The Trump administration continues to use PR and media with devastating effectiveness against critical thought. We refuse to be devastated. Below you will find a very plausible alternative "narrative" to the one that has been jammed down our throats by the government and corporate media. The moment may be chiefly useful, not so much for revealing specific details around a specific incident as a chance to see how successfully the populace is again being manipulated into war.
However, we stand with conservative philosopher Leo Strauss who noted in the introduction to Persecution and the Art of Writing that most people are unable to independently imagine a point of view different from one asserted by their government, particularly when it is as forcibly claimed as is the administration's argument that Syrians dropped a sarin-gas bomb on their own people in southern Idlib Province.
As an example of presenting a different point of view, it's worth noting that while US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley was brandishing photographs of victims of a gas attack in Syria, her Russian counterpart, Ambassador Vladimir Safronkov, held up a photo of former United States Ambassador to the United Nations Colin Powell shaking an emphatic finger as he lectured the same Security Council 14 years ago that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
Several of the former and active US intelligence officers who signed these documents below stood up in 2003 and said they did not believe the Bush administration's MWD claims. From our point of view, that adds historical weight to their rational analysis and questions about the Syrian gas attack 10 days ago. -- blj
The real culprits here are the Trump administration, and President Trump himself. The president’s record of placing more weight on what he sees on television than the intelligence briefings he may or may not be getting, and his lack of intellectual curiosity and unfamiliarity with the nuances and complexities of both foreign and national security policy, created the conditions where the imagery of the Khan Sheikhoun victims that had been disseminated by pro-Al Nusra (i.e., Al Qaeda) outlets could influence critical life-or-death decisions. -- Scott Ritter, Huffington Post, April 9, 2017
But when a single ruler acts in accordance with neither laws nor customs, but claims, in imitation of the scientific ruler (sic--blj)), that whatever is best must be done, even though it be contrary to the written laws, and this imitation is inspired by desire and ignorance1., is not such a ruler to be called in every instance a tyrant? -- Plato, The Statesman, 301C (Loeb Classical Library)
Trump Should Rethink Syria Escalation
April 11, 2017
More than two dozen ex-U.S. intelligence officials urge President Trump to rethink his claims blaming the Syrian government for the chemical deaths in Idlib and to pull back from his dangerous escalation of tensions with Russia.
MEMORANDUM FOR: The President
FROM: Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS)*
SUBJECT: Syria: Was It Really “A Chemical Weapons Attack”?
1 – We write to give you an unambiguous warning of the threat of armed hostilities with Russia – with the risk of escalation to nuclear war. The threat has grown after the cruise missile attack on Syria in retaliation for what you claimed was a “chemical weapons attack” on April 4 on Syrian civilians in southern Idlib Province.
2 – Our U.S. Army contacts in the area have told us this is not what happened. There was no Syrian “chemical weapons attack.” Instead, a Syrian aircraft bombed an al-Qaeda-in-Syria ammunition depot that turned out to be full of noxious chemicals and a strong wind blew the chemical-laden cloud over a nearby village where many consequently died.
3 – This is what the Russians and Syrians have been saying and – more important –what they appear to believe happened.
4 – Do we conclude that the White House has been giving our generals dictation; that they are mouthing what they have been told to say?
5 – After Putin persuaded Assad in 2013 to give up his chemical weapons, the U.S. Army destroyed 600 metric tons of Syria’s CW stockpile in just six weeks. The mandate of the U.N.’s Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW-UN) was to ensure that all were destroyed – like the mandate for the U.N. inspectors for Iraq regarding WMD. The U.N. inspectors’ findings on WMD were the truth. Rumsfeld and his generals lied and this seems to be happening again. The stakes are even higher now; the importance of a relationship of trust with Russia’s leaders cannot be overstated.
6 – In September 2013, after Putin persuaded Assad to relinquish his chemical weapons (giving Obama a way out of a tough dilemma), the Russian President wrote an op-ed for the New York Times in which he said: “My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust. I appreciate this.”
Détente Nipped in the Bud
7 – Three-plus years later, on April 4, 2017, Russian Prime Minister Medvedev spoke of “absolute mistrust,” which he characterized as “sad for our now completely ruined relations [but] good news for terrorists.” Not only sad, in our view, but totally unnecessary – worse still, dangerous.
8 – With Moscow’s cancellation of the agreement to de-conflict flight activity over Syria, the clock has been turned back six months to the situation last September/October when 11 months of tough negotiation brought a ceasefire agreement. U.S. Air Force attacks on fixed Syrian army positions on Sept. 17, 2016, killing about 70 and wounding another 100, scuttled the fledgling ceasefire agreement approved by Obama and Putin a week before. Trust evaporated.\
The guided-missile destroyer USS Porter conducts strike operations while in the Mediterranean Sea, April 7, 2017. (Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Ford Williams)
9 – On Sept 26, 2016, Foreign Minister Lavrov lamented: “My good friend John Kerry … is under fierce criticism from the US military machine, [which] apparently does not really listen to the Commander in Chief.” Lavrov criticized JCS Chairman Joseph Dunford for telling Congress that he opposed sharing intelligence with Russia on Syria, “after the [ceasefire] agreement, concluded on direct orders of Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama, had stipulated that the two sides would share intelligence. … It is difficult to work with such partners. …”
10 – On Oct. 1, 2016, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova warned, “If the US launches a direct aggression against Damascus and the Syrian Army, it would cause a terrible, tectonic shift not only in the country, but in the entire region.”
11 – On Oct 6, 2016, Russian defense spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov cautioned that Russia was prepared to shoot down unidentified aircraft – including any stealth aircraft – over Syria. Konashenkov made a point of adding that Russian air defenses “will not have time to identify the origin” of the aircraft.
12 – On Oct 27, 2016, Putin publicly lamented, “My personal agreements with the President of the United States have not produced results,” and complained about “people in Washington ready to do everything possible to prevent these agreements from being implemented in practice.” Referring to Syria, Putin decried the lack of a “common front against terrorism after such lengthy negotiations, enormous effort, and difficult compromises.”
13 – Thus, the unnecessarily precarious state into which U.S.-Russian relations have now sunk – from “growing trust” to “absolute mistrust.” To be sure, many welcome the high tension, which – admittedly – is super for the arms business.
14 – We believe it of transcendent importance to prevent relations with Russia from falling into a state of complete disrepair. Secretary Tillerson’s visit to Moscow this week offers an opportunity to stanch the damage, but there is also a danger that it could increase the acrimony – particularly if Secretary Tillerson is not familiar with the brief history set down above.
15 – Surely it is time to deal with Russia on the basis of facts, not allegations based largely on dubious evidence – from “social media,” for example. While many would view this time of high tension as ruling out a summit, we suggest the opposite may be true. You might consider instructing Secretary Tillerson to begin arrangements for an early summit with President Putin.
* Background on Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), a list of whose issuances can be found at https://consortiumnews.com/vips-memos/.
A handful of CIA veterans established VIPS in January 2003 after concluding that Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld had ordered our former colleagues to manufacture intelligence to “justify” an unnecessary war with Iraq. At the time we chose to assume that President George W. Bush was not fully aware of this.
We issued our first Memorandum for the President on the afternoon of Feb. 5, 2003, after Colin Powell’s ill-begotten speech at the United Nations. Addressing President Bush, we closed with these words:
No one has a corner on the truth; nor do we harbor illusions that our analysis is “irrefutable” or “undeniable” [adjectives Powell applied to his charges against Saddam Hussein]. But after watching Secretary Powell today, we are convinced that you would be well served if you widened the discussion … 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.
Respectfully, we offer the same advice to you, President Trump.
* * *
For the Steering Group, Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity
Eugene D. Betit, Intelligence Analyst, DIA, Soviet FAO, (US Army, ret.)
William Binney, Technical Director, NSA; co-founder, SIGINT Automation Research Center (ret.)
Marshall Carter-Tripp, Foreign Service Officer and former Office Director in the State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research, (ret.)
Thomas Drake, Senior Executive Service, NSA (former)
Bogdan Dzakovic, Former Team Leader of Federal Air Marshals and Red Team, FAA Security, (ret.) (associate VIPS)
Robert Furukawa, Capt, CEC, USN-R, (ret.)
Philip Giraldi, CIA, Operations Officer (ret.)
Mike Gravel, former Adjutant, top secret control officer, Communications Intelligence Service; special agent of the Counter Intelligence Corps and former United States Senator
Matthew Hoh, former Capt., USMC, Iraq and Foreign Service Officer, Afghanistan (associate VIPS)
Larry C. Johnson, CIA & State Department (ret.)
Michael S. Kearns, Captain, USAF (Ret.); ex-Master SERE Instructor for Strategic Reconnaissance Operations (NSA/DIA) and Special Mission Units (JSOC)
John Brady Kiesling, Foreign Service Officer (ret.)
John Kiriakou, former CIA analyst and counterterrorism officer, and former senior investigator, Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Linda Lewis, WMD preparedness policy analyst, USDA (ret.) (associate VIPS)
Lisa Ling, TSgt USAF (ret.) (associate VIPS)
Edward Loomis, NSA, Cryptologic Computer Scientist (ret.)
David MacMichael, National Intelligence Council (ret.)
Ray McGovern, former US Army infantry/intelligence officer & CIA analyst (ret.)
Elizabeth Murray, Deputy National Intelligence Officer for Near East, CIA and National Intelligence Council (ret.)
Torin Nelson, former Intelligence Officer/Interrogator, Department of the Army
Todd E. Pierce, MAJ, US Army Judge Advocate (Ret.)
Coleen Rowley, FBI Special Agent and former Minneapolis Division Legal Counsel (ret.)
Scott Ritter, former MAJ., USMC, and former UN Weapon Inspector, Iraq
Peter Van Buren, U.S. Department of State, Foreign Service Officer (ret.) (associate VIPS)
Kirk Wiebe, former Senior Analyst, SIGINT Automation Research Center, NSA
Sarah G. Wilton, Commander, US Naval Reserve (ret), DIA (ret.)
Robert Wing, former Foreign Service Officer (associate VIPS)
Ann Wright, U.S. Army Reserve Colonel (ret) and former U.S. Diplomat
Update To VIPS Memo “Trump Should Rethink Syria Escalation”
Coleen Rowley, Contributorretired FBI Special Agent and former Minneapolis Division legal counsel of the FBI
· http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/update-to-vips-me The following responses to questions are furnished by a colleague and co-member of the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, retired CIA Analyst Elizabeth Murray (who retired as Deputy National Intelligence Officer for the near East). The questions came as follow-up to our April 11th VIPS memo taking issue with the White House’s rush to judgement without providing adequate evidence to back up its claims used to justify its recent (illegal) bombing of Syria. In addition to Murray’s responses below, please see these excellent expert analyses challenging the White House: “Wag The Dog — How Al Qaeda Played Donald Trump And The American Media (Responsibility for the chemical event in Khan Sheikhoun is still very much in question)” by WMD expert Scott Ritter and “A Quick Turnaround Assessment of the White House Intelligence Report Issued on April 11, 2017 About the Nerve Agent Attack in Khan Shaykhun, Syria” by Theodore A. Postol, Professor Emeritus of Science, Technology, and National Security Policy, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.2.
1. Can you give me some background on your experience in the intelligence community?
I was a career CIA officer for 27 years (I worked on the intelligence side, not on the “dark” or operational side). I specialized in Middle Eastern media and political analysis, living and working in the Middle East for several years. My last position was Deputy National Intelligence Officer for the Near East at the National Intelligence Council. I retired in 2010. I am fluent in Arabic, German, and Spanish.
2. The VIPS memo says that military sources say that the chemical agent that killed the people in Khan Shaikhun was the result of an airstrike hitting a Nusra weapons depot, which falls in line with Syrian and Russian narratives. However, the official US narrative is that chemical agents were dropped by a Russian or Syrian jet. What can you tell me about the Army sources VIPS has in Syria, and why VIPS trusts their info?
Because of our intelligence backgrounds, several members of our organization have contacts with insider knowledge of our government’s operational activities abroad. We were informed by sources on April 5th - a day after the chemical incident in Idlib - that what took place was not, in fact, caused by any chemical bomb dropped by a Syrian plane, but that the events transpired in a manner better explained and much closer to that described by the Russian and Syrian governments. We outline the details in our Memorandum.
We note that the official US narrative was put forth very quickly, in the absence of an impartial and independent investigation, and in the absence of credible evidence. In fact, the White House seems heavily reliant on opposition-based social media to make their case. Some of their videos actually contradict the US claims; for example, sarin toxin is lethal upon skin contact, but the videos show emergency workers using no protective gear handling victims — with no apparent consequences. This doesn’t make sense. I’m also wondering why the White House, not the National Intelligence Council, has issued an assessment. There should be a National Intelligence Estimate on this subject. The National Intelligence Council brings together the gravitas and expertise of all 16 US intelligence agencies. That is the norm for significant foreign policy matters.
As for our own sources, they need to be protected so we cannot reveal them. We would be delighted if a whistleblower would come forward, although that individual would have to be prepared to face consequences similar to those faced by truth-tellers such Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning or Thomas Drake.
3. The memo says “After Putin persuaded Assad in 2013 to give up his chemical weapons, the U.S. Army destroyed 600 metric tons of Syria’s CW stockpile in just six weeks,” but Reuters reported that US officials never believed it all had been destroyed. Do you think there’s any possibility that the Syrian government could have kept some chemical weapons?
Bottom of Form
Look, there are people who still believe that Iraq has WMD, despite our own government’s admission that it was wrong! The Reuters article quotes an unnamed intelligence official as saying the US “suspects” Syria still retains chemical weapons; that is an incredibly weak statement for an intelligence official to make, since the official doesn’t provide his or her name or offer any facts or evidence to bolster the claim. I am surprised the Reuters item was simply published without any substantiation - is that journalism or stenography? Also, a New York Times article of August 18, 2014 citing the US Defense Department as stating that the Syria’s most deadly chemical weapons including sarin gas have been completely destroyed. This took place under US supervision. Why is there no talk of rebel possession of chemical weapons when this is an established fact?
I think many Americans are well aware that there is a global media campaign under way to influence the public in the direction of war, much in the same way as the Iraq war was sold through the false allegations of WMD (long since proven false).
We should recall that the PR campaign to whip up American support for launching the first Gulf war in 1991 was professionally managed by what was then the world’s largest PR firm, Hill & Knowlton - so we shouldn’t rule out what could happen with respect to Syria. The neocon elements within the US administration want to turn Syria into a failed state, just as was done to Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. It’s more of the same, and a human rights disaster.
4. While Tillerson and Trump have kept up the harsh rhetoric, Gen. Mattis said today that things won’t spiral out of control because it’s not in Russia’s interest. The memo quotes Russian Prime Minister Medvedev when he mentioned “absolute mistrust” between Russia and the US, and even speaks of nuclear war. While I agree that nuclear war is a threat, do you think the situation in Syria is dire to the point that a full-on war between the US and Russia could happen?
We should listen carefully to how Prime Minister Medvedev characterizes the state of the US-Russia relationship, since he is considered to be the most pro-Western person in the Putin administration. Not only did he mention mistrust—he said US-Russia relations have been “completely ruined.” Strong words! And if he is the most pro-Western of the Russian leadership, imagine what the rest of them think!
We are already playing a game of dangerous brinksmanship with record numbers of US troops massed on the Russian border with Poland and the Baltic States, and with the largest-ever military maneuvers since World War II having taken place there in June of 2016 (“Operation Anaconda”). How would we feel about 30,000 Russian troops massed along our border with Mexico? Our government staged a coup in the Ukraine back in 2014. This is Russia’s backyard. We need to put ourselves in their shoes and consider their position.
Right now, US and Russian aircraft are flying in close proximity in Syrian airspace. Channels of communication have been shut down since the US launched its 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Syrian airbase. There is hostile anti-Russian rhetoric coming from the US administration and from every major media outlet in the United States. Imagine what could happen if the US shot down a Russian jet (accidentally or otherwise) or bombed a Russian ground crew. Events could easily spiral out of control and could lead to the use of nuclear weapons on either side. I don’t think Russia wants war, but we are really pushing them to the edge. I don’t think we want to go there.
5. Going forward, what should the US and the international community do to put the issues surrounding Khan Shaikhun, including the nature of chemical weapons and increased distrust between US & Russia, to rest?
We need to bring diplomacy back and let cooler heads prevail. Both sides should convene immediately for a high-level summit to defuse tensions and restore a working relationship.
Wag The Dog — How Al Qaeda Played Donald Trump And The American Media
Responsibility for the chemical event in Khan Sheikhoun is still very much in question.
Scott Ritter, Author, 'Deal of the Century: How Iran Blocked the West’s Road to War'
Once upon a time, Donald J. Trump, the New York City businessman-turned-president, berated then-President Barack Obama back in September 2013 about the fallacy of an American military strike against Syria. At that time, the United States was considering the use of force against Syria in response to allegations (since largely disproven) that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons against civilians in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. Trump, via tweet, declared “to our very foolish leader, do not attack Syria – if you do many very bad things will happen & from that fight the U.S. gets nothing!”
President Obama, despite having publicly declaring the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime a “red line” which, if crossed, would demand American military action, ultimately declined to order an attack, largely on the basis of warnings by James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, that the intelligence linking the chemical attack on Ghouta was less than definitive.
President Barack Obama, in a 2016 interview with The Atlantic, observed, “there’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow. It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses.” While the “Washington playbook,” Obama noted, could be useful during times of crisis, it could “also be a trap that can lead to bad decisions.”
His “red line” on chemical weapons usage, combined with heated rhetoric coming from his closest advisors, including Secretary of State John Kerry, hinting at a military response, was such a trap. Ultimately, President Obama opted to back off, observing that “dropping bombs on someone to prove that you’re willing to drop bombs on someone is just about the worst reason to use force.” The media, Republicans and even members of his own party excoriated Obama for this decision.
Yet, in November 2016, as president-elect, Donald Trump doubled down on Obama’s eschewing of the “Washington playbook.” The situation on the ground in Syria had fundamentally changed since 2013; the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had taken over large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria, establishing a “capital” in the Syrian city of Raqqa and declaring the creation of an Islamic “Caliphate.” American efforts to remove Syrian President Assad from power had begun to bar fruit, forcing Russia to intervene in September 2015 in order to prop up the beleaguered Syrian president.
Trump, breaking from the mainstream positions held by most American policy makers, Republican and Democrat alike, declared that the United States should focus on fighting and defeating the Islamic State (ISIS) and not pursuing regime change in Syria. “My attitude,” Trump noted, “was you’re fighting Syria, Syria is fighting ISIS, and you have to get rid of ISIS. Russia is now totally aligned with Syria, and now you have Iran, which is becoming powerful, because of us, is aligned with Syria... Now we’re backing rebels against Syria, and we have no idea who these people are.” Moreover, Trump observed, given the robust Russian presence inside Syria, if the United States attacked Assad, “we end up fighting Russia, fighting Syria.”
For more than two months, the new Trump administration seemed to breathe life into the notion that Donald Trump had, like his predecessor before him, thrown the “Washington playbook” out the window when it came to Syrian policy. After ordering a series of new military deployments into Syria and Iraq specifically designed to confront ISIS, the Trump administration began to give public voice to a major shift in policy vis-à-vis the Syrian President.
For the first time since President Obama, in August 2011, articulated regime change in Damascus as a precondition for the cessation of the civil conflict that had been raging since April 2011, American government officials articulated that this was no longer the case. “You pick and choose your battles,” the American Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, told reporters on March 30, 2017. “And when we’re looking at this, it’s about changing up priorities and our priority is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out.” Haley’s words were echoed by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who observed that same day, while on an official visit to Turkey, “I think the… longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.”
This new policy direction lasted barely five days. Sometime in the early afternoon of April 4, 2017, troubling images and video clips began to be transmitted out of the Syrian province of Idlib by anti-government activists, including members of the so-called “White Helmets,” a volunteer rescue team whose work was captured in an eponymously-named Academy Award-winning documentary film. These images showed victims in various stages of symptomatic distress, including death, from what the activists said was exposure to chemical weapons dropped by the Syrian air force on the town of Khan Sheikhoun that very morning.
Images of these tragic deaths were immediately broadcast on American media outlets, with pundits decrying the horrific and heinous nature of the chemical attack, which was nearly unanimously attributed to the Syrian government, even though the only evidence provided was the imagery and testimony of the anti-Assad activists who, just days before, were decrying the shift in American policy regarding regime change in Syria. President Trump viewed these images, and was deeply troubled by what he saw, especially the depictions of dead and suffering children.
The images were used as exhibits in a passionate speech by Haley during a speech at the Security Council on April 5, 2017, where she confronted Russia and threatened unilateral American military action if the Council failed to respond to the alleged Syrian chemical attack. “Yesterday morning, we awoke to pictures, to children foaming at the mouth, suffering convulsions, being carried in the arms of desperate parents,” Haley said, holding up two examples of the images provided by the anti-Assad activists. “We saw rows of lifeless bodies, some still in diapers…we cannot close our eyes to those pictures. We cannot close our minds of the responsibility to act.” If the Security Council refused to take action against the Syrian government, Haley said, then “there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action.”
In 2013, President Barack Obama was confronted with images of dead and injured civilians, including numerous small children, from Syria that were every bit as heartbreaking as the ones displayed by Ambassador Haley. His Secretary of State, John Kerry, had made an impassioned speech that all but called for military force against Syria. President Obama asked for, and received, a wide-range of military options from his national security team targeting the regime of President Assad; only the intervention of James Clapper, and the doubts that existed about the veracity of the intelligence linking the Ghouta chemical attack to the Syrian government, held Obama back from giving the green light for the bombing to begin.
Like President Obama before him, President Trump asked for his national security team to prepare options for military action. Unlike his predecessor, Donald Trump did not seek a pause in his decision making process to let his intelligence services investigate what had actually occurred in Khan Sheikhoun. Like Nikki Haley, Donald Trump was driven by his visceral reaction to the imagery being disseminated by anti-Assad activists. In the afternoon of April 6, as he prepared to depart the White House for a summit meeting with a delegation led by the Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump’s own cryptic words in response to a reporter’s question about any American response seem to hint that his mind was already made up. “You’ll see,” he said, before walking away.
Within hours, a pair of U.S. Navy destroyers launched 59 advanced Block IV Tomahawk cruise missiles (at a cost of some $1.41 million each), targeting aircraft, hardened shelters, fuel storage, munitions supply, air defense and communications facilities at the Al Shayrat air base, located in central Syria. Al Shayrat was home to two squadrons of Russian-made SU-22 fighter-bombers operated by the Syrian air force, one of which was tracked by American radar as taking off from Al Sharyat on the morning of April 4, 2017, and was overhead Khan Sheikhoun around the time the alleged chemical attack occurred.
The purpose of the American strike was two-fold; first, to send a message to the Syrian government and its allies that, according to Secretary of State Tillerson, “the president is willing to take decisive action when called for,” and in particular when confronted with evidence of a chemical attack from which the United States could not “turn away, turn a blind eye.” The other purpose, according to a U.S. military spokesperson, to “reduce the Syrian government’s ability to deliver chemical weapons.”
Moreover, the policy honeymoon the Trump administration had only recently announced about regime change in Syria was over. “It’s very, very possible, and, I will tell you, it’s already happened, that my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much,” President Trump told reporters before the missile strikes had commenced. Secretary Tillerson went further: “It would seem there would be no role for him [Assad] to govern the Syrian people.”
Such a reversal in policy fundamentals and direction in such a short period of time is stunning; Donald Trump didn’t simply deviate slightly off course, but rather did a complete 180-degree turn. The previous policy of avoiding entanglement in the internal affairs of Syria in favor of defeating ISIS and improving relations with Russia had been replaced by a fervent embrace of regime change, direct military engagement with the Syrian armed forces, and a confrontational stance vis-à-vis the Russian military presence in Syria.
Normally, such major policy change could only be explained by a new reality driven by verifiable facts. The alleged chemical weapons attack against Khan Sheikhoun was not a new reality; chemical attacks had been occurring inside Syria on a regular basis, despite the international effort to disarm Syria’s chemical weapons capability undertaken in 2013 that played a central role in forestalling American military action at that time. International investigations of these attacks produced mixed results, with some being attributed to the Syrian government (something the Syrian government vehemently denies), and the majority being attributed to anti-regime fighters, in particular those affiliated with Al Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda affiliate.
Moreover, there exists a mixed provenance when it comes to chemical weapons usage inside Syria that would seem to foreclose any knee-jerk reaction that placed the blame for what happened at Khan Sheikhoun solely on the Syrian government void of any official investigation. Yet this is precisely what occurred. Some sort of chemical event took place in Khan Sheikhoun; what is very much in question is who is responsible for the release of the chemicals that caused the deaths of so many civilians.
No one disputes the fact that a Syrian air force SU-22 fighter-bomber conducted a bombing mission against a target in Khan Sheikhoun on the morning of April 4, 2017. The anti-regime activists in Khan Sheikhoun, however, have painted a narrative that has the Syrian air force dropping chemical bombs on a sleeping civilian population.
A critical piece of information that has largely escaped the reporting in the mainstream media is that Khan Sheikhoun is ground zero for the Islamic jihadists who have been at the center of the anti-Assad movement in Syria since 2011. Up until February 2017, Khan Sheikhoun was occupied by a pro-ISIS group known as Liwa al-Aqsa that was engaged in an oftentimes-violent struggle with its competitor organization, Al Nusra Front (which later morphed into Tahrir al-Sham, but under any name functioning as Al Qaeda’s arm in Syria) for resources and political influence among the local population.
A man breathes through an oxygen mask as another one receives treatments, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017.
The Russian Ministry of Defense has claimed that Liwa al-Aqsa was using facilities in and around Khan Sheikhoun to manufacture crude chemical shells and landmines intended for ISIS forces fighting in Iraq. According to the Russians the Khan Sheikhoun chemical weapons facility was mirrored on similar sites uncovered by Russian and Syrian forces following the reoccupation of rebel-controlled areas of Aleppo.
In Aleppo, the Russians discovered crude weapons production laboratories that filled mortar shells and landmines with a mix of chlorine gas and white phosphorus; after a thorough forensic investigation was conducted by military specialists, the Russians turned over samples of these weapons, together with soil samples from areas struck by weapons produced in these laboratories, to investigators from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons for further evaluation.
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. 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.
The counter-narrative offered by the Russians and Syrians, however, has been minimized, mocked and ignored by both the American media and the Trump administration. So, too, has the very illogic of the premise being put forward to answer the question of why President Assad would risk everything by using chemical weapons against a target of zero military value, at a time when the strategic balance of power had shifted strongly in his favor. Likewise, why would Russia, which had invested considerable political capital in the disarmament of Syria’s chemical weapons capability after 2013, stand by idly while the Syrian air force carried out such an attack, especially when their was such a heavy Russian military presence at the base in question at the time of the attack?
Such analysis seems beyond the scope and comprehension of the American fourth estate. Instead, media outlets like CNN embrace at face value anything they are told by official American sources, including a particularly preposterous insinuation that Russia actually colluded in the chemical weapons attack; the aforementioned presence of Russian officers at Al Shayrat air base has been cited as evidence that Russia had to have known about Syria’s chemical warfare capability, and yet did nothing to prevent the attack.
To sustain this illogic, the American public and decision-makers make use of a sophisticated propaganda campaign involving video images and narratives provided by forces opposed to the regime of Bashar al-Assad, including organizations like the “White Helmets,” the Syrian-American Medical Society, the Aleppo Media Center, which have a history of providing slanted information designed to promote an anti-Assad message (Donald Trump has all but acknowledged that these images played a major role in his decision to reevaluate his opinion of Bashar al-Assad and order the cruise missile attack on Al Shayrat airbase.)
Many of the fighters affiliated with Tahrir al-Sham are veterans of the battle for Aleppo, and as such are intimately familiar with the tools and trade of the extensive propaganda battle that was waged simultaneously with the actual fighting in an effort to sway western public opinion toward adopting a more aggressive stance in opposition to the Syrian government of Assad. These tools were brought to bear in promoting a counter-narrative about the Khan Sheikhoun chemical incident (ironically, many of the activists in question, including the “White Helmets,” were trained and equipped in social media manipulation tactics using money provided by the United States; that these techniques would end up being used to manipulate an American President into carrying out an act of war most likely never factored into the thinking of the State Department personnel who conceived and implemented the program).
Even slick media training, however, cannot gloss over basic factual inconsistencies. Early on, the anti-Assad opposition media outlets were labeling the Khan Sheikhoun incident as a “Sarin nerve agent” attack; one doctor affiliated with Al Qaeda sent out images and commentary via social media that documented symptoms, such as dilated pupils, that he diagnosed as stemming from exposure to Sarin nerve agent. Sarin, however, is an odorless, colorless material, dispersed as either a liquid or vapor; eyewitnesses speak of a “pungent odor” and “blue-yellow” clouds, more indicative of chlorine gas.
And while American media outlets, such as CNN, have spoken of munitions “filled to the brim” with Sarin nerve agent being used at Khan Sheikhoun, there is simply no evidence cited by any source that can sustain such an account. Heartbreaking images of victims being treated by “White Helmet” rescuers have been cited as proof of Sarin-like symptoms, the medical viability of these images is in question; there are no images taken of victims at the scene of the attack. Instead, the video provided by the “White Helmets” is of decontamination and treatment carried out at a “White Helmet” base after the victims, either dead or injured, were transported there.
The lack of viable protective clothing worn by the “White Helmet” personnel while handling victims is another indication that the chemical in question was not military grade Sarin; if it were, the rescuers would themselves have become victims (some accounts speak of just this phenomena, but this occurred at the site of the attack, where the rescuers were overcome by a “pungent smelling” chemical – again, Sarin is odorless.)
More than 20 victims of the Khan Sheikhoun incident were transported to Turkish hospitals for care; three subsequently died. 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.
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. 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). But the Trump administration chose to act before these samples could be processed, perhaps afraid that their results would not sustain the underlying allegation of the employment of Sarin by the Syrian air force.
Mainstream American media outlets have willingly and openly embraced a narrative provided by Al Qaeda affiliates whose record of using chemical weapons in Syria and distorting and manufacturing “evidence” to promote anti-Assad policies in the west, including regime change, is well documented. These outlets have made a deliberate decision to endorse the view of Al Qaeda over a narrative provided by Russian and Syrian government authorities without any effort to fact check either position. These actions, however, do not seem to shock the conscience of the American public; when it comes to Syria, the mainstream American media and its audience has long ago ceded the narrative to Al Qaeda and other Islamist anti-regime elements.
The real culprits here are the Trump administration, and President Trump himself. The president’s record of placing more weight on what he sees on television than the intelligence briefings he may or may not be getting, and his lack of intellectual curiosity and unfamiliarity with the nuances and complexities of both foreign and national security policy, created the conditions where the imagery of the Khan Sheikhoun victims that had been disseminated by pro-Al Nusra (i.e., Al Qaeda) outlets could influence critical life-or-death decisions.
That President Trump could be susceptible to such obvious manipulation is not surprising, given his predilection for counter-punching on Twitter for any perceived slight; that his national security team allowed him to be manipulated thus, and did nothing to sway Trump’s opinion or forestall action pending a thorough review of the facts, is scandalous. History will show that Donald Trump, his advisors and the American media were little more than willing dupes for Al Qaeda and its affiliates, whose manipulation of the Syrian narrative resulted in a major policy shift that furthers their objectives.
The other winner in this sorry story is ISIS, which took advantage of the American strike against Al Shayrat to launch a major offensive against Syrian government forces around the city of Palmyra (Al Shayrat had served as the principal air base for operations in the Palmyra region). The breakdown in relations between Russia and the United States means that, for the foreseeable future at least, the kind of coordination that had been taking place in the fight against ISIS is a thing of the past, a fact that can only bode well for the fighters of ISIS. For a man who placed so much emphasis on defeating ISIS, President Trump’s actions can only be viewed as a self-inflicted wound, a kind of circular firing squad that marks the actions of a Keystone Cop, and not the Commander in Chief of the most powerful nation in the world.
But the person who might get the last laugh is President Assad himself. While the Pentagon has claimed that it significantly degraded the Al Shayrat air base, with 58 of 59 cruise missile hitting their targets, Russia has stated that only 23 cruise missiles impacted the facility, and these did only limited damage. The runway was undamaged; indeed, in the afternoon of April 7, 2017, a Syrian air force fighter-bomber took off from Al Shayrat, flew to Idlib Province, where it attacked Al Nusra positions near Khan Sheikhoun.
‘Words Are Also Deeds’: Unverified Stories and the Growing Risk of War With Russia
The US narratives for which there are as of yet no facts could lead to direct military conflict between Washington and Moscow.
Stephen F. Cohen
Nation contributing editor Stephen F. Cohen and John Batchelor continue their weekly discussions of the new US-Russia Cold War. (Previous installments, now in their fourth year, are at TheNation.com.)
Cohen argues that the American political-media establishment has embraced two fraught narratives for which there is still no public evidence, only “intel” allegations. One, “Kremlingate,” as it is being called, is that Russian President Putin ordered a hacking of the Democratic National Committee and disseminated e-mails found there to help put Donald Trump in the White House. The other is that Syrian President Assad, Putin’s ally, ordered last week’s chemical-weapons attack on Syrian civilians, including young children. A third faith-based narrative, promoted by MSNBC in particular, is now emerging linking the other two: that Trump’s recent missile attack on a Syrian military air base was actually a Putin-Trump plot to free the new American president from the constraints of “Kremlingate” investigations and enable him to do Putin’s bidding in matters of US national security.
Cohen points out that in addition to the absence of any actual evidence for these allegations, there is no logic. The explanation that Putin “hated Hillary Clinton” for protests that took place in Moscow in 2011 is based on a misrepresentation of that event. And why would Assad resort to the use of chemical weapons, thereby risking all the military, political, and diplomatic gains he has achieved in the past year and half, and considering that he had Russian air power at his disposal as an alternative? And the emerging sub-narrative that Putin lied in 2013, when he and President Obama agreed that Assad would destroy all of his chemical weapons, is based on another factual misrepresentation. It was the United Nations and its special agency that verified the full destruction of those weapons, not Putin. (This allegation is clearly intended to discredit the one important act of US-Russian cooperation, a vital one, in recent years.)
The Russian adage “words are also deeds” is proving true, it seems. Trump’s missile attack on Russia’s ally Syria, despite its ramifying dangers, may have had a domestic political purpose—to debunk the narrative that is crippling his presidency, that he is somehow “Putin’s puppet.” If so, Cohen adds, the American mainstream media, which has promoted this narrative for months, is deeply complicit. Meanwhile, the Kremlin, which watches closely as these narratives unfold politically in Washington, has become deeply alarmed, resorting to its own fraught words. The No. 2 leader, Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, declared that US-Russian relations have been “ruined,” a statement Cohen does not recall any previous Soviet or post-Soviet leader ever having made. Medvedev added that the two nuclear superpowers are at “the brink” of war. Considering that Medvedev is regarded as the leading pro-Western figure in Putin’s inner circle, imagine what the other side—state patriots, or nationalists, as they are called—is telling Putin. Still more, the Kremlin is saying that Trump’s missile attack on Syria crossed Russia’s “red lines,” with all the warfare implications that term has in Washington as well. And flatly declaring the mysterious use of chemical weapons in Syria a “provocation,” Putin himself warned that forces in Washington were planning more such “provocations” and military strikes. In short, while the Kremlin does not want and will not start a war with the United States, it is preparing for the possibility.
Cohen and Batchelor ended their broadcast as Trump’s new secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, had just arrived in Moscow, before his talks with Russian leaders began the following day. (Whether or not Putin himself would met with Tillerson, or only Foreign Minister Lavrov, was still uncertain. Putin may be an authoritarian leader, the “decider,” but influential forces in and around the Kremlin were strongly against Putin meeting with an American secretary of state in the immediate aftermath of such a US “provocation.”) Whatever the case, Cohen thinks Tillerson’s visit is vitally important, at least for the Russian leadership, and for Putin in particular.
Tillerson is well known to Putin and other Kremlin leaders. On behalf of ExxonMobil, he negotiated with them one of Russia’s largest energy deals, which would grant access to the nation’s vast oil resources beneath frozen seas. Putin personally approved the deal, which oil giants around the world sought. He would not have done so had he not concluded that Tillerson was a serious, highly competent man. (For this achievement on behalf of a major American corporation, Tillerson too has been slurred as “Putin’s friend” in the American media.) The Kremlin will therefore expect candid answers from Tillerson to these questions related to the looming issue of war or peace. Are the fact-free narratives now prevailing in Washington the determining factor in Trump’s policy toward Russia? Are they the reason Trump committed the “provocation” in Syria? Does this mean that Trump no longer shares, or can support, Russia’s essential strategic premise regarding the civil and proxy war in Syria—that the overthrow of Assad would almost certainly mean ISIS or another terrorist army in Damascus, an outcome that the Kremlin regards as a dire threat to Russia’s own national security? And, most fundamentally, who is making Russia policy in Washington: President Trump or someone else? Putin, it should be recalled, asked the same question publicly about President Obama, when the agreement Putin and Obama negotiated for military cooperation in Syria was sabotaged by the US Department of Defense.
The answers that the very experienced Tillerson—he had his own corporate global state department and intelligence service at ExxonMobil—gives may do much to determine whether or not the new Cold War moves even closer to the “brink” of hot war, certainly in Syria. Meanwhile, the American mainstream media should return to their once professed practice of rigorously fact-checking their narratives with an understanding that words are indeed also deeds.
(1) (1.) i.e. a president who watches TV rather than reading intelligence reports. The French film critic André Bazin has been quoted to say “cinema replaces our gaze with a world that conforms to our desires” (Bazin, Dudley, & Gray, 2004, p. 12) in "Lust for Images." Kris Haamer, 2009).
And television replaces our gaze with a world that conforms to our madness? -- blj
A Quick Turnaround Assessment of the White House Intelligence Report Issued on April 11, 2017 About the Nerve Agent Attack in Khan Shaykhun, Syria. Theodore A. Postol, Massachussetts Institute of Technology (Emeritus), https://www.scribd.com/document/344995943/Report-by-White-House-Alleging...