This article was published in the Morning Star on 25th April 2017. See here.
Despite a distinct absence of evidence, virtually the entire British media declared Assad guilty of chemical weapons use and Trump justified in using air strikes earlier this month
On April 4 2017, reports came from the community of Khan Sheikhoun in the rebel-held Syrian province of Idlib that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons against civilians in an airstrike.
Two days later, on April 6, the Trump administration broke international law by unilaterally launching its own airstrike, firing 59 Tomahawk missiles at the very airbase from which Assad was said to have launched his strike from.
Trump declared: ‘there can be no dispute that [Assad] used banned chemical weapons’.
The Pentagon reiterated, saying that the US response was ‘in retaliation for the regime of Bashar Assad using nerve agents to attack his own people’.
Unsurprisingly, the British government quickly announced its full support for ‘the US action’ which it said was ‘an appropriate response to the barbaric chemical weapons attack launched by the Syrian regime’.
Thereafter, virtually the entire political and media establishment in both the US and Britain (and beyond) aligned itself with the US government.
Conservatives praised Trump for his ‘presidential’ response, while liberals who’ve spent months deriding him as an incredulous fool and a dire threat to democracy applauded him. Remarkably, only one out of 46 major editorial newspapers in the US opposed his airstrikes, while in the UK, as professor of journalism Roy Greenslade observed, the most ‘identifiable theme in almost every leading article and commentary’, from both liberal and right-leaning publications, was: ‘Well done Donald’.
Lack of Evidence
Given the near unanimous support for Trump’s airstrikes from all these apparently clever people, one might be forgiven for thinking it was a foregone conclusion that Assad had used chemical weapons and that the US response was therefore justified.
However, the reality is quite different. Aside from the genuinely horrific reports, pictures and videos of victims that came through from Khan Sheikhoun, which prove nothing about who was responsible, no evidence was presented proving Assad was behind the use of chemical weapons, and still none has been presented to this day.
This was pointed out immediately after the events by a number of very credible sources, including Scott Ritter and Hans Blix – both former chief UN weapons inspectors to Iraq – and the former British ambassador to Syria Sir Peter Ford.
Despite this absence of evidence, virtually the entire British media and political elite declared Assad guilty. No enquiry, no questioning of the Trump administration’s official narrative – just pure acceptance of the casus belli.
While the Assad regime is most certainly deplorable, there is, contrary to the mainstream narrative, good reason to believe that it wasn’t responsible for the use of chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun, and that Russia and Syria’s explanation – that Syrian jets struck a rebel warehouse containing bombs and other toxic substances – may have some legitimacy.
For starters, consider the sources. The reports emanating from Khan Sheikhoun on April 4, which blamed Assad for the attack and which Western media reported widely, came largely from pro-rebel sources – namely, the White Helmets, an organisation with proven ties to Jihadist rebels, including al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Nusra Front.
Verifying any of those sources as ‘independent’ so soon after the attacks would have been very difficult given that the region is occupied by jihadists (yes, the same ‘terrorists’ we’re supposed to be at war with) who’ve been at the center of the anti-Assad movement in Syria since 2011.
As journalist John Wight wrote: ‘No Western journalist or news crew would dare set foot there, or indeed in any part of opposition-controlled Syria, knowing that as soon as they did they would be kidnapped and butchered’.
Then consider the timing. Why on Earth would Assad risk provoking international outrage by using chemical weapons against the rebels when he was already beating them with conventional ones?
Furthermore, why would he do it just days after the US announced that removing him was no longer their priority, and days before the European Union was set to hold its important doner conference in Brussels on the future of Syria? It would be an act of complete and utter political and diplomatic self-harm.
If anything, Assad had much to lose from committing a chemical attack, while the rebels had everything to gain from its provocation of foreign US intervention against him.
Then there were the inconsistencies with the reports coming out of the rebel-held region. For example, it was reported by Kareem Shaheen in the Guardian that all that remained amongst the rubble was ‘a faint stench that tingles the nostrils and a small green fragment from the rocket’.
Yet, as the BBC reported: ‘Sarin is almost impossible to detect because it is a clear, colourless and tasteless liquid that has no odour in its purest form’.
More questions lay around the lack of protective clothing worn by the White Helmets in the images being fed to Western media.
As former chief UN weapons inspector to Iraq Scott Ritter observed, if military grade Sarin was used, as reports were claiming, ‘the rescuers would themselves have become victims’. While there were some accounts of this, they were, as Ritter notes, at the site of the attack where claims of a ‘pungent smelling’ chemical were made.
Remarkably, in the face of these legitimate questions, virtually the entire British media and political elite willingly chose to accept the reports of possible Al-Qaeda affiliates and the assertions of the Trump administration, which based its own evidence on the same questionable reports.
We know this because on Tuesday April 11 the White House released a declassified intelligence report outlining why it believed Assad was responsible for the chemical attack.
To the White House’s own admission, the report cited a ‘wide body of open-source material’ and ‘social media accounts’ from inside the rebel-held region, including footage from the White Helmets.
Reviewing the report and alleged evidence against Assad, weapons scientist and professor emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Theodore Postol said that it ‘contains absolutely no evidence [emphasis added] that this attack was the result of a munition being dropped from an aircraft’.
He added: ‘I believe it can be shown, without doubt, that the document does not provide any evidence whatsoever that the US government has concrete knowledge that the government of Syria was the source of the chemical attack in Khan Shaykhun’.
In a subsequent and more detailed review of the report, Postol concludes that it ‘contains unambiguous evidence’ that the White House made ‘false and misleading claims that could not possibly have been accepted in any professional review by impartial intelligence experts’.
This of course adds credence to the claims that Syrian jets, using conventional weapons, may have struck a rebel warehouse containing toxic substances.
As Jerry Smith, former UN weapons inspector in Syria and the official who led the UN-backed operation to remove Assad’s chemical weapons in 2013-14, said to Channel 4 news: ‘if it is Sarin that was stored there and conventional munitions were used, there is every possibility that some of those [chemical] munitions were not consumed and that the Sarin liquid was ejected and could well have affected the population’.
Certainly, it’s not inconceivable that the rebels were storing – or that they even planted – chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun in anticipation of the Assad regime bombing the location.
Reports that rebel groups were in possession of and had used chemical weapons in Syria were confirmed back in 2013 by UN special investigator Carla del Ponte.
As a leading member of the UN’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria in 2013 that was investigating alleged chemical weapons usage by Assad, del Ponte stated that ‘we have no indication at all [emphasis added] that the Syria government had used chemical weapons’.
To the contrary, she added, it appeared that chemical weapons were ‘used by the rebels’. It’s also worth pointing out here that the oftcited example given by media personnel and politicians that Assad previously used chemical weapons against civilians in Ghouta, Damascus in 2013 is also unproven.
While confirming unequivocally that chemical weapons were used, the subsequent UN investigation into the allegations produced NO evidence that it was Assad who used them, and thus DID NOT conclude such a thing.
This point is highly significant given that so many prominent media and political figures falsely hold up Ghouta as an incontrovertible example of Assad having used chemical weapons in the past.
Let’s be clear, Assad is a despicable dictator. No moral human can defend him or his regime. But this is no reason to abandon rational thought and to cease asking challenging questions about the reasons for bombing an already war-torn country.
While Assad may indeed be behind the use of chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun, the evidence thus far is flimsy and open to reasonable doubt, something shamefully not reflected in the mainstream.
Has the experience of Iraq taught us nothing?! Indeed, the failure of our political and media elite to ask the simplest of questions regarding the narratives that came from both Idlib province and the Trump administration (which are still being reiterated) betrays the obvious fact that they are utterly incapable of independent critical thought.
As the former chief UN weapons inspector to Iraq Hans Blix asked following Trump’s airstrikes: ‘If you had a murder and you strongly suspect one fellow, do you go to judgment and execution straight away?’
No, of course you don’t. Yet this is exactly what our highly educated cultural and political opinion leaders have done – they’ve gone straight to judgement off of the fanciful claims of the US government and dubious sources without any critical analysis of the evidence – or lack of – in front of them. Now doesn’t that sound familiar?
Even this caveat of Assad being “a callous & brutal murderer” is going along with the propaganda narrative.
A truly fair and impartial tribunal would probably find everyone in this conflict guilty of war crimes including Assad, but if in any country, massive funding of extremists by much more powerful outside nations began & sustained a war, such atrocities would be the result.
I think 90% of the accusations against Assad are pure propaganda. Furthermore, if we are going to call his “regime” “despicable”, “murderous” etc, then we have to apply exactly the same description to the Western Powers & their regional despotic allies who are trying to destroy Syria.
I very much agree with you about applying the same level of scrutiny to our crimes – I dedicate much of this blog to doing just that. However, the point of this piece is specifically to highlight the willingness of our elite politicians and so-called journalists to accept dubious claims without any question, as they did in the build up to Iraq.
As for calling Assad a ‘callous and brutal murderer’, and describing his government as a ‘regime’, I see no problem with calling a spade a spade.
Though your excellent post explains how the rush to blame the chemical attacks in Khan Sheikhoun is based on no evidence in a very comprehensible way, I tend to agree with Martin to the “a callous & brutal murderer” description. After all, if we need evidence of one, we should need evidence for the other. To mention it twice in one article, without mentioning the ‘callous brutality’ of the other side might be considered as over-egging the pudding.
Added to that, I don’t doubt Assad could be guilty of war crimes, but no more guilty than those who oppose him. To refer to his government as the “Assad regime” while labelling the US government “the Trump administration” can also be seen as an example of the herd mentality.
Having said that, these points do nothing to mar an excellent analysis that deserves wider attention.
Thank you for that.
Having thought about this, I’ve come to agree with you both. It was sitting unwell with me so I’ve since removed the ‘callous and brutal murderer’ description. Appreciate you pointing this out to me. And thanks for your generous comments. Much appreciated.
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