“Germ and chemical weapons may often be weak in their battlefield applications but they are always strong in their emotiveness. Accusations of association with them have for centuries, even millennia, been used by well-intentioned as well as unscrupulous people to vilify enemies and to calumniate rivals. Can onlookers protect themselves against the possibility of such assaults upon their common sense today?”- Julian Perry Robinson
On the morning of August 21, 2013, a flurry of videos appeared on social media alleging to show the aftermath of a mass chemical attack in Syria. The Obama administration quickly accused the Syrian government of launching a barrage of sarin filled rockets toward the Damascus suburbs of eastern and western Ghouta, thereby murdering 1,429 civilians, including 456 children.
Nine years later, the perception persists that this terrible crime was carried out by the Syrian government. However, with the passing of time, and as more details have surfaced, it has become clear that the Syrian government did not carry out the Ghouta chemical attack.
This was evident even in 2013 when the attack occurred, given the incentives faced by both sides in the conflict, and given the timing of the attack.
A year before, in August 2012, President Barack Obama had declared that any use of chemical weapons constituted a “red line” that, if crossed, would trigger U.S. military intervention against the Syrian government.
The Salafist militias comprising the opposition, broadly known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, therefore had every incentive to carry out a false flag chemical attack that could be blamed on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. To topple the Syrian government, the Salafist insurgents both needed and wanted a western bombing campaign of the sort that had toppled the Libyan government in August 2011.
Syrian opposition leaders began demanding a U.S.-imposed no-fly zone over Syria starting as early as September 2011, shortly before Libyan President Moammar Qaddafi was murdered by Islamist militants fighting under the umbrella of NATO warplanes, and long before Obama announced his red line.
In contrast, it was in President Assad’s interest to prevent any use of chemical weapons by the Syrian army. Failure to do so would almost guarantee his government would be toppled, further plunging Syria into the type of chaos that had enveloped Libya, while leaving Assad to suffer Qaddafi’s gruesome fate.
It is no wonder that, despite accusing Assad of carrying out the Ghouta chemical attacks, neither American or British intelligence could provide a possible rationale at the time as to why Assad would do it, or what advantage he or the Syrian army would gain by it.
Many observers have also noted the timing of the alleged attack. If Assad ordered it, this means he carried out a chemical attack in the Damascus suburbs just three days after UN chemical weapons inspectors had arrived in Syria’s capital, at Assad’s own invitation, to investigate allegations chemical weapons use by the opposition in the town of Khan al-Assal four months previous. It is highly improbable that Assad would have carried out a chemical attack and at the same time ensured that UN inspectors would be immediately present to investigate it.
Even more improbable is that Assad would carry out a chemical attack at a time when he was winning the war, and just as U.S. and NATO forces were preparing for a large-scale military intervention in Syria, the likes of which only a breach of Obama’s red line could trigger.
For example, in June 2013, Obama administration officials concluded that a more direct intervention, including providing weapons to the so-called rebels and possibly imposing a no-fly zone “was needed to stem the tide of Assad victories.” That same month, U.S. planners stationed F-16 warplanes and Patriot missile batteries in neighboring Jordan in preparation to impose a no-fly zone.
In July 2013, amidst calls from Senator John McCain (R-AZ), Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), and others for imposing a no-fly zone, General Martin Dempsey laid out detailed options for military intervention in Syria to the White House. Also in July, the House and Senate Intelligence Committees approved White House and CIA plans to directly arm the Salafist militias comprising the FSA. Previously, U.S. planners had relied on Saudi, Qatari, and Turkish intelligence to do so.
On August 13, fully nine days before the alleged chemical attack in Ghouta, FSA commanders in Turkey had started “advance preparations for a major, irregular military surge.” The commanders had been told by U.S., Turkish, and Qatari intelligence officials that a U.S.-led intervention in Syria was imminent and were ordered to “prepare their forces quickly to exploit the U.S. bombing, march into Damascus, and remove the Bashar al-Assad government.” On August 17, four days before the Ghouta attack, CIA and Israeli operatives embedded with FSA fighters entered Syria from Jordan, reaching as far as Ghouta, in what the French newspaper La Figaro described as the beginning of the “anti-Assad operation.” On August 21, the day the Ghouta chemical attack occurred, U.S., Turkish, and Qatari intelligence distributed weapons “unprecedented in scope” to FSA commanders in preparation for the assault on Damascus.
Though the success of the regime change operation was predicated on a U.S.-led bombing campaign, this could not happen without President Obama’s approval, which he had until that time refused to give. The alleged chemical attack in Ghouta on August 21 therefore came at exactly the right time to illustrate that Obama’s red line had been crossed and allow the intervention to begin.
Because of this, claims of Assad’s guilt were questioned at the time even by dissenting U.S. intelligence analysts, who according to the Associated Press, wondered whether so-called “rebels could have carried out the attack in a callous and calculated attempt to draw the West into the war.”
As The New York Times observed one month before the Ghouta attack, “Assad now seems likely to cling to power for the foreseeable future.” Consequently, Assad did not need to carry out a chemical attack to stay in power. Syrian opposition leaders, on the other hand, desperately needed Assad to be blamed for one to take power themselves.
But now, almost ten years later, as additional information has come to light, it is beyond doubt that what happened in Ghouta on August 21, 2013, was a false flag operation carried out by a Saudi-sponsored Salafist opposition group, Liwa al-Islam.
Additionally, it is now clear that although sarin-filled rockets were fired at multiple neighborhoods in the Ghouta region that day, most of the victims were not killed by sarin. Rather, most victims were likely suffocated to death using either carbon monoxide or cyanide, after which their bodies were collected in make-shift morgues and presented in videos published by opposition media as victims of a government sarin attack.
The identity and exact number of victims remains unclear. However, it is likely that most of the victims were not pro-opposition civilians, as is commonly assumed, but rather government supporters who had been taken captive and then murdered by Liwa al-Islam in a carefully managed massacre. For this reason, it is more accurate to refer to the events in Ghouta as a massacre, rather than as a chemical attack.
Perhaps most importantly, it is now clear that Liwa al-Islam was not acting alone, hoping to deceive the western powers into launching a massive military intervention on its behalf. Although militants from Liwa al-Islam constituted the boots on the ground that carried out the Ghouta massacre, they did so as part of a broader regime change operation, which was planned and initiated by a U.S.-led coalition of foreign intelligence agencies even prior to the outbreak of anti-government protests known as the Arab Spring.
As I have detailed elsewhere, prominent neoconservatives in the Bush administration partnered with Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan in the wake of 9/11 to begin efforts to topple the Syrian government. These efforts intensified in 2005, and eventually sparked the anti-government protests that erupted in Syria in March 2011. U.S. planners simultaneously launched an al-Qaeda-led insurgency that used these protests as cover to attack Syrian police, soldiers, and security forces.
U.S. efforts to effect regime change continued in 2012 under the umbrella of operation Timber Sycamore, the CIA program established to further fund and arm the al-Qaeda-led insurgency. Launched by then-CIA chief David Petraeus and subsequently overseen by his successor, John Brennan, the covert program would become the most expensive in the agency’s dark seven-decade history, with much of the funding coming from off-the-books sources, specifically from Prince Bandar and Saudi intelligence.
A false flag chemical attack, accompanied by horrific videos of dead women and children, and portraying Bashar al-Assad as a modern-day Hitler, was the CIA’s best hope to pressure a reluctant Barack Obama into green lighting the Libya-style western bombing campaign.
In a manner reminiscent of the Safari Club of the 1980s, the CIA partnered with Saudi, Israeli, British, French, and Turkish intelligence to execute the Ghouta false flag operation, with Bandar and Brennan serving as point persons. For this reason, the 2013 Ghouta massacre should be seen as part of the broader U.S.-led operation to carry out regime change in Syria that began over a decade earlier.
Whose Red Line?
In August 2020, President Obama declared his “red line” regarding chemical weapons in Syria. He stated that, “We cannot have a situation in which chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people…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 weapons moving around or being utilized.” Obama stated further that any such use of chemical weapons “would change my calculus…would change my equation” and open the door to U.S. military intervention in the conflict.
According to The New York Times, the red line originated after “American intelligence agencies began picking up communications with ominous signals that Mr. Assad’s military was moving chemical weapons and possibly mixing them in preparation for use. Mr. Obama ordered a series of urgent meetings, and on Aug. 20  he made a comment that would come to haunt him.”
Obama’s apparent concern was not necessarily that the Syrian government would use chemical weapons to help defeat the U.S.-backed Salafist insurgency it faced, but that the chaos of war could allow Syria’s chemical weapons, which were developed as a deterrent to a conventional military invasion by Israel, to fall out of Syrian government control and into the hands of non-state actors, including either Hezbollah or al-Qaeda.
Under this pretext, CNN reported in December 2012 that according to a senior U.S. official, “The United States and some European allies are using defense contractors to train Syrian rebels on how to secure chemical weapons stockpiles in Syria.”
Surprisingly, the concept of the red line did not originate with Obama himself, but rather with Israeli planners. The Wall Street Journal reported that “the use of the ‘red line’ expression in the context of Syrian chemical weapons started with Israeli officials, who used the phrase in private discussions with their American counterparts. It quickly became part of internal administration discussions. George Little, the Pentagon spokesman, used the phrase publicly in July 2012, and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used it during a visit to Turkey. One top administration official was so worried about the ‘red-line’ talk in the halls of the White House and State Department that he asked aides not to use the phrase.”
Worries about the “red line talk” were likely driven by the realization that this strongly incentivized the opposition to claim that the Syrian army had used chemical weapons as part of the war effort itself. If convincing claims of a Syrian government chemical attack against insurgents or civilians were to be widely disseminated in the western media, this could pressure Obama to establish a Libya style no-fly zone over Syria.
For example, journalist Charles Glass reported that “A former US ambassador to the Middle East told me, ‘The “red line” was an open invitation to a false-flag operation.’”
Clinton also began to promote the idea of a no-fly zone at this time, following her meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutaglu in Istanbul. Clinton said she and Davutaglu agreed that a no-fly zone and other assistance the Salafist militias of the FSA “need greater in-depth analysis.”
Though the idea of imposing a no-fly zone sounds rather benign, and oriented at defending civilians, Michael O’Hanlon, a national security and defense policy specialist at the Brookings Institution warned in response to Clinton’s comments that, “You have to consider the slippery-slope phenomenon…how this could evolve from a no-fly zone to a no-go zone” as the Libya intervention did. “If no-fly fails to stop Assad’s attacks,” O’Hanlon warned “then there’s a lot of pressure to strike at Syrian tanks and artillery.”
Clinton later acknowledged during a private speech to investment banking firm Goldman Sachs in 2013 that a no-fly zone in Syria would lead to direct U.S. or NATO intervention that would kill many civilians. She explained that, “To have a no-fly zone you have to take out all of the air defense, many of which are located in populated areas. So our missiles, even if they are standoff missiles so we’re not putting our pilots at risk—you’re going to kill a lot of Syrians…So all of a sudden this intervention that people talk about so glibly becomes an American and NATO involvement where you take a lot of civilians.”
This suggests that the “slippery slope” aspect of a no-fly zone was clearly understood by U.S. planners, and that using the rhetoric of a no-fly zone was simply a way to rebrand what would be a politically unpalatable war of aggression that would kill many civilians as a humanitarian effort to protect civilians.
Another Model for Regime Change
But calls for a no-fly zone as part of a regime change effort in Syria were not new. In 2005, U.S.-based opposition activist Farid Ghadry, a favorite of neoconservative Bush administration officials, described his “practical plan to destabilize Bashar Assad’s rule,” which involved “calling all Syrian opposition groups together for a national conference to create a parliament in exile and draft a new, secular constitution for Syria…Then, take people to [the] streets. Some people get killed. The international community gets further angry at the regime. Then, have NATO forces protect a safe zone in northern Syria…This way we will move right away into Syria.”
Opposition leaders made similar demands for western intervention soon after U.S. planners sparked the anti-government protests in Syria in March 2011, known as the Arab Spring. In September 2011, opposition activist Rami Jarrah (speaking under the pseudonym Alexander Page) was asked what the international community could do to help the opposition. Jarrah replied “Well, what people actually want is pressure on the neighbouring countries so that they might do something and what that may be is international intervention even of a military sort.”
In December 2011, during a bloody battle between the Syrian Army and the FSA’s Farouq Brigades in the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs, Jarrah appeared on CNN alongside another activist from the city. The activist explained, “We want your help…We just need a no-fly zone, and more pressure on al-Assad’s regime.”
In April 2012, as the fighting in Homs continued, a prominent opposition activist based in Britain, Dr. Mousa al-Kurdi, told al-Jazeera, “Either you defend us, or you arm the Syrian Free Army to defend us. You have the choice.”
Many outside observers have noted that provoking western military intervention, as occurred in Libya, was the opposition’s best strategy to topple the Syrian government. Azmi Bishara, a prominent opposition supporter and al-Jazeera analyst, writes that “A number of [opposition] politicians were betting on international intervention to protect the revolution according to the Libyan model, which was present in their minds.”
Similarly, in June 2011, as the NATO bombing campaign in Libya was already underway, Syria expert David Lesch observed that the fall of Ghaddafi would provide “another model for regime change: that of limited but targeted military support from the West combined with an identifiable rebellion.”
The Libyan capital of Tripoli fell to NATO-backed Islamist militias three months later, on August 28, 2011. Qaddafi was taken captive and brutally murdered (sodomized with a bayonet and then shot in the head) by these same forces on October 20, 2011.
Because of Libya, the Syrian opposition and its regional backers, in particular Saudi Arabia, France, and Turkey, were convinced a U.S.-led intervention was imminent in Syria as well.
Christopher Phillips of Chatham House notes:
“As early as 28 October 2011, activists named a ‘Friday of no fly zone,’ followed by a ‘Friday of the Syrian Buffer Zone’ on 2 December. Leading figures in the SNC [opposition Syrian National Council] such as Burhan Ghalioun and Bassma Kodmani spoke of their preference for military intervention at the beginning of 2012, as if it was a realistic possibility. As rebels formed their militias, many based their strategy on taking sufficient territory not to fully defeat Assad, but to persuade the US to finish him off…the rebels’ regional allies actively encouraged the opposition to expect US military intervention. As Kodmani later recalled, ‘the regional powers were absolutely confident that intervention would happen. Again, Libya had happened, they had participated in the Libya campaign, and they were confident they were going to participate in a campaign in Syria as well.’ She went on, ‘I recall very well, they were always reassuring the opposition “it is coming, it is coming definitely, the intervention is coming.”’…Many regional leaders, particularly Erdogan, believed that the obstacle to US action was domestic: Obama’s campaign for re-election. Turkish officials reportedly told oppositionists to be patient; that intervention would occur after the presidential campaign finished in November 2012.”
This led British historian and Syria expert Patrick Seale to argue in the Guardian that: “The strategy of the armed opposition is to seek to trigger a foreign armed intervention by staging lethal clashes and blaming the resulting carnage on the regime. It knows that, left to itself, its chance of winning is slim.”
Prominent opposition activist Michel Kilo later observed, “We were naïve…people believed the Americans were going to intervene…Encouraged by the West—France in the lead—the insurgents believed it.”
French efforts to promote western military intervention were led by prominent novelist Bernard Henri Levy, who took credit for convincing French President Sarkozy to intervene in Libya in 2011. After the release of a documentary film chronicling Levy’s time embedded with Islamist militants there, AFP commented that “the French people witnessed the unusual spectacle of a notoriously self-promoting leftist intellectual joining forces with a notoriously energetic conservative president to wage war in a distant, sandy nation.” Levy used the release of his film at Cannes in June 2012 to promote his view that, the “successful intervention in Libya can serve as a blueprint” for intervention in Syria. In July 2012 Levy told Saudi-owned al-Arabia that “I think that it is even more doable in Syria than it was in Libya.”
Levy’s appetite for western military intervention was not unique to him but was shared by the French foreign policy establishment generally, which had undergone dramatic change since 2003, when France’s then Foreign Minister, Dominique de Villepin, gave an impassioned speech against the looming U.S. invasion of Iraq. Journalist Alain Gresh observed in Le Monde Diplomatique that since that time, France’s foreign policy has been marked by “a closer strategic alliance with Israel, and shifting toward the American neoconservative position on Iran.” Gresh notes further that the 2012 “election of [Socialist] Francois Hollande to the presidency has changed none of this.”
In August 2012, Levy slammed newly-elected Hollande’s policy on Syria as “too passive,” while explaining that, “The attack plans are ready…Everyone knows it will not take much to deal the [Syrian] regime a death blow. All we need is a pilot.”
However, both Hollande and his appointment for Minister of Foreign Affairs, Laurent Fabius, would later prove to be hawks regarding intervention in Syria. Fabius stated in August 2012, that “Bashar al-Assad does not deserve to be on earth” and in December 2012 that the Syrian wing of al-Qaeda, the “al-Nusra Front is doing a good job.”
Waiting for Washington
Not only French but also British planners were eager to apply the successful Libya model to Syria. As author Nu’man Abd al-Wahid details, it was not the U.S., but rather Britain at the forefront of the NATO intervention in Libya, with British Prime Minister David Cameron and the right-wing UK press castigating President Obama for his hesitancy in authorizing military force. On February 28, 2011 (just 11 days after the beginning of anti-government protests), defense editor of the Times of London, Deborah Haynes, reported that “Britain was ready to use force.” According to the Times, Prime Minister Cameron was “Going further than any other world leader,” and had “ordered General Sir David Richards, the Chief of the Defence Staff, to work on how to impose a no-fly zone in Libyan airspace. Fighter jets would shoot down any encroaching Libyan aircraft…”
The first British cruise missiles were fired, and RAF Tornado warplanes deployed, toward Libyan targets on March 21, 2011. A week later, on March 29, Forbes published a report from the private intelligence firm Stratfor detailing French and British motivations for intervention. Stratfor concluded that although France and Britain already had significant economic ties with the Libyan government, both countries could stand to gain from new, and more pliant, leadership of the country, in the form of additional access to Libya’s plentiful and largely unexplored energy reserves (at the expense of Italian and German energy firms) and by increased weapons sales to any new government there. British Petroleum (BP) was particularly desperate for a stake in Libyan oil production, after facing up to $60 billion in losses from the Macondo oil well disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. The explosion of BP’s offshore drilling well caused the largest marine oil spill in history, putting BP’s future operations in the United States (and some 25% of its overall oil production) in jeopardy. Stratfor concluded in summary that, “In a sense, France and the United Kingdom are replaying their 19th century roles of colonial European powers looking to project power and protect interests outside the European continent.”
The British role in Libya included not only bombing from the air, but also deploying al-Qaeda affiliated militants to fight on the ground, militants which British intelligence had been harboring in the UK, mostly notably in Manchester, for decades. UK intelligence had partnered with the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), known for fighting in support of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, to attempt to assassinate Qaddafi in 1996, and facilitated the travel of LIFG militants from Britain to Libya to fight against Qaddafi in 2011.
After destroying the Libyan state and plunging the country into chaos, General Sir David Richards prepared to implement similar plans in Syria. The Telegraph reports that General Richards prepared a plan for the British army “to build, train and equip a 100,000-strong Syrian rebel army to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad,” and that “Rebels would have been chosen over a 12-month period from groups already fighting the regime, and taken for training to neighbouring Jordan and Turkey, which both support the uprising. Those numbers would then, in theory, have been able to sustain the momentum of an attack on Damascus, particularly if backed by air power provided by the West and friendly Gulf countries. The plan would have been a larger-scale version of the intervention in Libya in 2011…”
These plans likely originated even earlier, in 2009, when French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas was told by top British officials that “they were preparing something in Syria…Britain was organizing an invasion of rebels into Syria. They even asked me, although I was no longer minister for foreign affairs, if I would like to participate.”
British efforts to topple Assad also involved facilitating the flow of al-Qaeda-affiliated militants from Britain to Syria, under the guise of humanitarian convoys. British intelligence relied on the Salafist activist group known as al-Muhajiroun (established in Britain by Syrian cleric Omar Bakri Mohammed) to recruit young Brits of South Asian and Libyan descent to join the jihad in Syria, including many who later joined ISIS. The effort to send British jihadists to Syria was a repeat of what British intelligence had done to support NATO efforts during the Kosovo war in the 1990s.
UK Prime Minister Cameron ultimately called off direct UK military intervention in Syria in 2012, claiming “it would be unsellable to Washington as well as contrary to Parliamentary and public opinion.” This led General Richards complain in 2015 that Cameron didn’t “have the balls” to go through with it.
The British intervention that Prime Minister Cameron ultimately failed to authorize was likely planned to complement a major opposition assault on Damascus launched in the summer of 2012.
On Saturday, 14 July 2012, U.S. and Saudi-backed Salafist militias comprising the FSA launched a large offensive to take the Syrian capital, dubbed operation “Damascus Volcano and Syrian Earthquake.” The operation was made possible by weapons shipments organized by U.S. planners two months before. In May 2012, The Washington Post had reported that “Syrian rebels battling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad have begun receiving significantly more and better weapons in recent weeks, an effort paid for by Persian Gulf nations and coordinated in part by the United States, according to opposition activists and U.S. and foreign officials.” The Post noted further that “Materiel is being stockpiled in Damascus” and that according to an opposition figure, “Large shipments have got through…Some areas are loaded with weapons.’”
Reuters notes that the July 14 offensive began when opposition militants attacked Syrian security forces in the Hajar al-Aswad district of southern Damascus, which is adjacent to and south of the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp. The operation involved 2,500 fighters, many of which were redeployed from other parts of the country. The fighting spread to three other districts the next day, including the Midan district in the heart of Damascus, with battles flaring within sight of Assad’s presidential palace. Militants hid in narrow alleyways and battled government tanks using rocket-propelled grenades and roadside bombs.
The offensive was highlighted by the bombing of the National Security building in Damascus on July 18, which killed four top Syrian security officials, including the defense minister Dawoud Rajha, national security chief Hisham Ikhtiyar, and Assad’s brother-in-law, deputy defense minister Assef Shawkat.
The New York Times observed that “The attack on the leadership’s inner sanctum as fighting raged in sections of the city for the fourth day suggested that the uprising had reached a decisive moment in the overall struggle for Syria. The battle for the capital, the center of Assad family power, appears to have begun.” FSA leaders claimed the bombing was “a turning point in Syria’s history” and the “beginning of the end” for the government.
Responsibility for the bombing was not immediately clear. A Saudi-sponsored opposition Salafist militia, Liwa al-Islam, led by Zahran Alloush quickly claimed credit. The group issued a statement claiming, “We happily inform the people of Syria and especially the people of the capital that the National Security Bureau, which includes what is called the crisis management cell, has been targeted with an explosive device by the Sayyed al-Shuhada brigade of Liwa al-Islam,” and that “Several regime pillars have been killed.”
Liwa al-Islam, which until September 2012 had fought under the FSA banner, was the most powerful opposition group in the broader Damascus area, with the town of Douma in the Ghouta region serving as its stronghold.
Qassim Saadedine, an FSA spokesman and a prominent commander from the town of Rastan near Homs, claimed credit as well, saying that “This is the volcano we talked about, we have just started.”
Despite the initial apparent opposition success, and with no western intervention forthcoming, the Syrian army was able to repel the offensive, re-taking control of the Midan district of Damascus on July 20, 2012.
Had General Sir David Richards had his way, a British military intervention at this time could have tipped the scales of the conflict and allowed the western and Gulf-backed Salafist militias of the FSA to depose Assad and take Damascus. Cameron refused, however, in part because “it would be unsellable to Washington,” as mentioned above.
An intervention was unsellable at that time because U.S. presidential elections were just three months away. Obama had won the presidency in 2008 in part by feigning an anti-war stance in opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. His hopes of re-election would not be helped by a George Bush-style invasion of another Muslim country, especially considering the chaos that the war had spawned, with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of U.S. soldiers killed.
Obama therefore delayed making any major decisions regarding Syria until after securing re-election. For this reason, regional leaders had assured the Syrian opposition that western intervention would occur after the U.S. presidential campaign finished, as mentioned above.
Shortly after the failed opposition assault on Damascus, Obama declared his famous red line in August 2012. The first attempt to falsely blame the Syrian government for a chemical attack came almost immediately thereafter.
Following a visit to Syria in September 2012, opposition activist Ammar Abdulhamid wrote for the neoconservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) that, “Recently, and following a take-over by rebels of a missile base near Damascus, one of the people affiliated with the old operations room encouraged rebels to claim that some missiles had chemical warheads in the hope that this will show the Americans that their red line was being challenged. The claim, of course, was ludicrous. A statement from the FSA denying this development was made. But the damage was done. The lack of consistent expert advice continues to plague the opposition in every effort they undertake.” That Abulhamid pointed to “one of the people affiliated with the old operations room,” suggests this advice came from a member of a foreign intelligence agency tasked to liaise with opposition militant groups.
The issue of chemical weapons arose again in late November 2012. Israeli officials claimed to have satellite imagery of Syrian troops mixing sarin at two storage sites and filling dozens of 500-pounds bombs that could allegedly be loaded onto airplanes. Obama administration officials were told the sarin-armed planes “could be airborne in less than two hours—too fast for the United States to act, in all likelihood.” According to The New York Times, the incident “renewed debate about whether the West should help the Syrian opposition destroy Mr. Assad’s air force, which he would need to deliver those 500-pound bombs.”
Then-Secretary of Defense and former CIA director Leon Panetta parroted the Israeli claims, stating “I think there is no question that we remain very concerned, very concerned that as the opposition advances, in particular on Damascus, that the regime might very well consider the use of chemical weapons. The intelligence that we have causes serious concerns that this is being considered.”
Opposition leader George Sabra seized on these allegations to demand western military intervention, claiming that Assad would not “hesitate to commit such atrocities as he approaches his inevitable end unless he faces firm and unequivocal international opposition,” and that “We ask the countries of the world to act before disaster hits, not after.”
According to later reporting from journalist Seymour Hersh, the alleged filling of bombs with sarin was the result of activity picked up by a system of on-the-ground sensors used by Israeli and U.S. intelligence to monitor any movement of Syria’s chemical weapon arsenals. Hersh later confirmed that the Syrian government was not preparing for a chemical attack, but simply that the “event was later determined to be part of a series of exercises” and that “all militaries constantly carry out such exercises.”
Chemical Attack in Homs?
Two weeks later, on December 23, 2012, opposition sources claimed that the Syrian army carried out a chemical attack, likely using Sarin, in the city of Homs. Al-Jazeera reported that at least seven people had died after inhaling a poisonous gas “sprayed by government forces in a rebel-held Homs neighbourhood” and that according to Raji Rabbou, an activist in the city, “We don’t know what this gas is but medics are saying it’s something similar to sarin gas.” For the first time, opposition activists also released videos of the casualties from the alleged chemical attack.
Claims of a chemical attack in Homs were apparently reinforced by reporting from journalist Josh Rogin in Foreign Policy. Rogin provided details of an allegedly leaked cable from the U.S. consulate in Istanbul, which supposedly confirmed the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government after an exhaustive investigation. Rather than sarin, the cables suggested that another chemical, known as Agent 15, or BZ, was used.
The credibility of Rogin’s claims was quickly called into question, however. Tommy Vietor, a White House spokesman, explained that, “The reporting we have seen from media sources regarding alleged chemical weapons incidents in Syria has not been consistent with what we believe to be true about the Syrian chemical weapons program,” while a State Department spokesperson added there was “no credible evidence to corroborate or to confirm that chemical weapons were used” in response to the reporting by Rogin. Additionally, Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) said he was also “not convinced” there is credible evidence that Assad’s military had used BZ or any other chemical weapon.
CNN reported on January 16, 2013 that “the concern triggered a more extensive investigation by the State Department” and that the according to a senior U.S. official, the “gas was determined to be a ‘riot control agent’ that was not designed to produce lasting effects…But just like with tear gas, if you breathe in an entire canister, that can have a severe effect on your lungs and other organs…That doesn’t make it a chemical weapon, however.”
Yahoo News similarly reported “If recent media reports have left an impression that Syrian President Bashar Assad might already have used chemical weapons against his own people, think again, says arms expert Jeffrey Lewis. The scholar on weapons of mass destruction is assailing the credibility of Syrian opposition allegations that the chemical ‘Agent 15’ was dispensed in the restive northern city of Homs on Dec. 23.” Lewis, the director the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies’ East Asia Nonproliferation Program at Middlebury College explained that “No one has bothered to mention that Agent 15 doesn’t exist.” Importantly, Lewis noted that “the Istanbul consulate cable was based on accounts by a contractor, Access Research Knowledge or ‘ARK,’ which in turn used a Syrian group known as Basma to interview ‘three contacts’ about the alleged attack.” ARK is in turn funded by the UK foreign office, meaning that, according to Lewis, “These appear to be U.S.- and U.K.-funded groups that produce anti-regime propaganda…Are we really surprised that they are alleging chemical weapons use?”
The role of the UK-funded contractor ARK in promoting false allegations of a chemical attack in Homs is important because it suggests the involvement of British intelligence in seeking to trigger Obama’s red line.
Not only British but also Saudi and French intelligence were promoting questionable evidence of a chemical attack that would trigger the red line. The Wall Street Journal reported that “the Saudis, who have close ties to rebel factions, played an important early role in collecting evidence, Arab diplomats said. This past winter [early 2013], the Saudis flew to the U.K. a Syrian who was suspected of having been exposed to a chemical agent, Arab and European diplomats said. Tests performed in Britain showed the Syrian had been exposed to sarin gas. French and British intelligence agents saw the evidence as credible and stepped up efforts to track other exposures in the chaotic war zone.” However, in contrast to the French, British, and Saudi intelligence services, “U.S. intelligence analysts, particularly those at the Pentagon, were skeptical of those initial results, officials said. Officials said they couldn’t rule out the possibility that the rebels might be planting evidence to try to draw the West into the conflict. They felt they needed a clear ‘chain of custody’ to make determinations. Officials in the White House felt they would need a strong case to present to Mr. Obama, who didn’t want to get drawn into the conflict.”
While momentum was building to blame the Syrian government for a chemical attack, U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey also pushed back against this narrative at the time, arguing that, “I think that Syria must understand by now that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable. And to that extent, it provides a deterrent value.” Another senior U.S. defense official also noted that, “I think the Russians understood this is the one thing that could get us to intervene in the war.” In other words, there was no doubt on all sides who would benefit from the Syrian government carrying out a chemical attack, and it was not the Syrian government.
A few months later, the issue of chemical weapons emerged once again. On March 19, 2013, a rocket containing chemicals was fired at the town of Khan al-Assal, in Aleppo province in northern Syria. According to the UK-funded Syrian observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), the attack killed 25, including, crucially, 16 Syrian soldiers.
Because Syrian soldiers had been killed, this suggested opposition militant groups were responsible. However, opposition sources quickly claimed the government had carried out the attack instead. The pro-opposition Aleppo Media Centre, which, as journalist Vanessa Beeley details, received funding from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, claimed that there had been cases of “suffocation and poison’” among civilians in Khan al-Assal after a surface-to-surface missile was fired at the town and that it was “most likely” due to the use of “poisonous gases” by the Syrian government.
Abd al-Jabbar al-Akaidi, head of the FSA’s Aleppo Military Council and a close contact of U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, claimed he had witnessed the attack, and that it was not a surface-to-surface missile, but “an errant strike on a government-controlled neighborhood by Syrian warplanes flying at high altitude.”
U.S. officials also sought to deflect blame from the opposition. Martin Chulov of the Guardian reported that, “Washington, which has for the past six months claimed that only the use of chemical weapons could lead it to overturn its opposition to direct intervention in Syria, later said it had ‘no reason to believe’ rebels had been responsible, but was studying claims that the regime may have been.”
Claims of Syrian government responsibility were immediately dubious, however, as it would mean the Syrian government had done the “one thing” that could get the U.S. to intervene, while entrusting the operation to military commanders inept enough to accidentally kill 16 of their own soldiers in the process.
Assad’s Slam Dunk
The Syrian government itself felt that opposition responsibility was clear and sent a letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon the very next day, March 20, requesting the UN “conduct a specialized, impartial and independent investigation of the alleged [chemical] incident.” Ban Ki-moon quickly agreed to launch an investigation, and appointed Swedish professor Ake Sellstrom, a former weapons inspector in Iraq, as its head on March 26.
However, as open-source analyst Adam Larson details, western diplomats immediately sought to torpedo the Syrian government request to objectively investigate the Khan al-Assal incident. British and French diplomats promptly demanded that the investigation focus not only on the March 19 attack in Khan al-Assal, but also on other alleged chemical attacks that might be blamed on the Syrian government. These included the December 23, 2012, incident in Homs discussed above, as well as a new claim of a Syrian government chemical attack in the Damascus suburb of Ataybah, which also allegedly took place on March 19, 2013.
The New York Times reported that, “Britain and France have written separately to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations that there is credible information suggesting Syria’s government has used chemical weapons in the civil war on multiple occasions since last December,” and that there had been “an exchange of letters with the secretary general starting on March 25 about the information, which they would not reveal in detail.” Despite the British and French request, UN spokesman Martin Nesirky stated on March 26 that “work is already well under way so that the mission can be dispatched quickly.”
But by April 8, 2013, Ki-moon had accepted the British and French request and “urged the Syrian government to accept an expanded UN probe into alleged chemical weapons use, saying he had concluded that an alleged attack in Homs in December warrants investigation.”
Syria’s representative to the UN, Bashar al-Jaafari, claimed that an agreement had already been reached four days before, on April 4, with the UN’s disarmament head Angela Kane, a former German diplomat and World Bank official, to deploy the UN mission only to Khan al-Assal. According to Jaafari, “Kane then went back on the agreement…and delivered a letter the next day contrary to the previous agreement.” Kane justified this by claiming to have received new information about the December 23, 2012, alleged chemical attack in Homs, and that this increased the urgency of investigating not only the Khan al-Assal allegations, but the Homs allegations as well. Syrian state TV noted that “Al-Jaafari wondered how the UN Secretary General could have new information available to him” so suddenly of an incident that had already taken place months ago.
By insisting that other alleged chemical attacks be included in the UN investigation, British, French, and now UN diplomats were attempting to muddy the waters of the investigation. They apparently understood that any independent investigation focusing solely on the Khan al-Assal chemical attack would clearly implicate the western-back opposition, and therefore the investigation had to be expanded to include additional alleged attacks of dubious credibility but that could still be blamed on the Syrian government.
If both sides could be blamed for perpetrating chemical attacks, opposition responsibility for Khan al-Assal could be diluted, and western military intervention could still be justified by suggesting the government was also guilty of having used chemical weapons. The French and British diplomats were clearly grasping at straws by demanding the Homs incident be included, considering that that the U.S. State Department and Pentagon had already dismissed allegations against the Syrian government in that case as baseless, as discussed above.
Additionally, if the claims of a chemical attack in Homs had been credible, why did British and French diplomats wait to request the UN investigate them only immediately after the Syrian government made such a request regarding Khan al-Assal? This shows the British and French demands were a political ploy. Unsurprisingly, when the Ake Sellstrom-led UN mission later reached Syria in August 2013, it declined to investigate the Homs attack. It was not one of the alleged attacks for which there was sufficient credible information to merit further investigation.
Blaming the Victims
While discussing the controversy surrounding the pending investigation of the Khan al-Assal attack, Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) noted a historical precedent for just this diplomatic tactic. Gelb explains that after helping Saddam Hussain carry out chemical attacks against both Iran and Iraq’s rebellious Kurdish population during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, U.S. diplomats sought to also blame Iran for chemical weapon attacks against Iraq, despite having no evidence to do so.
Gelb’s comments are shocking and worth quoting at length. He recalled:
“…the little matter of America’s great ally in the 1980s, Saddam Hussein, depositing chemical bombs and artillery shells upon human waves of Iranians who were overrunning Iraqi troops in a war that Iraq started. Estimates of how many Iranians were killed by Saddam’s chemicals alone range from 50 to 100,000. What did the Reagan administration do about this? After Saddam’s first mustard gas attacks, Reagan dispatched special envoy Donald Rumsfeld to Baghdad to cement closer ties with the dictator. The Reagan entourage committed a further moral outrage following Saddam’s use of chemicals against the Kurdish rebels in Halabja in 1988, during the closing days of the Iran-Iraq War. Nearly 7,000 Kurds were killed, and thousands more severely wounded, the vast majority of them civilians. Washington’s response was to try and place the blame for Halabja on Iran. Throughout the war, the Reagan team blocked United Nations action against Iraq. After Halabja, it took seven weeks of back and forth before the U.S. finally agreed to a Security Council resolution condemning ‘the continued use of chemical weapons in the conflict between Iran and Iraq’ and expecting ‘both sides to refrain from the future use of chemical weapons in accordance with their obligations under the Geneva Protocol.’ In other words, the resolution implicated Iran as well as Iraq, even though no evidence was produced proving Tehran’s culpability. Let’s face facts. Our nation’s leaders wanted Iran’s defeat and were prepared to accept almost any behavior by Saddam that furthered that goal [emphasis mine].”
Gelb notes further that the secretary of state at that time, George Shultz, admitted years later, “’It’s a very hard balance. They’re using chemical weapons, so you want them to stop using the chemical weapons. At the same time, you don’t want to see Iran win the war.’ Think about that kind of honesty regarding Syria. I believe Assad is probably guilty of the crime, but history shows that evidence could pop up a year or so hence that the jihadi rebels planted the chemicals to foment western military action against Damascus.”
Gelb concluded by saying that, “The screamers for U.S. military intervention [in Syria] are gaining traction,” and that it will be difficult to “stop the hordes for long.”
As Adam Larson details further, there was an additional objective of the French and British demands for an expanded UN investigation in Syria, namely the attempt to impose an all-pervasive chemical weapons inspection regime on the country comparable to that imposed on Iraq in the years preceding the 2003 US invasion.
On April 27, 2013, Syrian information minister Omran al-Zouabi claimed for example that by broadening the scope of the Khan al-Assal investigation to include additional sites and attacks, the aim of the western powers was, “first, to cover those who are really behind use of chemical weapons in Khan al-Assal, and secondly, to repeat Iraq’s scenario, to pave the way for other investigation inspections. To provide, based on their results, maps, photos of rockets and other fabricated materials to the UN, which as we know, opened the way to the occupation of Iraq.”
Russian foreign ministry spokesman Aleksandr Lukashevich similarly explained that the UN Secretary-General Ki-moon’s initial reaction to Syria’s appeal for an investigation was positive, but quickly “underwent a drastic change under the influence of a number of states,” aimed at the “establishment of a permanent mechanism for inspection throughout Syrian territory with unlimited access to everywhere,” as was imposed on Iraq.
Syrian and Russian fears were not unfounded. As The Washington Post reported in 1999, “United States intelligence services infiltrated agents and espionage equipment for three years into United Nations arms control teams in Iraq to eavesdrop on the Iraqi military without the knowledge of the U.N. agency that it used to disguise its work.”
The resultant Syrian government rejection of the revised and expanded investigation proposal therefore delayed the launch of the investigation. This allowed State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell to deflect culpability away from the so-called rebels and redirect it toward the Syrian government, arguing that “if the regime has nothing to hide, they should let the U.N. investigators in immediately so we can get to the bottom of this” and determine “whether or not the president’s red line has been crossed.”
The delay in the deployment of Ake Sellstrom’s team to investigate the Khan al-Assal attack in turn allowed British and French intelligence additional time to manufacture new dubious claims of Syrian government chemical use that could be added to the baseless December 2012 allegation from Homs.
In the wake of the March 19 Khan al-Assal attack, and the efforts by British and French diplomats to muddy the investigation of it, came another dubious alleged chemical attack that again was blamed on the Syrian government. This occurred on April 13, 2013, in the majority Kurdish Aleppo suburb of Sheikh Maqsoud. According to testimony obtained by the UN Human Rights Council Commission of Inquiry, “the alleged incident affected 21 persons and caused one death. The victims were allegedly transported to a hospital in Afrin for treatment.”
The Sheikh Maqsoud attack was first reported four days later, on April 17, in an article published by ABC News. The article was written however by journalists Mohammed Sergie and Karen Leigh from a separate news site, Syria Deeply.
The report was based on testimony from two people, an alleged survivor, Yasser [no last name given], and a doctor who treated Yasser and other alleged victims of the attack, Dr. Hassan [no first name given].
Yasser claimed that “I heard something explode on the roof. I thought it was a shell and called my brother for help.” After his two infant sons began hyperventilating, he says, “I knew then that there were chemicals in the air and I told everyone to get out. I screamed for help and saw my neighbors come in,” before becoming dizzy and falling to the ground. Yasser explains further that, “I saw my wife nearby; I crawled over to her and hugged her. Then I woke up in Afrin.”
The report then states that Yasser was “recounting the horror he experienced while recuperating at a hospital in Afrin, north of Aleppo. He hasn’t been told that his wife and children are dead, as his doctors don’t think he can handle the shock in his fragile state.”
Dr. Hassan, the director of the hospital in Afrin, explained that “he didn’t have evidence about who was responsible for the attack in Sheikh Maqsood or what kind of chemical was released. But he said the symptoms and treatment clearly indicate that chemical agents caused the deaths of a woman and two children [Yasser’s wife and children] and injured more than a dozen people.” Dr. Hassan also treated the patients with atropine.
Dr. Hassan’s claims of a chemical attack were reinforced in the ABC News report by comments from Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a British chemical weapons expert. De Bretton-Gordon explained that “On Sunday, we saw a number of reports that those three people were killed in Aleppo. We were sent a load of photos, a load of stuff. The symptoms that were described would be similar to nerve agent poisoning, and the use of atropine would have been an effective method to treat these people.”
De Bretton-Gordon also introduced the idea that perhaps the opposition and government were both guilty of using chemicals weapons, consistent with the strategy of the British and French diplomats who wanted to expand the UN investigation beyond Khan al-Assal, as described above. De Bretton-Gordon speculated that it was likely that improvised chemical weapons had been used (rather than military grade) by both sides, “by the regime to show that the opposition are using chemical weapons, and by the opposition to show that the regime is using them. Obviously if the regime is using them, then a red line is crossed and things are changed.” There was however no mention of a red line if the opposition was found to be using chemical weapons.
The Sheikh Maqsoud attack made bigger headlines after an almost identical story was published about it in the Times of London two weeks later, on April 26, 2013, relying on the same two witnesses, Yasser Younis and Dr. Kawa Hassan [full names provided]. The story was written by journalist Anthony Loyd, who reported that according to Yasser, a chemical munition was dropped on his home in the middle of the night that began emitting poison gas. Yasser claimed that, “My vision was going. I grabbed my boy Sadiq and ran for the street. Then I collapsed. I remember nothing more.” He then woke up in a hospital in Afrin, four hours later. His wife and two sons had already died in the attack.
Anthony Loyd also claimed that his investigation for the Times of London “suggests that nerve gas is being used in Syria’s war.” De Bretton-Gordon was once again quoted to give the nerve gas claim credibility. He gave a bizarre reason for why the government would use chemical weapons, speculating, “As far as the regime go, they are prepared to follow the thickness of the red line to test its boundaries.” The Syrian government of course had no incentive to cross the red line, nor to even test its boundaries.
Claims of the attack were accompanied by video of other alleged victims who had been transported to the hospital. Loyd reports that “Subsequent video footage taken by the medical staff at the hospital in Afrin, an hour’s drive from Aleppo, provided even more compelling evidence. Provided to The Times by Dr Kawa Hassan, an orthopaedic surgeon who received the first casualties at about 4am, it shows victims, among them Yasser and his dying wife, frothing at the mouth and nose in a trance-like state.”
When comparing the ABC News and Times of London accounts, two things seem odd and suggest that Yasser Younis had fabricated at least parts of his testimony. Recall that in the ABC account, Younis became dizzy and fell to ground, then crawled to his wife to hug her before passing out. He then woke up in the hospital in Afrin.
In contrast, in the Times of London account, Yasser claims that he escaped to the street with one of his infant suns before passing out, after which he woke up in Afrin.
Anthony Loyd opens the article by writing that had Yasser “not managed to struggle out of the doorway of his home in Aleppo on to the street in the darkness of night, clutching his infant son to his chest, no one might have ever known what wiped out the family.” Of course, it is not possible that both accounts are true.
It is hard to imagine that Yasser and other witnesses could have misremembered such dramatic details. Whether he gave his wife a final hug before her death on the floor of his home, or he heroically tried to save his dying son while running out the street, both accounts appear meant to give additional emotional impact to his narrative of events. The ABC account provides further dramatic flair. As mentioned above, while lying in his hospital bed in Afrin, Yasser had not yet been told his wife and two sons had died. It is unlikely a victim of a chemical attack would be speaking with journalists before he had even been notified of his family having been killed. These oddities suggest that Yasser may have fabricated his testimony.
“Especially Rebel Forces”
Doubts about the veracity of Anthony Loyd’s report in the Times of London report quickly emerged. Journalist Tracey Shelton of the Global Post (James Foley’s employer) visited Sheikh Maqsoud three days after the incident, on April 16, 2013, to try to confirm rumors that chemical weapons had been used. Shelton was reporting at the time from a nearby neighborhood in Aleppo and was able to walk to Sheikh Maqsoud and speak with the Kurdish police that first responded to the scene at Yasser’s home. She then traveled to Afrin to interview Dr. Kawa Hassan, the other subject of both the ABC and Times of London reports. She tried to locate Yasser Younis, but he had allegedly traveled to a small village that could not be reached safely. Shelton was nevertheless excited to possibly confirm the story of the chemical attack because she knew it would be a world changing story, if confirmed. She was cautious however because, “In Syria at that time, because chemical attacks were this red line, anything that remotely looked as if it could involve any kind of chemical would be labeled instantly as a chemical attack…everybody wanted to prove that this is chemical weapons, because then maybe the U.S. would come in and help them. Especially rebel forces.”
Shelton concluded, however, that Sheikh Maqsoud was a case of a “horrific chemical weapons attack that probably wasn’t a chemical weapons attack” because the symptoms one would expect to see in the victims simply were not present. Shelton reported that, “The telltale sign of a sarin gas attack is myosis, or constricting of the pupils,” but that she and the Global Post were unable to confirm any of them had myosis.”
Experts soon contradicted the claims of the ABC and Times of London reports as well, suggesting that the video of victims at the hospital provided to the Times appeared to be staged.
Elliott Higgins, an open-source investigator for Bellingcat, a group which has received funding from the CIA-cutout National Endowment for Democracy (NED), asked several chemical weapons experts about the video of the victims in the hospital to see if opposition claims appeared credible.
Higgins first queried a consultant from the private threat intelligence firm Allen Vanguard, who noted that in the video:
“None of the people in the hospital are wearing IPE (individual protective equipment); they are not being affected by the same condition as the patient on the stretcher. The first ‘victim’ is not in pain and does not have any visible symptoms beyond a non-moving fresh thin, white trail of foam leading down his face from each nostril. This is not a recognised symptom of nerve agent attack and the early signs (pinpointing of pupils, running nose, tight chest & difficulty of breathing) are absent…The presence of a camera person, lack of IPE worn by the staff, lack of general panic and lack of recognised symptoms amongst the ‘victims’ makes me think that the event has been staged. The symptoms that have been presented have probably been elaborated with single applications of foam; the foam has stopped emerging by the time the camera is shown at them.”
Higgins also queried Steve Johnson, Deputy Editor of CBRNe World, a magazine devoted to responding to chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or explosives (CBRNe) threats or incidents. Johnson observed that, “I can see ER room chaos and an extremely unusual foaming at the mouth. Doubly unusual as the person, despite being able to move makes no attempt to remove it. No solid conclusions one way or the other could be made from this video. Although it does raise a suspicion of faking symptoms with the highly uniform, highly white foam.”
Finally, Higgins queried Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, who, as mentioned above, had already provided statements in support of the claim that a chemical weapon had been used in Sheikh Maqsoud. Referring to the video showing victims from the alleged Sheikh Maqsoud attack, Higgins asked de Bretton-Gordon, “In your opinion would you be able to draw any solid conclusions about the chemical agent used from the information in that video alone?” De Bretton-Gordon responded, “Not really, there are some inconsistent symptoms with nerve Agent poisoning in this attack. There is however some evidence to suggest that this attack is where the samples that the UK and US Govts and others, analysis comes from, which reported microscope traces of Sarin.”
In the Times of London account, Anthony Loyd notes that Dr. Kawa Hassan had provided him the hospital video. If the videos were staged, as suggested by the experts quoted above, this suggests that, like Yasser, Dr. Hassan may have fabricated his testimony to falsely suggest a government sarin attack. While speaking with Tracey Shelton, Dr. Hassan had indicated that he was convinced sarin had been used. Such a fabrication would not be surprising, given that, as mentioned above, “everybody wanted to prove that this is chemical weapons, because then maybe the US would come in and help them. Especially rebel forces.”
In addition to the videos, images of white, handheld canisters with small holes also emerged, which according to opposition activists had been used to deliver the chemical agent in Sheikh Maqsoud. Elsewhere, other pictures had also emerged of an opposition fighter, from the Nusra Front, with the same type of canister attached to his tactical vest. Higgins asked these experts about the white canister as well.
Regarding the image of the hand-held white canister, the Allen Vanguard consultant observed that “Only the third ‘victim’ has recognisable symptoms of a chemical attack but even so, it is unlikely that a blood agent would be dispersed using a hand thrown canister because of the unreliability of the container and risk to the thrower of being contaminated by the blood agent.” Of the white hand-held canister, the Allen Vanguard consultant commented that “the canister is totally unsuitable to disperse a chemical or biological attack. An attacker would be more inclined to use cheaper, more conventional weapons (such as a grenade or rifle) if they were in such close proximity to their enemy.”
Of the image of the Nusra Front fighter with the same canister attached to his tactical vest, Steven Johnson of CBRNe commented, “Notably the man with it on his vest had no apparent protective equipment. Which suggests it’s more likely to be smoke or a riot control agent.” Johnson concluded by rhetorically asking, “would you trust your ability to throw a nerve agent to keep you safe? [emphasis mine]”
De Bretton Gordon had knowledge of the source of the samples from Sheikh Maqsoud that were provided to the UK and U.S. governments because he himself had provided them. By his own later admission, de Bretton-Gordon was engaged in a covert effort to smuggle soil samples out of Sheikh Maqsoud and to produce media reports about the alleged attack there. Journalist Kit Klarenberg reports that de Bretton-Gordon, who previously claimed to be a member of the 77th Brigade, the British Army’s official psychological warfare division, and who has been identified in the British press as a former spy, explained during an interview in 2014 that, ‘In March last year  there was a reported sarin attack in Sheikh al-Maqsood and I helped the Times—chap called Anthony Lloyd who very sadly got shot two weeks ago – to cover this story and tried to get samples to the UK for analysis…I won’t go into the details of that.’”
In short, a British intelligence asset, de Bretton-Gordon, helped to plant a story in the UK press and provided samples to the UK government of unknown origin, to prove an alleged chemical attack for which there is clear video evidence of staging. This “evidence” was then used by US and UK officials to claim that the Syrian government had crossed Obama’s red line.
While de-Bretton Gordon provided samples to the UK government, a U.S.-funded medical NGO provided samples from Sheikh Maqsoud to the U.S. government. Andrew Loyd reports in the Times of London that according to local medical sources, “in the immediate aftermath of the attack a team from ‘an American medical agency’ arrived at the hospital in Afrin. They took hair samples from the casualties for testing at ‘an American laboratory.’”
Loyd notes these samples led U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to suggest that “the Syrian regime had probably used chemical weapons, specifically sarin gas, on a small scale.”
CNN journalist Christiane Amanpour reports that the medical agency collecting these samples was the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), led by Dr. Zaher Sahloul. SAMs was not an independent, non-political, humanitarian organization, however. Dr. Sahloul himself campaigned strongly for U.S. military intervention in Syria. In the summer of 2013, Sahloul met with Obama at the White House for an Iftar dinner, in which he delivered a letter to the president urging him to establish a no-fly zone in Syria.
As journalist Max Blumenthal later reported, SAMS has functioned as an arm of the U.S. foreign policy establishment to promote regime change in Syria. SAMS received millions in funding from USAID, which boasts its own Office of Transition Initiatives to promote regime change in target countries, while former USAID staffers David Lillie and Tony Kronfli were among SAMS’ directors. The group later played a key role in laundering false reports of Syrian government chemical attacks, in Khan Sheikhoun in 2017 and Douma in 2018. A former SAMS employee characterized the group to Blumenthal as “Al Qaeda’s MASH unit.”
British and U.S. claims of Syrian government sarin use in Sheikh Maqsoud were accompanied by similar accusations from Israeli intelligence. During a national security conference in Tel Aviv on April 23, 2013, a senior Israeli military intelligence official, Brigadier General Itai Brun, had claimed that “To the best of our professional understanding, the regime used lethal chemical weapons against the militants in a series of incidents over the past months, including the relatively famous [Khan al-Assal] incident of March 19…Shrunken pupils, foaming at the mouth and other signs indicate, in our view, that lethal chemical weapons were used.” Brun’s evidence included “photographs taken of the area after the attacks” indicating sarin use.
Reuters reported on April 26, 2013, however, that experts from the UN’s Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) made clear that the evidence claimed by the U.S. and Israel did not meet UN standards, and that the OPCW would only issue a judgement about the use of chemical weapons if inspectors were able to visit the site directly to collect soil, blood, urine and tissue samples, maintain custody of the samples, and examine them in certified laboratories.
The issue of chain of custody was particularly important. OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan explained that even if samples were made available to the OPCW by the U.S. and Israel, the organization could not use them because, “The OPCW would never get involved in testing samples that our own inspectors don’t gather in the field, because we need to maintain chain of custody of samples from the field to the lab to ensure their integrity.” If samples were collected by opposition activists, journalists, or western intelligence agencies and then provided to the OPCW, it would be impossible to ensure that the samples came from the site of the attack in question and had not been manipulated for political purposes.
Despite the lack of any credible evidence for a chemical attack in Sheikh Maqsoud, The Washington Post reported that Israeli military officials claimed on April 23, 2013 that “Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons on several occasions to kill dozens of so-called rebel fighters. They said the evidence made them ‘nearly 100 percent certain.’” The Post reported further that on April 25, 2013, the Obama administration had mimicked Israeli claims, suggesting that the “Syrian government is likely to have used chemical weapons on a small scale against its own people,” despite the fact that, the “administration provided no evidence in public…saying only that its conclusion was partly based on ‘physiological’ data.”
The New York Times was also skeptical, with the paper’s editorial board noting on April 24, 2013, that while Assad “may be capable of using weapons of mass destruction, there is no proof that he has done so,” and that “…the case against Mr. Assad, so far, is thin.” The NYT noted further that “Israel, Britain and France have not offered physical proof (Israeli officials cited only photographs of Syrians ‘foaming at the mouth,’)” and that even “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel told Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday that he ‘was not in a position to confirm’ his own government’s intelligence assessment.”
Unsurprisingly, when the Ake Sellstrom-led UN mission later reached Syria in August 2013, it attempted to investigate the Sheikh Maqsoud attack, but was not able to corroborate the allegation that chemical weapons were used.
It should be noted here that western and Israeli intelligence and diplomatic officials did not appear particularly concerned to generate credible allegations of Syrian government chemical weapons use. Quantity rather than quality of claims was sufficient to create the perception of Assad’s guilt, so long as these were repeated regularly in the western press. When videos began to emerge of a massive chemical attack in Ghouta in August 2013, a narrative was already firmly in place suggesting Assad was responsible.
The staged chemical attack on April 13, 2013 in Sheikh Maqsoud was quickly followed by additional allegations, this time in the town of Saraqeb, in Idlib province, on April 29, 2013.
The BBC reported that the Syrian army had bombarded Saraqeb with artillery, and that according to local doctors, one woman named Maryam Khatib had died in the attack while eight others were admitted to the hospital suffering from breathing problems, vomiting, and had constricted pupils. BBC journalist Ian Pannell visited Saraqeb two weeks later. He was shown videos of the alleged chemical attack by opposition activists, and interviewed the dead woman’s son, who explained that “It was a horrible, suffocating smell. You couldn’t breathe at all. You’d feel like you were dead. You couldn’t even see. I couldn’t see anything for three or four days.”
In this case, opposition sources claimed the government had used the same hand-held grenade-like devices used in Sheikh Maqsoud, but this time enclosed in a concrete casing and allegedly dropped by helicopter. The BBC noted further that, “One device was said to have landed on the outskirts of Saraqeb, with eyewitnesses describing a box-like container with a hollow concrete casing inside. In another video, a rebel fighter holds a canister said to be hidden inside the devices. Witnesses claim there were two in each container. Another video shows parts of a canister on the ground, surrounded by white powder.”
The evidence for a chemical attack carried out by the Syrian government in Saraqeb was just as weak as in the case of Sheikh Maqsoud, given that the same type of canister was used in both locations. As noted above, the security experts consulted by Elliott Higgins concluded that the canisters likely contained only riot control agents such as tear gas, and had previously only been seen in the possession of opposition fighters from the al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front, who saw no need to wear protective equipment when handling them.
Tracey Shelton, who investigated the Sheikh Maqsoud claims, also reported that Turkish doctors had tested the blood of victims of the alleged attack in Saraqeb, but that no sign of sarin was detected and the tests “did not find anything unusual.”
Despite this, French foreign minister Laurent Fabious later claimed the opposite, that samples taken by a local medical team in Saraqeb and sent to French intelligence had tested positive for sarin. The samples were taken from four alleged victims who were treated in a field hospital run by the France-based Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organisations (UOSSM). The samples included those from Maryam Khatib, who died after being transported to a hospital in Turkey.
Among the UOSSM doctors allegedly treating victims was a British-Syrian oncologist named Mousa al-Kurdi. He described Maryam Khatib “as completely unconscious, some evidence of froth on her mouth, no surgical injury whatsoever…red eyes, very hot…muscle twitching [and] I’ve never seen pupils so constricted, almost non-existent.”
Like SAMS in Sheik Maqsoud, Al-Kurdi was not a neutral and objective source. Al-Kurdi had helped coordinate medical logistics from inside Syria in the early days of the war and was involved politically with the western-backed political opposition, the Syrian National Council (SNC). As noted above, Al-Kurdi appeared on al-Jazeera in April 2012 to make a special appeal to the international community: “Either you defend us or you arm the Syrian Free Army to defend us. You have the choice.”
It is an odd coincidence that a well-known British-Syrian doctor happened to be in Saraqeb at just this moment. Al-Kurdi was able to treat victims and give testimony of an alleged chemical attack which could have triggered the very foreign military intervention he had openly been calling for.
It should be noted that Ian Pannell was the BBC reporter relaying the claims of opposition activists in Saraqeb of a chemical attack. This is significant because, as journalist Robert Stuart details, Pannell helped stage another fake chemical attack a few months later, with the help of al-Kurdi’s daughter, another British-Syrian doctor named Rola Hallam, which will be discussed below.
Stopping the Hordes
In the wake of Khan al-Assal, Sheikh Maqsoud, and Saraqeb, the “hordes” Leslie Gelb had warned about included not only neoconservative Republicans, but also liberal interventionist Democrats. On April 26, 2013, Anne-Marie Slaughter, a Princeton academic and the former director of policy planning during Hillary Clinton’s term as secretary of state, published an op-ed in The Washington Post arguing that any reluctance to intervene in the Middle East caused by the 2003 Iraq war must be forgotten because “U.S. credibility is on the line,” and that if Obama did not intervene in Syria, “The world would see Syrian civilians rolling on the ground, foaming at the mouth, dying by the thousands while the United States stands by.” Slaughter cited the fabricated claims of chemical weapons use in Homs in December 2012 as proof the Syrian government had crossed the red line, while claiming further that, “Similar evidence has been squelched again and again, until finally our allies—the British, the French and even the Israelis—forced our hand.” Slaughter’s long-standing affiliation with the Aspen Institute suggests she was expressing the view of a prominent faction within the U.S. intelligence services.
Slaughter’s effort to pressure Obama to intervene was reinforced as well by New York Times columnist and former executive editor Bill Keller two weeks later. Keller also argued that the lessons of the Iraq war must be ignored (“Syria is not Iraq”) while trying to shame Obama into launching an intervention. Keller recommended escalating weapons shipments to the so-called rebels, and that if Assad still refused to step down, “we send missiles against his military installations until he, or more likely those around him, calculate that they should sue for peace.” Keller stressed the risks of inaction, including “the danger that if we stay away now, we will get drawn in later (and bigger), when, for example, a desperate Assad drops Sarin on a Damascus suburb.”
Both Slaughter and Keller displayed a curiously prescient knowledge of the alleged attack in Ghouta four months later (“The world would see Syrian civilians rolling on the ground, foaming at the mouth, dying by the thousands,” and “a desperate Assad drops Sarin on a Damascus suburb”).
Just as pro-intervention propaganda intensified in the U.S. press, Syrian government claims about opposition use of sarin in Khan al-Assal in March 2013 were bolstered, in this case by the conclusions of Carla del Ponte, a member of the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic and a former war crimes prosecutor. The Telegraph quoted del Ponte on May 6, 2013 as explaining that “According to the testimonies we have gathered, the rebels have used chemical weapons, making use of sarin gas…We still have to deepen our investigation, verify and confirm (the findings) through new witness testimony, but according to what we have established so far, it is at the moment opponents of the regime who are using sarin gas [emphasis mine].”
Del Ponte’s claim was bolstered by communications between American journalist Matthew Van Dyke and Elliott Higgins of Bellingcat. Van Dyke had fought with NATO-backed Islamist militants against the Libyan government in the summer of 2011, before traveling to Syria, presumably as an independent journalist. Emails between the two were hacked and leaked. In one of the emails, Van Dyke writes to Higgins that, “I have a source that has been reliable in the past, who gave me information about the rebels having acquired a small quantity a few months ago, and I know what building they came out of and I know some things about the building, having been to the site that give the information some additional credibility.” Van Dyke explained further that, “The Syrian regime was openly contemplating the idea of letting inspectors into the Aleppo case for a reason. I’m just telling you so that you’ll keep an open mind about these incidents and not have anything come totally unexpected to you in the future about chemical weapons use in Syria.” To this warning, Higgins responded, “I’ll keep an eye out then.”
Reporting from journalist Seymour Hersh also suggests opposition forces, specifically al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, were in possession of sarin and able to carry out the attack against government soldiers in Khan al-Assal.
Hersh reports that in the spring of 2013, U.S. intelligence learned that the Turkish government “was working directly with al-Nusra and its allies to develop a chemical warfare capability,” and that “Erdogan’s hope was to instigate an event that would force the US to cross the red line. But Obama didn’t respond in March and April.” Erdogan and Obama then met for a working dinner on May 16, 2013, with national security advisor Tom Donilon accompanying Obama, and Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan accompanying Erdogan. According to Hersh, “The meal was dominated by the Turks’ insistence that Syria had crossed the red line and their complaints that Obama was reluctant to do anything about it.” When Erdogan pressed Obama on his reluctance, saying “But your red line has been crossed!” Obama responded by pointing at Fidan and stating, “We know what you’re doing with the radicals in Syria.”
Hersh reported further that a classified U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) briefing on June 20, 2013, indicated that “al-Nusra maintained a sarin production cell,” and that Nusra was “attempting to obtain sarin precursors in bulk, tens of kilograms, likely for the anticipated large scale production effort in Syria.” Hersh also noted that “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.” According to a former senior U.S. intelligence official with whom Hersh spoke, “We knew there were some in the Turkish government…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.”
Return of the Safari Club
Not only Turkey but also Qatar maintained close relations with Nusra. This was acknowledged by former Qatari prime minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani, who indirectly alluded to past Qatari support for Nusra in a television interview in 2017. Al-Thani explained that “Maybe [with] Nusra there was a relationship? Maybe there was. I swear myself, I don’t know about this issue…But even if this were the case, when the decision came that Nusra was not acceptable, the support to Nusra came to an end and the focus was on liberating Syria.”
Al-Thani explained further that early in the Syria conflict, the Saudi’s had tasked Qatar with taking the lead in funding and arming the Salafist-led insurgency against the Syrian government. According to al-Thani, Saudi “King Abdullah said we are with you, take the lead and we will coordinate,” and that “all distribution [of weapons] was done through the US and the Turks and us and everyone else that was involved, the military people.”
Reuters similarly reported that Qatar had initially played the largest role in arming what it referred to as Syrian rebels, but that this changed after the failure to hold off the Syrian army during the battle for Wadi al-Deif airbase in April 2013. According to Reuters, a “northern rebel commander said Saudi leaders would no longer let Qatar take the lead but would themselves take over the dominant role in channeling support into Syria.” Reuters identified Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan (who has close and long-standing ties with the CIA) as the senior Saudi security official “now running relations with the Syrian rebels.”
As I have detailed elsewhere, Bandar had been involved in planning to topple the Syrian government using al-Qaeda-affiliated Salafist fighters since 2006, in partnership with American neoconservatives close to then-Vice President Dick Cheney, including Richard Perle, Elliott Abrams, and Michael Doran.
By 2013, Bandar’s plans included the creation of a “National Army” reliably under U.S. and Saudi control that could rule the country should Assad fall. Though the idea of a National Army was couched in secular terms acceptable to western observers, the Saudis planned to use a Salafist militia, Zahran Alloush’s Liwa al-Islam, based in Ghouta in the Damascus suburbs, as the core of this new army.
In other words, shortly after the failed false flag attack in Khan al-Assal, which was likely carried out by the Turkish and Qatari-supported Nusra Front, Bandar took control of the Syria file and sought to elevate Liwa al-Islam as the dominant so-called rebel group on the ground in the effort to topple the Syrian government.
Prince Bandar was joined in this effort by John Brennan, who had replaced David Petraeus as CIA director a few months previously in March 2013. Brennan and Bandar together oversaw a joint U.S.-Saudi covert program, known as Timber Sycamore, to arm the al-Qaeda-dominated Syrian insurgency.
New York Times journalist Mark Mazetti reports:
“When President Obama secretly authorized the Central Intelligence Agency to begin arming Syria’s embattled rebels in 2013, the spy agency knew it would have a willing partner to help pay for the covert operation. It was the same partner the C.I.A. has relied on for decades for money and discretion in far-off conflicts: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Since then, the CIA and its Saudi counterpart have maintained an unusual arrangement for the rebel-training mission, which the Americans have code-named Timber Sycamore. Under the deal, current and former administration officials said, the Saudis contribute both weapons and large sums of money, and the CIA takes the lead in training the rebels on AK-47 assault rifles and tank-destroying missiles.”
Mazetti noted further that, “The roots of the relationship run deep. In the late 1970s, the Saudis organized what was known as the ‘Safari Club’—a coalition of nations including Morocco, Egypt, and France—that ran covert operations around Africa at a time when Congress had clipped the C.I.A.’s wings over years of abuses.”
The U.S.-Saudi partnership continued during the 1980s, with Prince Bandar, then the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. and a close friend of the Bush family, assisting the CIA to arm and fund the so-called mujahideen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, as well as the Contras fighting the socialist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. John Brennan was himself the CIA station chief in Riyadh during the 1990s where he developed a close relationship with Saudi interior minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who later succeeded Prince Bandar in running the Syria file.
Bandar’s close cooperation with the CIA leadership continued in the months leading up to the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001. As Aaron Good, Ben Howard, and Peter Dale Scott detail, Bandar provided funds (via his wife) to two presumed Saudi intelligence officers, Omar al-Bayoumi and Osama Basnan, who in turned arranged housing and flight lessons for two of the 9/11 hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi. Before the attack, the two hijackers in turn enjoyed protection from top CIA officials, Richard Blee and Tom Wilshire, who intervened with the FBI to prevent the surveillance and possible detention of the soon-to-be hijackers. Blee and Wilshire were protégés of then-CIA chief George Tenet, who met regularly with Bandar during this period. Tenet visited Bandar’s Virginia home monthly, and the two would frequently exchange information, the details of which Tenet would not reveal even to other officials at the CIA.
When Bandar became head of Saudi intelligence in July 2012, CIA officials welcomed his assistance in Syria. The Wall Street Journal reported that CIA officials “believed that Prince Bandar, a veteran of the diplomatic intrigues of Washington and the Arab world, could deliver what the CIA couldn’t: planeloads of money and arms, and, as one U.S. diplomat put it, wasta, Arabic for under-the-table clout,” with one senior U.S. intelligence official calling the Saudis “indispensable partners on Syria.”
The WSJ notes further that with backing from then-CIA chief David Petraeus, Bandar set to work in the summer of 2012 establishing a joint operations center in Jordan, complete with an airstrip and warehouses for arms, while sending his younger half-brother and then-deputy national-security adviser, Salman bin Sultan, to direct the operation. This was part of a Saudi shift to operate largely out of Jordan instead of Turkey.
David Petraeus was at the same time arguing for escalating the war by directly arming the Salafist militias of the FSA. The New York Times reports that in the first high-level discussion about intervening in the conflict after Obama declared the red line in August 2012, “the C.I.A. director, David H. Petraeus, presented a plan to begin arming and training small groups of rebel forces at secret bases in Jordan. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton backed Mr. Petraeus’s plan. She said it was time for the United States to get ‘skin in the game.’” As mentioned above, Obama did not wish to take drastic action in Syria with the upcoming presidential elections looming, and therefore resisted pressure from Clinton and Petraeus.
At the same time, Petraeus’ CIA was preparing for plans for a covert operation to topple Assad. In his book “Left of Boom,” CIA case officer Doug Laux explains that as part of a Syria task force he had been asked to “find ways to remove President Assad from office.” By September 2012, Laux had developed plans for a covert operation which had “gained traction in Washington.” However, because the plan “relied heavily on political contingencies,” it was not approved at that time. In addition to the upcoming elections, “President Obama and secretary of state Clinton were on the defensive in the aftermath of the Benghazi disaster” in Libya. Obama and Clinton were facing criticism for the events in Benghazi, in which Islamist militants had attacked the U.S. consulate and nearby CIA annex in the city on September 11. U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other U.S. officials were killed in the attack. As journalist Aaron Mate details, Ambassador Stevens had been involved in operating a CIA “rat line” to ship weapons from Libya to Salafist opposition militants in Syria.
While Bandar was working closely with Petraeus to escalate the war, the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Adel al-Jubeir, began “courting members of Congress who could pressure the administration to get more involved in Syria.” Al-Jubeir and Bandar were coordinating closely with Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham (R-SC). In September 2012, Prince Bandar met with McCain and Graham in Istanbul, where McCain complained to Bandar that the Salafist insurgent groups were not getting sufficient weaponry. According to McCain, in the succeeding months he saw “a dramatic increase in Saudi involvement, hands-on, by Bandar.”
The French Connection
A few weeks after UN investigator Carla del Ponte’s claim that it was the opposition that likely deployed sarin in Khan al-Assal, new claims of Syrian government chemical use emerged to further muddy the waters of the chemical issue, this time through reporting from the French newspaper, Le Monde.
On May 27, 2013, journalists for Le Monde published a report after spending two months, in March and April 2013, embedded with FSA fighters in the Damascus suburbs. In it, they claimed to “bear witness to the use of toxic arms by the government of Bashar al-Assad.” The journalists passed on accounts from FSA fighters alleging multiple chemical attacks beginning in March 2013, including in Adra, Ataybah, and Jobar. The reporters visited eight medical centers in the eastern part of the Ghouta region and claimed to find only two where medical directors said they had not seen fighters or civilians affected by gas attacks. Notably, the journalists visited a hospital in Douma, an area controlled by Liwa al-Islam, where doctors said they had admitted 39 patients after a chemical attack on the nearby town of Adra on March 24, 2013.
Several of the allegations made in the Le Monde report strike one as immediately odd, specifically the casual nature with which the opposition fighters approached the “gas attacks [which] became almost a strange kind of routine in Jobar” in the last half of April. The report states:
“On April 13, the day of a chemical attack on a zone of the Jobar front, Le Monde’s photographer was with rebels who have been waging war out of ruined buildings. He saw them start to cough before donning their gas masks, apparently without haste although in fact they were already exposed. Men crouched down, gasping for breath and vomiting. They had to flee the area at once. Le Monde’s photographer suffered blurred vision and respiratory difficulties for four days [emphasis mine].”
Jean Pascal Zanders, a leading expert on chemical weapons formerly of the European Union’s Institute for Security Studies, expressed skepticism of the claims presented by Le Monde. Zanders explained to McClatchy:
“…much about that report bears questioning. Photos and a video accompanying the report showed rebel fighters preparing for chemical attacks by wearing gas masks. Sarin is absorbed through the skin, and even small amounts can kill within minutes. He also expressed skepticism about the article’s description of the lengthy route victims of chemical attacks had to travel to get to treatment, winding through holes in buildings, down streets under heavy fire, before arriving at remote buildings hiding hospitals.”
Zanders noted further:
“…had sarin been the chemical agent in use, the victims would have been dead long before they reached doctors for treatment. Zanders also said he’s skeptical of sarin use because there have been no reports of medical personnel or rescuers dying from contact with victims. Residue from sarin gas would be expected to linger on victims and would infect those helping, who often are shown in rebel video wearing no more protection than paper masks. Le Monde reported that one doctor treated a victim with atropine, which is appropriate for sarin poisoning. But that doctor said he gave his patient 15 shots of atropine in quick succession, which Zanders said could have killed him almost as surely as sarin…It’s not just that we can’t prove a sarin attack, it’s that we’re not seeing what we would expect to see from a sarin attack.”
Rather than confirming the use of sarin or another chemical weapon, the Le Monde report instead confirmed what The New York Times had already noted in March 2013, namely that during the Syria conflict, the “term ‘chemical weapons’ has sometimes appeared to be used loosely to include not just deadly nerve agents like sarin gas but also tear gas and other nonlethal irritants used for crowd control.”
On June 5, 2013, Le Monde claimed to have provided samples of blood, urine, hair and even clothing from thirteen alleged victims of chemical attacks in Jobar and Ghouta, to the Centre D’Études du Bouchet, the only laboratory in France certified to test for the presence of chemical weapons. Some of the samples tested positive for sarin, allowing the French foreign minister Laurent Fabius to claim that the Syrian government had carried out multiple chemical attacks and that Obama’s line had been crossed.
These claims suffer from the issue of chain of custody discussed above, and the samples were therefore not considered credible evidence by UN investigators. If the samples were provided by belligerents in the conflict, such as opposition activists or militants, or even by French journalists, there is no way for independent third parties to confirm their origin. The lack of clear chain of custody for some of the samples was inadvertently acknowledged even by Le Monde, which explained that “For example, a pair of pants and a white and blue sweater turn out to be positive [for sarin]: their owners are unknown, but the clothes were picked up from the Jobar front at the time of the chemical attacks at the time when the special envoys of Le Monde were near this district of Damascus where the rebel forces were fighting the government troops [emphasis mine].”
When the Ake Sellstrom-led UN mission later reached Syria in August 2013, it declined to investigate the alleged attacks in Jobar between April 12-14, 2013, as there was not sufficient credible information to merit further investigation.
Because the Le Monde reporters were embedded with opposition fighters, including in areas controlled by Liwa al-Islam, this raises questions of whether this access was facilitated by French intelligence, through their Saudi counterparts, who worked closely with the Salafist militant group. We can speculate that just as British intelligence worked with a Times of London journalist to plant reports of a fake chemical attack in Sheikh Maqsoud, the same may have occurred in the case of reports of chemical attacks alleged by Le Monde in the Damascus suburbs during roughly the same period.
One indication of this is that, as the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media (WGSPM) notes, the editor of Le Monde at the time, Natalie Nougayrede, later became part of the Integrity Initiative, a UK Foreign Commonwealth Office-funded project dedicated to “setting up covert networks (‘clusters’) of journalists, academics and military/foreign service StratCom practitioners” in various countries. The initiative was dedicated to “covert manipulation of the public sphere, including campaigns to smear and suppress dissenters,” critical of UK foreign policy. WGSPM notes that “Nougayrede had a role in information operations in Syria. Under her direction, two Le Monde journalists acted as couriers to transfer samples provided by the opposition, allegedly from chemical attacks, to French intelligence agents in Jordan. Le Monde was then given the scoop of reporting that these samples had tested positive for sarin at the French chemical weapon detection lab at Le Bouchet.”
This is not surprising given that, as noted above, elements of the French foreign policy establishment (represented by Bernard Henri Levy) had been advocating for an attack on Syria since July 2012 and were promoting the view that the NATO intervention that destroyed the Libyan state could be repeated in Syria. The reporting in Le Monde at this time was a clear effort to further advance that policy goal.
The Special Assessment
In the wake of uncredible reports of Syrian government use of chemical weapons, and the knowledge of U.S. intelligence officials that Turkish intelligence was assisting the Nusra Front to develop a program to produce and use sarin, the White House issued a special assessment on June 13, 2013, claiming the Syrian government had indeed used chemical weapons. The purpose of this was to provide a justification for the CIA to provide additional weapons to the al-Qaeda dominated insurgency, which was crucial given the recent loss of al-Qusayr and Syrian army offensive to recapture Homs. The Hill reported that the “White House for the first time says Syria has used chemical weapons, crossing the red line. The administration says it will arm the rebels in response.”
According to deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes, “Legally, we couldn’t say what the support was; all I could say were things like: ‘This is going to be different—in both scope and scale—in terms of what we are providing to the opposition.’” According to the AP, these weapons were likely to include small arms, ammunition, assault rifles and a variety of anti-tank weaponry, including RPGs.
White House efforts to escalate the war were met with resistance from U.S. lawmakers, who expressed concerns about what amounted to arming al-Qaeda. Reuters reported on July 8, 2013 that Secretary of State John Kerry and CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell were tasked with briefing the House and Senate Intelligence Committees about the White House plan. Both committees initially rejected the White House effort and put a temporary freeze on the funds earmarked for the weapons purchases, due to worries that “weapons could reach factions like the Nusra Front.” House and Senate officials later backed down and, despite “very strong concerns,” agreed to move ahead with the White House’s strategy.
But Obama administration efforts to accelerate military aid to the al-Qaeda dominated insurgency were not enough to satisfy “the hordes” that Leslie Gelb had warned about. Senator John McCain applauded Obama’s decision but continued to demand supplying heavy weapons and establishing a no-fly zone over Syria to assist the Salafist militias of the FSA and Nusra Front. McCain and Lindsey Graham issued a joint statement on June 14, 2013, arguing that “We cannot afford to delay any longer. We must take more-decisive actions now to turn the tide of the conflict in Syria.”
When discussing the special assessment, Obama advisor Ben Rhodes pointed to four alleged chemical attacks in the previous months, on March 19 in Khan al-Assal, on April 13 in Sheikh Maqsoud, on May 14 in the town of Qasr Abu Samra, and on May 23 in Adra.
U.S. ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, at the same time sent a letter to UN chief Ban Ki-moon claiming the Syrian government had used chemical weapons and requesting that the UN mission include the incidents in Sheikh Maqsoud, Qasr Abu Samra, and Adra in its ongoing investigation. The AP reported in response that Ki-Moon “opposes the U.S. decision to send weapons,” and that he insists, “The validity of any information on the alleged use of chemical weapons cannot be ensured without convincing evidence of the chain-of-custody.”
In response to the White House special assessment, McClatchy published a report citing various chemical weapons experts expressing doubts about the White House claims. Richard Guthrie, formerly head of the Chemical and Biological Warfare Project of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, told McClatchy that, “The evidence has been mounting of exposure to poisons, but it has been hard to identify clear evidence for specific locations and specific materials.” Similarly, Philip Coyle, of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, “said that without hard, public evidence, it’s difficult for experts to assess the validity of the administration’s statement. He added that from what is known, what happened doesn’t look like a series of sarin attacks to him…‘Without blood samples, it’s hard to know.’”
Like UN officials, Greg Thielmann, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Arms Control Association, raised questions about the lack of a “continuous chain of custody for the physiological samples from those exposed to sarin.” McClatchy noted further that even Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “a proponent of the United States providing military assistance to the rebels,” had “raised doubts about the possible motive for announcing the chemical weapons conclusion.” Cordesman stated that, “the ‘discovery’ that Syria used chemical weapons might be a political ploy.”
While the Khan al-Assal, Sheikh Maqsoud, and Adra attacks mentioned by Rhodes in the White House assessment had been reported previously, the allegations about a chemical attack in Qasr Abu Samra were new. White House officials gave no evidence at that time or later to substantiate their claim of a chemical attack there. Once again, White House officials apparently hoped that if enough accusations of chemical weapons use by the Syrian government could be leveled, whether baseless or not, this would create the perception in the public that Assad was in fact guilty of using them.
The Hidden Campaign
The issuance of the White House special assessment on June 13, 2013 was apparently made possible because National Security Advisor Tom Donilon had resigned one week before. Donilon’s resignation at this time was crucial because for years he had held considerable influence over Obama’s foreign policy and had opposed direct U.S. intervention in Syria. Foreign Policy reported on May 28, 2013 that “Donilon has amassed enormous internal control over Obama’s foreign policy,” and that “It is Donilon who, working directly with Obama throughout each day, helps the president decide whether to intervene in Syria.” As noted above, Donilon had accompanied Obama during the meeting with Erdogan and Turkish intelligence chief Hikan Fidan, in which Obama resisted Turkish pressure to declare that Syria had crossed the red line.
In contrast, Donilon’s replacement, UN Ambassador Susan Rice, was known as a liberal interventionist and was a strong advocate for the 2011 military intervention in Libya, and by June 2013 favored escalating the war in Syria by increasing weapons shipments to the Salafist insurgency.
As Tariq Khan of the UAE-owned National reports, “The shake-up of Barack Obama’s national security team could be the final step towards more support for Syria’s rebels or even direct intervention,” while noting that the post of national security advisor is “thought to be the most influential foreign-policy position in Washington after the president.” The National quoted David Pollock, a former state department official and analyst with WINEP, as explaining that “At least unofficially, Susan Rice is more inclined to take a stronger, more activist US policy to the Syrian crisis than Tom Donilon was,” and that “her appointment could push the administration to change its Syria strategy.”
But why did Donilon resign? Foreign Policy reports that Donilon was the target of a “concerted but hidden campaign,” of “criticism from inside the administration and by those who served in the first term, and are now speaking out or quietly settling scores.” One source of such criticism was likely Donilon’s former deputy, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. After Donilon’s resignation, The New York Times noted his strained relationship with McDonough.
This is significant because according to Seymor Hersh, McDonough played a role in hiding Nusra’s efforts to acquire and use sarin from fellow U.S. officials, just as military planning for intervention in Syria was under way. Hersh writes that in the spring of 2013:
“…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. ‘Something was in there that triggered a shit fit by McDonough,’ the former Defense Department official said. ‘One day it was a huge deal, and then, after the March ‘sarin attacks’—he snapped his fingers—‘it’s no longer there.’ The decision to restrict distribution was made as the joint chiefs ordered intensive contingency planning for a possible ground invasion of Syria whose primary objective would be the elimination of chemical weapons.”
It is difficult to imagine the White House special assessment being issued (which was in effect a declaration of the Obama White House’s desire to go to war) if Donilon had still exerted significant control over U.S. foreign policy. The campaign to remove Donilon and replace him with Susan Rice was likely to open the door to possible U.S. intervention in Syria. Exactly who was behind this campaign to replace Donlon is unfortunately unclear. However, as discussed below, Susan Rice later played a key role in peddling false Israeli intelligence to blame the Syrian government for the chemical attack in Ghouta two months later.
Patriots and F-16s
Susan Rice’s appointment paid immediate dividends for the faction within the Obama administration advocating intervention. Politico reports that during the second week of June 2013, Obama administration officials held a series of meetings to review U.S. policy toward Syria in the wake of the Syrian government and Hezbollah’s success in capturing the town of al-Qusayr from the Nusra Front and FSA groups. The White House “concluded that a more direct U.S. intervention—one that includes arming the rebels or possibly imposing a no-fly zone—was needed to stem the tide of Assad victories in the past two weeks.” The loss of al-Qusayr was a bitter blow to the western-backed Salafist insurgency, as the town was located near the Lebanese border and was the doorway for pumping weapons to the FSA and Nusra in Syria’s third largest city, Homs. The New York Times reports that the “collapse of rebel positions in western Syria fueled the atmosphere of crisis” in the White House during this time.
Amidst this atmosphere, U.S. planners began preparations for a no-fly zone over Syria, under the cover of military training exercises in Jordan. Reuters reported on June 4, 2013, that the United States would deploy Patriot missiles and F-16 fighter jets to Jordan for military exercises and that “U.S. officials left open the possibility they could remain in place” after the exercises had ended. Reuters notes further that “The decision to send Patriot missiles to Jordan is particularly controversial for Russia,” which believed the missiles could be used to impose a no-fly zone over Syria, “heralding the first direct Western military intervention in the conflict.”
Preparations to impose a no-fly zone over southern Syria via Jordan complimented NATO’s standing ability to enforce a no-fly zone over the north of the country from its bases in Turkey. On March 19, 2013, the same day as the Khan al-Assal attack, NATO chief Admiral James Stavridis told Senator John McCain that “NATO Patriot missile batteries currently deployed in Turkey have the capability to shoot down Syrian military aircraft in a radius of 20 miles,” and that “we are prepared, if called upon, to be engaged as we were in Libya.”
On June 6, 2013, both McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham reiterated their desperation for intervention by again calling for President Obama to establish a no-fly zone. McCain claimed to CNN that “Vital national security interests are at stake,” and “we should be able to establish a no-fly zone relatively easily.” One month before, McCain had made his motivations clear, explaining that “The fall of Bashar al-Assad would be the greatest blow to Iran in twenty-five years.’’
Maximum Allegations, Minimal Credibility
Efforts to blame the Syrian government for dubious chemical attacks continued in July 2013, in the hope of convincing President Obama to enforce his red line. By July 12, the UN mission had still not reached an agreement to enter Syria, and U.S. and European officials were now demanding that a further nine alleged chemical incidents be investigated in addition to Khan al-Assal. Russian UN envoy Vitaly Churkin responded by accusing western officials of “inventing several groundless allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria in order to complicate efforts to arrange a UN investigation,” while explaining “We need to look into credible allegations…Unfortunately, I think what our western colleagues have been doing is trying to produce the maximum number of allegations with minimum credibility in an effort, one might think, to create maximum problems for arranging such investigation.”
During this time, pro-government Palestinians from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine—General Command (PFLP-GC) began a military operation to re-capture Yarmouk from the Nusra Front and allied FSA groups, which had invaded and occupied the strategically important Palestinian refugee camp in the southern Damascus suburbs in December 2012.
The LA Times reported on PFLP-GC efforts to push further into the camp, noting that the fighting was slow, but steady, and that “Graffiti on the walls extol rebel groups such as the Farouq Brigade and Al Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda-linked faction whose ranks include many foreign fighters, some with combat experience in Iraq or Afghanistan.”
As fighting in Yarmouk intensified, opposition activists claimed that the Syrian army had used chemical weapons in Yarmouk on July 21, 2013. Pro-opposition Almodon reported that “During the last 48 hours, Yarmouk camp has seen a battle that is the most violent since it entered a circle of confrontations approximately seven months ago with Syrian regime forces and shabeeha. In a development which is the first of its kind in Damascus, activists speak of the exposure of Yarmouk to bombing with chemical weapons, resulting in the death of 15 people,” while the Times of Israel cited 22 dead and added that the main Syrian opposition group, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (NCSROF) “condemned the attack and said it had video proof of the incident. It also called for international intervention to ‘protect the civilians against Assad’s systematic use of chemical weapons.’” Al-Jazeera reported NCSROF claims about a Syrian government chemical attack as well, adding further that the FSA joint command had accused the Syrian government of delivering two shipments of chemical weapons to Lebanese Hezbollah, and that the delivery had occurred in an area near Damascus.
These claims were unfounded but provided a possible pretext for Israel to intervene militarily on the side of Nusra and the FSA. In a visit to Israel in March 2013, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had met with President Obama and warned him that “Assad government’s chemical weapons could fall into the hands of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah,” which would be unacceptable to Israel.
The PFLP-GC released a statement disputing the opposition claims, noting that in the framework of the “media war against the government of Syria, channels of destruction and sedition have started to air misleading propaganda claiming that the Syrian Arab Army would fire mortars and or missiles into the camp with chemical gases, whereas these elements themselves are planning chemical attacks to blame the government.”
Claims of a chemical attack in Yarmouk appeared to be a fabrication, given that even the pro-opposition Violations Documentation Center (VDC) documented the death of 16 non-civilians (opposition fighters) and 2 civilians in Yarmouk on July 21 as the result of “shooting,” “explosion[s],” and “shelling,” while making no mention of any chemical attack. Further, opposition claims of a chemical attack in Yarmouk were soon quietly dropped, as the NCSROF never provided the video footage it had claimed to possess.
There was also no mention of any chemical attack in Yarmouk in the report later issued by the Ake Sellstrom-led UN mission.
It is interesting to note here that opposition activists immediately saw the utility of alleging chemical attacks against the Syrian government, with the NCSROF immediately calling “for international intervention” after alleging a chemical attack in Yarmouk. At the same time, the Syrian government and its Palestinian allies were fully aware of the danger of being blamed for a chemical attack, providing a strong incentive for them to avoid the use of chemical weapons in the conflict.
The Ghouta Chemical Attack
The Ake Sellstrom-led UN mission arrived in Damascus on August 18, 2013, after an agreement on the contours of the UN investigation was finally reached. The alleged use of chemical weapons would be investigated in just three areas, Khan al-Assa, Sheikh Maqsoud, and Saraqeb. There was also no mandate to determine responsibility for any attacks. Syrian officials were hopeful that the investigation would confirm their claims about Khan al-Assal, but as The Times of Israel reports, “diplomats and chemical weapons experts have raised doubts about whether they will find anything since the alleged incidents took place months ago.”
On the morning of August 21, 2013, and just three days after the UN mission had arrived, reports began to emerge of a large-scale chemical attack in the Damascus suburbs of East and West Ghouta. The BBC reports that “Within hours, dozens of videos were uploaded of large numbers of distressed and visibly sick adults and children with no external signs of injury. In some of the most graphic footage, dozens of bodies, including many small children and babies, were seen laid out in rows on the floors of clinics and mosques, and on streets.”
The videos allegedly documented a massive chemical attack by the Syrian government on civilians, with U.S. intelligence sources claiming sarin was used and that 1,429 people died, including 426 children, while the UK-funded Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), claimed to have confirmed 502 dead.
The alleged attack gave White House officials the pretext they had long needed to initiate their planned military intervention. The New York Times reports that “Within hours, administration officials began signaling that they were preparing for an immediate military strike to punish the Syrian government—an idea dismissed repeatedly in the past and a hard sell with some allies, a war-weary public and Congress.” President Obama was nevertheless still hesitant, however. In a CNN interview recorded the following day, August 22, Obama highlighted the dangers of intervening with force in Syria without UN Security Council approval.
At the same time, Ake Sellstrom’s UN mission was quickly instructed to delay the Khan al-Assal investigation and instead “focus [their] investigation efforts on the Ghouta allegations.” This prompted the Syrian state media to claim that reports of a chemical attack in Ghouta were “an attempt to divert the UN chemical weapons investigation commission away from carrying out its duties” to investigate what happened in Khan al-Assal.
The Syrian government was nevertheless open to the UN team investigating what happened at Ghouta, as were some U.S. officials, to help determine the veracity of reports of a chemical attack before taking military action. The Wall Street Journal reported that one day after the attack, on Thursday August 22, Secretary Kerry “took the unusual step of calling Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem to demand immediate access to the areas…Mr. Moallem said he told Mr. Kerry: ‘We have a natural interest in exploring the truth. I will work to implement Syria’s national interest.’”
Although the UN mission was already in Damascus, allowing access to the site of the attacks was not entirely in Syrian government hands, because, as Moallem told Kerry, “those districts weren’t under government control.” However, Kerry responded to Moallem saying “that rebel forces could ensure the safety of the U.N. investigators.” According to Moallem, the call “ended in a cordial way.” The WSJ reports further that, “That same day [Thursday, August 22], U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also called on the Syrians to provide immediate access,” however, a formal UN request strangely “wasn’t made until Saturday [August 24], according to U.N. and Syrian officials. All day Friday, the U.N. inspections team remained in Damascus.” Angela Kane, the UN disarmament chief, met with Foreign Minister Moallem on Sunday August 25 and arranged for the UN mission to finally begin its work the following day, on Monday August 26.
This delay was sufficient to allow Israeli intelligence to intervene politically to help overcome Obama’s hesitance and keep the White House on course for intervention. The Wall Street Journal notes further that the “U.S. position changed rapidly,” and that “Obama’s position already had shifted by Saturday morning [August 24],” towards intervention, even absent a UN resolution. This “dramatic turnaround,” was spurred by “a flood of previously undisclosed intelligence, including satellite images and intercepted communications, [which] convinced them the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons against its own people…One crucial piece of the emerging case came from Israeli spy services,” and “showed that certain types of chemical weapons were moved in advance to the same Damascus suburbs where the attack allegedly took place a week ago, Arab diplomats said.”
The Guardian also noted the Israeli role, explaining that according to the German magazine Focus, “The bulk of evidence proving the Assad regime’s deployment of chemical weapons…has been provided by Israeli military intelligence.” Specifically, the 8200 Unit of the Israeli army, which specializes in electronic surveillance, claimed to have intercepted a conversation between Syrian officials that proved the use of chemical weapons. The Guardian noted further that “Senior Israeli security officials arrived in Washington on Monday [August 26] to share the latest results of intelligence-gathering, and to review the Syrian crisis with national security adviser Susan Rice.”
After receipt of the new Israeli intelligence, Susan Rice then went to work to try sabotage the UN investigation, so that the planned military intervention could proceed. The Wall Street Journal reports that “In an email on Sunday [August 25], White House National Security Adviser Susan Rice told U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power and other top officials that the U.N. mission was pointless because the chemical weapons evidence already was conclusive” and that “The U.S. privately urged the U.N. to pull the inspectors out, setting the stage for President Barack Obama to possibly move forward with a military response.”
White House officials then tried to blame the delay of the UN mission in accessing the attack site on the Syrian government, even though the UN had not submitted a request to visit the site until just the day before, Saturday August 24, as mentioned above. After Syrian state TV announced on Sunday August 25 that UN inspectors would be allowed to visit the site the following day, an Obama administration official bizarrely claimed the decision was “too late to be credible.” The official claimed further that the Syrian government wanted to delay an investigation “to give the evidence of the attack time to degrade” and that “the regime’s continuing shelling of the site also further corrupts any available evidence of the attack.” However, UN head Ban Ki-Moon insisted that the investigation should move forward, while Ban’s spokesman, Farhan Haq, reminded observers that an investigation was clearly worthwhile because, “Sarin can be detected for up to months after its use.”
White House officials were apparently no more eager for a credible investigation into events in Ghouta than they were for an investigation into events in Khan al-Assal five months before. After speaking with chemical weapons experts and US officials, journalist Gareth Porter concluded that, “The administration’s effort to discredit the investigation recalls the George W. Bush administration’s rejection of the position of U.N. inspectors in 2002 after they found no evidence of any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the administration’s refusal to give inspectors more time to fully rule out the existence of an active Iraqi WMD programme. In both cases, the administration had made up its mind to go to war and wanted no information that could contradict that policy to arise.”
In another indication that the gears of war were already turning, the army chiefs of staffs from Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan all met at an unspecified location in Amman, Jordan, on Sunday August 25.
For the visits to finally commence, the UN mission reached an agreement with the Syrian government and various armed opposition groups for a ceasefire lasting 5 hours each day from Monday August 26 to Thursday August 29. The UN mission agreed to be in the “custody” of armed opposition groups while visiting the sites of the alleged attacks, and began by visiting Moadamiya, in western Ghouta, on Monday August 26. Reaching the site was delayed when the UN convoy came under fire from an unknown sniper.
Later comments from Ake Sellstrom suggest this sniper was from the opposition side, in an apparent attempt to delay the UN mission further. Just as U.S. officials did not want the UN mission to carry out an investigation, some opposition elements wished to prevent it as well. Sellstrom explains that when attempting to enter Moadamiya:
“We were shot at, at the first entrance into the area. We had to negotiate the night before on Skype with the rebel leaders, and in the areas it’s not a unified rebel leader, there were several groups, and some of them didn’t want us there, some of them wanted us there, so we had to find sort of the strongest rebel leader, talk to them, and ask them to keep the others at peace, so there was no shooting at us, and no shooting at the government in the same time because if they shot at the government, the government would start shooting back, and we would be just in the middle of the war again. On our first entry, which was on the 26th, we were actually shot at, had some problems, renegotiated, and went in again [emphasis mine].”
The commencement of the UN investigation was followed by claims that U.S. intelligence had, like Israeli intelligence, intercepted phone calls from Syrian military officers proving that the Syrian government had carried out a nerve gas attack. On Tuesday August 27, Foreign Policy reported that in the hours after the Ghouta attack, “an official at the Syrian ministry of defense exchanged panicked phone calls with a leader of a chemical weapons unit, demanding answers for a nerve agent strike,” and that U.S. intelligence services had overheard the calls. However, this only proved that Syrian military officers were reacting to the attack, and were confused by it, not that they had ordered it. Foreign Policy acknowledged that Assad had no reason to order such an attack, reporting that, “Nor are U.S. analysts sure of the Syrian military’s rationale for launching the strike, if it had a rationale at all.”
The very next day, State Department spokesperson Marie Harf was forced to acknowledge that the intercepted phone calls did not prove that Assad or any senior Syrian leadership had authorized a chemical attack. Harf could only argue that a chemical attack had happened, and Assad was responsible, simply because he was the leader of the country.
Undermining U.S. claims further, German intelligence sources later told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper that they had intercepted communications in which Assad had blocked numerous requests from his military commanders to use chemical weapons against opposition militants in recent months. Another cable released by German intelligence alleged to overhear a conversation between a high-ranking member of Hezbollah in Lebanon who told the Iranian embassy in Damascus that “Assad had made a big mistake when he gave the order to use the chemicals.” It is unclear however why a Hezbollah commander, even a high ranking one, would have had direct knowledge of Assad’s actions. The commander could have been reacting to media reports of a chemical attack like many others. According to German intelligence chief Gerhard Schindler, his agency did “not have conclusive evidence either way.”
Some U.S. intelligence officials were skeptical of the Israeli intelligence claims, however, and sought to avoid responsibility for the looming U.S. military intervention. The dissent among lower lever CIA analysts was reminiscent of the build up to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. As journalist James Risen details in his book, State of War, “doubts about the quality of intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction pervaded the ranks of the CIA before the war,” but that CIA head George Tenet and the agency leadership were determined to provide the so-called intelligence needed by Bush to sell the bloody invasion. CIA leadership did this by suppressing intelligence collected by its own analysts suggesting Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, while promoting even fabricated intelligence from its other analysts suggesting it did. Several Near East division station chiefs characterized the Directorate of Operations unit tasked with leading covert operations in Iraq as “pro-war zealots who were finally having their day in the sun thanks to the Bush administration.” In short, as British intelligence chief Richard Dearlove had observed “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy,” to topple Saddam, a policy which had been in place at the time Bush was elected, before 9/11.
James Clapper apparently took the dissent of the CIA analysts questioning Assad’s responsibility for Ghouta seriously, and on Monday August 26, 2013, warned Obama that Syrian government responsibility for the attack was “not a slam dunk.” The same warning was also given to journalists at the Associated Press on Thursday, August 29. The AP reported that, “The intelligence linking Syrian President Bashar Assad or his inner circle to an alleged chemical weapons attack is no ‘slam dunk,’ with questions remaining about who actually controls some of Syria’s chemical weapons stores and doubts about whether Assad himself ordered the strike, U.S. intelligence officials say.” The AP noted further that some U.S. intelligence officials “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.”
Clapper’s warning to Obama may have also resulted from a message sent by the British military leadership to the U.S. officials. According to reporting from Seymour Hersh, Russian military intelligence had obtained a sample of the chemical agent used in Ghouta and provided it to their British counterparts. The sample was then tested at the UK defense laboratory at Porton Down where it was identified as sarin. From a source within the Syrian government, British intelligence obtained a list of the batches of sarin in the Syrian arsenal, and quickly determined that the sarin used in Ghouta did not match any in the possession of the Syrian military. The British military leadership then notified U.S. General Martin Dempsey and the joint chiefs of staff. Because the sample came from Russian intelligence, the chain of custody of the sample could not be confirmed, and it is possible the Russians provided a false sample to exonerate their Syrian allies. However, according to a British intelligence official with whom Hersh spoke, the Russian who delivered the sample to the UK had proved trustworthy in the past. For whatever the reason, British military officials considered the evidence strong enough to send their U.S. counterparts the message that, “We’re being set up here.”
Note here the completely contradictory messages coming from U.S. military and intelligence sources within days of each other. Some, including whoever leaked the allegedly intercepted phone calls of Syrian military officers discussing the strike, were promoting U.S. military intervention, while others clearly opposed it.
Regarding the “slam dunk,” Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes noted that this was “the exact phrase that George Tenet, then director of the CIA, had used to assure George W. Bush that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Clapper seemed to be signaling that he wasn’t going to put the intelligence community in the position of building another case for another war in the Middle East that could go wrong.” Clapper then refused to issue an assessment on behalf of the intelligence community regarding the Ghouta attack, and instead sought to shift liability onto the White House. Clapper suggested that Rhodes author an assessment for public release instead. Rhodes agreed but explained as a result that “I felt waves of anxiety, anticipating how I might be hauled before Congress if things went terribly wrong after a military intervention.”
As noted above, the AP reported that some U.S. intelligence officials had discussed the possibility that “rebels could have carried out the attack in a callous and calculated attempt to draw the West into the war.”
Such speculation gained additional plausibility on the same day, August 29, with the publication of a report by freelance Jordanian journalist Yahya Ababneh and long-time AP stringer Dale Gavlak for the advocacy journalist website, Mint Press News. Ababneh had visited Ghouta and conducted interviews with “doctors, Ghouta residents, rebel fighters and their families.” Ababneh reports that “Many believe that certain rebels received chemical weapons via the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, and were responsible for carrying out the dealing [sic] gas attack.”
According to the father of an opposition militant in Ghouta, “My son came to me two weeks ago asking what I thought the weapons were that he had been asked to carry,” and that “his son and 12 other rebels were killed inside of a tunnel used to store weapons provided by a Saudi militant, known as Abu Ayesha, who was leading a fighting battalion.” According to Ghouta residents, “rebels were using mosques and private houses to sleep while storing their weapons in tunnels.” A local opposition commander believed the deaths were accidental, explaining that “We were very curious about these arms. And unfortunately, some of the fighters handled the weapons improperly and set off the explosions.” According to a female militant interviewed by Ababneh, the curious weapons were understood to have ultimately come from Prince Bandar.
The credibility of Ababneh’s reporting was quickly questioned, after Gavlak sought to distance herself from authorship of the article, apparently under pressure from her editors at the AP. Ababneh was also pressured to retract his claims by the Saudi embassy in Amman, but refused.
Elliott Higgins of Bellingcat appeared to be connected to the pressure campaign against Gavlak. He published an email statement from Gavlak alleging that she had not contributed to the report outside of editing it, and that Mint Press News had refused to remove her name from the byline after repeated requests. Mint Press News claimed in contrast that Dale Gavlak was indeed a co-author and that “we also made it very clear from the very beginning that Yahya was the reporter on the ground in Syria. She [Dale] did ask us to make that clarification and we did the day after the article [was] originally published. The day after the article was published, Dale notified us that she was under tremendous amounts of pressure and even threatened by third parties over writing the article.”
Despite the distractions raised by the byline controversy, a crucial aspect of Ababneh and Gavlak’s reporting, namely that Saudi-sponsored militants in Ghouta were in possession of chemical weapons, was later confirmed with the release of the Ake Sellstrom-led UN mission’s final report in December 2013. On September 29, 2013, the UN mission visited the Damascus suburb of Jobar to investigate Syrian government claims of a chemical attack on its soldiers there on August 24, 2013 (three days after the Ghouta attack). The UN report states that, “a group of soldiers were tasked to clear some buildings near the river in Jobar under the control of opposition forces…At around 1100 hours, the intensity of the shooting from the opposition subsided and the soldiers were under the impression that the other side was retreating. Approximately 10 meters away from some soldiers, an improvised explosive device (IED) reportedly detonated with a low noise, releasing a badly smelling gas.”
The Syrian government provided the UN mission with remnants of two IEDs allegedly used in the attack and collected by a Syrian officer, with each capable of holding roughly four liters of liquid. Ten soldiers suffered injuries from the attack, including four who were severely affected. They were treated at a military field hospital before transfer to the Martyr Yusuf al-Azmah Military Hospital. According to copies of the medical records of the four patients admitted to the military hospital, all reported experiencing miosis, a common indicator of sarin exposure. The Syrian government took blood samples from the four soldiers on the day of the attack. These were provided to the UN mission, which also took new blood samples from the same four soldiers (roughly a month later) and used DNA testing to confirm that the blood samples provided by the government belonged to the same four soldiers from which the UN mission drew blood. The UN report states that “All samples allegedly withdrawn by the Syrian Government on 24 August 2013 tested positive for Sarin signatures. Of the four samples collected by the United Nations Mission on 26 and 28 September 2013, i.e. one month after the alleged incident, one tested positive for Sarin signatures. The rest were negative.”
Because the DNA from the blood samples taken by the Syrian government and testing positive for sarin could be matched with the DNA of the four soldiers whose blood was tested directly by the UN later on, this is strong evidence that opposition militants carried out a low-level sarin attack against Syrian soldiers in Jobar on August 24.
The UN mission also investigated a similar attack on Syrian soldiers which took place in Ashrafiah Sahnaya in the Damascus countryside on August 25, 2013. Once again, blood samples indicated the soldiers had been exposed to sarin using the method described above. The UN report noted that “At the entrance of Sahnaya next to scattered local houses, the opposition side started to throw objects with a catapult at around 1800 hours. At approximately 2000 hours, an object was thrown at a group of five soldiers located in one of the local houses and landed about 10 to 15 meters away. A badly smelling gas was released, but no explosion was heard.”
This reinforces the claims made by the Ghouta residents and opposition militants interviewed by Yahya Ababneh for Mint Press News during the same period, namely that opposition militants in the Damascus suburbs had access to at least limited amounts of sarin. Due to the difficulty of producing sarin, even in small amounts, it is possible they acquired this from the Nusra Front, which had access to sarin as detailed above. Seymour Hersh reports that according to a U.S. intelligence document issued mid-summer 2013, a Nusra militant named Ziyaad Tariq Ahmed was operating in Eastern Ghouta, and that he was an “al-Nusra guy with a track record of making mustard gas in Iraq and someone who is implicated in making and using sarin.” In other words, Nusra may have been supplying sarin in limited amounts to local militants from Liwa al-Islam to use in their battles with the Syrian army, and potentially as part of a false flag attack.
The Anti-Assad Operation Begins
Another possibility is that militants fighting around Damascus received sarin directly from their backers in the CIA and Saudi intelligence, who were embedded directly with opposition militants during this period as part of the ongoing operation overseen by Prince Bandar to attack Damascus.
For example, one day after the Ghouta attack, and two days before the sarin attack on the Syrian soldiers in Jobar, Le Figaro reported that “the anti-Assad operation has begun.” The French newspaper reported on August 22, 2013, that “According to information collected by Le Figaro, the first Syrian contingents trained in guerrilla warfare by the Americans in Jordan have been in action since mid-August in southern Syria, in the Deraa region. A first group of 300 men, probably supported by Israeli and Jordanian commandos, as well as by men from the CIA, would have crossed the border on August 17. A second would have joined them on the 19th.” La Figaro quoted David Rigoulet-Roze, a researcher at the French Institute for Strategic Analysis (IFAS), as explaining that, “Their thrust would now be felt as far as Ghouta, where the FSA formations were already at work…the idea envisaged by Washington would be the possible creation of a buffer zone from southern Syria, or even a no-fly zone, which would make it possible to train opponents in complete safety, until the relationship of forces changes. This is why the United States deployed Patriot batteries and F16s in late June in Jordan.”
Preparations for attacking Damascus in the wake of the coming false flag attack were simultaneously taking place in Turkey as well. According to a group of former U.S. intelligence officials, known as Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS):
“we have learned that on August 13-14, 2013, Western-sponsored opposition forces in Turkey started advance preparations for a major, irregular military surge. Initial meetings between senior opposition military commanders and Qatari, Turkish and U.S. intelligence officials took place at the converted Turkish military garrison in Antakya, Hatay Province, now used as the command center and headquarters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and their foreign sponsors. Senior opposition commanders who came from Istanbul pre-briefed the regional commanders on an imminent escalation in the fighting due to ‘a war-changing development,’ which, in turn, would lead to a U.S.-led bombing of Syria. At operations coordinating meetings at Antakya, attended by senior Turkish, Qatari and U.S. intelligence officials as well as senior commanders of the Syrian opposition, the Syrians were told that the bombing would start in a few days. Opposition leaders were ordered to prepare their forces quickly to exploit the U.S. bombing, march into Damascus, and remove the Bashar al-Assad government. The Qatari and Turkish intelligence officials assured the Syrian regional commanders that they would be provided with plenty of weapons for the coming offensive. And they were. A weapons distribution operation unprecedented in scope began in all opposition camps on August 21-23. The weapons were distributed from storehouses controlled by Qatari and Turkish intelligence under the tight supervision of U.S. intelligence officers.”
The “anti-Assad operation” was reminiscent of the 2012 British plan from General Sir David Richards, discussed above, which called for training so-called rebels in Jordan and Turkey in numbers sufficient to “sustain the momentum of an attack on Damascus, particularly if backed by air power provided by the West and friendly Gulf countries,” in a larger scale version of the Libya intervention. In other words, the success of such an operation depended on western military intervention, which by this time only a false flag chemical attack could trigger.
FSA commander and Supreme Military Council (SMC) spokesman, Qassem Saaddedine also acknowledged preparations had been made to topple the Syrian government in concert with the expected western bombing campaign. In an interview with Reuters published on Saturday August 31 (day the UN mission was expected to leave, opening the way for the bombing campaign to begin) Saaddedine explained that “his forces assessed that a western attack would happen in the coming days and would last about three days,” and that “We ordered some groups to prepare in each province, to ready their fighters for when the strike happens…They were sent a military plan that includes preparations to attack some of the targets we expect to be hit in foreign strikes, and some others that we hope to attack at the same time.” The targets Saaddedine expected to be hit included, “military sites such as the headquarters of military leadership, military airports, certain weapon storage areas, or launch pads and installations for large missiles such as Scuds,” as well as bases belonging to the Fourth Armored Division and Republican Guard. To not appear as a western stooge, Saaddedine ridiculously claimed that “the plans had been prepared without any help from foreign powers,” while at the same time conceding that “There may have been consultations with the head of our council, Salim Idriss, but I cannot confirm this.”
Most importantly, these preparations began before the August 21 Ghouta attack, as VIPS and La Figaro reports show. Without western intervention, which only the Ghouta false flag attack could trigger, the opposition plans to march into Damascus and topple Assad could not, and did not, succeed.
In arguing against Syrian government responsibility for the Ghouta attack, many have noted the irony of the timing. It belies belief that Assad would be stupid enough to order such an attack just days after the UN investigators had arrived in Damascus to investigate the Khan al-Assal incident, at Assad’s own invitation. In the wake of the Ghouta attack, the Los Angeles Times noted for example that, “Several experts suggested that the timing of the alleged attack—just three days after the arrival of the U.N. investigators—further muddied the picture. It was unclear what Assad would gain from such an action, given that a deliberate chemical strike would enrage both his many international enemies and even his allies in Moscow.”
Perhaps yet more ironic, and difficult to believe, is that Assad would order a chemical attack, the one thing that could provide the pretext for western intervention, just as the CIA and its regional intelligence partners were launching a covert operation to attack Damascus, the success of which depended entirely on such an intervention.
In contrast, if the Ghouta attack was a false flag operation carried out by the above intelligence agencies, the coincident timing of all these events makes perfect sense. In a repeat of the Libya scenario, the Salafist militias of the FSA and Nusra could march on Damascus under the umbrella of U.S., French, and British bombs, while at the same time derailing any UN investigation of Khan al-Assal.
Taking a Walk
When the horrific videos of the Ghouta victims began going viral, CIA chief John Brennan knew that only one part of the anti-Assad operation remained: to pressure President Obama into ordering a U.S.-led attack. As a former senior U.S. intelligence official told Seymour Hersh, “The immediate assumption was that Assad had done it. The new director of the CIA [John] Brennen, jumped to that conclusion…drives to the White House and says ‘Look at what I’ve got!’ It was all verbal; they just waved the bloody shirt. There was a lot of political pressure to bring Obama to the table to help the rebels, and there was wishful thinking that this [tying Assad to the sarin attack] would force Obama’s hand: This was the Zimmerman telegram of the Syrian rebellion, and now Obama can react.’”
Other U.S. intelligence officials also identified Brennan as not only jumping to conclusions about who had carried out the attack, but that Brennan was attempting to deliberately perpetrate a fraud on President Obama. In the wake of the Ghouta attack, former intelligence officials from VIPS published a statement on September 6, 2013, to warn President Obama about the trap being laid for him. VIPS writes that according to some current CIA officers working on the Syria issue with whom they had spoken, the Syrian government had not carried out the Ghouta attack and “CIA Director John Brennan is perpetrating a pre-Iraq-War-type fraud on members of Congress, the media, the public and perhaps even you.”
The U.S. military intervention in Syria was set to commence sometime between Saturday, August 31 (the day of the scheduled departure of the UN investigators) and Monday, September 2. President Obama had already ordered the Pentagon to develop target lists, while five navy destroyers were in the Mediterranean, ready to launch cruise missiles. French President François Hollande, the most enthusiastically pro-intervention among Europe’s leaders, was preparing his forces to attack as well.
Hersh reports that the initial scale of the planned attack was massive. He quotes a former senior intelligence official as explaining, “the White House rejected 35 target sets provided by the joint chiefs of staff as being insufficiently ‘painful’ to the Assad regime,” and that “The new target list was meant to completely ‘eradicate any military capabilities Assad had.” The “core targets included electric power grids, oil and gas depots, all known logistic and weapons depots, all known command and control facilities, and all known military and intelligence buildings.”
To reinforce the case for intervention, Secretary of State John Kerry gave an impassioned speech at the State Department on Friday August 30, 2013, the day before the scheduled attack, arguing that Bashar al-Assad had gassed civilians in Ghouta.
On the same day, as part of the final preparations for war, the White House published its assessment of the Ghouta attack (written by Ben Rhodes and based on Israeli intelligence after Clapper’s refusal) claiming Syrian government culpability. The assessment claimed that “In the three days prior to the attack, we collected streams of human, signals and geospatial intelligence that reveal regime activities that we assess were associated with preparations for a chemical weapons attack.”
The same day, Friday August 30, President Obama and his Chief of Staff Denis McDonough went for a walk on the White House lawn. Politico reports that “Most observers expected him to launch the strikes—until he came back from the walk, that is. Then, Obama surprised nearly everyone by deciding to force a vote in Congress on whether to do so, effectively putting the military action on hold. He and McDonough had made the call alone, and the president informed Kerry, Rice and Hagel of his decision only after the fact.”
Not a Shred of Proof
The Obama administration then launched a public relations offensive to continue to make the case for war, hoping to convince a skeptical congress to authorize the intervention. However, skepticism of the White House case only grew.
On September 8, 2013, the Associated Press published a scathing report questioning the claims made by Kerry and the White House assessment and asking why the Obama administration refused to show the evidence it claimed to have proving Assad’s guilt, including satellite imagery and transcripts of intercepted communications. The report explained:
“…one week after Secretary of State John Kerry outlined the case against Assad, Americans—at least those without access to classified reports—haven’t seen a shred of his proof…The Obama administration, searching for support from a divided Congress and skeptical world leaders, says its own assessment is based mainly on satellite and signal intelligence, including indications in the three days prior to the attack that the regime was preparing to use poisonous gas. But multiple requests to view that satellite imagery have been denied, though the administration produced copious amounts of satellite imagery earlier in the war to show the results of the Syrian regime’s military onslaught…The Obama administration maintains it intercepted communications from a senior Syrian official on the use of chemical weapons, but requests to see that transcript have been denied. So has a request by the AP to see a transcript of communications allegedly ordering Syrian military personnel to prepare for a chemical weapons attack by readying gas masks.”
In response to speculation that the Ghouta attack may have been authorized by a rogue commander, the AP cited Charles Heyman, a former British military officer as explaining, “We can’t get our heads around this—why would any commander agree to rocketing a suburb of Damascus with chemical weapons for only a very short-term tactical gain for what is a long-term disaster.”
The AP also noted:
“Inconsistencies over the death toll and other details related to the attack also have fueled doubts among skeptics. The Obama administration says 1,429 people died in 12 locations mostly east of the capital, an estimate close to the one put out by the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition. When asked for victims’ names, however, the group provided a list of 395. On that list, some of the victims were identified by a first name only or said to be members of a certain family. There was no explanation for the hundreds of missing names.”
The Wall Street Journal later provided details of the White House methodology in counting the victims. It reported that the CIA had “counted the bodies using computer programs that analyzed images of the dead. Analysts loaded more than 100 videos from YouTube into the system, which scanned each image for unique features…” In other words, despite providing a seemingly exact victim count, the CIA had only guessed, if not pulled the victim numbers out of thin air.
It is unsurprising that the CIA claimed a death toll even higher than that of the opposition Syrian National Council, which would presumably be the most biased of any of the sources attempting to count the victims. Because the CIA was trying to pressure Obama to launch a military intervention, it was in its interest to exaggerate the scope of Assad’s alleged crime.
On September 9, Susan Rice once again used the Israeli intelligence to claim that “Only the Syrian regime has the capacity to deliver chemical weapons on a scale to cause the devastation we saw in Damascus. The opposition does not. The rockets were fired from territory controlled by the regime. The rockets landed in territory controlled or contested by the opposition. And the intelligence we’ve gathered reveals senior officials planning the attack and then, afterward, plotting to cover up the evidence by destroying the area with shelling.”
On September 10, the Los Angeles Times editorial board questioned Rice’s claims, writing that, “Plausible as this scenario may be, it consists of a series of assertions. If the administration is to quiet widespread doubts, it will have to declassify the conversations between government officials it says it intercepted (even if it redacted the officials’ names) and also make public satellite images that it contends contain evidence of the launching of rockets from government-controlled areas and preparations by government personnel for a chemical attack.”
U.S. officials of course never publicly released the evidence they were touting, which had anyway originated with Israeli intelligence, in an indication that the intelligence had been fabricated. The American public and media were asked to simply take Susan Rice’s claims on blind faith.
Intervention, But for Whom?
U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey was also skeptical, knowing that an intervention against the Syrian government was in turn an intervention for al-Qaeda.
The Los Angeles Times reported that according to Dempsey, “while U.S. forces could easily defeat Assad’s air defenses and tilt the conflict in favor of the rebels, the United States should avoid even limited military engagement because the rebels, who include fighters loyal to Al Qaeda, don’t back U.S. interests,” and that “Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides.”
U.S. planners of course knew that the insurgency trying to topple the Syrian government was dominated by al-Qaeda, as U.S. planners had worked closely with Prince Bander to use al-Qaeda-affiliated groups to launch the dirty war against Syria in 2011 in the first place. U.S. officials privately acknowledged that al-Qaeda was fighting on behalf of U.S. interests multiple times. In February 2012, Hillary Clinton aid Jake Sullivan had indicated in an email that “AQ [al-Qaeda] is on our side in Syria.” Similarly, an August 2012 Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report had made clear that Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood, and al-Qaeda were the driving forces of the U.S. and Gulf-backed insurgency, and that the U.S. and its regional allies supported the establishment of a “Salafist principality” in eastern Syria as part of the effort to topple Assad and divide the country.
The U.S. dependence on al-Qaeda-affiliated groups to execute its covert war against the Syrian government had come into public focus just two weeks before the Ghouta chemical attack. On August 5, 2013, U.S.-backed FSA leader Colonel Abd al-Jabbar al-Akaidi (mentioned above denying FSA involvement in the Khan al-Assal attack) appeared in a video next to an ISIS commander celebrating their successful capture of the Menagh air base near Aleppo.
Of the fall of Menagh, The New York Times reported that weeks of “relentless suicide vehicle bombings on the walls of the base” had turned the tide in the battle. U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, a strong supporter of arming the so-called rebels, writes that, “One morning in early August , I came to the office at the State Department to see reports that Menagh had finally fallen and pictures of Akaidi standing next to ISIS field commander Abu Jandal al-Masri celebrating the capture of the base.”
Akaidi’s appearance in the video was just one indication of his close relationship with ISIS commanders. In an interview with pro-opposition Orient TV, Akaidi acknowledged that “my relationship with the brothers in ISIS is good” and that “I communicate almost daily with the brothers from ISIS.”
The emergence of the video of Akaidi and the ISIS commander celebrating, in the words of The New York Times, “like members of a victorious basketball team,” proved embarrassing for Ambassador Ford and the Obama administration, given Ford’s close relationship with Akaidi. Ford had only recently taken the unusual step of entering Syria to meet with Akaidi personally, in May 2013.
McClatchy reports that in response to the Menagh video, Ford called Akaidi directly to complain, and that the video had created “a public relations nightmare for the Obama administration, which was trying to show Congress and the American public that it was boosting moderates and isolating extremists on the battlefield.” However, as McClatchy notes, “When the importance of the jihadis became undeniable, Obama administration officials were irate.”
The August 5, 2013, video of the Obama administration’s most favored FSA commander celebrating with ISIS was quickly overshadowed by the horrific videos that emerged on August 21, 2013, showing the victims of the alleged chemical attack in Ghouta.
These videos proved central to the push for war. On the day of the attacks, the Los Angeles Times noted for example that, “The Syrian government called reports of a massacre untrue, but the scale of the alleged carnage and the graphic videos of the dead and injured that surfaced Wednesday left many officials across the globe demanding action.”
It is no accident that the horrific videos of the Ghouta attack played a central role in convincing many western leaders to demand military intervention in Syria. The utility of using difficult to verify viral videos to manipulate political leaders had already been recognized by Jared Cohen, a State Department official and later Google executive who played a key role in fomenting the so-called Arab Spring protests in both Egypt and Syria in 2011 and who was referred to by Julian Assange as “Google’s director of regime change.”
Cohen also played a role in facilitating the anti-government protests in Iran in 2009, known as the so-called Green Revolution. While speaking at Stanford University about events in Iran during that period, Cohen explained that President Obama was forced by western journalists to respond to a viral video of an Iranian woman named Nada Soltan, who was shot and killed, allegedly by a pro-Iranian government militia, during the protests. Cohen noted:
“…within two hours, this video had reached millions of people around the world and was on the desks of some of the most powerful and least accessible people on the planet, presidents, prime ministers…At the time, the President had said there is going to be no meddling in Iran because the nuclear negotiations were on the horizon…So what happened was some unknown Iranian got a virtual meeting because someone captured a video of a young girl being murdered and uploaded it to YouTube. And President Obama responded and at that moment changed the policy of the United States government. So that unknown person on the streets of Tehran in a matter of hours was able to fundamentally change US foreign policy towards Iran, maybe not in a huge dramatic way, but at least a little bit.”
Cohen and his counterparts in the CIA pushing for regime change in Syria were therefore certainly aware that shocking videos alleging Syrian government atrocities could similarly be used to pressure Obama to authorize intervention. In the case of Ghouta, they must have also known that to effect more dramatic change, videos more dramatic than those emerging from Iran in 2009, or from previously alleged chemical attacks in Homs, Sheikh Maqsoud, and Saraqeb would be needed.
President Obama himself referred to the importance of the Ghouta videos, claiming on August 31 that “Ten days ago, the world watched in horror as men, women and children were massacred in Syria in the worst chemical weapons attack of the 21st century…the world can plainly see—hospitals overflowing with victims; terrible images of the dead. All told, well over 1,000 people were murdered. Several hundred of them were children—young girls and boys gassed to death by their own government.”
It is possible Obama deliberately cited the videos to manipulate the public into supporting U.S. intervention. However, given Obama’s previous reluctance to authorize military action against Syria, another possibility is that Obama was himself manipulated to change his stance due to the emotional effect of the shocking videos. Years later, in 2017, President Trump acknowledged that he was moved by “disturbing images” of dead women and babies killed in the alleged chemical attack in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikoun, and that he ordered limited airstrikes against the Syrian government in response.
The horrific Ghouta videos were relied upon not only to convince the public, but also U.S. lawmakers to shame them into supporting intervention. On September 5, 2013, U.S. senators were given a classified briefing in which they viewed a DVD compilation of images and videos of the Ghouta attack, with ABC News reporting that “The graphic images have become a rallying point for the administration.”
On September 8, 2013, White House Chief of Staff McDonough appeared as a guest on the Sunday talk shows to advocate for war against Syria. In doing so, he also relied primarily on the videos to make his case. McDonough claimed that, “We’ve seen the video proof of the outcome of those attacks.” Further, McDonough emphasized that “nobody is rebutting the intelligence; nobody doubts the intelligence,” which of course was a lie given James Clapper’s previous warnings. The public relations push continued, with Obama giving six interviews on TV networks on Monday September 9, and a prime-time speech to the nation from the White House on Tuesday, September 10.
While the case for war depended on the shock value of the Ghouta videos, the videos at the same time provided reason to doubt the White House narrative of events, rather than confirm it. The BBC reported that according to Alexander Kekule of the Institute for Medical Microbiology at Halle University in Germany, none of the patients in one of the videos “showed typical signs of sarin or other organophosphorous nerve agents” and that “It also cannot be totally excluded that the whole video is a political staging. In this case, however, it would be a very good one.” The New York Times reported as well that “The videos, experts said, also did not prove the use of chemical weapons, which interfere with the nervous system and can cause defecation, vomiting, intense salivation and tremors. Only some of those symptoms were visible in some patients.”
The Los Angeles Times similarly noted that “experts raised some red flags, including signs that medical staff treating the victims didn’t appear to be experiencing any symptoms, which would be expected if a pure nerve agent had been released.”
Although the videos did not show the symptoms that experts expected to see if the victims had been killed in a sarin attack, their shocking nature, and the emotions they evoked, made it difficult for many to question whether the videos could show something other than what the Syrian opposition and White House claimed. The idea that the videos could have been staged or fabricated was simply unimaginable for many. BBC Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen expressed this view, suggesting that “Some will suspect that the footage has been fabricated, but the videos that have emerged would be difficult to fake.”
Just as Seymour Hersh’s reporting raised the question of who manufactured the sarin used in the Khan al-Assal attack (Nusra or the Syrian government), it is also necessary to ask who produced the videos that formed the basis of the claim that the Syrian government carried out the alleged chemical attack in Ghouta.
While it would indeed have been difficult for militants from Jaish al-Islam, the Salafist militia controlling Ghouta at the time, to fabricate footage of a false flag chemical attack, it would have been less difficult for the western intelligence agencies supporting them. Though it was not known at the time, the British government later acknowledged it was running media operations on behalf of the so-called rebels. This suggests that the flurry of videos released in such quick and coordinated fashion on the aftermath of the Ghouta attack were created with help of British intelligence.
In May 2016, The Guardian reported:
“The British government is waging information warfare in Syria by funding media operations for some rebel fighting groups” and that “Contractors hired by the Foreign Office but overseen by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) produce videos, photos, military reports, radio broadcasts, print products and social media posts branded with the logos of fighting groups, and effectively run a press office for opposition fighters. Materials are circulated in the Arabic broadcast media and posted online with no indication of British government involvement.”
The Guardian reports further that UK government contractors, such as Innovative Communications & Strategies (InCoStrat), were to provide “media coaching to influential [rebel] officials” and run an around-the-clock “[rebel] central media office” with “media production capacity” and that “One British source with knowledge of the contracts in action said the government was essentially running a ‘Free Syrian army press office’.” The Guardian reported as well that the effort was meant to help the so-called “moderate armed opposition,” and mentioned Jaish al-Islam as among these moderate opposition groups.
The Guardian reports that this propaganda effort allegedly began in autumn 2013 (shortly after the Ghouta attack in August) and was part of a propaganda war, not against the Syrian government, but against ISIS. However, UK government contractors were producing propaganda videos on behalf of the so-called rebels long before the period claimed by The Guardian, and before ISIS emerged in Syria.
As discussed above, the public relations firm, Analysis Research Knowledge (ARK), was involved in promoting false claims about the alleged chemical attack in Homs in December 2012. As journalist Ben Norton reports, “ARK is an intelligence cutout that functions as an arm of Western interventionism. In a leaked document it filed with the British government, ARK said its ‘focus since 2012 has been delivering highly effective, politically-and conflict-sensitive Syria programming for the governments of the United Kingdom, United States, Denmark, Canada, Japan and the European Union.’”
Assistance from British-funded PR firms such as ARK and InCoStrat would have made it possible for rebels and opposition activists to launch a sophisticated information operation and thereby upload dozens of videos “within hours” of the Ghouta attack that were immediately disseminated throughout the western media. This is especially so, considering that the videos from the Ghouta attack were the most important of the entire war to that date, and likely since, and were cited not only by Obama but also by UK Prime Minister Cameron when attempting to persuade parliament to go to war against Syria.
One clear example of staged chemical attack footage produced by the British government comes from British state media directly. On August 29, 2013, the BBC aired footage of the aftermath of an alleged napalm attack carried out by the Syrian army in Atareb, a village near the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. The attack allegedly occurred just eight days after the Ghouta attack, with the aftermath apparently witnessed and filmed by BBC journalist Ian Panell and his cameraman, Darren Conway.
The video footage, which became part of the BBC documentary “Saving Syria’s Children,” is clearly fabricated, as activist Robert Stuart has detailed, with crisis actors wearing make up to appear as burn victims and clearly responding to directions from the camera crew to begin behaving as if in terrible pain. The footage is immediately reminiscent of a low-budget Hollywood zombie movie.
Stuart quotes a former BBC employee who explained:
“As soon as I saw Saving Syria’s Children I knew it was stage managed, far too many red flags shown in the piece throughout. It was obvious to me that the casualties had been dressed up using CASSIM [Casualty Simulation]. CASSIM is used to simulate visible injuries used for moulage training. It wasn’t even well done and very amateurish, it was over dramatised, the alleged casualties did not show the correct signs/symptoms of individuals who had been caught up in a chemical attack nor that of individuals suffering from the effects of chemical burns or that of those subjected to the blast/detonation/spread of the alleged detonation of a large munition. It also struck me that none of the doctors/medical staff in the report were wearing PPE, which would be standard if there really was a suspected chemical attack…I also showed the report to medical professionals including a dermatologist. They all responded similarly that it was ludicrous, burns victims would not behave in the way that was shown, plus the treatment being shown for the management of burns was incorrect, and the doctor shown in the interview would have known this, yet at no time was she directing/advising anyone in the correct procedures. Even within a conflict zone the basics would have been available.”
Stuart summarizes the evidence showing the Saving Syria’s Children (SSC) documentary was fabricated as follows:
“Accounts of when the alleged attack took place vary by up to six hours. Local witness statements—including from a Free Syrian Army commander—deny the attack took place. At least two of the alleged victims presented by the BBC appear on a list of casualties of an attack which took place two months earlier. One of the alleged victims filmed by the BBC being carried out of the back of an ambulance screaming in agony can be seen in YouTube footage a short time earlier walking calmly and unaided into the same vehicle. Medical opinion is highly sceptical of the veracity of the alleged injuries presented in SSC. A GMC registered doctor concluded ‘the scene of the school children coming in with the burns was an act.’ A former BBC employee, who has worked in Syria and knows Ian Pannell, has stated: ‘It was obvious to me that the casualties had been dressed up using CASSIM [Casualty Simulation].’ One of the ‘stars’ of SSC, Dr Saleyha Ahsan, later fronted a BBC Newsnight report about highly sophisticated British military casualty simulation exercises—is there a connection with the alleged injuries seen in SSC? One of the alleged victims appears to have been identified as a resident of The Netherlands. Her subsequent social media images suggest she was not scarred by an incendiary substance. During production of SSC Ian Pannell and Darren Conway were embedded with Ahrar al-Sham, a then ISIS partner group co-founded by ‘one of Osama bin Laden’s most trusted couriers’, Mohamed Bahaiah [Abu Khalid al-Suri].”
The Atareb napalm video was a collaboration between British elements that had attempted to create the perception of a sarin attack in Saraqeb, Idlib three months before, as detailed above. In the Saraqeb case, BBC journalist Ian Pannell had reported on the alleged attack, detailing video footage passed onto him by opposition activists. Dr. Mousa al-Kurdi, the British-Syrian gynecologist who had lobbied for western military intervention, claimed to have been present in Saraqeb and to have treated victims of the attack in a field hospital run by a French medical charity.
In Atareb, Ian Pannell was present once again, this time conveniently in the direct aftermath of the alleged attack and able to produce a live action video report showing treatment of the injured. In this case, Dr. Mousa al-Kurdi was not present, but his daughter, a Syrian-British doctor named Rola Hallam who worked for a charity called Hand in Hand for Syria, conveniently was. She oddly stopped in the middle of the chaos to speak on camera with Pannell’s team, rather than seek to aid the alleged victims.
Importantly, the zombie-style BBC footage was released just one day ahead of a UK parliamentary vote on a proposal advocating military action against Syria. The timing of the video’s release was clearly meant to influence British parliamentarians to vote in favor military action. However, the motion was narrowly defeated, 285 to 272.
The fake BBC documentary from Atareb, coupled with the false claims of chemical attacks in Yarmouk, Sheikh Maqsoud, Saraqeb, and Jobar, as well as the carefully planned release of the Ghouta videos “within hours” of the alleged attack, all appear to be part of a broader media campaign created by UK intelligence to mold U.S. and UK public opinion for the sake of triggering western military intervention.
During Chief of Staff McDonough’s appearances on the September 8 Sunday talk shows, he made another argument to claim Syrian government responsibility for the Ghouta attack. In response to a question about whether intelligence shows “a direct link” to Assad, Politico reports that “McDonough said the location of the attack and rockets by which the chemicals were delivered show that the regime was behind the attack.” As mentioned above, the White House refused the AP requests to provide satellite imagery which could have proven the location of any potential launch sites.
Five days later, on September 13, the Ake Sellstrom-led UN mission released its interim report about the Ghouta attack. The report confirmed the use of sarin and that “surface-to-surface rockets containing the nerve agent sarin were used.”
Though the UN mission was not charged to apportion blame, the details it provided of the rockets, known as “volcanoes,” appeared to confirm McDonough’s claims about Syrian government responsibility. For example, Elliott Higgins claimed that, “There is no evidence of Syrian rebel forces ever using this type of munition—and only Syrian government forces have ever been shown using them.”
The New York Times and Human Rights Watch also seized on details provided in the UN report to claim Syrian government guilt. The NYT writes that the report also “identified azimuths, or angular measurements, from where rockets had struck, back to their points of origin,” and that “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 pointed directly to a Syrian military complex.”
If the attack originated from government-controlled territory, using rockets previously identified only in the possession of the Syrian army, this pointed to Syrian government culpability.
However, a few months later, in December 2013, this conclusion was refuted by Theodore Postol, a professor of science, technology and national security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Richard Lloyd, an analyst at the military contractor Tesla Laboratories. The New York Times reported that Lloyd and Postol concluded that the range of the rockets was much shorter than the 9-kilometer range previously assumed when the NYT and HRW traced the origins of the rocket launches to government-controlled territory, and specifically to a government military base. Instead, Lloyd and Postol showed that, based on the motors used in the rockets, the possible range was less than 3-kilometers. This suggested that the rockets did not come from deep inside Syrian government-held territory, as previously assumed, but rather from areas that were contested between opposition militant groups and the Syrian army.
Additionally, according to Postol, the large caliber rocket used in the attack “was an improvised munition that was very likely manufactured locally,” and was “something you could produce in a modestly capable machine shop.” In other words, an opposition faction such as Liwa al-Islam could have easily manufactured the rockets, meaning that it was irrelevant if such rockets had previously only been identified in the Syrian government’s possession.
Elliott Higgins concluded in response that this shorter range was still consistent with a launch origin from government-controlled territory, noting that “A range of beyond 2.5 kilometers would put potential launch sites in an area between Jobar and Qaboun, to the north and northwest of the impact locations, that has been a hive of government activity for months.”
However, in a detailed report published by Rootclaim in 2021, open-source researchers Michael Kobs, Chris Kabusk, and Adam Larson were able to use azimuths to identify a common origin of the launch site of all seven rocket attacks occurring in Eastern Ghouta on August 21, 2013. They were also able geolocate a previously known video showing Liwa al-Islam launching rockets of the same sort while wearing gas masks to the same location. This location was within territory controlled by Liwa al-Islam, rather than the government.
The Rootclaim report also identified an error made by the UN mission in calculating the azimuth of one of the rockets, at impact site number 4 in Ein Tarma. The UN mission reported an azimuth of 105 degrees, which in concert with an assumed rocket range of 9 kilometers had suggested the rockets had been fired from a specific Syrian military base. In contrast, the Rootclaim report identified an azimuth of 136 degrees. In noting the UN mission’s error, the Rootclaim authors chose not to speculate as to the reason why, and simply add that “The question of why the UN team reported a false azimuth is left to another investigation.”
Two weeks before the alleged Ghouta chemical attacks, another similarly violent incident occurred, but which received considerably less attention in the western press. On August 4, 2013, the BBC reported that opposition militants from Nusra, ISIS, and the FSA participated in the massacre and mass kidnapping of Alawite civilians in 10 villages in Latakia. Human Rights Watch investigated the incident in detail, and reported that the militants overran a Syrian army position, killing some 30 Syrian soldiers, and then massacred 190 civilians, including 57 women, 18 children, and 14 elderly men. The jihadist militants also kidnapped and held hostage some 200 additional civilians (the majority women and children).
The Telegraph reported that the U.S.-backed Syrian National Council (SNC) “praised” the ISIS led-offensive, justifying the killings by claiming that “the villages had been used as launching posts from which pro-government militias had shelled rebel held villages.” The New York Times reports that FSA commander Salim Idriss, who headed the U.S.-backed Supreme Military Council (SMC), insisted on video that his forces had played a leading role in the attack, in response to criticism from the other participating jihadist groups who suggested that Idriss’ fighters were hanging back. Rania Abouzeid reported for Al-Jazeera as well that the field hospital supporting the ISIS, Nusra, and FSA militants who carried out the massacre was funded by U.S. and UK charities and staffed by a Syrian-British doctor named Rami Habib, who had previously worked for the NHS in Leicester, UK.
Abouzeid interviewed a fighter that participated in the campaign, who described the aftermath of the massacre:
“I was there…There were people there who said ‘Come and see what Daesh [the Arabic acronym for ISIS] has done.’ I walked into a room, a small room. It was full of men they had killed. They were fighting-age men, I wasn’t sad for them, it’s war. But when they showed us another house, my hair—not just on the back of my neck, but on my head—stood up. I was embarrassed to consider myself a human, and [realize] that other humans could do that. They had gathered women and girls in this room, from the ages of what looked like six or seven to the elderly. It was odd. There were only very young or old, there weren’t any young women. They’d killed them all, and piled them on top of each other. There is no religion, no morals, no ideology that could accept that. That’s what Daesh did, and in the name of Islam. It made me sick.”
While the events in Ghouta, of which responsibility was far from clear, received wide attention in the western press, the FSA, ISIS, and Nusra massacre and kidnapping of Alawites in Latakia, which was not disputed, even by opposition sources, and which took place just two weeks prior to the Ghouta attack, was largely ignored. The Telegraph reported on these events on August 11, one week after they occurred, but The New York Times, BBC, and Guardian provided no coverage until October, after the HRW report was released. I was unable to find any mention of the massacre by The Washington Post, even after the October HRW report. The Post did note on October 2, however, that the “CIA is expanding a clandestine effort to train opposition fighters in Syria” and that the “program is aimed at shoring up the fighting power of units aligned with the Supreme Military Council, an umbrella organization led by a former Syrian general that is the main recipient of U.S. support.”
In other words, just days before the HRW report was released, and long after the massacre had been reported by The Telegraph, the CIA announced additional support for the SMC, and its head, General Idris, who had boasted of his fighters’ role in the massacre.
This mass kidnapping of Alawites in the weeks prior to the alleged chemical attacks in Ghouta led some government supporters to speculate that the victims in the Ghouta chemical attack videos were some of the Alawite women and children who had just been kidnapped in Latakia, and that Liwa al-Islam had murdered these captives and used their corpses in pre-prepared propaganda videos meant to falsely blame the Syrian government for the chemical attack.
It was never confirmed that Alawite victims of the Latakia massacre were among the corpses in the Ghouta videos. However, such speculation raises the question of the identity of the victims in Ghouta. Were they civilian residents of Ghouta killed by a Syrian government chemical attack, or captives and prisoners of Liwa al-Islam who were murdered as part of a false flag massacre to be blamed on the government?
The latter view is supported by research from pharmacologist Denis O’Brien, who carried out a detailed review of videos showing roughly 100 victims of the alleged Ghouta sarin attack, namely those appearing in a building turned makeshift morgue in the town of Kafr Batna. O’Brien concludes that the victims shown in the videos were not killed by sarin at all. Though a small-scale sarin attack may have occurred, this is not what killed the victims appearing in the Kafr Batna videos. Rather, O’Brien argues these victims were killed by the so-called rebels themselves, most likely through carbon monoxide or cyanide induced asphyxiation. O’Brien concluded this due to the primarily pink shading of the skin of the victims (rubicundity), rather than the blue shaded skin (cyanosis) which would be expected if the deaths were caused by sarin. The differences in skin color result from the different ways these chemicals affect the oxygen levels in the blood of a victim. O’Brien speculates that the victims were initially locked in a basement room of the makeshift Kafr Batna morgue complex (video of the basement shows several victims who are still alive) where they were suffocated to death with carbon monoxide or cyanide, after which their corpses were brought up to the ground floor room and lined up in rows to be filmed in full sunlight.
“Sarin Doesn’t Slice Throats”
O’Brien also shockingly observes how the videos from Kafr Batna show at least one victim who was alive in the sun-lit, ground floor of the morgue even hours after the time of the alleged sarin attack, but who bled to death while under the supervision of the medical workers allegedly trying to treat him and other victims. O’Brien observed this by looking at several videos and photos taken at different times in the make-shift morgue in Kafr Batna showing the same victims lying dead on the floor. The earliest images show a man lying on the floor, apparently dead, while a later image shows the same man, but this time with a clenched fist and a white cloth covering his neck, as well as a separate blue blanket underneath his neck that has become saturated with blood. Further, the blood has also spread on the floor underneath other victims. This suggests that the man was still alive, but unconscious, after the initial attempt to kill him via asphyxiation using carbon monoxide in the basement. After his captors realized he was not dead after bringing him to the sun-lit ground floor room, they slit his throat to finish the job. He was then left to bleed out, as those alleging to be medical workers calmly carried-on withdrawing blood samples from other corpses. In short, the roughly 100 victims shown in the videos from Kafr Batna were not killed in a sarin attack, but in a managed massacre. As Adam Larson observed, “Sarin doesn’t slice throats.”
Academic Paul McKeigue outlines further why the possibility of a managed massacre carried out by the so-called rebels is the hypothesis best explaining the available evidence regarding the Ghouta incident. He observes that “Of at least 150 videos uploaded, badged as coming from 18 different media outlets, not one shows [any] search and rescue operation,” that all the “victims were in day clothes though the alleged attack occurred at about 2 am,” that no video emerged of “interviews with bereaved survivors who would be able to document, with family photos, that they were relatives of victims seen dead in morgues,” and that the corpse of the man discussed above was bleeding at the neck only after his body arrived at the morgue and lay on the floor. Mckeigue notes further that “it’s almost impossible to explain why subsequent videos showed the victim bleeding bright red blood from the neck, or why the reaction of the emergency workers to someone who was obviously alive and bleeding profusely was to place a blanket under his neck and leave him to die.” McKeigue uses probability theory to show that these observations would be unlikely if the government had indeed carried out a sarin attack, especially an attack that killed so many people, and that a managed massacre of the victims better explains the events in question.
Some have claimed a managed massacre is not plausible, arguing that opposition militants would not murder their own, including many women and children, for political gain.
However, if the victims in the videos were not pro-opposition Sunni civilians, as is typically assumed, but rather pro-government Sunni or Alawite civilians, the willingness of Liwa al-Islam to murder large numbers of men, women, and children to trigger the U.S. intervention they desired, would be expected, given the existing incentives. The willingness of opposition groups, including the FSA, to kidnap and massacre Alawite civilians in large numbers, has already been demonstrated above.
This would be further unsurprising given that Liwa al-Islam’s leader, Zahran Alloush, called in 2013 for “cleansing Damascus” of all Alawites, while calling Shiite Muslims, of which Alawites are considered an offshoot, “unclean.” Speaking to Alawites, he threatened to “destroy your skulls” and “make you taste the worst torture in life before Allah makes you taste the worst torture on judgment day.” Liwa al-Islam (later known as Jaish al-Islam) gained notoriety in 2015 for parading Alawite captives in cages and placing them in public squares to serve as human shields, allegedly to deter Syrian government bombing, as reported by The Telegraph.
Years later, it further became clear that Liwa al-Islam would have had many captives to draw from for a false flag massacre of the sort alleged by O’Brien and McKeigue. As Reuters reports, when the Syrian army was finally able to defeat Jaish al-Islam in 2018, the Saudi intelligence backed-group’s fighters were given free passage from Ghouta to the northern Syrian city of Jarablus, in exchange for releasing some 3,500 captives then being held in Jaish al-Islam’s Tawba prison. As journalist James Harkin reports, “Some [prisoners] were Syrian soldiers, but many others had been taken based on their religion; most were Alawi, Shia, and Ismaili Muslims from everywhere in Syria, whom their Islamist kidnappers deemed impure.” Harkin interviewed a released captive named Taha, a Shia Muslim and army translator who was kidnapped near Hama years before, in 2014, and transported to Ghouta. During the first few weeks of his captivity at Tawba, he was often tortured, and then was put to work helping dig a network of tunnels used by Jaish al-Islam.
Dead Men Tell No Lies
O’Brien’s finding that the victims in Kafr Batna did not die from sarin raises the question of whether victims from other sites identified as part of the Ghouta attack also died from something other than sarin. Shockingly, the UN mission consciously chose not to exhume bodies of the victims to test for sarin exposure when they visited two of the seven sites of the alleged Ghouta attack, preferring instead to follow the White House narrative and assume that sarin was the only possible cause of death.
A doctor in Ghouta that worked with the UN team told The Guardian that, “We asked the [UN] committee to exhume the bodies for checking them. But they refused. They say that there was no need to do that.”
UN disarmament chief Angela Kane, who accompanied the inspectors to Damascus, gave a tortured explanation as to why during an interview with RT. When asked whether the UN investigators had requested access to bodies of victims of the alleged Ghouta attack, or had seen any of the bodies, Kane replied that “there were so many victims who are still alive that there was really no need to exhume bodies…a dead body can’t tell how the person dies…a living person can tell you that.”
As Adam Larson points out, Kane’s logic was “bizarre and completely incorrect.” As the saying goes, it is, “dead men who tell no lies.” Witnesses can be curated and coached to tell a specific story, or they may be confused about what had happened to them during the chaos of the attack. But the body of a victim can be tested definitively for proof of sarin exposure significant enough to cause death (if the integrity of the chain of custody of the sample remains intact).
Additionally, as Human Rights Investigations observed, the refusal to at least try to take samples from the bodies of the victims contradicted the UN’s own official procedures and guidelines for investigations into the use of chemical, biological, or toxin weapons.
Had the UN team exhumed the bodies to obtain samples, this could have settled the question of whether the victims died of sarin, or something else. Because no bodies were exhumed, emphasis was shifted to physiological evidence derived from the alleged survivors of the attack, and the verbal testimony they provided when interviewed by the UN team.
According to the interim UN report on Ghouta, there seems to be no doubt that many people were exposed to and suffered from sarin exposure. This was confirmed not only through interviews and medical records of survivors, but also due to blood and urine tests to identify sarin that were carried out by the UN team from the same survivors.
This confirms that an attack with sarin filled rockets occurred, but it does not confirm if those who died on August 21 also died from sarin exposure. It is possible the rockets contained enough sarin to affect many people, but not enough to kill many people.
The inexplicable refusal to exhume the bodies, coupled with the incorrect azimuth calculation that opened the door to wrongly concluding the rockets had been fired from a specific Syrian military base, raises questions of whether some members of the Ake Sellstrom-led team had been compromised by western intelligence services (as had occurred with the weapons inspectors in Iraq in the late 90s) and whether some UN officials, specifically Angela Kane, were working on behalf of these intelligence services rather than honestly trying to determine the truth of how the victims were killed. It is hard to imagine that the UN investigators, top experts in their field, would make such errors out of incompetence.
The failure to exhume and test the bodies of the deceased again came under scrutiny after the interim UN report regarding Ghouta was released on September 13, 2013. Journalist Sharmine Narwani noted a crucial oddity in the report. The UN mission gathered environmental samples from two areas in Ghouta: Moadamiya in west Ghouta on August 26, and Ein Tarma and Zamalka in east Ghouta on August 28 and 29. She notes that a closer look at the charts in appendix 7 of the report “shows a massive discrepancy in lab results from east and west Ghouta. There is not a single environmental sample in Moadamiyah that tested positive for Sarin…Yet it is in Moadamiyah where alleged victims of a CW attack tested highest for Sarin exposure…It is scientifically improbable that survivors would test that highly for exposure to Sarin without a single trace of environmental evidence testing positive for the chemical agent [emphasis in the original].”
This suggests that in Moadamiya, no chemical attack occurred at all, and the survivors presented to the UN team were exposed to sarin somewhere else. As journalist Robert Parry points out, it is likely that the victims in Moadamiya who tested positive for sarin were exposed in Zamalka, Ein Tarma, or elsewhere, but were brought to field hospitals in Moadamiya for treatment. Parry notes that this possibility was raised even in the White House assessment written by Ben Rhodes and released on August 30 just before the U.S. intervention was to begin. A footnote contained in the map on the supposed attack locations in the assessment notes that: “Reports of chemical attacks originating from some locations may reflect the movement of patients exposed in one neighborhood to field hospitals and medical facilities in the surrounding area. They may also reflect confusion and panic triggered by the ongoing artillery and rocket barrage, and reports of chemical use in other neighborhoods.”
Journalist Gareth Porter noted another anomaly in the interim UN report. Porter explains that the UN mission had asked an opposition leader to help identify survivors of the alleged chemical attack and that this “opposition leader chose the doctors who in turn identified the patients to be interviewed. The 36 individuals ultimately selected for detailed profiles of symptoms described themselves as among the most seriously exposed to sarin.” Strangely, only five of these 36 patients most seriously exposed to sarin reported miosis, or constricted pupils. Porter reports that according to Dr. Abbas Faroutan, who treated Iranian victims of Iraqi nerve gas attacks during Iran-Iraq war in the 1980’s, it was “not logical” that only 5 of the 36 reported experiencing miosis if they had all been exposed to sarin.
Porter notes as well that after chemical weapons expert Dan Kaszeta compared the data on the 36 Ghouta survivors with comparable data on survivors of a previous sarin attack, carried out by the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Tokyo in 1995, Kaszeta concluded that the people interviewed and evaluated by the UN in Ghouta “didn’t have serious exposure” to nerve gas. To Porter, this “suggests a much less lethal attack with munitions that were less effective and perhaps even using much less sarin than was initially assumed,” and that the 50-liter warheads on the rockets used in the east Ghouta attacks were likely not filled with pure sarin, but with a mixture of sarin and water. Porter estimates a mixture of roughly 10 liters of sarin, with the remaining 40 liters consisting of water.
This would perhaps be enough to cause the survivors to have some exposure to sarin, but not enough exposure to cause mass casualties.
Theodor Postol concluded as a result that perhaps, “The objective was not to kill people, but to terrify people…Or it was to look as much like the Syrian government [attacking] as possible.” Dan Kaszeta himself was puzzled how so few sarin-filled rockets could have killed so many people. He estimated that roughly 8 times as many rockets would have been needed to cause the number of casualties reported.
In other words, if militants from Liwa aI-Islam carried out a false flag attack to be blamed on the Syrian government, they did not necessarily produce or acquire the large amounts of sarin that would have been needed to cause mass casualties. Instead, they had acquired and used just enough sarin for it to be detected in at least some human and environmental samples collected by the UN mission.
This undercuts the conclusions of the UK joint intelligence committee assessment, which was issued on August 29, 2013, in advance of the parliamentary vote called by David Cameron to authorize UK participation in the looming U.S. intervention. The assessment claims that, “A chemical attack occurred in Damascus on the morning of 21 August, resulting in at least 350 fatalities. It is not possible for the opposition to have carried out a CW attack on this scale [emphasis mine].”
While the killings were indeed on a mass scale (100 killed in Kafr Batna alone), the chemical attack itself was not. But if the amount of sarin in the rockets fired in Ghouta was not sufficient to cause the mass casualties attested to in the videos, how then did hundreds of people die?
The answer is that the victims presented in the videos were killed in another way, likely by asphyxiation from exposure to carbon monoxide or cyanide, as mentioned above. Chemical weapons expert Jean Pascal Zanders had similarly concluded that the victims were likely exposed only to small amounts of nerve agents, and that they had died of asphyxiation that was unrelated to this exposure. Zanders explained that, “if one looks at the symptoms [shown in the YouTube videos], they are not very strong in terms of exposure [and] if you watch the clips closely, you will see [parts] where people clearly show signs of asphyxiation but show no signs of exposure to neurotoxicants,” such as sarin or VX gas [emphasis mine].
These inconsistencies, in particular the lack of sarin in any of the environmental samples taken by the UN mission in Moadamiya, point to the possibility that the alleged chemical attack in Moadamiya was entirely staged.
The delay in dispatching the UN team between Wednesday August 21 when the attacks occurred, and Monday August 26 when the UN mission finally reached Moadamiya, would have given opposition militants the opportunity to manipulate the scene of the attack and plant evidence, including the rockets allegedly delivering sarin.
As Seymour Hersh notes, the interim UN report released by Sellstrom’s team on September 13, 2013:
“…was careful to note that its investigators’ access to the attack sites, which came five days after the gassing, had been controlled by rebel forces. ‘As with other sites,’ the report warned, ‘the locations have been well travelled by other individuals prior to the arrival of the mission…During the time spent at these locations, individuals arrived carrying other suspected munitions indicating that such potential evidence is being moved and possibly manipulated.’”
Determining what happed in Moadamiya and later in Ein Tarma and Zamalka was also made difficult for the UN mission because they were accompanied during their visit by the so-called rebels, as well as by foreign intelligence officials, who were apparently able to shape what the UN mission was able to see. Ake Sellstrom later explained that despite being shot at by a sniper, his team was able to safely visit Moadamiya:
“…although we were constantly threatened and constantly fooled, overheard, and constantly had diplomats and the intelligence working with us…you have the conflict, you have the intelligence, you have the diplomacy, you have the journalists, and everything has an agenda, there is a geopolitical, or ethnic-political agenda, they will adhere to that, and whatever you see will be tinted by that agenda. So, whenever we see news, and I saw the news from this, I was doing things I had never done, I was visiting countries I had never visited and whatever, I had an agenda I never adhered to. So, whenever you see news from a place like that that is of geopolitical interest, be aware that you have to read both sides [emphasis mine].”
As mentioned above, opposition leaders also chose the doctors, who in turn chose the victims for the UN mission to interview, providing another avenue to influence the evidence Ake Sellstrom and his investigators would have access to.
If U.S. officials were not able to block the UN investigation, as desired by Susan Rice, they and opposition leaders in Ghouta could at least manipulate its outcome. The UN mission therefore had the same problem that foreign journalists had when reporting from Syria. When making quick trips into combat zones, speaking no Arabic, and relying purely on opposition minders for entry, movement, and access to witnesses and victims, western journalists were easily manipulated.
This was illustrated clearly in the case of prominent American war correspondent Marie Colvin, who visited Homs in February 2012, where she was tragically killed by a Syrian army mortar attack. Photographer Paul Conroy, who accompanied Colvin during her trip, relates in his book that, “’At least in Libya we could get a driver and go where we wanted and see what we wanted,’ Marie replied. ‘Here, it’s pretty much up to them what we see. I’m slightly uncomfortable with that. Our lives are in their hands and we just have to go with it.’ We agreed that it was going to be difficult to remain nonpartisan. We relied on the FSA and the activists for everything. Coupled with our inability to move independently, this would make both reporting and surviving here far more complex than anything we had experienced in Libya.”
Sellstrom and the UN mission therefore had a view of what happened on August 21 by visiting Moadamiya, Zamalka, and Ein Tarma directly. But like another former visitor to Damascus, Sellstrom and his team were nevertheless looking “through a glass, darkly.”
The Smoking Gun?
In December 2013, the Ake Sellstrom-led UN mission’s final report investigating events in Ghouta was released. Almost immediately, a new propaganda campaign emerged to blame the Syrian government for the August attack. The final UN report noted that its investigators had found the chemical hexamine in some environmental samples taken from sites of the Ghouta attack. As part of the agreement to destroy its chemical weapons stockpiles and capability, the Syrian government had also declared to the OPCW that it was in possession of 80 tons of hexamine.
In an article published December 13, 2013, chemical weapons expert Dan Kaszeta therefore argued, “I consider the presence of hexamine both in the field samples and in the official stockpile of the Syrian government to be very damning evidence of government culpability.”
Kaszeta claimed that hexamine could be used as an acid scavenger, which is needed to neutralize the hydrogen fluoride that is a byproduct of the sarin production process. If not neutralized, the hydrogen fluoride “is highly destructive, possibly to the point of ruining the weapon system.” Kaszeta suggested that the Syrian government would not have added hexamine to the list of substances to be destroyed by the OPCW as part of its chemical weapons program if it was not using hexamine as its acid scavenger to produce sarin. Kaszeta claimed further that using hexamine in the sarin production process was an “innovation” unique to the Syrian government. If no other party was known to use hexamine to produce sarin, this was further evidence that the environmental samples containing hexamine found by the UN mission in Ghouta point to government culpability for the attack. Kaszeta concludes that, “The likelihood of both a Syrian government research and development program AND a non-state actor both coming up with the same innovation seems negligible to me. It seems improbable that some other actor wanting to plant evidence would know to freely spread hexamine around the target areas.”
Kaszeta later summarized his logic as follows: “Nobody’s used hexamine previously as a Sarin additive,” plus “There’s hexamine in the field samples,” plus “There’s 80 tons of hexamine in the declared inventory of the Assad Regime,” plus “The Syrian government’s admission to Sellstrom’s team, EQUALS, The Assad Regime Did the Wicked Deed.”
Kaszeta’s hexamine theory was immediately popularized and given credibility by a report in The New York Times one week later, in which Kaszeta was described as “an independent security consultant and former officer in the United States Army’s Chemical Corps.” The NYT suggested that “the presence of hexamine at Ghouta was in some ways akin to the police finding red lipstick in a woman’s purse that matches collar stains on a murder victim.”
Kaszeta’s hexamine theory raises several questions, however. First, was there no other plausible explanation for the presence of hexamine in both the Syrian government’s chemical stockpiles and in the UN’s environmental samples from Ghouta? In the same New York Times article, chemical weapons expert and OPCW official Scott Cairn suggested that hexamine could possibly be used to produced sarin, but that “It is also commonly found in heating fuel, as well as in conventional explosives.”
Journalist Gareth Porter further noted that “a form of hexamine was found on a swipe taken from the central tube of one of the rockets” analyzed by the UN mission in Ghouta, specifically from “the location of the explosive in the rockets” rather than from warhead which held the sarin. Porter noted as well that hexamine “is also used as a stabilizer for the form of mustard gas found in the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal.”
Second, why would the Syrian government use an acid scavenger that no other sarin producer, including the United States and Soviet Union, had ever used before? If no other state or non-state actor had previously used hexamine as an acid scavenger for sarin, what evidence existed that it could be successfully used to produce sarin at all?
In his December 13, 2013, report introducing his hexamine theory, Kaszeta provided no documentation of his claim that hexamine could be used as an acid scavenger in the production of sarin. He simply claimed that “Several chemists and engineers knowledgeable in the matter have confirmed to me that hexamine is useful as a Sarin additive for the same reason” that isopropyl amine was used by the U.S. army in its production of sarin. Who these chemists and engineers were, Kaszeta did not indicate.
Theodor Postol and Richard Lloyd (who had determined the correct range of the rockets used in Ghouta, as discussed above) questioned Kaszeta’s theory, noting that “The standard process for manufacturing sarin uses isopropyl amine as the acid scavenger,” and asked Kaszeta in an extensive email exchange to provide documentation that hexamine could in fact be used instead. Specifically, Postol and Lloyd explained that “Because we were unable to find any references to the use of hexamine in the production and storage of sarin we decided to do our own review of the plausibility that hexamine could be used as an acid scavenger in the manufacture of sarin. Our conclusions [sic] is that it is physically impossible to dissolve enough hexamine, even if it were desirable, or chemically possible, to substitute hexamine for isopropylamine to scavenge the acid product of the reactants Methylphosphonyl difluoride and isopropyl alcohol.”
When Postol asked if Kaszeta could provide him “with a science-based reference that describes the chemical process that uses hexamine,” in sarin production to refute his and Lloyd’s own conclusions, Kaszeta was unable to do so, leading Postol to observe that “In spite of claiming knowledge of at least 20 production paths to Sarin, Mr. Kaszeta could not produce even a single scientific or technical paper on how Hexamine can be used to produce Sarin.”
Instead, Kaszeta appealed to the authority of the UN lead investigator, Ake Sellstrom. Kaszeta claimed to Postol that Sellstrom had made this admission during an interview with CBRNe World magazine. Kaszeta wrote to Postol that “Ake Sellstrom stated that it [hexamine] was an acid scavenger and was in the formula by the Syrian government. Perhaps he did not mean to make this admission but he did. I spoke at length to Gwyn Winfield, the editor of CBRNe World magazine who got this salient point.”
However, when Postol contacted Sellstrom by email to confirm this, the veteran Swedish weapons inspector clarified that, “The presence of hexamine may mean that this substance was used as scavenger [sic] for protons when producing sarin. It is a product simple to get hold of and in no way conclusively points to the government [sic]. In addition hexamin [sic] found in samples may be derived from other sources for example, explosives [emphasis mine].”
While Kaszeta had previously expressed the confidence to declare his hexamine theory a “smoking gun” and “confirmed,” he instead backtracked when pressed for evidence by Postol and Lloyd, claiming only that “I do not pretend that this explanation is perfect. However, we are in the area of Occam’s Razor, where we can only hope for ‘least bad’ rather than best.”
Given that, as Kaszeta acknowledges, the stockpiles of chemicals declared by the Syrian government contained not only hexamine, but also isopropyl amine, the acid scavenger used by the U.S. army to produce sarin, Occam’s Razor would instead suggest that the Syrian government used isopropyl amine as its acid scavenger for sarin as well, and used hexamine for another purpose, such as to stabilize mustard gas or for conventional explosives.
Though described by The New York Times as “an independent security consultant,” Kaszeta was likely publishing his hexamine theory on behalf of British intelligence. Kaszeta’s lack of expertise in chemical weapons (despite his boasting to the contrary) coupled with his regular platforming in the U.S. and UK media suggest as much.
As journalist Kit Klarenberg details, Kaszeta at some point became a member of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office-funded Integrity Initiative. After the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military officer and double agent for the British intelligence agencies, and his daughter Yulia, in 2018, Kaszeta reprised his Ghouta role, speculating that Russian intelligence had poisoned them using a chemical known as Novichok.
Recall as well that the editor of Le Monde, Natalie Nougayrede, who laundered false claims of Syrian government chemical attacks in Jobar into the media on behalf of French intelligence, was also a member of the Integrity Initiative.
A strong proponent of Kaszeta’s hexamine theory was Elliott Higgins, whose objectivity is similarly suspect, given his links with NATO governments. As journalist Aaron Mate details, Higgin’s “Bellingcat is a founding ‘partner in a UK government propaganda operation, the Open Information Partnership (OIP), funded with $13.7 million in taxpayer money. Bellingcat was enlisted in the OIP even though its UK state partners have privately doubted its credibility. A leaked internal assessment produced for the OIP concluded that: ‘Bellingcat was somewhat discredited, both by spreading disinformation itself, and by being willing to produce reports for anyone willing to pay.’”
Because Kaszeta’s implausible hexamine claim was promoted in The New York Times, this diverted attention from the more significant findings of the UN report that was released one week before. As discussed above, the UN report noted that sarin had been used in Jobar, not against civilians, or against opposition militants from Liwa al-Islam, but against Syrian soldiers in the days after the Ghouta massacre. This finding should have reoriented scrutiny of the Ghouta attack in the direction of Liwa al-Islam and its foreign intelligence sponsors, but Kaszeta’s alleged hexamine “smoking gun” claiming to prove Assad’s guilt, dominated the headlines instead.
On September 9, 2013, just as Obama continued his domestic public relations push for war, Secretary of State Kerry gave a press conference in London in which he rhetorically suggested that one way to avert war would be if Assad immediately gave up his entire chemical weapons stock. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov seized the opening and suggested to Kerry that the U.S. and Russia arrange to do just that.
Lavrov quickly gained the consent of the Syrian leadership, and after a marathon series of meetings over the coming days, an agreement was reached with his U.S. counterpart on Saturday, September 14 to facilitate the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons.
In contrast to the Syrian government leadership, the U.S.-backed FSA chief, General Salim Idris, just one month removed from participating in the massacre of Alawites in Latakia alongside ISIS and Nusra, “denounced the initiative.” The New York Times quoted Idris as saying, “All of this initiative does not interest us. Russia is a partner with the regime in killing the Syrian people.” FSA commander Qassim Saadeddine, who had prepared to launch an offensive in concert with the expected western bombing campaign, was more blunt, saying “Let the Kerry-Lavrov plan go to hell. We reject it and we will not protect the inspectors.”
If Idris and Saadeddine really believed the government had perpetrated the Ghouta atrocity, this was an odd response. From the opposition point of view, the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons would prevent a repeat of such an atrocity. Instead, opposition leaders denounced the initiative because their objective of coming to power under the protection of NATO bombs had been frustrated.
This of course raises the question: why would Obama change course during his walk with Chief of Staff McDonough on the White House lawn on August 30, just one day before a long planned military assault was set to commence, and instead refer the issue to congress? Though calls for intervention had been building for over a year and had reached a fever pitch with the release of the horrific videos on August 21, Obama’s decision effectively closed the door to any western military response. This was clear, due to domestic opposition, even before Lavrov facilitated the deal to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.
To understand this decision, a review of several facts is in order. Due to intelligence provided by the DIA, both Obama and McDonough were aware that Turkish intelligence had assisted Nusra in acquiring sarin, and therefore was likely responsible for the chemical attack in Khan al-Assal. Further, Obama and McDonough were also aware of what Turkish intelligence was doing “with the radicals,” in the hope of pressuring Obama to declare that his red line had been crossed.
This would have made clear that subsequent alleged chemical attacks in Sheikh Maqsoud, Saraqeb, and Jobar were also the work of Salafist opposition militants and their backers in French, British, and Turkish intelligence, also with the goal of pressuring Obama. Both Obama and McDonough must have therefore also known that that the Ghouta attack itself was another, albeit more spectacular, false flag attempt along the same lines.
Additionally, Obama and McDonough knew what General Martin Dempsey knew, namely that any U.S. intervention would be an intervention on behalf of al-Qaeda, whether in the form of Nusra or ISIS (as illustrated at the Menagh airbase).
Obama and McDonough were also aware due to polling that any direct military intervention in Syria would be unpopular with the American public, and that any support that might exist would likely collapse if any U.S. pilots were shot down by Syrian anti-aircraft defenses, which were much more sophisticated and extensive than any faced during the NATO intervention in Libya two years before.
Further, Obama and McDonough knew that any U.S. intervention would not be in self-defense, and because Russia would veto any UN vote to authorize military action, would also therefore violate international law. Obama had himself raised this concern just days after the Ghouta incident.
Such an attack would also violate domestic U.S. law unless approved by Congress. The 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed in the wake of 9/11 to authorize a war against al-Qaeda, as permissive and abused as it had been, could not be stretched further to include an attack on the Syrian government on behalf of al-Qaeda. Both Obama and McDonough further knew, due to advanced polling of congressional members, that a vote to authorize military force would not be successful.
Finally, Obama and McDonough must have realized that although they were being pushed to intervene by elements in both domestic and foreign intelligence services, the blame for any failure would be primarily shouldered by Obama, just as the catastrophe of the 2003 Iraq invasion was largely blamed on President George W. Bush, and the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion was blamed on President John F. Kennedy.
Members of the Safari Club-style coalition of intelligence services are in the envious position of being able push for operations, for which, if they go well, they can receive credit, or for which, if they end in disaster, they can avoid accountability. Instead, it is the U.S. president who must give the final approval (enthusiastically or not), and therefore becomes the scapegoat when things go wrong. For this reason, Obama later told Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic that “he was walking into a trap—one laid both by allies and by adversaries [emphasis mine].”
Further, Obama must have known he was about to order an illegal military intervention, not just inadvertently based on faulty intelligence, but deliberately based on fabricated intelligence, as Bush had in Iraq. But Bush had both the Congress and public behind him, while Obama had neither. In other words, if the truth ever came out about the false flag operation, and Obama’s knowledge about it, Obama would have been left alone holding the bag.
When Obama instead referred the issue to Congress, he skillfully escaped the trap his allies had set for him. He was bitterly criticized as a result. The Los Angeles Times later reported that Erdogan, “did not hide his displeasure when the recent U.S.-Russian-brokered deal to neutralize Syria’s chemical weapons seemed to rule out the prospect of an American bombing campaign against Syria.” Similarly, The Daily Beast reported that “The Saudi point man on the Syrian conflict, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, has been angry over the Obama administration’s Middle East policies—from the decision to refrain from striking President Bashar al-Assad’s forces for their use of sarin nerve gas in August.” Jeffrey Goldberg notes that Obama was immediately criticized as well by U.S. senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, former CIA chief and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Foreign Affairs editor Gideon Rose, Saudi ambassador to the U.S. Adel Jubeir, King Abdallah of Jordan, and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan.
While speaking with Goldberg about the trap laid for him by his own allies, Obama specifically complained that “he resented the foreign-policy think-tank complex. A widely held sentiment inside the White House is that many of the most prominent foreign-policy think tanks in Washington are doing the bidding of their Arab and pro-Israel funders.”
The Devil You Know?
Obama’s complaint about not only Arab but also pro-Israel think tank funders is crucial to note, given that it was Israeli intelligence which first introduced the concept of the red line regarding chemical weapons use in Syria in 2012 and had issued false reports claiming that the Syrian government had indeed crossed the red line at every critical juncture, including immediately after the Ghouta attack itself. In other words, Israeli intelligence was a significant driving force advocating western military intervention in Syria.
At first glance, this may seem surprising. Since the beginning of the conflict in 2011, Israeli officials had expressed tacit support for Assad staying in power. The Jerusalem Post argued on March 23, 2011, that “For all his faults, Assad is the devil we know.” The Post explained that “As Israel watches the ongoing demonstrations in Syria against President Bashar Assad, its greatest concern for the moment is the uncertainty that change in Syria would bring to the region. Israel has gotten used to Assad and he is almost predictable.” By way of example, of all of Israel’s borders, “the border with Syria has always been the quietest.”
This slogan was repeated incessantly by Syrian pro-opposition activists, who wished to cast Assad as a friend of Israel and enemy of the Palestinians. Regarding Syria’s historical resistance to Israel, opposition activist Robin Yassin-Kassab asked, “But how resistant was the regime in reality?…The regime policed its own frontier with the occupied Golan Heights so obediently that it remained more peaceful than the borders of states that had signed peace agreements with’ the Zionist enemy.’”
This was merely public posturing, however. Israeli planners of course realized that any public support for the Syrian opposition would undermine the credibility of the regime change project among Syrians and Muslims broadly, and therefore kept their support for toppling Assad covert.
Israeli interests played a prominent role in the U.S. effort to topple the Syrian government even before 2011. Neoconservatives in the Bush administration (known to be strong supporters of Israel) began the project to topple the Syrian government in wake of the 9/11 attacks. Note only Iraq, but also Syria and its close ally Iran were to be among the seven countries targeted by the Bush administration for regime change. In March 2011, at the outset of the so-called Arab Spring, U.S. planners were finally successful in sparking anti-government protests and simultaneously launching an al-Qaeda-led Salafist insurgency in Syria.
U.S. efforts to launch an al-Qaeda-led dirty war that would weaken the Syrian army were important for Israel’s settler-colonial project because, as Gerald Steinberg of Bar-Ilan University explained during the second Palestinian intifada in 2001, “From an Israeli perspective, the most dangerous threats come from a potential coalition of Arab states and Iran, rather than from the Palestinians alone.”
This is an indication that the so-called “Syrian revolution” was really part of Israel’s broader war on the Palestinians and the Axis of Resistance supporting them. The destruction of Yarmouk camp in the southern Damascus suburbs (known as the capital of the Palestinian diaspora) and the displacement of its hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees (in what amounted to a second Nakba) serves as a tragic reminder of this.
Uri Sagi, Israel’s former chief of military intelligence, reiterated this view in September 2013, in the wake of the Ghouta massacre, explaining that “For many years, until the civil war broke out, the Syrians were the last army to pose a serious threat to Israel, and therefore the investment of our intelligence resources in that direction was enormous.” As a result, the U.S. and Saudi-instigated Salafist insurgency that began in 2011, often characterized as a civil war, was a godsend for Israeli planners.
Had Obama green lit a U.S. attack in August 2013 (meant not merely to weaken the Syrian army but also to “eradicate any military capabilities Assad had,” as detailed by Hersh), Israeli planners would have achieved one of their most long sought-after goals. The incentive for Israeli intelligence to either initiate or participate in a false flag operation to blame a sarin attack on Assad was therefore enormous.
Domestic politics in Israel and the desire to intimidate Iran may have played a role as well, with journalist Yossi Verter writing in Haaretz on August 30, 2013 that, “From [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s perspective, Assad’s ouster might inject the United States with greater confidence to confront Iran,” while “Netanyahu could go down in history for spearheading a historic move,” that could propel him to victory in his next re-election campaign.
Shortly after the deal to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons had been reached, Israel’s long-standing preference for regime change in Syria was finally openly acknowledged. In an interview with the Jerusalem Post, Israel’s outgoing ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren explained that “The initial message about the Syrian issue was that we always wanted [President] Bashar Assad to go, we always preferred the bad guys who weren’t backed by Iran to the bad guys who were backed by Iran,” including if the other “bad guys” were affiliated to al-Qaida. Oren explained further, “We understand that they are pretty bad guys…Still, the greatest danger to Israel is by the strategic arc that extends from Tehran to Damascus to Beirut. And we saw the Assad regime as the keystone in that arc. That is a position we had well before the outbreak of hostilities in Syria. With the outbreak of hostilities, we continued to want Assad to go [emphasis mine].”
Oren also noted Israeli cooperation with Saudi Arabia, whose intelligence service worked directly with Liwa al-Islam to carry out the Ghouta false flag, and which shared an interest with Israel in weakening Iran (via Syria). Oren remarked that “in the last 64 years there has probably never been a greater confluence of interest between us and several Gulf States. With these Gulf States we have agreements on Syria, on Egypt, on the Palestinian issue. We certainly have agreements on Iran. This is one of those opportunities presented by the Arab Spring.”
This is another indication that the Ghouta false flag operation was not carried out by the intelligence service of one country alone, but by a Safari Club-style coalition of intelligence agencies from multiple countries, whose interests are so aligned that they are difficult to distinguish between.
Though the false flag attack in Ghouta did not lead to regime change in Damascus or the complete destruction of Syrian military capabilities (Tel Aviv’s maximalist goals), in the end, it was Israel who nevertheless benefitted most from the Ghouta massacre.
Syria’s chemical weapons were developed in the 1980s as a deterrent to Israeli nuclear capabilities and to any possible large scale Israeli invasion of Syria resembling the 1982 invasion and occupation of southern Lebanon. This meant that the U.S. and Russian deal to have the Syrian government destroy 1,300 metric tons of chemical warfare agents was a clear win for Israel. Jeffrey Goldberg reports that the agreement to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons “won the president praise from, of all people, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister,” and that it represented “the one ray of light in a very dark region.”
In addition, the Syrian government’s willingness to give up its chemical weapon deterrent had not resulted in a peace agreement to end the war. Kerry and Lavrov’s deal had averted direct U.S. intervention, but U.S. support for the al-Qaeda dominated insurgency would persist. So long as the bloodshed in Syria continued, this was an acceptable outcome for Israeli planners. Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general in New York, argued for example that “This is a playoff situation in which you need both teams to lose, but at least you don’t want one to win — we’ll settle for a tie…Let them both bleed, hemorrhage to death: that’s the strategic thinking here.”
While speaking to Jeffrey Goldberg, Obama attempted to suggest he had bravely resisted the “playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow,” namely responding to every problem with military force. But by making his decision, Obama did not reject a military response, he only rejected a military response for which he could be uniquely blamed.
Rather than order direct U.S. intervention, Obama instead continued weapons shipments to the jihadists fighting the Syrian government under the covert CIA program known as Timber Sycamore. It was clear that doing so would result in supporting al-Qaeda, just as a direct intervention would have, but this way, Obama could avoid any legal responsibility for doing so, and spread any future blame around.
In October 2013, just six weeks after Obama reversed his decision on direct intervention, The New York Times reported that Obama administration officials chose to arm what they referred to as Syrian rebels in off the books fashion via the CIA, rather than via a publicly acknowledged program through the Pentagon, not only to avoid the legal issues associated with toppling a sovereign government, but also because, in the words of one former senior administration official, “We needed plausible deniability in case the arms got into the hands of Al Nusra.”
By continuing to arm the al-Qaeda-led Salafist insurgency, rather than intervening directly, Obama was also choosing to let both sides “bleed, hemorrhage to death.” Shortly after the Ghouta attack, Edward Luttwak of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) argued in The New York Times that such a strategy was in the American interest as well. He explained that “There is only one outcome that the United States can possibly favor: an indefinite draw. By tying down Mr. Assad’s army and its Iranian and Hezbollah allies in a war against Al Qaeda-aligned extremist fighters, four of Washington’s enemies will be engaged in war among themselves and prevented from attacking Americans or America’s allies. Maintaining a stalemate should be America’s objective. And the only possible method for achieving this is to arm the rebels when it seems that Mr. Assad’s forces are ascendant and to stop supplying the rebels if they actually seem to be winning.” In other words, it was in America and Israel’s interest for the slaughter of Syrians to continue indefinitely, and this was the policy Obama acquiesced to.
A Delicate Balance
Because the Syrian army was now ascendent, and the chance for direct U.S. intervention in the wake of Ghouta had slipped away, additional support for al-Qaeda was still needed to restore the stalemate between the two sides. The task of selling this policy to the public fell to former CIA Deputy Director Mike Morell. Because he had retired in August 2013 (just before the Ghouta massacre, and after 33 years in the agency), Morell could now become a public advocate for CIA policies.
In September 2013, Morell spoke at length with the CBS News program 60 Minutes. In the interview, Morell said “Assad currently believes he’s winning the conflict against the rebels and thus has no incentive to seek a diplomatic solution with opposition rebels. The best solution is for the United States to balance arms and assistance to the opposition forces so that it provides pressure on the regime to negotiation, but also does not place the rebels in the position where they believe they do not need to negotiate…To create that balance, more support must be provided to the opposition, across the board.”
In the same interview, Morell had acknowledged that the opposition was dominated by al-Qaeda, in the form of not only the Nusra Front, but also Ahrar al-Sham, which began forming brigades in Syria even before the outbreak of protests in March 2011. Morell also noted that U.S.-supplied FSA groups were fighting in support of both Ahrar and Nusra. This makes it clear (in case there was any doubt) that Morell favored arming al-Qaeda, but in a plausibly deniable way.
Just as it was difficult to get approval to launch a direct U.S. intervention on behalf of al-Qaeda (due to opposition from Obama, General Dempsey, and Congress), it was also difficult for Morell’s CIA to maintain support for arming al-Qaeda after the Ghouta false flag operation failed. As mentioned above, Morell had been tasked in June 2013 with convincing the Senate and House Intelligence Committees to approve additional weapons shipments to the so-called rebels. Though Morell was ultimately successful, the committees had been reluctant, due to concerns the weapons would reach Nusra.
To justify CIA’s continued efforts to arm al-Qaeda, Morell had to continue to appeal to skeptical U.S. lawmakers. He did this by bizarrely suggesting during the 60 Minutes interview that he was somehow above all concerned about the threat from al-Qaeda.
Morell explained that “I’m concerned because where we’re headed right now is toward, I fear, the breakup of the state of Syria,” and the “opportunity for al Qaeda to have a safe haven in Syria that is not dissimilar to the safe haven that it once enjoyed in Afghanistan…The best outcome is a negotiated settlement, between the opposition and between the regime that allows for a political transition that keeps the institutions of the state intact…The reason that is important is because it’s going to take the institution of the Syrian military and the institutions of the Syrian security services to defeat al Qaeda when this is done.”
After detailing these concerns, Morell was asked by 60 Minutes journalist John Miller whether maintaining this “difficult balance” required “more, or less support than is being provided now” to the al-Qaeda dominated insurgency. Morell answered, “I think it’s more.”
In other words, to prevent the establishment of an al-Qaeda safe haven in the future, Morell advocated arming al-Qaeda in the present.
CIA efforts to provide more support to the opposition in the wake of the Ghouta massacre, as advocated by Morell, were evident not only through the continuation of U.S. weapons shipments to the al-Qaeda-led insurgency, but also through the ever-expanding flow of jihadists from the Arab world, Europe, and elsewhere, traveling to Syria to join the fight. In November 2013, just as U.S. planners were maintaining their plausible deniability in arming the Nusra Front, Nick Walsh of CNN visited the southern Turkish province of Hatay to investigate the flow of jihadists traveling through Turkey to Syria. After witnessing the arrival of large numbers of foreign, fighting-aged men at the Hatay airport outside the city of Antakya, Walsh noted that, “it is extraordinary to watch this volume of international traffic from countries where al Qaeda has a confirmed and consistent presence into a NATO member state.” Walsh spoke with a smuggler helping jihadists cross the border who explained that in the past few months “he’s moved about 400 people across the border, and that the rate of people making the crossing has almost tripled since the chemical attacks on the Damascus suburbs in August. And that’s just him; there are many other smugglers operating in the area.”
This massive increase in foreign jihadist fighters appears to have been a deliberate effort to escalate the war by U.S., Saudi, and Turkish intelligence to compensate for Obama’s failure to enforce the red line. The Daily Beast reported in December 2013 that according to western officials, “nearly a thousand Saudi jihadists have joined al-Qaeda affiliates in northern Syria in recent months and they suspect that number will exponentially grow in the coming months,” including “dozens of Saudi jihadists [who] have been allowed to fly out of Riyadh without challenge, several after being released from detention and many of whom were under official travel bans. Those going to fight are not obscure figures: a major in the Saudi border guards was killed in early December in Deir Atieh in Syria; another Saudi jihadist killed fighting in Aleppo was the son of Maj. Gen. Abdullah Motlaq al-Sudairi. Hardline Salafist Saudi clerics have also been heading to Syria without incurring problems from Saudi Arabian authorities.”
It is no accident that these jihadi fighters were arriving in Antakya, in Hatay province near the Syrian border. As noted above, preparations for attacking Damascus in advance of the Ghouta incident were taking place under the direction of U.S., Qatari, and Turkish intelligence officials from an FSA command center also located in Antakya. It was not only Nick Walsh of CNN watching “this volume of international traffic” of jihadists passing through Antakya, but CIA operatives based in the city as well.
CIA efforts to flood Syria with jihadists and weapons, according to Mike Morell’s proscription, soon resulted in exactly what Morell claimed to warn about, namely the creation of al-Qaeda safe havens and the collapse of the Syrian state in large swathes of Syria.
It is well known that ISIS was able to create a safe haven in eastern Syria in 2014. The group acquired U.S.-supplied weapons and incorporated U.S.-backed FSA brigades into its fighting ranks, both of which proved crucial in its success as it swept across the Iraqi border from Mosul to capture Deir al-Zour province, massacring, Yazidis, Syrian army soldiers, and members of the Shaitat tribe along the way. Creating an al-Qaeda safe haven in eastern Syria (a Salafist principality) was a U.S. objective at least as early as summer 2012, as shown by a Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report from that time.
As I have detailed elsewhere, continued U.S. weapons shipments, in particular of TOW anti-tank missiles, were crucial in helping the Nusra Front conquer Idlib province in northwest Syria in the spring of 2015. This led U.S. official Brett McGurk to later complain that Idlib had become “the largest Al Qaeda safe haven since 9/11.”
Further, James Jeffrey, who served as special representative for Syria engagement and special envoy to the global coalition to defeat ISIS during the Trump administration, acknowledged in 2021 that the continued al-Qaeda safe haven in Idlib was “an asset” to America’s strategy of crushing Syria’s economy through sanctions.
This suggests that Morell’s stated claim to desire a negotiated settlement to the conflict was just a cover for the CIA’s actual objective, namely the creation of al-Qaeda safe havens as milestones along the road to toppling the Syrian government.
Additionally, even if Morell did wish in September 2013 for a negotiated settlement leading to a “political transition that keeps the institutions of the state intact,” this means he favored establishing an al-Qaeda dominated government in Damascus, as U.S. planners now support in Idlib. Because the Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham were the most powerful opposition groups in Syria (as acknowledged by Morell) the leadership of these groups, most notably Nusra leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, would have been sitting at the negotiating table to hammer out the details of Assad’s exit. The secular leadership of the political opposition based abroad would have had little say in such negotiations, because they had no influence on the ground. As in any conflict, the men with guns would have acquired power and taken over any institutions of the state that remained intact.
Morell, who was serving as second in command at CIA (and even for a time as acting director) from the beginning of the Syria war in 2011 until the eve of the Ghouta massacre in 2013, therefore played a crucial role in laying the foundation for the rise of al-Qaeda in Syria. He also therefore bears significant responsibility, along with Petraeus, Brennan, and Bandar, for the many atrocities committed in Syria and Iraq by the notorious terror group, whether in the form of Nusra or ISIS, as well as for atrocities committed by allied Salafist militias of the FSA (including the massacre of Alawites in Latakia, as discussed above).
As discussed above, the Ghouta chemical attack was no chemical attack at all, but a false flag managed massacre carried out by Liwa al-Islam, which was planned and directed by a coalition of intelligence agencies, with CIA head John Brennan and Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar playing the leading roles.
Strangely, even among analysts who argue the Syrian government did not carry out the Ghouta massacre, there is often little, if any discussion of the role of U.S., Saudi, Israeli, French and British intelligence in carrying out the covert operation. Instead, they tend to place blame solely on the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front and its backers in Turkish intelligence.
But the false flag massacre was only one element in the broader effort to trigger western military intervention, using the alleged chemical attack as a pretext. It was U.S. officials, not Erdogan, who ordered that F-16s and Patriot missiles be stationed in Jordan in preparation for imposing a no-fly zone. It was CIA operatives embedded with the opposition militants who advanced on Damascus, a full week before the Ghouta massacre, to exploit the expected western intervention.
It was not Turkish, but rather Israeli intelligence that first introduced the concept of the red line, and which provided fabricated evidence claiming Syrian government use of sarin at every crucial juncture in the year leading up to the August 21 massacre.
It was Saudi intelligence that sought to create a national army to take control of the country after the expected intervention, with the plan to use genocidal and sectarian Salafis from Liwa al-Islam as this new army’s leadership and core.
It was British and French intelligence that manufactured false claims of Syrian government chemical attacks in advance of the Ghouta massacre.
This was not a case of Erdogan, or the so-called rebels, tricking the great powers into intervening militarily on their behalf. It was the Safari Club-style coalition of intelligence agencies which wanted the intervention, used Liwa al-Islam as willing partners toward that goal, and had been preparing for it since before August 2013, and even long before 2011.
Bearded militants from Liwa al-Islam may have fired the sarin-filled rockets and brutally suffocated hundreds of captives to death in the war-torn Damascus suburbs, but the operation was planned by well-dressed men and women in comfortable offices not only in Ankara, but in Washington, Riyadh, Paris, London, and Tel Aviv as well. Liwa al-Islam could not have carried out the massacre and successfully blamed it on the Syrian government, without the planning, propaganda, logistical, and military support they received from their various foreign intelligence sponsors in the process.
Nothing can bring back the dead, but the mothers, fathers, daughters, and sons of the hundreds of Syrians taken captive and brutally suffocated to death on August 21, 2013 at least deserve to know who carried out the heinous atrocity from which they continue to suffer.
William Van Wagenen has a BA in German literature From Brigham Young University and an MA in Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School. You can read his other writings on Syria for the Libertarian Institute here. Follow him on Twitter @wvanwagenen.