The Obama administration expressed strong doubts about claims from UN officials that the Syrian rebel fighters, not the Assad regime, used chemical weapons.
“We are highly skeptical of suggestions that the opposition could have or did use chemical weapons,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters. “We find it highly likely that any chemical weapon use that has taken place in Syria was done by the Assad regime. And that remains our position.”
But the UN independent commission of inquiry on Syria “has not yet seen evidence of government forces having used chemical weapons,” Reuters reported commission member Carla Del Ponte as saying.
“There are strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas, from the way the victims were treated,” Del Ponte said in an interview.
“This was use on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities,” she added.
After Del Ponte’s statements grabbed headlines around the world, the UN commission released a formal statement clarifying that they have ”not reached conclusive findings as to the use of chemical weapons in Syria by any parties to the conflict.”
Some reported the statement as stepping back from Del Ponte’s suggestions, but it did not deny the preliminary evidence Del Ponte referred to and merely reiterated what Del Ponte had originally described as “not yet incontrovertible proof” one way or the other.
In addition to the White House skepticism, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) formally denied using chemical weapons. Saleem Edris, FSA chief of staff, said such claims were an “injustice” and a “provocation” to the Syrian people.
But the FSA is merely one small faction in a country of over 1,000 disparate rebel militias, making it highly unlikely that Edris speaks for whatever rebel group allegedly deployed the sarin gas.
The alleged use of chemical weapons drew international attention after President Obama declared it a “red line” for the Assad regime, crossing which would trigger unspecified military action. Advocates of intervention into Syria’s civil war used the allegations to rally support for military action.
If claims that rebels actually used chemical weapons turn out to be true, arguments for the US to intervene militarily on there behalf will be significantly delegitimized.