As you probably know unless you live in a cave, another chemical attack is alleged to have taken place in Syria on Tuesday, which killed several people in the town of Khan Sheikhoun. The New York Times published a story about it and, as per usual, immediately accused the Syrian government of being responsible for the attack. To be sure, they briefly mention that Damascus denied any responsibility, but anyone who reads this article and hasn’t followed the events in Syria closely will come out with the clear impression that Assad’s government was behind the attack. Yet, upon reading the article, it’s clear that the NYT relies entirely on the testimony of people who live in the area. This is relevant because Khan Sheikhoun is under the control of Al Qaeda in Syria, a fact which is only mentioned in passing by the NYT, in the 36th and penultimate paragraph of the article. What this means is that, whoever the NYT talked to, Al Qaeda in Syria was presumably okay with it. Of course, it doesn’t mean that what they said isn’t true, but any responsible journalist would have pointed out the obvious problem this fact poses for the credibility of the information obtained in that way. The New York Times, however, is clearly not interested in reporting what is going on in Syria responsibly and hasn’t been since the beginning of the civil war.
The NYT dismisses in one sentence the statement by the Syrian government denying that it was responsible, by pointing out that “only the Syrian military had the ability and the motive to carry out an aerial attack like the one that struck the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun”. But the only evidence that chemicals were released by bombs dropped by planes comes from the testimony of the people on the ground the NYT talked to, which as I just noted can’t be trusted since Khan Sheikhoun is under the control of Al Qaeda in Syria, which has a clear interest in blaming Damascus. This reliance on the testimony of people who live under the control of Al Qaeda is not just true of the NYT, but of every other news outlet, as well as of the various humanitarian organizations who are blaming the Syrian government for the attack. This is a well-known problem for people trying to figure out what is going on in Syria. As Patrick Cockburn, one of the few honest journalists who have written about the civil war in Syria, explained a few months ago, it’s basically impossible to get reliable information from many parts of Syria, because journalists have to rely on people who live under the control of terrorist organizations. As far as I can tell, the only journalists in the area are two photographers working for the AFP, but apparently they only arrived in Khan Sheikhoun after the attack.
The NYT article also quotes uncritically Mohamad Firas al-Jundi, minister of health in the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, whose military branch is the Free Syrian Army. Despite the fact that it’s often presented as a moderate group, the FSA is known to have collaborated with Al Qaeda during the siege of Aleppo, but again don’t count on the NYT to tell you about that. The authors of that article also cite reports about the attack by the White Helmets, a group which, despite the favorable publicity it has received in Western media, should have no credibility whatsoever given that it has links with various terrorist organizations in Syria and clearly engages in propaganda in favor of the rebels. As shocking as this lack of professionalism is, it has unfortunately been the norm in Western media since the beginning of the war, as the rest of this post should make clear.
Coming from Michael Gordon and Anne Barnard, the authors of that NYT story, this kind of incompetence is particularly unsurprising. Indeed, as Robert Parry notes, Michael Gordon has been pushing regime change in various parts of the world for years. In particular, he was the co-author with Judith Miller of the infamous NYT story which claimed that Saddam Hussein was trying to obtain aluminum in order to build atomic weapons. This claim was used by the US government to justify the invasion of Iraq but, as we know, it turned out to be false. Many people pointed out the problem with that story at the time, but they were dismissed as sympathetic to Hussein, just like people who merely point out problems with the various allegations that are made against Damascus are now described as Assad stooges. As for Gordon’s co-author, Anne Barnard, she is the author of a story that uncritically accepted the claim by the rebels that Assad was somehow in cahoots with ISIS, despite the lack of evidence and how implausible such a claim is.
In their story, they don’t even attempt to address the obvious problem that, given that Assad is clearly winning the war, it’s not clear why he would take the risk of using chemical weapons, which his government is supposed to have gotten rid of in 2013 after the attack I discuss below. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this would further inflame public opinion against him and that people who have been pushing for regime change in Syria for years would use that against him. Several people in the media, such as Michael Weiss in the Daily Beast (where he’s been pushing hysterically for regime change in Syria for years), suggest that Tillerson’s recent statement to the effect that Assad could stay in power if the Syrians wanted him to could have prompted the attack. But this really doesn’t make any sense, for anyone with a brain could have predicted that Tillerson would be under intense pressure to reverse himself if Assad perpetrated a chemical attack, which indeed he did immediately after the attack. (This article in the Daily Beast, by the way, makes even the NYT article pass for a model of journalistic integrity. It’s amazing that such a hack job was published in what is supposed to be a reputable publication, but the Daily Beast and many other Western news organizations have been publishing that kind of garbage about Syria for years.)
Gordon and Barnard also don’t even mention Russia’s alternative explanation for the attack, which is that the regime bombed a weapon-storage facility where rebels were manufacturing projectiles stuffed with chemical agents. This explanation is summarily dismissed in another NYT article, but when you read it, it’s clear that it almost entirely depends on testimonies from people who live in the area, which as I have already explained are not reliable. The only thing which does not rely on such testimony is the claim that “if a chemical weapons facility had been hit, the resulting explosion would most likely have caused the chemical to burn up, international weapons experts say”. But since we don’t even know for sure what chemicals were used in the attack yet, it should be clear that any “expert” who says that is a crackpot. (The NYT doesn’t even bother to name any of the “experts” in question, but the Guardian quotes Hamish de Bretton Gordon, former commanding officer of the UK Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Regiment. His LinkedIn profile, however, reveals that he has no training whatsoever in chemistry.) This NYT story about Russia’s explanation ends with the claim that “investigations by the United States and Western powers into the August 2013 chemical attack near Damascus that killed more than 1,400 people concluded that it had been carried out by the Syrian government”, which as I explain below is extremely misleading.
To be clear, I’m not saying that Assad’s regime is not responsible, I’m just pointing out the obvious fact that we are not yet in a position to know that. I have no idea what happened in Khan Sheikhoun the other day, but I sure as hell know that we shouldn’t jump to conclusions, because anyone who is reasonably intelligent and well-informed can tell that it’s way too early for that. This should be even more obvious to anyone who has followed closely what happened in 2013, after another chemical attack took place in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus under the control of rebel groups. Like the attack on Khan Sheikhoun, it was immediately blamed on Assad by the media, which uncritically accepted the claims made by the US and various other Western government. The White House released a four-page, evidence-free document it called a “government assessment”, which made extremely precise claims about the attack and blamed the regime for it. As a result, the US almost started a war against Syria, until Obama backed down at the last minute, after Putin offered him a way out by proposing that Russia and the US supervise the dismantling of Syria’s chemical arsenal.
It was all the more irresponsible for the media to uncritically accept the claims made by the US government, despite the fact that not a shred of evidence was produced to support them and that it didn’t make any sense for Assad to perpetrate a chemical attack in Ghouta at the time. As William Polk explained in a widely read piece published a few days after the attack, at the time, Assad was clearly winning the war. (I strongly encourage you to read the whole thing, which is still very instructive, even several years after the attack.) So it’s really hard to see why he would have taken the risk to commit a chemical attack in the suburbs of Damascus, especially after Obama had declared that the use of chemical weapons by the regime was a red line whose crossing the US would not tolerate. But it’s even worse than that, because the attack took place on the same day a UN inspection team tasked with investigating allegations of chemical weapons use arrived in Damascus, so Assad would have had to be incredibly stupid to do that. Now, people have accused Assad of being a lot of things, but stupid is not one of them. Of course, this does not prove anything, but it clearly should have made the claim that Assad was responsible implausible. In turn, this means that journalists should have been extremely skeptical about the claims made the US government, but instead they immediately accepted them as gospel… If war was averted, it wasn’t thanks to the media, but in spite of them. This kind of incompetence would be comical if it weren’t tragic.
Less than a month after the attack on Ghouta, the New York Times published a piece with the headline “U.N. Implicates Syria in Using Chemical Arms”, which claimed that a ballistic analysis conducted by their analysts and Human Right Watch had demonstrated that the attack had come from deep inside the area controlled by the government. The article was published on the front-page of the NYT and widely reported by other news organizations around the world. It was supposed to prove that Assad was behind the attack, but the conclusion of this analysis was soon called into question by various people. In particular, a few weeks later, Theodore Postol (professor of science, technology and international security at the MIT) and Richard Lloyd (analyst at Tesla) published a study that showed that the NYT/HRW’s analysis was mistaken. In particular, they argued that the rockets carrying sarin gas that fell on Ghouta had a range of only 2km at the most, which means that they couldn’t possibly have come from deep inside the area controlled by the regime, as the US government and the NYT/HRW analysis had claimed. It also claimed that, despite what the NYT and various other news organizations had been claiming for months, anyone who had access to a machine shop with modest capabilities would have been able to manufacture the munitions used in the attack.
The NYT eventually published a half-hearted retraction of its analysis, but it waited until the middle of the holiday season and put the article on page A10 of the newspaper, with the headline “New Study Refines View Of Sarin Attack in Syria”. Well, I guess it’s one way to put it, though it’s not how I or anyone with a modicum of honesty would have dealt with this… As Robert Parry explained at the time, despite the heroic efforts made by the NYT to minimize the implication of that study, it clearly undermined the claims it had made for months and continues to make to this day about the responsibility of Assad in the chemical attack on Ghouta. Note that Postol is a world-renowned rocket expert, who has a history of questioning the claims made by the US government, but has repeatedly been proven right. In particular, he disputed the claims made by the US administration regarding the effectiveness of the Patriot missile, which led the House Government Operations Subcommittee on Legislation and National Security to state that “the public and the Congress were misled by definitive statements of success issued by administration and Raytheon [the firm which manufactures the Patriot] representatives during and after the war”. He also can’t accused of being a shill for Assad, since immediately after the attack on Ghouta, he had published another analysis which suggested that the regime was responsible.
Eliot Higgins, a blogger who went on to create Bellingcat, argued that Lloyd and Postol’s analysis did not rule out the regime’s culpability. (Bellingcat is a supposedly independent, open-source investigation website, whose conclusions have been repeated uncritically by the media on several occasions. There would be a lot to say about it, but that’s a story for another post.) But while Postol doesn’t want to say that Assad’s regime was not behind the attack in Ghouta, he strongly disagrees with Higgins. I’m no rocket scientist, but as far as I know nobody with actual expertise has contradicted Postol’s calculations, so if I have to chose between trusting one of the foremost experts on ballistic in the world and a blogger with no technical knowledge whatsoever, I’m going to do the former… Note that even Higgins agrees that the claims made by the US government after the attacks, which it claimed had been established beyond the shadow of a doubt by indubitable intelligence (without giving any evidence, as I have already noted), could not possibly have been true, which means that Obama and Kerry almost certainly lied about this at the time.
Higgins was soon joined by Dan Kaszeta, a self-proclaimed expert in chemical weapons, who claimed that the presence of hexamine on the scene after the attack in Ghouta was a smoking gun of Assad’s involvement. But Postol had a long correspondence with him, which he published with comments, which in my opinion shows conclusively that Kaszeta is talking out of his ass. In particular, he claims that Åke Sellström, the head of the United Nations Mission to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic (UNMIAUCWSAR), agrees with him that the presence of hexamine proves the involvement of the regime. But since Postol wasn’t able to obtain any technical evidence for the claims that Kaszeta made, he contacted Sellström directly who told him that hexamine “is a product simple to get hold of and in no way conclusively points to the governement [sic]”. Higgins claims that it’s because, in his capacity as head of the NMIAUCWSAR, Sellström was not at liberty to openly discuss responsibility for the attack. But this makes absolutely no sense. If that were the issue, then Sellström would simply have refused to reply to Postol and explained to him why he couldn’t, but instead he made a very clear statement that contradicts Kaszeta’s claim.
There is a lot more in that controversy between Postol/Lloyd and Higgins/Kaszeta, but this post is already long and I don’t want to go into further details. If you want to read more about this, you can check Higgins and Kaszeta’s article in the Guardian where they lay out their case, as well as this excellent review of the controversy by Carmen Russell-Sluchansky on MintPress News and this important article by Gareth Porter on Truthout. I honestly don’t see how someone who has looked at the evidence and read everything could not side with Postol and Lloyd against Higgins and Kaszeta on this, but don’t take my word for it, just check for yourself if you have a doubt. Moreover, as I will now explain, Lloyd and Postol’s analysis is hardly the only piece of evidence that contradicts the dominant media narrative about what happened in Ghouta in August 2013.
A claim that is often made, not just by Higgins and Kaszeta but also by the media in general, is that the rebels could not possibly have chemical weapons, so any chemical attack in Syria can safely be blamed on Assad. But this claim obviously flies in the face of the facts, no matter how often it’s repeated. Back in 2013, Carla Del Ponte, a member of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (IICISAR) and the former Chief Prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, told the BBC that “what appears to our investigations [is] that [chemical weapons were] used by the opponents, by the rebels and we have no indication at all that … the authorities of the Syrian government have used chemical weapons”. To be sure, she indicated that she was only talking about their preliminary findings and, when the IICISAR published its report a month later, it didn’t assign responsibility to anyone. Del Ponte reiterated her claims after the report was published in another interview to Euronews and said that she didn’t regret making them.
As its report explains, the IICISAR found evidence that a chemical attack had taken place in the village of Khan al-Assal in March 2013, which is located outside Aleppo. Although the IICISAR didn’t assign responsibility, the evidence points toward the rebels, not the regime. According to the Associated Press, when the attack took place in March, this village was under the control of the government. The rebels only took it back in July of that year, which according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights led to the summary execution of 51 people. This suggests that, if chemical weapons were used then, it was by the rebels. In fact, it was the regime that asked the UN to investigate the attack on Khan al-Assal, which led to the creation of the IICISAR. Again, this does not prove anything, but it makes it extremely implausible that the attack in question was perpetrated by the regime. It would be really amazing if Assad had demanded that the UN investigate a chemical attack his regime perpetrated… Another reason to think that rebels may have been responsible for the attack in Khan al-Assal is that, according to Foreign Policy, al-Nusra captured chemical weapons including chlorine and sarin from a government’s stockpile three months before the attack. Now, al-Nusra is precisely one of the groups which, according to the NYT article I cited above, took back Khan al-Assal from the regime in July of that year. (It’s also the group that controls the province of Idlib, where the town of Khan Sheikhoun.)
The case of the attack on Khan al-Assal is particularly important because it has been used to support the claim that Assad was responsible for the attack in Ghouta a few months later. Indeed, in February 2014, the IICISAR claimed in another report that “the evidence available concerning the nature, quality and quantity of the agents used on 21 August [during the attack in Ghouta] indicated that the perpetrators likely had access to the chemical weapons stockpile of the Syrian military, as well as the expertise and equipment necessary to manipulate safely large amount of chemical agents”, but also that “the chemical agents used in [in the attack in Khan al-Assal] bore the same unique hallmarks as those used in Al-Ghouta”. Many people in the media took this to be a proof that Assad was responsible for the attack in Ghouta, but if this last claim is true, it’s actually evidence against the responsibility of the regime. First, although the IICISAR claims that the chemical agents found in Ghouta must have come from the government’s stockpile, it doesn’t say anything about how that conclusion was reached. On the other hand, as I have just argued, the evidence in the case of the attack in Khan al-Assal strongly favors the hypothesis that it was perpetrated by rebels. Thus, if the same chemicals were used in both cases, it suggests that the attack in Ghouta was perpetrated by rebels and not the regime.
There is still more to cast doubt on the hypothesis that Assad was behind the attack in Ghouta. Seymour Hersh, a famous investigative journalist who, among other thing, broke the My Lai massacre and the Abu Ghraib scandal, argued in two detailed articles published a few months after the attack that Turkey provided sarin to Syrian rebels. According to him, the Turkish government wanted them to carry out a false flag attack using chemical weapons in Syria, which Erdogan hoped would force the US to intervene against the regime. Indeed, as I already noted above, Obama had declared the use of chemical weapons a red line that Syria could not cross under any circumstances. Hersh’s claims were later supported by the allegations made in December 2015 by Turkish members of Parliament, who claimed that, back in 2013, several people had been arrested with chemicals in the South of Turkey a few weeks before the attack in Ghouta. According to them, the prosecutor’s office had wiretapped conversations proving that they were making sarin, but this was almost completely ignored in the Western media.
Back in 2013, when the arrests took place, several Turkish newspapers had reported that the suspects were members of Al Qaeda in Syria and were caught with sarin, but the Turkish government later denied this. The prosecutor in charge of the case was replaced after a week and the suspects were released. According to the Turkish members of Parliament who accused their government in 2015, the suspects immediately crossed into Syria and were never seen again. Erem Erdem, one of the members of Parliament who made those allegations, faced charges of treason as a result. He and his colleagues made those allegations less than a month after two journalists were arrested because they claimed, with pretty damning evidence, that Turkey’s intelligence services had supplied weapons to islamist rebels in Syria. This was another claim that Hersh independently made in the reports he published about the role of Turkey in the Syrian civil war.
The allegations made against the Turkish government may or may not be true, but they are credible enough to be investigated, yet they have been almost completely ignored by the Western media. If you think that the theory that Turkey arranged for a false flag attack to be perpetrated in Ghouta to drag the US into the war is far-fetched, you should probably know that, in March 2014, a conversation between then Prime Minister of Turkey Ahmet Davutoglu and several high-level military and intelligence officials was leaked, in which they can be heard discussing the possibility of carrying out a false flag attack in the North of Syria to provide Ankara with a justification for a Turkish invasion… I don’t think anyone who is familiar with Erdogan’s methods would dismiss Hersh’s theory out of hand, because that’s clearly the kind of things he could do.
But don’t go anywhere, because I’m not done yet. There is more evidence in favor of the hypothesis that the attack in Ghouta was a false flag attack perpetrated by rebels in the hope of dragging the US into the civil war. In April 2013, Pierre Piccinin and Domenico Quirico, respectively a Belgian writer and a journalist for La Stampa in Italy, were abducted by rebels in Syria. (The group that kept them hostages, by the way, was the Farouq Brigade. This particular group was described as “moderate” by the media, until its commander was filmed mutilating the body of a dead Syrian solider and eating his heart. If this is what journalists call a moderate, I’d hate to run into someone they consider extremist in a dark alley.) They were released in September 2013, shortly after the attack in Ghouta. After their liberation, Piccinin said that, during their captivity, they had overheard rebels say that the chemical attack in Ghouta was a false flag attack perpetrated in order to bring the US into the war against the regime. This story was confirmed by Quirico, who noted that he didn’t know whether it was true. Of course, as I have repeatedly been saying, this doesn’t prove anything. It could be, for instance, that it was just a rumor circulating among the rebels after the attack.
However, it’s clearly evidence in favor of the hypothesis that the attack in Ghouta was not perpetrated by the regime, but was a false flag attack committed by rebels in order to drag the US into the war. Yet it was almost completely ignored by the media, who clearly are not very interested in anything that goes against the dominant narrative, no matter how implausible that narrative may be. Moreover, although Piccinin and Quirico’s claim doesn’t prove anything, it’s starting to be a lot of evidence against the hypothesis that Assad was responsible for the attack. In fact, if you ask me, the preponderance of the evidence is that it was perpetrated by rebels. You may disagree with me about this, although frankly I’m having a hard time seeing how someone who has looked closely at the evidence could disagree with my conclusion, but it should at least be clear that there is a lot of uncertainty about the identity of the perpetrators. Thus, at the very least, people should not talk as if the responsibility of the regime was indisputable, which it clearly isn’t. Yet, if you read the press, you will see that the language used systematically implies that there is absolutely no doubt about the responsibility of the regime.
To be clear, I’m not saying that I know for a fact that Assad didn’t commit the chemical attack in Ghouta, but I sure as hell know that it’s not obvious that he did. I’m just asking for journalists to do their job and actually look at the evidence instead of uncritically accepting everything Western governments say about what is going on in Syria. Given the history of the past few decades, to say nothing of what happened before that, it’s not as if the governments in question were particularly credible… Unfortunately, although I have focused on the attack in Ghouta, this is hardly the only example in which the media has demonstrated a recklessness that borders on criminal. I have already mentioned above the case of the White Helmets, but I could also have talked about the case of the Caesar Photos or the way in which the recent UN investigation about the attack on the humanitarian convoy near Aleppo last year was reported.
If I spent so much time on the attack in Ghouta, it’s because of the obvious similarities between this case and the attack which took place this week in Khan Sheikhoun. As in the case of the attack in Ghouta, people are jumping to conclusions and immediately accusing the regime, even though we clearly are not in a position to know what happened yet. Again, I’m not saying that Assad isn’t responsible, only that it’s too early to tell. It’s all the more important not to rush to judgment that the stakes have never been so high. Since the attack, everyone is screaming for war, which was already the case in 2013 after the attack in Ghouta. But this time the situation is even more dangerous, because Russia has now a very strong military presence in Syria. If the US intervenes against Assad, it’s very likely that it will result in a war with Russia, because it’s hard to see what else could happen. People need to think about that before they believe everything they read in the press or hear on television. A war between the US and Russia could potentially be a major disaster. (A military intervention against Syria would also be illegal, but who cares about that…) Surely we can wait a little until we have more evidence before we decide what happened in Khan Sheikhoun earlier this week.
In August 2013, a military intervention in Syria was barely averted, because Obama decided at the last minute to accept Putin’s offer to jointly supervise the dismantling of the Syrian chemical arsenal with Russia. At the time, Trump had urged him not to intervene, but unfortunately his recent statement about the chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun suggests that he might have changed his mind. One of the benefits that some, including yours truly, hoped would result from Trump’s election was that he seemed to oppose the neoconservative/liberal interventionist foreign policy. Indeed, as I mentioned above, before the attack, his administration had just abandoned the longstanding policy of demanding that Assad step down before any negotiation about the future of Syria begins. Although this drove people in the establishment crazy, because it would have been the end of their dreams of regime change in Syria, it was a very good thing since that’s the only realistic option to end the bloodbath.
However, as I plan to discuss when I have some time, despite this and a few other good signs, several recent developments suggest that Washington’s foreign policy establishment is back in charge and that it will be able to manipulate Trump into doing what they want him to do. Indeed, his reaction to the attack in Khan Sheikhoun is a case in point, since he showed exactly the same rush to judgment as Kerry in 2013 after the attack in Ghouta. We may be on the verge of a major disaster and, instead of warning against a war in Syria, the media is congratulating Trump for his change of attitude. We can only hope that he changes his mind again after he reads intelligence reports about the attack, but I’m not holding my breath… Unfortunately, the truth is that, although he often has good instincts about foreign policy, Trump is a clown who is probably far too clueless not to do what the establishment wants him to do, at least in the current situation.
Although ultimately the responsibility for whatever happens will rest with him, many of his opponents will also bear a large responsibility and, if Trump decides to get rid of Assad, I hope this will not be forgotten, although I know it will. Indeed, if the establishment is back in charge, it is largely because Trump’s opponents took seriously the ridiculous allegations to the effect that he colluded with Russia, despite the total absence of evidence. They think they are being smart, but they only are the useful idiots of the lunatics who control Washington’s foreign policy establishment, who are using them to get rid of everyone around Trump who isn’t on board with the program. But this is a story for another time and, for the moment, I only want to urge people to look at the evidence more closely and read the press critically, because if they don’t a lot of people are probably going to die. If you are a US citizen, please call your Representative/Senator and tell him or her that you don’t want the US to go to war with Syria. And please think about what I explained in this post before you share propaganda on social media.