Exclusive: Syrian peace talks have finally begun, but many powerful interests – including U.S. neocons – are determined to see the talks fail. The Washington Post’s neocon editorial page is urging President Obama to give up on “feckless diplomacy” and threaten war, writes Robert Parry.
By Robert Parry
The Washington Post’s neoconservative editorial page is still beating the drums for U.S. military intervention in Syria, but its latest demand for violent reprisals against the Syrian government dropped a key element in the previous propaganda campaign: the claim that President Bashar al-Assad had “gassed his own people.”
Without admitting that those earlier Sarin gas allegations have fallen apart, the Post editors simply moved on to new accusations — that the Syrian government tortured thousands of captives who were subsequently killed. Those claims came from an anonymous “defector” who claims he took photographs to document the deaths and then turned the images over to the anti-Assad government of Qatar.
Of course, the Post editors treat the new allegations as flat fact, much as they did with earlier charges against the Syrian regime – and with the Bush-43 administration’s claims in 2002-03 that Iraq was hiding stockpiles of WMD. The Post was catastrophically wrong in the Iraq case, but none of those top editors lost their jobs over the fiasco. Instead, they’re still around treating the new Syrian accusations with the same lack of professional skepticism that they displayed regarding Iraq.
But what’s interesting about the Post’s editorial on Thursday calling for the Obama administration to threaten a U.S. military assault if the Assad regime doesn’t comply with U.S. government demands is that the editorial makes no direct reference to the Sarin gas attack that killed hundreds of Syrians on Aug. 21.
Last summer, the Obama administration and the mainstream U.S. news media blamed that Sarin attack on the Syrian government with the same certitude and outrage as we’re now seeing over the “torture photos.”
Indeed, the conventional wisdom over the Sarin attack very nearly led to a U.S. military bombardment. The rush to judgment was spurred on by Human Rights Watch, which had been pushing for a U.S. intervention, and the New York Times, when they jointly concluded that a vectoring of the reverse flight paths of the two rockets involved in the attack tracked back 9.5 kilometers and intersected at an elite Syrian military base near Assad’s Presidential Palace.
Despite this supposedly conclusive “proof,” a U.S. attack was headed off by a mix of U.S. public opposition, President Barack Obama’s willingness to test out a diplomatic alternative, and Assad’s agreement to surrender his chemical weapons (while still denying a role in the Aug. 21 attack).
Recently, however, the certitude about the Assad government’s responsibility for the Sarin attack has collapsed. First, the Obama administration refused to release any of the evidence that it claimed to possess that would have supported its claims that the rockets were launched from government-controlled areas.
Second, the UN inspectors determined that one of the two rockets – the one that landed in Moadamiya, south of Damascus – contained no Sarin. The rocket also clipped a building in its descent, making any calculation of its flight path unreliable.
Third, when UN inspectors and independent rocket experts studied the one Sarin-laden rocket that struck Zamalka, east of Damascus, they concluded that its maximum range was only about two kilometers, meaning that the HRW/NYT analysis was impossible, a reality that the Times only grudgingly acknowledged last month.
The two-kilometer range also meant that the rocket could not have come for any territory under the Syrian government’s control, based on a U.S. government map released on Aug. 30. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Mistaken Guns of Last August.”]
But the Washington Post editors didn’t bother to inform their readers about the collapse of this earlier propaganda theme that nearly justified a U.S. war against the Syrian government. In Thursday’s editorial, the Aug. 21 allegations vanish, replaced by the “torture photos” and other accusations of human rights violations.
Of course, it is certainly believable that the Syrian government did engage in torture and murder of Islamic militants and other rebels captured during the current civil war. A decade ago, George W. Bush’s administration relied upon the Syrian government and other authoritarian Arab states to torture U.S. detainees in the “war on terror.” Some of them also died in captivity.
So, it wouldn’t be beyond belief that Syrian officials have continued to deploy similar techniques against their domestic “terrorists” and jihadists flocking to Syria from other Muslim lands. But that doesn’t mean the photos provided by a “defector” to the government of Qatar, which is actively supporting the anti-Assad militants, should be accepted at face value.
During the run-up to the war in Iraq, at least 18 Iraqi “defectors” – many managed by the neocon-allied Iraqi National Congress – provided detailed allegations about the Iraqi government’s WMD stockpiles and Iraq’s collaboration with al-Qaeda. Though the claims were widely promoted by the Bush administration and gullibly accepted by most of the mainstream U.S. press, they all turned out to be false. [For details, see Neck Deep.]
If the Washington Post’s editorial-page editor Fred Hiatt learned anything from the disastrous Iraq War, it should have been to treat “defector” claims with many grains of salt. But it’s probably a safe bet that Hiatt and his fellow neocon opinion-shapers are not really interested in applying the normal skepticism of professional journalism. They’re looking more toward advancing the neocon agenda.
The Post’s only reference to the discredited accusations blaming the Aug. 21 Sarin attack on the Syrian government is implicit, mentioning how Obama’s threat of a military strike had gotten the Assad regime to surrender its chemical weapons. So, the Post argues, Obama should forsake the current Syrian peace talks — what the editorial calls “feckless diplomacy” — and go back to the well of making more military threats to enforce new demands:
“President Obama demonstrated last year that the credible threat of force could change the regime’s behavior. His promise of airstrikes caused Mr. Assad to surrender an arsenal of chemical weapons. Yet the president seems not to have learned the lesson of that episode.
“Now he makes the defeatist argument that, as he put it to David Remnick of the New Yorker, ‘It is very difficult to imagine a scenario in which our involvement in Syria would have led to a better outcome, short of us being willing to undertake an effort in size and scope similar to what we did in Iraq.’ In fact, Mr. Obama probably could force the measures [demanding more concessions] by presenting Mr. Assad with the choice of accepting them or enduring U.S. airstrikes.”
The problem with the Post’s threat of a military attack is that President Obama would have to be ready to carry it out if Assad did not comply with the new U.S. demands. But that may well be what the Post’s neocon editors really desire, another war against another Arab nation.[For more details on the Syrian-Sarin issue, see Consortiumnews.com’s “NYT Replays Its Iraq Fiasco in Syria.” For our early reporting on the Syrian chemical weapons attack, see: “A Dodgy Dossier on Syrian War”; “Murky Clues From UN’s Syria Report”; “Obama Still Withholds Syria Evidence”; “How US Pressure Bends UN Agencies”; “Fixing Intel Around the Syria Policy.”]
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 and barnesandnoble.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.