Thursday, September 19, 2013

Still doubt Assad’s forces were behind Syria’s chemical attack? Look at this map. (Max Fisher)

Who carried out the large-scale poison gas attacks around Damascus on August 21?  As I've noted in some previous posts (here & here & here) it seemed most likely, not to say almost obvious, from the start that these poison gas attacks were carried out by Syrian government forces, as part of an ongoing offensive to drive rebel forces from areas on the outskirts of the capital—and evidence continues to accumulate in support of this conclusion.

Some of the latest evidence was explained clearly on Tuesday by Max Fisher of the Washington Post:
The United Nations finally released, on Monday, the results of its investigation into the deadly Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in Syria. While the team was legally barred from assigning blame for the attack, their report catalogued a number of details that seem to point an awfully large finger at the regime of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
[JW: Actually, "Syrian ruler" or "Syrian dictator" would be a more accurate and less mealy-mouthed formulation than "Syrian leader", and would also be a completely objective characterization of Assad's role. But OK.]
One of the most damning details from the United Nations investigation has to do with where the the sarin-filled artillery shells appear to have been fired from. They appeared to sail in from the northwest – from a part of Damascus that just happens to be tightly controlled by Syrian regime forces and to contain a large Republican Guard base. Human Rights Watch, which conducted its own investigation that concluded that the Assad regime was likely responsible, actually put together this map of the attacks based on the U.N. data. It seems to point pretty squarely to the Assad regime:

 This is where the chemical weapons attack likely came from, according to a U.N. investigation (Human Rights Watch)

As you can see, the chemical weapons appear to have been launched not just from a regime-controlled area but from within a Republican Guard military base. That's tough to argue with. [....]

If the chemical weapons had been fired by rebels, presumably they would have come from the rebel-held southeast rather than the regime-controlled northwest. New York Times conflict reporter C.J. Chivers, writing on his personal blog, concluded that the theory that the rebels may have launched the chemical weapons "essentially evaporates" with this new evidence. "Viewed through a common-sense understanding of the limits and conditions of the battlefield, the rebels could not have done this," he writes. "Claims of rebel culpability are now specious; technically and tactically implausible, they are too outlandish for even a sci-fi script."

This is not conclusive proof that the Assad regime was behind the chemical attack – we don't have a video of Assad holding up an Aug. 21 newspaper and a copy of his birth certificate while he orders Republican Guard troops to blanket a civilian neighborhood with sarin gas. And, to be fair, it is still possible that the attack may have been fired by a rogue contingent of troops or ordered by a freelancing general. But this map makes the official Russian claim — that rebels launched sarin gas at Syrian civilians to provoke a Western response — look a lot harder to defend.
Of course, that hasn't stopped the Russian government and its propaganda apparatus from claiming to have evidence that rebels forces really were responsible for the poison gas attack. This gambit by Putin calls for a Mandy Rice-Davies response.

–Jeff Weintraub