As the United States and France prepare for a seemingly inevitable military strike on Syria, intelligence experts around the globe are sounding the alarm that the justification for intervention is far from established.
The Obama administration joined by French President Francois Hollande have vowed to punish the Syrian government for what they claim is irrefutable evidence that it unleashed chemical weapons in a suburb of Damascus, killing hundreds. But a growing number of analysts who have scrutinized military intelligence in past conflicts warn that the case linking the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad to a chemical weapons attack is incomplete.
One of the world's leading experts on chemical weapons, Jean Pascal Zanders, on Friday told The Huffington Post UK that he has significant doubts about the identity of the chemical agent widely blamed for the deaths in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta.
"We don't know what the agent is," said Zanders, who until recently served as senior research fellow at the European Union Institute for Security Studies, an EU agency that scrutinizes defense and security issues. "Everyone is saying sarin. There is something clearly to do with a neurotoxicant [such as sarin], but not everything is pointing in that direction."
The agent used is a crucial piece of information, Zanders said, because the family of neurotoxicants that includes military weapons such as nerve agents also encompasses industrial products like those used to control rodents. Until the actual agent can be identified, any link to the Assad regime is tenuous, Zanders said.
"If say, for example, a neurotoxicant was taken from a factory and used at [Ghouta], then the number of actors who might be responsible for that then increases," he said
Zanders' caution was merely the latest bit of skepticism to emerge from the ranks of experienced experts now challenging the adequacy of the case for a strike in Syria.
On Thursday, Lawrence Wilkerson, who reviewed the intelligence presented by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell as justification for the war in Iraq a decade ago, told HuffPost that the preparations for a Syria strike seem devoid of authority.
Wilkerson likened the current debate to a repeat of the days he spent preparing for Powell's since-debunked testimony, "with people telling me [former Iraq President] Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction with absolutely certainty."
He added: "It seems like the same thing again."
That pronouncement followed a striking caution from Hans Blix, who was chief United Nations arms inspector for Iraq in the run-up to the war. In an interview with Nathan Gardels, Blix said that while "indications are certainly in the direction of the use of chemical weapons" in Syria, those now contemplating military action should wait for U.N. inspectors now on the ground to complete their work.
"As we've seen before, the political dynamics are running ahead of due process," Blix said, adding that the dynamic was reminiscent of the way the Bush administration launched the war in Iraq.
"I do not go along with the statement by the U.S. that 'it is too late' for Syria now to cooperate. That is a poor excuse for taking military action."
Most pointedly, Blix warned that missiles aimed at eradicating Assad's chemical weapons capacities could exacerbate harm.
"Attacking stockpiles with cruise missiles, as I understand it, has the disadvantage that is might spread chemical weapons in the vicinity of any attack," Blix said.
Zanders, the former EU chemical weapons expert, went even further, arguing that outsiders cannot conclude with confidence the extent or geographic location of the chemical weapons attack widely being blamed on the Assad regime.
He singled out the images of victims convulsing in agony that have circulated widely on the Web, including on YouTube.
"You do not know where they were taken," he said. "You do not know when they were taken or even by whom they were taken. Or, whether they [are from] the same incident or from different incidents."
Zanders added: "It doesn't tell me who would be responsible for it. It doesn't tell me where the films were taken. It just tells me that something has happened, somewhere, at some point."