons, does have access to at least one item that could be used in a chemical attack: Sabbagh’s chlorine gas.
In August rebel forces took Sabbagh’s factory by force, as part of a sweep that also netted them an electricity station and a military airport about 30 km from Aleppo. Sabbagh, who has since fled Aleppo for Beirut, says his factory is now occupied by Jabhat al-Nusra, a militant group with strong ties to al-Qaeda that has been designated a terrorist group by the U.S. He knows this because his site manager has struck a deal with the rebels — they supply 200 L of fuel a day to keep the generator running so that the valves of his $25 million factory don’t freeze up. The factory isn’t operational anymore, but this way at least, says Sabbagh, it might be one day in the future. In the meantime, he has no idea what has happened, if anything, to the 400 or so steel barrels of chlorine gas he had stored in the compound [bold mine-DL]. The yellow tanks, which hold one ton of gas each, are used for purifying municipal water supplies. “No one can know for certain, but if it turns out chlorine gas was used in the attack, then the first possibility is that it was mine. There is no other factory in Syria that can make this gas, and now it is under opposition control,” he says.
Obviously, none of this is certain, but based on the evidence that we have at the moment we shouldn’t be rushing to assume that the “red line” against the use of chemical weapons is “vanishing.” We definitely shouldn’t conclude that a single attack that may have been launched by anti-regime forces is a reason to drag the U.S. into yet another war.