This week delivered a familiar narrative from Syria. Allegations of a chemical weapons attack bubbled up to the international stage, eliciting shock and awe across the board, only to be disproven a couple days later. Except this time, there was a little bit of confusion about exactly who pulled the trigger.
The Free Syrian Army reported on Tuesday that two Scud-like missiles screamed into a small town near Aleppo and released a nerve agent that contributed to the death of at least 16 people. Around the same time, Bashar Assad's government accused the rebels of launching the attack. The rebels denied the allegations. The United Nations launched an inquiry into the attack. Barack Obama rattled his sabre and reminded everyone that chemical weapons crossed the red line. Lindsey Graham freaked out about weapons of mass destruction. And finally, on Thursday evening, U.S. intelligence officials told multiple press outlets that there probably weren't even any chemical weapons involved in the attack at all. So are we supposed to believe that everybody's lying or that everybody simply confused?
It's tempting to make an exasperated statement here — like "Good grief!" — but it's hardly productive, though. The confusion over chemical weapons in Syria is almost as old as the conflict itself, and this is not the first scare. Reports of Assad using chemical weapons have been bouncing around since early January, and by the end of the month, leaked State Department cables suggested that there really might be real trouble. The use of chemical weapons, as we mentioned earlier, is Obama's trigger. He said on Wednesday that it was a "game changer" in the conflict and the point at which the "international community has to act."
But one can't help but wonder how intelligence officials are treating all these false alarms. Each time the general public must feel a little tricked each time it hears about another chemical weapons attack in Syria that turns out not to involve chemical weapons at all. Are we becoming desensitized to the possibility of Assad spraying sarin all over rebel-held areas of Aleppo or filling the suburbs of Damascus with mustard gas? Are the intelligence officials?
That seems unlikely. While it's natural to believe that some would start treating the rebels like the boy who cried wolf, many American officials actually seem to be doubling down on their calls for greater involvement in the conflict. On Thursday, ranking House Foreign Affairs committee member Rep. Elliot Engel, a New York Democrat and House Intelligence Committee chairman Rep. Mike Rodgers, a Michigan Republican, introduced a bill to arm the Syrian rebels, the first of its kind. President Assad's days are numbered as the situation in Syria goes from bad to worse," Engel told Foreign Policy. "No longer can we watch as the world's worst humanitarian disaster unfolds before our very eyes."
Engel's got a point. What's the point in waiting for this awful situation to become absolutely atrocious? It's clearly not resolving itself. After all, sometimes the boy who cries wolf really does need help, even if the wolf's not there.