LONDON – Clearly, the last word has not been said about the chemical weapons attack on Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib Province, Syria, on April 4, which left 85 dead and an estimated 555 injured. But three points – concerning responsibility for the attack, the United States’ military response to it, and the episode’s effect on the course of Syria’s civil war – need to be made.
First, all governments lie, not congenitally, but when it suits them and they think they can get away with it. This must be the premise of any effort to establish the truth about what happened. A good starting point is that democratic governments lie less often than authoritarian regimes, because they are less likely to get away with it. So one should prefer Russian President Vladimir Putin’s account to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s, and US President Donald Trump’s account to Putin’s.
According to Assad, the massacre was a “fabrication.” Putin, by contrast, admits that the massacre happened, but claims that the stock of chemical weapons was in rebel-held territory and was released either deliberately, to discredit the regime, or accidentally by government bombing. Finally, the Trump administration cites conclusive evidence that the attack was planned and carried out by the Assad government. All three call for an “objective” inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the “event,” but disagree on what would count as “objective.”
Although Trump’s evidence has not been revealed, I think it is more likely than not that there was a sarin gas attack and that it was ordered by the Assad regime. But there is room for doubt. Assuming that Assad is not completely irrational, the relatively minor military gains from gassing some of the rebels (but also civilians) would be heavily outweighed by the probable effect on international opinion, embarrassment for his Russian allies, and the danger of provoking an American response. Moreover, to justify invading Iraq in 2003, the United States (and the United Kingdom) produced equally “conclusive” evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, which turned out to be false. And the growth of the “security state” has increased democratic governments’ ability to get away with lies.