Syria Chemical Weapon Attacks – Where’s the Evidence John?

Back in early May I posted about the major geopolitical news of the day: Alleged sarin gas attacks in Damascus and Aleppo by the Assad government.  In my analysis I argued that, despite the political rhetoric, there was scant evidence to implicate the Assad government.  Further, I argued that it was strategically non-sensical for Assad to use WMDs given the current state of the civil war in which the Syrian government was clearly gaining the upper hand.  On the other hand, the rebels had every motivation to perpetrate false flag chemical weapon attacks to give the West the justification needed to commence overt military action against Assad.

Well, fast-forward four months and the narrative hasn’t changed.  The evil Assad is again accused of using chemical weapons in an attack against rebel forces that left hundreds of civilians dead.  Let’s once again step back, take a deep breath and analyze the facts rationally, cutting through the appeal to emotion rhetoric that is being used to cloud the issue.

The Facts

On August 21st at around 3 AM, a series of chemical weapon attacks occurred in the rebel-held area of Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus.  In the aftermath of the attack Doctors Without Borders (who operate three hospitals in the vicinity) recorded roughly 3600 patients suffering from exposure to nerve agents.  355 deaths were reported.  The final toll is likely higher though it appears the initial reports of 1400+ dead are possibly exaggerated.

Eyewitnesses report that the deliver system used for the attack were around 20 non-explosive rockets which dispersed their chemical prior to impact.

On August 24-26, a U.N. inspection team conducted onsite evidence gathering and interviewed survivors.  The mandate of this investigation, as has been repeatedly stressed by secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, is only to establish if chemical weapons have been used and not which side used them.  The effectiveness of the U.N. team was reportedly hindered by continued hostilities in the region that included Syrian government forces shelling the affected areas and sniper attacks by forces unknown.

And that’s it for facts.  Everything else appears to be conjecture and rhetoric.  Let’s look at some of this now.

Secretary of State John Kerry’s Speech, August 30, 2013

Secretary Kerry’s speech of August 30th (read the transcript here) largely consisted of appeal to emotion.  Here’s a sample of what most of the speech consisted of:

…Instead of being tucked safely in their beds at home, we saw rows of children lying side by side, sprawled on a hospital floor, all of them dead from Assad’s gas, and surrounded by parents and grandparents who had suffered the same fate. 

The United States government now knows that at least 1,429 Syrians were killed in this attack, including at least 426 children. Even the first responders — the doctors, nurses and medics who tried to save them — they became victims themselves. We saw them gasping for air, terrified that their own lives were in danger.

This is the indiscriminate, inconceivable horror of chemical weapons. This is what Assad did to his own people.

But what about the evidence?  What about hard facts?  Well, Kerry states the following to be definitive conclusions of U.S. intelligence:

  • Syrian government forces used chemical weapons several times already in 2013.
  • Syrian forces in the area were told to prepare for the attack by putting on gas masks and taking other precautions associated with chemical weapons.
  • The rockets were launched from government controlled regions and landed in rebel controlled regions.
  • A senior official in the Syrian government knew about the attack, confirmed they were carried out by the regime, and was fearful that they (the Syrian government) would be discovered as the perpetrators.
  • After the attack Syrian artillery bombardment of the area dramatically intensified and hindered the U.N. team’s ability to collect evidence and conduct interviews with survivors.

Those are the facts that Kerry claims.  One problem: There is no direct or supporting evidence of any kind provided in the speech to back up any of these statements.  Kerry simply states them as absolute truths.  Presumably this is because the irrefutable evidence proving the truth of his statements can be found in the U.S. declassified assessment of the incident of which John says the following at the beginning of his speech:

That’s why this morning’s release of our government’s unclassified estimate of what took place in Syria is so important. Its findings are as clear as they are compelling. I’m not asking you to take my word for it. Read for yourself, everyone, those listening, all of you, read for yourselves the evidence from thousands of sources, evidence that is already publicly available, and read for yourselves the verdict reached by our intelligence community about the chemical weapons attack the Assad regime inflicted on the opposition and on opposition-controlled or contested neighborhoods in the Damascus suburbs on the early morning of August 21st.

Our intelligence community has carefully reviewed and rereviewed information regarding this attack. And I will tell you it has done so more than mindful of the Iraq experience. We will not repeat that moment. Accordingly, we have taken unprecedented steps to declassify and make facts available to people, who can judge for themselves.

But still, in order to protect sources and methods, some of what we know will only be released to members of Congress, the representatives of the American people.

That means that some things we do know, we can’t talk about publicly.

Ok John, let’s take you up on that.  Let’s read for ourselves the unclassified assessment you claim holds the verifiable proof we seek.  Here it is here.

I don’t know about you but I’m underwhelmed.  As opposed to the ‘clear and compelling‘ findings cited by Kerry, the document simply enumerates the same conclusions from Kerry’s speech.  There’s a complete and utter lack of any evidence to back those conclusions up.

We Can’t Take U.S. Intelligence’s Word For It

U.S. intelligence is infamous for lying to the public and releasing faulty intelligence estimates during the lead up to major conflict.  Kerry himself draws attention to this fact in his speech but assures us that this time U.S. intelligence is “more than mindful of the Iraq experience. We will not repeat that moment.“.  Again, we’re supposed to take his word for it.  Let’s take a quick trip down memory lane and look at a few recent examples of blatant lies used to justify foreign conquests:

  • Operation Desert Storm.  On October 10th, 1990 a female by the name of Nayirah testifies before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus that during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, she witnessed Iraqi soldiers removing babies from incubators and leaving them to die.  The story received extensive media coverage and was cited by several U.S. senators as well as President Bush (senior) as a major justification for U.S. intervention.  It was later revealed (after the U.S. led intervention) that the story was a complete fabrication and that Nayirah was in fact the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the U.S.  This fact would have been well known within U.S. intelligence circles and yet nothing was done to bring the attention of the American people to the deception.  Read about the whole sordid affair here.
  • Iraq War.  As alluded to by Kerry and hopefully known to readers, U.S. intelligence was involved in a shameful deception in the lead-up to the Iraq war.  The main justification for this war of aggression was the supposed possession of chemical and biological WMDs by Saddam Hussein.  This culminated with then Secretary of State Colin Powell testifying before the U.N. on the conclusions of U.S. intelligence about Iraqi WMDs.  His testimony, and the U.S. intelligence on which it was based, was later revealed to be intentionally falsified to justify the invasion.
  • Libya.  In the lead-up to the completely unprovoked and nonsensical destabilization of Libya in 2011, Western media was again abuzz with stories of atrocities.  This time the narrative given by senior U.S. politicians (including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) was that the evil Libyan government was dispensing Viagra to its forces to fuel the systematic raping of the population.  Once again these allegation were later discovered to be complete fabrications to sway U.S. public opinion in favour of the military assault on Libya.

Time and time again we’ve been manipulated in this way by the mainstream media, senior politicians, and U.S. intelligence.  Time and time again WMDs have been used to justify military actions or economic sanctions against countries that, for whatever reason, have fallen out of favour with the powers that be.  The only reasonable response to known liars is to not believe them.  Demand proof.  Dismiss appeals to emotion.

With this in mind let’s look critically at each of the claims made by U.S. intelligence and parroted by Kerry.  Can we find any evidence which supports any of these claims?  Can we find any evidence which contradicts any of these claims?

Claim: Previous Chemical Weapon Attacks By Syrian Government Forces

This conclusion is simply not supported.  The March 2013 chemical weapon attacks (discussed here) have not been tied to the Syrian government by any physical evidence.  On the other hand, strong suspicion and circumstantial evidence has since emerged that these attacks were, in fact, carried out by the rebels.  Here’s a summary of that evidence:

  • Carla del Ponte, a member of the U.N. Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria which investigated the attacks stated to Swiss media that there were “strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof” that rebel forces were behind the attacks.  Del Ponte is a fairly credible source given her direct involvement on the investigative team and the fact that she previously served as the head of the U.N. war crime tribunals for both Rwanda and Yugoslavia.
  • Russia, which conducted its own on-site investigation into the attacks, provided the U.N. with an 80 page report which concluded that it was the rebels who had used the chemical weapons.  While the report has not been made public it’s understood to stand on the following physical evidence:
    • The sarin gas used in the attack was not industrially produced but rather bore the signature of being produced in a makeshift lab.  Hexogen (aka RDX) was used as the explosive charge.  This chemical is not in standard military munitions but is heavily used in IEDs and other terrorist devices.
    • The delivery system was a jerry-rigged Bashar 3 missile.  The rebels do possess this missile.

While I don’t feel this information is conclusive, it certainly calls into serious question Kerry’s assertion that Assad had carried out the March attacks especially in light of the total absence of evidence implicating government forces.

Claim: Syrian Forces Had Pre-knowledge of Attacks

This is a conclusion that is made with absolutely no evidence offered.  It appears that the source of this information is intelligence provided by the Israeli Defence Forces Unit 8200 (the Israeli version of the NSA specializing in signals intelligence and electronic intercepts).

Given the lack of details provided, this argument cannot be accepted blindly as true.  If it was confirmed that the intelligence originated with Unit 8200, it would need to be corroborated in some way given the dubious motivations and previous covert and overt attacks made by the Israelis on Syrian government forces.

Finally, even if the raw intelligence were to be independently verified and confirmed it still wouldn’t allow us to conclude anything.  For example, an alternative logical explanation would be that Syrian intelligence learned of pending chemical weapon attacks by the rebels and ordered precautions for their forces.

Claim: Rockets Launched From Government Held Areas

I agree completely with Kerry that where the rockets were launched from should allow blame to be placed on the guilty party.  It should be all too simple for the U.S. to release the raw data documenting the missile attacks (since they claim to have such data).  This data would be extremely convincing and constitute just the sort of hard evidence I’m calling for.

But they (U.S. intelligence) haven’t release the data.  They haven’t even said where the attacks originated from except to make the general statement about it being from regime controlled territories.

Why hold this information back?  How could the release of the exact location and raw data possibly compromise U.S. intelligence assets in any way?  If U.S. intelligence is telling the truth there would be no reason not to release the data (or a ‘scrubbed’ version of it).  Failure to release any supporting evidence whatsoever fatally undermines the claim that attacks were launched from regime held areas.  We must dismiss such unsubstantiated allegations from known liars.

Claim: Syrian Government Officials Knew of Attack

The basis for this claim is more intelligence provided to U.S. authorities by the Israeli Unit 8200.  According to a leak from an ex-Mossad agent, the Israelis intercepted a call between senior regime officials discussing the attack.  There are no further details given.  No details about the conversation or its participants are provided.

First of all, we once again need to be wary of the source.  Israeli intelligence is not an objective observer here and can be expected to act in their best interests.

Next, even if we accept that the conversation took place, we can’t possibly conclude anything since all we’ve been told is that senior Syrian officials discussed the attack.  This proves nothing.  Discussing an attack that has already occurred does not make you the perpetrator.  Obviously Syrian government officials would be talking about large scale chemical weapon attacks that just occurred in their country.

Why hasn’t the transcript of the call and names of the participants been released?  Why are we once again just supposed to take Kerry’s word for it?

Claim: Intensified Syrian Artillery Bombardment

According to Kerry the areas struck by the chemical weapons were subsequently subjected to artillery bombardment “at a rate four times higher than they had over the previous 10 days“.

Leaving aside the complete lack of data provided to back this up (by now a familiar theme), this again, proves nothing.  Damascus’ suburbs are a dynamic battleground where the front lines are constantly changing.  It’s not unexpected that on a day-to-day basis the region of highest confrontation, and thus highest artillery usage, changes.

Again, even if we accept Kerry’s totally unsubstantiated claims, this does not amount to evidence of anything.

Conclusion

The U.S. has once again started the march to war.  Again we see a war of aggression sold to the public based on blanket statements without a shred of real evidence.  Again we see WMDs being used to justify intervention.  Again we see pervasive use of rhetoric and appeal to emotion as opposed to calm and rational analysis and proof.  And again we’ll see the gears of the military industrial complex greased with the blood of the innocent.

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