Defense Secretary Jim Mattis stopped just short of threatening Syria with new airstrikes on Sunday following unconfirmed reports of another chlorine gas attack in Eastern Ghouta, admitting that he had no proof that the Syrian government was responsible for the attack. "I don't have evidence right now of it," the Pentagon chief said, while insisting that the administration would not tolerate the use of weapons of mass destruction by Damascus.
The same day, CIA Director Mike Pompeo said that the US intelligence community didn't know what happened in the militant-held territory, and that it was "working diligently to verify what happened there."
Unfortunately, as some observers have pointed out, the lack of evidence has not always stopped Washington from acting. Last April, days after an alleged chemical weapons attack on the Idlib region town of Khan Sheikhoun, Trump ordered a cruise missile strike against the Syrian military's Shayrat Airbase, later bragging about it to Chinese President Xi Jinping over "the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake."
Before that, in 2013, President Obama nearly launched a military intervention in Syria over militant claims that Damascus had used chemical weapons, also in Ghouta. Moscow helped to defuse that crisis, striking a deal with Washington to assist Syria in the liquidation of its chemical weapons stockpile, which the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons confirmed had been completed in 2014.
According to Evgeny Minchenko, director of the International Institute of Political Analysis, Washington's tendency to steer itself straight into a confrontation with Damascus over alleged chemical weapons' use may be more philosophical than anything else.
"The situation is the same as that in Ivan Krylov's fable," the observer explained, recalling the story of the Wolf and the Lamb, where an exasperated lamb asking what he had done to deserve being eaten receives a callous response from the wolf of 'You're guilty because I'm hungry.'
For his part, Vladimir Yevseyev, military expert and deputy director of the CIS Institute, says that the chemical weapons "trump card" has long been used by Western policymakers to solve problems in no way connected to the protection of civilians.
"Russia has repeatedly demonstrated that in Syrian territories liberated by government forces…significant arsenals of chemical weapons have been found. But in the US, [officials] have pretended that they do not notice this," the journalist noted.
The latter argument seems all the more relevant amid militant claims about Syrian government chemical attacks in Eastern Ghouta, where forces loyal to Damascus are engaged in a major military operation to free the territory of militant control. With Syria's long, grueling war against militants and terrorists nearing its end, Damascus would have to be extremely incompetent to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by using gas and provoking Washington.
Ultimately, Yevseyev believes that Washington's seemingly "maniacal tenacity" to find ways to intervene in Syria is a project of the State Department, not the Pentagon or the CIA. Notwithstanding the fact that its "Assad must go" line is no longer realistic, the State Department continues to pursue it out of inertia, using the same "old tools."
In this way, not much has changed since the lead-up to the US invasion of Iraq, when Secretary of State Colin Powell presented evidence to the UN about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, which, as it turned out, also never existed.