Over 70 people in Syria were killed and hundreds were injured on April 4 in what has been widely reported as a chemical attack.
Videos vividly captured children frothing at the mouth or struggling to breathe. It sparked a massive global outcry, and United States President Donald Trump asserted the attack went “beyond red lines,” as if greater U.S. military intervention was now on the table.
But there currently is no scientific confirmation of the type of agent that was used because no investigation has been completed. It is unclear whether the Syrian government, the Islamic State, or an al Qaida-linked group was responsible for what happened. The nature of the war also makes it highly unlikely that an objective and neutral organization will be able to uncover the culprit.
How do media outlets conclusively know that the source of the alleged attack came from President Bashar al Assad’s regime?
The answer matters. While the Assad regime is responsible for war crime and crimes against humanity, the regime and Russia have supposedly focused on eradicating Syria of jihadist forces that largely make up the opposition fighting the Syrian government.
Last week, President Trump’s administration recently signaled there was a “political reality” in Syria the U.S. would have to accept. It indicated the Trump administration was abandoning the goal of pushing Assad to leave power.
But with this alleged chemical attack, that could all change. So is it important to know with certainty that Assad was responsible or is the widespread prejudgment acceptable enough to green-light a hugely significant escalation in U.S. military involvement?
Very few media outlets source claims that the government was responsible for the attack. Reuters quoted Hussam Salloum, “a volunteer with an air raid warning service in rebel-held areas.” Salloum said a Sukhoi-22 aircraft attacked at “low altitude.” It left “behind three columns of dark smoke and the white cloud nearer to ground level.”
He told multiple outlets the warplane dropped “three conventional explosive bombs.” A fourth “made little sound on impact but produced a cloud of smoke.”
“The smoke was white and thick,” Salloum told Reuters from Khan Sheikhoun. “The smoke began to spread out across the town, until there was a layer over the town.”
At the moment, Salloum is the only eyewitness who claims to have seen the attack. He was at an observation point in Idlib, one of the few remaining rebel-held areas. Does he play a role in the opposition at all?
“The most powerful elements in Idlib,” according to ABC Middle East correspondent Matt Brown, are Ahrar al Sham, which “has tried to soften its Salafist image and court favor with the west,” and Jabhat Fateh al Sham (JFS), which renounced links to its founding organization, al Qaida, in the middle of 2016.
So the question is: does Salloum have some affiliation with Ahrar al Sham or JFS? That is certainly something media outlets should ask and want to know when reporting on the conflict and not because Salloum deserves to be demonized in the world media. Rather, this should be asked because there is propaganda and fabrication from the government and opposition, as there is to some degree in any conflict.
CNN quoted Anas al-Diab, an activist with the Aleppo Media Center (AMC), who told the outlet that an airstrike hit the town center and emitted a “poisonous gas.” Al-Diab did not say he witnessed the attack.
The Aleppo Media Center was responsible for making a photograph of the “boy in the ambulance” or the “Dusty Boy” of Aleppo go viral in Western media. The photographer was Mahmoud Raslan.
Raslan posed with “child-killers” responsible for the infamous beheading of a 12 year-old Palestinian boy that the Zenki militant group captured in Aleppo. He also has publicly praised suicide bombers, according to The Canary.
The media did not really ask any questions about the photographer responsible for the iconic image of the Boy In The Ambulance. But reports should feature more details on individuals like Raslan or al Diab for the precise reason articulated by The Canary:
It is a sad testament to the complexities and ironies of the seemingly endless war in Syria that even some of its most celebrated photographers would associate with child-killers while at the same time attempting to illuminate the tragic plight of children in the country.
Syria has produced the ugliest of all propaganda wars, in which all sides now compete to place before the world the most iconic and moving images of suffering. This fact should make us wary and cautiously critical, not of the innocent children featured in such images, but of the motives of those who glorify brutality one day while snapping pictures of its victims the next.
Alas, there is no wariness or cautious criticism in media reports on the alleged chemical attack.
Dr. Shajul Islam posted videos of himself reporting on the incident. He is widely quoted in Western media. What no outlet reports is the fact that Islam was accused of involvement in the kidnapping of British journalist John Cantlie and British photographer Jeroen Oerlemans. The case against him collapsed when the prosecution was unable to call Cantlie and Oerlemans as prosecution witnesses.
Hussein Kayal, a photographer for the pro-opposition Edlib Media Center (EMC), and Mohammed Hassoun, a media activist in the nearby town of Sarmin, were quoted by the Associated Press. Neither witnessed the attack. Kayal heard the “sound of a bomb blast.”
The New York Times quoted “witnesses” to the attack. Although, that is slightly misleading. They witnessed the effects on civilians caused by whatever agent spread. None in the report saw the bombs drop or the alleged white smoke. [And, again, who are these witnesses the Times spoke with? Do they have affiliations with any rebel groups?]
A few outlets spoke with experts like Dan Kaszata of Strongpoint Security, a London-based company that assessed that the Syrian government was the “most likely source” of the alleged chemical attack. But that scarcely proves anything because Kaszata has no firsthand information.
The same goes for Gregory Koblentz, the director of a biodefense graduate program at George Mason University. He told the USA Today a military-grade nerve agent may have been used. However, Koblentz has not analyzed any trace materials. He cannot confirm or deny any information related to the type of chemical, which spread.
Of course, there were anonymous U.S. officials from intelligence or defense agencies, which alleged Assad’s fingerprints were all over the incident.
One may argue there is no way that any of the al Qaeda-linked groups could possibly have sarin gas or the type of chemical agents that had such a severe toll on civilians.
What kind of stockpiles of chemical weapons might the militant groups, which control Idlib, possess? It’s unclear.
Yet, there are enough questions and tidbits of information that point to the distinct possibility that some of these militants fighting the Assad regime have chemical weapons. That means it is not outlandish, nor insensitive to the civilians most impacted by the war, to express interest in getting to the bottom of which group is responsible for the deadly attack.
The Russian government and Assad regime have both suggested a factory site of some kind may have exploded with a chemical stockpile. It is impossible to know. Absent a credible investigation, there is no way to confirm or deny whether some factory explosion contaminated civilians.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) oversees compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Syria signed in 2013 following an alleged sarin gas attack near Damascus. It started the process of overseeing destruction of chemical weapons in the regime’s possession.
A press release indicated, “The OPCW’s Fact Finding Mission (FFM) is in the process of gathering and analyzing information from all available sources. The FFM will report its findings to the OPCW’s Executive Council and States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention.”
“The OPCW strongly condemns the use of chemical weapons by anyone, anywhere and under any circumstances.”
It did not conclusively state that the Syrian government was responsible.
What interest would President Bashar al Assad have in using chemical agents on civilians when Syrian government forces are roundly defeating opposition forces? Much of the world is already aligned against him. Attacking women and children with gas would have a far greater propaganda value for struggling jihadist groups formerly affiliated with al Qaida.
Those rightfully appalled by the crimes of the Assad regime desire greater military intervention; to see the U.S. government and other allies of rebel groups go further than arming the rebels (with weapons which have ended up in the hands of extremist militias that have worsened the conflict).
Trump has escalated military operations in Iraq to a degree that has hugely increased civilian deaths in the war against Islamic State militants. He is willing to lift minimal constraints on the U.S. military and fully embraces an ends-justifies-the-means approach to warfare. That same approach will be used if the U.S. seizes the moment to intervene more aggressively.
Furthermore, sending in more U.S. forces to fight alongside the opposition (which includes jihadist groups formerly affiliated with al Qaida) will plunge the U.S. deeper into a conflict against Russia. The destabilizing impact of such a move has to be fully contemplated.
While the images and videos of children struggling to breathe and survive is sickening, there must be some sober consideration about the realities on the ground in Syria. The truth is hard to come by because both the Syrian regime and several of the militant groups involved in the opposition have records of spreading propaganda and manipulating facts. It is up to the press to be more careful in scrutinizing information so the country does not become further destroyed by the deployment of more military forces, even if those forces are supposedly humanitarian.