Whose Rebels? Three years since chemical weapons massacre in Ghouta, Assad found not guilty
Pro rebels demonstration at Brandenburg Gate in Berlin two years after the chemical attacks on the Damascus suburbs
Three long and terrible years have now passed since the staging of a Sarin attack in the Eastern suburbs of Damascus. These years have cost the lives of twice as many Syrians as had been killed in the preceding two and a half years of this unnecessary war against the Syrian state.
Yet it needn’t have been like this. Following the apparent chemical weapons attack on the Opposition-held suburb of Ghouta in the early hours of August 21st 2013 – for which the Syrian government was immediately held responsible by Western leaders and media – a ‘punitive’ military strike was proposed by the White House. This was averted, at the very last minute, by Russia’s proposal for the UN-supervised destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stocks, or so it seemed.
Writing in a seminal article published by the London Review of Books that December, veteran investigative journalist Seymour Hersh reported that sections of the US intelligence community had also advised the White House to call off the strike, because of serious doubts about who was actually responsible for the Sarin attack.
But Hersh’s article – ‘Whose Sarin?’ – was comprehensively ignored by the Western media and even, it must be said, in the letters pages of the journal which had been brave enough to publish it. By comparison, his revelations were championed in the media of Syria and her allies, as well as by Syria’s supporters in the West, who had never given the slightest credibility to claims the Syrian government had launched Sarin-filled missiles ‘at its own people’. Such an idea, in the straightforward words of Russia’s President Putin, was ‘utter nonsense’.
And yet this idea persists, and continues to poison the minds of so many in the West who might otherwise have put an end to the illicit and covert war against the Syrian state and its people. Not only does the ‘original lie’ about the Ghouta attack get restated by self-described ‘supporters of the Syrian People’, but the facile idea of the ‘regime’ using chemical weapons has been reborn. Even before all the sarin and mustard gas stocks were destroyed, there were warnings that Chlorine might be used instead; now ‘chlorine filled barrel bombs’ have become a preferred method of killing people the government doesn’t like, according to Opposition activists. For the multiple NGOs, media and Western audience who condone the insurgency it matters not that these claims are vacuous and mendacious.
The focus of ‘Whose Sarin?’ was mostly on how much US intelligence knew about the abilities of terrorist groups in Syria – Al Nusra/Al Qaeda and ‘AQI’, later to become ‘ISIS’ – to manufacture Sarin, and the consequent doubts about Syrian government responsibility for the Ghouta attack. While Hersh noted the observations of missile experts Lloyd and Postol that cast real doubts on the origins of the suspect Sarin-loaded missiles, he didn’t offer an opinion on the lack of an ‘a priori’ case against the Assad government; I think it must be restated now.
Following claims that Sarin had been used in a missile strike in the village of Khan al Assal, near Aleppo in March 2013, attributed to Al Nusra by a Russian investigation team, the Syrian government had been demanding a UN investigation of this incident. Although the UN representative Carla del Ponte agreed with the Russian conclusion, the US took the word of the Syrian opposition that the government was responsible, despite those targeted and killed in the strike being government supporters. Not until the 19th of August did a UN team arrive in Damascus to investigate the Khan al Assal strike, as well as opposition claims of two other smaller Sarin attacks.
But before the UN team could arrange their visit to Khan al Assal, the Ghouta attack occurred, as evidenced by videos released and spread through social media. What actually happened there, and in the suburb of Moadamiya where claims of a Sarin-loaded missile were not substantiated in the UN investigation, remains in doubt. Quite startlingly the declarations of outrage from President Obama and John Kerry that 1430 innocent civilians had been gassed were supported by zero evidence; not one single autopsy showing death from Sarin was carried out, as the UN team confined its investigation to a mere 36 supposed victims who survived the attack. Even the evidence from those victims was inconclusive, though that was hardly surprising given these ‘victims’ were supplied by ‘activists’ in Moadamiya, where no Sarin contamination was found.
Notwithstanding this lack of real evidence for a Sarin attack, regardless of the culprit, and the rapid emergence of doubts on the authenticity of the crucial video evidence, a fact that even disturbed some Western commentators was the absence of any rationale for such a chemical weapons attack on the Syrian government side. Not only had the Syrian Army made recent gains in driving back the insurgency, and was working hard on reconciliation in divided communities, but the government quite clearly had a lot to lose by launching such a criminal and militarily useless attack. To choose to launch such an attack, ostensibly against innocent civilians, right under the noses of the UN chemical weapons investigators just after their arrival next-door to the crime scene would have been more than stupid – it was simply incomprehensible!
Perhaps it was at this point that the two sides of the narrative on the Syrian war parted company. No-one whose survival now depended on the Syrian Arab Army and its allies could believe the talk from the West – of ‘humanitarian intervention’, and of ‘moderate rebels’ wanting a secular democracy. And when the support of Syrians for their Army and President was put to the test in the elections of May 2014 the great majority of them offered it enthusiastically. Conversely in the Western sphere of influence, in the countries supporting the insurgency directly and indirectly, and amongst Syrian refugees in those countries, the case was closed against President Assad and the Syrian army. Even though the military strike had been called off, this was on the condition Syria’s chemical weapons stocks were destroyed – an action that clearly assumed the Syrian government had used Sarin and must be prevented from doing so again.
Although the evident plan in some quarters to prosecute an illegitimate war on Syria with direct military intervention using the attack as a pretext was foiled, the success of the Ghouta ‘false flag’ operation was clear in a different respect – as a demonstration that the Western public could now be made to believe almost anything, however implausible, with emotive manipulation. Both before and since the Ghouta operation, opposition videos showing children killed and injured by ‘Assad’s bombs’ have been very skilfully employed to conceal the truth of these vile attacks on humanity. Nowhere was this more the case than with the Ghouta Sarin attack videos.
While most of the bodies pictured in those videos were shown wrapped in white cloth and unidentified, many dead children were pictured as they died in their variety of ordinary clothes, and were soon identified. Some two weeks earlier, one of the most brutal and barbaric attacks by ‘rebel’ forces had been launched against some Alawite villages near Lattakia, with hundreds massacred but also over a hundred women and children kidnapped. Their fate was unknown until relatives recognised some of those children in the videos of ‘Sarin victims’, even though these videos were released 16 days later and 200 kilometres away in Damascus. In subsequent close analysis of the videos it was then observed that some of the same children appeared in videos released in different suburbs, in different positions and surroundings.
The unspeakable barbarity of the ‘rebels’, who all came together to take part in the massacre and then so callously made ‘snuff videos’ to use as a propaganda weapon, should cause us to reflect on how the reporting of these atrocities went virtually unnoticed by our ‘humanitarian’ agencies, and remained uncondemned by the UN. The apparent condoning of this sectarian attack on rural Alawite communities – which was seen by some as a payback for the Syrian Army’s liberation of Al Qusair two months earlier – has unpleasant echoes in the reaction of those same agencies to recent events in Aleppo. Before considering these events, and the renewed threat of a catastrophic war, there is another story to be told for which Seymour Hersh’s further investigations provide a lead.
Having established ‘whose Sarin’ was used in Ghouta – and more recent investigations confirmed beyond reasonable doubt that the Sarin was not from Syrian government stocks – the question that must now be answered is ‘whose Rebels?’. It has been no secret for some time that Opposition forces in Syria are being supplied with ammunition and weapons from neighbouring countries, and that ‘jihadis’ from many countries have been flowing over Syria’s borders to join the fight. The Orwellian ‘Friends of Syria’ countries – the Western and Gulf states supporting the Syrian Opposition against the Syrian state – have long maintained that this support for the insurgency is being assisted and paid for by individuals over whom states have little control. While they might allow that some governments – Turkey for instance – are ‘not doing enough’ to stop the flow of fighters and arms across their borders, no Western leaders or mainstream media organisations will admit to the truth of direct state support for the insurgency.
The reality of this barely covert and illicit support from foreign governments for all the armed groups fighting in Syria is however like the proverbial ‘elephant in the room’, and the inability to see it barely comprehensible. It is as if the whole Western populace has been subject to a feat of mass hypnosis by their corporate media, who have themselves become witless facilitators of their governments’ agendas. The official ‘narrative’ of the ‘Civil War in Syria’ has now become self-sustaining, with the same false memes pervading every part of the Western media echo-chamber.
Yet ask anyone outside this chamber – and particularly the 17 million Syrians who have remained in and support their country – and they will tell you all we need to know about the ‘elephant’. They have long realised that – at its simplest – there is no ‘civil war’ in Syria, having its origins in an authentic sectarian uprising against an oppressive and brutal ‘Alawite’ government. The conflict is rather seen as a war on Syria being waged by a proxy army of ruthless ‘takfiris’, against which all actions of the Syrian Arab Army are considered legitimate self-defence of Syria and its people. Some Syrians may consider that the war was not like this from the start, but now accept the reality of foreign sponsorship of the insurgency and fully support the government and army’s fight against it.
Within days of the first protest rallies in Dera’a on the border with Jordan however, it became abundantly clear to the government that arms and fighters had infiltrated Syria’s borders, with assistance from foreign agencies and with the express intention of fomenting a ‘popular uprising’. The role played by Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, the state broadcasters for the key Arab states seeking the overthrow of the Assad government, in ‘spreading false news’ and thereby inciting rebellion, was fundamental in this operation. While the better informed and educated populations in the cities and in areas historically supportive of the government were sceptical of Al Jazeera’s reports and soon recognised their bias and fabrications, those in poorer rural areas readily accepted the false accusations against the government and army. What might have been peaceful protests, with legitimate demands that the government initially sought to address, rapidly descended into a spiral of violence. This was not as portrayed in the West, as a result of a ‘brutal crackdown’ by the security forces, but because of the reaction of those forces to lethal fire from ‘agents provocateurs’ amongst the protestors or hidden in nearby buildings. Adding insult to injury, soldiers who were killed by these snipers were reported by opposition fighters as having been shot ‘for failing to fire on protestors’, or for attempted desertion. These false assertions, relayed to the Western media by local and foreign ‘activists’, laid the basis for the ‘information war’ against Syria.
Building on this narrative that the Syrian army, under the command of Bashar al Assad, was determined to stamp out the protests by any means, including by committing massacres of innocent and unarmed civilians, the ‘Free Syrian Army’ was contrived as a self-defence force for ‘the Syrian people’. Thanks to the developing links between Al Jazeera and some Western media organisations the completely false narrative of ‘the Syrian Popular Revolution’ took root in the western mind. This movement was assisted by the formation of the ‘Syrian National Council’ from the expat Syrian community in France, the US and UK. The SNC was strongly affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, ejected from Syria in 1982 by Bashar al Assad’s father Hafez, following the Brotherhood’s earlier violent attempts to undermine the central government. While the political significance of this group was not lost on the Syrian government or amongst Syrians, given that both Qatar – the home of Al Jazeera – and Turkey also had strong allegiance to the Muslim Brotherhood, the connection was dismissed or ignored by the ‘Friends of Syria’ and their subject populations. Astoundingly, following meetings with western leaders, this self-elected group of people, most of whom hadn’t set foot in Syria for thirty years, were pronounced as ‘the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people’ by their Western ‘friends’, and proposed as the government-in-waiting once Bashar al Assad was removed.
More astounding even than this was the acceptance by almost all NGOs, the UN, commentators and general public of this self-evident fiction. I shouldn’t even have to explain why people who have been through no conceivably democratic process of selection by any small fraction of ‘the Syrian people’, who don’t reside in Syria, and who seek the overthrow of Syria’s legitimate government cannot be legitimate representatives of anyone – other than the foreign states on whose behalf they are evidently acting. That the ‘Friends of Syria’ consider them so tells us just which foreign states these are.
While the SNC was always presented as a political group, and with only a tenuous connection to ‘Opposition’ fighters in Syria, this may be seen as one of the ways its ‘supporting powers’ concealed their own direct support for the armed insurgency. The years of rhetoric about a ‘peace process’, and vacuous debate over whether Assad could play a role in an interim government, gave false legitimacy to the role of the US in particular in its contribution to the Syrian conflict. Despite the wide acknowledgement of the false claims used by the US in its war against Iraq, the similar role it had played in fomenting and supporting the violent war on Syria went unnoticed, even amongst the most vocal left-wing opponents of US policies and ‘foreign interventions’.
Many mainstream commentators repeatedly represent the US role in the Syrian war as one of ‘reluctance to become involved’, while supporters of the armed insurgency both within and without Syria frequently complain about the ‘US failure’ to help the ‘rebels’, both militarily and politically. This call for intervention is echoed by influential NGOs such as Amnesty International and Medecins Sans Frontieres and charities such as Save the Children, as well as the UN and UNHRC.
Faced with the reality, of significant covert military assistance to the Syrian insurgency by the CIA, as discussed in detail by Seymour Hersh in two later articles published by the LRB, we have a difficult choice. Either these NGOs who are helping the opposition forces in Syria are ignorant of the direct US military support for armed groups conducting daily attacks on Syrian civilians and soldiers, or they condone this support. Clearly it is preferable to believe that these respected humanitarian agencies, who claim to be apolitical and oppose all violence against unarmed civilians, are ignorant of the extent and criminality of US and other foreign military support for the violent extremists and mercenaries who increasingly dominate the opposition forces in Syria.
Perhaps they did not read, or chose to dismiss the unchallengeable evidence for a ‘Rat line’ of both weapons and fighters from Libya through Turkey into Syria, facilitated since 2012 by the CIA and the Turkish Intelligence organisation MIT, as discussed in April 2014 by Seymour Hersh. (LRB, ‘Obama, Erdogan and the Syrian Rebels’). Hersh reiterates and further elaborates on the operation of the CIA’s rat line in his most recent article discussing intelligence sharing between the US and Syria (Military to Military, LRB January 7th 2016), noting the state department’s support for the operation, and apparent carelessness about the final destination of the weapons or the true nature of the ‘rebels’ they were arming. During this period the CIA was also running a training program for opposition fighters in Jordan who then joined jihadist forces fighting the Syrian army up to Damascus. Credible reports put the number of mercenaries so trained and armed at around 10,000 over several years.
While both these covert and illegal US operations were quite visible to those who looked, the false narrative about US reluctance to arm the ‘rebel’ forces remains dominant, sustained by periodic statements from the White House. Following constant calls from sections of Congress and pressure groups, the US finally ‘agreed’ to set up a ‘train and assist program’, selecting suitable ‘moderate’ Syrians for this force, not to fight ‘Assad’s Army’ but Islamic State. Much was made of the failure of this programme and the rapid defeat of its first recruits by Al Nusra. In fact it was a significant success for the White House in concealing the reality of its massive contribution to the violent military campaign to change Syria’s government. Considering the number of innocent Syrians who have been killed by US weapons, used by US trained mercenaries and foreign fighters, it was a truly criminal deception.
This deception continued until late last year, when Russia’s intervention in support of the Syrian army finally brought ‘the Rats’ out into the daylight. The US could no longer hide the armed groups it was supporting within the main Opposition-held area in the north-west as the Syrian army backed by Russian air power advanced towards Aleppo; it was forced to reveal their identity and location, and appeal to the Russians to avoid bombing these US-approved ‘moderate rebels’. No-one thought to point out that if these ‘vetted’ groups were there to fight Islamic State, they seemed to be in the wrong place, at least according to their sponsors. The US had complained since the start of the Russian air-campaign that Russia was targeting the ‘moderate rebels’ – claiming there was no IS presence around Aleppo.
But this left another problem for the US covert operation – Syria’s Al Qaeda. The dominant presence of this group around Aleppo, which has been holding Aleppo under siege for years while subjecting the government-supporting population to constant terrorist attacks, makes it the prime target for the Syrian forces and Russian air-strikes. Unable to deny that the ‘Al Nusra front’ did dominate the armed groups in East Aleppo, or persuade Russia not to target the terrorist group for fear it might kill ‘moderate rebels’ the West is vocally supporting, the US came up with another idea, claiming Al Nusra had cut ties with Al Qaeda and would henceforth be known as ‘Jabhat Fatah al Sham’. Even though this was so transparently disingenuous – and statements from the new ‘Foreign Media Relations Director’ of ‘Fatah al Sham’ confirmed the group’s continuing extremist Islamist agenda – the name-changing ruse worked.
Following a long-awaited campaign to liberate Aleppo from Al Nusra’s siege by the Syrian army, assisted by Iranian and Lebanese forces and the Russian air force, and the breaking of their resupply route from Turkey, an estimated force of 10,000 armed militants launched a huge counter attack on West Aleppo (at the end of July). Quite astonishingly the assistance of Al Qaeda’s suicide bombers in making this a ‘successful’ assault was acknowledged and even welcomed by Western media, who took their cue from aid agencies and others supporting the ‘besieged rebels’ in their hold-out in East Aleppo. One of the most influential of these ‘aid’ agencies is the ‘Syrian Civil Defence’ or White Helmets, whose logo can be seen on many videos showing people being rescued from buildings allegedly destroyed by Syrian or Russian bombs. While the White Helmets’ origins with MI6 are not hidden, – origins which should cast serious doubt both on their reports and their actual activities – Western media agencies have managed to ignore them.
Indeed one wonders now whether the White Helmets’ evident support for Al Nusra would any longer serve to disqualify it as a recipient of the West’s charitable and political assistance. If Al Qaeda’s suicide bombers can now be viewed as ‘good suicide bombers’ for helping the cause, then presumably the White Helmets would also be praised for their supporting role.
Yet it is only a supporting role. Taking advantage of the ceasefire and ‘humanitarian pause’ in the Syrian campaign forced on it by the West, huge new stocks of US weapons and vehicles paid for by local allies were shipped in across the Turkish border to resupply ‘rebel forces’. For the first time these included MANPADS, enabling Syrian or Russian planes to be shot down.
Perhaps now we should consider the disdain and disgust amongst Syrians, not just for those who kill their brave and loyal soldiers, but for those amongst us who would celebrate the brutal deaths of their loved ones and protectors. Consider the particular degree of wrath reserved for ‘terrorists’ who dare to kill just one of our soldiers on our own soil, or for those who seek to justify or even explain such brutality as a response to our own murderous campaigns in their homelands.
Having established, beyond a shadow of doubt, that neither the Syrian government nor any of its agents was responsible for the deaths of civilians from Sarin poisoning in Ghouta three years ago, it follows that all subsequent action taken directly or indirectly against Syria has been illegitimate. It also follows that responsibility for the deaths and injury of tens of thousands of innocent Syrian civilians and as many loyal Syrian soldiers and defence forces at the hands of violent sectarian extremists and mercenaries since August 2013, lies with those who have – in full knowledge of the truth – developed and maintained the fraudulent supporting narrative of the ‘Syrian civil war’ in the Western sphere.
How did it come to this – a situation where the truth of the ‘dirty war on Syria’ is completely concealed from those whose governments are conducting it, while being known to all those who are the victims of it in Syria? How can our comprehension of the motives and methods of our own governments be so lacking that they can literally get away with murder, while claiming the moral high ground and pretending sympathy with their victims?
But do we also share some responsibility for these crimes against humanity, for our gullibility in believing only the stories told by one party to the conflict, while rejecting those of the actual victims of the war – the Syrian people and their defence forces?
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