Rush to Judgment in Syria?

WMDs Once Again the Basis for US Military Intervention

Syria, gas attack
Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Google Images screenshot
Reading Time: 4 minutes

The images are simply horrifying: blue-lipped children lying side by side with their bodies twisted grotesquely from neural spasms; a disconsolate father clutching his two dead babies, their faces blue from poisoning — just a few of the more than 70 victims of what just about everyone agrees was an atrocious chemical attack that took place in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun on Tuesday.

Much of the available evidence points toward the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as the perpetrator. Yet — all the more so after the swift and unexpected US military escalation which Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said had come “one step away from military clashes with Russia” (and amid fears that more could be on the table) — the duty of journalists is to look for the facts behind official narratives. That’s a major headache in Syria: especially in a town controlled by an assortment of rebels with varying degrees of linkage to al-Qaeda, where few Western journalists can even dream of setting foot.

We’ve managed to poke some holes into the official narratives of the Syrian and Russian governments, which insist that the gases came from a rebel chemical weapons depot.  Yet there are also major unanswered questions about the narrative of the Trump administration, which claims the Syrian target it bombed Thursday night was the airbase where the chemical attack originated. These questions urgently demand due diligence.

The problem of access has long plagued Western media in places like Syria: Since approximately 2013, in Syria’s case, it has been too dangerous for even the most intrepid foreign correspondents to reside in the country. Outlets have even stopped accepting stories pitched from the ground by journalists who are not locals. (They have done so out of ethical principles and in the hope of discouraging reporters from taking unreasonable risks.)

This has resulted in the main sources of information being local activists either directly linked to the rebels or working under immense pressure from al-Qaeda-linked groups. Case in point: one of the Syrian doctors on the ground who appeared in Western media reports of Tuesday’s chemical attack was investigated on terror charges in Britain in 2013.  Thus it is often impossible to separate fact from fiction, and this has dangerously reduced Western media’s standards of objectivity.

Among the more easily disprovable claims of the Syrian government, widely reported in the Russian media, has been the assertion that the Su-22 bomber plane used in the attack, a vintage Soviet model, cannot carry chemical weapons.

But there is little argument that a Su-22 bombed Khan Sheikhoun on Tuesday. Western media reported as much, too. And experts say that not only can the Su-22 carry chemical bombs, it has been used in chemical weapons attacks in the past.

“[The] Iraqi air force used [the] Su-22 Fitter, among others, to deliver chemical bombs against Iranian troops during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War,” Raymond Zilinskas — a weapons of mass destruction expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies — told WhoWhatWhy.

It’s circumstantial evidence — but that’s about as good as we can get from Syria these days, and that in itself is a major point to consider when debating whether or not to launch another major Middle Eastern war.

Donald Trump

President Trump announced US missile strikes on a Syrian military airfield, April 6, 2017.  Photo credit: Watch the video on C SPAN

There is also the issue of motive — why would Assad gas the rebels at a time when he’s widely perceived as winning the war on the ground and was on the verge of being grudgingly recognized, for the first time in years, as Syria’s legitimate ruler? As the outrage and the military response to the attack show, such a move could cost him both of these achievements. So surely there must be more to it than the claim, widely repeated by mainstream media, that he was “testing” Trump.

In the way of circumstantial counter-evidence, media activists embedded with the rebels have claimed — a day prior to the attack — that they were about to kick off an information campaign about the use of toxic substances against civilians in the very same area, on the very same day that the attack occurred (in Arabic).

Tuesday’s chemical attack was neither the first nor the worst to date in the brutal civil war which has claimed upwards of 400,000 lives in the past six years. The most infamous was the one that took place in 2013 near Damascus, which killed over 1,000 people and forced former President Obama to trip over his “red line” warning.

Even that attack, which resulted in the Syrian government shipping out its entire declared supply of chemical weapons for destruction, continues to generate controversy. In a 2014 investigation, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Seymour Hersh suggested that it was in fact NATO’s second largest force, Turkey, that had conspired with extremists among the rebels to stage the attack in order to frame Assad.

Today Turkey, which in recent months has carved out a small buffer zone in northern Syria, at times in the face of joint opposition from Russia and the US, again finds itself at a critical junction. The renowned Turkish journalist Amberin Zaman argued recently that Turkey’s entire relationship with Russia may hinge on Trump’s reaction to the attack.

“I want to express that we find this positive as a step against the al-Assad regime’s war crimes committed with chemical and conventional weapons,” Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said shortly after the US missile strike, calling for further military steps leading to Assad’s ouster.

“But is it enough? I don’t see it as being enough,” he added.

More than a decade ago, the US invaded Iraq on trumped-up WMD charges. It took many months for the truth behind those claims to emerge. Today, as the Trump administration apparently finds itself at a similar crossroads, one thing is certain: the many unanswered questions about Tuesday’s attack call for a thorough investigation.


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Bashar al-Assad (President of Russia – CC BY 4.0), Donald Trump (Gage Skidmore / Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0) and explosion (Karl-Ludwig Poggemann / Flickr – CC BY 4.0).

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10 responses to “Rush to Judgment in Syria?”

  1. COL. BECKWITH says:

    While transparency in American civil and domestic government matters is just and to be expected, it is a luxury that those charged with executing covert and overt foreign military actions cannot afford. That and the fact that everyone in Washington leaks classified info like some bad episode of “House of Cards”. The public only needs to know, well after the execution of action. Why tell your enemies of your intent, under the false guise of being open, and tolerant and all that other PC B.S.? Those days are over, and so are the Obama years of endless ‘thinking it over”and false lines in the sand. Deeds not words, and yes it is better to be feared than loved by your enemies. The rogue terror states don’t tell us when they are funding a future attack do they? Think people, just think!

  2. KevinChamberlin says:

    Two journalists who have been on the ground in Syria are Eva Bartlett and Vanessa Beeley. They are reporting the true story on the US regime change activity in Syria.

  3. KevinChamberlin says:

    There are a number of false statements and assumptions in this article. It makes no sense for the Syrian government to carry out a chemical weapons attack. The Syrian government had the foreign mercenaries on the run. There is an international conference on the issue coming up soon. I will address one issue now. You make a statement that “there is little argument that a SU-22 bombed Khan Sheikhoun,” There are a number of valid criticisms of that statement, most notably by Dr. Theodore Postol of MIT.

  4. MarkInBoston says:

    Nice work. I’m glad “someone” is taking a sober approach.

  5. Geoff Botting says:

    Russ, a worrying development just in and reported by Leith Fidel from AMM “BEIRUT, LEBANON (5:50 P.M.) – A Syrian Special Forces unit targeted a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft flying over their positions in northeastern Syria , a military source confirmed to Al-Masdar this evening.

    The U.S. reconnaissance aircraft was reportedly hovering over the Syrian Army’s Regiment 54 Base in Al-Qamishli, when the personnel at the installation opened fire on the plane.

    The aircraft fled the area around the base after it came in contact with the Syrian Arab Army on Saturday evening, the military source added.”

    If this continues it certainly does not bode well for any positive outlook in the coming days.

    Regards, Geoff

  6. Geoff Botting says:

    Russ, you make a couple of valid points. However, the outstanding question remains: what might have possibly motivated Bashar al Assad to turn upside down a situation of great advantage to himself mere days after he achieved it? It will be interesting to see if a credible response emerges from the hall of mirrors that US policy has become.

  7. oscarromero says:

    Pretty weak follow-up on your part. You joined the rush to judgment as fast as all other main-stream media. Even your all-too-late hesitation today is not up to journalistic standards. Admit that you jumped on the Democratic bandwagon without evidence. All your portrayals of yourself as independent and alternative are false. Any intelligent person would know that without an investigation, accusations are simply propaganda. And that is what you have engaged in — and even now do not have the honesty to admit: propaganda for the war state (Republican and Democratic). Shame on you.

    • Jeff Clyburn says:

      Vague. Be more specific about what you’re taking issue with in the piece, or admit you didn’t actually read it.

    • Jill Snowflake says:

      The critique seems pretty specific to me.

    • James says:

      Umm…did you even read the article? How did WWW “join the rush to judgment as fast as all other main-stream media” ? The last sentence of the article: “the many unanswered questions about Tuesday’s attack call for a thorough investigation.” You are gas-lighting. Shame on you.

    • Jill Snowflake says:

      To an extent you are correct as this article does gives cover somewhat to the illegal and seemingly limited in effect airstrikes. How can any furthering of Syrian carnage be justified before a truly independent investigation ?It’s very difficult to just accept the word on trust of the parties involved in the conflict (fighters, intelligence agencies), that obviously want to see greater involvement of the US in this civil war.

  8. Bitcho says:

    Just because they can, doesn’t mean they did. That’s why we investigate.

  9. 0040 says:

    BS ! No evidence pointed to Assad as doing this chem attack or the earlier one mentioned. In fact the evidence clearly shows it to be a false flag operation by ISIL as Mr Wilkerson detailed today on TRNN. Taken in by Trumps “Wag the Dog” move ?? C’mon eh. Your drift into the boudoir of the security state is troubling.

    • russbaker says:

      Its certainly unfortunate that, in comments sections almost universally, those who are not a troll have given up even commenting at all. And the trolls are on auto pilot: they don’t even actually read the articles they comment on; thus, their comments make no sense. Though nice touch with the “boudoir” bit, LOL!