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09.01.2013 _____________________

First, weep for the children.

Then, weep for the victims, the dispossessed, the innocent.

Then, weep for Syria.

Then, after your tears are exhausted and your vision clears remember:

You can handle the truth. Yes, you can.

This morning, sadly, I have yet to see truth. I have yet to see convincing evidence that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons on its population.

Yes, there is horrifying video and photo evidence. Yes, witness and victim testimony is compelling. Yes, there is incontrovertible evidence that someone used chemical weapons with genocidal intent, with terrifying consequences.

But I don’t know who. Neither do you.

Although I am generally loath to quote New York Times editorials, this week they wrote, “If the Obama administration has such evidence, it should make it public immediately. Given America’s gross failure in Iraq — when the Bush administration went to war over nonexistent nuclear weapons — the standard of proof is now unquestionably higher.”

And be aware that, as Robert Fisk wrote in The Independent, “If Barack Obama decides to attack the Syrian regime, he has ensured — for the very first time in history — that the United States will be on the same side as al-Qaeda. …

“The men who destroyed so many thousands on 9/11 will then be fighting alongside the very nation whose innocents they so cruelly murdered almost exactly 12 years ago.”

It’s not as though the Bashar Al-Assad regime are the bad guys and the Syrian opposition forces are the good guys. If only it were that simple.

Of the opposition, the secularists are vastly outnumbered and outgunned by jihadist elements alongside whom they sometimes fight — and against whom they sometimes find themselves pitted.

The opposition has come to be dominated by jihadists, including Al-Qaeda, Al Nusra Front and other Salafist elements whose objective is not just to overthrow Al-Assad but also to make sure that democracy does not find a foothold in a re-emergent Syria. Their goal is to impose an Islamist state against the wishes of the majority of Syria’s citizens.

These opposition elements have as little regard for the sanctity of innocent life as does Al-Assad, and it’s well known that they are perfectly willing to take the most extreme measures to accomplish their goals. In their calculus, 1,000 victims is a small price to pay if they can suck the West into attacking the Syrian military.

I recall, in spring 2003, when I spoke to a group of Exeter teenagers about the possibility of going to war with Iraq over WMDs. I had supported the Afghan war but I opposed an Iraqi intervention, not because Saddam Hussein was a nice guy but because I believed, rightly as it turns out, that the U.S. and coalition forces hadn’t made the case for WMDs. Further, there was no evidence that tied Iraq to the “War on Terror,” and I believed that we had no right to further commit American lives based on the wishes of a war-hungry cabal of neo-cons supported by subservient media.

Remember Pat Tillman in Afghanistan and Jessica Lynch in Iraq?

Remember Abu Ghraib? Remember how we trusted all their lying eyes?

I’m torn. I don’t see a path where we can intervene on behalf of the victims without taking the side of one of two odious choices — and given how unpalatable the choices are I think the bottom line is to try to assess what is in America’s best interest.

We need to see the evidence.

It appears that much of the evidence implicating Al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, according to the German magazine Focus, comes from, not surprisingly as they have the most sophisticated signals intelligence in the region, Unit 8200 of the Israeli Defense Forces.

And, as the United States and Israel often closely cooperate on intelligence matters, it is no surprise that Israel shared its intel with the Americans, but as Israel’s strategic interests don’t always ally with ours we need to be careful.

We need to see the evidence.

As the maelstrom swirls in Syria, sucking all in its range into its malevolent fury, as millions of Syrians have either become displaced or are refugees in neighboring countries ask — who gains by this latest criminal provocation?

It’s not numbers: More than 100,000 people have been killed since the conflict started, so in that context a chemical attack that kills about 1,000 people, in geopolitical terms, is small.

It’s not that Assad was losing: His forces have been gaining territory and strength in the past few months. His military is winning — why would he risk incurring retaliatory strikes by Western forces?

It’s not that no one would notice: U.N. inspectors were already in Syria, not far from where the attack happened.

Absent a political solution there will be endless war. Obama is right not to advocate for regime change, but he feels he has to do something.

He needs to take a long view — and do nothing. I cannot imagine what the United States gains by unilaterally attacking another Muslim country. The United States, which went to Iraq on the false claim of WMDs, who is known to have assisted Saddam Hussein in using chemical weapons against Iran in the 1980s, who uses drones against nations that we are not at war with, certainly cannot make itself safer by bombing Syria, no matter how strategically and surgically focused the attack.

Absent the willingness of the international community to work together in Syria, absent any military certainty that we can affect change to our benefit and absent any moral authority, any strike on Syria could have profound unintended and unexpected consequences on our own security.

Until I know whose lying eyes to trust, I’ll trust my own.

This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.

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