Without waiting for evidence from the U.N. inspectors, it appears that the U.S. and France are prepared to justify Syrian cruise missile strikes with evidence that relies rather heavily on YouTube videos and social media postings.
The White House situational assessment cites “videos … [and] thousands of social media reports from at least 12 different locations in the Damascus area” along with U.S intelligence information, and accounts from medical personnel, witnesses, journalists, and nongovernmental organisations.
France also used YouTube videos as key evidence, according to Foreign Policy:
Like the United States, the French relied on YouTube videos of the Aug. 21 attack for clues as to what occurred — and even published six of the videos used in its analysis. The French were only able to confirm 281 casualties from the attack using open-source videos, far less than the 1,429 deaths that the U.S. assessment claims. However, the French report says that its modelling efforts, which attempt to project the full impact of the strike, are consistent with the higher death toll.
In Britain, YouTube videos also played “a key part of the Government’s dossier of intelligence justifying imminent missile strikes,” according to The Telegraph.
YouTube itself is new to war. It didn’t exist until after the American invasion of Iraq. Still, it seems unusual to include unverified videos in intelligence estimates that attempt to show conclusively the use of chemical weapons.
Even a New York Times report the day of the attack reports that, although the prodigious amount of videos is shocking, it’s hard to use them to conclude on anything beyond the deaths of several hundred people.
But even with videos, witness accounts and testimonies by emergency medics, it was impossible to say for certain how many people had been killed and what exactly had killed them. The rebels blamed the government, the government denied involvement and Russia accused the rebels of staging the attack to implicate President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
Dan Kaszeta, author of “CBRN and Hazmat Incidents at Major Public Events: Planning and Response” and former Army Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear (CBRN) officer, discussed the limits of videos as evidence: about relying on videos as a source of visual evidence:
To date, the public (and this author as well) have been largely reduced to examining the video evidence. One piece of physical evidence can be worth more than 100 videos. There are both practical and hypothetical limits to what we can do with videos. They are not a substitute for physical evidence. Unfortunately, conventional warfare is unkind to physical evidence.
Meanwhile Russia and China stand in the way of the U.S. taking the legal path through the U.N. Security Council, citing a clear lack of conclusive evidence of chemical attacks perpetrated by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
All is not lost though, the Obama administration can simply wait for the U.N. to conclude its investigation.
“If there are data that the chemical weapons have been used, and used specifically by the regular army, this evidence should be submitted to the U.N. Security Council,” President Vladimir Putin said in an interview with the Associated Press and Russia’s state Channel 1 television.
Putin said he “doesn’t exclude” supporting a U.N. resolution on military strikes given strong evidence — but also cautioned against the U.S. striking without one.
The knee-jerk reaction against the appearance of “circumstantial” evidence is one the world still feels from America’s last venture into Iraq.
The Washington Post’s Katrina vanden Heuvel summed it up best:
Members of Congress should probe and test the administration’s evidence, given the credibility gap created by the faulty intelligence that led to the Iraq war, not to mention the lies and distortions peddled by the Bush administration to sell that conflict. Congress should also arrange to receive and consider the report of the U.N. inspectors, because their report will be accepted by other members of the international community and will offer clues about those behind the attacks even if the mandate of the inspectors does not cover who was responsible for the alleged use of chemical weapons.
If in fact the Syrian government committed this atrocity, that only opens the question for Congress and the American people.
The U.N. is working around the clock to process their evidence, it should come in due time.
Now the next question is: what happens if that evidence doesn’t support the West’s proposed course of action?
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