When reports emerged on April 4 of what seems like a ghastly tragedy in Idlib, Syria, the key questions should have been: What exactly happened? Who were the victims? Who were the perpetrators? What was their motive? Was it a deliberate and targeted attack on the victims or had something gone badly awry? What should be the appropriate response? As with any investigation of deliberate killings, identifying means, opportunity, and motive become paramount. Means and opportunity exist for a wide variety of agents in the region, including the Syrian government and the ISIS-affiliated the rebels fighting against them. That leaves motive as a key discriminant.
These questions are not easy to answer at the best of times and even harder in a war zone. Answering them requires independent investigators to go in and gather evidence. Indeed this is exactly the process that the US demands whenever it is accused of killing civilians such as the attacks on the MSF hospitals and the Yemen village, though in such cases it claims the right to have its own people investigate itself and then, unsurprisingly, absolves itself from any culpability because the ‘tragic accident’ occurred in the ‘fog of war.’
And yet, in less than 48 hours after the initial reports emerged, elite consensus was that Syrian president Assad had deliberately attacked civilians by bombing them with the nerve agent sarin. This elite consensus was so strong that Donald Trump, implausibly claiming to have been swayed by the images of dead children, reversed his previous policy on Syria and launched more than 50 missiles at a Syrian airfield. So here we go again, stampeded into yet another bombing campaign on a country despite the fact that when he was president, Barack Obama and people in his administration like Susan Rice and John Kerry had claimed that as a result of their efforts, all of the Syrian government’s chemical agents had been destroyed back in 2014.
As Ben Norton writes, independent sources have refrained from rushing to assign responsibility.
On April 4, an alleged chemical attack in Idlib killed dozens of civilians. The details around the incident are murky. Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. special envoy for Syria noted at a press conference after the attack, “We have not yet any official or reliable confirmation.”
Federica Mogherini, high representative of the EU for foreign affairs and security policy, likewise said, “We also do not have evidence at the moment.”
A statement by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons did not apportion blame and noted it “is in the process of gathering and analysing information.”
However, the U.S. government, which has spent billions over the past several years arming and training rebels committed to overthrowing Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, immediately said the Syrian government had used chemical weapons, an accusation the Syrian and Russian governments denied.
Justin Raimondo reminds us of how little we know and how doubtful the sources of the meager knowledge we have of what happened.
I’ve pinned a tweet to the top of my Twitter profile, one that you might take as a sort of journalistic credo, and it says simply this: “Where’s the evidence?” So what’s the evidence that the Syrian military, on the brink of victory against both the Islamist rebels and their allies in ISIS and al-Qaeda – and days away from a conference that was to have decided Syria’s fate – used sarin gas against a village in the Idlib region?
The only such evidence is coming from the Syrian rebels, radical Islamists who are ideologically indistinguishable from ISIS and who have committed endless atrocities in their battle to overthrow Assad. They claim that dozens of children, women, and other civilians are the victims of a deliberate attack by Syrian government forces.
Phil Giraldi, a former intelligence official, tells our very own Scott Horton that the “military and intelligence personnel,” “intimately familiar” with the intelligence, say that the narrative that Assad or Russia did it is a “sham,” instead endorsing the Russian narrative that Assad’s forces had bombed a rebel storage facility containing some sort of chemical weapons.
One more thing: the airfield that was bombed is said to be the site of Assad’s store of sarin gas. Yet you’ll remember that Syria was supposed to have surrendered the entirety of its chemical weapons, and this was certified by the United Nations, the Russians, and the Obama administration. So what chemical weapons are we talking about?
Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton explain the murky situation that exists in Idlib and how Trump’s actions may have given the ISIS-allied forces such as Jabhat al-Nusra a new lease of life at a time when they were struggling to remain relevant.
The chemical attack occurred just as peace talks were beginning in Geneva, and with the Syrian army in a dominant position in the sixth year of a war fueled by outside powers.
The attacks threaten to reverse the political gains made by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, leading to unrelenting bipartisan pressure for Donald Trump to authorize a bombing campaign targeting the Syrian government and its military.
For the al-Qaeda-allied rebels who were ousted from their stronghold in eastern Aleppo in December 2016, and whose gains in a recent series of offensives have been rapidly reversed, Western military intervention is the only hope.
Given its dominant position, why would the Syrian government authorize a chemical attack that was likely to trigger renewed calls for regime change? The answer remains elusive.
But there has been one issue major media outlets have refused to touch, and that is the nature of the rebels who would gain from any U.S. military offensive. Who holds power in Idlib, why are they there and what do they want? This is perhaps the most inconvenient set of questions for proponents of “humanitarian” military intervention in Syria.
The reality is that Idlib is substantially controlled by al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, which has gone through a series of rebranding schemes but remains the same jihadist group it always was: Jabhat al-Nusra. In the province it rules, al-Nusra has imposed what a leading scholar has described as a Taliban-like regime that has ethnically cleansed religious and ethnic minorities, banned music and established a brutal theocracy in which it publicly executes women accused of adultery.
Even analysts who have repeatedly called for U.S.-led regime change in Syria have described Idlib as the “heartland of al-Nusra.”
In Yemen, U.S. and Saudi intervention has driven the growth of al-Qaeda, even while the U.S. carries out airstrikes against the extremist group. As the International Crisis Group reported in February 2017, thanks to “state collapse” brought on by war, the “Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda (AQ) is stronger than it has ever been.”
U.S. intervention would be the last hope for Syrian rebels, and a shot in the arm to al-Qaeda, which has grown to record size thanks to America’s military meddling across the Middle East.
Of course, the Trump administration and war cheerleaders in the US in both parties have no time for such niceties as investigations and evidence when there is a chance to drop bombs on other countries that have been declared to be enemies.
What is extraordinary is that this attack was launched within a day of reports of the deaths, even before any investigation had been carried out or evidence presented about what the attack involved and who was behind it.
Major news networks have demonstrated a similar lack of skepticism when it comes to reporting on other issues about Syria. Ambiguous “activists” and rebel groups committed to overthrowing the Syrian government, some of them linked to al-Qaeda, are often cited as sources in media reports.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is perhaps the leading source for information, and is frequently described by media outlets as a “monitoring group.” Yet even the New York Times, which often draws from SOHR’s claims, has acknowledged that it “is virtually a one-man band” run out of the home of a man in a small town in England who has not been to Syria in more than a decade.
Likewise, major news networks like CNN have repeatedly cited Bilal Abdul Kareem, a propagandist for extremist jihadists militias in Syria who has embedded himself with al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, as a supposed independent observer of the war.
Of course, liberal warhawks are practically weeping with joy at the chance to show how tough they are, that they are not wimpy peaceniks, and that they enjoy a show of force as much as the most rabid right-wingers. The media loves modern bombing campaigns because they get to show pictures of ‘smart bombs’ and exult in America’s technological superiority. As Glenn Greenwald writes:
When asked about this yesterday by the Globe and Mail’s Joanna Slater, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urged an investigation to determine what actually happened before any action was contemplated, citing what he called “continuing questions about who is responsible”:
But U.S. war fever waits for nothing. Once the tidal wave of American war frenzy is unleashed, questioning the casus belli is impermissible. Wanting conclusive evidence before bombing commences is vilified as sympathy with and support for the foreign villain (the same way that asking for evidence of claims against Russia instantly converts one into a “Kremlin agent” or “stooge”).
That the Syrian government deliberately used chemical weapons to bomb civilians became absolute truth in U.S. discourse within less than 24 hours – even though Trudeau urged an investigation, even though it was denied in multiple capitals around the world, and even though Susan Rice just two months ago boasted to NPR: “We were able to get the Syrian government to voluntarily and verifiably give up its chemical weapons stockpile.”
The liberal warhawks have been falling over themselves with disgusting praise, such as Brian Williams rhapsodizing over the “beautiful pictures” of the might of the US military and how “I am guided by the beauty of our weapons”. Fareed Zakaria also gushed that “I think Donald Trump became President of the United States” because we all know that bombing the hell out of other countries is what proves you are worthy of being president. And Hillary Clinton of course advocated for the bombing even before it occurred, as she pretty much always supports warlike actions. Adam Johnson has compiled a list of Twitter posts by liberals praising the bombing and of newspaper op-eds and adds, “Amazing how our Free Press™ always comes to the exact same conclusion about the urgent necessity of war.”
Of course, there are the killjoys who carp about whether Trump has the legal authority to launch such strikes at all but given that liberals pretty much ignored Barack Obama’s stretching the legal boundaries to launch his drone attacks on other countries, such quaint notions of legality and international law are now ignored as our political and media elites wallow in the display of raw American power. Jefferson Morley wonders whether this action will lead to the next catastrophe in that region just like our past previous ‘successes’ in creating chaos in Iraq, Libya, and Yemen.
Russian president Vladimir Putin has responded with angry words but no action and there are reports that the Trump administration warned him before the attacks to ensure that there would be no Russian casualties as a result of the bombing, no doubt disappointing those who seem eager to have a war with Russia. The Russians also threw out their own allegations about who was responsible for the attack.
“Both Trump and Tillerson know perfectly well that it was not Assad who used chemical weapons against peaceful Syrian people, but the forces of Jabhat al Nusra [the former name of an al Qaeda affiliate] with the help of CIA,” said Sergey Markov, a member of the Russian parliament’s Public Chamber.
“But Trump decided to strike and be a popular politician in the media, so in response Russia suspends our deal with the U.S.,” Markov told The Daily Beast. “So now our forces in Syria can bring down American jets.”
The Cold War, far from going away, appears to be heating up.
Stephen Zunes says that these bombings are not going to improve the lot of the long-suffering Syrian people.
With no direct threat to the national security of the United States and with no congressional authorization, such use of force was illegal. By contrast, when President Obama considered authorizing military action against the regime following an even deadlier sarin attack in 2013, he respected such constitutional limitations on his power and—failing to receive authorization from Congress—did not do so, providing time for the Russian-initiated UN-backed agreement, which resulted in the destruction of the vast majority of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.
Obama was willing, but not ideologically driven, to go to war. As a result, popular pressure and viable diplomatic alternatives prevented war at that time. And, despite Trump’s more recent criticism of that decision, he was at that time among the voices opposing U.S. military intervention.
While Trump’s militarism, unfortunately, may be harder to constrain, the fact that the air strikes were fairly limited may be indicative that he recognizes that the American public is not interested in the United States getting involved in another major Middle Eastern war.
Rather than promoting dubious conspiracy theories exonerating the Bashar al-Assad regime from yet another of its many war crimes, the focus should be on how the United States has no right to punish Syria.
True, there is something uniquely horrific about chemical weapons, the use of which has been banned since the Geneva Protocol of 1925, the possession of which has been illegal since the Chemical Weapons of 1993 (belatedly signed and ratified by Syria in 2013.)
But know this: Since Trump came to office, nearly 1,000 civilians have been killed by U.S. air strikes in Syria and Iraq—including up to 200 civilians in Mosul and around 60 civilians in the bombing of a mosque in al-Jena (not far from the site of the chemical weapons attack) this past month.
No reason has been given as to why there was any urgency to this new bombing campaign. Just like the infamous, “We cannot let the smoking gun be a mushroom cloud” fear mongering spouted by George W. Bush and Condoleeza Rice in the run-up to the Iraq war, once again, we see how easy it is for the media and liberal war hawks to be stampeded into warlike actions before the evidence is in, allowing Trump to bask in the approval that comes to presidents with every show of American might.