Exclusive: In the mainstream U.S. news media, the bomb-Syria debate is focusing on how the politics might play out and what may happen after the expected U.S. missile strike, having brushed past lingering doubts about the sketchy intelligence regarding the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack, as Lisa Pease explains.
By Lisa Pease
Most people are rightly incensed over what appears to have been gruesome chemical weapons attacks in Syria. No one questions that the current regime’s crackdown on dissidents has been obscenely violent. No one questions the brutality of the Syrian ruling family over multiple generations. But the evidence is far from conclusive that the recent chemical weapon attacks were ordered by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In fact, there is evidence that the attacks did not, as John Kerry and the State Department’s press release have stated, originate solely in government controlled areas. President Assad has been quite vocal saying his government did not deploy the chemical weapons used in the recent attack and that the U.S. has no evidence that they did.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government released an intelligence assessment, asserting, without evidence anyone can independently verify, that there is “high confidence that the Syrian government carried out the chemical weapons attack against opposition elements….”
The assessment admits that “high confidence” is not, in fact, confirmation, which is disturbing when you realize this assessment has been presented as a justification for engaging in an act of war against Syria. “High confidence” is a low bar when so many lives are at stake in a powder keg of a situation.
Gareth Porter masterfully dissects the slippery wording of this intelligence assessment at Truthout and concludes it is a deliberately deceitful document. So whodunit? Was it Assad or the rebels that used chemical weapons?
The UK’s Telegraph reports that “The Khan al-Assal attack hit an area under regime control and killed a number of regime soldiers at a checkpoint. The regime and Russia blamed Syrian rebels but western intelligence said it was more likely to have been a regime attack that went wrong.”
Read that again. A chemical attack hit a regime-controlled area. And western intelligence doesn’t deny that. Western intelligence does, however, try to explain it away as a simple mistake. But it’s hard to believe that, given the seriousness of chemical weapons, and the training troops go through to use them properly.
And why, given that Assad’s power has been on the rise of late, would he do such a thing, which was nearly guaranteed to bring American intervention, something that could only help the rebels?
It’s easier to believe, because it’s more logical, that the rebels used chemical weapons hoping that this would give western nations a pretext under which to bomb the Assad forces, strengthening the rebels’ position.
Mint Press News, a website in Minnesota, claimed the chemical weapons were used by the rebels who didn’t know or understand what they were. The site is currently down (and curiously so, as I was there many times over the last several days), so I am quoting a summary of it from GlobalResearch:
“The group Doctors Without Borders went to the town of Ghouta, where more than 350 people were killed as a result of the chemical attack. After interviewing ‘numerous … doctors, Ghouta residents, rebel fighters and their families,’ the group obtained testimony that the attack was a result of mismanagement and ignorance on the part of the rebels, who didn’t realize that they had chemical weapons.
“’My son came to me two weeks ago asking what I thought the weapons were that he had been asked to carry,’ the Mint Press quotes Abu Abdel-Moneim, the father of a rebel who was killed in a tunnel during the chemical attack.
“Some of the weapons had a ‘tube-like structure,’ and others resembled a ‘huge glass bottle,’ Abdel-Moneim said.”
Robert Parry noted recently in “A Dodgy Dossier on Syrian War” that a sidebar in the New York Times included this provocative sentence: “Evidence from videos and witnesses suggested that the toxic substances in last week’s attack were delivered by improvised tube-launched missiles that could be used by smaller, more mobile units than were thought to be needed for chemical weapons.”
In other words, rebels could easily have had, and likely did have, chemical weapons that they were capable of using.
In Gareth Porter’s Truthout article, Porter also quotes from some chemical weapons experts who have doubts that the chemical weapons attacks were as purported, for a number of scientific reasons: vomiting is a universal sign of a chemical weapons attack, yet there is little evidence of vomit on the floor or on the clothes of the victims in the videos that have been released.
The medical people treating the victims are not using protective clothing yet they do not appear to be getting sick. (Porter notes that the Syrian rebels and their Washington, D.C., spokesman said that at least six doctors had died, but there is no evidence to support this in his article.)
Doctors Without Borders reported that 3,600 people had been treated for chemical weapon exposure but that only 355 had died. A chemical weapons forensics expert from the U.K. told Truthout that the “proportions were all wrong” and that “there should be more dead people” in ratio to the survivors.
In a normal chemical weapons attack, you’d have more left dead than alive. Some experts have suggested this indicated a diluted chemical attack, but that notion too was disputed.
I’m willing to believe that chemical weapons of some sort were used. But I’m not at all convinced that we yet know “whodunit.” Neither is FAIR’s Jim Naureckas, who wrote an excellent piece comparing the Mint Press News’ account with the government’s intelligence assessment and found the Mint Press News story more credible.
And I am more than “war weary,” the term Obama used when pressed last week to decide what to do about Syria. I am “lie weary,” too. I remember how an intelligence asset codenamed Curveball gave us all kinds of false intelligence on Iraq to get us to go to war there.
I remember how Secretary of State Colin Powell, President George W. Bush and others assured us Saddam Hussein had Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and was about to use them. I remember how we were told how Iraq was buying uranium yellowcake from Niger – fuel which could be enriched to produce plutonium. I remember how not one of these claims proved true.
I remember being told Iran-Contra was a wild conspiracy theory until Eugene Hasenfus fell from the sky. I remember being told Watergate was just a “third-rate burglary.” I remember being told that Lee Harvey Oswald alone killed President John F. Kennedy by firing a rifle that miraculously left no nitrate on his cheek (a feat unachievable by FBI agents who tried to repeat it).
Lies, all of them. I am lie weary.
So my internal lie detector really went off in this story when I heard John Kerry tell us not to wait for what the UN might find. Their mandate, he reminded us over and over, was not to tell us who had used the chemical weapons, but only to prove such weapons had been used. It was almost like he was saying, “and don’t listen to the UN if they do name a suspect.”
Why was Kerry so insistent on this point? Probably because, as Graham Noble reported in an editorial in the Las Vegas Guardian Express, in an earlier chemical attack back in May, which the West initially reported as the work of Assad, a UN weapons inspector named Carla del Ponte told a Swiss television audience “that there were ‘strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof,’ that rebels had carried out the attack. She also said UN investigators had seen no evidence of the Syrian army using chemical weapons, but that further investigation was needed.”
In an update to the original piece, Noble noted, “The chemical attack earlier this year was widely blamed on the Syrian regime. It is this attack that the UN now concludes was carried out by Syrian rebels. It appears unlikely – for a number of reasons – that the most recent August 21st attack was carried out by government forces – despite the rush to judgment within the international community – although this has yet to be fully determined.”
I think it’s not only possible but plausible that the rebels used chemical weapons to frame the Syrian government in an effort to draw the West into the Syrian conflict. Even CBS and NPR challenged the administration’s assertions that Assad’s regime was the perpetrator of this crime, and neither CBS nor NPR has a history of challenging the government in such matters.
Beyond the moral issue of taking a stand against chemical weapons, which rings hollow in light of the CIA’s support for Saddam Hussein’s gassing of Iran and the U.S.’s use of white phosphorus in Iraq, what is our real interest in Syria?
After years of studying a number of Cold War conflicts, I’ve come to understand that Communism, Terrorism, and ironically, “humanitarian concerns” have been the excuses for wars, not the reasons for them.
When we engaged in the conflict in Kosovo, we were told that we were there to protect the Albanians from the Serbians, and that the persistent rumor that the conflict was about a pipeline was just a crazy conspiracy theory. But that pipeline is now in the works.
When we sent troops to Somalia on a “humanitarian mission,” Mark Fineman trumpeted in the Los Angeles Times how the mission was more about securing oil for four American petroleum companies than for any humanitarian concerns.
And while Syria, like Somalia and unlike Kosovo, does have oil, it is more important as the pipeline route connecting Iraq and Iran to Europe through Turkey. In this piece for The Guardian, Dr. Nafeez Ahmed lays out the oil politics underlying the current conflict in Syria. This conflict determines whether oil and gas piped across Syria comes from Western-backed interests in Qatar and Saudi Arabia or from “axis of evil” interests in Iran and its new ally, Iraq.
I think Obama did not want to go to war, so he took a lesson from the UK’s stunning MP defeat of the Prime Minister’s call to attack Syria. I think Obama secretly wants Congress to reject him. I think he’d rather appear weak than take us to war under false pretenses.
For the first time, I think Obama responded to this crisis in a positively Kennedy-esque manner. When President John F. Kennedy was faced with the choice of looking weak or taking us into a conflict we had no right to win, twice – at the Bay of Pigs and again during the Cuban Missile Crisis – Kennedy rejected escalation and chose to withdraw. He would have done it a third time in Vietnam, a point on which the record is now exceedingly clear, had he lived to serve a second term.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we saw George W. Bush take us to war in Iraq, a country whose people had never attacked us, based on false evidence. That was the most heinous act this country has committed in my lifetime.
Obama didn’t abdicate responsibility by asking Congress to share in the decision that could embroil us in another conflict for years to come. Obama was returning us to the possibility of the government “of the people, by the people and for the people” that President Lincoln envisioned. Either we should enter such conflicts together, as one country, or we should not enter them at all.
Given the questionability of the intelligence provided, and the likelihood that we cannot effect real change in Syria without a massive intervention, I think Obama made exactly the right call.
Lisa Pease is a writer who has examined issues ranging from the Kennedy assassination to voting irregularities in recent U.S. elections.