One of the biggest pieces of news in recent days is the attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Syria, which appears to have used sarin gas to kill dozens of civilians. Footage of the aftermath of the attack shocked the world, and Trump ordered a missile strike on Shayrat Airfield in retaliation.
The ‘official’ story – that is, what we’re being told by various governments, including the US and Israel – is that the attack was ordered by the highest levels of the Assad regime, to strike at Syrian rebels.
Russia, which has long supported the Assad regime, provided a competing narrative, that a government airstrike hit a rebel stockpile of chemical weapons. However, some expert accounts reported in the media cast doubt on the plausibility of this explanation: For example, Hamish de Bretton Gordon, director of Doctors Under Fire and former CO of the UK’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Regiment, appeared on the BBC and argued that the claim was ‘fanciful’. “Axiomatically, if you blow up sarin, you destroy it.”
But there are murmurs from a different corner of the cult of ignorance that caught my eye: A contention that the sarin gas attack was carried out by Syrian rebels, using chemical weapons supplied by the Obama regime (and specifically Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State), so as to blame Assad and provide a pretext for US mobilization.
One of the underlying principles of this site is a ‘healthy scepticism’, and I would be remiss if I suggested that intelligence provided via the US administration should be taken as gospel. (Even without considering the unique challenges of this particular administration, I think most of us learned that lesson in the course of the second Iraq war.) That being said, we’re faced with a couple of realities about the intelligence coming out of various western governments: Firstly, government intelligence is almost inherently impossible to independently source, such that one of our most powerful analytical tools for determining the value of news reports and other publications is of little-to-no use when assessing the value of government intelligence; and secondly, it is nonetheless – generally speaking – pretty good. You still need to take it with a few grains of salt, assessing it in light of political agendas, etc., but when the US government says that the planes that dropped the bombs on Khan Sheikhoun flew out of Shayrat Airfield, that’s probably the best information we’re likely to get on the point.
The point is that, without some good reason to reject the ‘official’ story, the public would be wise to presume it true.
Why Would Assad Do This Now?
In terms of the alternative narrative, the one that says that Assad is being framed, one of the most compelling elements of the rhetoric is the suggestion that a chemical weapons strike just seems like a really dumb thing for Assad to do: Assad is sitting pretty comfortably at this point. He has Russian support and is being broadly effective against the rebels, and while he’s unpopular with the rest of the international community, they’ve mostly come to view him as the ‘lesser evil’ next to ISIL. Why would he commit a major atrocity by using chemical weapons against his own people, inviting a harsh foreign intervention (such as a missile strike)? It just doesn’t make sense, or so the alternative narrative goes.
There is, however, more to the story. This attack isn’t an isolated incident. It isn’t a new escalation in the Syrian civil war. Assad has, by all indications, been using chemical weapons against his people for years.
If you listen to the folks in DC, such as Rep. Kinzinger, you’d think that Tuesday’s attack is the first time we’ve seen chemical weapons deployed since the first world war. Unfortunately, that’s simply not true – by a wide margin, as chemical weapons have been used in various conflicts over the decades, but let’s focus on Syria here.
In 2012, early in the Syrian civil war, Obama famously set a ‘red line’ at the deployment of chemical weapons. (Exactly what that means came up for significant debate afterwards. The Obama administration long maintained that they were referring to ‘humanity’s red line’, what legal scholars would call a ‘peremptory norm’ against chemical weapons.)
In August 2013, compelling evidence emerged that Assad was deploying nerve gas against his own people, when an attack outside Damascus yielded thousands of patients – and hundreds of fatalities – exhibiting symptoms of exposure to nerve gas.
Obama weighed the prospect of military intervention, but ultimately decided to take no action at that time. But that wasn’t the end of it. (Or the beginning, for that matter.) With the benefit of hindsight, the UN and others have investigated a multitude of discrete chemical attacks that – from all appearances, and from the conclusions of various reports – were launched by the Assad regime against his own people. The Syrian-American Medical Association released a report with an accounting – only up to 2015 – of at least 161 confirmed deployments of chemical weapons in Syria.
In other words, chemical weapons have been a pretty standard element of the Syrian civil war – and we know that Syria had stockpiles of chemical weapons at least until 2014.
Of course, all of this raises the question: If Assad has been using chemical weapons with impunity for four years, then why is the Khan Sheikhoun attack such a big deal? As far as I can tell, the only fundamental difference is that footage of the carnage showed up on American television in this case – calling for strong political and military responses by America’s leadership. Call me cynical, but that appears to be what’s going on here: The atrocity has been going on for years, but only when it shows up on TV will Americans on the whole actually care.
Seymour Hersh and the “Whose Sarin” Story
The other allegation supporting the alternative narrative is a claim, made by some sites, that investigate reporter Seymour Hersh uncovered evidence implicating Hillary Clinton in the provision of the sarin used in the attacks.
A few problems with that contention, not the least of which is that Seymour Hersh doesn’t appear to have ever said that.
By way of background, Seymour Hersh is an investigative reporter who won a pulitzer prize in 1970 in connection with his work exposing the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. He’s done some good work over the years, though he’s also taken a lot of criticism for his heavy reliance on anonymous sources and for being ‘gullible’, using dubious hearsay and faked documents to pursue absurd claims at times. In other words, he’s an investigative journalist with a history of jumping down rabbit holes. Once in a while, he finds something big, but he requires editorial scrutiny to keep him from buying into outrageous fabrications by unreliable sources.
Hersh has expressed doubts as to whether Assad deployed chemical weapons. In 2013, he published a piece in the London Review of Books, “Whose Sarin“, suggesting that Obama may have overstated the strength of the evidence against Assad, claiming that other actors in Syria had the capability to produce sarin, and that there was some speculation within the intelligence community (anonymous, of course) that Turkey had considered ‘framing’ Assad for a sarin gas attack to push Obama to make good on his ‘red line’ threat.
If publication in the LRB seems like a strange choice, it’s because he had a hard time finding a publisher for the piece. He’s a freelancer, but usually publishes with the New Yorker – which wasn’t interested in this story.
(I can only speculate as to why the New Yorker didn’t want it, but it bears noting that most print publications – including the New Yorker – conduct due diligence on investigative reporting, so as to preserve the credibility of the publication itself. The editor of the New Yorker once told the Columbia Journalism Review that, of necessity, he knows who all of Hersh’s anonymous sources are. Hersh himself acknowledged that the Washington Post turned him down on the basis that “the sourcing in the article did not meet the Post’s standards.”)
Hersh’s 2013 story highlights the need to look at these issues with an analytical eye, but we’ve seen the evidence continue to mount for years since then, corroborated by UN and independent investigations. Ultimately, there’s little support for any sort of alternative narrative here, and the questions that Hersh raises are enormously overstated by those advocating the alternative narrative.
The alternative narrative is, in a word, unsubstantiated.
One final caution, however: In the last several weeks, we’ve discovered a great deal about Russian Active Measures. We’ve learned that foreign agents deliberately encouraged strife within the democratic party by inundating pro-Bernie sites with utterly false anti-Hillary propaganda. We’ve learned that social media manipulation and memes are actually a significant tool of Russian intelligence in this day and age.
So when you see memes popping up that support what is fundamentally a pro-Russian position, we should all be especially careful about fact-checking these memes.