The Collapsing Syria-Sarin Case

From the Archive: At the first anniversary of the Sarin gas attack outside Damascus on Aug. 21, there is a concerted effort to reestablish the original conventional wisdom, blaming the Syrian government for the hundreds of deaths. The goal seems to be to bury  the alternative narrative that later emerged, as Robert Parry wrote last April.

By Robert Parry April 7, 2014

One shouldn’t be surprised, I guess, that some wannabe-journalist bloggers are auditioning before possible mainstream employers by attacking investigative journalist Seymour M. Hersh for writing a groundbreaking article implicating Syrian jihadist rebels and Turkish intelligence in the lethal use of Sarin on Aug. 21 outside Damascus.

From a sampling of these defenses of Official Washington’s old conventional wisdom – blaming the Syrian government – the chief attack line against Hersh is to repeat the initial U.S. government claim of a widespread strike involving multiple rockets.

The controversial map developed by Human Rights Watch and embraced by the New York Times, supposedly showing the flight paths of two missiles from the Aug. 21 Sarin attack intersecting at a Syrian military base.

The controversial map developed by Human Rights Watch and embraced by the New York Times, supposedly showing the flight paths of two missiles from the Aug. 21 Sarin attack intersecting at a Syrian military base.

The thinking then was that only the Syrian government had the capability to launch such a widespread assault. But this claim is outdated. The United Nations inspectors who fanned out across the Ghouta suburb of Damascus recovered only two suspicious rockets – and one was found to be clean of Sarin or any other chemical agent.

The one Sarin-laden rocket, which struck in the Zamalka/Ein Tarma neighborhood, was found to be crudely made and had a maximum range of about 2 to 3 kilometers, meaning that it would have been launched from rebel-controlled areas, not from a government zone.

But conventional wisdom is a difficult thing to shake once many “very important people” have embraced its certainties. Such VIPs don’t like to admit that they were suckered and there are always some aspiring operatives who hope to earn some brownie points by attacking anyone who deviates from the “group think.”

That’s what we’re seeing now as the Obama administration’s case against the Syrian government collapses, not that it was ever very sturdy. There is desperation across Official Washington to try to prop the old narrative back up.

The flimsiness of the administration’s indictment was always apparent. The U.S. “Government Assessment” of the attack, published Aug. 30, was a four-page white paper making unsubstantiated allegations against the Syrian government. No verifiable evidence was presented either then or since then.

The point of the “Government Assessment” itself was to avoid the standard requirement of a National Intelligence Estimate (or a quicker Special National Intelligence Estimate) preceding a U.S. military assault on a sovereign country. NIEs represent the consensus view of the 16 intelligence agencies. NIEs also require inclusion of footnotes revealing any dissents.

I was told at the time that there was substantial concern within the U.S. intelligence community that we were witnessing another rush to judgment. Yet, to keep those doubts secret, the Obama administration cobbled together this new creation, a “Government Assessment,” that left out the dissents.

The small package of material released on Aug. 30 did, however, include one significant footnote attached to a map and offering an explanation for why there may have been an initial belief of a more widespread attack.

The footnote read: “Reports of chemical attacks originating from some locations may reflect the movement of patients exposed in one neighborhood to field hospitals and medical facilities in the surrounding area. They may also reflect confusion and panic triggered by the ongoing artillery and rocket barrage, and reports of chemical use in other neighborhoods.”

In other words, even the White House’s white-washing white paper offered a contradictory explanation to what the administration was claiming about the number of neighborhoods struck by the chemical attack of Aug. 21, i.e., victims from one location may have rushed to clinics in other neighborhoods, creating the false impression of a more widespread attack.

More significantly, however, the four-page “Government Assessment” of the case against the Syrian government contained not a single piece of evidence that could be checked independently. It was filled with “we assess” this and “we assess” that. To this day, the Obama administration has not released a shred of evidence that could be examined and evaluated.

Instead, the propaganda approach has been the old tactic of repeating an unproven assertion again and again, knowing that if a charge is declared with sufficient certitude often enough, the weak-minded will simply begin treating it as accepted wisdom. That’s especially easy when the target of the accusations has been thoroughly demonized as is the case with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The ‘Vector Analysis’

The only publicly available evidence implicating the Syrian government was a “vector analysis” produced by Human Rights Watch and the New York Times retracing the flight paths of the two recovered rockets to where their azimuths intersected 9.5 kilometers away at a Syrian military base.

When this analysis was touted last September – including a front-page story in the Times – it was considered the “slam-dunk” proof of the Syrian government’s guilt. Pretty much everyone in the U.S. news media, including many ambitious bloggers, climbed onto the bandwagon and laughed at anyone who wasn’t onboard.

However, the “vector analysis” soon fell apart. First, the rocket that struck Moadamiya, south of Damascus, had clipped a building on the way down so the UN calculation of its azimuth was highly unreliable. Plus, the rocket was found to contain no Sarin, making its inclusion in the vectoring of two Sarin-laden rockets nonsensical.

Even more devastating to the HRW-NYT analysis was the fact that when leading rocket scientists analyzed the capabilities of the home-made device that landed in Zamalka, they concluded that it had a maximum range of about 2 to 3 kilometers, less than one-third the required distance. U.S. intelligence experts, such as former CIA analyst Larry Johnson, also noted that the two recovered rockets were not part of the Syrian military’s Order of Battle.

With the “vector analysis” discredited, the New York Times then waited until the Christmas holidays to grudgingly acknowledge – deep in a story, deep inside the paper – that it had been snookered again, an embarrassing replay of its infamous “mushroom cloud” report in 2002 on Iraq’s “aluminum tubes” supposedly showing that Saddam Hussein was building nuclear centrifuges. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “NYT Backs Off its Syria-Sarin Analysis.”]

Junk Heap of Bad Evidence

So, with the “slam-dunk evidence” of the “vector analysis” consigned to the giant junk heap of false claims used to justify wars, what was left to support the U.S. government’s indictment of the Syrian regime? Nothing that could be checked out and verified. That, in turn, has left the bloggers defending the Assad-did-it charge recycling old claims that have previously been discarded, such as the notion of multiple rockets carrying Sarin.

Despite the glaring weaknesses of the U.S. government’s case, these blogosphere defenders of the old conventional wisdom are dissecting Hersh’s exposé looking for tiny points to criticize rather than joining in a demand that the Obama administration finally lay whatever evidence it thinks it has on the table.

Nearly 4,500 U.S. soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died because of false and fabricated intelligence disseminated about Iraqi WMD in 2002-03. Yet, almost no one in Official Washington was held accountable.

A decade later, the process came very close to repeating itself. The United States nearly went to war again on what was highly dubious information. If the U.S. political/media establishment is so inept at dealing with reality in such life-or-death situations, a major overhaul of the system is desperately needed.

There are other dangerous implications from Hersh’s article, including the possibility that Syrian jihadists in the Nusra Front with close ties to al-Qaeda have developed the capability to manufacture and deploy Sarin, a powerful chemical weapon that can kill hundreds of people in a matter of minutes.

If that is the case, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry owe it to the public to recant their rush to judgment of last summer and refocus U.S. intelligence on this clear and present danger. Sure, it’s not what Obama and Kerry want to do – admit they misled the people about the certainty of the U.S. government’s case against Assad – but they have a responsibility to put their egos aside and assess what is possibly an actual terrorist threat.

Despite his role in deceiving the world, President Obama does deserve some credit for veering away from another catastrophe at the last moment. Obama accepted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plan to have Syria’s government surrender all its chemical weapons, even as Assad continued to deny a role in the Aug. 21 attack.

But the mystery of who gassed the Ghouta suburb of Damascus – killing hundreds of people – is one that deserves a serious examination. If – as Sy Hersh reports – the U.S. government has evidence revealing collaboration between radical jihadists in Syria and Turkish intelligence, that should be revealed regardless of the political discomfort it might cause.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon andbarnesandnoble.com). For a limited time, you also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.

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13 comments on “The Collapsing Syria-Sarin Case

  1. Brendan on said:

    Even at the time of the Sarin attack it was hard to believe that the Syrian regime was responsible, because it seemed designed to provoke a quick military response from powerful enemies.

    Only a week earlier Assad had agreed to allow the OPCW chemical weapons inspectors into Syria, and the attack was carried out only a few kilometers from their hotel in Damascus.

    It was also carried out one year and one day after Obama’s famous “red line” speech, so there would have been some awareness among many people that the use of chemical weapons was unacceptable.

    • When this Chemical Attack happened, my heart grieved. Everyone was blaming Pres. Assad except for Russia. US had instant conclusion that it was Pres. Assad regime who did the attack. US was planning even to attack Syria without due process of investigations. Thanks God they didn’t. Putin didn’t believe that it was Assad’s regime who did that chemical attack, and he was right.
      I had a second thought though that the rebels might have done it to attract the West’s sympathy. Because of evil thoughts, people can even sacrifice to kill their own community to gain the West’s attention. I just read that a rebel named Abu Ayesh provided the chemical but the rebels were not trained to do it.
      I believe too that the rebels were the ones who sent missile to Turkey to include them in their war against Pres. Assad.
      God Bless the world.

      • The fact that Putin denied that Assad was responsible for the chemical attack is in and of itself evidence that Assad was responsible.

        • Candide on said:

          Anyone who cares about honest interpretation of evidence can check out the physics and the distances and the characteristics of the delivery rocket in the analysis by MIT’s Theodore Postol and former UN weapons inspector Richard Lloyd. Citation and download link follows:
          Richard Lloyd and Theodore A. Postol, “Possible Implications of Faulty US Technical Intelligence in the Damascus Nerve Agent Attack of August 21, 2013,” MIT Science, Technology, and Global Security Working Group,” January 14, 2014, https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/1006045-possible-implications-of-bad-intelligence.html.

  2. ISIS fighters seized the Al Muthanna complex northwest of Baghdad in mid-June 2014. Al Muthanna was Saddam Hussein’s premier chemical weapons research, development, and storage facility. According to a CIA https://www.cia.gov/library/reports/general-reports-1/iraq_wmd_2004/chap5_annxB.html report, degraded materials stored in sealed bunkers at the site “pose a hazard to civilians.” The Al Muthanna stockpile could be used to create improvised weapons. ISIS’ possession of the stockpile also could provide cover for staged provocations in Iraq, Syria or Iran executed with chemicals directly provided by ISIS backers: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Turkey, Israel or the US.

  3. Brendan on said:

    Information last year from the Russians suggests the possibility that the Soviet-made Sarin gas rockets came from Libya. This would fit in with Seymour Hersh’s story this year about a US sponsored rat line of weapons from Libya through Turkey to Syrian rebels.
    http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/gas-missiles-were-not-sold-to-syria-8831792.html

  4. Evangelista on said:

    And today the U.S. Govermnent, and European Union Allies, with Mainstream Media complicity, again, appears to be trying the same Propaganda Pageant Press in the Ukraine situation. They began with too sure and certain assertions of “enemy” involvements and Russian orchestrations and manipulations, and have continued those, with no legitimate evidences, only repetitions and reassertions supported only with fanatic zeal and self-assumed authority. And, of course, equivocation, or silence and mumble-babble where equivocation is impossible. The samein the Crimean situation, with misrepresentations, and those stuck to even when patently wrong. And the same again in the events of the eastern breakaway and the Kiev coup-government’s mock-plebescite (since there was no representation of eastern voters), or post-plebescite artillary assault and hostile invasion, instead of an attempt to politically re-combine the parts of the nation, as would be in character of western government (democratic) practices. In these, again, the U.S. administration, and EU, engaged in word-propaganda while ignoring the hypocritical positions the words they used were putting them into. And again in the Malaysian airliner incident, where the evidences and motivations both point toward perpetrators associated with the Kiev government, and again in the recent assault on busses of refugees, first pretended to have been a “military convoy” (which the legitimate evidences indicate probably shot up by Right Sector paramilitaries, because the refugees were ethnically Russian). And, ongoing right now, the Russian ‘humanitarian relief’ convoy, that seems to be what it says it is, but which western Mainstream Media, and politicians, have gone overboard attempting to paint sinister.

    An element that makes the current Ukraine case intriguing is the indication, given in the manners of the Russian officials in asking for U.S. satellite image information release that appears to indicate they knew such was available, and what it would/will, contain. The situation is one that is worth watching for amusement as it develops. Especially in consideration of “Russian winter” approaching, and the historical Russian proclivity to let Winter “fight” for them, or to use winter as a tactic. I can foresee winter 2014-15 being an embarassing and difficult winter for the U.S., and for Europe, especially.

  5. Hillary on said:

    “They began with too sure and certain assertions of “enemy” involvements and Russian orchestrations and manipulations, and have continued those, with no legitimate evidences, only repetitions and reassertions supported only with fanatic zeal and self-assumed authority. ”
    Evangelista on August 20, 2014 at 8:25 pm

    Well said Evangelista the M.O. of the US Administration Republican or Democratic seems to be just as you stated..
    They know almost immediately and the public with faith in the “system” believes like any “lynch mob” would.
    When will thinking people get a response to Colin Powell’s Iraq WMD claim so shamelessly stated to the world at the United Nations ?
    Have these people no shame ?
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I23I7Yld7mc

  6. Don’t forget that Israel has hired an army of propagandists to saturate MSM and the comment boards with what appears to be support for the propaganda. They are paid “cash grants” to post the Zionist lies and make it appear to most citizens that there is a public that does support the obvious lies.

    This site is one of the few with discerning readers. Keep it up and PLEASE go on MSM comment boards to call these paid foreigners what they are…liars supporting killers and warmongers seeking personal gain (at US citizens expense).

  7. NPR radio story now says (Thursday 8/21/14) the UN determined it was the fault of the Assad government after all. They are beating the drums against Assad although recognizing that he gave up his chem weapons immediately after the attack. But I do not remember the UN ever saying that Assad’s regime was to blame. Did I miss a later story?