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Archive for August 2013

Are we going to stand idly by?

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By Stephen Gowans

In the end, the US intelligence community assessment released by Washington yesterday to justify an attack on Syria amounts to this: There is no confirming evidence that a chemical weapons attack occurred on August 21 in Syria, or if one occurred, that it was carried out by the Syrian military.

Newspapers have been warning that Washington would be unable to point to a smoking gun and had no hard evidence to back up its charges against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Nothing in the official assessment disconfirms this.

The assessment is a judgment, based on an opinion that a chemical weapons attack occurred and that the Syrian military is the only agent in Syria capable of carrying one out.

Others have a different view. The UN special commission of inquiry into Syria announced in May that it had strong suspicions that opposition forces had used chemical weapons. Speculating about the possible outcome of a US-French war on Syria, Washington Post reporter Anne Gearan wrote today that “the rebels might be tempted…to stage further attacks and blame” the Syrian government.

Even more damaging to Washington’s case is this August 29 report from Associated Press reporters Kimberly Dozier and Matt Apuzzo:

U.S. intelligence officials are not so certain that the suspected chemical attack was carried out on Assad’s orders. Some have even talked about the possibility that rebels could have carried out the attack in a callous and calculated attempt to draw the West into the war. That suspicion was not included in the official intelligence report, according to the official who described the report.

US secretary of state John Kerry, Washington’s war-monger in chief on the Syrian file, said: “The question is: What are we—we collectively—what are we in the world going to do about this?”


• The United States is hardly an impartial party, and has been trying to topple the Arab nationalist government in Syria for decades. It has an interest in contriving pretexts to intervene militarily.
• An attack on Syria would be illegal.
• Even if there was confirming evidence that the Syrian military launched a chemical attack, it is not a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention. Neither are US allies Egypt and Israel. And while Syria did in 1968 sign onto the Geneva Protocol banning the use in war of gasses, the protocol is concerned with war between, not within, states.
• Along with Russia, the United States has the world’s largest stockpiles of chemical weapons.
• Washington’s revulsion at the use of chemical weapons is disingenuous. The United States aided Saddam Hussein to gas Iranians in the late 1980s.

The more fitting question is: What are we—we collectively—what are we in the world going to do about the United States arrogantly arrogating onto itself, in contempt of international law, in defiance of the greater part of humanity, the right to wage war on Syria, and worse, on a pretext?


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August 31, 2013 at 1:57 pm

Posted in Chemical Weapons, Syria

US Strike on Syria: No Hard Evidence, Insincere, Illegal

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By Stephen Gowans

Political scientist Ian Hurd, writing in the New York Times, scotches the misconception that there is a legal basis for a US attack on Syria. Because Syria does not belong to international conventions prohibiting the use of chemical weapons, there is no “legal justification in existing law” for US military action, Hurd writes. Even if Syria had signed onto these conventions, the treaties are enforceable only by the United Nations Security Council, and not by the United States acting unilaterally or with allies. Indeed, an attack on Syria would be illegal. [1]

Without a legal basis for military action, Washington and its British and French allies have invoked a moral imperative. British prime minister David Cameron says that planned military action “is about chemical weapons. Their use is wrong and the world shouldn’t stand idly by.” However, the Washington Post’s Walter Pincus reminds us that, “In the late 1980s, not only did the Reagan White House take no action when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against Iranian forces and his own people but the United States also aided the attacks by providing intelligence.” [2]

And it’s not as if the United States has an aversion to chemical weapons. It has, along with the Russia, the world’s largest stockpiles. [3]

But the lack of a legal basis for military action, and the insincerity of the allies’ claim that they’re driven by a moral revulsion against chemical weapons, is beside the point. There’s no hard evidence that Syrian forces are responsible for last week’s attack. US, British and French politicians may say they’re certain that Assad is guilty, but the US intelligence community isn’t.

According to The Associated Press’s Kimberly Dozier and Matt Apuzzo [4],

• U.S. intelligence officials say, “The intelligence linking Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or his inner circle to an alleged chemical weapons attack that killed at least 100 people is no ‘slam dunk.’”
• “A report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence outlining the evidence against Syria is thick with caveats.”
• “U.S. intelligence officials are not so certain that the suspected chemical attack was carried out on al-Assad’s orders, or even completely sure it was carried out by government forces (emphasis added).”

The New York Times’ Mark Mazzetti and Mark Landler echo the Associated Press’s reporting. “Administration officials say there is no “‘smoking gun’” and no “hard evidence tying Mr. Assad to the attack.” [5]

So, there’s no hard evidence that the target has done what he is accused of, and even if he had, military action would still be illegal, and the assertion that the planned attack is driven by moral imperatives is not credible. Not only did the United States assist Saddam Hussein’s gas attacks, it has stood idly by while Saudi tanks and troops helped Bahrain’s royal dictatorship crack down violently on protesters and stood idly by as Egypt’s military launched a coup and killed civilians who were peacefully demonstrating against the illegal ouster of their elected government. The idea that US foreign policy in connection with Syria is shaped by outrage over the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian military and its violent repression of demonstrators carries no weight in light of Washington’s benign tolerance of similar behaviour on the part of its allies.

To understand US, British and French actions vis-à-vis Syria, it is therefore necessary to understand what sets Syria apart from Bahrain, Egypt’s military rulers, and other Western allies which have one or more of the characteristics the imperial powers claim to abominate about Syria. The distinguishing factor appears to be the degree to which the balance of a country’s public policy tilts away from domestic constituencies toward accommodating the economic, political and military interests of Western financial and corporate concerns.

Egypt, Bahrain, the Gulf state monarchies and Israel are pro-West, which means accommodating of Western economic, political and military interests, while Syria is pro-Arab, and pro-Syrian. This is the real basis for US, French and British hostility toward the country. The rest is artifice, intended to obscure the authentic motivation for Western aggression against the Arab nationalist state.

1. Ian Hurd, “Bomb Syria, even if it is illegal”, The New York Times, August 27, 2013.
2. Walter Pincus, “Obama is boxed in on Syria”, The Washington Post, August 28, 2013.
3. Hurd.
4. Kimberly Dozier and Matt Apuzzo, “Intelligence linking Syria to chemical attack no ‘slam dunk’, U.S. intelligence says”, The Associated Press, August 29, 2013.
5. Mark Mazzetti and Mark Landler, “U.S. facing test on data to back action on Syria”, New York Times, August 28, 2013.

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August 29, 2013 at 9:16 pm

Posted in Chemical Weapons, Syria

Never Mind Whether Obama’s Red Line Has Been Crossed—Is It Even Legitimate?

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By Stephen Gowans

US officials say they’re convinced that the Syrian government gassed its own people. This might mean something, if US officials weren’t notoriously bad at getting the facts straight. In 1998, the Pentagon flattened a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant with a cruise missile, because US officials said they were convinced it was a site for manufacturing chemical weapons (CW). In turns out the plant made pills. In 1999, Serbia and parts of Montenegro were bombed by US and NATO warplanes for 78 days because US officials said they were convinced the Milosevic government was carrying out a genocide in Kosovo. They were wrong. Over a million Iraqis were sanctioned, bombed and invaded into early graves by the United States and its British subaltern because the officials of both countries said they were convinced the Iraqi government was hiding weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Wrong again. The weapons Iraq was said to be hiding, but had destroyed, had only a tiny fraction of the mass destructive power of the weapons in the arsenals of the US and UK militaries, which didn’t call their weapons WMD, but “deterrents” and “guarantors of our national security.” The Libyan government was ultimately toppled by NATO warplanes because US, French and British officials said they were convinced Libyan leader Muamar Gaddafi was about to commit genocide. Gaddafi had neither the means nor intention to do so. Yet another spectacular error.

In making the point that Washington has waged unprovoked wars on the basis of faulty intelligence at best, but far more likely contrived intelligence and sheer deception, we mustn’t implicitly accept the idea that the United States has the right and obligation to outrage the sovereignty of any country it wishes because the country’s government has crossed a red line the United States has unilaterally established. In doing so, we become locked in a framework of the US ruling class’s making, accepting its claim to have a moral right to assume the role of global rule-maker, prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner—in other words, the planet’s autocrat.

Accepting this framework could limit the questions we ask, making us miss important ones. When is an intervention legitimate, and when is it not? Is intervention to punish a country for using a class of weapons in a civil war legitimate? If not, why even talk about whether the trigger for intervention has been pulled if the trigger is invalid? Why talk about whether Obama’s red line has been crossed, rather than whether Obama’s red line is even legitimate? Why are the United States’ massively destructive weapons not called WMD while Syria’s not so massively destructive weapons are? If the Americans, British, French, Russians, Chinese, Indians, Pakistanis, and Israelis have a right (de jure or de facto) to have nuclear weapons as a deterrent, why not the North Koreans?

Diana Johnstone eloquently pointed out in Counterpunch yesterday that, “There are many ways of killing people in a civil war. Selecting one as a trigger for US intervention serves primarily to give rebels an excellent reason to carry out a ‘false flag’ operation that will bring NATO into the war they are losing.” [1] True. But we could also note, There are many ways of killing people in a civil war. Why single out CW? It can’t be because they’re uniquely destructive or gruesome. All the deaths due to reported use of chemical agents in Syria are dwarfed by the number of deaths due to other weapons. And dying by gas is no more gruesome than evisceration by an al-Qaeda rebel or having your head blown off by a Saudi-supplied RPG.

Part of the answer, I think, for why CW have been singled out is because Washington can’t single out the Syrian government for using violence to put down a rebellion. That’s because the United States’ satellites, the ruling generals in Egypt, and the Arab royal dictators, are using violence in Egypt and Bahrain to put down rebellions there. To punish the Syrian government for using violence to defend itself against a rebellion is a tough sell, given that Washington’s friends are doing the same in their own countries. UK leader David Cameron says that the plan to use US WMD (cruise missiles) against Syria “is about chemical weapons. Their use is wrong and the world shouldn’t stand idly by.” So, what has the Syrian government done (or said to have done), that the military dictatorship in Egypt and royal dictatorship in Bahrain haven’t done? The answer is: been accused of deploying CW. Hence, CW have been singled out as one of many ways of killing people in a civil war, that will provoke an intervention. The motivation is purely political, and the singling out of CW has been customized to the Syrians to provide a pretext to attack them.

If we’re to use the term WMD descriptively, then WMD cannot be limited to nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, or be something that only countries that insist on safeguarding their political and economic independence have. It must include all weapons that can create mass destruction, no matter who has them. Incendiary bombs are WMD. The destruction of Dresden, Tokyo, Hamburg and other cities by US and British firebombing raids, attests to that. A Tomahawk cruise missile is a WMD. Nuclear weapons have become less attractive to the US military, as it develops conventional bombs that have near-nuclear destructive power, without the radioactive mess. Are these not WMD?

We should ask, Why is it not wrong for the United States and the United Kingdom to use sanctions of mass destruction to kill over a million Iraqis, and conventional bombs and missiles of mass destruction, along with depleted uranium, to invade Iraq, when it is wrong to use CW to kill a few hundred people (which, for reasons I’ve outlined elsewhere, there is no proof, open to examination, that the Syrian government used, and cogent reasons to believe it didn’t)? We should also ask, Is there not something morally grotesque about the United States and the United Kingdom planning to use their own WMD to punish Syria for the deaths of a few hundred people through CW, when the Anglo-American alliance used sanctions of mass destruction and weapons of mass destruction against Iraq, on contrived grounds, producing vastly more deaths and engendering a humanitarian catastrophe on an immense scale? Isn’t this even more grotesque considering that the evidence points more strongly to the alleged gassing incident being the work of the opposition, allied to the United States, than the Syrian government?

Meanwhile, one of Washington’s servile friends, the royal dictator, King Abdullah of Jordan, has called for a peaceful settlement of Syria’s civil war. Abdullah’s hypocrisy is stunning. He has turned Jordanian territory over to the CIA and Saudis as a center for training Syrian rebels and distributing weapons to the Syrian opposition. Hardly a contribution to a peaceful settlement. [2]

Turkey, which once maintained a vast prison house of nations that included the Arabs, says it will join other former colonial powers, France and Britain, in the campaign to punish Syria. The Syrian government, it should be stressed, remains part of a movement of Arab national emancipation and colonial liberation. Unlike the US Communist Party and other leftists who make conspicuous displays of turning up their noses at the Syrian government, I’m happy to recognize the role it plays in the movement for Arab emancipation, and regard it as progressive. I measure no movement for emancipation against utopian standards, and acknowledge that the Syrian government, as every other organization in the movement for liberation, whether of race, class or gender, also falls short by utopian standards. The question is not whether the Syrian government is inerrant and beyond reproach, but whether it is advancing the cause of emancipation. The servile Arab League, from which the legitimate government of Syria has been ejected, and which has settled comfortably into the role of US puppet, is not so concerned about emancipation, and the same leftists who publicly revile the Syrian government are not so concerned about showing their distaste for the reactionary Arab regimes, all friends of the West.

Finally, the Wall Street Journal reported today that according to a June poll it sponsored with NBC News, US public opinion is opposed to a military intervention to respond to “the Syrian government’s killing of protesters and civilians.” Only 15 percent of respondents backed a US military intervention. The newspaper didn’t say whether respondents were asked if they favored US military intervention in response to the Egyptian military’s killing of protesters and civilians in Egypt, or Bahrain’s royal dictatorship killing of protesters and civilians in Bahrain, although we can be pretty certain they weren’t. Within the ruling class framework of acceptable thought, punishing allies for doing what enemies are punished for, is unthinkable. It could be said that the poll results are irrelevant, because the survey question didn’t ask about CW. That’s true, but even if the CW question had been posed, the poll results would still be irrelevant. US state officials don’t make decisions on the basis of public opinion, and aren’t particularly swayed by it. The taking and presenting of public opinion polls simply create the illusion that public opinion matters in the formulation of US foreign policy. It doesn’t. What matters are the interests of major investors, bankers and the top executives of America’s largest corporations, and the opinions of the members of the power elite that represent them. And what matters to them is securing more markets, labor and natural resources for US capital to exploit and plunder by toppling governments that insist on using these for their own country’s development and people’s welfare, rather than for the enrichment of Wall Street investment bankers and the expansion of corporate America’s profit margins. The red line Syria crossed had nothing to do with CW, and everything to do with its insisting on preserving its political and economic independence.

1. Diana Johnstone, “US uses past crimes to legalize future ones”, http://www.counterpunch.com, August 26, 2013.
2. Michael R. Gordon and Thom Shanker, “U.S. to keep warplanes in Jordan, pressing Syria”, The New York times, June 15, 2013; Adam Entous, Julian E. Barnes and Siobhan Gorman, “U.S. begins shipping arms for Syrian rebels”, The Wall Street Journal, June 26, 2013; Adam Entous, Nour Malas and Margaret Coker, “A veteran Saudi power player works to build support to topple Assad”, The Wall Street Journal, August 25, 2013.

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August 28, 2013 at 10:51 pm

Posted in Chemical Weapons, Syria

Syria has the right to use chemical weapons, but there’s no proof, or reason to believe, it has

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By Stephen Gowans

“’The fact that an attack has taken place is not going to be hard to establish; the hard part is going to be assessing the blame,’ said Gary Samore, who until recently was the Obama administration’s top adviser on arms control and weapons of mass destruction.” [1]

It seems that the task of producing evidence that the Syrian government launched a gas attack against civilians last week has, in fact, become so difficult, that Washington, the French, Britain, and the Western media, have simply side-stepped the problem by declaring that unless the Syrian government proves itself innocent, it must be guilty.

And to seal the deal, they say that even if Damascus proves itself innocent (and how can it prove a negative?), it’s too late. “At this juncture, the belated decision by [the Syrian government] to grant access to the U.N. team is too late to be credible,” a US official said. [2] This is a red herring. The team of 20 World Health Organization inspectors has neither the mandate, nor the ability, to determine who launched the attack, only whether chemical weapons were used. Even if the inspectors had access days ago to the site of the alleged attack, they would only be able to ascertain whether a gas attacked had occurred, not who was behind it.

Equating evidence of a chemical weapons attack with evidence that Assad’s government undertook one, is a crafty trap that the media have willingly stepped into, and that the left risks blundering into. The trap is to accept as axiomatic and beyond dispute that any gas attack must be the work of the Syrian government. This is the view of British foreign secretary William Hague, US and French officials, editors of major newspapers in the United States and Britain, and of the so-called reliable reporter Patrick Cockburn, who equates mounting evidence that a gas attack occurred, with mounting evidence that Assad gassed his people. [3]

There are three reasons to reject this view:

1. It’s based on no evidence, and only an assumption—one which conveniently fits the political agendas of the governments making it. Leftists who also make it may want to reacquaint themselves with Gramsci’s ideas on hegemony.

2. The Syrian government’s launching of a gas attack would be so thoroughly against its own interests, and with so little to show for it, that to accept this view is to accept a ridiculously implausible scenario. Why use a weapon of mass destruction to produce limited casualties? Why use gas against civilians, and not armed rebels? Why launch an attack at the same time WHO inspectors are in the country to investigate chemical weapons use? Why hand political enemies a pretext to step up their military intervention? If the Syrian government was riddled with morons, we might believe the story, but it hasn’t hung on for three years against armed rebels backed by royal dictators, former colonial powers, and history’s top imperialist power, without perspicacity and knowing when to avoid suicidal missteps.

3. The idea that the opposition carried out the attack, on the other hand, is more plausible. I have outlined the reasons why elsewhere, from the existence of a strong motive to carry out a gas attack and blame it on the government to pave the way for the West to escalate its military involvement in Syria, to reporting that points to the rebels possessing chemical agents. To this can be added the following from today’s Washington Post:

Adding urgency to the international deliberations, Jahbat al-Nusra, an opposition group in Syria that the United States deems a terrorist organization, said Sunday that the attack gives a green light for rebels to respond in kind.

‘It is permissible for us to punish in the same way,’ Jahbat al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani said in a statement Sunday titled ‘Eye for an Eye’.

‘It is a debt that will not be lifted until we make them taste what they made our sons taste,’ said Jalani, a Syrian who fought with al-Qaeda in Iraq. ‘With every chemical rocket that fell upon our people in Syria, the price will be paid by one of their villages.’ [4]

If the Syrian military is the only force in Syria that can carry out a chemical weapons attack, how do we explain Jolani’s threat? It could, of course, be empty bluster, but in the context of evidence the United Nations independent commission of inquiry on Syria said that it had found that the opposition had used chemical agents [5], and Wall Street Journal reporting that “Islamist rebel brigades have several times been reported to have gained control of stockpiles of chemicals, including sarin,” [6] it at least gives ground to very seriously doubt the assertion that chemical weapons use is a Syrian government monopoly.

Iraq and Iran Reprised

Demanding that Damascus prove itself innocent of the allegations the West has made, is the same tactic the US and its British and French subalterns used in Iraq, and use today in connection with Iran.

The Iraqis were required to prove they had no weapons of mass destruction, and their inability to prove a negative provided a US-led coalition with a pretext to bomb and sanction. This was a campaign of genocide that led to the deaths of over a million civilians, before a ground war was launched in 2003 that created a vast humanitarian catastrophe on top of the profound damage the imperialist coalition had already created. No weapons of mass destruction were found.

The Iranians are required to prove they don’t have a nuclear weapons program, even though US intelligence says they don’t, and IAEA inspectors have no evidence that nuclear material is being diverted to military use. All the same, the country is being subjected to an assault from the West on three fronts: ideological, economic and military. The Iranians must prove their innocence, simply because the West says they’re guilty.


Declaring countries guilty until proven innocent isn’t half as absurd as setting out to punish the putative, though by no means actual, use of chemical agents to kill a few hundred people, while blithely accepting the killing of many more by conventional arms. Thousands of Syrians have already been killed by assault rifles and artillery, many, if not most, at the hands of the Syrian military. If there are no grounds to intervene in Syria’s internal affairs to punish the Syrian government for using conventional weapons to produce thousands of deaths (and there aren’t), surely there are no grounds to punish the same government for producing a few hundred deaths with chemical weapons (laying aside, for the moment, that there’s no evidence Damascus has actually done this and no cogent reasons to believe it would.)

How is it, then, that some weapons like Tomahawk cruise missiles, are all right to use, while others, like mustard and sarin gas, are not—especially considering that Tomahawk cruise missiles have the potential to kill far more people than the limited number of people that have been killed in alleged gas attacks in Syria? The answer, I think, lies in what weapons the United States regards, at this moment, as useful to its military goals, and the weapons which are not useful, but which may be useful to countries the United States deems its enemies. A country can’t be punished for using weapons the US military itself might use, except if they’re nuclear weapons, and then only if that country is North Korea.

Gas is an inefficient weapon. It’s messy, difficult to use, and its effects are unpredictable. The United States military wouldn’t use gas, because it has far more effective and certain ways to slaughter large numbers of people. So it demonizes gas, the weapon it doesn’t need, but which less armipotent countries might find useful, while branding far more destructive weapons—weapons with the potential to create mass destruction—as acceptable. This establishes the double standard of: Our WMDs are acceptable, but yours are not.

The great absurdity, then, is that the United States is poised on the brink of using Tomahawk cruise missiles against Syria, which could kill more people than all the people killed in alleged gas attacks attributed to the Syrian military without proof.

Syria’s Right to Use Chemical Weapons

Gas as a weapon is no more inherently gruesome than are Tomahawk cruise missiles, or the warplanes, tanks, and attack helicopters that the United States itself uses and sells to its Arab dictator friends, royal and otherwise, to punish, intimidate, destroy and conquer. Gas can’t be declared beyond the pale simply because it has no useful place in the US arsenal. If Syria is to be punished for using gas to produce hundreds of deaths (and without proof or even sound reason to believe it has done so), surely the United States should be punished for killing millions of civilians by conventional methods in an endless string of wars, and so too should France and Britain, whose records of slaughter in colonial wars, including those in the Levant, are hardly to be admired. To our list of absurdities must be added the spectacle of countries with the blood of tens of millions on their hands, parading about as humanitarian warriors.

The Syrian government has a right to use gas to protect itself against the neo-colonial machinations of Western powers, as well as a formal legal right to do so without punishment. It has not signed onto the international treaty banning their use, and neither have Washington’s key subalterns in the region, Israel and Egypt. Syria, therefore, has no formal legal obligation to refrain from using chemical weapons. All the same, there is neither proof nor reason to believe that Damascus has exercised this right.

Limiting ourselves to the empirical question of whether the Syrian government did indeed exercise its right, we should acknowledge that there are two issues to be addressed.

• Were chemical weapons used?
• Who used them?

Regarding the first question, there is no proof yet that chemical weapons were indeed used (though there is mounting circumstantial evidence they were.) However, it’s possible that proof will never be forthcoming and that some other cause is responsible for the deaths.

Proof that chemical weapons were used, however, does not establish that they were used by the Syrian government. The question of who did use them is far more difficult to establish, especially in light of the reality that there is no reason to believe that Damascus has a monopoly on chemical agents. The rebels have the motive, and the evidence suggests they also have the means, to carry out a chemical weapons attack.

1. Anne Gearan, Loveday Morris and Colum Lynch, “U.N. to inspect site of alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria; lawmakers call for U.S. military response”, The Washington Post, August 25, 2013.
2. Gearan, Morris and Lynch.
3. Patrick Cockburn, “Did Syria gas its own people? The evidence is mounting”, The Independent, August 25, 2013.
4. Gearan, Morris and Lynch.
5. “Syrian rebels may have used Sarin” Reuters, May 5, 2013
6. Margaret Coker and Christopher, “Chemical agents reflect brutal tactics in Syria”, The Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2013.

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August 26, 2013 at 5:20 pm

Posted in Chemical Weapons, Syria

Syrian Rebels Most Likely Culprits in Gas Deaths

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By Stephen Gowans

British foreign secretary William Hague says there’s no doubt that the Syrian military is responsible for last week’s alleged gas attack which killed scores of people in Syria. So too do the editors of major newspapers in the United States and Britain. US officials have also said the Syrian government is responsible, though at the same time they admit they are still trying to ascertain the facts. The Wall Street Journal could report, as a consequence, that there’s an “emerging consensus” that the Assad government was behind the attack. The consensus, however—and it’s one limited to Syria’s political enemies—is backed up by not a scintilla of evidence.

You might wonder why journalists haven’t challenged Hague’s assertion that the only possible culprit is the Syrian government. After all, there is another possible culprit: the opposition.

In May, Carla Del Ponte, a member of the United Nations independent commission of inquiry on Syria, told reporters that that the commission had gathered evidence that chemical weapons had been “used by the opponents, by the rebels.” [1]

Last month, the New York Times reported on an investigation that “had found evidence of crudely manufactured sarin, a nerve agent, delivered via an unguided projectile with a crude explosive charge — not the sort of munitions stockpiled by the Syrian military.” [2]

And the Wall Street Journal reported that, “Islamist rebel brigades have several times been reported to have gained control of stockpiles of chemicals, including sarin.” [3]

What’s more, the Syrian government “said its soldiers had found chemical supplies in areas seized from rebel forces.” [4]

Doubtlessly, the last statement will be dismissed on grounds that the source is the Syrian government, and that Damascus is an interested party, motivated to provide misleading information. But the Syrian government is only as much an interested party as are the rebels, William Hague, the White House and French officials. That, however, hasn’t stopped Western journalists from accepting the pronouncements of their own leaders without question. You might call it chauvinist journalism.

Still, chauvinist journalists could at least evince a modicum of scepticism. After all, their leaders have a history of fabricating evidence to mislead public opinion. Think no further than Iraq’s phantom weapons of mass destruction. Or, given recent talk about using NATO’s 1999 terror bombing of Serbia as a model for intervention in Syria, we might consider the tens of thousands of corpses NATO promised that forensic pathologists would uncover in the “killing fields” of Kosovo, but didn’t.

So, why are newspaper editors taking William Hague, along with US and French officials, at their word?
Three possibilities suggest themselves, none of them encouraging. The editors are:

• Gullible, chauvinists, or both;
• Enslaved to a business model of keeping costs low by simply echoing what people in power say about what’s going on in the West’s former colonies (journalism as stenography);
• Knowingly complicit in misleading public opinion to give license to their governments to pursue neo-colonial agendas.

As mentioned, there’s not one iota of evidence to back up Hague’s assertion. U.S. intelligence is “still trying to determine whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad unleashed a deadly chemical weapons attack against his people earlier this week. “ [5] The State Department says that the facts remain to be determined. [6] And while much has been made by the media about the statement from Doctors without Borders that hundreds died from what appears to be exposure to a neurotoxin, the organization could not say “who was responsible for the attack.” [7]

No one, however, should be surprised if supporting facts are provided soon. As the New York Times explained, the White House doesn’t have a smoking gun…”yet.” The rush to judge Assad guilty on no evidence makes clear that the conclusion has already been arrived at. We’re just waiting for US intelligence to assemble the “facts”. [8]

It pays then to be equipped to resist the propaganda assault. There are plenty of reasons to dismiss the “emerging consensus” among Assad’s political enemies. It is based on a story that is full of holes.

What could the Syrian government possibly hope to gain by gassing civilians? If the aim was to kill a few hundred people, conventional weapons could have done the job far more readily, and without the unwelcome consequence of handing the United States, and hated former colonial powers, a pretext to resume their meddling in Syrian affairs.

And wouldn’t it make more sense to kill armed rebels, not unarmed civilians?

Also, why would the Syrian military undertake this pointless act at precisely the time a UN team has arrived to investigate possible use of chemical agents? Only if we believe the Syrian government and military are made up of complete imbeciles does the story hang together.

I have no more evidence for what I’m about to say than the Americans, British and French have that the deaths in Syria were due to a chemical attack launched by the Syrian military, but all the same, if we’re to compare scenarios for plausibility, the more plausible scenario is that the rebels staged the attack to provide their allies in the West with a pretext to step up their military intervention. There’s reason to believe they have access to chemical weapons. They have a motive (they can’t topple Assad without Western intervention.) And as they’ve documented themselves with endless atrocity videos, they have no squeamishness about killing large numbers of people in gruesome ways.

So, no, Mr Hague, it is not at all clear that Syrians were killed by a gas attack launched by a government you seek to overthrow. It seems more plausible, on the other hand, that your allies in the opposition did the deed.

1. Syrian rebels may have used Sarin” Reuters, May 5, 2013.
2. Rick Gladstone, “Russia says study suggests Syria rebels used sarin”, The New York Times, July 9, 2013.
3. Margaret Coker and Christopher, “Chemical agents reflect brutal tactics in Syria”, The Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2013.
4. Ben Hubbard, “Signs of chemical attack detailed by aid group”, The New York Times, August 24, 2013.
5. Bradley Klapper and Robert Burns, “Obama weighs options for military action against Syria as U.S. naval forces move closer”, The Associated Press, August 24, 2013.
6. Ben Hubbard, “Signs of chemical attack detailed by aid group”, The New York Times, August 24, 2013.
7. Ben Hubbard, “Signs of chemical attack detailed by aid group”, The New York Times, August 24, 2013.
8. Mark Landler, Mark Mazzetti and Alissa J. Rubin, “Obama officials weigh response to Syria assault”, The New York Times, August 22, 2013.

Written by what's left

August 26, 2013 at 1:11 am

Posted in Chemical Weapons, Syria

Accusations Continue, But Still No Evidence of a Syrian Military Gas Attack

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By Stephen Gowans

Two days after a possible chemical weapons attack in Syria we know that:

• The United States does not have “conclusive evidence that the (Syrian) government was behind poison-gas attacks.” [Wall Street Journal, 1]
• “Neither the United States nor European countries…have a ‘smoking gun’ proving that Mr. Assad’s troops used chemical weapons in the attack.” [New York Times, 2]
• The State Department doesn’t know “If these reports are true.” [New York Times, 3]
• The White House is trying to “ascertain the facts.” [Wall Street Journal, 4]

All the same, the absence of evidence hasn’t stopped the Pentagon “from updating target lists for possible airstrikes on a range of Syrian government and military installations”; [5] hasn’t stopped Britain and France from accusing the Syrian government of carrying out an atrocity; and hasn’t diminished the enthusiasm of newspaper editors for declaring Assad guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt.

“There is no doubt,” intoned the editors of one newspaper–with an omniscience denied to lesser mortals, including, it seems, US officials who are still trying “to ascertain the facts”—“that chemical weapons were used” and that Assad “committed the atrocity.” [6]

In a editorial, The Guardian avers that the Syrian military “is the only combatant with the capability to use chemical weapons on this scale.” Yet The Wall Street Journal’s Margaret Coker and Christopher Rhoads report that “Islamist rebel brigades have several times been reported to have gained control of stockpiles of chemicals, including sarin.” [7]

That might account for why the White House admitted two months ago that while it believed chemical weapons had been used in Syria, it has no evidence to indicate “who was responsible for (their) dissemination.” [8]

And given that the US president claimed chemical weapons use by the Syrian military would be a red line, the rebels have a motivation to stage a sarin attack and blame it on government forces to bring the United States into the conflict more forcefully on their side.

For the Syrian government, however, the calculus is entirely different. Using chemical weapons would simply hand the United States a pretext to more muscularly intervene in Syria’s internal affairs. Since this is decidedly against Damascus’s interests, we should be skeptical of any claim that the Syrian government is defying Obama’s red line.

Another reason for skepticism: Why use chemical weapons to produce the limited number of casualties that have been attributed to chemical agents use in Syria, when conventional weapons can just as easily produce casualties of the same magnitude—without proffering an excuse to Western countries to launch air strikes?

Last month, the New York Times’ Rick Gladstone reported on a study which “found evidence of crudely manufactured sarin, a nerve agent, delivered via an unguided projectile with a crude explosive charge — not the sort of munitions stockpiled by the Syrian military.” [9]

So, no, the Syrian military is not the only combatant capable of using chemical weapons in Syria. But unlike the rebels, it has no motive to do so, and compelling reasons not to.

That’s not to say that chemical weapons were used, rebel forces used them, and the Syrian military did not. The evidence is murky.

But that’s the point. The rush to blame the Syrian military, and to update target lists for possible airstrikes, on the basis of no evidence, smacks of political motivation.

Clearly, the United States, France and Britain want public opinion on their side for stepped up intervention in Syria. They’ve decided to declare Assad and the Syrian military guilty of using a weapon of mass destruction.

But the conviction of guilt, as is evident through the statements of politicians and reporting of newspapers, rests on no sound evidentiary basis—indeed, on no evidence at all.

1. Adam Entous, Julian E. Barnes and Inti Landauro, “U.S. weighs plans to punish Assad”, The Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2013
2 Mark Landler, Mark Mazzetti and Alissa J. Rubin, “Obama officials weigh response to Syria assault”, The New York Times, August 22, 2013
3. Landler, Mazzetti and Rubin.
4. Entous, Barnes and Landauro.
5. Entous, Barnes and Landauro.
6. “Syria: chemical weapons with impunity”, The Guardian, August 22, 2013.
7. Margaret Coker and Christopher Rhoads, “Chemical agents reflect brutal tactics in Syria”, The Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2013
8. Statement by Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes on Syrian Chemical Weapons Use, June 13, 2013, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/06/13/statement-deputy-national-security-advisor-strategic-communications-ben-
9. Rick Gladstone, “Russia says study suggests Syria rebels used sarin”, The New York Times, July 9, 2013

Written by what's left

August 23, 2013 at 5:20 pm

Posted in Chemical Weapons, Syria

New Allegations of Chemical Weapons Use in Syria Based on US Political Motives, not Facts

with 5 comments

By Stephen Gowans

The United States is once again, without evidence, accusing Syrian forces of using chemical weapons.

A senior White House official spoke of “strong indications” of “a chemical weapons attack—clearly by the (Syrian) government,” but added “we need to do our due diligence and get all the facts.” [1] In other words, we haven’t got the facts, but that won’t stand in the way of our making the accusation.

The New York Times called the accusation into question with this headline: Images of Death in Syria, but No Proof of Chemical Attack. [2]

The newspaper went on to say that according to experts, videos of the attack’s aftermath “did not prove the use of chemical weapons.” It added that,

Gwyn Winfield, editor of CBRNe World, a journal that covers unconventional weapons, said that the medics would most likely have been sickened by exposure to so many people dosed with chemical weapons—a phenomenon not seen in the videos. [3]

The Syrian military vehemently denies that it used chemical weapons. That, of course, doesn’t prove its innocence. The Syrians could be trying to cover up to avoid a backlash. But if they’re concerned about a backlash, why use the weapons at all?

It makes no sense to use gas, a weapon of mass destruction, to kill only as many people as can be killed readily with conventional weapons [4], while handing the United States, France and Britain—countries with histories of finding excuses to topple economically nationalist governments—a pretext to step up their intervention in Syria’s internal affairs.

The White House’s contention that Syrian forces are using chemical weapons but “keeping strikes small…possibly to avoid mass casualties that could spark a stronger international response” [5] doesn’t add up. It’s like accusing a country of using nuclear weapons, but keeping casualties low to avoid eliciting a punitive international response. If your objective is few casualties and no strong international response, why use weapons that produce neither?

The White House set the standard earlier this year for hurling baseless accusations in connection with Syria when it announced that it had concluded that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons, but admitted it had no proof.

On June 13, Deputy US National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes announced that: “Following a deliberative review, our intelligence community assesses that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year.” [6]

Further down in the statement Rhodes admitted that the evidence the United States had collected “does not tell us how or where the individuals were exposed or who was responsible for the dissemination (emphasis added).” [7]

Read that again: The White House’s evidence “does not tell us…who was responsible.”

Contrast the rush to find Damascus guilty on the basis of no evidence with the White House’s ridiculous refusal to conclude that the Egyptian military carried out a coup d’etat, despite overwhelming and conspicuous evidence it did. For Washington, it seems, facts are facts, and conclusions are conclusions, but they exist in separate, unconnected, worlds.

So why is the United States baselessly accusing the Syrian military of using chemical weapons? For the same reason it calls the Syrian government the Assad regime. Both serve to create a demon. And creating demons, as Michael Parenti has pointed out, gives you license to intervene. (8)

In a letter to a US Congressman, the United States’ top military officer, General Martin Dempsey, acknowledged that the war in Syria is fuelled by “underlying and historic ethnic, religious and tribal issues’—a substantially different, and more realistic, take on the war than the simple-minded pro-democracy-rebels-fighting- against-dictatorship twaddle favored by the manufacturers of public opinion. Dempsey went on to say that the Pentagon could intervene in Syria to tip the balance in the war, but that there are no opposition groups “ready to promote their interests and ours.” [9]

Since it’s absurd to say that there are no opposition groups ready to promote their own interests (what group doesn’t promote its own interests as its members understand them?) it can only be concluded that what Dempsey really meant was that there are no groups that see their interests as consonant with those of the United States, and until Washington can create such a group and the group has broad public support, the Pentagon will wait to intervene more forcefully.

Until then, we can expect that Washington will continue to demonize the Syrian government and its leader—even if it has to draw conclusions from thin air to do so.

1. Sam Dagher, Farnaz Fassihi, and Adam Entous, “U.S. Suspects Syria Used Gas,” The Wall Street Journal, August 21, 2013
2. Ben Hubbard and Hwaida Saad, “Images of Death in Syria, but No Proof of Chemical Attack,” The New York Times, August 21, 2013
3. Hubbard and Saad.
4. Estimates range from “scores” to 130 to over 1,000 people killed in the latest incident, depending on the source.
5. Dagher, Fassihi and Entous.
6. Statement by Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes on Syrian Chemical Weapons Use, June 13, 2013, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/06/13/statement-deputy-national-security-advisor-strategic-communications-ben-
7. Rhodes.
8. Paul Weinberg, “The Face of Imperialism: An interview with Michael Parenti”, rabble.ca, November 3, 2011, http://rabble.ca/news/2011/11/face-imperialism-interview-michael-parenti. Parenti said, “Once you convince the American public there are demons, you have the license to bomb their people.”
9. Thom Shanker, “General Says Syrian Rebels Aren’t Ready to Take Power,” The New York Times, August 21, 2013

Written by what's left

August 22, 2013 at 4:23 pm

Posted in Chemical Weapons, Syria

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