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international affairs

U.N. Hears Rebels, Not Syrian Military, Used Nerve Gas

As some U.S. politicians push for increased U.S. action in Syria after evidence apparently showed the Syrian military had used chemical weapons, a U.N. commissioner on Sunday described new evidence that suggests it was the rebels, not the Syrian government, that used the nerve agent sarin. President Barack Obama had said the Syrian government's use of chemical weapons would be a "red line" that could spur the United States to greater action. But the significance of such an attack by the U.S.-supported rebels is a lot less clear.

Based on interviews with victims, doctors, and field hospital workers, "there are strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas, from the way the victims were treated," Carla Del Ponte, a member of the U.N. independent commission of inquiry on Syria, said on Swiss-Italian television, according to Reuters. "This was use on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities." Del Ponte said her commission had seen no evidence that Syrian leader Bashar al Assad's forces had used chemical weapons.

Assad's government has accused the rebels of using chemical weapons previously, alleging they carried out an attack with a rudimentary chlorine gas-filled rocket last month.

The evidence from the U.N. commissioner Sunday comes as Israel carried out a series of air strikes on Syrian military targets over the weekend. U.S. military involvement "was already being debated in secret by the United States, Britain and France in the days leading to the Israeli strikes, according to American and foreign officials involved in the discussions," according to the New York Times.

McCain said on Fox News Sunday that the ease with which Israel carried out the strikes showed the U.S. could also penetrate Syrian defenses without too much resistance. "He went on to say that the United States would be capable of disabling the Syrian air defenses on the ground 'with cruise missiles, cratering their runways, where all of these supplies, by the way, from Iran and Russia are coming in by air,' " the Times reports.

But as the question of who used what chemical weapons in the civil war becomes murkier, so does the justification for U.S. involvement based on that criteria. Between the "varying degrees of confidence" that Assad's forces used them, and the lack of "incontrovertible proof" Del Ponte described, it seems clear we don't yet have all the facts.

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