Syria: A Classic False Flag Atrocity

Srdja Trifkovic
Chronicles Magazine
August 27, 2013



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 Račak “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.

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