Was it really just yesterday that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said there was no credible evidence that Syria's rather nasty government was using chemical weapons on its own people? What a difference a day can make. Now Hagel says Syria is using chemical weapons on its own people, after all. The difference seems to be intelligence reports sourced in the United States as opposed to intelligence reports sourced in Israel, and maybe a little (or a lot) of pressure from U.S. allies who had already decided that the Assad regime is using sarin gas, and it's about time that somebody American do something about it. Of course, it's good to be open to changing information — so long as we remember that the U.S. government has a bit of a history with intelligence reports about weapons of mass destruction, and with using them as the basis for military action.
From a USA Today story that ran yesterday:
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Wednesday cast doubt on an Israeli general's conclusion that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons against its own citizens.
Any U.S. response to Syria will be based on American intelligence findings, Hagel said in his first public remarks since an Israeli official alleged Monday that the Syria government had used chemical weapons.
"Suspicions are one thing," Hagel told reporters traveling with him. "Evidence is another."
From an AP story running today:
ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says the Syrian regime has likely used chemical weapons on a "small scale."
Hagel was speaking to reporters in Abu Dhabi. He says the White House has informed members of Congress that, within the last day, U.S. intelligence concluded with "some degree of varying confidence" that Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime has used chemical weapons — specifically sarin gas.
Hagel says, quote, "It violates every convention of warfare."
Note that Hagel is still dressing himself out of the same packed bags he had with him when he voiced skepticism of the chemical warfare reports. The guy has been traveling in the Middle East, peddling weapons to the various potentates in the region (so … can I put the UAE down for 25 F-16s?) and discussing security concerns that might raise the need for … ummm …. buying U.S. weapons.
This is not to say that Assad and company aren't using chemical weapons. The Syrian regime has proven itself to be brutal and it would be a bit of a shocker if sarin gas proved to be a bridge too far after what that country's rulers have already done to their own people. And it's entirely possible that new evidence has come to light that demonstrates that chemical weapons have been used. Politicians in France and Britain have made it pretty clear that they share Israeli concerns on the issue.
But the U.S. has been down this path before, when reports of chemical weapons were used as a justification for invading Iraq. It'd be encouraging to think that this report of WMDs is a little more certain than the last one, especially since the Obama administration has already described the use of chemical weapons as a "red line" that would require a U.S. response.
Update: Syrian officials are now threatening (they would say "warning," I'm sure) that U.S. intervention in the country will lead to September 11-style terrorism. So, high stakes, indeed.