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Did Assad Really Use Sarin?

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Photo by Beshr Abdulhadi | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Beshr Abdulhadi | CC BY 2.0

 

Almost immediately after video of the alleged chemical weapons attack in Idlib hit Western media, Assad was declared guilty by US news networks and political commentators. The front page of the New York Times on April 5th showed a heartbreaking image of a child wounded in the alleged chemical attack with a headline claiming Assad was responsible.

By the afternoon of April 7, a US attack seemed inevitable as both Rex Tillerson and Trump said action would be taken.

Between Democrats and Republicans, a bipartisan consensus emerged, rare in the Trump presidency, whereby Assad was deemed guilty and Trump was goaded on to attack. The few voices of dissent seemed mostly concerned with the lack of constitutional approval for the strike

The night of the strike, US media snapped into DPRK-style, state media mode. TV pundits fell into a trance while expressing the “beauty” of American power being unleashed on a country already destroyed by 6 years of war.

Pundits described the attack as “surgical” despite the pentagon quietly admitting one of the missiles missed its target and they don’t know where it landed. My questions to both CENTCOM and the Secretary of Defense Office on the missing cruise missile have thus far gone unanswered. However, Syrian sources claim civilians were killed in the missile strike.

Trump justified the attack by invoking religiously themed buzzwords and unconvincing blather on the “beautiful babies” murdered in the chemical attack.

Following the attack, Trump officials’ statements indicated there was a shift towards regime change. UN ambassador Nikki Haley said Sunday that removing Assad is now a priority.

The Neocon sharks have started circling too. Bill Kristol tweeted that these strikes should be used to move towards regime change in Iran. Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham, and John McCain have all joined in too, their mouths watering at the thought of ousting Assad.

But was Assad really responsible for the attack?

To ask such a question is to be deemed an “Assadist” by pundits and discourse police across the political spectrum.

Neither the lack of an independent investigation, nor the fact that nearly all the information on the alleged attack has come from rebel sources, who stand to benefit from a US response, is deemed sufficient cause for skepticism.

In a civilized society an actor is be presumed to be innocent until proven guilty. If guilt is determined, a legally justified course of action is taken. In the US however, if the accused is a US enemy, no evidence is needed, and even deranged conspiracies are given play in mainstream media coverage.

The best recent example of this is the US media’s conspiracy about Russia stealing the US election and working for Trump. The US media has stooped so low as to even push bizarre conspiracies by Louise Mensch. She recently claimed the 2014 uprising in Ferguson was a Russian plot.

In the case of the alleged attack on Khan Sheikhun, US officials and pro-war experts immediately declared Assad’s guilty and then cheered on an illegal use of force. This is all very reminiscent of the lead up to the Iraq war.

In an eerie coincidence, Michael R. Gordon, who with Judith Miller helped sell the Iraq WMD story to Americans, coauthored the New York Times April 4th article on Assad’s alleged sarin attack at Khan Sheikhun.

To help sell the sarin narrative, the US media brought on a doctor to describe the alleged attack that has been accused of helping kidnap journalists in his work with extremists.

When the US investigated its own airstrike in Mosul this March, it took a number of days before it admitted it had killed hundreds of civilians. Yet, guilt was immediately assigned in the Khan Sheikhun attack.

In 2013, the US media also rushed to the conclusion Assad used sarin in a horrific incident in Ghouta. The US was on the verge of attacking Assad then, but Obama decided against it. Obama claimed he held off because US intelligence voiced skepticism about Assad’s guilt.

The UN investigation on the Ghouta attack took almost a month and even its conclusions have been disputed.

In December of 2013, Seymour Hersh published a lengthy investigation into the 2013 attack in Ghouta and found reason to doubt Assad’s responsibility for attack. He was forced to publish it in the London Review of Books after the New York Times and the Washington Post refused to run it.

He reported that classified US reports claimed that Syria’s al Qaeda affiliate had “mastered the mechanics of creating sarin”.

A month after Hersh’s piece appeared, a MIT study cast further doubt on the US government’s story by demonstrating that the rockets used in the Ghouta attack couldn’t have flown as far as the US government claimed.

Ted Postol, one of the authors of the study said, “We were within a whisker of war based on egregious errors.”

In this latest alleged gas attack, a few individuals have dared question the state narrative.

The journalist Robert Parry has recently claimed there is much to be made of the fact that Mike Pompeo, the CIA Director, wasn’t among those helping sell this latest sarin story to the American people. He believes it indicates doubt in the CIA over Assad’s involvement.

Scott Ritter, a former UN weapons inspector in Iraq, has raised skepticism over Assad’s involvement. He says rebels have had chemical weapons facilities in Syria and some of the witnesses’ statements describe a strong smell during the attack, which indicates something other than sarin was used.

The Canadian government originally called for an investigation and stopped short of blaming Assad at the UN, but then later championed Trump’s strikes.

Groups like Organizations for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and Human Rights Watch are still investigating the alleged attack in Khan Sheikhun.

Whether these groups or others will be able to conduct an independent investigation is not known. But in usual fashion, the US had no interest in investigating facts, which may provide the wrong answers.

It’s possible that Assad carried out the attack, but just because he’s a reprehensible figure doesn’t mean there is no need to present evidence and conduct an independent investigation.

What’s clear now is that the US attack benefitted jihadi groups, has made further US military action more likely, and has increased the chances of a direct military confrontation with Russia. All of these results are very dangerous.

Future US military action in Syria should be resisted with popular pressure. History shows we can’t count on the media or pundits to act as the voice of reason.

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Paul Gottinger is a journalist based in Madison, WI whose work focuses on the Middle East. He can be reached via Twitter @paulgottinger or email: paul.gottinger@gmail.com

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