Last Wednesday, hours after reports began trickling out of Syria of an alleged chemical weapons attack, the Obama administration — alongside much of the rest of the world — called for UN weapons inspectors to be allowed access to the site. Four days later, the Syrian government reluctantly agreed.
But then, US officials made a surprising about-face: They announced that it was already “too late.” Secretary of State John Kerry suggested that four days of shelling destroyed evidence, and that a UN investigation now would be useless.
That flies in the face of science. According to toxicologists, nerve agents attach to enzymes inside the human body that can be isolated and tested weeks after exposure. Residue from chemical weapons can be found in soil months or even years later. Indeed, soil samples taken by the group Physicians for Human Rights proved the use of sarin gas in Iraq four years after the attack took place. The idea that four days is too late runs counter to the very logic of the UN weapons inspections team that US officials pushed for over the summer. The inspection team arrived in Syria, just days before last week’s attack, to investigate allegations of chemical weapons use in a village outside Aleppo in March — five months earlier. If four days is too “too late” to be effective, then surely five months would have been.
Perhaps aware of the shakiness of that logic, Obama administration officials began to argue along a different line of reasoning: that UN inspections would be “redundant” since the United States was already satisfied that a chemical attack had taken place, as White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters this week. But that is contrary to the whole purpose of a UN team: to uncover evidence that the whole world can accept. Even if the Obama administration declassifies its own intelligence on the issue, as it is expected to do, many nations would still demand an impartial investigation. And although the UN team will not determine responsibility for the attack, it could uncover details about the exact chemical compounds that were used, as well as the delivery methods. These are important clues that could point to the culprits.
The idea that no good can come from a UN investigation now has less to do with science than with politics. The Obama administration, which has wrestled for months over a response to allegations of smaller-scale chemical weapons attacks, appears to have decided that it is time to take action. Waiting on UN inspectors will slow their efforts to build consensus, and take the timetable out of US control.
But that is a small price to pay for following through on an international effort that the United States helped set in motion. If the administration is right about Syria’s use of chemical weapons, then waiting on the UN team could only bolster the case for intervention, by providing objective evidence to skeptical nations.
The world has seen this movie before. In 2002, the Bush administration demanded that Iraq allow UN weapons inspectors in. Eventually, Iraq agreed. But by then, President Bush decided it was too late. UN weapons inspectors were given 24 hours to get out of Baghdad before the bombs started falling.
Hans Blix, the inspector who led the Baghdad team in 2003, sees many parallels with the rush to military action today. “As we’ve seen before, the political dynamics are running ahead of due process,” he told The Huffington Post. “Then, too, the Americans and their allies asked for inspections for mass-destruction weapons. Then, too, they said, ‘Forget it, we have enough evidence on our own to act.’ ”
Back then, Senator John Kerry decried the rush to war and argued that the inspectors ought to be allowed to complete their work. He ought to explain why his reasoning today is so different. The mandate of the UN inspection team in Syria expires this weekend. Sadly, the Obama administration undermined them before they even finished their task.