Seymour Hersh, false flags, and sarin gas

BY JEFF MACKLER

When Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Seymour Hersh published a report last year indicating that Syrian “rebels,” rather than the military forces of dictator Bashar Assad, fired deadly sarin gas missiles on Aug. 21, 2013, into the “rebel”-held town of Ghouta, a Damascus suburb, few took notice. Others responded with denunciations or efforts at refutation that lacked credibility.

The initial line up at the level of world governments was U.S. imperialism and its imperial associates on the one side—calling for blood—and a few nations that have learned to sometimes question U.S. “facts” on the other. The latter included the governments of Germany and the England, traditional U.S. allies, who refused to endorse the new “coalition of the willing” that the U.S. sought to assemble to punish Syria in the manner that all of the above did in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.

Hersh’s most recent defense of his position, entitled, “The Red Line and the Rat Line: Erdoğan and the Syrian rebels,” appears in the April 17, 2014, issue of the London Review of Books. Based on an impressive array of sources, including U.S. intelligence representatives he interviewed, United Nations documents, and classified U.S. government reports that came into his possession (documents that the Obama administration claim do not exist but that Hersh read from in a public radio interview), he presents a powerful refutation of the U.S. government’s still official position that the Assad government, and not the “rebels,” used sarin gas. Below, we quote liberally from Hersh’s text to provide readers with the essence of his arguments.

The deadly sarin gas attack, said at the time to have killed some 1429 innocent civilians, including 300 “rebel” fighters, was front-page headlines the world over. Assad had crossed President Obama’s often repeated “red line,” the corporate media near unanimously blared, and would soon pay the price. Syria was slated to be yet another “humanitarian” U.S. venture, wherein evil would be punished and justice, American style, would be meted out—once again, according to Hersh’s report, in the form of massive bombings—this time of Syria’s critical military installations and basic infrastructure.

Hersh asserted that the covert “rebel” action was a “false flag” or an orchestrated “rebel” pretext aimed at bringing on a massive U.S. retaliation. Readers will note my quotation marks around the word “rebel.” Today, and without exception, the Syrian rebels, whether of the jihadist/al-Qaida variety or the secular Free Syrian Army, are armed, financed, and most often organized by American imperialism and/or its allied governments in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.

The original popular forces that peacefully mobilized against Assad’s neoliberal policies, and who were severely repressed in 2011, have long ago left the stage as social actors. Lacking any progressive leadership deeply implanted in Syrian society, they have no organized voice, not to mention having no military expression. The war in Syria rather rapidly devolved into a U.S.-backed military onslaught, with a reactionary agenda that differs little from that of the U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.

President Obama, and every U.S. government official who was allowed to speak on the sarin gas atrocity, closed ranks, insisting that the evidence pointing to Assad was irrefutable. Indeed, The New York Times headlined “Forensic Details in U.N. Report Point to Assad’s Use of Gas.” The Times included front-page U.S.-government-provided maps indicating the trajectory of the missiles from Assad’s military installations to Ghouta.

A subsequent report by two American weapons specialists—Richard Lloyd, a former United Nations weapons inspector who is now associated with Tesla Laboratories, and Theodore A. Postol, professor of science, technology, and national security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—entitled “Possible Implications of Faulty US Technical Intelligence in the Damascus Nerve Agent Attack,” nevertheless insisted that the government’s assertions were scientifically impossible because the range of the key rocket carrying sarin gas was less than a third of what the U.S. government was claiming. The maximum range of these rockets, pieces of which were found on the scene, was 2.5 to 3 kilometers, whereas the nearest Syrian military base was located at least 9.5 kilometers away.

The Obama administration asserted that it would soon release declassified evidence to prove its case, including telephone intercepts from Syrian government officials. But no such evidence was ever provided. “We know where the rockets were launched from and at what time,” Secretary of State John Kerry insisted. “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.”

Journalist Robert Parry noted at the time, “Kerry also hyped the emotional case for war by presenting claims about casualty totals that now appear to have been wildly exaggerated and based on more dubious intelligence.” Parry continued by quoting Kerry: ‘“The United States government now knows that at least 1429 Syrians were killed in this attack, including at least 426 children,’ Kerry said, citing a number that the Wall Street Journal later reported was derived from applying facial recognition software to videos of bodies posted on YouTube by the Syrian opposition and then subtracting bodies in bloody shrouds. This bizarre methodology produced the number 1429, which was about four times higher than numbers provided by doctors on the scene.”

In an action reminiscent of the Bush administration’s taking its case for war against Iraq to the United Nations based on Iraq’s “proven” “weapons of mass destruction,” a claim that was soon unanimously repudiated by UN inspectors and later disclaimed by the Bush administration itself, Obama told the General Assembly on Sept. 24, 2013, “The evidence is overwhelming that the Assad regime used such weapons on Aug. 21. These rockets were fired from a regime-controlled neighborhood, and landed in opposition neighborhoods. It’s an insult to human reason—and to the legitimacy of this institution—to suggest that anyone other than the regime carried out this attack.”

In the end, no one in the Obama administration ever admitted that their version of “human reason” was a lie. Hyperbole aside, and perhaps being aware that the truth would inevitably be told, Obama backed off, supposedly in the face of a Russian-U.S.-Syrian government agreement that Syria’s stock of sarin gas would be removed under international supervision.
Seymour Hersh is a regular contributor on military and security matters to The New Yorker magazine. He has won two National Magazine Awards and is a “five-time Polk winner and recipient of the 2004 George Orwell Award.” Here’s a sample of the evidence he employed in the London Review of Books to make his case:

• “British intelligence had obtained a sample of the sarin used in the 21 August attack and analysis demonstrated that the gas used didn’t match the batches known to exist in the Syrian army’s chemical weapons arsenal. The message that the case against Syria wouldn’t hold up was quickly relayed to the US joint chiefs of staff.”

• “Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan was known to be supporting the al-Nusra Front, a jihadist faction among the rebel opposition, as well as other Islamist rebel groups. ‘We knew there were some in the Turkish government,’ a former senior US intelligence official, who has access to current intelligence, told me, ‘who believed they could get Assad’s nuts in a vice by dabbling with a sarin attack inside Syria—and forcing Obama to make good on his red line threat.’”

• “The American and British intelligence communities had been aware since the spring of 2013 that some rebel units in Syria were developing chemical weapons. On 20 June analysts for the US Defense Intelligence Agency issued a highly classified five-page ‘talking points’ briefing for the DIA’s deputy director, David Shedd, which stated that al-Nusra maintained a sarin production cell: its programme, the paper said, was ‘the most advanced sarin plot since al-Qaida’s pre-9/11 effort.’”

• “Last May, more than ten members of the al-Nusra Front were arrested in southern Turkey with what local police told the press were two kilograms of sarin. In a 130-page indictment the group was accused of attempting to purchase fuses, piping for the construction of mortars, and chemical precursors for sarin.”

• “A series of chemical weapon attacks in March and April 2013 was investigated over the next few months by a special UN mission to Syria. A person with close knowledge of the UN’s activity in Syria told me that there was evidence linking the Syrian opposition to the first gas attack, on 19 March in Khan Al-Assal, a village near Aleppo. In its final report in December, the [UN] mission said that at least 19 civilians and one Syrian soldier were among the fatalities, along with scores of injured. It had no mandate to assign responsibility for the attack, but the person with knowledge of the UN’s activities said: ‘Investigators interviewed the people who were there, including the doctors who treated the victims. It was clear that the rebels used the gas. It did not come out in public because no one wanted to know.’”

• “In the months before the attacks began, a former senior Defense Department official told me, the DIA was circulating a daily classified report known as SYRUP on all intelligence related to the Syrian conflict, including material on chemical weapons. But in the spring, distribution of the part of the report concerning chemical weapons was severely curtailed on the orders of Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff.”

• “In the aftermath of the 21 August attack Obama ordered the Pentagon to draw up targets for bombing. Early in the process, the former intelligence official said, ‘the White House rejected 35 target sets provided by the joint chiefs of staff as being insufficiently “painful” to the Assad regime.’ The original targets included only military sites and nothing by way of civilian infrastructure. Under White House pressure, the US attack plan evolved into ‘a monster strike’: two wings of B-52 bombers were shifted to airbases close to Syria, and navy submarines and ships equipped with Tomahawk missiles were deployed.”

• “The full extent of US co-operation with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar in assisting the rebel opposition in Syria has yet to come to light. The Obama administration has never publicly admitted to its role in creating what the CIA calls a ‘rat line’, a back channel highway into Syria. The rat line, authorised in early 2012, was used to funnel weapons and ammunition from Libya via southern Turkey and across the Syrian border to the opposition. Many of those in Syria who ultimately received the weapons were jihadists, some of them affiliated with al-Qaida.

• “By the end of 2012, it was believed throughout the American intelligence community that the rebels were losing the war. ‘Erdoğan was pissed,’ the former intelligence official said, ‘and felt he was left hanging on the vine. It was his money and the cut-off was seen as a betrayal.’ In spring 2013 US intelligence learned that the Turkish government—through elements of the MIT, its national intelligence agency, and the Gendarmerie, a militarised law-enforcement organization—was working directly with al-Nusra and its allies to develop a chemical warfare capability.

“[A former intelligence official said]: ‘Stepping up Turkey’s role in spring 2013 was seen as the key to its problems there. Erdoğan knew that if he stopped his support of the jihadists it would be all over. The Saudis could not support the war because of logistics—the distances involved and the difficulty of moving weapons and supplies. Erdoğan’s hope was to instigate an event that would force the US to cross the red line.

• “A US intelligence consultant told me that a few weeks before 21 August he saw a highly classified briefing prepared for 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.’ … 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 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.’”

Hersh is no conspiracy theorist. What he reports with regard to U.S. plans and plots to bomb Syria has been repeated for decades, indeed for more than a century, with U.S. false flags or pretexts for war being the rule, not the exception. “Remember the Maine” was among the early pretexts, with regard to Cuba in 1898, when the U.S. insisted that Cuban independence fighters sunk the mothballed ship the Maine. The subsequent U.S. invasion ended with the annexation of Guantanamo, Cuba, where U.S. forces remain today, conducting monstrous torture operations on alleged terrorists with no charges leveled against them and virtually no means to defend themselves.

The U.S. government waged a 10-year war in Vietnam on the pretext that a Vietnamese boat fired on an American destroyer. Four million Vietnamese were slaughtered following that pretext. The U.S. chief spy agency, the CIA, similarly conducted coups that removed elected governments in Guatemala (1954), Iran (1953) and the Dominican Republic (1965). It supported the 1965 military coup in Indonesia where one million were slaughtered in a matter of days.

Today the list of covert interventions in the name of the “war on terror” are endless—covering most of the African continent, the Middle East and now in Ukraine, where the U.S. and European Union supported a coup carried out by neo-fascist militia forces—the Svoboda and Right Sector parties. In every instance, the objective was and remains to advance the economic, political and military interest of a U.S. corporate elite, ever in competition with its rivals to secure for itself the world’s wealth and resources.

Seymour Hersh’s contribution to exposing yet another false-flag war effort is a welcome contribution to lifting the veil of secrecy that is consciously employed to camouflage an imperialist foreign policy that knows few, if any, limits. Facing a world economic crisis that is the product of its inherent and irreversible contradictions, we are witness to a world where austerity has become the norm, where workers rights are subordinated to capitalist profit, where the environment is subjected to grievous if not irreparable assault, and where the resort to military means to advance the interests of the few U.S. and other oligarchs the world over who own and control the vast and increasingly larger share of the wealth created by working people.

Hersh’s winning of the George Orwell Award for Distinguished Contribution to Honesty and Clarity in Public Language put him in the company of several noted journalists the world over who told the truth at a time when its revelation advanced the interests of all those who oppose today’s endless U.S. wars, interventions and conquests. That the U.S. government covered up, if not indirectly participated in, the brutal sarin gas murders conducted by its Turkish NATO ally using jihadist and other reactionary forces should serve as a stern warning that nothing that appears in the corporate-controlled media can be taken for granted.

Orwell’s classic, then futuristic, novel of authoritarian government repression, “1984,” uses the term “Newspeak,” “a language” that Wikipedia defines as “closely based on English but has a greatly reduced and simplified vocabulary and grammar. This suits the totalitarian regime of the Party, [or state power] whose aim is to make any alternative thinking—‘thoughtcrime’, or ‘crimethink’—impossible by removing any words or possible constructs which describe the ideas of freedom or rebellion.”

U.S.-style “Newspeak” proved insufficient to railroad the world into yet another “regime change” war in Syria, wherein the Assad regime would be replaced by another capitalist government more beholden to U.S. interests. The combination of mass U.S. public and international opposition to Obama’s proposed war and the increasing lack of credibility of U.S. lies uttered as “irrefutable facts” at least temporarily thwarted an overt U.S. war on Syria. Obama’s administration, however, continues to intervene in the conflict.

The widely reported U.S. provision of tank-piercing missiles to the “rebels” at the end of April tells us that antiwar activists must continue to mobilize demanding in Syria and everywhere else: “U.S. Out Now! Bring the Troops and War Dollars Home! Money for Jobs and Education Not War!

Photo: Assad is guilty of many atrocities, as this photograph taken after a government airstrike on the town of Maarat al-Noaman shows. But did his regime use sarin gas?