Josh Rogin reported Thursday that the Obama administration refused repeated requests — going back over a year — from opposition forces for gas masks. The masks were available, but the administration refused to provide them.
Regime-controlled areas have plenty of gas masks and are being resupplied from their allies, aides pointed out.
“This is a disgrace,” said one senior GOP Senate aide. “Even North Korea is willing to send gas masks to the side they are backing. Meanwhile, innocent civilians requesting U.S. assistance are turned away and told to face [Bashar al-] Assad’s chemical-weapons attacks on their own, defenseless. Does the administration truly believe that if al Nusra wanted to obtain gas masks for some nefarious purpose, they wouldn’t have the resources or connections to do so?”
This is inexplicable. I spoke to a handful of former national security officials. They were nonplussed.
A former official of a GOP administration tells me that the excuse that the masks could have wound up in jihadists’ hands makes no sense. “In this case, it isn’t guns or ammo, it’s a gas mask.” He pointed out that “with defensive and nonlethal materials, there is nothing to worry about.” Indeed, if this is a problem, so would be supplying helmets. Moreover, this suggests we knew full well about the use or potential use of chemical weapons.
Richard Grenell, a former United Nations spokesman, told me that the International Atomic Energy Agency “issued a report a few years ago confirming that Syria had chemical weapons. It was surprising then that the Obama administration didn’t move quickly on a U.N. resolution of condemnation and warning.” He added, “When the secularists inside Syria recently asked for U.S. assistance with weapons and military equipment such as gas masks, the State Department under Hillary Clinton should have moved to at least supply the protection we knew they would need.”
The administration’s trepidation is hard to explain on a strategic level. Did the president really not want Bashar al-Assad to go? Was he afraid that providing gas masks to Syrian rebels and innocents would mess up the fantasy negotiated settlement that Vladimir Putin was going to help us with? If so, the calculations were disturbingly off base.
Moreover, on a humanitarian level, this is grotesque. Knowing that civilians would be at risk, how could we not have provided masks? The lack of humanitarian concern is shocking.
This is a small but telling aspect of a policy in Syria that is devoid of strategic or moral sense. The State Department spokesperson said repeatedly Thursday that what occurred in Syria implicates American national security. (“We are saying that we believe it is in the U.S. national security interest, indeed the world’s interest, that we need to respond to an indiscriminate mass use of chemical weapons.”) If so, it is hard to make sense of our conduct up to now, which demonstrated no concern for the Syrian opposition or civilians who would be threatened by such “indiscriminate mass use” of WMDs. And it is even harder to understand why President Obama let less-than-mass use of WMDs go by without a serious response. Did he not comprehend that Assad would take that as a signal that he could act with impunity?