Syria Gas attack
© (Reuters / Ammar Dar)
A man, affected by what activists say is nerve gas, breathes through an oxygen mask in the Damascus suburbs of Jesreen August 21, 2013.
The reports of massive chemical attacks in Syria might become the "red line" for the US for active military intervention. But even rudimentary analysis of the story shows it is too early to believe its credibility.

The Middle Eastern newspaper, Al Arabiya, reports that "At least 1,300 people have been killed in a nerve gas attack on Syria's Ghouta region, leading opposition figure George Sabra said on Wednesday..." The paper went on to claim that the Government of President Bashar al Assad was responsible for the attacks. If confirmed it could be the "red line" that US President Obama previously stated would tip the US into active military intervention in Syria, using No Fly Zones and active military steps to depose Assad.

That in turn could erupt into a conflagration across the Middle East and a Super Power confrontation with Russia and China and Iran on one side, and the USA, UK, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar on the opposite side. Not a happy prospect for world peace at all.

Therefore the story is worth analyzing carefully. When we do, several things jump out as suspicious. First the newspaper breaking the story was Al Arabiya, initially saying that at least 500 people have been killed, according to activists. From there it got picked up by major international media. Making the story more fishy by the minute were reports from different media of the alleged number of dead that changed by the minute - 635 then to 800 by USA Today and 1,300 by Rupert Murdoch's SkyNews.

Syria Gas attack
© AFP
A handout image released by the Syrian opposition's Shaam News Network shows bodies of children and adults laying on the ground as Syrian rebels claim they were killed in a toxic gas attack by pro-government forces in eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus on August 21, 2013.
Al Arabiya, the origin of the story, is not a neutral in the Syrian conflict. It was set up in 2002 by the Saudi Royal Family in Dubai. It is majority-owned by the Saudi broadcaster, Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC). Saudi Arabia is a major financial backer of the attempt to topple Syria's government. That is a matter of record. So on first glance Saudi-owned media reporting such an inflammatory anti-Assad allegation might be taken with a dose of salt.

When we examine the printed content of their story, it gets more suspicious still. First they cite "activists at the Syrian Revolutionary Command Council said regime fighter planes were flying over the area after the bombardment, accusing the forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad of using chemical agents." This is doubtful on many levels. First we can imagine that anti-government (unnamed) "activists" fighting Assad's forces would not be exactly neutral.

The story gets even murkier. Further in the text of the article we read that the "Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said dozens of people were killed, including children, in fierce bombardment." Now the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) has been the source of every news report negative against the Syrian Assad government since the war began in 2011. More curious about the humanitarian-sounding SOHR is the fact, as uncovered by investigative journalists, that it consists of a sole Syrian refugee who has lived in London for the past 13 years named Rami Abdul Rahman, a Syrian Sunni muslim who owns a clothing shop and is running a Twitter page from his home. Partly owing to a very friendly profile story on the BBC, he gained mainstream media credibility. He is anything but unbiased.

The other aspect of the suspicious reports is the "convenient" fact they coincide with the arrival two days earlier of an official UN weapons inspection team, allowed by the government, to investigate allegations of chemical weapons use in the Syrian war. It begs the most obvious question: What conceivably would Bashar al Assad stand to gain from using banned chemical weapons just at the time he has agreed to let a UN chemical weapons team into Syria?

Syria Gas attack - Ghouta
© AFP
An image grab taken from a video uploaded on YouTube by the Local Committee of Arbeen on August 21, 2013 allegedly shows Syrians covering a mass grave containing bodies of victims that Syrian rebels claim were killed in a toxic gas attack by pro-government forces in eastern Ghouta and Zamalka, on the outskirts of Damascus.
They initially were called to investigate evidence of any chemical weapons used in a March 19 attack in Khan al-Assad and in two other locations. In May, Carla Del Ponte, a member of the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria, said that testimony gathered from casualties and medical staff in Syria indicated that the nerve agent sarin was used by rebel fighters. They found no evidence of use by Government forces. That proved highly embarrassing to the faction of war hawks in the Pentagon and State Department, agitating for Obama to escalate direct military intervention including a no-fly zone, de facto an act of war against Assad's regime. In 2012 Obama declared that the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian President would cross a "red line" and change US calculations on whether or not it should intervene in the conflict.

Finally, the region reported to be the site of the poison gas attack by Assad forces, Eastern Ghouta, was re-secured from the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra jihadist terrorists, by Government troops in May as part of a major series of rollback victories against the insurgent forces and is not currently a scene of any major resistance to Assad forces.

Pending confirmation by genuinely independent judges of the latest allegations of Al Arabiya, we are well-advised to leave the reports in the category of war propaganda, in league with others such as the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964. That incident, we might recall, was faked by the Pentagon to railroad Congress into giving President Lyndon B. Johnson authority to "assist any Southeast Asian country whose government was considered to be jeopardized by communist aggression." The resolution became Johnson's legal justification for deploying US forces and the onset of open war against North Vietnam.