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Questioning The Narrative Around Alleged Chemical Attack In Syria Is Not Fringe

Days after a suspected chemical attack in Syria, the very expression of doubt around what President Donald Trump’s administration claims happened is marginalized as “far-left” or “far-right.” That skepticism is treated as fringe is confounding, as if numerous people forgot all governments lie and are especially prone to lying for the purpose of generating support for the use of military force.

A terrible act or incident definitely took place on April 4. Some chemical, likely a neurotoxin, spread and killed over 70 people, including children. Doctors Without Borders staff described examining eight people, who “display symptoms consistent with exposure to an agent such as sarin gas or similar compounds, including constricted pupils, muscle spasms, and involuntary defecation.”

But without any completed fact-finding investigation to confirm doctors’ suspicions, Trump authorized a 50-plus Tomahawk missile attack on the Shayrat Airbase in retaliation. Officials effectively sought to foreclose any investigation into whether Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s regime or an al Qaida-affiliated group in control of the area was the culprit.

There was no effort by the Trump administration to go to Congress and show senators and representatives evidence related to how a chemical spread through Khan Sheikhoun. Nor did Trump address citizens and articulate proof of what happened in Syria to communicate the gravity of the situation; in particular, that there was a strong likelihood the administration would respond with a show of force before the week was over.

Plenty of reasonable questions existed around media reports on the alleged chemical attack. Who were the sources of eyewitness reports on the alleged attack?

The Tahrir al-Sham alliance “dominated by the Fateh al-Sham Front, formerly known as the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front,” controls Idlib, the province where the alleged attack occurred. They have ways of controlling what information goes out and who puts out information from the area to the world. So, were any of the sources affiliated with this alliance? Did they have affiliations with other militant groups?

What kind of stockpiles of chemical weapons did militant groups in the Idlib province possess prior to April 4?

Idlib is one of the last remaining strongholds for the opposition against Assad. Were United States intelligence officials and other world leaders certain that groups in Idlib did not possess sarin gas or other similar toxic materials? How certain?

What interest would President Bashar al Assad have in deploying chemical agents against civilians when Syrian government forces are roundly defeating opposition forces?

Unfortunately, journalists, politicians, campaign operatives, and a select group of activists determined such questions amount to quackery in its purest form. There even is a contingent of left-leaning people, who have observed how neo-Nazis like Richard Spencer do not believe Assad gassed civilians.

Because neo-Nazis are skeptical of Trump, they argue it is borderline fascist or Nazi to question the Trump administration’s narrative.

Fringe Questions With No Place In Mainstream Discourse

Beirut-based journalist Annia Ciezadlo wrote a column for the Washington Post, “Why would Assad use sarin in a war he’s winning? To terrify Syrians.” The intent was to show this is a fringe question that has no place in mainstream discourse.

“We still don’t know exactly what happened in Syria and who was responsible,” wrote the far-left writer and commentator Rania Khalek on Twitter, “but fact remains that Syrian govt gains nothing from a CW attack.” The far-right conservative commentator and talk-radio host Michael Savage put it more succinctly: “Now what would Assad have gained by doing that? Is he stupid?”

In the increasingly influential world of conspiracy websites like Infowars, this simple question — and the lack of definitive answers — has managed to sow doubt. As it spread online, the idea that Assad had nothing to gain from a chemical attack fed into a vortex of claims that the Khan Sheikhoun gas attack was a false flag, an elaborate hoax designed to justify a U.S. military intervention in Syria. President Trump’s missile strikes on April 6, and his administration’s abrupt about-face on the question of regime change, have only bolstered that theory.

It is telling that Ciezadlo attributed the prevalence of this particular question to the influence of Infowars. Journalists have an obligation to scrutinize what happened instead of rallying around a dominant narrative. The collective and consistent failure of press institutions to challenge government is why a website like Infowars is able to fill a void and spread claims of hoaxes.

The New York Times published a piece that was similar. “Syria Conspiracy Theories Flourish, at Both Ends Of the Spectrum” emphasized that websites like Infowars called the alleged chemical attack a “false flag” while “liberal blogs have pointed to the strike as evidence of ‘wag the dog’ diversion tactics.”

The Times wrongly attributed “speculation” to Information Clearing House, which is an aggregator of commentary. The column cited came from Paul Antonopoulos, deputy editor of Al-Masdar News, which is frequently accused of being a pro-Syrian government media outlet. So the Times fumbled this attempt to set the confines of what is acceptable discussion around the alleged chemical attack.

It is lazy and stupid to suggest skepticism originates from the fringes, however, let’s admit such an argument does serve the interests of the Trump administration and military industrial-complex quite well.

A Former UN Weapons Inspector’s Rather Persuasive Counter-Narrative

One of the most compelling pieces questioning the official version of events was written by Scott Ritter, a former United Nations weapons inspector who prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq said there was no evidence Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

Ritter notes sarin is “odorless, colorless material, dispersed as either a liquid or vapor.” Individuals who said they were eyewitnesses spoke of a “pungent odor” and “blue-yellow” clouds that more closely matched chlorine gas. He also refers to the images of “White Helmet” rescuers treating victims infected by the gas and questions why they were handling victims without protective clothing that would prevent military-grade sarin from harming them.

At least 20 victims of the incident were treated in Turkish hospitals and three died there. “According to the Turkish Justice Minister, autopsies conducted on the bodies confirm that the cause of death was exposure to chemical agents. The World Health Organization has indicated that the symptoms of the Khan Sheikhoun victims are consistent with both Sarin and Chlorine exposure.”

“American media outlets have latched onto the Turkish and WHO statements as ‘proof’ of Syrian government involvement; however, any exposure to the chlorine/white phosphorous blend associated with al Nusra chemical weapons would produce similar symptoms,” Ritter contends.

“Moreover, if al Nusra was replicating the type of low-grade Sarin it employed at Ghouta in 2013 at Khan Sheikhoun, it is highly likely that some of the victims in question would exhibit Sarin-like symptoms,” Ritters asserts. “Blood samples taken from the victims could provide a more precise readout of the specific chemical exposure involved; such samples have allegedly been collected by Al Nusra-affiliated personnel, and turned over to international investigators (the notion that any serious investigatory body would allow Al Nusra to provide forensic evidence in support of an investigation where it is one of only two potential culprits is mindboggling, but that is precisely what has happened).”

Yet, as Ritter acknowledges, the Trump administration acted before the samples were processed.

Ritter also soberly considers the possibility that a building bombed on April 4 was producing or storing chemical weapons. He notes that a pro-ISIS group, Liwa al Aqsa was engaged in a violent struggle against al Nusra up until February 2017, and the Russian Ministry of Defense previously claimed the group used facilities near Khan Sheikhoun to “manufacture crude chemical shells and landmines intended for ISIS forces fighting in Iraq.”

“Al Nusra has a long history of manufacturing and employing crude chemical weapons; the 2013 chemical attack on Ghouta made use of low-grade Sarin nerve agent locally synthesized, while attacks in and around Aleppo in 2016 made use of a chlorine/white phosphorous blend,” Ritter wrote.  “If the Russians are correct, and the building bombed in Khan Sheikhoun on the morning of April 4, 2017 was producing and/or storing chemical weapons, the probability that viable agent and other toxic contaminants were dispersed into the surrounding neighborhood, and further disseminated by the prevailing wind, is high.

Ritter and several other former U.S. intelligence officials from the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) issued a “memo” questioning whether a chemical weapons attack occurred.

These individuals are not a bunch of cranks opportunistically out to win over subscribers to some website by providing them baseless and convoluted theories that will resonate with an embittered audience. The group was established in January 2003 after it was concluded Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld ordered their former colleagues to manufacture intelligence for war in Iraq.

The former officials who signed on to the memo urged, as they did after Secretary of State Colin Powell’s infamous speech to the United Nations, that Trump go “beyond the circle of those advisers clearly bent on a war for which we see no compelling reason and from which we believe the unintended consequences are likely to be catastrophic.”

White House Report Fails To Resolve Key Questions

On April 11, the White House released a white paper that supposedly contained the administration’s best evidence that Assad’s regime was behind the alleged chemical attack. Most U.S. press apparently took this as another indication that there was no reason to doubt that Assad gassed civilians. But it fails to resolve many of the questions that remain outstanding.

“The Syrian regime maintains the capability and intent to use chemical weapons against the opposition to prevent the loss of territory deemed critical to its survival,” according to the document. “We assess that Damascus launched this chemical attack in response to an opposition offensive in northern [Hama] Province that threatened key infrastructure. Senior regime military leaders were probably involve in planning the attack.”

Except, the Syrian government does not control Khan Sheikhoun in the Idlib province, where the alleged attack occurred. The al Qaida affiliate formerly known as al Nusra does.

What key infrastructure? How would launching chemical weapons prevent militant groups from destroying infrastructure? Would that not create chaos that would benefit groups intent to carry out destruction?

The document adds, “Our information indicates that the chemical agent was delivered by regime Su-22 fixed-wing aircraft that took off from the regime-controlled Shayrat Airfield. These aircraft were in the vicinity of Khan Shaykhun approximately 20 minutes before reports of the chemical attack began and vacated the area shortly after the attack.”

Where this information came from is important. Is it social media? Just prior to this graph, the document references “pro-opposition social media reports.”

“Additionally, our information indicates personnel historically associated with Syria’s chemical weapons program were at Shayrat Airfield in late March making preparations for an upcoming attack in Northern Syria, and they were present at the airfield on the day of the attack.”

Does the Trump administration mean someone, who was involved in the program before the United States and Russia sought to disarm Syria of stockpiles, was present at the Shayrat Airfield? If yes, that does not unequivocally prove anything substantial.

Crater Referenced By White House: More Reason To Doubt The Narrative

Perhaps, the most important sentences in the paper refer to “open source video,” which the administration believes shows where the “chemical munition landed.” It was “in the middle of a street in the northern section of Khan Sheikhoun,” not a facility with weapons. “Commercial satellite imagery of that site from April 6, after the allegation, shows a crater in the road that corresponds to the open source video.”

Theodore Postol, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor of science, technology, and international security, raised significant questions about this supposed evidence.

I have located this crater using Google Earth and there is absolutely no evidence that the crater was created by a munition designed to disperse sarin after it is dropped from an aircraft,” Postol declared. “The data cited by the White House is more consistent with the possibility that the munition was placed on the ground rather than dropped from a plane.”

“This conclusion assumes that the crater was not tampered with prior to the photographs. However, by referring to the munition in this crater, the White House is indicating that this is the erroneous source of the data it used to conclude that the munition came from a Syrian aircraft.”

Postol does not work on the staff of Infowars nor is he seeking to convince Alex Jones to make him a regular co-host on his own show. In fact, Postol previously criticized the narrative around the chemical attack in Ghouta in 2013 and has garnered praise for his work criticizing the government’s claims about missile defense.

“Analysis of the debris as shown in the photographs cited by the White House clearly indicates that the munition was almost certainly placed on the ground with an external detonating explosive on top of it that crushed the container as to disperse the alleged load of sarin,” Postol argues.

Postol refers to a “dispenser,” a pipe that the Trump administration claims was used to spread a chemical agent.

An “explosive acted on the pipe as a blunt crushing mallet. It drove the pipe into the ground while at the same time creating the crater. Since the pipe was filled with sarin, which is an incompressible fluid, as the pipe was flattened, the sarin acted on the walls and ends of the pipe causing a crack along the length of the pipe and also the failure of the cap on the back end.”

“If this is in fact the mechanism used to disperse the sarin, this indicates that the sarin tube was placed on the ground by individuals on the ground and not dropped from an airplane,” Postol concluded.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry raised more questions. “It remains a mystery why this intelligence assessment is not coming directly from President Trump’s intelligence chiefs as is normally the case, either with an official Intelligence Estimate or a report issued by the Director of National Intelligence.”

The Trump administration “withheld key evidence to support its core charge that a Syrian warplane dropped sarin,” Perry wrote.” It refused to release satellite surveillance of the area to protect “sources and methods,” the standard excuse for opaqueness by government. But Parry noted the world already knows the U.S. has satellite intelligence capabilities.

“The dossier also seems argumentative in that it assumes that Russian officials—and presumably others—who have suggested different possible explanations for the incident at Khan Sheikdoun did so in a willful cover-up, when any normal investigation seeks to evaluate different scenarios before settling on one,” Parry added.

Such a doltish attitude has filtered down from within the halls of power to infect all discourse around whatever happened in Syria. The attitude has been encouraged by proponents of so-called humanitarian intervention, who would like the administration to use way more military force than it has thus far in order to assist the rebels in their efforts to remove Assad from power.

What percentage of people asking questions do so with the intention of helping a tyrant cover up alleged war crimes? Or is it possible the skepticism comes from a place of concern around what may happen if Trump is successfully provoked into funneling more arms and military forces into Syria?

All one has to do is briefly examine Libya to see what may happen if the U.S. government follows through with an agenda of regime change by military force. Instead of calming tensions so a political solution can be obtained, which may include Assad’s resignation, there will be even longer term dysfunction and violence as multiple militant factions setup governments and fight each other for control over the country.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."