Syria chemical attack: rush to denialism continues

Human Rights Watch on Sept. 10 released a report, "Attacks on Ghouta: Analysis of Alleged Use of Chemical Weapons in Syria," examining what are said to actually be two suspected chemical attacks on the "opposition-controlled suburbs of Eastern and Western Ghouta, located 16 kilometers apart, in the early hours of August 21." The report relies on witness accounts of the rocket attacks, physical remnants of the rockets, and symptoms exhibited by the victims as documented by medical staff. "Rocket debris and symptoms of the victims from the August 21 attacks on Ghouta provide telltale evidence about the weapon systems used," said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at HRW and author of the report. "This evidence strongly suggests that Syrian government troops launched rockets carrying chemical warheads into the Damascus suburbs that terrible morning."

Relying on video footage as well as "higher-resolution images of weapon remnants provided by a local activist in Eastern Ghouta," the report finds that the Soviet-made 330mm and 140mm rockets that hit Eastern and Western Ghouta respectively are documented to be in the possession of the regime but not the rebels. The finding that these two suburbs were "opposition-controlled" would seem to put to rest the denialist claim that the attacks held no "massive advantage" for the regime. Rebel enclaves on the very outskirts of the capital are just the kind of thing that makes dictators feel desperate and resort to such measures. The report also dispatches the cowardly assertion that the attacks were not illegal because Syria is not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention:

The use of chemical weapons is a serious violation of international humanitarian law. Although Syria is not among the 189 countries that are party to the 1993 Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling, and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction, it is a party to the 1925 Geneva Gas Protocol. Customary international law bans the use of chemical weapons in all armed conflicts.

The reaction from Assad's stateside Internet partisans has been swift and predictable. Before Its News quotes "political analyst" Don DeBar calling HRW "an arm of the United States Department of State." (We don't feel too guilty about our scare quotes around "political analyst" given that the report calls HRW a "fraudulent group" and uses scare quotes when refering to its "findings.") According to such "analysis," HRW's frequent scathing statements on Guantánamo Bay are presumably made for the sole purpose of buying legitimacy to sneakily advance State Department agendas.

DeBar also treats us to a requisite outburst of Sorosphobia—the notion that HRW is tainted by the support of meddling financier George Soros, a perennial target of those looking for shadowy puppet-masters. I guess we're supposed to forget all the money Soros has sunk into groups that oppose US-led militarization of Latin America in the name of the "war on drugs."

Yes, HRW has weakened its own credibility by loaning legitimacy to "humanitarian intervention" notions (human rights groups used to be fastidiously neutral on foreign policy), but it also called for an investigation of possible NATO war crimes in Libya. Presumably the State Department was not very happy about this—unless, again, you buy into wacky notions that such protests are issued only for the purpose disguising the organization's shilling. (Why couldn't it be the other war 'round: playing nice on foreign policy questions so as to buy legitimacy to call the US out on torture and war crimes?)

A more ambitious but also more dishonest entry is provided by a website called Popular Resistance—an hilariously ironic name, given that it is a de facto propaganda organ of the Assad regime. Entitled "Questions About Human Rights Watch And Syria," the piece by one Harel B. impugns HRW for relying on photos supplied by an "activist," while asserting that the Assad regime has turned over its own evidence blaming the rebels to Russia and China—as if these patron states of the regime were somehow objective judges! Among other gems, we are treated again to distorted accounts of UN investigator Carla Del Ponte's speculation that a May chemical attack in Syria was carried out by the rebels. Watch this sleight of hand:

The HRW page has 787 hits for "Carla Del Ponte" (mostly for when she was prosecuting Serbian leaders, it seems) but add "Syria" to the search, remove "Serbia" or "Serbian" and insist on 2012 or 2013, and you are down to four (4) matches, none of which as of today Sept 12 2013, mention the key fact, not even in the passing or critically commenting on, the evidence found by the U.N. investigation of a previous chemical attack, a U.N. investigation in which Del Ponte was a leading member and which, she reported in May 2013, they found "strong, concrete" evidence linking rebels to those earlier chemical attacks, while adding "we have no indication at all that the government, the Syrian government, used" chemical weapons ( Screenshots of a similar google search are included — tale of two Carlas: one worth mentioning, the other, when the stakes are so high with war threatened? Not so much.

Has it occurred to "Popular Resistance" that Del Ponte has accrued her 783 hits on "Serbia" because she was chief prosecutor on the Yugoslavia war crimes tribunal for nearly a decade (or so "it seems")? In contrast, her investigation of the May gas attack in Syria was brief, and what she "found" (note lack of scare quotes this time) was actually tentative and inconclusive. "Popular Resistance" is incredibly stupid to provide the link to the May 6 BBC report they lift their quote from—because it reveals their account as shamelessly distorted. What Del Ponte actually said was: "[T]here are strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas..." She did not say, as "Popular Resistance" has it, "'strong, concrete' evidence linking rebels" to the attack. This is two distortions for the price of one: not only do "suspicions" become "evidence," but "suspicions" of "use of sarin gas" become "evidence" of use of sarin gas by the rebels! (Of course, "concrete suspicions" is itself an oxymoron, but that's an issue we'll have to take up with Del Ponte.) She also said in the BBC interview that she was "a little bit stupefied by the first indications we got... they were about the use of nerve gas by the opposition." Not "evidence," but "indications"—about which she has apparently had nothing to say since then. Del Ponte is perfectly capable of speaking for herself, and she is not now hearkening back to her May comments. This is what she said in a Sept. 9 Reuters interview about her ongoing investigative work in Syria: "We are doing our work, the list of crimes is getting longer, we try to identify high-ranking politicians and military who are implicated." Rather a different tune, eh?

"Popular Resistance" also gives us a reprise of the highly dubious account from Mint Press claiming that interviewed survivors in Ghouta had blamed the rebels for the attack. We aren't told that Mint News was shamed into adding an addendum to the piece, reading:  "Some information in this article could not be independently verified."

Maddeningly, after this and countless other exemplars of Assad-shilling propaganda on their website, "Popular Resistance" has got the chutzpah to run a wholly admirable piece by Rania Khalek entitled "Syria's Nonviolent Resistance Is Dying To Be Heard"—picked up, seemingly without permission, from Al Jazeera of Sept. 9. One token nod to Syria's civil resistance—by an outside writer—amid a barrage of pro-regime propaganda utterly betraying them. Unlike HRW's relentless exhortations over Gitmo, this really is empty lip service intended to legitimize an utterly antithetical agenda. The choice of a piece that invokes "nonviolence" in its title can also be read as a condescending demand that the Syrian resistance refrain from armed struggle, regardless of what degree of violence they are faced with from the regime. Such demands are strangely never made in rad-left discourse of the Palestinians, or leftist guerillas in Latin America. 

Some corrective relief is happily provided by Muhammad Idrees Ahmad writing in the New Republic, who derides "The New Truthers: Americans Who Deny Syria Used Chemical Weapons." One group Ahmad cites is Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), "comprised by former spooks and diplomats," which wrote an open letter claiming to have learned from "former co-workers" that "the most reliable intelligence shows that Bashar al-Assad was NOT responsible for the chemical incident that killed and injured Syrian civilians on August 21," but that it was "a pre-planned provocation by the Syrian opposition and its Saudi and Turkish supporters." They actually reject the notion that "a Syrian military rocket capable of carrying a chemical agent was fired into the area."

Ahmad dares to look under this rock, and finds the predictable slime:

I asked three of the signatories about their sources. They proved curiously evasive. But one VIPS member, Philip Giraldi, has since published an article in The American Conservative—and the reason for their hesitation has become obvious. The sources for VIPS' most sensational claims, it turns out, are Canadian eccentric Michel Chossudovsky's conspiracy site Global Research and far-right shock-jock Alex Jones's Infowars. The specific article that Giraldi references carries the intriguing headline "Did the White House Help Plan the Syrian Chemical Attack?" (The answer, in case you wondered, is yes.) The author is one Yossef Bodansky—an Israeli-American supporter of Assad's uncle Rifaat, who led the 1982 massacre in Hama. Bodansky's theory was widely circulated after an endorsement from Rush Limbaugh. A whole paragraph from Bodansky's article makes it into the VIPS letter intact, with only a flourish added at the end. 

What charming bedfellows: pseudo-left ideologues like Chossudovsky with ex-CIA spooks like Philip Giraldi. We've noted how the paleocon right is this time around joining with idiotic sectors of the "left" to shill for Syria's dictator. In another example, former CIA analyst Ray McGovern (a perennial conspiranoid) serves up similar fare in an interview with an Internet TV outfit calling itself "Left Voices."

The rush to exculpate Assad in the Ghouta attack is indicative of a deeper malady. We don't entirely dismiss the possibility that the attack was carried out by the rebels, but there is an obvious reason why that is highly improbable: revolutionaries don't do that kind of thing. Even the very worst kind of guerilla fighter, like the Nusra Front, has to worry about the hearts and minds of the populace. Basic Che Guevara. Every probable "false flag" operation in history—the battleship Maine, the Reichstag fire, the Tonkin Gulf incident—was the work of an imperial power, not a revolutionary movement. The "false flag" thesis being pushed about the Ghouta attack is predicated on the utterly ignorant and deeply insulting assumption that there is no legitimate revolution in Syria, but only an imperialist intrigue.

Meanwhile, there has apparently been another chemical attack in Syria. The Syrian Observer on Sept. 13 picks up a piece from the Arabic-language All4Syria reporting that numerous residents of Damascus suburb Jobar were taken ill with "symptoms consistent with a poison gas attack," including "yellowing in the body, difficulty breathing, convulsions and skin sensitivity, accompanied by lack of balance, watering eyes and blurry vision." At this moment, Google indicates that the Washington Times is the only even quasi-mainstream source to pick up the story. So much for the supposed Western media conspiracy against Assad.

We are still waiting for an anti-intervention effort that doesn't totally sell out the Syrians. We haven't seen many encouraging signs, to say the least. Is such a position out there?

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'Alternative' media abets Syria denialism

Common Dreams runs a reader poll in which 89.12% reject Congressional approval for military action against Syria. OK, that's fine. What's not so fine is the apparent willingness to twist the facts to meet the propaganda needs of supporting this position. Question 2 asks if there is "clear evidence" that chemical weapons were used at Ghouta. Only 44.81% think so. File under "WTF?" The next question asks if there is "clear evidence" that it was the Syrian government that used chemical weapons at Ghouta. A whopping 60.99% vote "no." Of course "clear evidence" is something of a wiggle phrase, setting the bar high to give readers an excuse to vote no. And indeed the bar should be set high if the question is US military intervention. But why is that the only question US activists are concerned with, as evidenced by the wording of this poll, and the responses? The poll was released on Sept. 11, before the Human Rights Watch report. Dare we hope that some of these readers might have revised their opinions on the basis of the report?

Probably not.

UN issues report on Syria chemical massacre

The UN News Centre announces Sept. 16 that the Mission to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic, led by Swedish scientist Dr. Åke Sellström, has handed in its report, finding "clear and convincing evidence" that sarin gas was used at Ghouta on Aug. 21, delivered by surface-to-air rockets. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called it the worst use of weapons of mass destruction in the 21st century, adding: “The international community has a responsibility to hold the perpetrators accountable and to ensure that chemical weapons never re-emerge as an instrument of warfare.”

Ban further declared: "The results are overwhelming and indisputable. The facts speak for themselves. The United Nations Mission has now confirmed, unequivocally and objectively, that chemical weapons have been used in Syria," emphasizing that 85% of blood samples from sites in Ghouta tested positive for sarin, and the majority of the rocket fragments were also found to be carrying the nerve agent.

But the report did not attempt to identify perpetrators, and Ban was actually quite equivocal on this point, saying "chemical weapons have been used in the ongoing conflict between the parties in [Syria], also against civilians, including children, on a relatively large scale."

Another UN News Centre report today notes the findings of the International Commission of Inquiry on Syria that "[t]he vast majority of Syrians are killed in unlawful attacks using conventional weapons such as guns and mortars, with children making up a large proportion of the casualties." Contrary to the pseudo-arithmetic sophistry of the blame-the-victims crowd.

Does UN report on Ghouta implicate Assad regime?

While the UN report on the Ghouta attacks is supposedly not seeking to assign blame, it does in fact determine where the sarin-filled artillery shells were fired from—and names an area just north of central Damascus which is under tight government control. Not only that, but Human Rights Watch reports that there just happens to a base of elite Republican Guards there! This is about the most damning evidence we have yet seen implicating the reigme. See Washington Post, Sept. 17.

Robert Fisk echoes Putin propaganda

In The Independent Sept. 22, regime shill Robert Fisk echoes the state propaganda of regime sponsor Vladimir Putin, to the effect that the Soviet-era missiles used in the attack were never sold to Syria but to Libya (with the obvious implication that they were supplied to the Syrian rebels by the post-Qaddafi regime)—while admitting "these details cannot be verified in documents." That's the official Russian response to the UN report, but Moscow won't actually produce the paperwork to back up its claims, which are nonetheless reported with an air of credulity. <sarcasm>Thank you very much, Vlad and Robert.<sarcasm>