Was Turkey Behind Syria Sarin Attack?

From the Archive: As Washington pundits again demand Syrian President Assad’s ouster, a top talking point is that he “gassed his own people” in a Sarin attack in 2013. But that rush to judgment was picked apart by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh and others, as Robert Parry reported in spring 2014.

By Robert Parry (First published on April 6, 2014)

In late August 2013, the Obama administration lurched to the brink of invading Syria after blaming a Sarin gas attack outside Damascus on President Bashar al-Assad’s government, but evidence reported by investigative journalist Seymour M. Hersh implicates Turkish intelligence and extremist Syrian rebels instead.

The significance of Hersh’s report is twofold: first, it shows how Official Washington’s hawks and neocons almost stampeded the United States into another Mideast war under false pretenses, and second, the story’s publication in the London Review of Books reveals how hostile the mainstream U.S. media remains toward information that doesn’t comport with its neocon-dominated conventional wisdom.

President Barack Obama speaking to the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 24, 2013. (UN photo)

President Barack Obama speaking to the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 24, 2013. (UN photo)

In other words, it appears that Official Washington and its mainstream press have absorbed few lessons from the disastrous Iraq War, which was launched in 2003 under the false claim that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was planning to share hidden stockpiles of WMD with al-Qaeda, when there was no WMD nor any association between Hussein and al-Qaeda.

A decade later in August and September 2013, as a new war hysteria broke out over Assad allegedly crossing President Barack Obama’s “red line” against using chemical weapons, it fell to a few Internet sites, including our own Consortiumnews.com, to raise questions about the administration’s allegations that pinned the Aug. 21 attack on the Syrian government.

Not only did the U.S. government fail to provide a single piece of verifiable evidence to support its claims, a much-touted “vector analysis” by Human Rights Watch and The New York Times supposedly tracing the flight paths of two rockets back to a Syrian military base northwest of Damascus collapsed when it became clear that only one rocket carried Sarin and its range was less than one-third the distance between the army base and the point of impact. That meant the rocket carrying the Sarin appeared to have originated in rebel territory.

There were other reasons to doubt the Obama administration’s casus belli, including the irrationality of Assad ordering a chemical weapons strike outside Damascus just as United Nations inspectors were unpacking at a local hotel with plans to investigate an earlier attack that the Syrian government blamed on the rebels.

Assad would have known that a chemical attack would have diverted the inspectors (as it did) and would force President Obama to declare that his “red line” had been crossed, possibly prompting a massive U.S. retaliatory strike (as it almost did).

Plans for War

Hersh’s article describes how devastating the U.S. aerial bombardment was supposed to be, seeking to destroy Assad’s military capability, which, in turn, could have cleared the way to victory for the Syrian rebels, whose fortunes had been declining.

Hersh wrote: “Under White House pressure, the US attack plan evolved into ‘a monster strike’: two wings of B-52 bombers were shifted to airbases close to Syria, and navy submarines and ships equipped with Tomahawk missiles were deployed.

“‘Every day the target list was getting longer,’ the former intelligence official told me. ‘The Pentagon planners said we can’t use only Tomahawks to strike at Syria’s missile sites because their warheads are buried too far below ground, so the two B-52 air wings with two-thousand pound bombs were assigned to the mission. Then we’ll need standby search-and-rescue teams to recover downed pilots and drones for target selection. It became huge.’

“The new target list was meant to ‘completely eradicate any military capabilities Assad had’, the former intelligence official said. The core targets included electric power grids, oil and gas depots, all known logistic and weapons depots, all known command and control facilities, and all known military and intelligence buildings.”

According to Hersh, the administration’s war plans were disrupted by U.S. and British intelligence analysts who uncovered evidence that the Sarin was likely not released by the Assad government and indications that Turkey’s intelligence services may have collaborated with radical rebels to deploy the Sarin as a false-flag operation.

Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep ErdoÄŸan sided with the Syrian opposition early in the civil conflict and provided a vital supply line to the al-Nusra Front, a violent group of Sunni extremists with ties to al-Qaeda and increasingly the dominant rebel fighting force. By 2012, however, internecine conflicts among rebel factions had contributed to Assad’s forces gaining the upper hand.

The role of Islamic radicals and the fear that advanced U.S. weapons might end up in the hands of al-Qaeda terrorists unnerved President Obama who pulled back on U.S. covert support for the rebels. That frustrated ErdoÄŸan who pressed Obama to expand U.S. involvement, according to Hersh’s account.

Hersh wrote: “By the end of 2012, it was believed throughout the American intelligence community that the rebels were losing the war. ‘ErdoÄŸan was pissed,’ the former intelligence official said, ‘and felt he was left hanging on the vine. It was his money and the [U.S] cut-off was seen as a betrayal.’”

‘Red Line’ Worries

Recognizing Obama’s political sensitivity over his “red line” pledge, the Turkish government and Syrian rebels saw chemical weapons as the way to force the President’s hand, Hersh reported, writing:

“In spring 2013 US intelligence learned that the Turkish government through elements of the MIT, its national intelligence agency, and the Gendarmerie, a militarised law-enforcement organisation was working directly with al-Nusra and its allies to develop a chemical warfare capability.

“‘The MIT was running the political liaison with the rebels, and the Gendarmerie handled military logistics, on-the-scene advice and training including training in chemical warfare,’ the former intelligence official said. ‘Stepping up Turkey’s role in spring 2013 was seen as the key to its problems there. ErdoÄŸan knew that if he stopped his support of the jihadists it would be all over. The Saudis could not support the war because of logistics the distances involved and the difficulty of moving weapons and supplies. ErdoÄŸan’s hope was to instigate an event that would force the US to cross the red line. But Obama didn’t respond [to small chemical weapons attacks] in March and April.’”

The dispute between ErdoÄŸan and Obama came to a head at a White House meeting on May 16, 2013, when ErdoÄŸan unsuccessfully lobbied for a broader U.S. military commitment to the rebels, Hersh reported.

Three months later, in the early hours of Aug. 21, 2013, a mysterious missile delivered a lethal load of Sarin into a suburb east of Damascus. The Obama administration and the mainstream U.S. press corps immediately jumped to the conclusion that the Syrian government had launched the attack, which the U.S. government claimed killed at least “1,429” people although the number of victims cited by doctors and other witnesses on the scene was much lower.

Yet, with the media stampede underway, anyone who questioned the U.S. government’s case was trampled under charges of being an “Assad apologist.” But we few skeptics continued to point out the lack of evidence to support the rush to war. Obama also encountered political resistance in both the British Parliament and U.S. Congress, but hawks in the U.S. State Department were itching for a new war.

Secretary of State John Kerry delivered a bellicose speech on Aug. 30, 2013, amid expectations that the U.S. bombs would start flying within days. But Obama hesitated, first referring the war issue to Congress and later accepting a compromise brokered by Russian President Vladimir Putin to have Assad surrender all of his chemical weapons even as Assad continued denying any role in the Aug. 21 attacks.

Obama took the deal but continued asserting publicly that Assad was guilty and disparaging anyone who thought otherwise. In a formal address to the UN General Assembly on Sept. 24, 2013, Obama declared, “It’s an insult to human reason and to the legitimacy of this institution to suggest that anyone other than the regime carried out this attack.”

Suspicions of Turkey

However, by autumn 2013, U.S. intelligence analysts were among those who had joined in the “insult to human reason” as their doubts about Assad’s guilt grew. Hersh cited an ex-intelligence official saying: “the US intelligence analysts who kept working on the events of 21 August ‘sensed that Syria had not done the gas attack. But the 500 pound gorilla was, how did it happen? The immediate suspect was the Turks, because they had all the pieces to make it happen.’

“As intercepts and other data related to the 21 August attacks were gathered, the intelligence community saw evidence to support its suspicions. ‘We now know it was a covert action planned by ErdoÄŸan’s people to push Obama over the red line,’ the former intelligence official said. ‘They had to escalate to a gas attack in or near Damascus when the UN inspectors’ who arrived in Damascus on 18 August to investigate the earlier use of gas ‘were there. The deal was to do something spectacular.

“‘Our senior military officers have been told by the DIA and other intelligence assets that the sarin was supplied through Turkey that it could only have gotten there with Turkish support. The Turks also provided the training in producing the sarin and handling it.’

“Much of the support for that assessment came from the Turks themselves, via intercepted conversations in the immediate aftermath of the attack. ‘Principal evidence came from the Turkish post-attack joy and back-slapping in numerous intercepts. Operations are always so super-secret in the planning but that all flies out the window when it comes to crowing afterwards. There is no greater vulnerability than in the perpetrators claiming credit for success.’”

According to the thinking of Turkish intelligence, Hersh reported, “ErdoÄŸan’s problems in Syria would soon be over: ‘Off goes the gas and Obama will say red line and America is going to attack Syria, or at least that was the idea. But it did not work out that way.’”

Hersh added that the U.S. intelligence community has been reluctant to pass on to Obama the information contradicting the Assad-did-it scenario. Hersh wrote:

“The post-attack intelligence on Turkey did not make its way to the White House. ‘Nobody wants to talk about all this,’ the former intelligence official told me. ‘There is great reluctance to contradict the president, although no all-source intelligence community analysis supported his leap to convict. There has not been one single piece of additional evidence of Syrian involvement in the sarin attack produced by the White House since the bombing raid was called off. My government can’t say anything because we have acted so irresponsibly. And since we blamed Assad, we can’t go back and blame ErdoÄŸan.’”

Like the bloody U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the near U.S. air war against Syria in 2013 is a cautionary tale for Americans regarding the dangers that result when the U.S. government and mainstream media dance off hand in hand, leaping to conclusions and laughing at doubters.

The key difference between the war in Iraq and the averted war on Syria was that President Obama was not as eager as his predecessor, George W. Bush, to dress himself up as a “war president.” Another factor was that Obama had the timely assistance of Russian President Putin to chart a course that skirted the abyss.

Given how close the U.S. neocons came to maneuvering a reluctant Obama into another “regime change” war on a Mideast adversary of Israel, you can understand why they are so angry with Putin and why they were so eager to hit back at him in Ukraine. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “What Neocons Want from Ukraine Crisis.”]

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com). 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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8 comments for “Was Turkey Behind Syria Sarin Attack?

  1. DonFromWyoming
    September 16, 2015 at 8:03 pm

    Answer: It wasn’t Assad. Turkey? Likely. Sunni crazies? Also likely. We’ll probably never know.

  2. Bernard
    September 16, 2015 at 9:32 pm

    It was worse than Parry says. We almost had WW3 at the end of August 2013. The Russian fleet parked off Syria’s Mediterranean coast was in the direct line of fire, and was ready to fight. Indeed, there are reports that Russian naval fire shot down two US cruise missiles heading for Damascus at the height of the crisis. British intel picked up the real perps (the Turks) very quickly, and the crucial House of Commons vote against war pulled the rug from under the neocons at the critical moment, thank God. That vote was historic: the first time since 1783 (the end of the American War of Independence) that a British Parliament had refused to endorse a government’s decision for war.

  3. MehmetD
    September 16, 2015 at 11:57 pm

    Thank you for reporting on a truth that many are bribed or threatened to death to lie about by the Turkish Government.

    The gas attack on Syrians was a Turkish covert operation to trigger a US attack on the Syrian government, which failed.

    But Turkey’s gas attack on Syrians triggered the civil war in Syria.
    Turkey also got caught on a video sending weapons to ISIS.

    So the main reason to oppose Assad doesn’t exist anymore.

    Assad is also protecting Syrian minorities, Christians, Yezidis… and is helping the Kurds.

    The key to understand all this mess in Syria and Iraq is that Turkey = ISIS

  4. Abe
    September 17, 2015 at 2:38 am

    NATO’s War on Syria Just Got Dirtier
    http://iogsd.blogspot.com/2013/12/natos-war-on-syria-just-got-dirtier.html

    […] months passing without a shred of credible evidence produced, hacks among Western media continue to perpetuate the original narrative. Among these are of course corporate-financier funded think-tanks and propaganda fronts like the Brookings Institution, Foreign Policy Magazine, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), and establishment papers like the Guardian. In the middle of it all is couch-potato self-proclaimed weapons expert, Eliot Higgins, a representation of the West’s propaganda 2.0 campaign.

    UK-based Higgins lost his job and now spends his days combing social media sites for “evidence” he then analyzes and reports on. The Western media, with its propagandists expelled from Syria and many of its “sources” in Syria exposed in humiliating attempts to fabricate and manipulate evidence, quickly picked Higgins up and elevated his armchair blogging to “expert analysis.” Since then, Higgins has joined the already discredited “Syrian Observatory for Human Rights” another UK-based individual, as the basis upon which the West’s Syrian narrative spins.

    The Guardian’s Brian Whitaker, who has maintained a particularly suspicious proximity to Higgins and his work, recently published a startling condemnation of venerated Pulitizer Prize-winning journalist, Seymour Hersh. In a hit piece titled, “Investigating chemical weapons in Syria – Seymour Hersh and Brown Moses go head to head,” “Brown Moses” referring to Eliot Higgins’ alias […] Whitaker is desperately attempting to keep the wheels on the establishment’s new propaganda 2.0 vehicle – manipulating social media, much the way Hersh describes intelligence being manipulated, to create any outcome necessary to bolster a predetermined narrative.

    What he doesn’t address is the fact that Higgins’ work almost entirely depends on videos posted online by people he does not know, who may be misrepresenting who they are, what they are posting, and their motivations for doing so – such is the nature of anonymity on the web and why this evidence alone is useless outside of a larger geopolitical context.

    Both Whitaker and Higgins, who maintain that the Syrian government was behind the attacks, fail to address another glaring reality. A false flag attack is designed to look like the work of one’s enemy. In other words, terrorists in Syria would use equipment, uniforms, weapons, and tactics that would pin the crime on the Syrian government. All Higgins has proved, thus far, is that the superficial details of the operation made for a convincing false flag attack.

    • Tom Welsh
      September 17, 2015 at 12:13 pm

      ‘“Brown Moses” referring to Eliot Higgins’ alias…’

      Certainly brown something.

  5. Stefan
    September 17, 2015 at 8:04 am

    Who’s waging the war on Syria?

    USA, Israel, Turkey, Gulf States etc…

    Who’s likely behind the Sarin Attack?

    Based on pure logic and strict valid reasoning and lex parsimoniae

    …one, some or all of the above.

  6. Tom Welsh
    September 17, 2015 at 12:11 pm

    If the USA sends in B52s and the Russians are committed to protecting Syria, things will get interesting quickly. Because B52s are great for dropping great piles of 1-ton bombs on people who can’t defend themselves, but against any serious air defence system they are very large suicide machines. Immense, slow, unmanoeuvrable targets – the only question might be how many missiles it would take to shoot each one down. But I should think that once both wings have been blown off, they wouldn’t go much further.

    The question is: what happens then? Legally, of course, the Americans wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. They would have been attacking a sovereign state without the slightest justification – in other words (all together now) an illegal unprovoked war of aggression, the supreme international crime. But they have done that dozens of times, and nothing ever came of it. Could they somehow blame the Russians for helping a sovereign state defend itself against an unprovoked act of war?

  7. zman
    September 17, 2015 at 10:35 pm

    Well, as everyone here is espousing their version of what’s going on, here’s mine. I’ve come to the conclusion that some of the hardware and the gas are Libyan weapons and we and our cronies are suppling them. I read part of a report from Porton Down, that suggests the gas came from Libya, which to me makes sense, as some rebel weapons such as rockets and missiles have been identified as Libyan origin. Reports of Libyan weapons going through Egypt into Saudi, then to Turkey, where they can enter Syria more clandestinely would seem to support Libyan origins of the gas. Then there is the whole ‘US Libyan ambassador/CIA operative’, allegedly running the weapons smuggling operation, that was killed in an attack by ‘rebels’. I’ve asked myself, why would rebels attack those who aided them? Lately, after seeing Putin at work, and after his stymieing the red line ambush, I have to wonder if it was indeed rebels that killed our ‘Ambassador’…or was it Russian special forces, sending the message that that little operation was over. There has to be more to the Libyan story and the attendant political fiasco it entailed than the thin story we have, including all the innuendos. There is a coverup, just not the one we’ve been led to believe. If not for Putin, we would already be knee deep in it. The question is, can Putin outlast this bunch of elite thugs until an equilibrium is attained.

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