The Mystery of the Syrian chemical attack

Mr Cloud, Going Postal

On 4 April 2017 something happened in the Islamist held town of Khan Shaykhun in Syria. Precisely what happened is still debated, but it is claimed by alleged witnesses that the attack occurred around or shortly after 6:30 am when a strange odour filled the air minutes after rocket and airstrikes leading to visible signs of poisoning including nausea, foaming at the mouth and muscle spasms. The death toll is reported to be between 70 and 100, with several hundred injured – although it must be emphasised that these figures come from the opposition controlled health authorities and the Turkish government which is openly hostile to the Assad regime in Syria. Tissue and soil samples were taken by Syrian insurgents and passed onto Western intelligence services – also openly hostile to the Assad regime – which claimed to detect the nerve toxin Sarin. Again, there has to be a caveat as the chain of custody can’t be assured and the fact Sarin is described as “a colorless, odorless liquid” contradicts claims of “a strange odour”.

As it stands then nothing can be independently verified. There has been no independent, impartial investigation to corroborate any of these claims. Nonetheless, blame was quickly attributed to the regime regardless of the fact that it has yet to be independently established a chemical attack even took place or what the means of delivery were. Weapons expert and MIT professor Theodore Postol for instance disputes the findings of a US intelligence report pointing to photographs of the alleged bomb crater where the chemical weapon was said to have impacted is inconsistent with it being caused by an airstrike and it was more likely that an explosive charge was laid upon a shell containing sarin, before being detonated. Former UN weapons inspectors Scott Ritter and Hans Blix have also cast doubt on the regime being responsible.

Moreover, no plausible explanation has been offered as to why Assad would suddenly and randomly drop a single sarin bomb on a town with no particular military significance when he’s already in the best position he’s been in since the war started. Russia is aiding his war effort, the US only days before the poison attack signalled it was abandoning its call for regime change, so why would Assad commit such an insane and pointless atrocity? The only suggestion given is it was done “to convince the rebels to surrender” or “because he thought he could get away with it”. Boris Johnson the Foreign Secretary said “Assad uses chemical weapons because they are not only horrible and indiscriminate. They are also terrifying.”, as if the regime hasn’t already had the same effect with conventional weapons.

The Iraqi regime’s prolific usage of chemical weapons in its conflict with Iran and Kurdish insurgents had a thought out military rationale and in the case of its genocidal campaign against the Kurds from 1988 to 1989 even had the name “Operation Anfal” attached. Yet despite being so certain of Assad’s repeated usage of such weapons in numerous instances, Western governments have no convincing or compelling reasoning for why his regime would do so. There’s no military imperative and such attacks have over the years been sporadic and random. If it was a deliberate strategy from the Syrian military and regime you might imagine some sort of evidence of this to have come to light by now.

The most notorious chemical weapon attack in the Syrian civil war thus far, and indeed since the Halabja massacre by Saddam Hussein in 1988 was the gassing of the rebel stronghold of Ghouta in Damascas which killed an estimated 300 – 1400 people. This attack was better documented as UN experts happened to be in the country at the time investigating a separate chemical incident. The curious timing and circumstances of the attack didn’t go amiss and then as now questions arose just why Assad would choose that time with UN chemical weapons experts of all things miles from the scene and what he could possibly hope to gain from it. However a UN investigation suggests trajectory from the rockets containing the sarin points to the Syrian regime being responsible, though this too is disputed by Theodore Postol the MIT professor who is also challenging the prevailing view concerning the most recent chemical atrocity in Idlib.

The UN Human Rights Council made the observation concerning the Ghouta massacre that “The evidence available concerning the nature, quality and quantity of the agents used on 21 August indicated that the perpetrators likely had access to the chemical weapons stockpile of the Syrian military, as well as the expertise and equipment necessary to manipulate safely large amount of chemical agents.” This of course could also be said of the the most recent attack, despite the previous assurances that Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons “had been verifiably destroyed”.

Absent of much evidence or an independently established account as to what precisely happened in Khan Shaykhun we can only go on what seems most logical and likely. We know the regime in Syria possessed a large stockpile of chemical weapons, that they had the “expertise and equipment necessary” and that the victims of the attack were the regime’s opponents in the civil war. The scenario therefore that makes most sense is that an aircraft took off from the Shayrat airbase and dropped a chemical weapon on Khan Shaykhun as claimed by the Syrian opposition and Western governments. The alternative to that is an actor other than the regime somehow getting hold of a chemical weapon, possibly involving smuggling it across an international border or in the very least having to transport it across the hazardous war zone of Syria to the town in question and setting it off with presumably the intention of framing the regime and drawing military invention against it. The former scenario therefore seems the most feasible although if it were the case the regime’s actions and reasons for doing so appear on the face of it to be completely inexplicable.

US President Trump however wasted no time puzzling over such questions or getting in UN experts to answer them, illegally firing off 59 cruise missiles at Shayrat airbase just three days after the attack completely against international law – though to virtual unanimous acclaim from Western governments quite accustomed to launching wars of aggression. It seems highly probable that the US didn’t allow a UN investigation because it wanted to exploit the opportunity to finally attack Assad which had been itching to do for years and now that milestone has been crossed it sets the precedent to do it again and again if needs be.

Regardless of who is responsible it is but one more massacre, one more atrocity in countless others committed by both sides and outside powers over the course of several years in a bloody conflict that has ripped the country of Syria apart, left its cities in ruins, around 400,000 dead and sparked the worst refugee crisis since the end of the Second World War. Far from being simply being a tragic civil war though as is often painted, Syria is also a geopolitical pawn caught between rival power blocs using the country as a battlefield in a brutal fight for influence, resources and regional hegemony. For Russia backing the ruling dictator Bashar al Assad it is about maintaining a military presence in the Mediterranean through their Tartus naval they have had since the 1970s, while Iran seeks to keep in place a friendly regime. Both countries have ruthlessly pursued propping up Assad at any cost, even it means bombing every town, city and village into the ground, besieging and starving tens of thousands of people and purposely driving out millions more to thin out those among the Syrian population opposed to Assad. No war crime (perhaps not even chemical warfare) is off limits.

The West, principally the US, Turkey and Gulf monarchies meanwhile although seeing the installation of a puppet government in Syria as desirable are mainly focused on removing Russian and Iranian influence through any means at their desposal, even at the cost of Syria as a stable functioning state and the deaths of thousands. Just as the US with its clandestine efforts did in Central and South America and Afghanistan during the Cold War, it has supported both financially and militarily militias and death squads across Syria including allying with the same murderous Islamist fanatics it is fighting in other areas like Iraq. The CIA has allegedly spent upwards of $1 billion a year in its battle to bring down the Assad regime and the Saudis and Qataris probably more. The West is perfectly willing to see Syria become another in a long line of failed, anarchic, ungovernable states it has created elsewhere if it means the removal of a hostile government and rival hegemonic influences.

Pity Syria then with its unenviable choice of a war criminal dictator or possibly no functioning government at all. Or rule by genocidal religious fanatics like ISIS who wouldn’t hesitate to butcher Syria’s non Sunni minorities like Alawites. Despite the lies told by Western governments with its manufactured ‘opposition’ that only exist as means to an end to enact regime change, there is no democratic future for Syria’s poor beleaguered population.

Rorschach AKA Mr Cloud ©