When there was a ghastly tragedy on April 4th, 2017 in Idlib, Syria that killed a large number of civilians, there were immediate media reports that it was due to a sarin chemical attack by the Syrian government, aided by their ally Russia. The Trump administration was quick to accept this claim and less than two days later, Trump made an emotional speech about the deaths of children to justify the US unleashing a missile attack on a Syrian airfield to supposedly punish Syria for the attack.
Since Syria is an official enemy of the US, the media here largely failed to seek evidence that these charges were in fact true, just as they failed in the past with attacks on designated enemies like Iraq and Sudan and numerous other occasions where the US bombed first and failed to ask questions later. Liberal warhawks rushed to praise Trump for ‘being presidential’. A few observers did question whether the official accounts were true because the evidence was scanty and contradictory and there seemed to be no motive for the Syrian government to use chemical weapons since they seemed to be winning the bloody war against ISIS anyway.
But now come reports such as this one from veteran investigative reporter Seymour Hersh that US intelligence people knew from the start that the claims that chemical weapons were used were untrue and were appalled at the Trump response. Hersh was also given anonymously the transcripts of conversations that took place between April 6th and 8th between a security adviser and an active US American soldier on duty on a key operational base about the events in Khan Sheikhoun where the attack took place who express dismay that media reports of the use of Sarin gas were unquestioningly accepted even though there was no evidence of it, and that the devastation was caused by a Syrian attack was on a stored ISIS weapons cache.
In his long and absorbing piece, Hersh writes that Russian intelligence had identified the target as a two-story cinder block building that served as the command and control center for Ahrar al-Sham and the al-Qaida-affiliated group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, and that the basement “was used as storage for rockets, weapons and ammunition, as well as products that could be distributed for free to the community, among them medicines and chlorine-based decontaminants for cleansing the bodies of the dead before burial.” It was the detonation of this cache of weapons that caused the widespread damage. The Russians had given advance warning to the US that a guided missile was going to target the building so that they could clear the area of any operatives of their own who had infiltrated the rebel groups.
But Trump used the attack to launch a missile attack anyway, presumably because he knew that belligerence is what his supporters want to see and the media loves wars.
On April 6, United States President Donald Trump authorized an early morning Tomahawk missile strike on Shayrat Air Base in central Syria in retaliation for what he said was a deadly nerve agent attack carried out by the Syrian government two days earlier in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun. Trump issued the order despite having been warned by the U.S. intelligence community that it had found no evidence that the Syrians had used a chemical weapon.
The available intelligence made clear that the Syrians had targeted a jihadist meeting site on April 4 using a Russian-supplied guided bomb equipped with conventional explosives. Details of the attack, including information on its so-called high-value targets, had been provided by the Russians days in advance to American and allied military officials in Doha, whose mission is to coordinate all U.S., allied, Syrian and Russian Air Force operations in the region.
To the dismay of many senior members of his national security team, Trump could not be swayed over the next 48 hours of intense briefings and decision-making. In a series of interviews, I learned of the total disconnect between the president and many of his military advisers and intelligence officials, as well as officers on the ground in the region who had an entirely different understanding of the nature of Syria’s attack on Khan Sheikhoun. I was provided with evidence of that disconnect, in the form of transcripts of real-time communications, immediately following the Syrian attack on April 4.
So how did the stories about the use of sarin gas spread so quickly?
The target was struck at 6:55 a.m. on April 4, just before midnight in Washington. A Bomb Damage Assessment (BDA) by the U.S. military later determined that the heat and force of the 500-pound Syrian bomb triggered a series of secondary explosions that could have generated a huge toxic cloud that began to spread over the town, formed by the release of the fertilizers, disinfectants and other goods stored in the basement, its effect magnified by the dense morning air, which trapped the fumes close to the ground. According to intelligence estimates, the senior adviser said, the strike itself killed up to four jihadist leaders, and an unknown number of drivers and security aides. There is no confirmed count of the number of civilians killed by the poisonous gases that were released by the secondary explosions, although opposition activists reported that there were more than 80 dead, and outlets such as CNN have put the figure as high as 92. A team from Médecins Sans Frontières, treating victims from Khan Sheikhoun at a clinic 60 miles to the north, reported that “eight patients showed symptoms – including constricted pupils, muscle spasms and involuntary defecation – which are consistent with exposure to a neurotoxic agent such as sarin gas or similar compounds.” MSF also visited other hospitals that had received victims and found that patients there “smelled of bleach, suggesting that they had been exposed to chlorine.” In other words, evidence suggested that there was more than one chemical responsible for the symptoms observed, which would not have been the case if the Syrian Air Force – as opposition activists insisted – had dropped a sarin bomb, which has no percussive or ignition power to trigger secondary explosions. The range of symptoms is, however, consistent with the release of a mixture of chemicals, including chlorine and the organophosphates used in many fertilizers, which can cause neurotoxic effects similar to those of sarin.
The internet swung into action within hours, and gruesome photographs of the victims flooded television networks and YouTube. U.S. intelligence was tasked with establishing what had happened. Among the pieces of information received was an intercept of Syrian communications collected before the attack by an allied nation. The intercept, which had a particularly strong effect on some of Trump’s aides, did not mention nerve gas or sarin, but it did quote a Syrian general discussing a “special” weapon and the need for a highly skilled pilot to man the attack plane. The reference, as those in the American intelligence community understood, and many of the inexperienced aides and family members close to Trump may not have, was to a Russian-supplied bomb with its built-in guidance system. “If you’ve already decided it was a gas attack, you will then inevitably read the talk about a special weapon as involving a sarin bomb,” the adviser said. “Did the Syrians plan the attack on Khan Sheikhoun? Absolutely. Do we have intercepts to prove it? Absolutely. Did they plan to use sarin? No. But the president did not say: ‘We have a problem and let’s look into it.’ He wanted to bomb the shit out of Syria.”
At the UN the next day, Ambassador Haley created a media sensation when she displayed photographs of the dead and accused Russia of being complicit. “How many more children have to die before Russia cares?” she asked. NBC News, in a typical report that day, quoted American officials as confirming that nerve gas had been used and Haley tied the attack directly to Syrian President Assad. “We know that yesterday’s attack was a new low even for the barbaric Assad regime,” she said. There was irony in America’s rush to blame Syria and criticize Russia for its support of Syria’s denial of any use of gas in Khan Sheikhoun, as Ambassador Haley and others in Washington did. “What doesn’t occur to most Americans” the adviser said, “is if there had been a Syrian nerve gas attack authorized by Bashar, the Russians would be 10 times as upset as anyone in the West. Russia’s strategy against ISIS, which involves getting American cooperation, would have been destroyed and Bashar would be responsible for pissing off Russia, with unknown consequences for him. Bashar would do that? When he’s on the verge of winning the war? Are you kidding me?”
Five days later, the Trump administration gathered the national media for a background briefing on the Syrian operation that was conducted by a senior White House official who was not to be identified. The gist of the briefing was that Russia’s heated and persistent denial of any sarin use in the Khan Sheikhoun bombing was a lie because President Trump had said sarin had been used.
The mainstream press responded the way the White House had hoped it would: Stories attacking Russia’s alleged cover-up of Syria’s sarin use dominated the news and many media outlets ignored the briefer’s myriad caveats. There was a sense of renewed Cold War.
Hersh’s report depends heavily on anonymous sources and it would benefit from other reporters looking into the story and fleshing out more details. But as is drearily so often the case, the mainstream media has little interest in investigating whether their past reports that aided the rush to war were correct. It would be embarrassing for them to show how easily they were once again stampeded into supporting warlike actions. They got their lovely little war and have moved on. It is left to the alternative media to try and bring this to light and Jefferson Morley rounds up what we know so far and says that there still are many unanswered questions about what happened the morning of April 4th.
The deaths of over 90 civilians is a massive tragedy and a horrendous crime and Russia and Syria must be held responsible for their deaths because it was their actions that caused it, even if it was a consequence of an attack on a military target. ‘Collateral damage’ is too easily used as an excuse for governments to evade the fact that their wars are murdering mostly civilians. But truth matters, and inflammatory claims about the use of nerve gases, like the charges of weapons of mass destruction prior to the Iraq war, must be investigated and substantiated before they are used to initiate yet more attacks.