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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

If Obama strikes Syria, what will Putin do?

If Obama strikes Syria, what will Putin do?

Commentary: Despite its show of strength, Russia has no appetite for military confrontation beyond its immediate borders

Assad Putin

Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad shake hands as they meet in Moscow's Kremlin in 2006.
Sergei Karpukhin/AFP/Getty

Even after Iran appeared to distance itself from Damascus in response to reports that the Bashar al-Assad regime used chemical weapons on its opponents last month, Russia has remained a vociferous supporter of its Syrian ally. The Kremlin has also unflinchingly opposed President Barack Obama's call for a military strike to punish the Assad regime over to its suspected use of chemical weapons, even beefing up Russia's naval presence in the waters off Syria.

Why does Putin have Assad's back? And what will the Russian leader do if the Obama administration does launch a military strike against Syria?

Russia believes that as bad as Assad is (and Russian statements indicate Moscow understands that Assad is bad), what will follow him is likely to be far worse. Russian officials and analysts are adamant that Sunni Arab fighters linked to al-Qaeda will be in the strongest position to take power if Assad is overthrown, and that they will then move to establish Taliban-like rule in Syria.

That scenario would imperil not only Syria itself, but also its immediate neighbors and Russia's restive North Caucasus, where predominantly Muslim ethnic groups have long chafed under Moscow's rule.

Some might argue that the rise of separatist insurgencies the North Caucasus and elsewhere in Russia is a result of Moscow's own misguided policies, and that the fate of the Assad regime is irrelevant to that dynamic. The Kremlin, however, believes that it knows better. From the 1990s through the early 2000s, Moscow had accused Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states of supporting the separatist rebellion in Chechnya. But as Moscow's harsh military tactics subdued that insurgency, a Saudi-Russian rapprochement began in 2003.

The Kremlin maintains its starkly negative view of Saudi and Qatari intentions.

Even before the Arab uprisings began in early 2011, Riyadh-Moscow ties had begun to fray. Russia believed Saudi Arabia and Qatar were somehow responsible for renewed anti-Moscow agitation throughout the North Caucasus. And when Saudi Arabia and Qatar supported rebels seeking the downfall of long-standing Russian allies in Libya and then in Syria, the Kremlin imagined a larger, Gulf-backed plot aimed at Russia.

This Russian view of Saudi and Qatari aims, in my view, is mistaken. Neither Riyadh nor Doha wishes to see the rise of Islamist militancy, which potentially threatens their own well-being. They're more motivated by fear of Iran. Syria's minority Alawite regime has been closely allied to Tehran, and the rise of opposition to it on the part of the Sunni majority was seen in Riyadh and Doha as an opportunity to weaken Iran.

Even though many Russian specialists understand that Iran is their main concern, the Kremlin maintains its starkly negative view of Saudi and Qatari intentions. Indeed, Moscow imagines itself more at odds with these two Arab monarchies than it is with the United States over Syria.

Before the widely reported use of chemical weapons on the outskirts of Damascus last month, Moscow may even have believed it had a tacit understanding with Washington on Syria. While the Obama administration criticized the regime and even called for Assad to stand down, unlike Saudi Arabia and Qatar it has not offered much practical help to the Syrian rebellion. And since Moscow's experience will have taught the Kremlin that it is unable to prevent U.S. interventions once Washington's mind is made up, Putin may even have convinced himself that Obama really did not want to see the downfall of Assad -- thus giving Moscow a freer hand to support him.

But Obama's response to the chemical weapons reports will have disabused Putin of the idea that Washington's opposition to Assad is simply rhetorical. Moscow now fears that if President Obama carries out his threat to launch a military strike against Syria, the balance of forces there will shift in favor of the opposition and potentially bring down the Assad regime.

 As much as Putin does not want this to happen, though, Moscow will not intervene in Syria to defend Assad. Russian officials, including Putin himself, have stated this repeatedly. And passivity would be consistent with how they have acted in response to other post-Cold War American military interventions, such as those in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Moscow is no longer willing or able to get directly involved in conflicts beyond the boundaries of the former Soviet Union.

Until the Obama administration does launch a military strike on Syria, though, Putin still hopes to prevent it. But if he can't prevent it, then he hopes to limit it. And if he can't limit it to his satisfaction, then he hopes to discredit it.
And, of course, the Kremlin is not alone in seeking to do this. Most of the allies that Obama had sought to rally in favor of a strike on Syria have so far proven reluctant to support him. And Obama is facing stiff opposition domestically both in Congress and in the polls.

These other parties, of course, do not oppose Obama on Syria out of any desire to curry favor with Moscow. Nor can Moscow do much to sway the decisions of those Obama is courting to support an attack on Syria. Moscow's ability to get what it wants in Syria, then, depends on decisions made by others -- not least Obama -- over whom Putin has very little control or even influence.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Top 10 Unproven Claims for War Against Syria


Here are some key questions which President Obama has yet to answer in the call for congressional approval for war against Syria.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/PromesaArtStudio

In the lead-up to the Iraq War, I researched, wrote and circulated a document to members of Congress which explored unanswered questions and refuted President Bush's claim for a cause for war. The document detailed how there was no proof Iraq was connected to 9/11 or tied to al Qaeda's role in 9/11, that Iraq neither had WMDs nor was it a threat to the U.S., lacking intention and capability to attack. Unfortunately, not enough members of Congress performed due diligence before they approved the war.

Here are some key questions which President Obama has yet to answer in the call for congressional approval for war against Syria. This article is a call for independent thinking and congressional oversight, which rises above partisan considerations.

The questions the Obama administration needs to answer before Congress can even consider voting on Syria:

Claim #1. The administration claims a chemical weapon was used.

The UN inspectors are still completing their independent evaluation.

Who provided the physiological samples of sarin gas on which your evaluation is based? Were any other non-weaponized chemical agents discovered or sampled?

Who from the United States was responsible for the chain of custody?
Where was the laboratory analysis conducted?

Were U.S. officials present during the analysis of the samples? Does your sample show military grade or lower grade sarin gas?

Can you verify that your sample matches the exact composition of the alleged Syrian government composition?

Further reading: Brown Moses blog; McClatchy News report; Global Research report.

Claim #2: The administration claims the opposition has not used chemical weapons.

Which opposition?

Are you speaking of a specific group, or all groups working in Syria to overthrow President Assad and his government?

Has your administration independently and categorically dismissed the reports of rebel use of chemical weapons which have come from such disparate sources as Russia, the United Nations, and the Turkish state newspaper?

Have you investigated the rumors that the Saudis may have supplied the rebels with chemicals that could be weaponized?

Has the administration considered the ramifications of inadvertently supporting al Qaeda-affiliated Syrian rebels?

Was any intelligence received in the last year by the U.S. government indicating that sarin gas was brought into Syria by rebel factions, with or without the help of a foreign government or intelligence agents?

Further reading: Global Research report; Wall Street Journal article; Reuters story; Zaman story (in Turkish -- see Google translate from Turkish to English); Atlantic Sentinelstory; AP story

Claim #3: The administration claims chemical weapons were used because the regime's conventional weapons were insufficient

Who is responsible for the conjecture that the reason chemical weapons were used against the Damascus suburbs is that Assad's conventional weapons were insufficient to secure "large portions of Damascus"?

Claim #4: The administration claims to have intelligence relating to the mixing of chemical weapons by regime elements

Who saw the chemical weapons being mixed from August 18th on?

Was any warning afforded to the Syria opposition and if not, why not?

If, on August 21st a "regime element" was preparing for a chemical weapons attack, has an assessment been made which could definitively determine whether such preparation (using gas masks) was for purpose of defense, and not offense?

Further reading: McClatchy report; Brown Moses blog

Claim #5: The administration claims intelligence that Assad's brother ordered the attack

What is the type of and source of intelligence which alleges that Assad's brother personally ordered the attack?

Who made the determination that Assad's brother ordered the attack, based on which intelligence, from what source?

Further reading: here

Claim #6: The administration claims poison gas was released in a rocket attack

Who was tracking the rocket and the artillery attack which preceded the poison gas release?

Did these events occur simultaneously or consecutively?

Could these events, the rocket launches and the release of poison gas, have been conflated?

Based upon the evidence, is it possible that a rocket attack by the Syrian government was aimed at rebels stationed among civilians and a chemical weapons attack was launched by rebels against the civilian population an hour and a half later?

Is it possible that chemical weapons were released by the rebels -- unintentionally?

Explain the 90-minute time interval between the rocket launch and chemical weapon attacks.

Has forensic evidence been gathered at the scene of the attack which would confirm the use of rockets to deliver the gas?

If there was a rocket launch would you supply evidence of wounds from the rockets impact and explosion?

What is the source of the government's analysis?

If the rockets were being tracked via "geospatial intelligence," what were the geospatial coordinates of the launching sites and termination locations?
Further reading: FAIR.org report


Claim #7: The administration claims 1,429 people died in the attack

Secretary Kerry claimed 1,429 deaths, including 426 children. From whom did that number first originate?

Further reading: McClatchy report

Claim #8: The administration has made repeated references to videos and photos of the attack as a basis for military action against Syria
When and where were the videos taken of the aftermath of the poison gas attack?

Further reading: FAIR.org report

Claim #9: The administration claims a key intercept proves the Assad regime's complicity in the chemical weapons attack

Will you release the original transcripts in the language in which it was recorded as well as the translations relied upon to determine the nature of the conversation allegedly intercepted?

What is the source of this transcript? What was the exact time of the intercept? Was it a U.S. intercept or supplied from a non-U.S. source?

Have you determined the transcripts' authenticity? Have you considered that the transcripts could have been doctored or fake?

Was the "senior official," whose communications were intercepted, a member of Assad's government?

How was he "familiar" with the offensive? Through a surprised acknowledgement that such an attack had taken place? Or through actual coordination of said attack? Release the transcripts!

Was he an intelligence asset of the U.S., or our allies? In what manner had he "confirmed" chemical weapons were used by the regime?

Who made the assessment that his intercepted communications were a confirmation of the use of chemical weapons by the regime on August 21st?
What is the source of information that the Syrian chemical weapons personnel were "directed to cease operations"?

Is this the same source who witnessed regime officials mixing the chemicals?
Does the transcript indicate whether the operations they were "directed to cease" were related to ceasing conventional or chemical attacks?

Will you release the transcripts and identify sources of this claim?

Do you have transcripts, eyewitness accounts or electronic intercepts of communications between Syrian commanders or other regime officials which link the CW attack directly to President Assad?

Who are the intelligence officials who made the assessment -- are they U.S. intelligence officials or did the initial analysis come from a non-U.S. source?
Further reading: FAIR.org report and AP story; Washington Post editorial

Claim #10: The administration claims that sustained shelling occurred after the chemical weapons attack in order to cover up the traces of the attack

Please release all intelligence and military assessments as to the reason for the sustained shelling, which is reported to have occurred after the chemical weapons attack.

Who made the determination that was this intended to cover up a chemical weapon attack? Or was it to counterattack those who released chemicals?
How does shelling make the residue of sarin gas disappear?
Further reading: here

The American people have a right to a full release and vetting of all facts before their elected representatives are asked to make a decision of great consequence for America, Syria and the world. Congress must be provided answers prior to the vote, in open hearings, not in closed sessions where information can be manipulated in the service of war. We've been there before. It's called Iraq.

Dennis Kucinich is a former U.S. Representative, serving from 1997 to 2013. He was also a candidate for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States in the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections. Visit his website at www.KucinichAction.com.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

6 Major Players Who Turned the Syrian Crisis Into a Devastating Proxy War Nightmare


What started out as a civil uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s regime has turned into a regional proxy war that is engulfing the Middle East.

The Syria flag painted on cracked ground with vignette.
Photo Credit: Aleksey Klints/Shutterstock.com

The Syrian uprising’s first stirrings in 2011 marked the Arab Spring’s arrival to a country ruled by a regime intent on holding onto power forever. But two and a half years after protests first broke out, the uprising has turned into a catastrophic civil war fueled by outside powers jockeying for their own interests.

Inspired by the fall of dictators in Egypt and Tunisia, Syrian children in the border town of Deraa drew anti-government graffiti on a school in February 2011. The arrests and brutal torture of the 15 young boys sparked protests that spread across the country. The Assad regime unleashed immense firepower on Syrian demonstrators calling for democracy and an end to the Assad family’s 43-year reign. The opposition then took up arms, eventually forming what came to be known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a ragtag group of fighters loosely organized to try to bring down Assad’s regime. While the FSA has taken over some territory, the Assad regime still exercises power in the country.

Meanwhile, the ongoing fighting has attracted thousands of foreign fighters, some of them radical Islamists, to take on Assad, who is viewed unfavorably by them because of his Alawite religious sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Outside powers also got involved quickly. So what started out as a civil uprising against years of repression, poverty and government corruption turned into a regional proxy war that is now engulfing the entire Middle East, with the nonviolent section of the opposition withering under the weight of civil war. Refugees have poured into Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan, and Lebanon has itself seen fighting linked to the Syrian crisis.

Now, the United States’ threats to rain cruise missiles down on Damascus threatens to ignite more turmoil in the region. Here’s a guide to the external players playing a role in and fueling the Syrian crisis, which has claimed the lives of over 100,000 people and displaced a third of the population.


1. United States

The looming military strikes on Syria by the U.S. would be the most forceful intervention yet from the world’s superpower. But even without the strikes, the U.S. has long played an outside role during the Syrian civil war.

President Barack Obama first showed his hand in 2011, when he said, “the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” By the next year, the CIA was training Syrian rebels in Jordan, a longstanding ally of the U.S. now playing an important role as a base for the rebels and a haven for millions of refugees. CIA agents have trained a small group of FSA fighters with anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons in the hopes of helping American-vetted rebels gain an upper hand in the civil war. And in March 2013, the New York Times reportedthat “with help from the C.I.A., Arab governments and Turkey have sharply increased their military aid to Syria’s opposition fighters.”

The training of rebels represented a direct break from past U.S. dealings with the Assad regime. Before the uprising emerged, the U.S. had a complicated relationship with Syria which included cooperation on anti-terrorism, sanctioning the regime and meeting with the Assads to encourage U.S.-backed reform measures.

But the U.S. training of the rebels made only a small impact. Perhaps the most effective fighting force within Syria has been the Jabhat al-Nusra front, an Al-Qaeda linked group. Trepidation about U.S. arms falling into the hands of jihadist groups that could threaten Israel and other U.S. allies has tempered the willingness to open the arms floodgates. Although the U.S. Congress authorized arming the rebels earlier this year, much of the equipment hasn’t reached the rebels.

Now, the alleged chemical weapons attack on a Syrian suburb seems to have overridden past qualms about not getting in too deep. Cruise missile strikes may not shift the battlefield, but it could embroil the U.S. further into the war while doing little to calm the refugee and humanitarian crises.

2. Iran

The Obama administration’s pitch to lawmakers to convince them bombing Syria is a good idea centers on the alleged threat from Iran. They have been telling Congress it’s important to send a message to Iran about its own nuclear energy program. And hawkish U.S. politicians have long framed the Syrian crisis as an opportunity to strike a blow at Iran.

There’s a reason for all the focus on Iran: it's a crucial ally of the Assad regime. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, the two countries have been largely united by the common political goals of opposition to the U.S. and Israel, though there have been rough patches in their partnership. For Iran, Syria is a crucial foothold in the Arab world and a conduit for arming the Lebanese group Hezbollah. Iran has poured billions of dollars of investments in Syria. And during the Syrian civil war, Iran has been a key force helping Assad stay in power. Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops have reportedly fought on the side of Assad.

The Iranian leadership is opposed to a U.S. strike on Syria, though Iran’s past with chemical weapons has led officials to denounce their use in the civil war without explicitly assigning blame. The potential U.S. strike on Syria could impact hopes of rapprochement between Iran and the U.S.—hopes that have intensified since the election of Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani earlier this year.


3. Hezbollah

Closely linked to Iran’s involvement in Syria is Hezbollah’s even greater involvement. The Lebanese militant group that grew out of resisting the Israeli occupation of Lebanon and won the praise of Arabs in various countries for that feat is a key ally of Iran and Syria. Iran provided the arms that made Hezbollah such a potent force because Syria allowed it to do so. Now, Hezbollah is deeply enmeshed in the Syrian civil war, acting as an effective fighting force to keep Assad in power. Hezbollah sees the survival of the Assad regime as crucial to its own survival.

Since the civil war started, there have long been reports of Hezbollah fighters backing Assad. But it was decisively confirmed in May 2013, when Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah gave a speech casting the Syrian conflict as a battle against America, Israel and the radical Sunni jihadists he claimed they were backing. Hezbollah fighters were sent to fight alongside Syrian forces in the strategic town of Qusayr, and in June Syria captured the town from rebels.
Hezbollah’s actions have been controversial within Lebanon, with some questioning why Hezbollah is fighting other Arabs instead of Israel. And the war has followed Hezbollah back home. Lebanon—which, like Syria, is composed of various competing ethnic and religious groups—was beset by intense fighting between sides who back different players in Syria over the summer. Car bombs have targeted Lebanese Shiite neighborhoods, where Hezbollah’s power is the strongest. And refugees have flowed into Lebanon, adding considerable economic and political strain to the country.

4. Israel

Israel and Syria have a complicated relationship. Officially, they are enemies. Syria was one of a handful of Arab states that fought Israel in a number of wars, most notably the 1967 war, when Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria and occupied it ever since. In a move never recognized by the international community, Israel annexed the part of Golan it controlled in 1981, and it has built illegal settlements in the Israeli-controlled side of the area. It has long been a Syrian goal to regain the Golan Heights, and negotiations between the two sides have accelerated over the past decade with that goal in mind. But they have not been successful, and Israel continues to control part of the Heights.

The Syrian regime has long used anti-Israel rhetoric as a rallying cry to bolster its own legitimacy. But that rhetoric has never matched military action to retake the Golan. And Israel has been perfectly content with the Assad regime’s rule, since it provided much needed stability on its border with Syria, though Syria has backed Israel’s more potent enemies, Hamas and Hezbollah, though the relationship with Hamas has frayed since the Palestinian group announced it was supporting the uprising against Assad.

Israel’s preferred outcome of the conflict is to have no solution at all—to have both sides, neither of whom Israel particularly likes, fight and bleed each other dry. Although the fall of the Syrian regime would greatly weaken Hezbollah and Iran, Israel is wary of the prospect of radical Islamists who are willing to turn their arms toward the Jewish state.

The most decisive action Israel has taken has been to bomb Syria as the regime sought to transfer weapons to Hezbollah. Israel has launched airstrikes on Syria three times since the uprising began. But those strikes were not aimed at toppling Assad.

Now, Israel is backing U.S. bombs on Syria, and supplied intelligence to the U.S. to make its chemical weapons case. But its willingness to see U.S. intervention is more about Iran than Syria. Israel wants the U.S. to show Iran that a “red line” crossed would mean military action. That’s why the pro-Israel U.S. lobbying group, American Israel Public Affairs Committee, is also backing U.S. strikes on Syria.

5. Russia

While the U.S. has only tepidly backed the overthrow of Assad, Russia has decisively backed the Assad regime. Russia has vetoed every UN Security Council attempt to take action against the Assad regime. It is also steadfastly opposed to any military action against Assad, and retains close political and intelligence links to the Syrian regime.

Russia’s close ties to Syria dates to a Cold War-era alliance, but the collapse of the Soviet Union did not end the relationship. Russia’s only naval base in the Mediterranean is located in Syria, providing it a military foothold outside of its normal purview and a sphere of some influence in the Middle East. Syria is also a frequent buyer of Russian arms. Furthermore, Russia also has its own reasons to worry about the radical Islamists who are part of the rebel groups in Syria. Russia has battled an Islamist-fueled insurgency in Chechnya, and it’s wary of any similar group gaining power.

Lastly, as former U.S. intelligence officer Wayne White explains, Russia “may well view supporting Bashar al-Assad as yet another way of expressing displeasure with much of the criticism they have received from Washington predating the Syrian uprising, and demonstrating that their Middle East policy is not subject to American approval.”

6. Saudi Arabia

This theocratic monarchy and close U.S. ally has been a crucial node of opposition to the Arab Spring in many countries. But in Syria, Saudi Arabia would like nothing more than to see the Assad regime fall in order to install a Sunni Arab regime friendly to Saudi interests. And they’re forcefully backing the prospect of U.S. military action.

Saudi Arabia’s preoccupation in recent years has been Iran. Both powers have their own spheres of influence, and are locked in a battle for regional hegemony. So they see the downfall of the Assad regime as a decisive blow against Iran’s government.

Saudi Arabia has translated this desire into action. It has funded and armed Syrian rebels, including to Islamists. (Qatar, another oil-rich country, is backing its own group of rebels, and these also include jihadists.) A small number of Saudis funded by rich compatriots have also flocked to Syria to fight the Assad regime.

Alex Kane is AlterNet's New York-based World editor, and an assistant editor for Mondoweiss. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Which Syrian Chemical Attack Account Is More Credible?


Published on Monday, September 2, 2013 by Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR)


Secretary of State John Kerry makes a statement about Syria at the State Department in Washington, Aug. 30, 2013. (Photo: Charles Dharapak/AP)

Let's compare a couple of accounts of the mass deaths apparently caused by chemical weapons in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on August 21. One account comes from the U.S. government (8/30/13), introduced by Secretary of State John Kerry. The other was published by a Minnesota-based news site called Mint Press News (8/29/13).

The government account expresses "high confidence that the Syrian government carried out a chemical weapons attack" on August 21. The Mint report bore the headline "Syrians in Ghouta Claim Saudi-Supplied Rebels Behind Chemical Attack." Which of these two versions should we find more credible?

The U.S. government, of course, has a track record that will incline informed observers to approach its claims with skepticism–particularly when it's making charges about the proscribed weapons of official enemies. Kerry said in his address that "our intelligence community" has been "more than mindful of the Iraq experience"–as should be anyone listening to Kerry's presentation, because the Iraq experience informs us that secretaries of State can express great confidence about matters that they are completely wrong about, and that U.S. intelligence assessments can be based on distortion of evidence and deliberate suppression of contradictory facts.

Comparing Kerry's presentation on Syria and its accompanying document to Colin Powell's speech to the UN on Iraq, though, one is struck by how little specific evidence was included in the case for the Syrian government's use of chemical weapons. It gives the strong impression of being pieced together from drone surveillance and NSA intercepts, supplemented by Twitter messages and YouTube videos, rather than from on-the-ground reporting or human intelligence. Much of what is offered tries to establish that the victims in Ghouta had been exposed to chemical weapons–a question that indeed had been in some doubt, but had already largely been settled by a report by Doctors Without Borders that reported that thousands of people in the Damascus area had been treated for "neurotoxic symptoms."

On the critical question of who might be responsible for such a chemical attack, Kerry's presentation was much more vague and circumstantial. A key point in the government's white paper is "the detection of rocket launches from regime-controlled territory early in the morning, approximately 90 minutes before the first report of a chemical attack appeared in social media." It's unclear why this is supposed to be persuasive. Do rockets take 90 minutes to reach their targets? Does nerve gas escape from rockets 90 minutes after impact, or, once released, take 90 minutes to cause symptoms?

In a conflict as conscious of the importance of communication as the Syrian Civil War, do citizen journalists wait an hour and a half before reporting an enormous development–the point at which, as Kerry put it, "all hell broke loose in the social media"? Unless there's some reason to expect this kind of a delay, it's very unclear why we should think there's any connection at all between the allegedly observed rocket launches and the later reports of mass poisoning.

When the evidence isn't circumstantial, it's strikingly vague: "We intercepted communications involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on August 21 and was concerned with the UN inspectors obtaining evidence," the report asserts. Taken at face value, it's one of the most damning claims in the government's report–a veritable confession. But how was the identity of this official established? And what exactly did they say that "confirmed" chemical weapons use? Recall that Powell played tapes of Iraqi officials supposedly talking about concealing evidence of banned weapons from inspectors–which turned out to show nothing of the kind. But Powell at least played tapes of the intercepted communication, even as he spun and misrepresented their contents–allowing for the possibility of an independent interpretation of these messages. Perhaps "mindful of the Iraq experience," Kerry allows for no such interpretation.

Another key claim is asserted without substantiation: "Syrian chemical weapons personnel were operating in the Damascus suburb of 'Adra from Sunday, August 18 until early in the morning on Wednesday, August 21, near an area that the regime uses to mix chemical weapons, including sarin." How were these personnel identified, and what were the signs of their operations? How was this place identified as an area used to mix sarin? Here again the information provided was far less detailed than what Powell gave to the UN: Powell's presentation included satellite photographs of sites where proscribed weapons were being made, with an explanation of what they revealed to "experts with years and years of experience": "The two arrows indicate the presence of sure signs that the bunkers are storing chemical munitions," he said, pointing to an annotated photograph of bunkers that turned out to be storing no such thing. Powell's presentation graphically demonstrated that US intelligence analysts are fallible, which is part of why presenting bare assertions without any of the raw materials used to derive those conclusions should not be very convincing.

Kerry did offer an explanation for why the report was so cursory: "In order to protect sources and methods, some of what we know will only be released to members of Congress, the representatives of the American people. That means that some things we do know, we can't talk about publicly." It is not clear, however, why intelligence methods that produced visual and audible evidence that could be shared with the public 10 years ago cannot be similarly utilized today. It does point to why the $52 billion the United States spends on surveillance annually, according to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden (Washington Post, 8/29/13), provides relatively little information that's of value to American democracy: The collection of information is considered so much more valuable than the information collected that it rarely if ever can be used to inform a public debate. Instead, as we discuss the dreadful question of whether to launch a military attack on another country, we are offered an undemocratic "trust us" from the most secretive parts of our government–an offer that history warns us to be extremely wary of.

Unlike the U.S. government, Mint does not have much of a track record, having been founded only about a year and a half ago (CJR, 3/28/12). The founder of the for-profit startup is Mnar Muhawesh, a 24-year-old Palestinian-American woman who believes, reasonably enough, that "our media has absolutely failed our country" (MinnPost, 1/18/12).  One of its two reporters on its Syrian chemical weapons piece, Dale Gavlak, is a longtime Associated Press Mideast stringer who has also done work for NPR and the BBC. AP was one of the few US corporate media outlets to question official assertions about Iraqi WMDs, contrasting Powell's assertions with what could be discerned from on-the-ground reporting (Extra!, 3-4/06).

Mint takes a similar approach to the Syrian story, with a reporter in Ghouta–not Gavlak but Yahya Ababneh, a Jordanian freelancer and journalism grad student–who "spoke directly with the rebels, their family members, victims of the chemical weapons attacks and local residents." The article reports that "many believe that certain rebels received chemical weapons via the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, and were responsible for carrying out" the chemical attack. The recipients of the chemical weapons are said to be Jabhat al-Nusra, an Al-Qaeda-linked rebel faction that was caught possessing sarin nerve gas in Turkey, according to Turkish press reports (OE Watch, 7/13).

Mint quotes Abu Abdel-Moneim, described as the father of a rebel killed in the chemical weapons attacks, as saying that his son had described carrying unconventional weapons provided by Saudi Arabia to underground storage tunnels–a "tubelike structure" and a "huge gas bottle." A rebel leader identified as J describes the release of toxic weaponry as accidental, saying, "Some of the fighters handled the weapons improperly and set off the explosions." Another rebel referred to as K complains, "When Saudi Prince Bandar gives such weapons to people, he must give them to those who know how to handle and use them."

Of course, independent media accounts are not necessarily more credible than official reports–or vice versa. As with the government white paper, there are gaps in the Mint account; while Abdel-Moneim cites his late son's account of carrying chemical weapons, the rebels quoted do not indicate how they came to know what they say they know about the origin of the weapons. But unlike the government, Mint is honest about the limits of its knowledge: "Some information in this article could not be independently verified," the story admits. "Mint Press News will continue to provide further information and updates."

This humility about the difficulty of reporting on a covert, invisible attack in the midst of a chaotic civil war actually adds to the credibility of the Mint account. It's those who are most certain about matters of which they clearly lack firsthand knowledge who should make us most skeptical.