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    Middle East
     Dec 10, '13

Syria sarin report blows holes in US claims
By Victor Kotsev

The United States nearly went to war over the use of chemical weapons in Syria a few months ago - and then backed off, ostensibly swayed by Russia's initiative to have the Syrian government's chemical stockpile shipped out and destroyed - but those who had been saying all along that the White House version of the story was highly problematic just received a major boost from Pulitzer-prize winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh.

On Sunday, Hersh, who previously exposed the American atrocities at My Lai during the Vietnam War and in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, published a lengthy report in the London Review of Books [1] charging that US President Barack Obama and his top officials had mislead the world with their statements, most notably in two respects: when they claimed that they had strong evidence

implicating the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in an August 21 chemical weapons attack near the capital Damascus that killed hundreds of civilians, and when they claimed they had no evidence that any of the rebel groups in the country had any chemical weapons or expertise.

Hersh sourced some of his information to "recent interviews with intelligence and military officers and consultants past and present" and described how, in the wake of the August attack, the Obama administration "cherry-picked intelligence to justify a strike against Assad". The White House fed a carefully manipulated story to the public and the media, Hersh asserted, comparing this process to how both the Vietnam War and the Iraq War started.

He reported that despite what was implied by American officials on several occasions, the US had no advance warning of the attack. Several important intelligence sources that had previously provided sensitive information about the Syrian chemical weapons sites, including a sophisticated sensor network operated jointly with Israel, were either countered by the Syrians or simply did not detect any activity. Instead, the American intelligence community started frantically sifting through immense volumes of stored communication intercepts after the attack took place, looking above all for ways to implicate the Assad regime.

"This does not lead to a high confidence assessment, unless you start with high confidence that Bashar Assad ordered it, and began looking for anything that supports that belief," Hersh quoted a former high-ranking intelligence official as saying - an assessment that is hard to disagree with.

Bits and pieces of this information have appeared elsewhere - for example, in a recent Wall Street Journal report, which claimed that the intelligence had not been translated into English until after the attack and suggested that Assad may not have known about it while his commanders in the field "may have simply gotten sloppy". Similarly to other mainstream media, however, the Wall Street Journal presented the intelligence linking the regime to the attack as more or less flawless. [2]

Hersh, on the other hand, challenged this link, pointing out, among other things, that the United Nations report about the attack had stated clearly that the evidence its team examined could have been "manipulated" by the rebels and asserting that the Obama administration had made up its information that the Assad regime had distributed gas masks to its troops prior to the attack.

But by far his most damning allegation Hersh made was that American officials had withheld evidence from the public that the al-Qaeda jihadists in Syria had both access to chemical weapons materials and the know-how to mix and use them in battle.

Shortly before the attack, a top intelligence consultant reportedly told Hersh, an Iraqi chemical weapons expert affiliated with al-Qaeda had moved precisely to the area where it took place. "An intelligence document issued in mid-summer dealt extensively with Ziyaad Tariq Ahmed, a chemical weapons expert formerly of the Iraqi military, who was said to have moved into Syria and to be operating in Eastern Ghouta," Hersh wrote.

But though top American officials on several occasions ruled out the possibility that rebels had carried out the attack, Hersh reported that they had plenty of intelligence reports available to them saying that the jihadists were capable of it.

"In the months before the attack," he wrote, "the American intelligence agencies produced a series of highly classified reports, culminating in a formal Operations Order - a planning document that precedes a ground invasion - citing evidence that the al-Nusra Front, a jihadi group affiliated with al-Qaeda, had mastered the mechanics of creating [the poisonous gas] sarin and was capable of manufacturing it in quantity."

To be fair, neither is the information about rebel possession of chemical weapons completely new, though it largely has not made it into the major Western media. A group of Nusra militants (one of the main al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria) was caught in Turkey in May with sarin and sarin precursors. Somewhat comically, they all reportedly claimed they had no idea that the chemicals they had been mixing would produce a deadly chemical weapon. [3]

Even the famous UN investigator Carla del Ponte admitted in May, three months prior to the August attack, that there were strong indication rebels had used sarin in the field. [4]

But though it doesn't directly exonerate Assad's forces from responsibility for the attack, Hersh's report blows major holes into the narrative circulated by the White House and retold by most of the major international news outlets. It strongly suggests that more important revelations are waiting to be made, both about the circumstances of the August 21 incident and about the intense diplomacy that followed it.

1. Whose sarin?, London Review of Books, December 8, 2013.
2. As Syrian Chemical Attack Loomed, Missteps Doomed Civilians, Wall Street Journal, November 22, 2013.
3. Detained al-Nusra members say chemicals not for making sarin gas, Zaman, September 13, 2013.
4. UN's Del Ponte says evidence Syria rebels 'used sarin', BBC, May 6, 2013.

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst.

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