Syria: Who's lying?
Tough talk on Syria from the US and Russia. But what does the evidence say?
By TATIANA PROPHET
The world watches four players in the latest act of the tragic implosion of a proud people in an ancient place, home to some of the world's earliest civilizations. The players are two heads of state and their ambassadors. None of these actors are from this beautiful country, yet they hold its fate in their hands. Two on each side of a former Cold War -- both with diametrically opposing views on the crisis.
Enter stage left, United States President Donald Trump and his ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley. Both are certain that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons in the ongoing six-year civil war, including on April 4 that reportedly killed 72, including 20 children. This "certainty" prompted Trump to order a cruise missile attack on the airfield from which the U.S. claims the chemical attacks originated.
"Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children," he said in an address to the nation after the missile attack. "It was a slow, brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this wholly barbaric attack. No child of God should suffer such horror."
There was a collective groan from many libertarians who had supported Trump for president on the basis of his opposition to unnecessary wars, but now saw him as buying into the "neocon/neolib" narrative of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Ambassador Haley, for her part, presented the absence of Assad in power as a prerequisite for peace.
"We don't see a peaceful Syria with Assad in there," she told Jake Tapper on CNN four days after the reported attack, adding that two other priorities were defeating ISIS and removing Iran's influence from Syria as well.
What a contrast to the message being put out by Syria's ally and protector, Vladimir Putin, entering stage right, and his deputy ambassador to the U.N, Vladimir Safronkov. Both say Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has never used chemical weapons, including on April 4 in a reported sarin gas attack in the rebel stronghold of Idlib. In fact, Putin went so far as to call the attacks "staged" at a news conference on Tuesday with Italian President Sergio Mattarella in Moscow.
"We have reports from multiple sources that provocations like this one -- and I cannot call it otherwise -- are being prepared in other parts of Syria, including the southern suburbs of Damascus," Putin was quoted in RT News as saying, implying that the U.S. (or terrorists) were responsible for staging a "false flag." He added his own analysis that making Syria a common enemy was politically expedient for Donald Trump.
Putin said the gas attack report reminded him of 2003, when the U.S. asserted that chemical weapons were found in Iraq. "The military campaign was subsequently launched in Iraq and it ended with the devastation of the country, the growth of the terrorist threat and the appearance of the Islamic State on the world stage."
The narrative coming from Putin's own lips -- and subsequently the Kremlin-funded Russia Today (RT) -- is similar to the narrative coming out of American alternative media. This includes reporters with storied reputations such as Seymour Hersh, formerly of the New Yorker, and Robert Parry, who broke many Iran Contra stories for Newsweek and the AP on Iran-Contra. Both are no longer writing for established media. Their claims are devastating for the United States: they claim the superpower has been supporting ISIS and Al Qaeda in Syria in an attempt to topple Assad, and has been gunning for Assad for decades. The motive? Helping Saudi Arabia build a pipeline through Syria to Europe.
The Russian narrative on the one hand suggests a staged attack by terrorist groups or the United States, to the unintended release of chemical weapons from a Syrian Air Force attack on a warehouse maintained by "militants" in preparation for the shipment of weapons to Iraq, according to a statement by Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov, who added that the same chemical weapons were used by "militants" in Aleppo. Konashenkov was quoted in RT as saying that the Syrian Air Force had destroyed a chemical weapons warehouse east of the town of Khan Shaykuhn where the attack occurred. It was almost as if the RT article, posted the night of April 4, was reporting on a separate incident. However, the article quoted a rebel leader who had told Reuters that there were no rebel bases in that area, adding "everyone saw the plane while it was bombing with gas."
The Russian statement came out the day of the attack; by Tuesday, April 6, Syrian Foreign minister Walid Muallem condemned the attack and said it had been the result of a Syrian Air Force attack on a weapons depot maintained by the Islamic State, also according to an article in Russia Today. This stands in contrast to the Russian statement, blaming the rebel coalition (not foreign mercenary fighters for the Islamic State).
The White House, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Defense Secretary James Mattis were quick to denounce the Russian version of the incident, releasing declassified intelligence showing intercepted communications and the tracking of a Syrian Air Force aircraft dropping the deadly gas canisters into the rebel-held neighborhood.
And the Montreal-based think tank Global Research, just as quickly posted a rebuttal to the White House report on its declassified intelligence. What is quite puzzling is that candidate Donald Trump's claims about Syria are actually closer to the alternative media than to his current position that led to his missile attack on Syria. Many will remember his claims that Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were the "real founders" of the Islamic State. Now, however, he seems completely certain that a U.S.-funded ISIS did not perpetrate the Idlib chemical attack.
INVESTIGATING CHEMICAL ATTACKS
Both main actors, Russia and the United States, moved to spin the story immediately following the attack. But what about an independent investigation?
Very quickly after reports of the attack, the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons based in The Hague and operating in tandem with the United Nations issued a statement saying they had contacted Syrian authorities to initiate their investigation and "also requested that all States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention, in a position to do so, share any information they may have regarding the allegation of chemical weapons use" in Kahn Shaykhun.
The OPCW has been on the front line of investigation since the August 2013 sarin attack in the Damascus suburb of East Ghouta, another rebel stronghold, that resulted in more than 300 dead (original estimates were over 1,000). It should be noted, however, that the OPCW never ruled on who was at fault in that attack. According to news reports, they were allowed entry to the area by the Syrian government on the condition that they would not find who was at fault.
The second independent body to rule on the 2013 attack, notorious for prompting President Barack Obama's red line, was the United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism. The JIM ruled that there was indeed sarin found in artillery canisters in the neighborhood, and that the artillery was Soviet-era M14 surface-to-surface missiles, but like the investigators before them, they did not rule on who was responsible for the attack.
After the 2013 attack, the United Nations security council unanimously approved Resolution 2118, which endorsed the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons program. This was at the urging of Russia, apparently to avoid military intervention by President Barack Obama, who had drawn a "red line" for the Assad regime and pledged to retaliate for the use of chemical weapons. Syria's chemical weapons program began as early as the 1970s, according to a U.S. congressional report, most likely in response to perceived threats from Israel. By 2015, the destruction of 12 chemical weapons production facilities, seven aircraft hangars and five underground structures, was under way.
In 2014 and 2015, there were a handful of reported chemical attacks in rebel areas of Syria. The OPCW investigated, and the UN's JIM did rule on the attacks for which they found conclusive evidence gathered by OPCW. The investigations were sanctioned by UN Resolution 2235 in 2015. Three of the four attacks, all of them chlorine, they attributed to the Syrian government. A fourth attack, with mustard gas, they attributed to the Islamic State. The late UN ambassador to the UN from Russia, Vitaly Churkin (pictured above center with Vladimir Putin and Sergei Lavrov), was a vocal critic of their rulings, in spite of him voting for Resolution 2235. Churkin died suddenly in February of cardiac arrest in New York. One of Russia's problems with the rulings was that the Fact Finding Mission of the OPCW was not able to access the sites (the team was even hit by an IUD). To be fair, the OPCW went to great lengths to give details in their rulings about how their fact finding mission transported witnesses from the rebel areas to be interviewed at a secure location, after it became clear that they were going to be unable to access the site of the attacks.
In August 2016, the OPCW became concerned that they were not being shown all of the chemical weapons in Syria, and there were gaps in disclosure by the Syrian government.
According to the journal Foreign Policy, "Those gaps have confounded the inspectors' attempts to verify whether or not Syria has fully abandoned its chemical weapons program, fueling suspicions by the United States... that the government may be seeking to retain a limited capacity to use the nerve agents and other lethal toxins agains the rebels working to unseat Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
ON THE GROUND
According to the coalition fighting for a change in Syria, Bashar Al-Assad has used brutal methods to put down the uprising that began six years ago. Everyone agrees that Islamist militias have made the situation even worse, resulting in displacement of half the country's population. Russia is defending its ally, Syria, by providing air support, while the United States has been aiding the rebels -- many of them extremists with questionable loyalties.
But according to some Western-based outlets, the 2011 uprising was aided from the beginning by U.S. officials, and there are few if any moderate rebels. The Islamist rebel groups, these sources allege, are trained and funded by Saudi Arabia and the United States. It is the mercenary influence that is essentially the problem in Syria, while Russia is the only thing maintaining the sovereignty of the Syrian government. The chemical attacks were carried out by terrorist groups who want to destabilize the country further so they can establish an Islamic caliphate in both Syria and Iraq to the east.
There is, however, evidence of a robust opposition to the Syrian regime. In fact, in East Ghouta, site of the 2013 chemical attack, opposition groups held fast in refusing any "evacuation deals" with the government.
ISIS, however, does have a great influence on the entire area, even dominating and "infiltrating" an entire refugee camp on the Syria-Jordan border, according to NPR. It is a lawless no-man's-land, reportedly.
Ten nations led by the United States voted Wednesday for a full United Nations investigation of a reported chemical attack last Tuesday in Syria, and for the Syrian government to submit flight logs from nearby airbases, allowing investigators so speak with Syrian military commanders.
But the Russian Federation vetoed the draft resolution, saying it contained "sly language" targeted at the Syrian government, and it was not adopted.
Had it passed, Syria would have been required to provide the names of all commanders of helicopter squadrons and allow investigators to meet with generals and other high-ranking officials regarding the attack at Khan Shaykhun in Idlib governorate.
Russia's deputy permanent representative to the UN, Vladimir Safronkov, said Moscow wants an "independent" investigation, calling for an international mission to visit the area of Khan Shaykhun and Shayrate airbase, from where the White House claims the attack was launched. At the meeting before the vote, Safronkov said Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had suggested such an international mission in his meeting Wednesday with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, according to a security council press release.
The secretary of state was considering that proposal, he said, adding that the whole gamut of issues would be discussed by OPCW on April 13 at the Hague. Putting the draft to a vote would serve no useful purpose, he emphasized.
For its part, the OPCW issued a statement on Thursday saying it had received samples from the neighborhood of Khan Shaykhun.
Stay tuned for developments.