The "Assad Launched a Chemical Attack" Story Has Not Been Proved
by Gaius Publius
"Fool me once ... can't get fooled again."
—Someone who knows a thing or two about fooling you once
The war strain is strong in both parties.
It's dangerous for the major media, almost all of it, to continually tout as proven what is only surmised. The current push for war is not only not well grounded, it's bipartisan, which makes it even more dangerous. The last time the bipartisan elite wanted a not-well-grounded war, it did not go well.
Touting as proved what is only surmised starts with the assertion that Russia "hacked" (hijacked, stole) the last American election. That Russia both wanted to and tried to "interfere" in the recent election is easy to demonstrate. That Russia "hacked" or stole the U.S. election in an act of espionage that rises to an act of war, though, is an unproved assertion.
Yet we're hearing that kind of loose talk more and more:
“I think this attack that we’ve experienced is a form of war, a form of war on our fundamental democratic principles,” [Rep. Bonnie Watson] Coleman [D-N.J.] said during a hearing this week at the House Homeland Security Committee. ..."Political Pearl Harbor"?
“I actually think that their engagement was an act of war, an act of hybrid warfare, and I think that’s why the American people should be concerned about it,” said Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.). ...
“This past election, our country was attacked. We were attacked by Russia,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.). ...
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s ranking member, has similarly described the election meddling as an “attack” and likened it to the United States’ “political Pearl Harbor.”
Even Dick Cheney has gotten into the act: ""There's no question that there was a very serious effort made by Mr. Putin and his government, his organization, to interfere in major ways with our basic fundamental democratic processes. In some quarters, that could be considered an act of war."
Following the lead of our leaders, the major media has repeated the unproved assertion — that Russia "hacked" or stole the election in an "act of war" — sometimes with disclaimer, sometimes without. For weeks, the repetition has been endless. In the phrase of a long-gone commercial, "You're soaking in it."
This is a pattern and there's a price. The pattern happens on both the right and the left. Only the assertions are different. On the right: "Obama was born in Kenya." On the left: "If not for Russia, Clinton would have beaten Trump." On the right the assertions are often demonstrably false. On the left the assertions often turn a possibility and into a certainty.
And the price — both of these patterns are dangerous, since they both involve spreading a falsehood. The consumers of these falsehoods — we the public, on both the left and the right — never seem to consider the motives of their purveyors, nor the danger of believing as true what has not, and can not, be demonstrated with certainty. Which sets us up for a repeat. Contrary to Mr. Bush's famous saying, this almost guarantees we can get fooled again.
That may be playing out now, getting fooled again, with the Syrian "gas attack" story.
What Is Known about the "Gas Attack in Syria"?
What is known for sure about the Syrian "gas attack"? Actually very little.
The best that I can find purporting to show that Assad and Syria launched a "gas attack" against Khan Sheikhoun is contained in this article from Business Insider. (The same information has appeared elsewhere.) The Pentagon has released a map allegedly showing the flight path of a Syrian military plane over the area.
Based on that, at least in part, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said,"We have a very high level of confidence that the attacks were carried out by aircraft under the direction of the Bashar al-Assad regime, and we also have very high confidence that the attacks involved the use of sarin nerve gas" (emphasis mine).
What that tells you is (1) there's no proof that sarin was used, or they'd show you the proof. And (2) there's no proof that the identified plane dropped gas bombs or canisters, or they'd show that to you as well. Instead, we hear the now-common, telltale phrase, "high level of confidence." Expressing a "high level of confidence" involves an educated guess on their part, and an exercise in trust on yours.
Note: This doesn't prove that Assad is innocent. It proves nothing at all.
What Are Other Sources Saying?
Other sources are saying that there's a great deal of uncertainty about this incident, including whether it was a gas attack at all (see below) versus a conventional bombing of a rebel facility in which dangerous chemical weapons were stored. Some intelligence sources say they are hearing from their colleagues that the facts are entirely contrary to administration and the military assertions — and that both the administration and our military know that.
None of these assertions are proved, just as the assertions of Assad's guilt are proved, but none of this can be discounted. Unfortunately, the only assertions you're "soaking in" are those that lead to war.
About the uncertainty of Assad's guilt, I want to present two sources out of several I could have brought forward. A search produces a fair number of them. The first one below is via Robert Parry.
A very good reporter, Parry did excellent investigative work at the Associated Press and Newsweek exposing many aspects of the Iran-Contra scandal undiscovered by others. In recognition Parry "was awarded the George Polk Award for National Reporting in 1984 and the I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence by Harvard's Nieman Foundation in 2015."
In fact, according to Salon, Parry's "continuing quest to unearth the facts of the alleged October Surprise has made him persona non grata among those who worship at the altar of conventional wisdom." The "October Surprise" was the collapse of the negotiations between the Carter White House and the Iranian hostage holders just prior to the 1980 election, which brought Ronald Reagan narrowly to victory. Parry thought the October Surprise was the source of the events that led to later Iran-Contra scandal. (More at the link. That connection, as near as I can tell, is proved, though widely ignored in elite bipartisan circles.)
Parry opens (my emphasis throughout):
Just two days after news broke of an alleged poison-gas attack in northern Syria, President Trump brushed aside advice from some U.S. intelligence analysts doubting the Syrian regime’s guilt and launched a lethal retaliatory missile strike against a Syrian airfield.I've run across these counter-assessments in several unconnected places (places that don't quote each other or depend on a common source). Again, the counter-assessments are either that Al Qaeda-affiliated rebels launched a "false flag" attack for reasons that will be detailed below, or that they stored poison gas at a facility that was bombed using conventional weapons by either the Russians or the Syrians (perhaps by the plane whose flight path the Pentagon has been showing, or perhaps not).
Trump immediately won plaudits from Official Washington, especially from neoconservatives who have been trying to wrestle control of his foreign policy away from his nationalist and personal advisers since the days after his surprise victory on Nov. 8.
There is also an internal dispute over the intelligence. On Thursday night, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S. intelligence community assessed with a “high degree of confidence” that the Syrian government had dropped a poison gas bomb on civilians in Idlib province.
But a number of intelligence sources have made contradictory assessments, saying the preponderance of evidence suggests that Al Qaeda-affiliated rebels were at fault, either by orchestrating an intentional release of a chemical agent as a provocation or by possessing containers of poison gas that ruptured during a conventional bombing raid.
More from Parry, this time about the danger this situation represents — the reinstallation of neocons into foreign policy decision-making:
One intelligence source told me that the most likely scenario was a staged event by the rebels intended to force Trump to reverse a policy, announced only days earlier, that the U.S. government would no longer seek “regime change” in Syria and would focus on attacking the common enemy, Islamic terror groups that represent the core of the rebel forces.There's an interesting section that examines Assad's reasons for not launching either attack:
The source said the Trump national security team split between the President’s close personal advisers, such as nationalist firebrand Steve Bannon and son-in-law Jared Kushner, on one side and old-line neocons who have regrouped under National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, an Army general who was a protégé of neocon favorite Gen. David Petraeus.
In this telling, the earlier ouster of retired Gen. Michael Flynn as national security adviser and this week’s removal of Bannon from the National Security Council were key steps in the reassertion of neocon influence inside the Trump presidency. ...
Though Bannon and Kushner are often presented as rivals, the source said, they shared the belief that Trump should tell the truth about Syria, revealing the Obama administration’s CIA analysis that a fatal sarin gas attack in 2013 was a “false-flag” operation intended to sucker President Obama into fully joining the Syrian war on the side of the rebels — and the intelligence analysts’ similar beliefs about Tuesday’s incident.
In both cases – 2013 and 2017 – there were strong reasons to doubt Assad’s responsibility. In 2013, he had just invited United Nations inspectors into Syria to investigate cases of alleged rebel use of chemical weapons and thus it made no sense that he would launch a sarin attack in the Damascus suburbs, guaranteeing that the U.N. inspectors would be diverted to that case.Remember, Assad may be brutal — frankly, most of these people, the ones we "like" and the ones we don't — are brutal. But he didn't survive this long by being stupid.
Similarly, now, Assad’s military has gained a decisive advantage over the rebels and he had just scored a major diplomatic victory with the Trump administration’s announcement that the U.S. was no longer seeking regime change” in Syria. The savvy Assad would know that a chemical weapon attack now would likely result in U.S. retaliation and jeopardize the gains that his military has achieved with Russian and Iranian help.
Finally, Parry quotes ex-intelligence officer Philip Giraldi on the Russian role in the incident and also on the reaction of the intelligence community to the way this situation is playing out:
Alarm within the U.S. intelligence community about Trump’s hasty decision to attack Syria reverberated from the Middle East back to Washington, where former CIA officer Philip Giraldi reported hearing from his intelligence contacts in the field that they were shocked at how the new poison-gas story was being distorted by Trump and the mainstream U.S. news media.I'll send you to the article for the rest. There's actually quite a bit more, and Parry does a good job. But do note two things — the assertion that Obama knew that the 2013 sarin attack was a false flag operation (i.e., that Assad didn't do that one either; here's the link again), and the assertion that McMaster, a protégé of David Patraeus, is the "tip of the spear" for neocon control of Trump's foreign policy.
Giraldi told Scott Horton’s Webcast: “I’m hearing from sources on the ground in the Middle East, people who are intimately familiar with the intelligence that is available who are saying that the essential narrative that we’re all hearing about the Syrian government or the Russians using chemical weapons on innocent civilians is a sham.”
Giraldi said his sources were more in line with an analysis postulating an accidental release of the poison gas after an Al Qaeda arms depot was hit by a Russian airstrike.
For Parry, this is Trump's "wag the dog" moment. For me, however, the key takeaway is different. No one who tells you the case against Assad is proved can show the proof. I would think, when it comes to going to war, that part matters. Especially given our recent bipartisan war-making past.
Yes, Parry is making assertions, not offering proof. I'm even willing to bet that Parry has "very high confidence" that he's correct. Does this mean Assad is innocent? No. Just as the military's assertions mean he's guilty, absent actual proof.
One More Source, Ex-DIA Colonel Patrick Lang
The following was offered to me via an email list by someone I respect. I have not heard of Patrick Lang, but he's another of those, like Parry, with connections in the intelligence community. Clearly a former Trump supporter, he's now very angry with him. That may or may not have anything to do with these assertions.
What's striking, though, is the degree to which Lang and Parry are saying pretty much the same thing — that the facts were known in the intelligence community, that the White House (meaning the military and civilian team that decided on the missile strike) distorted those facts to the public for their own purposes, and that at least some faction within the intelligence community is not happy with the distortions.
Lang (my emphasis below):
Donald Trump’s decision to launch cruise missile strikes on a Syrian Air Force Base was based on a lie. In the coming days the American people will learn that the Intelligence Community knew that Syria did not drop a military chemical weapon on innocent civilians in Idlib. Here is what happened.Your bottom line — You can believe any of these stories and sources if you like. But recognize that you're choosing whom to believe, and that it's belief. You're not being led to any of these beliefs by proof, because none has yet been brought forward.
There are members of the U.S. military who were aware this strike would occur and it was recorded. There is a film record. At least the Defense Intelligence Agency knows that this was not a chemical weapon attack. In fact, Syrian military chemical weapons were destroyed with the help of Russia.
- The Russians briefed the United States on the proposed target. This is a process that started more than two months ago. There is a dedicated phone line that is being used to coordinate and deconflict (i.e., prevent US and Russian air assets from shooting at each other) the upcoming operation.
- The United States was fully briefed on the fact that there was a target in Idlib that the Russians believes was a weapons/explosives depot for Islamic rebels.
- The Syrian Air Force hit the target with conventional weapons. All involved expected to see a massive secondary explosion. That did not happen. Instead, smoke, chemical smoke, began billowing from the site. It turns out that the Islamic rebels used that site to store chemicals, not sarin, that were deadly. The chemicals included organic phosphates and chlorine and they followed the wind and killed civilians.
- There was a strong wind blowing that day and the cloud was driven to a nearby village and caused casualties.
- We know it was not sarin. How? Very simple. The so-called “first responders” handled the victims without gloves. If this had been sarin they would have died. Sarin on the skin will kill you. How do I know? I went through “Live Agent” training at Fort McClellan in Alabama.
This is Gulf of Tonkin 2.
A fake war scene in the dark 1997 comedy “Wag the Dog,” which showed a girl and her cat fleeing a bombardment in Albania.
Belief without proof, when it comes to war, can have horrible consequences, as we have seen already in Iraq.
On the other hand, one of these groups of assertions will eventually be proved right. If it's Trump who is wrong, this really is Gulf of Tonkin 2 — bait, in other words, that Trump gladly took which Obama apparently would not.