United States Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power and US Secretary of State John Kerry, September 2013. Allan Tannenbaum/Press Association. All rights reserved.
On 18 August 2011, President Obama declared that “the future of Syria must be determined by its people”. But he immediately contravened this basic democratic principle by saying that Bashir al-Assad should cease to be president of Syria forthwith, irrespective of the wishes of the Syrian people. In a joint statement the same day, the UK, France and Germany dutifully agreed.
At that point, regime change became the explicit policy of the US and its allies in Syria. This policy was maintained for nearly six years with a bit of wavering here and there about the timing of President Assad’s departure – until 30 March 2017, when it was overturned by President Trump's ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley.
She made it clear that the US was no longer going to focus on removing President Assad from power, saying:
“You pick and choose your battles and when we're looking at this, it's about changing up priorities and our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out”.
The same day Secretary of State Rex Tillerson confirmed this reversal of US policy: asked at a press conference in Ankara if President Assad should stay or go, he replied:
“I think the status and the longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.”
This new policy prioritised the defeat of ISIS over the removal of President Assad from power. As such, it reflected the position on Syria that President Trump had expressed on many occasions during his election campaign.
Victory for Assad
This reversal of US policy was a staggering victory for President Assad. Thanks to assistance from Russia over the previous eighteen months, his military position had improved dramatically and the likelihood of him being ousted had diminished to near zero. Then, on 30 March 1017, his position was copper fastened by the US withdrawing its objective of removing him from power. Unlike Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddaffi before him, he had survived despite being targeted for regime change by the US and its allies.
Five days later on 4 April 2017, if we are to believe the US, President Assad took the extraordinary decision to mount an aerial attack using chemical weapons against civilians in Khan Sheikhoun, a town held by the armed opposition in Idlib province, leading to the deaths of around 100 people including many women and children. Predictably, this brought down the wrath of the US and its allies on his head and on 6 April 2017, for the first time, the US took military action against the assets of the Syrian regime itself, firing 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Shayrat air base from which, according to the US, the chemical weapons attack had been launched.
President Assad is in a much weaker position now than he was before 4 April 2017, when he allegedly launched the chemical attack – his removal from power is back on the US agenda and there is now at least a possibility that the US will put its military weight behind overthrowing him.
All this was the predictable outcome of President Assad allegedly deciding to launch a chemical weapons attack against civilians. He would have to be insane to take such a decision – and he is not insane.
If you are trying to identify who is responsible for an act of this kind, it is common sense to ask who would gain from it. President Assad certainly could not have expected to gain and he hasn’t gained – he has lost, big time, and predictably so. The armed opposition has gained in that the US shift away from supporting their goal of regime change has been reversed. It remains to be seen whether the reversal is accompanied by direct military action by the US, or increased military support for the opposition by the US, in order to bring about regime change – if so, they will have gained, very big time.
US "confident” Assad guilty
On 11 April 2013, the Trump administration published a 4-page document, entitled The Assad Regime’s Use of Chemical Weapons on April 4, 2017, to justify after the event its attack on Shayrat air base. It began by stating:
“The United States is confident that the Syrian regime conducted a chemical weapons, using the nerve gas sarin, against its own people in the town of Shaykun in southern Idlib province on April 4, 2017. …
“We have confidence in our assessment because we have signals intelligence and geospatial intelligence … . We cannot publicly release all available intelligence on this track due to the need to protect sources and methods. …
“Our information indicates that the chemical agent was delivered by regime SU-22 fixed-wing aircraft that took off from the regime-controlled Shayrat Airfield. …”
This document didn’t purport to be an assessment prepared by the US intelligence community and published by the US Director of National Intelligence.
For a document that serves as a justification for unprecedented US military action against Syria, it is remarkably lacking in certainty in respect of its critical conclusions: it merely expresses “confidence” – rather than “high confidence” – that the Syrian government was responsible and merely says that the available information “indicates” that the chemical agent was delivered by air from Shayrat Airfield.
As former CIA officer Philip Giraldi wrote on 24 April 2017, to date “no evidence has been produced to demonstrate convincingly that Syrian forces dropped a chemical bomb on a civilian area”.
None of these uncertainties found their way into the mainstream media reporting of this US government assessment. Generally speaking they reported Assad’s guilt as a fact and failed to address the crucial question of why he deliberately shot himself in the foot.
Why did Assad do it?
The US government assessment contains one sentence that attempts to address the question of why Assad allegedly mounted an attack. It says:
“We assess that Damascus launched the chemical attack in response to an opposition offensive in northern Hamah Province that threatened key infrastructure.”
This is a nonsensical claim because by 4 April 2017 when the alleged attack occurred, the opposition offensive had failed and Syrian government forces had recaptured all or almost all the territory taken over by the opposition in the early days of the offensive. Furthermore, Khan Shaykhun is north of the front line between government and opposition forces at the time, and it’s difficult to see how an attack there – especially a chemical attack with very little military value – could be a response to the offensive.
But, laying that aside, what possible reason could there be for the Syrian government to use chemical – rather than conventional – weapons on any target anywhere, when their use was likely to provoke a military response, perhaps a devastating response, from the US?
The Ghouta attack
The use of chemical weapons at Khan Sheikhoun was the second occasion during the war in Syria when their use caused a large number of civilian deaths. The first occurred in the early morning of 21 August 2013, when a sarin gas attack took place in the Ghouta area of Damascus, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of people (355 according to Médecins Sans Frontières, 1429 according to the US government).
On that occasion also, as we will see, the US administration asserted that the Syrian government was responsible for the attack on the basis of less than conclusive evidence, as later confirmed by President Obama himself. On that occasion also, the Syrian government denied responsibility.
On 21 August 2013, a UN Mission was already present in Damascus to investigate allegations of earlier chemical weapons use. It was redirected by the UN Secretary General to investigate the Ghouta attack and it reported on 16 September 2013, that “the environmental, chemical and medical samples we have collected provide clear and convincing evidence that surface-to-surface rockets containing the nerve agent Sarin were used” in the attack. It was not part of the Mission’s terms of reference to identify who was responsible for firing the rockets.
At the time, the Obama administration asserted that the Syrian government was responsible. On 30 August 2013, the White House published what it termed a “government assessment” (significantly, not an assessment prepared by the US intelligence community and published by the US Director of National Intelligence). This began by stating:
“The United States Government assesses with high confidence that the Syrian government carried out a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs on August 21, 2013. We further assess that the regime used a nerve agent in the attack. These all-source assessments are based on human, signals, and geospatial intelligence as well as a significant body of open source reporting. … To protect sources and methods, we cannot publicly release all available intelligence – but what follows is an unclassified summary of the U.S. Intelligence Community’s analysis of what took place.”
But the assessment contained no verifiable information to justify this conclusion. Nevertheless, at the time the mainstream media reported as a fact that the Syrian government was the guilty party – and they continue to do so today even though, as we will see, over time evidence to the contrary has steadily mounted.
Intelligence not a “slam dunk”
A year earlier on 20 August 2012, President Obama was asked at a press conference whether he would “envision using US military, if simply for nothing else, the safe keeping of the chemical weapons”. He replied:
"We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation."
From then on, the expectation was that, if the Syrian government used chemical weapons against civilians or opposition forces, the US would take punitive military action against Syrian government assets in response.
But, President Obama hesitated to take military action. One reason was the refusal of the UK Parliament to back an immediate US strike. Another was that he had been warned by his Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, that he couldn’t guarantee that the Syrian government was responsible for the chemical weapons attack.
Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper in 2015. Wikicommons/Jay Godwin. Some rights reserved.This came to light in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg published in The Atlantic in April 2016. There, President Obama revealed that Clapper had made a point of emphasising to him that the intelligence that the Syrian government was responsible wasn’t a “slam dunk” (using the phrase used by George Tenet, the head of the CIA in 2003, to assure President George Bush that Iraq possessed “weapons of mass destruction”, which was a trifle wide of the mark). Here’s what Goldberg wrote:
“Obama was also unsettled by a surprise visit early in the week [beginning 27 August 2013] from James Clapper, his director of national intelligence, who interrupted the President’s Daily Brief, the threat report Obama receives each morning from Clapper’s analysts, to make clear that the intelligence on Syria’s use of sarin gas, while robust, was not a “slam dunk.” He chose the term carefully. Clapper, the chief of an intelligence community traumatized by its failures in the run-up to the Iraq War, was not going to overpromise, in the manner of the onetime CIA director George Tenet, who famously guaranteed George W. Bush a “slam dunk” in Iraq.”
So, the certainty expressed publicly by the Obama administration that the Syrian government was responsible wasn’t justified.
On 1 September 2013, when as immediate strike was thought to be imminent, President Obama drew back and sought authorisation from Congress for it. It quickly became clear that this was not forthcoming and that if he was going to take military action he would have to do it without specific Congress authorisation. Then, on 9 September 2013 Russia pulled his chestnuts out of the fire by offering an alternative – Syria would join the Chemical Weapons Convention and give up all its chemical weapons, providing the US refrained from taking action against Syria. The US agreed and nine months later John Kerry was confident that Syria’s disarmament had been achieved:
“With respect to Syria, we struck a deal where we got 100 percent of the chemical weapons out.” (NBC interview, 20 July 2014)
Were the sarin carrying rockets launched from government controlled territory?
But, was the Syrian government responsible for the Ghouta attack? A key question here is: were the rockets which delivered the sarin launched from government controlled territory?
The “government assessment” published on 30 August 2013 said:
“Multiple streams of intelligence indicate that the regime executed a rocket and artillery attack against the Damascus suburbs in the early hours of August 21. Satellite detections corroborate that attacks from a regime-controlled area struck neighborhoods where the chemical attacks reportedly occurred – including Kafr Batna, Jawbar, ‘Ayn Tarma, Darayya, and Mu’addamiyah. This includes the detection of rocket launches from regime controlled territory early in the morning, approximately 90 minutes before the first report of a chemical attack appeared in social media.”
This encourages the reader to believe that the US had intelligence that the sarin carrying rockets were fired from government-controlled territory but it doesn’t actually say so explicitly. However, in a briefing on the day the assessment was published, Secretary of State John Kerry left no room for doubt, saying:
“We know where the rockets were launched from and at what time. We know where they landed and when. We know rockets came only from regime-controlled areas and went only to opposition-controlled or contested neighborhoods.”
And, on 16 September 2013, information published by the New York Times appeared to put the question beyond doubt. In a front page article, Forensic Detail in UN report point to Assad’s Use of Gas, evidence was presented that claimed to show that the rockets delivering the sarin were launched from a Syrian military complex. This was based on information in the UN Mission’s report about the trajectory of two of the rockets, which were believed to have delivered the gas with such appalling consequences:
“One annex to the report identified azimuths, or angular measurements, from where rockets had struck, back to their points of origin. When plotted and marked independently on maps by analysts from Human Rights Watch and by The New York Times, the United Nations data from two widely scattered impact sites [in Moadamiya and Zamalka/Ein Tarma, east of Damascus] pointed directly to a Syrian military complex.”
An accompanying map on the Times’ front page showed the flight-path lines of the two rockets intersecting at a Syrian military complex, near the Presidential Palace in Damascus. This scenario required the rockets to have a range of at least 9.5 kilometres to travel from the postulated launch site in a Syrian military complex to the impact sites in Moadamiya and Zamalka/Ein Tarma.
This HRW/NYT analysis received widespread publicity and was almost universally regarded as proving the Syrian government’s guilt.
However, there were major flaws in the Times’ analysis, which it was forced to admit a few months later (see New Study Refines View of Sarin Attack in Syria, 28 December 2013). Robert Parry, an experienced American investigative journalist, who has written many informative articles on the Ghouta attack, described the flaws as follows:
“The analytical flaws included the fact that one of the two missiles, the one landing in Moadamiya, south of Damascus had clipped a building during its descent making a precise calculation of its flight path impossible, plus the discovery that the Moadamiya missile contained no Sarin, making its use in the vectoring of two Sarin-laden rockets nonsensical.
“But the Times’ analysis ultimately fell apart amid a consensus among missile experts that the rockets would have had a maximum range of only around three kilometers when the supposed launch site is about 9.5 kilometers from the impact zones in Moadamiya and Zamalka/Ein Tarma, east of Damascus.”
(See NYT Backs Off Its Syria-Sarin Analysis, Consortium News, 29 December 2013)
The new study referred to in the Times’ headline was by Theodore A Postol, Professor of Science, Technology, and National Security Policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Richard M Lloyd, a former UN weapons inspector. They concluded that the rockets had a range of around two kilometres. This is in line with an estimate given by the head of the UN Mission, Dr Åke Sellström, at a press conference on 13 December 2013 (see video, around 16 minutes in), when he said: “two kilometres could be a fair guess”.
Lloyd and Postol summarised their findings as follows:
“The U.S. intelligence community, supported by the remarkable capabilities of U.S. space-based infrared satellites, supposedly observed that the chemical rockets were launched from the heart of Syrian government-controlled areas, as shown on the map that the White House released. For this to be the case, the munitions would have had to fly about 10 to 15 kilometers, which is simply not possible.
“Our analysis of the munition used in the attack on Zamalka reveals that the munition’s range is actually about two kilometers. The United Nations conducted a completely independent analysis of the munition and reached exactly the same conclusion.
“In other words, the entire basis for the U.S. intelligence claim is wrong.”
This indicates that the sarin carrying rockets could not have been fired “from regime-controlled areas” as asserted by John Kerry in his briefing on 30 August 2013. Most likely, they were fired from areas controlled by the armed opposition – and therefore fired by the armed opposition.
Unfortunately, this crucial correction to the flawed analysis published by the Times a few months earlier got very little attention from the mainstream media, then or since.
Was the armed opposition capable of mounting the Ghouta attack?
But, was the armed opposition capable of mounting the Ghouta attack? At the time, the Obama administration stated continuously that it had no evidence that the opposition was capable of doing so. For example, Secretary of State John Kerry emphasised to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on 3 September 2013:
“We are certain that none of the opposition has the weapons or capacity to effect a strike of this scale particularly from the heart of regime territory.”
And, in a briefing to journalists on 16 September 2013, US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power said:
“The regime possesses sarin, and we have no evidence that the opposition possesses sarin."
Seymour Hersh is an investigate journalist with a legendary reputation dating back to his exposure of the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War and including his revelations about the torture and other abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib during the US occupation of Iraq forty years later. He has written two extensive articles on the Ghouta attack, which were published in the London Review of Books. He claims that in August 2013 the Obama administration had ample evidence that elements of the armed opposition were working with sarin.
In his first article Whose sarin? (December 2013), Hersh asserted that
“by late May 2013 … the CIA had briefed the Obama administration on al-Nusra and its work with sarin, and had sent alarming reports that another Sunni fundamentalist group active in Syria, al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) [later Islamic State], also understood the science of producing sarin”.
“On 20 June  a four-page top secret cable summarising what had been learned about al-Nusra’s nerve gas capabilities was forwarded to David R. Shedd, deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.”
This confirmed that “al-Nusra had the ability to acquire and use sarin”.
“In both its public and private briefings after 21 August , the administration disregarded the available intelligence about al-Nusra’s potential access to sarin and continued to claim that the Assad government was in sole possession of chemical weapons. This was the message conveyed in the various secret briefings that members of Congress received in the days after the attack, when Obama was seeking support for his planned missile offensive against Syrian military installations.”
The only source Hersh gives for this information is “a senior intelligence consultant”, but given his formidable record as a journalist what he writes deserves to be taken seriously.
Turkey a prime mover?
In his second article, The Red Line and the Rat Line (April 2014), he asserted that Turkey was a prime mover in the Ghouta sarin attack:
“A US intelligence consultant told me that a few weeks before 21 August  he saw a highly classified briefing prepared for [the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin] Dempsey and the defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, which described ‘the acute anxiety’ of the Erdoğan administration about the rebels’ dwindling prospects. The analysis warned that the Turkish leadership had expressed ‘the need to do something that would precipitate a US military response’. By late summer, the Syrian army still had the advantage over the rebels, the former intelligence official said, and only American air power could turn the tide. In the autumn, the former intelligence official went on, the US intelligence analysts who kept working on the events of 21 August ‘sensed that Syria had not done the gas attack. But the 500 pound gorilla was, how did it happen? The immediate suspect was the Turks, because they had all the pieces to make it happen.’
“As intercepts and other data related to the 21 August attacks were gathered, the intelligence community saw evidence to support its suspicions. ‘We now know it was a covert action planned by Erdoğan’s people to push Obama over the red line,’ the former intelligence official said. ‘They had to escalate to a gas attack in or near Damascus when the UN inspectors’ – who arrived in Damascus on 18 August to investigate the earlier use of gas – ‘were there. The deal was to do something spectacular. Our senior military officers have been told by the DIA and other intelligence assets that the sarin was supplied through Turkey – that it could only have gotten there with Turkish support. The Turks also provided the training in producing the sarin and handling it.’ Much of the support for that assessment came from the Turks themselves, via intercepted conversations in the immediate aftermath of the attack. …
“The post-attack intelligence on Turkey did not make its way to the White House. ‘Nobody wants to talk about all this,’ the former intelligence official told me. ‘There is great reluctance to contradict the president, although no all-source intelligence community analysis supported his leap to convict. There has not been one single piece of additional evidence of Syrian involvement in the sarin attack produced by the White House since the bombing raid was called off. My government can’t say anything because we have acted so irresponsibly. And since we blamed Assad, we can’t go back and blame Erdoğan.’”
I’m not in a position to verify this account of how the Ghouta attack came about. But, given Erdoğan’s enthusiasm for overthrowing Assad, it certainly made sense for the Turkish state to help manufacture a “false flag” chemical weapons attack to which, given his foolish setting of a red line, Obama would almost certainly have to respond by taking military action against Syrian state assets.
It made absolutely no sense for President Assad, when he was in the ascendant militarily, to take a decision to mount such an attack himself, in the full knowledge that Obama would almost certainly respond militarily – which could have led to victory for the armed opposition and his own removal from power. He would have to have been suicidal to engage in such a provocation.
As former UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw asked rhetorically at the time;
“Why was chemical attack of any interest for the Assad regime, given the fact that in recent months they’ve been making advances rather than retreating? And why would Assad – by all account such an extremely unpleasant regime, but it’s not irrational – why would he decide to risk the wrath of US when he was making progress in any event?"
In August 2013 the Obama administration declared with “high confidence” that Assad was responsible for the Ghouta attack even though the available intelligence to that effect wasn’t a “slam dunk” (unlike the US intelligence that Saddam Hussein possessed “weapons of mass destruction”). Today the Trump administration declares that it is merely “confident” that Assad is guilty of the Khan Sheikhoun attack – which presumably means that the available intelligence is not a “slam dunk” either. Sean Spicer should be asked to clarify.