- - Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Are we certain Assad, and not the rebels, used chemical weapons?

The slaughter of hundreds of innocent civilians with chemical weapons “shocks the conscience of the world.” It has provoked a debate that is dominating our press on how the United States should respond to punish the Assad regime. It appears that we are preparing to take some kind of action. However, before we commit American lives and treasure, I hope we know the answer to a basic question that no one is discussing. What is the evidence that it was Syrian President Bashar Assad who used the weapons and not the rebels?

There are no good guys in this civil war in which there are more than 100,000 casualties, but which side is the most desperate: Mr. Assad or the rebels? Why would Mr. Assad, whose forces have had the upper hand in recent months, cross that “red line” to kill several hundred women and children, knowing that it would force President Obama’s hand, provoke an overwhelming response from the United States and our allies, and perhaps destroy his regime. Moreover, the rebels are very good at manipulating the Western media and would welcome a U.S. response that would perhaps wipe out Mr. Assad’s air force or other assets.

The Assad regime agreed to allow U.N. inspectors into the area of the chemical attack, but the United States quickly discounted what the inspectors would find. Snipers attacked the U.N. team that was attempting to investigate. The government said that it had provided safety for the team until they reached a position controlled by the rebels, where it claimed the sniper attack occurred.

A May 6 article in The Washington Times by Shaun Waterman reported, “Testimony from victims strongly suggests it was the rebels, not the Syrian government, that used Sarin nerve gas during a recent incident in the revolution-wracked nation, a senior U.N. diplomat said Monday.” This report was virtually ignored by our government at the time.

Congress must demand that Mr. Obama present the evidence to substantiate the source of the chemical weapons before we jump into another Middle East conflict. We know that most of the rebel forces have been taken over by al Qaeda, so it is not clear whom it is we are helping.

As an assistant secretary of state during the George W. Bush administration, I handled the American response to the refugee crisis during the Iraq conflict. I was the first high-level diplomat allowed to travel to Syria in many years. I know from my firsthand experience that the Assad regime was far more tolerant of the huge influx of Iraqi refugees than any of the other receiving countries. These refugees were from many tribal and religious backgrounds.

Perhaps one of the few good things that can be said of Mr. Assad is that his secular regime has given reasonable protection to religious minorities. Christians, Druze, Alawite and other religious minorities have coalesced around the Assad regime out of fear that if radical Islamists gain control of Syria, these minorities are likely to be decimated. The tribal relationships in this war-torn country are very complex and need to be considered before the U.S. backs largely al Qaeda-controlled rebels.

The civilian slaughter resulting from a chemical attack is a human tragedy. So are the other 100,000 casualties resulting from this civil war. It appears the United States is considering a response that would deploy cruise missiles and drones to punish Mr. Assad. Our involvement could lead to more civilian deaths than the recent chemical attack. We’ll call this “collateral damage.”

Russia and Iran have promised serious consequences to a U.S. attack on Syria. The brunt of their response may be felt by our only reliable ally in the region, Israel. Russia and Iran are also likely to provide additional support to the Syrian military with the strong possibility of broadening the conflict. Before we commit to another military action with unknown consequences, the American people deserve proof that it was indeed the Assad regime and not the rebels who crossed Mr. Obama’s “red line.”

What is our objective and where is all of this leading us? We don’t know, but one thing is for sure: It certainly has changed the conversation from the Benghazi killings, the National Security Agency spying and the Internal Revenue Service scandals to 24/7 chatter about what Mr. Obama will do in Syria.

Ellen Sauerbrey was assistant secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration.