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On Tuesday, 4 April, images from a suspected a chemical weapons attack circulated the world and shocked all who saw them. Infants could be seen convulsing as they breathed into gas masks while young men were hosed down with water as they rolled around naked on the floor.
I was shocked too, of course, but not because of the content of the images (as a journalist, I encounter distressing images on a weekly basis). I was shocked because as soon as I saw the images, I knew exactly what the consequences would be.
They’re not difficult to predict. In fact, we’ve all seen how the events of Khan Sheikhoun play out dozens of times before: a heinous affront against humanity takes place, Western leaders apportion blame before any facts can be independently verified, all inconvenient narratives are ignored, sovereign leaders are vilified and a vulnerable government is toppled in the name of “regime change”. (PS this is exactly what academic Noam Chomsky recently meant when he said he United States is becoming the world’s laughing stock for kicking up a fuss about alleged Russian interference in its elections, when the country routinely overthrows governments it does not approve of.)
However, for some of us who follow Western foreign policy more closely, there usually entails another step in the chain of events that is not so well known: the incident that causes so much outrage turns out to be not as we were told or, in some instances, completely fabricated.
The weapons of mass destruction lie from the 2003 Iraq War is still fresh in our minds, but an example from the First Gulf War of 1990 may be more appropriate.
When public opinion was split about America’s involvement in the war, a 15-year-old girl who gave her name simply as Nayirah tugged the heartstrings of every right-thinking person and sold the case for war.
Appearing in front of US Congress, she testified that Iraqi soldiers took babies out of incubators in a Kuwaiti hospital and left the on the floor to die.
Her testimony was corroborated by Amnesty International and was broadcast all over the world, but in 1992, it emerged that Nayirah was the daughter of the Kuwaiti Ambassador to the US and that her story was completely false.
But by then, it was too late and the largest coalition of countries since World War Two had already gone to war.
Such tactics are known as atrocity propaganda and they became so widespread, they often became the pursuit of academic study.
“So great are the psychological resistances to war in modern nations”, wrote Harold Lasswell, a leading American political scientist, “that every war must appear to be a war of defence against a menacing, murderous aggressor.
“There must be no ambiguity about who the public is to hate.”
However, academics concluded that such atrocity propaganda leads to real atrocities as invading troops are more likely to let their hate dictate their actions and carry out acts of needless aggression.
Such violence then creates a cycle of hate that leads to the deaths of millions of civilians and the destruction of entire countries.
Though the facts are yet to fully emerge in this case, let us consider the inconvenient truths at play before we resign ourselves to the fate of all-out war.
One: In spite of the assertions of US officials, there is still no independently verified evidence to suggest President Bashar al-Assad’s troops were behind the suspected chemical weapon attack.
Two: Most evidence thus far has come from the British-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights – a network of opposition activists – and the White Helmets, founded by a former British Army officer. Both groups openly align with anti-Assad forces and are not impartial.
Three: One of the doctors who documented the alleged use of chemical weapons and appeared on television networks claiming sarin was used is Shajul Islam, 31, from east London. In 2013, he was arrested for the kidnapping of two Western journalists and was considered a “committed jihadist” by MI6 before being struck off the General Medical Council in 2016.
Four: Assad, who trained as an eye doctor in London, is said to be so daft that he authorised the attack days before a major peace conference in Geneva and after he has already vastly gained the upper hand against anti-government militants.
Five: Faced with US invasion in 2013 and when former President Barack Obama made his “red line” declaration, Syria joined the Chemical Weapons Convention of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and destroyed its 1,300-ton stockpile of chemical weapons and so-called precursor chemicals that can be used to make weapons.
Six: Though Assad is still believed to have some access to chemical weapons, he is not the only actor in Syria to do so. Following the 2013 chemical weapon attack in eastern Ghouta, which was immediately blamed on Assad, it emerged that groups such as the Al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front were more likely to be the perpetrators.
Seymour Hersh – a veteran investigative journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner – wrote for the London Review of Books at the time:
“Barack Obama did not tell the whole story this autumn when he tried to make the case that Bashar al-Assad was responsible for the chemical weapons attack near Damascus on 21 August .
“In some instances, he omitted important intelligence, and in others he presented assumptions as facts.
“Most significant, he failed to acknowledge something known to the US intelligence community: that the Syrian army is not the only party in the country’s civil war with access to sarin.”
Before we make such assumptions in Tuesday’s attack and risk the prospect of World War Three, is it not reasonable to ensure we understand who was really responsible?