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The Witchfinders

Jonathan Cook wrote an article  for CounterPunch on Thursday that connected Israel’s bombing of a non-existent nuclear plant in Syria 10 years ago to the sarin gas incident in Khan Sheikhoun this year. By casting aspersions on the journalists and scholars who tried to clear Bashar al-Assad of having anything to do with Khan Sheikhoun, George Monbiot’s article exposed him in Cook’s eyes as “The left’s Witchfinder General” and just as culpable of promoting “regime change” as the lying neocons of yore.

Cook was reacting to Monbiot and “many others” that challenge the versions put forward by Seymour Hersh, Gareth Porter and Theodor Postol. The first two blame the civilian deaths on the accidental bombing of fertilizer and/or pesticides that generated a toxic cloud with sarin gas like symptoms, while Postol implicitly blames jihadists for mounting a false flag incident by setting off a sarin gas bomb when nobody was watching. Since Monbiot’s article credited me as a blogger who “patiently explored and demolished” Postol’s theories (his account went through several iterations), I have vested interest in this discussion as a fellow Witchfinder General  (or at least a Corporal).

Were there “many others” that put the blame on Bashar al-Assad? That would be news to me. A Google search for “Khan Sheikhoun” and “false flag” produces 105,000 results while I doubt that much more than a dozen articles taking the position that Assad ordered the strike have been written. I would concede that Cook didn’t have obscure bloggers like me in mind when he wrote this article. He was much more concerned about what someone like Anne Barnard was writing in the NY Times, someone with a much larger megaphone. Of course, if the intention of such coverage was to foment regime change, it had little effect. Despite all the analogies made with George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, it took only one month after Colin Powell’s WMD speech to the UN for Bush to invade. Now, after six years of war that likely will be ending soon, there are some still writing about regime change even when Donald Trump warned the Russians beforehand that he was going to bomb a Syrian airbase in retaliation for Khan Sheikhoun. Would Kim Jong-un get such a warning?

Cook takes exception to the October 17, 2017 Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) report of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) that Monbiot defends as proof of Assad ordering a sarin bomb attack. He prefers to believe Robert Parry of Consortium News who discovered a discrepancy in Annex II of the report (a term used instead of appendix for some reason) that smacks of a cover-up.

Parry’s November 9th article  points out that while the OPCW identifies the attack as taking place between 6:30 and 7am, there were reports of 57 victims being treated as early as 6am. In the words of the OPCW, this was attributable to either faulty record-keeping or a “staging incident”. If you kept an open mind about faulty record-keeping being to blame, you would likely be convinced by the OPCW adding that 52 out of the 57 victims were actually admitted at 7am despite what was contained in the hospital’s records: “In 10 such cases, patients appear to have been admitted to a hospital 125 km away from Khan Shaykhun at 0700 hours while another 42 patients appear to have been admitted to a hospital 30 km away at 0700 hours.” Neither Parry nor Cook let such inconvenient data influence their foregone conclusion that Assad was innocent of all charges. Probably they would argue that the 5 remaining victims unaccounted for in the 6:30 cut-off point was all the proof you needed.

Parry was sure to blame a “staging incident” for the casualties. He wrote:

Perhaps even more significantly, the JIM report ignored the context of the April 4 case and the past history of Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front staging chemical weapons attacks with the goal of foisting blame on the Syrian government and tricking the U.S. military into an intervention on the side of Nusra and its Islamic-militant allies.

On April 4, there was a strong motive for Al Qaeda and its regional allies to mount a staged event. Just days earlier, President Trump’s administration had shocked the Syrian rebels and their backers by declaring “regime change” was no longer the U.S. goal in Syria.

So, Al Qaeda and its regional enablers were frantic to reverse Trump’s decision, which was accomplished by his emotional reaction to videos on cable news showing children and other civilians suffering and dying in Khan Sheikhoun.

I supposed I should be inured at this point to the claim that Nusra possessed sarin gas as early as August 21, 2013, when a supposed “false flag” incident took place in East Ghouta that Parry was referring to in his first paragraph. With the Khan Sheikhoun attack, this amounts to two of the only uses of a powerful WMD in the possession of the group that flew passenger jets into the WTC and the Pentagon. When it was in East Ghouta, it aimed a cannon at their own supporters in a virtual banlieue so that the USA would intervene on their behalf at the very time Predator drones were being fired at al-Qaeda fighters in all four corners of the world. It never entered the mind of these bloodthirsty terrorist monsters to turn the cannon around and aim at government buildings or Assad’s military bases. What extraordinary Gandhian forbearance.

As far as Trump’s “emotional” reaction to suffering in Syria, I wonder if Parry was giggling to himself as he wrote these words. The notion that Trump cared anything about people living in jihadist-controlled territories in Iraq or Syria is preposterous. My friend Anand Gopal, whose book on Afghanistan I reviewed for CounterPunch in March, 2015 has an important article in last week’s Sunday NY Times that was co-written with Azmat Khan that should be must-reading for anybody who has conned himself or herself that American imperialism is in cahoots with ISIS or al-Qaeda. So anxious was Donald Trump to “liberate” Mosul that bombing attacks were responsible for 31 times the number of civilian casualties that the Pentagon took responsibility for.

The article is focused on an Iraqi family who had the misfortune to live in a house labeled as an ISIS stronghold by the American military. The Pentagon had posted a Youtube clip of the devastated and misidentified home that remained online until it learned that Gopal and Khan were working on the article. These were the comments made on Youtube by relatives of the victims living in the USA that disappeared along with the clip:

“I will NEVER forget my innocent and dear cousins who died in this pointless airstrike,” wrote Aisha Al-Rizzo, Tuqa’s 16-year-old cousin from Arkansas.

“You are murderers,” wrote Basim and Mohannad’s cousin Hassan al-Razzo. “You kill innocents with cold blood and then start creating justification.”

“How could you do that?” wrote another relative. “You don’t have a heart.”

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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