In August 2012, as was widely reported at the time, Barack Obama stated that the Syrian government use of chemical weapons would be the ‘red line’ that would potentially mean US intervention in the war.

The BBC reported that “the US has seen unconfirmed reports recently that the Syrian authorities have been moving the country’s chemical arms stockpile.” (1).  No further evidence was presented or sought.

By December 2012, news reports quoted William Hague as having “seen ‘some evidence’ that Bashar al-Assad’s regime is preparing to use chemical weapons against Syrian rebels.” (2) But again no evidence was given, or sought.

The US, UK and France have now all made claims that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons, but these claims are based on a minimal number of cases and no evidence has been presented, just statements of ‘lab tests’ on samples with unverified chains of custody.

News reports have presented these claims as very serious, showing implicit trust in the governments making them, and haven’t highlighted the lack of evidence.(3) (4) (5)

An obvious question to ask is why the Syrian government would use chemical weapons when that act is guaranteed to trigger Obama’s ‘red line’ threat. As Craig Murray, former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, says “Why on earth would they do that? … Why on earth would the Assad regime use a tiny amount of chemical weapons against tiny groups of rebels, knowing the West would use it as an excuse to start bombing?” (6)

However, this question simply hasn’t been asked by the mainstream media.

There have also been claims of the Syrian opposition using chemical weapons. On 6th May the BBC reported the statement from Carla del Ponte, a leading member of the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, that there were “strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof”. (7)  This remained news for a couple of days, but wasn’t followed up.

Following this, towards the end of May, Turkish security forces found a 2Kg cylinder of sarin gas after searching the homes of suspected Syrian Islamists linked to Al-Qaeda. The gas was allegedly going to be used in an attack in southern Turkey. (8)

Despite these revelations, subsequent media reports in the West on the alleged Syrian government use of chemical weapons have largely failed to mention the alleged opposition use.

If the reason given by Western governments for arming the opposition (and perhaps even greater involvement) is that chemical weapons have been used by the Syrian government, then this allegation should be thoroughly investigated by journalists before being presented as fact.  Instead the media offer no challenge, simply echoing government claims as though proven.

(1) “Obama warns Syria chemical weapons use may spark US action”

(2) “William Hague confirms ‘evidence’ of Syrian chemical weapons”

(3) “West considers action on Syria as America says it will arm rebels after nerve-gas attacks”

(4) “France’s Fabius ‘confirms sarin use’ by Syria regime”

(5) “U.S., citing use of chemical weapons by Syria, to provide direct military support to rebels”

(6) “Preparing to Bomb Syria”

(7) “UN’s Del Ponte says evidence Syria rebels ‘used sarin'”

(8) “Turkey finds sarin gas in homes of suspected Syrian Islamists – reports”