The Obama administration's public case for attacking Syria is riddled with inconsistencies and hinges mainly on circumstantial evidence, undermining U.S. efforts to build support at home and abroad for a punitive strike against Bashar Assad's regime.
After the false weapons claims preceding the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the threshold for evidence to support intervention is exceedingly high. And while there's little dispute that a chemical agent was used in an Aug. 21 attack outside Damascus, some of the Obama administration's claims are in question. Among them:
The administration dismissed the value of a U.N. inspection team's work by saying that the investigators arrived too late at the attack scene for the findings to be credible and wouldn't provide any information the United State didn't already have.
U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq countered that "the passage of such few days does not affect the opportunities to collect valuable samples."
The U.S. claims that sarin was used in the Aug. 21 attack, citing a positive test on first responders' hair and blood — samples "that were provided to the United States," Kerry said Sunday without elaboration on the collection methods.
Experts say the evidence deteriorates over time, but that it's simply untrue that there wouldn't be any value in an investigation five days after an alleged attack. As a New York Times report noted, two human rights groups dispatched a forensics team to northern Iraq in 1992 and found trace evidence of sarin as well as mustard gas — four years after a chemical attack.
Another point of dispute is the death toll from the alleged attacks on Aug. 21. Neither Kerry's remarks nor the unclassified version of the U.S. intelligence he referenced explained how the U.S. reached a tally of 1,429 dead, including 426 children. The only attribution was "a preliminary government assessment."
Anthony Cordesman, a former senior defense official who's now with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, took aim at the death toll numbers in an essay published Sunday. He criticized Kerry as being "sandbagged into using an absurdly over-precise number" of 1,429, and noted that the number didn't agree with either the British assessment of "at least 350 fatalities" or other Syrian opposition sources, namely the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has confirmed at least 502.
"President Obama was then forced to round off the number at 'well over 1,000 people' — creating a mix of contradictions over the most basic facts," Cordesman wrote. He added that the blunder was reminiscent of "the mistakes the U.S. made in preparing Secretary (Colin) Powell's speech to the U.N. on Iraq in 2003."
Another eyebrow-raising administration claim was that U.S. intelligence had "collected streams of human, signals and geospatial intelligence" that showed the Assad regime preparing for an attack three days before the event. The U.S. assessment says regime personnel were in an area known to be used to "mix chemical weapons, including sarin," and that regime forces prepared for the Aug. 21 attack by putting on gas masks.
That claim raises two questions: Why didn't the U.S. warn rebels about the impending attack and save hundreds of lives? And why did the administration keep mum about the suspicious activity when on at least one previous occasion U.S. officials have raised an international fuss when they observed similar actions?
"When I read the administration's memo, it was very compelling, but they knew three days before the attack and never alerted anyone in the area," said Radwan Ziadeh, a Syrian opposition activist who runs the Washington-based Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "Everyone was watching this evidence but didn't take any action?"