Beware of propaganda about Syria (part 3)

Some of the people who criticized my post in April just repeated some of the claims made by Higgins in the debate he had with Postol about the attack in Ghouta of August 2013. For instance, he claims that even though the NYT/HRW ballistic analysis was wrong and the range of the rockets used was considerably shorter than initially thought, the regime still occupied position at the time of the attack from which it could have launched the rockets that hit Ghouta. Again, if you read Gareth Porter’s article and Carmen Russell-Sluchansky’s review of the controversy, both of which I cited in my original post, you will see that this claim and the others that people have mentioned have already been addressed. I don’t want to spend much time on this particular controversy, because it would take a whole post and other people have already done that. (If you want to know more, I recommend the blog Who Attacked Ghouta?, where everything is discussed in detail.) As I noted in my original post, what I really wanted to emphasize is that, even if you accept everything Higgins says, some of the claims made at the time by the US administration must have been false.

It’s amazing that people still talk as if the US government was certain that Assad’s regime was responsible for the attack in Ghouta, when not only were some of the claims it made in the aftermath of that attack were later undermined by Lloyd and Postal’s ballistic analysis, but moreover Obama himself later admitted that the US intelligence’s case wasn’t rock solid. Indeed, here is how Jeffrey Goldberg recounts what Obama told him in a widely discussed interview on foreign policy, during which Obama explained why he decided not to intervene against the regime in 2013:

Obama was also unsettled by a surprise visit early in the week from James Clapper, his director of national intelligence, who interrupted the President’s Daily Brief, the threat report Obama receives each morning from Clapper’s analysts, to make clear that the intelligence on Syria’s use of sarin gas, while robust, was not a “slam dunk.” He chose the term carefully. Clapper, the chief of an intelligence community traumatized by its failures in the run-up to the Iraq War, was not going to overpromise, in the manner of the onetime CIA director George Tenet, who famously guaranteed George W. Bush a “slam dunk” in Iraq.

To my knowledge, this admission was never denied, yet it contradicts all the official statements about the attack in Ghouta, according to which the US had hard evidence proving that Assad was responsible.

In particular, it contradicts the document published by the White House at the time, which brings me to the report published by Trump’s administration to justify the missile strike it launched against the regime after the attack in Khan Sheikhoun. This document is just as devoid of evidence as the one published by Obama’s administration in 2013, which didn’t prevent journalists from uncritically accepting it. It spends a lot of time arguing that the videos that were posted only after the attack could not have been faked. But even if that’s true, they have little to no bearing on who is responsible, which is what is really at issue. Theodore Postol, who co-authored the ballistic analysis that proved that the NYT/HRW analysis of the attack in Ghouta of August 2013 was mistaken, posted a series of scathing criticisms of that report in which he tore it apart. Among other things, based on the pictures the crater where sarin was released according to the White House, he argues that sarin could have been delivered by putting a bomb directly on the ground and shows that the scene of the crater has been tampered with since the attack. In his latest analysis, he uses data about the weather at the time of the attack and photographic evidence to argue that the only location where mass casualties could have occurred is not where people apparently died, which suggests that the crater may not actually be where sarin was released. Postol may be wrong about some of the points he makes, but even if that’s the case, it’s clear that the report published by the White House doesn’t contain any evidence that wasn’t already available and that it’s based mostly on open-source evidence that doesn’t actually prove anything.

Postol also wrote a criticism of the report published by Human Rights Watch (HRW) about the use of chemical weapons in Syria and, in particular, during the attack on Khan Sheikhoun. Among other things, he argues that despite what HRW claims, the bomb used to deliver the sarin couldn’t have been a Russian-made KhAB-250. This was confirmed more recently by Scott Ritter, a former weapons inspector in Iraq during the 1990’s, who is also critical of the rush to judgment about the attack on Khan Sheikhoun. Finally, Postol also wrote a report that criticizes the conclusions of a New York Times analysis, which itself was largely based on Bellingcat’s work. I’m not in a position to assess whether everything he says checks out, because I lack the necessary technical expertise, but so do the people who write for Bellingcat. (Again, Postol isn’t infallible and made at least one mistake in another report, which Eliot Higgins immediately pointed out on Bellingcat.  But it was not a technical mistake and, to my knowledge, nothing else Postol has written about Syria has been proven wrong since 2013, which is more than I can say about Higgins or the New York Times.) Perhaps more importantly, even someone who doesn’t have any expertise in ballistics can tell that many of the points he makes are clearly right, so at the very least his report shows that once again the New York Times made claims that aren’t warranted by the evidence because it served a preordained conclusion. Even though it’s reported as established fact by the media, the fact is that we still don’t know whether the regime used chemical weapons against Khan Sheikhoun on April 4.

According to CNN, which claims to have learned this from a senior US official, the US intelligence also intercepted communications between Syrian military and chemical experts talking about preparations for the sarin attack. The US government had already said the same thing after the attack in Ghouta of August 2013, but as we have seen, it couldn’t have been true since Clapper told Obama that the case against the regime wasn’t a “slam dunk”. If the US really has intercepts that prove the guilt of Assad’s regime, they should just release them. When you ask for the US to release the intercepts it claims to have, officials usually hide behind the necessity to protect “sources and methods”, but it’s not as if the US had never released sensitive intelligence to support the claims it was making. For instance, after Korean Air Lines Flight 007 was shot down in 1983 and the Soviet Union denied any responsibility, Reagan’s administration decided to release intercepted communications which proved the plane had been shot down by a Soviet warplane. This revealed to the Soviet Union that the US had capabilities of interception that had been kept secret until then. If the US is going to violate international law, which Trump’s airstrike clearly did, because it claims to have proof that Assad used chemical weapons, then it should release the proof in question.

Indeed, people have also criticized me for not trusting the Western governments when they say that they have proof that Assad is responsible, but I don’t see how anyone who is familiar with recent history could rationally do that. I have already shown that the US had almost certainly lied about the Syrian civil war, but this is just one example among many. It’s just a fact that, in the past 30 years or so, the US has almost systematically lied or at least been mistaken about the claims it made to justify its military interventions abroad. This is not something that should be controversial, since it can easily be proven using only mainstream sources. Journalists know that and frequently report on those lies/mistakes after the fact, but it doesn’t prevent them from uncritically accepting claims made by the US every time it’s trying to justify another military intervention, even when no evidence is given. People think I’m irrational because I don’t trust the US government, but it’s them who are irrational to trust it, as they would know if they had paid more attention to recent history.

This should be particularly obvious in the case of Syria, since it’s absolutely clear that Washington’s foreign policy establishment has been intent on regime change since the beginning of the war and even before that. The Blob, as Ben Rhodes — Obama’s foreign policy adviser — famously called Washington’s foreign policy establishment, is so obsessed with getting rid of Assad that the US has knowingly been objectively allied with Al Qaeda, a group responsible for the death of almost 3,000 Americans on US soil, in the Syrian civil war, because it was seen as serving the goal of regime change. I could demonstrate this using only public statements by US officials and information that can be found in every mainstream newspapers, but I don’t even have to since Wikileaks released a damning email sent in 2012 to Hillary Clinton by Jacob Sullivan, her deputy chief of staff at the State Department, in which he says that Al Qaeda “is on our side in Syria”. Another email shows that, from the outset, the US decided to support the rebels in order to overthrow Assad because it wanted to deprive Iran of its only ally in the region. (The date on the email is 2011, but it was actually written after the civil war had already started, as its content makes abundantly clear.)

Perhaps even more damning, a note from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) dated from August 2012, obtained by Judicial Watch through a federal lawsuit, predicted that the opposition might establish a “salafist principality in Eastern Syria”. Moreover, according to that report, the creation of such a principality was “exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want”. A few lines above that passage, the supporting powers in question are identified as “Western countries, the Gulf states and Turkey”. In other words, as early as 2012, the US intelligence had predicted the creation of the Islamic State. But Washington did nothing to prevent it, because the people in charge were more interested in overthrowing Assad. (Interestingly, this note was written soon after Michael Flynn became Director of the DIA, before he was fired by Obama precisely because he was not willing to go along with the White House’s official narrative that, since Bin Laden’s death, islamic terrorism was receding everywhere. Flynn was opposed to the instrumentalization of radical islam to promote regime change and this made him a target for neoconservatives in Washington, which probably has a lot to do with the troubles he’s faced since then.) It also made clear that salafists were playing a very important role in the opposition, something which the US, with the help of the media, was still denying at the time. Thus, if you don’t trust Russia on Syria because it has a dog in this fight, as indeed you shouldn’t, I don’t see why you would trust the US.

At this point, this should already be clear, but in case it isn’t here is another anecdote which shows the US has no problem making extremely serious accusations against Assad on the flimsiest of evidence. You may remember that, a few weeks ago, the media was full of reports to the effect that Assad’s regime had built a crematorium in which it burned the bodies of thousands of opponents it had killed in the Sednaya prison. Of course, the point is to encourage the comparison between Assad and Hitler, which in turn can be used to justify regime change. This claim was primarily based on a statement made by a US official during a briefing to the press, which led to this hilarious exchange with a journalist about the evidence on which it’s based:

QUESTION: Can I just – one very – extremely briefly? What makes you so sure that this is a crematorium and not just some other building? Is it this thing with the snowmelt? Because, I mean, people are going to look at this – the regime in particular or – and the Russians, who you’re – are going to look at this and say: Well, all this proves is that there is a building there and that that part where there’s – snow is melted is simply warmer than the rest of the building. It looks —


MR JONES: So if you look – so obviously, these photos date over several years from 2013 to 2017. If you look at the earliest photo, the August 13 photo, this is during the construction phase, and these HVAC facilities, the discharge stack, the probable firewall, the probable air intake, this is in the construction phase. This would be consistent if they were building a crematorium.

Then we look at the January 15 and we’re looking at snowmelt on the roof that would be consistent with a crematorium. So —


QUESTION: Or just a warmer part of a building, right?


MR JONES: Possibly.

I don’t think I really need to comment, except to note that this is a real exchange, it’s not from The Onion. Now, I don’t know who that journalist works for, but I bet it’s not for the New York Times… He or she seems to be unaware that, as long as they confirm the dominant narrative, even preposterous claims based on laughable evidence are not to be questioned. Again, if you think that you can trust the US more than Russia on what is going on in Syria, you clearly haven’t been following things closely enough.

People have also pointed out that, even if we don’t trust the US, we can still rely on what the UN is saying. But as I have noted above, in the case of the attack in Khan Sheikhoun, the OPCW only concluded that sarin had been detected in some of the samples. This doesn’t say anything about how it was released and who is responsible. It’s also true that, in the past, the UN has concluded that the regime had used chemical weapons against rebels on a few occasions. Some people seem to think that, despite the obvious problems with that hypothesis I discussed above, this fact makes it plausible that Assad’s regime also used chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun. It seems to me that people believe that because they assume that the UN would only reach such a conclusion based on solid evidence. But that’s simply not true. The fact is that, as anyone who has read the reports published by the UN on the use of chemical weapons in Syria knows, it often reach conclusions based on extremely weak evidence.

When you think about it, this is not surprising. After all, the people who work for the UN don’t live in an ideological vacuum, because nobody does. The vast majority of them are Western experts who, like you and I, are constantly surrounded by media that repeat over and over again that Assad is the most evil leader in the world, that he routinely murders women and children, that Western intelligence agencies have incontrovertible evidence he is responsible for chemical attacks, etc. Of course, you can expect the UN to be more objective than any particular government that plays a role in the Syrian civil war, but thats a very low bar. I know that, after reading this, a lot of people are just going to roll their eyes and say that I’m a conspiracy theorist who doesn’t even trust the UN and, to some extent, I even understand that reaction. I suspect I would think the same thing if I had never read any of the reports that accuse the regime of having used chemical weapons. So if that’s what you’re thinking right now, I just ask that you keep an open mind, read what I’m about to explain and ask yourself if what I say is unreasonable.

In order to give you a sense of how flimsy the evidence used by the UN to reach its conclusions often is, I’m going to briefly explain how it concluded that the regime had used chlorine in the attack against Talmenes on 21 April 2014. The evidence about this attack is discussed in annex IV of the third report of the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism. (The evidence was collected by the Fact-Finding Mission, whose activities are described in more details in another report.) This annex only 8 pages long, so I strongly encourage you to read it, because even though what I’m about to describe is going to look bad, I can assure you that it looks even worse when you read the whole thing. First, it should be noted that even though the investigators said they were able to reach a conclusion about the nature and responsibility of the attack, they weren’t even able to access the site and only interviewed witnesses that were brought to a safe location several months after the attack. It’s also important to note that, as the report itself says,  both Al Nusra (i. e. Al Qaeda in Syria) and Ahrar ash-Sham, another extremist group, had a heavy presence in the area. As in the case of Khan Sheikhoun, this seriously reduces the testimony of witnesses. Moreover, beside the description of the symptoms by the witnesses, the conclusion that chlorine was used was based on samples collected by journalists, foreign governments and NGOs which are not identified in the report. As the report itself acknowledged, the investigators had no way to control the chain of custody, so they can’t be sure that the samples were not tampered with.

If you are not already baffled that, despite these obvious problems, the UN felt it was nevertheless in a position to reach the conclusion that the regime had used chlorine against Talmenes, there is something deeply wrong with you. But don’t worry, it’s not over yet. The report identifies 2 locations where a chemical munition was allegedly used in Talmenes. Since the investigators weren’t able to access the site, they relied on videos that were given on them by witnesses, which showed clear signs of manipulation. For instance, here is how the report describes one of the videos, in paragraph 26 of annex IV:

The forensic report further stated that the remnants seen in v04 [a video provided by a witness] are not likely the carrier of the explosives that caused the crater (“pit”), since the device would have fragmented at the top and sides dispersing into smaller pieces, like the remnants in v04. The munition would only have carried a small amount of explosives and could not have caused a crater of this size. In addition, the bodies of the dead animals seen in v04 look clean and intact, making it highly unlikely that they were in the backyard or at close vicinity when the device causing the crater detonated.

This screams of a scene that has been tampered with, but the authors of the report don’t even point that out explicitly. Instead, they merely conclude the discussion of the evidence about this impact by saying that, “as a result of these inconsistencies, location #1 was disregarded for further investigation”.

Indeed, their conclusion against the regime is based entirely on the second location, where another impact was observed. But as the report itself acknowledges, “given that v02 [another video provided by a witness] has been taken two days after the incident, it is possible that the remnants may have been moved from the initial point of impact”.  (It should be noted that v02 also documents the impact at the first location, so the witness who provided it also shot a scene that was clearly tampered with. He may not have been aware of that, but it obviously casts doubt on the reliability of that video, a point that is not even discussed in the report.) The conclusion that the regime is responsible for the use of chlorine at this location is entirely based on the fact that the Syrian government’s explanation for what happened at this location, unlike the allegation by the rebels, was deemed inconsistent with the evidence shown in v02. In other words, the regime was asked to prove that it was innocent and, when it couldn’t, it was declared guilty. The investigators in charge of this case evidently have a rather unusual conception of the burden of proof…

Note also that, in paragraph 40 of the report itself, one can read this:

The Syrian-Saudi Chemicals Company had a chlorine production facility producing caustic soda and liquid chlorine 29 km east of Aleppo. [NOTE: Talmenes is located approximately 80 km to the South-West of Aleppo.] The Government stated that the facility had been seized by the Nusrah Front in August 2012 and that the Nusrah Front and some armed opposition groups had the capability to transport chlorine across the country. The Government provided information that approximately 400 tons of chlorine had been present at the plant at the time of its seizure. The Mechanism confirmed that chlorine containers at the facility had been moved after August 2012. No information is available on to where the containers were transported or how their content might have been used.

This is clearly shows that Al Nusra, which as the report notes was present around Talmenes, could have used chlorine over there. However, the investigators apparently didn’t even consider that possibility, because only the regime raised it and its hypothesis about how the rebels had delivered the chlorine was found to be inconsistent with a video of dubious provenance.

This example should make it absolutely clear that, even when the UN reaches a conclusion about culpability, it usually can’t be trusted. Indeed, if you read the reports written by the Joint Investigative Mechanism on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, you will see that the case of Talmenes isn’t unusual. The UN has no problem reaching a conclusion about whether a chemical attack took place and who is responsible, even though it usually not even able to access the site of the attack. The notion that the UN is able to assign responsibilities with a reasonable degree of certainty in an attack based on videos that, even if we trust the timestamps (which as the report notes could have been tampered with), were taken several days after the attack and was obtained several months later, from people who lived under the control of a terrorist organization, strikes me as totally insane. I really don’t think that I’m applying extraordinary epistemic principles here. It’s as if people were convicted in a court of law based on the result of an investigation conducted by people who didn’t even have access to the crime scene, only talked to witnesses who live under the control of some of the suspects and used evidence that showed clear sign of manipulations. The reality is that, in the middle of a civil war in which everyone is lying, it’s almost never possible to know what is happening with any reasonable degree of certainty. The fact that it’s unfortunate is not a reason to pretend it’s not true.

There is also clear signs that the OPCW, which performs the analyses and whose Fact-Finding Mission collects the evidence, is biased against the regime. Back in April, Russia and Iran asked the OPCW to send its experts to Khan Sheikhoun and the Shayrat air base, where the planes that carried the chemical weapons took off according to the US and several other Western governments, but the organization’s Executive Council rejected that request. It claimed that the safety of its experts couldn’t be guaranteed in Khan Sheikhoun, which is probably true, but the same thing can’t be said of Shayrat air base. It’s true that, according to a report by the AFP, the Russians also asked that member states be able to provide national experts for participation in the investigation. Western governments claim that it would have enabled Moscow to undermine the conclusions of the investigation. This is certainly possible, but if that were the only reason why they rejected that request, they could have made a counter-proposal to send the OPCW’s experts to Shayrat without allowing member states to deploy its own experts alongside the Fact-Finding Mission. But they made no such proposal, because the fact of the matter is that most of the members don’t care about the truth, they just want to be able to accuse the regime.

As Robert Parry explained in 2013, the US has various ways to influence the UN and international organizations such as the OPCW (which it has used in the past, as cables leaked by Chelsea Manning in 2011 showed, to mention only one example), so that kind of things isn’t particularly surprising. Indeed, if you have a look at the composition of the OPCW’s Executive Council at the time of the vote, you will see that in addition to the US, a clear majority of the members are formal allies of the US and/or are economically or politically dependent on the US or its allies. The breakdown of the vote was exactly what you would have expected based on the composition of the Council. Again, the UN and international organizations such as the OPCW aren’t immune to politics, quite the contrary. These organizations are controlled by their members and, in many cases, the US has considerable influence over the majority of them, because it’s the most powerful country in the world.

Another problem with the OPCW is the way in which it releases its reports. As I noted above, the organization recently announced that it had confirmed that sarin had been found in the samples collected in Khan Sheikhoun, which is not really new since it had already reached that conclusion in April and confirmed it after more analyses in May. However, although this conclusion — which again doesn’t really say anything new — has already been widely publicized in the media, the report is still not publicly available and, according to the statement released by the OPCW a few days ago, it has only been shared with the states who signed the Chemical Weapons Convention and the UN. This means that, by the time we can read it (which will probably show that the OPCW had no control over the chain of custody for the samples it analyzed), the media will already have made its headlines about the announcement. (Indeed, the usual suspects, such as the New York Times and the Guardian, have already publicized the conclusions of a report they haven’t even read it.) Since I can’t think of another reason, I suspect that’s exactly the point of not releasing the report at the same time its conclusions were announced, which doesn’t really make any sense.

Another interesting fact is that, even though the full report is not publicly available, it was apparently provided to Eliot Higgins of Bellingcat.

I would be really interested in knowing why Bellingcat, a group that is almost entirely devoted to criticizing Russia and Assad’s regime, was able to obtain that report even though it’s not accessible to anyone else. This allows Bellingcat to make claims that can’t even be verified, but will no doubt influence a lot of people because it has the exclusivity of the report.

I also know that Higgins is probably not lying about that, since Bellingcat posted a screenshot of the report on Twitter.

This table appears to describe the results of analyses performed on samples provided by the Syrian government, which have not been described in any report that is currently available.

When I asked Higgins how come he was able to read the report even though it’s not publicly available yet, he ignored me but Dan Kaszeta, who also works for Bellingcat, told me that several copies were circulating.

As you can see, when I ask who is circulating copies of the report, he is completely evading the question. Clearly, either someone at the OPCW or the UN is leaking the report to anti-Russia/anti-Assad news organizations or some of the member states, presumably Western countries, are. If it’s the former, then it’s more evidence of bias against the Syrian government on the part of the OPCW and/or the UN, which for reasons I have already explained wouldn’t be surprising. But if it’s the former, then it’s evidence that, despite its claims of independence, Bellingcat is supported by Western governments.

Of course, we already know that, since Higgins admitted a few months ago that Bellingcat was funded by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which in turn is funded by Congress.

In this list, “OSF” stands for “Open Society Foundation”, another hysterically anti-Russian organization. Of course, Bellingcat could receive money from the NED and the OSF yet not be influenced by them, but it’s obvious that, consciously or not, this creates an incentive to reach conclusions its sponsors will like.

Upon being pressed on this point by several people on Twitter, Higgins claimed that he had received the report anonymously by email.

However, in another conversation soon after that, he also said that he was sure the report he received was authentic. When Vanessa Beeley asked him how he could so confident if he received it anonymously, which is a very good question, he just replied that the was absolutely certain and even offered to make a bet.

Based on this exchange, there are only 2 possibilities (which I’m sorry to say aren’t mutually exclusive), namely that Higgins is lying or that he is completely stupid. Now, I don’t have a very high opinion of his intellectual abilities, but even I don’t think he is that stupid. So I conclude that he probably knows exactly who sent him the report, but since it would be embarrassing for both him and his source to say who it was, he just made up that story about the anonymous email he received. Even if this story were true, it would still mean that Bellingcat is being instrumentalized by someone who has access to the report, which is hardly better. You have to keep in him that journalists uncritically rely on Higgins and Bellingcat every time they talk about Syria, which given what I have just explained is completely irresponsible.

Another problem with the fact that anti-Russia/anti-Assad news organizations were given the report of the OPCW before it was publicly released is that it will allow them to respond immediately when it’s finally published.

By contrast, people who are skeptical of the dominant narrative will have to go through the report before they respond to it, by which time the narrative in the media will already have been shaped. It would be very easy for the OPCW to prevent that or at least to make it harder by releasing its reports at the same time it communicates the conclusions. But I suspect that it’s pretty happy with the current situation, so I wouldn’t be holding my breath if I were you…

After I published my post on the attack in Khan Sheikhoun a few weeks ago, some people also said that I couldn’t be taken seriously, because I’m clearly opposed to regime change in Syria. Now, to be clear, I certainly am opposed to regime change in Syria. In fact, I would be opposed to it even if there was conclusive evidence that the regime had used sarin against rebels, which there isn’t. I’m opposed to regime change because it’s obvious that, if the West toppled Assad, it would result in even more chaos and whoever replaces him would be even worse. I’m not going to argue for that here, since it would require a whole separate post, but I don’t see how anyone who has actually followed the civil war could disagree with that. I also oppose regime change in Syria because, perhaps more fundamentally, I don’t think we have any business deciding on behalf of the Syrians who should rule them. Despite the nonsense that you hear in the media, this is a civil war that opposes large segments of the society to each other, there is no such thing as a unanimous Syrian people who is trying to overthrow Assad.

In fact, according to the only serious poll we have about public opinion in Syria (there are other polls about Syria, most of which support the view that Assad is popular, but they can’t be taken seriously), it seems that Assad has more support in the country than anyone else. This poll was conducted in 2015 by ORB International, a polling firm based in London. It found that 47% of respondents had a positive opinion of Assad, against 50% who had a negative opinion of his influence. By contrast, only 35% had a position opinion of the Free Syrian Army (which is supported by the West), against 63% who had a negative influence of it. Now, ORB International has been criticized in the past for its estimate of the death toll in Iraq and polling a country in the middle of a civil war is obviously difficult, but this poll is still the best thing we have about the state of public opinion in Syria. (A previous poll conducted by the same company in 2014 had found essentially the same results.) The only point I’m making is that, even though the media constantly repeats that the Syrian people is unanimously opposed to Assad, this is obviously false. The truth is that a large part of the population, perhaps even a plurality, is supporting the regime. Anyone who claims that we are in a position to say more than that is either a fool or lying.

Thus, not only am I opposed to regime change in Syria, but I think anyone who isn’t either has ulterior motives or is manipulated into supporting that policy by the media. If you think the US should have done something against Assad, this probably has a lot to do with the gruesome images of atrocities  that were attributed to him you have seen on television. Even if we suppose that Assad is always responsible, which is clearly false since journalists routinely accuse him of atrocities without any evidence that he ordered them, you should ask yourself why the media doesn’t show images of the atrocities committed by the rebels. For instance, I bet you have never seen a picture of this young boy, who was decapitated by members of a group supported by the US. The truth is that, as in any other civil war, both sides commit atrocities, but you only hear about the ones that are, often without evidence, attributed to the regime.

Journalists who work for mainstream news organizations are no more neutral than me, they are just less open about it. They are pushing for regime change in Syria just as much as I oppose it, but unlike me, they hide their position and don’t warn you of where they’re coming from. I, on the other hand, am very clear about that. Regardless of my position about the war, my arguments should stand or fall on their own merits, lest you be guilty of the ad hominem fallacy. I also make it as easy as possible for you to fact-check me, since I systematically provide at least one source for every single factual claim I make, almost exclusively from mainstream publications. Indeed, as I often point out, propaganda in democracies usually doesn’t proceed by completely hiding the facts. Mainstream news organizations report almost everything, but they are very selective in what they emphasize and don’t connect the dots when doing so would contradict the dominant narrative. The fact is that, in order to impose a narrative, you don’t really have to hide embarrassing facts, you just have to drown them into a sea of noise that will instill this narrative into people’s minds and repeat over and over again the same things no matter how unsubstantiated they are. As Goebbels is famously supposed to have said, if you repeat a lie often enough, people will eventually come to believe it. As Stephen Kinzer, who headed the bureau of the New York Times in Istanbul between 1996 and 2000,  wrote a few months ago, “coverage of the Syrian war will be remembered as one of the most shameful episodes in the history of the American press”.

Finally, I want to address the reactions of the anti-Trump crowd after he decided to retaliate against the regime, because I still can’t believe what many of them said. Indeed, a lot of them reacted by saying “I told you so”, on the ground that Trump wasn’t so anti-interventionist after all. As Michel Audiard once said, “imbeciles will say anything, that’s even how you recognize them”. In my experience, the people who made that kind of snarky comments after the US bombed Shayrat air base are the same who had been peddling the absurd story that Trump colluded with Russia during the election, which no doubt had something to do with his decision to attack the regime. It’s obvious that, had he not done so, this would have been presented by the same people as evidence that he owed Putin. It’s clear that, as he and his advisers deliberated on his options after the attack on Khan Sheikhoun, this fact could not have been absent from their mind. Of course, it’s possible that, even if this collusion nonsense hadn’t been pushed by Trump’s opponents for months, he would still have attacked Shayrat. But we’ll never know that and, in any case, the people who push that collusion bullshit are not in a position to be cute about this, since they clearly made it more likely that Trump would retaliate after the attack on Khan Sheikhoun.

Of course, many of them have also been pushing for regime change for years, so they should have been happy that Trump decided to retaliate against it. It’s certainly stupid to criticize Trump for being harsh on Assad when you have blasted Obama for years because he wouldn’t approve regime change in Syria. Indeed, anyone who believes Clinton, who these people voted for, would have been less hawkish than Trump on Syria. Not only did she support his decision to retaliate, but she actually wanted the US to take out every single airfield in response, when Trump only did a fairly limited strike against one of them. Later, in a conversation with Christine Amanpour (another cheerleader of regime change), she even seemed to regret that the US had warned Russia before the strike so it could evacuate its personnel from the air base. To be sure, part of this was probably because she is not in charge and needed a reason to criticize Trump, but nobody who knows Clinton and followed the presidential campaign can seriously believe that she would have been less hawkish than him on Syria. The reality is that, despite the fact that he is a clown who doesn’t know the first thing about foreign policy, Trump is still preferable to most people in Washington’s foreign policy establishment on that issue. 

It’s also worth noting that, according to New York Magazine, Politico and Consortiumnews, Bannon opposed the strike against the regime. (New York Magazine disagrees with Politico and Consortiumnews on whether Kushner supported the strike, but they are unanimous that Bannon was against it.) This confirms what I was saying a few months ago:

While I would have preferred that Trump surround himself with realists (that’s a huge understatement), I also think that, as bad as he may be, Bannon is a definite improvement over the lunatics who dominate Washington’s foreign policy establishment. This is why I think that, even from a liberal point of view, it’s badly misguided to oppose his influence on foreign policy. People who go after Bannon without even thinking about who is likely to take his place are irresponsible. They need to understand that, if Trump doesn’t listen to Bannon, he will most likely get his advice from neoconservatives, who I think are far more dangerous.

In other words, instead of freaking out about the imaginary threat of white nationalism, the sophisticates ought to worry about the very real threat of neoconservatism.

EDIT: The report of the OPCW has just been released to the public. Tim Hayward makes a few observations about it on his blog that you should read.

NOTE: This is the third part in a three-part series of posts. See also part 1 and part 2.

6 thoughts

    1. Thanks for the post and that link. I’m pretty sure I have already read Lund’s piece, but I don’t recall what I thought of it, so I’ll try to have a look when I have a bit more time. But right now I’m really swamped with work.

      I have no idea whether the hypothesis of the chemical depot or that of a false flag is more likely. I do think the disjunction of these hypotheses is significantly more likely than the hypothesis that the regime used sarin in Khan Sheikhoun, because I have a very high prior that Assad would not do such a thing for reasons I explained in details in part 2.

      You can see my posts as arguing that the evidence we have does nothing to lower that prior, although I’m happy to make a weaker claim, namely that it’s irrational to have a high credence in either the hypothesis that the regime used sarin or the hypothesis that the regime dropped a conventional bomb on a building that contained chemicals or that it was a false flag by rebels.

  1. Thanks. I guess my point was that those other two options have problems as well. For the warehouse/depot scenario, where is the building? The Russians and Syrians know where it is. Why haven’t they told us yet? The false flag (and if you think the depot had Sarin) has a motivation problem as well. Why haven’t the rebels used Sarin against Syrian troops? (At least since Khan al Assal) And did they really think one relatively small incident would bring about a decisive intervention on their behalf? Ghouta didn’t do it, and that was before Russia intervened.

    That point also makes me think you should not have a very high prior for Assad to use chemical weapons. Is there really much of a chance for the US or its allies to intervene so strongly as to force Assad from power? They don’t have any good options to do that. Are they going to insert troops and/or start regularly bombing Syrian troops in support of al Nusra?

    1. Sorry for the late reply, I’m really swamped with work these days. The Russians have mentioned a building they are supposed to have bombed, but I don’t know if anyone has checked that. I agree this is something worth looking into it and potentially a problem for their theory, although I find the notion that the accused must prove he is innocent a bit problematic.

      On the other hand, I find the problems you raise for the false flag hypothesis unconvincing. If the rebels have sarin, they probably have limited quantities of it. And the main utility of it would be to try and drag the US into the war, not to use it against Syrian troops. As I explain in the second part, Ghouta was very close to bringing the US into the war, so I don’t think it would be unreasonable of them to expect another incident might succeed. There are definitely many people in the US, including in government, who support a more aggressive stance on Syria. I agree that, now that Russia has intervened alongside the regime, a full-blown intervention is significantly less likely but they could still hope for some real pressure on Syria from the US and, in any case, they are getting really desperate now given the situation. They probably wouldn’t try to overthrow Assad at this point, although some of them are still hopeful, but they are pushing for more US presence on the ground, to have some leverage when the war is over.

      1. No problem. While I don’t accept that beyond a reasonable doubt is the correct standard to use in this case, I’ll grant it for this response. The situational analogy to a criminal court case here is a suspect (and/or a supporter) has provided an alibi, but has refused to offer the proof they must have to support it. Would that alibi be given any credence at all in a trial? No, and it would likely be taken as evidence of guilt.

        Until the location of the bombed depot is provided, it is not necessary to take that explanation of the deaths seriously. By the way, as for the evidence that Russia told the US it was bombing a jihadi meeting, it is possible that they lied. It is possible that Russia supported a chemical strike in Khan Shaykhoun beforehand.

        US presence on the ground, directed at the Syrian army, is not going to happen. Not after Ghouta and it is almost impossible after Russian intervention and a much smaller attack. The rebels are not stupid. A question, what is the real pressure that the US and its allies could put on Syria now? Beyond what they are currently doing.

  2. Excellent.

    Hamish de Bretton-Gordon is a director of the White Helmet’s sister organization Doctors (or Medics) Under Fire. He has also worked with Ian Pannell of the BBC who produced the infamous Panorama broadcast “Saving Syria’s Children” as well as with Higgins. And yes, he is the go-to guy of the Western media when it comes to chemical weapons.

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