Whenever there is a widely publicized atrocity in a country gripped by civil war, followed by an orgy of the pornography of compassion, it is sensible to ask cui bono and to examine all evidence in minute detail. When an incident is immediately used as grist for the interventionist mill, it is reasonable to assume that we are dealing with a false flag operation, just like the February 1994 Markale market explosion in Sarajevo —which a secret UN report blamed on the Muslim side—or else with an outright lie, like the 1990 false testimony of “nurse” Nayirah about Iraqi soldiers taking dozens of Kuwaiti babies out of incubators and leaving them to die. The Racak “massacre” that preceded the U.S.-led NATO aggression against Serbia in 1999—staged by the KLA and William Walker for the benefit of the Clinton-Albright war machine—is another prime example of the genre.
The incident at Ghouta, a suburb just outside Damascus, was not a lie—that many people have died is beyond dispute—but there is plenty of evidence, circumstantial as well as factual, that it was staged by the rebels in order to provoke Western military intervention. The timing is the first clue. A team of UN inspectors arrived in Damascus on August 18 to investigate earlier claims of gas attacks. On August 21 the rebels announced that government forces had used poison gas to kill hundreds of civilians earlier that morning, and released a series of gruesome videos to support the claim.
Like Bashar al-Assad or hate him, he is not an idiot. Even if the use of poison gas at Ghouta had made military sense—which decidedly it did not—he would have told his commanders not to even think of using it with the team of experts on chemical weapons encamped only a few miles away. Letting them do it three days after the UN team’s arrival would have been outright insane.
Having gained the upper hand in the military conflict in recent months, Assad does not need gas. He did not use it not because he is necessarily horrified at the thought of its effects but because its use makes no sense. In view of his string of recent battlefield successes, using gas would have been strategically unnecessary, tactically irrelevant, and politically suicidal. The Allawite-officered army is doing quite nicely with their conventional arsenal. In a conflict that has killed tens of thousands by small arms and artillery fire, a barrage of sarin causing a few hundred civilian deaths would not have been a rational option.
The only party interested in fabricating nerve gas stories are the rebels. They have everything to gain and nothing to lose from staging a stunt. Their rating in the West had fallen somewhat in the months preceding Ghouta, what with all those mass executions of POWs, public beheadings of alleged Assad supporters—not to mention that one episode of cannibalism—all lovingly videotaped, to the usual background chants of Allahu akbar. Intervening on the rebel side was made additionally difficult with the confirmation of Assad’s claim of long standing that most of his foes were seasoned jihadists, many of them foreigners, who had gained valuable combat experience fighting Americans and their allies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Atrocity management was the obvious solution to the rebels’ image problem. “In order to secure international support for the rebels,” my friend Scott Taylor wrote on Monday, “Assad would need to do something so stupid, so diabolical, and so dastardly that the world would have no choice but to choose Al Qaida as the lesser of two evils.”
IT IS REMARKABLE that nobody in the mainstream media or inside the Beltway seems to remember two similar stunts, staged in May and July of last year in the Syrian villages of Houla and Tremseh, respectively. Back then, the rebels and their Western abettors had put together what they believed were key ingredients needed for the pendulum to swing their way. The rebels provided what looked like a sizeable slaughter of civilians at Houla. The mainstream media used the “massacre” to paint the insurgency as a fully-fledged civil war between two sides, one virtuous, the other utterly evil, and to assert that intervention is a moral imperative and a test of American “leadership.”
When it transpired that the accompanying photograph of dead bodies in Houla had been made in Iraq some years previously, the rebels and their Western abettors were quiet for a few weeks and then came up with a new one. The killings in Tremseh were “unlike any massacre that has previously occurred in Syria,” The New York Times claimed two months later. “People had their throats slit,” Agence France Presse reported, and—proof positive—pro-Bashar graffiti adorned the blood-stained walls. London’s Guardian quoted an opposition activist who claimed that “every family in the town seems to have members killed” by Bashar’s Allawite militia. British foreign secretary William Hague called it a “shocking and appalling atrocity.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed outrage at “another [sic!] massacre committed by the Syrian regime that has claimed the lives of over 200 men, women, and children.” There was no intervention, however, because Tremseh was also stitched together too clumsily: subsequent agency reports revealed that the number of civilians killed by shelling “was not more than seven,” while the rest belonged to the “Free Syrian Army.” More importantly, Obama did not want to risk a tricky foreign entanglement only months before the presidential election.
SO FAR THE REACTIONS to whatever happened at Ghouta have followed an equally predictable pattern. The mainstream media is performing on cue: Assad’s culpability is taken for granted and treated as casus belli. “History says don’t do it,” wrote a Washington Post columnist. “Most Americans say don’t do it. But President Obama has to punish Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s homicidal regime with a military strike—and hope that history and the people are wrong.” Openly advocating war crimes, The Financial Times declared that “a strike directed straight at the Syrian dictator and his family” is the best military option for the U.S. and that “all of their official or unofficial residences” should be targeted: “The use of chemical weapons against one's own citizens plumbs depths of barbarity matched in recent history only by Saddam Hussein. A civilized world cannot tolerate it. It must demonstrate that the penalty for it will be acutely personal and inescapably fatal.” Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, told CNN that a U.S. strike on Syria was in the works, with or without U.N. Security Council backing, because military action was needed “to underscore the principle, the norm, the taboo that these weapons ought to have.”
The hawks on the Hill have reacted with mathematical predictability. Invoking Kenneth Adelman’s unforgettable mot (“Liberating Iraq would be a cakewalk”), Sen. John McCain told the CNN that military intervention in Syria could be launched quickly and easily by destroying Assad’s runways and aircraft, swiftly arming rebels, and establishing a no-fly zone. “There would be no boots on the ground,” he said. “We would use standoff weapons just as the Israelis have four times as they’ve taken out targets inside Syria. We would not put a single life at risk.” Presumably McCain does not count Syrian lives as “lives.”
Similar reactions came from various foreign sources. Always the über-hawk, former British prime minister “Tony” Blair called on the West to intervene militarily. “Western policy is at a crossroads: commentary or action,” he wrote in The Times of London, “shaping events or reacting to them.” Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu said that if Assad is not punished, Iran will be encouraged to develop nuclear weapons: “Syria has become Iran’s testing ground, and Iran is closely watching whether and how the world responds to the atrocities committed by Iran’s client state Syria. These events prove yet again that we simply cannot allow the world’s most dangerous regimes to acquire the world’s most dangerous weapons.” Knesset Foreign Affairs chairman and former Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Liberman said that Obama’s “credibility is at stake” in Syria. Turkey’s foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu declared that “all red lines” had been crossed and the time had come for direct action.
MORE SIGNIFICANTLY, ON MONDAY Secretary of State John Kerry lashed out at what he said was the Syrian government’s “undeniable” use of toxic chemicals against its own citizens. Kerry said he watched social media videos of dead and dying victims, including “a man who held up his dead child, wailing, while chaos swirled around him,” calling it a “cowardly crime” and “a moral obscenity” by Bashar al-Assad. This is pretty strong language that sounds like an overture to military intervention.
Had Kerry taken some trouble to learn a thing or two about chemical weapons, he probably would have taken better care in crafting his statement. Social media videos have led numerous Western experts with no axe to grind to a very different conclusion. They say it was evident that the medics and others attending to the “gas attack victims” were not wearing any protective clothing or respirators. Had a military-grade toxic gas been used, the responders, too, would have been contaminated and promptly killed or disabled.
Paula Vanninen, the director of Verifin, the Finnish Institute for Verification of the Chemical Weapons Convention, has said that “some of those people were shaking and could have gotten the nerve agent exposure” but for others the cause of death remains unknown. Chemical weapons expert Jean Pascal Zanders said that the video footage was not consistent with the use of mustard gas or the nerve agents VX or sarin. “I’m deliberately not using the term chemical weapons here,” he said, adding that the use of “industrial toxicants” was a more likely explanation. Furthermore, “I have not seen anybody applying nerve agent antidotes,” he wrote in a blog post, “nor do medical staff and other people appear to suffer from secondary exposure while carrying or treating victims.”
Gwyn Winfield, editor of CBRNe World, a journal that covers unconventional weapons, said the evidence did not suggest that the chemicals used were of the weapons-grade that the Syrian army possesses in its stockpiles. “We’re not seeing reports that doctors and nurses… are becoming fatalities, so that would suggest that the toxicity of it isn’t what we would consider military sarin. It may well be that it is a lower-grade,” Winfield told AFP. He also noted that the medics would have been sickened by exposure to so many people dosed with chemical weapons—a phenomenon not seen in the videos. He said that the victims could have been killed by tear gas used in a confined space, or by a diluted form of a more powerful chemical agent. The use of non-weapons-grade industrial chemicals would be consistent with a rebel false-flag operation.
Dan Kaszeta, a retired U.S. Army’s Chemical Corps officer, also noted that “none of the people treating the casualties or photographing them are wearing any sort of chemical-warfare protective gear, and despite that, none of them seem to be harmed.” This would seem to rule out most types of military-grade chemical weapons – most nerve gases included – since instead of evaporating immediately (especially if they were used in sufficient quantities to kill hundreds of people) they’d leave enough contamination on clothes and bodies to harm anyone coming in unprotected contact with them so soon after an attack. In addition, he says that “there are none of the other signs you would expect to see in the aftermath of a chemical attack, such as intermediate levels of casualties, severe visual problems, vomiting and loss of bowel control.”
John Hart, head of the Chemical and Biological Security Project at Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, noted the absence of the telltale evidence in the eyes of the victims that would be compelling evidence of chemical weapons use. “Of the videos that I’ve seen for the last few hours, none of them show pinpoint pupils… this would indicate exposure to organophosphorus nerve agents,” he said. Other experts have taken note of the absence of other symptoms of chemical weapons use, such as pain and irritation to the eyes, nose and mouth.
Stephen Johnson, an expert on toxins at Cranfield University’s Forensic Institute who has worked with Britain’s Ministry of Defense on chemical warfare issues, has noted that “a large number of casualties over a wide area would mean quite a pervasive dispersal. With that level of chemical agent, you would expect to see a lot of contamination on the casualties coming in, and it would affect those treating them who are not properly protected. We are not seeing that here.” He also thinks that the video footage looked suspect: “There are, within some of the videos, examples which seem a little hyper-real, and almost as if they’ve been set up. Which is not to say that they are fake, but it does cause some concern. Some of the people with foaming, the foam seems to be too white, too pure, and not consistent with the sort of internal injury you might expect to see, which you’d expect to be bloodier or yellower.”
So much for John Kerry’s assertion of “undeniable” use of poison gas by Bashar al-Assad’s government against its own citizens. We are nevertheless closer to an American military intervention in Syria than at any time since the insurgency started in earnest two and a half years ago. If that intervention does take place, it will happen in violation of the Congress, the UN Security Council, or the views of most Americans on the subject.
SO WHAT IS THE U.S. TO DO ABOUT SYRIA? The question is misleading, as it assumes that “we” should or can do something big and important there. This is not the case, however, and not so long ago it looked like some key officials understood that much.
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee last April, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned of potential consequences of American military involvement in the Syrian conflict. It could hinder humanitarian relief operations, he said, embroil the United States in a significant, lengthy and uncertain military commitment, and strain U.S. relationships around the world. “And finally,” he added, “a military intervention could have the unintended consequence of bringing the United States into a broader regional conflict or proxy war.”
Speaking after Hagel, General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that in weighing options the U.S. had a responsibility to align its actions to the intended outcome and to articulate risk. “So before we take action, we have to be prepared for what comes next,” he said. “The use of force, especially in circumstances where ethnic and religious factors dominate, is unlikely to produce predictable outcomes… Unintended consequences are the rule with military interventions of this sort.”
Hagel’s and Dempsey’s statements were prudent, and appeared to reflect much-needed caution in the aftermath of the Iraqi disaster. Weighing costs and benefits of intervention in a far-away land where no vital U.S. interest is at stake—especially in a volatile majority-Muslim country with a complex ethno-religious chessboard—was a realist approach that bore the promise of keeping America away from yet another Middle Eastern quagmire.
The August 21 false flag operation may have changed the equation, however. If there is an intervention—even if it falls short of troops on the ground—it will commit the U.S. to a rebel victory, however defined, that would be contrary to the American interest. It would effectively place the future of the U.S. policy in Syria into the hands of the rebels, a motley group which is completely dominated by the Jihadist International. They would not be able to win, but they would not be allowed to be defeated either, lest the U.S. “reputation,” “commitment,” and “credibility” are jeopardized. This scenario opens the prospect of all the complications against which Hagel and Dempsey warned only four months ago. It guarantees more bloodshed as the Syrian government troops will intensify their offensives against rebel strongholds to preempt the effect of Western intervention.
As if the Afghan blowback of the 1980s had never happened, as if the Iraqi debacle were ancient history, the Obama administration is about to involve the United States in yet another multi-faceted Middle Eastern conflict without good or bad parties, a civil war irrelevant to the welfare or security of the U.S. regardless of its outcome. The result can only be a minus-sum-game for America. If Bashar survives, the American prestige will suffer; but if the rebels prevail, Syria will become safe for jihad. As Milton Bearden, a CIA veteran who oversaw the covert program to arm the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviets told Foreign Policy last June, the Obama administration should realize that if you arm the rebels, you are no longer in control. The U.S.-supplied weapons will end up in jihadist hands—with groups like al-Qaeda in Iraq, which is active in Syria as the Jabhat al-Nusra. This is the group the Obama administration placed on the State Department's list of “terrorist” organizations late last year. It is now the likely recipient of U.S. largesse as the best organized rebel group in Syria. (This brings to mind the KLA, which was removed from the U.S. “terrorist” list in the summer of 1998 and started receiving American weapons literally days later.)
There is no coherent U.S. strategy on Syria. It is based either on wishful thinking or on pig-headed mendacity. Until recently, political leaders in Washington had claimed with monotonous regularity that the government of Syria was on the verge of collapse. “Assad’s rule is coming to an end. It is inevitable,” Jeffrey Feltman, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, told a Senate committee in November 2011. “Assad’s going to be gone; it’s just a question of time,” then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared exactly a year later. And Obama averred that he was confident the Assad regime in Syria would fall. “It’s not a question of if, it’s when,” he said in Amman, Jordan, on March 22. Similar predictions from mainstream punditry are too numerous to quote. It is not going to happen, however, regardless of U.S. intervention. There is a large number of Syrians who loath the rebels, including not only all Allawites and Christians, and most Druze and Kurds, but also many moderate and secular Sunnis. They provide Bashar with the critical mass of recruits to fight and survive. Those people know all too well what their destiny would be under a “free and democratic” regime to which Washington is increasingly committed. They have a much bigger stake in the outcome than Obama or Kerry.
U.S. interventions abroad are bad in principle if no vital American security and economic interests are involved. In Syria no American interest is at stake, and therefore no American involvement is justified. Foreign intervention becomes inexcusable if its likely outcome is worse than the status quo. In Syria the only likely alternative to Bashar is a nosedive into terrorist mayhem. Such outcome would be far worse from the vantage point of U.S. interests, geopolitically as well as morally, than what we now have in Damascus. As that noted geopolitical analyst Sarah Palin said of Syria last spring, “Let Allah sort it out!”