Jan 2, 2014

Ghouta sarin attack whodunnit: Seymour Hersh 'old media' methods criticized by Brown Moses

Seymour Hersh and Obama

In a recent article Whose Sarin? Pullitzer-prize winning investigative journalist, Seymour Hersh, makes the case that the Obama administration misled Americans about the August 21 sarin attack outside Damascus. Hersh says that the Obama administration "cherry-picked" intelligence about the gas attack in Ghouta “to justify a strike against Assad.”

Hersh's analysis raises questions about who might have been behind the attack. We know the neurotoxin sarin was used to devastating effect in Ghouta, but despite ongoing analysis and conjecture there is still no concrete proof that the Syrian regime was behind it. Nor is there proof that elements within the regime embarked on a maverick style attack without authorization - a scenario a number of pundits have floated.

Seymour Hersh's views have been challenged by a UK-based blogger named Eliot Higgins who runs the blog Brown Moses. Higgins has been critical of Hersh's 'old media' methods and is generally dismissive of a number of Hersh's claims. Other pundits also take the view that 'Sy gets it wrong.' However a careful reading of the Hersh piece makes the denunciations seem a bit of an overreach. It is clearly in the interests of MSM and the supporters of its narrative on Syria to pull the rug on Hersh on this issue.

Higgins makes extensive use of YouTube sources in his analysis of the Ghouta attack. YouTube isn't always the most reliable resource. As with false flag attacks on the ground in Syria, there are YouTube videos - even some very convincing ones - that have been staged or doctored by parties interested in spreading misinformation or outright falsehoods.

Higgins' analysis points in a direction that implicates the regime in the August 21 attacks. Aside from whether or not it is accurate, it's a popular position to take, and in some circles the only position to take. More to the point, Higgins is delivering what corporate MSM wants to hear and so gets kudos for driving the favored narrative.

In a recent post on his blog foreign policy writer, Phil Greaves, notes that "The clique of highly ideological analysts, think-tankers and journalists Higgins’ regularly works with and consults – alongside the dubiously funded western NGO’s he receives payment from – provide a stark indication as to the factions within the corporate media circus this supposedly independent blogger is operating in unison with."


Higgins has provided the western corporate media apparatus the opportunity to present its war-propaganda as having a “new media” facade of impartial legitimacy. Yet it is the same capitalistic “old media” apparatus endlessly promoting his work – consisting of scouring Jihadist war-porn and agitprop on YouTube for tidbits that may bolster corporate media narratives – as an invaluable tool in tracking human rights abuses, arms trafficking, and risk-free coverage of fast evolving conflicts. Yet contrary to the innocuous portrayal of an unemployed YouTube addict in Leicester becoming a credible analyst of a conflict in the Middle East; Higgins’ blog has been thrust into the foreground not through the benefit of impartiality or public appraisals, but through corporate “benefactors” with vested interest operating alongside the same “old media” organisations and stenographers.

... the “rebels” in both Syria and Libya have made a concerted effort in fabricating YouTube videos in order to incriminate and demonize their opponents while glorifying themselves in a sanitized image. Western media invariably lapped-up such fabrications without question and subsequently built narratives around them – regardless of contradictory evidence or opinion. Yet such media, and more importantly, the specific actors propagating it fraudulently to bolster the flimsiest of western narratives has continued unabated – primarily as a result of the aforementioned “old media” organs endlessly promoting it.

In terms of the larger picture following the sarin attack, Washington was unable to come up with solid evidence to back up the claim that the Assad regime was responsible. What we got instead was smoke-and-mirrors. Obama claimed that the US government knew about preparations for the attack before it occurred. This sounded suspect, so it was telling that Hersh cites contacts in the U.S. intelligence and military that claim the U.S. government in fact had no such advance warning of the sarin attack. A high-level intelligence officer told Hersh that the administration' finger of blame pointed at Assad was 'a ruse.'

The Hersh article goes on to say:

A former senior intelligence official told me that the Obama administration had altered the available information – in terms of its timing and sequence – to enable the president and his advisers to make intelligence retrieved days after the attack look as if it had been picked up and analysed in real time, as the attack was happening. The distortion, he said, reminded him of the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, when the Johnson administration reversed the sequence of National Security Agency intercepts to justify one of the early bombings of North Vietnam. The same official said there was immense frustration inside the military and intelligence bureaucracy: ‘The guys are throwing their hands in the air and saying, “How can we help this guy” – Obama – “when he and his cronies in the White House make up the intelligence as they go along?”’

Then there was the administration-friendly claim put out in the New York Times with respect to the spent rockets. A World Socialist Web Site article says the NYT piece: "... purported to prove, based on an analysis of the flight path of two spent rockets believed to have carried sarin, that the shells had to have been fired from a Syrian army base more than nine kilometers from the target. He [Hersh] quotes Theodore Postol, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor of technology and national security who has advised the US naval chief of operations, calling the Times piece “totally nuts” because the range of the rockets was unlikely to have been more than two kilometers."

There is also the matter of the type of munitions used. Higgins said in a recent article that: "... we know not only that the Syrian government had the type of munitions used in the Aug. 21 attack, but that these munitions were in a position where they could have launched the sarin strike."

Yossef Bodansksy - senior editor, GIS/Defense and Foreign Affairs - has a different take on it. He had an article in Global Research in which he delves into the question of whether or not the rockets in question would have been deployed in this fashion by the Syrian military or for that matter the "kitchen" grade sarin that was used.


... the mangled projectiles shown by the opposition, and which were tested by the UN inspectors, are not standard weapons of the Syrian Armed Forces. These projectiles have very distinct ribbed-ring fins which are similar to projectiles used by the opposition in Aleppo, Damascus, and other fronts with both high-explosives and undefined materials. The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) retrieved a video claiming to be of the attack, but is most likely of a daylight testing of the launcher. The truck-mounted launcher included a chemical sleeve that was supposed to absorb leaks from the improvised warheads and not harm the launch crew; hardly the precaution taken with a military weapon.

Moreover, the warheads used in Damascus were cylindrical tanks which cracked and permitted a Tokyo-style mixture of liquids, rather than the pressurized mix and vaporization at the molecular level by the force of core explosion in a standard Soviet-style chemical warhead. Had Syrian militarily-trained experts built these warheads, they would have used the upper pipe for the core-charge the explosion of which would have created a significantly more lethal vaporized cloud of the toxic agent. The mere fact that the pipeline remained empty suggests the work of amateurs found in the ranks of the improvised weapon makers of the jihadist opposition.

Read more of the Bodansky article - here.

If indeed the regime was behind the attack we would expect to find evidence of industrial grade sarin given the regime's production capabilities. However a UK report by the Defence Science Technology Laboratory on the Ghouta attack stated that low grade or 'kitchen quality' sarin was found on the clothing of some of the victims. High grade military sarin is dangerous to be around, especially when it comes to handling affected victims. But there is video footage that shows Syrian responders handling those suffering from the symptoms of gas poisoning and the dead without gloves or other protective equipment with no apparent ill-effects. This further suggests the agent in question was slow acting "kitchen" sarin.

The manufacture and deployment of nerve agents by Jabhat-al-Nusra and allied rebel factions was denied by the U.S. administration when it zeroed in on the Assad regime as the culprit. This boiled down to denial-of-convenience because there have been a number of gas incidents in which rebel forces were the suspected perpetrators. UN human rights investigator, Carla del Ponte, used testimonies gathered from doctors and victims that strongly suggests sarin gas was used by the rebels. Del Ponte was quoted in the media saying that there was “... very strong suspicions, concrete suspicions that sarin gas has been used. Assistance to victims shows this.”
In this blog on June 13 of last year I posted on a report from the Turkish website Zaman that detailed the arrests of al-Nusra members who were allegedly planning to bomb Adana - a Turkish city with an Alevi community sympathetic to Bashar al-Assad. Turkish authorities claimed they seized chemicals and weapons. Despite this and other indicators of rebel involvement with chemicals the U.S. seemed to be out of the loop. In his article Seymour Hersh notes that Shawn Turner, head of public affairs for the ODNI, said that no American intelligence agency had assessed that the al-Nusra Front had succeeded in developing a capacity to manufacture sarin.

Moses Brown counters the quality argument on sarin by arguing that it could indeed have been manufactured in a regime facility and used quickly. In his view that and other factors could explain the impurities. But the counter argument isn't only that the rebels manufactured the sarin, but that it could have been acquired by other means. We know that opposition forces have obtained munitions in raids on government facilities and through other channels. They have in addition shown no lack of ingenuity and resourcefulness when it comes to rockets and launching equipment:

homemade rebel rockets
Cache of homemade rebel rockets

Syrian rebels use of rockets
Rebels load a rocket made from a gas canister into a launcher

Syrian rebels homemade rockets
Portable rocket launcher

The final UN findings on chemical weapons usage in Syria was published in December of 2013 but received little coverage in MSM. Not surprising perhaps because the UN report includes information that suggests rebel involvement in chemical weapon use.

The NYT published a piece on December that addressed the findings of the report. It said in part:

The report said the panel had corroborated “credible allegations” that chemical weapons were used in the first reported attack — a March 19 episode involving soldiers and civilians in Khan al-Assal in the country’s north. The investigators could not travel there, though, so verification was impossible.

... the panel of experts said, they interviewed medical and military personnel involved in the rescue operations at Khan al-Assal. The report said, “None of the parties in the Syrian Arab Republic denied the use of chemical weapons” in Khan al-Assal.

Syria also insisted that chemical weapons had been used against its soldiers after the Aug. 21 attack. The report said there was evidence supporting “the probable use of chemical weapons” in two episodes in the Damascus area — in Jobar on Aug. 24 and Ashrafiah Sahnaya on Aug. 25. In both cases, the report said, chemical weapons may have been used on “a relatively small scale against soldiers.”

The Ghouta "whodunnit" continues to perplex. Short of a smoking gun there are many circumstantial details and possible motivations that if not actual proof raise important questions. As many commentators have noted, it makes absolutely no sense for the Assad regime to have resorted to a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus area when the regime was making military headway against the opposition. Moreover it would have been insane to launch this attack with a UN weapons team in town - a presence that went along with heightened attention of the international community on this very chemical weapons issue. Assad well knew that a chemical weapons attack on this scale would risk western military intervention... moreover the stand-off with opposition forces around Damascus had not become sufficiently critical to warrant such a high-risk gamble. There are other factors that make a chemical attack by the regime unlikely. There was a wind at the time of the attack that could have caused drift and the potential of a nightmare scenario. The only possibility I see with respect to possible regime involvement is a mistake of some sort or alternatively a poorly planned and executed unilateral action that had unintended consequences.

On the other hand if anyone had a reason to stage the August 21 attack outside Damascus during a regime offensive and under the nose of a UN inspection team it was the opposition. Such a dramatic false flag attack staged under cover of a regime offensive may have been calculated to attract worldwide sympathy and support along with hardcore revulsion and demonization of the Assad regime. Hopes of sparking western military intervention would also have been a major motivation and what better time than an occasion when a UN team was in town.

Beneath is a video of the launching of a so-called UMLAKA or volcano rocket, the type of warhead used in the sarin attack. I'm posting the video to demonstrate the range of the rocket - especially in relation to the "captured UMLAKAs" theory. This rocket appears to have been fired from an area in the Qadam railway station. There has been some debate about the identity of the crew involved in the operation. In one source carrying the video the claim was made that the small flag closely resembled that of jihadist groups operating in Syria. Others see a close resemblance to the flag of the NDF. The interesting point illustrated by the video is the range of this particular type of rocket... calculated in this case as a little under 2 kilometers. This lends weight to claims that the August 21 attack was launched from rebel-held territory.

A number of compelling arguments have been made on whoghouta and other sites that suggest an opposition outfit was capable of both acquiring the rockets and sarin used in the attack, along with mounted launchers. Higgins and others have exaggerated the degree of difficulty in an effort to make the undertaking appear only within the capacity of regime forces. In stressing the logistical and manufacturing challenges these critics overlook the other ways in which materials could have been acquired... through raids, trafficking of materials and/or involvement of third parties.

Background information that needs to be addressed is the fact that on August 20 and 21 the Syrian regime was engaged in a large scale attack on the Ghouta area. This involved conventional artillery. The same night the attack was occurring, rockets with sarin warheads hit the Zamalka area  resulting in mass deaths and injuries. The sarin poisoning wasn't as widespread as some have imagined. Erroneous impressions arose due to the fact that victims of the gassing in Zamalka - which sustained by far the highest level of casualties- were transferred to various area hospitals.

According to Human Rights Watch 12 UMLAKA impact sites were reported in the Zamalka area. Investigation of the impact sites indicates that the trajectory tracked to points north with a flight path of around 2 kilometers. This places the launch site/sites in opposition territory, or arguably in contested territory - certainly not in exclusively regime controlled territory as previously claimed in western media reports. As for the possible launch site, there are open fields in the vicinity where the red triangle appears in the map beneath which would make an UMLAKA attack involving two trucks easier to coordinate.

Ghouta sarin attack map

As mentioned above, the sarin used was of inferior quality. Whoghouta site makes reference to the fact that eyewitnesses reported a strong odor after the strikes, whereas military grade sarin is odorless. The site also notes that a UN investigation found no evidence of the types of chemical stabilizers used in military nerve agents.

If you believe the attack was carried out by the regime, you would have to believe the following as laid out in point form on whoghouta:

1. The regime decided to carry out a large-scale sarin attack against a civilian population, despite (a) making steady gains against rebel positions, (b) receiving a direct threat from the US that the use of chemical weapons would trigger intervention, (c) having constantly assured their Russian allies that they will not use such weapons, (d) prior to the attack, only using non-lethal chemicals and only against military targets.

2. The regime pressed for a UN investigation of a prior chemical attack on Syrian troops, and then decided to launch the large-scale sarin attack at the time of the team's arrival, and at a nearby location.

3. To execute the attack they decided to (a) send forces into rebel-held area, where they are exposed to sniper fire from multiple directions, (b) use locally manufactured short-range rockets, instead of any of the long-range high quality chemical weapons in their arsenal, and (c) use low quality sarin.

For in-depth analysis read the findings on whoghouta's  conclusion page - here.

There is no proof as yet that points conclusively to the perpetrators of the Ghouta attack. There is questionable intelligence, a ton of speculative analysis, a YouTube trail and an MSM narrative that has led some to place the blame squarely on the regime, but no smoking gun. Judgment in advance of solid evidence is always a bad idea. Many an accused incarcerated on the basis of "overwhelming circumstantial evidence" turned out to be innocent when DNA testing came into play. When it comes to the Ghouta attack, the most a fair-minded approach can reasonably offer is a "likely scenario" based on what is available... unless of course you're prepared to take US intelligence at face value.

Washington's military plan was a casualty of hemorrhaging support, both internally and on the part of key allies, and also a casualty of widespread popular opposition to yet another American-led attack on an Arab nation based on suspect intelligence. Obama displayed not only appalling lack of judgment but a cynical willingness to manipulate the facts in order to back-up his red line rhetoric. In pulling back and taking it to Congress for a vote he was seeking to save face, not so much engaging in an exercise in high-minded democracy.