Objective appraisal of the facts shows 2013 gas attack was the work of Syrian rebels
The Russian air campaign in Syria has caused me to revisit an event of two years ago - the chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs that took place on 21st August 2013.
The US and other Western governments - notably those of Britain and France - were quick to blame the attack on the Syrian government.
Over the next few weeks these governments published a series of summaries by their intelligence agencies that supported this claim.
The US, Britain and France tried to use the attack as justification for air strikes on Syria.
The Russian government vigorously disputed the Western claims. It alleged the chemical weapons attack was the work of the Syrian rebels.
Following public protests, the defeat of the British government in a vote in the UK parliament, and the prospect of the US administration suffering a similar defeat in the House of Representatives, the attack was called off.
Instead the US - rather grudgingly - agreed to a Russian plan for Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal to be decommissioned.
The attack on the Damascus suburbs - known collectively as “Ghouta” - continued thereafter to be investigated by various UN agencies.
Interest in the affair however fell away. Whilst Western governments have never retracted their claim of Syrian government responsibility - Obama repeated that claim in his latest speech to the UN General Assembly - the passion has gone.
That paradoxically has given time and space for others to go over the evidence quietly and objectively, and to try to answer the question of who actually carried out the attack.
This brings me to a blog that I recently stumbled across and which is dedicated to answering this question. It seems to me a model for how a well-informed, objective and intelligent investigation of such a tragedy should be carried out.
Readers interested in the MH17 tragedy and the Ukrainian conflict will find on this blog many of the same commentators with whom they are already familiar.
Gleb Bazov - in my opinion the single most reliable reporter of the Ukrainian fighting - is there, as is the independent Finnish analyst and commentator Petri Kohn.
On the other side Elliott Higgins aka “Brown Moses” aka Bellingcat is also there. I notice by the way that he is now in full flood, offering his - wholly predictable - opinions on the Russian air campaign in Syria, and using his favoured geolocation technique to try to prove that Russian air strikes are not taking place where the Russians say they are.
The person who manages this blog extends to all the contributors the same courtesy, and is careful to take heed of all their arguments. He gives every impression of knowing what he is talking about, and clearly possesses - or has access to - high levels of technical knowledge, of the sort I do not have.
The blog’s clear conclusion is that the Ghouta attack was the work of the Syrian rebels, not of the Syrian government.
This conclusion is based on the following facts:
(1) the range and trajectory of the canisters and rockets that delivered the chemical agent (Sarin);
(2) the low quality of the chemical agent (Sarin) that was used in the attack, which points to it being produced in an underground rebel laboratory rather than it coming from Syrian army stocks;
(3) clear evidence that - contrary to Western claims - the Syrian rebels both possessed Sarin and carried out Sarin attacks on Syrian government troops before and just after the attack;
(4) the absence of any strong evidence (again refuting Western government claims) that the Syrian government ever carried out chemical weapon attacks prior to the Ghouta attack.
Calculations of their range and trajectory point to the rockets that delivered the Sarin canisters having been launched from a field in an area known to have been either under rebel control or contested by the government and the rebels - but in any event not controlled by the government.
About a month after the attack a video surfaced that appears to show a rebel unit in action, launching similar canisters and rockets, in the same field on the day of the tragedy.
There are doubts about the authenticity of this video (though the editor of the blog doesn't share them) and it is important to say that it does not show the chemical attack on Ghouta taking place. However, if it is genuine then it places a rebel unit in the location where the attack was launched on the day of the tragedy.
The blog is - rightly - careful in its discussion of motive.
The strong possibility the attack was a false flag attack is discussed and given its proper weight. However the blog raises the interesting possibility that the attack was caused by an error, and that the rebels thought they were targeting the Syrian army, which was carrying out an offensive in the area.
The blog refutes many of the stories that circulated in the days and weeks following the tragedy.
The radio intercepts upon which Western governments and intelligence agencies placed such reliance in the days immediately following the tragedy (they are clearly hinted at in the intelligence summaries and featured heavily in the media stories that were published at the time) are shown to have been - to put it mildly - unreliable.
Other claims advanced to prove the Syrian government’s responsibility - including some concerning Syrian troop movements - are shown to have no value.
The blog also refutes claims made by some of those who claimed at the time the attack was carried out by the rebels.
In particular the blog shows that the claim the attack was carried out as part of a plot organised by Turkish intelligence is almost certainly untrue. It seems clear Turkish intelligence was not involved, and that Saudi intelligence probably wasn't involved either.
Though the case the blog makes is circumstantial, it is compelling, and it convinces me.
As the blog correctly point out, its conclusions are basically in accord with the information provided by intelligence sources to the US investigative journalists, Seymour Hersh and Robert Parry. The results of its analysis of the range of the rockets used in the attack is identical to that of a later study carried out by experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In light of all this, I think it is now possible to say definitely that the Ghouta attack was the work of the armed rebel opposition to the Syrian government, and was not the work of the Syrian government as Western governments claimed at at the time and since.
That however leads to a host of disturbing questions.
Western governments are at present claiming a moral equivalence between President Assad and the Islamic State to support their demand he should go, and to criticise the Russians for supporting him.
Their grounds for doing so are that he is a murderous psychopath who gasses his people, as they say he did at Ghouta on 21st August 2013.
It now seems that is untrue.
If that is untrue, then the single most important fact behind the charge against President Assad - that he is a murderous psychopath who gasses his people - falls away, putting the whole charge in question.
If the charge is however wrong, then the whole Western claim of moral equivalence between President Assad and the Islamic State collapses, in which case Western publics might conclude that Russia is right to support President Assad after all.
Either way, Western publics need to be told, so that they can arrive at an informed opinion based on the facts.
Western governments and Western media are however not telling Western publics the full facts.
They are not telling them that the claim that President Assad gassed his people in Ghouta on 21st August 2013 has been refuted, even though it beggars belief that they - or at the very least their intelligence services - don’t know it.
On the contrary, President Obama in his UN speech again said President Assad was responsible for the attack on Ghouta, and the Western media routinely continue to say it.
Though Elliott Higgins’s claims of Assad’s culpability are still accorded respect - as are his claims generally - no part of the Western mainstream media has to my knowledge ever so much as mentioned the existence of the blog - though it beggars belief they don’t know about it - despite it so effectively refuting the claim of President Assad's culpability, and even though a cursory reading of the blog shows that it is a far better informed and far more objective source of information on the Ghouta attack than Elliott Higgins ever was.
Lastly - and most worrying of all - is the comments the blog is peppered with casting doubt on the conduct of the UN investigation.
It is not that the UN investigators deliberately fabricate evidence.
It is rather that they are selective in the way they present the evidence, making it possible for it be repeatedly misrepresented to suggest culpability by the Syrian government, when an objective assessment of the evidence shows the opposite.
The blog does not shy away from use of the word "manipulation". Based on what I have read in the blog, I am forced to agree.
It is difficult to avoid comparisons with MH17.
The evidence in the MH17 case is many orders of magnitude more complex and difficult than the evidence in the Ghouta tragedy.
It is difficult however to avoid the feeling that if Western governments and media have such a ruthless attitude to the truth in the Ghouta case, then they might have an equally ruthless attitude to the truth in the MH17 case.
Certainly if the Ghouta story tells us anything, it is that what Western governments and media tell us about a tragedy like this simply cannot be relied upon.
As for the concerns the blog expresses about the conduct of the Ghouta investigation, they are uncomfortably close to the doubts I and others have repeatedly expressed about the way the two investigations into the MH17 tragedy are being conducted.
I would finish by drawing attention to a recent article published by Russia Insider written by someone who calls himself Shellback.
Shellback is someone familiar with the world of intelligence gathering. He thinks there may be signs that members of the Western intelligence community - or at least of the US intelligence community - are becoming increasingly disaffected at the Obama administration’s constant manipulation and misuse of intelligence material for geopolitical purposes.
I believe Shellback is right. I am not familiar with the world of intelligence gathering. However I have been noticing similar signs myself. In particular the amount of information Seymour Hersh has recently been getting from recently retired intelligence officers is off the scale. That points to many people in the intelligence community becoming increasingly unhappy.
Unlike Shellback I have only known three people who were former intelligence officers. All three were British and all three were retired. They all impressed me as men of the highest integrity. Though I questioned some of their judgements, the idea they would willingly be party to the manipulation of intelligence seems to me inconceivable.
Deliberate misuse or misrepresentation of intelligence can have very serious political and legal consequences if it is ever discovered. It seems to me that some people in Washington - and London and Paris - are flying very close to the wind. They should be careful.
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