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How Can We Know That a Chemical Weapons Attack Took Place in Syria?
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Every atrocity in the Syrian civil war provokes a furious row about whether it happened and, if so, who was responsible for carrying it out. The merciless brutality of all sides combines with partisan reporting and lack of access for independent investigators to make it possible for doubts to be generated about even the most blatant war crime. One good rule is that participants in the war are often accurate about the crimes of their opponents while they invariably lie or are silent about their own.

This rule appears to hold good in the case of the poison gas attack on the city of Douma on 7 April, which killed at least 34 people and possibly twice as many. The Russian military claim that the attack was faked by pro-opposition activists and that samples taken from the site of where the civilians died were not toxic. The Syrian government issues blanket denials when accused of using poison gas.

But there is mounting evidence from neutral observers to confirm that chlorine was used last Saturday. The World Health Organisation says that local health authorities in Douma, with whom it is cooperating, confirm that on the day of the alleged bombing they treated 500 patients with the symptoms of exposure to toxic chemicals. It reports that “there were signs of severe irritation of mucous membranes, respiratory failure and disruption to the central nervous systems of those exposed”.

Other evidence for the gassing of civilians is cumulatively convincing: large gas cylinders, like those used in past chlorine gas attacks, were filmed on the roof of the building where most bodies were found. Local people report that Syrian government helicopters were seen in the area at the time of the attack. Such helicopters have been used in chlorine gas bombings in the past.

The Russian and Syrian government accounts of what happened, varying between saying there were no attacks or that evidence for them has been fabricated, are contradictory. A Russian spokeswoman said on Wednesday that the use of “smart missiles” on Syrian government forces could be an attempt to destroy the evidence.

The allegations of fabrication are generalised and non-specific and amount to a conspiracy theory for which no evidence is ever produced, other than to throw doubt on the partiality of those who say that chlorine was used. It is true that many of the sources cited by the western media as if they were bipartisan eye-witness accounts are committed supporters of the opposition. But the Russian and Syrian governments have never produced any counter-evidence to give credence to the elaborate plot that would be necessary to fake the use of poison gas or to really use it, but put the blame on Syrian government air power.

ORDER IT NOW

The most convincing reason advanced by those who argue that President Bashar al-Assad’s forces did not carry out the attack is that it was entirely against their interests to do so. They have already won militarily in Douma and the second of two convoys carrying thousands of Army of Islam fighters and their families left for Turkish-controlled northern Syria today. And this latest success brings Assad with sight – though it is still a distant one – of a complete victory over his enemies.

For all the furore about the proposed missile strike on Syrian forces – likely to happen in the very near future – it is difficult to see what it will achieve other than as a general sign of international disapproval of the use of chemical weapons. Hawks in the US and Europe may want to use the occasion to reopen the door to armed intervention in the Syrian civil war with the aim of weakening or displacing Assad, but the time for this is long past, if it was ever there.

There is a widely-held myth that US airstrikes against government forces in 2013, which President Barack Obama is blamed for not having carried out, would have brought the war to a different and happier conclusion. But such airstrikes would only have been effective if they had been conducted on a mass scale and on a daily basis in support of ground troops. These would either have been Sunni Arab armed opposition forces, which were already dominated by al-Qaeda-type movements, or the US army in a re-run of the Iraq war of 2003.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: American Media, Russia, Syria 
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  1. Gordo says:

    So you’re saying we should trust ISIS and AlQueda.

    • Replies: @Jonathan Revusky
  2. Randal says:

    The Russian and Syrian government accounts of what happened, varying between saying there were no attacks or that evidence for them has been fabricated, are contradictory.

    Which is, of course, exactly what you’d expect if they were responding to something done by the other side, without any detailed knowledge of what happened. If they’d doe it, do you really think they would not know exactly what the response was likely to be and have a story ready?

    But the Russian and Syrian governments have never produced any counter-evidence to give credence to the elaborate plot that would be necessary to fake the use of poison gas or to really use it

    How are they supposed to obtain such detailed evidence, in a chaotic war zone, exactly?

    And while we are about it, now hard is it supposed to be to carry out a chorine attack (we know the jihadists have used chlorine for decades, going back to the US occupation in Iraq) and blame it on the other side? Not hard at all, I’d suggest. It certainly doesn’t require any massive conspiracy. Just a few ruthless jihadists ready to kill some of their own (or hostages) for the cause. The victims will believe what they are told by the jihadists on “their” side.

    The most convincing reason advanced by those who argue that President Bashar al-Assad’s forces did not carry out the attack is that it was entirely against their interests to do so.

    Yes, and this one is unanswerable, without resorting to extremes of implausibility. It might be possible to explain one such incident by reference to perhaps rogue government forces acting without permission (though in that case there’s no reason to punish the government), but not a series of such events.

    There’s no reasonable way to come down on the side of assuming responsibility for the Syrian government. Those who do so are divided into the liars who are using it as a pretext for the intervention they want for other reasons, and the cowards who are afraid to be out of step with elite opinion.

    it is difficult to see what it will achieve other than as a general sign of international disapproval of the use of chemical weapons. Hawks in the US and Europe may want to use the occasion to reopen the door to armed intervention in the Syrian civil war with the aim of weakening or displacing Assad, but the time for this is long past, if it was ever there.

    You say that now, but the forces that have always been behind the regime change attempt in Syria haven’t given up, and they think this can open the door to rekindling the war they have been behind for 7 long years now. And those who support their lies enable their wars.

    At best, all this can achieve will be to delay the restoration of order in Syria by a government victory. At worst, it could rekindle the whole war.

    • Replies: @vinteuil
    , @MEexpert
    , @Wade
  3. Robski says:

    Stopped reading when the W.H.O. was described as a ‘neutral organisation’

    • Agree: Johnny Smoggins
    • Replies: @Per
  4. Antonio says:

    No link to statements, no photos, no videos of the witnesses, no tangible proof of any kind… and it’s suppossed that Assad and Putin must disprove the accusations??? Did you ever heard about presumption of innocence??? The burden of proof???

    • Replies: @GourmetDan
  5. Contradictory accounts from Russia and Syria strongly indicate that they have nothing to do with the incident. They are just guessing. There is no script to follow

    • Replies: @bossel
  6. jjc says:

    World Health Organization was not on the ground in Douma. They are reporting second-hand information, received in Turkey, sourced to representatives of the rebels. No one, outside of the rebels, have seen or accessed any of the 500 alleged wounded chemical victims. The “local health authorities” referred to by Cockburn were embedded with these rebel groups.

    • Agree: for-the-record
  7. GENEVA (Reuters) – The World Health Organization said on Wednesday around 500 people had been treated for “signs and symptoms consistent with exposure to toxic chemicals” after a suspected poison gas attack in a Syrian rebel enclave just before it fell.

    What has happened to these 500 people? Can anyone provide us a single name? And where are the dead bodies?

    Yes, and this one is unanswerable, without resorting to extremes of implausibility. It might be possible to explain one such incident by reference to perhaps rogue government forces acting without permission (though in that case there’s no reason to punish the government), but not a series of such events.

    This is truly a ridiculous statement. If there is a known pattern of something happening (which is the case here), how can one assert that a series of similar events cannot possibly happen.

    • Replies: @Randal
  8. anon[228] • Disclaimer says:

    Nobody can say and nobody has business too say so either. It is Syrian issue and should be left to Syrians
    Chemical stockpiles of UK USA Israel are greater sources of false flag operations and should be forcefully removed.

    If the world aren’t waging wars on USA for brutal law enforcement polices -like solitary confinement, drug related offenses, killings of mentally challenged by justice department , entrapment and forced guilty pleas , then US should not get into other countries’s internal matters.

    Until those guilty of Bush era conducts embracing government media and think tanks, are dealt by justice, USA should not call any body mass killer or Hitler.

  9. bossel says:
    @siberiancat

    “Contradictory accounts from Russia and Syria strongly indicate that they have nothing to do with the incident.”
    Actually no. This is a common tactic by Russian propaganda outlets. Diversionary tactics, you could say. MH-17, Crimea, Ukraine & in other cases. Every time Russia (or in this case, an ally) is accused, they produce a huge smoke screen.

    • Troll: L.K
    • Replies: @Randal
  10. This “good rule” makes absolutely no sense: “One good rule is that participants in the war are often accurate about the crimes of their opponents while they invariably lie or are silent about their own”.

    Have you heard about finger-pointing and the fact that the first victim in war is the truth? Trusting any warring faction is delusionary since they try to wipe out each other. Independent, neutral observers are the only hope albeit so hard to find now as ever.

  11. L.K says:

    I just don’t understand why Unz publishes this bloody shill, Patrick Cockburn…

    Ain’t the corporate media, aka, the Ministry of Propaganda, enough for these types?

    • Replies: @Jonathan Revusky
  12. anon[358] • Disclaimer says:

    How do you prove a negative? It is possible or probable that chemicals were used. Speculative that Assad used them.

    We don’t care if rebels gassed themselves. Disprove that.

  13. ” lack of access for independent investigators” & “The World Health Organisation says that local health authorities in Douma, with whom it is cooperating”

    The problem with compulsive liars is, they cannot see the contradictions in their own account. It is a peculiar psychology; in any case Russophobes will lap up the Independent’s reporting like shit-eating dogs (a better metaphor that ‘singing to the choir’), never mind that media platform had been established by a Putin hating oligarch that was so corrupt he dared never go home. Somehow I doubt you would ever see information such as the following in print wherever it is the Cockburns of this world gather:

    https://ronaldthomaswest.com/2016/03/16/natos-most-censored-story/

    ^

    • Replies: @FB
  14. Realist says:

    How Can We Know That a Chemical Weapons Attack Took Place in Syria?

    You can know it didn’t since the US says it did.

  15. Randal says:
    @for-the-record

    This is truly a ridiculous statement. If there is a known pattern of something happening (which is the case here), how can one assert that a series of similar events cannot possibly happen.

    !?

    My point was merely that there is no plausible motive for the government carrying out these claimed attacks. It would be plausible that rogue military elements might do so once, but not that they would get away with a series of such incidents once the government is aware of the danger.

    There is the possibility that there could be elements acting as agents for the government’s enemies, I suppose, but that’s not the case I was considering – that would again be direct enemy action.

    • Replies: @for-the-record
  16. Randal says:
    @bossel

    Actually no. This is a common tactic by Russian propaganda outlets. Diversionary tactics, you could say. MH-17, Crimea, Ukraine & in other cases. Every time Russia (or in this case, an ally) is accused, they produce a huge smoke screen.

    The simplest explanation, consistent with the pattern of events since 1990, is that Russia regularly finds itself without a consistent prepared response to these incidents precisely because they are unexpected events for Russia.

    That you prefer to adopt a fantastic conspiracy theory about Russia having a cunning/stupid plan to appear inconsistent and therefore be easily portrayed as “shifty” and guilty, in order to feign innocence, rather than having in each case a prepared and slickly consistent story that would “prove” their innocence, says more about you and your motivations than about reality.

  17. And, next door, Paul Craig Roberts writes (see “Idiocy Is Bringing . . .”):

    “People in Ghouta, doctors in Ghouta, and Russian experts who have arrived on the scene report that there is no sign of any chemical attack. Not only did Syria not use chemical weapons against the civilians that it liberated, there was no chemical attack, not even a false flag one staged by the US supported mercenaries who have been driven out of Ghouta by the Syrian Army. In other words, the chemical attack is entirely a hoax.

    To keep the hoax from being confirmed by independent investigation, Washington vetoed a UN Security Council resolution to send in neutral experts to evaluate the claim of chemical attack. Why would Washington prevent an investigation that would prove Washington’s allegation? Clearly, Washington would only prevent an investigation that would disprove the false allegation. There is no doubt whatsoever that Washington’s allegation is false and is being used as an excuse to force Russia to fight or to accept Washington’s hegemony in the Middle East . . .”

  18. Autopsies will confirm or deny the use of chemical weapons.

    Assigning responsibility is another matter. It is not impossible that the rebels killed their own people, in a desperate attempt to call in foreign air strikes against Syrian government targets. How would we know? Radar records might show who was flying in the area. We seem to be short on evidence, and long on blame.

    • Replies: @Randal
  19. It’s fascinating somebody can claim that in pocket of teritory, controled by Islamist factions, on verge of internal conflict, completly surrounded by Government forces, functions health authority… Seriously?

  20. Randal says:
    @James N. Kennett

    Assigning responsibility is another matter. It is not impossible that the rebels killed their own people, in a desperate attempt to call in foreign air strikes against Syrian government targets. How would we know? Radar records might show who was flying in the area. We seem to be short on evidence, and long on blame.

    We will never know for certain, because there are too many known liars involved with strong motivations to lie. For me, cui bono is sufficient here – it makes literally no sense for the Assad government to carry out or allow such an attack, which gains them nothing of any significance and could easily cost them everything just at the moment they are winning. On the other hand the motive for the jihadis or their enablers to do it or fake it is clear, and very substantial. They are defeated n Syria, and this is one of the few ways they could possibly turn things around. Others may differ.

    But what is often overlooked in all this is the casual assumption of leftist “R2P”-style interventionism here. In reality even if the Assad government had used a banned weapon in its internal operations to restore order, that gives no legal or moral entitlement for foreigners to wage war to “punish” it. The idea that it does is precisely the kind of bleeding heart leftist “humanitarian” interventionism that the Clintonites tried to establish.

    Indeed, it’s a perfect example of just why such R2P nonsense is poisonous and should never be adopted as law or morality – it creates incentives for exactly this kind of fakery, and provides easy pretexts (real or faked) for wars of aggression, or for French-style military posturing. Meanwhile real atrocities proceed apace everywhere the great powers don’t feel inclined to intervene, or even to stop supporting them.

  21. @Randal

    Sorry, I misunderstood you, and to be honest I (somehow) thought it was a statement of the author’s, whose article incensed me. Mea maxima culpa.

    • Replies: @Randal
  22. Randal says:
    @for-the-record

    No probs. It was a little confusing, is all…

  23. FB says:
    @Ronald Thomas West

    ‘…in any case Russophobes will lap up the Independent’s reporting like shit-eating dogs…’

    This is a quote for the ages…

    I will never forget one time as a youngster when my dad took a dump in the woods at grandma’s farm…and our dog scarfed it down…I arrived on the scene just as he was polishing off the last of the turd pile…

    Cockburn is more than happy to crouch and deliver the turd sandwich on a daily basis…

  24. Alfa158 says:

    Trump has temporarily upset the apple cart. The globalist script was that Jeb gets the nomination, gracefully loses to Hillary, then by now the “basket of deplorables” cannon fodder would be in their second year of bleeding and dying on the ground in Syria for the latest regime-change war. Unfortunately for the masters of the universe, the deplorables raised some objection to their ongoing subjugation and replacement so that timetable is off.
    Trump was doomed to failure because of his own lack of ideological coherence and the fact both parties oppose his agenda. It is possible that maybe they have finally squeezed Trump into going along with the plan, so I suppose the globalists figure better late than never.
    It’s like remodeling your house, you can’t expect every plan to go exactly according to original schedule. The trick is to be able to shift gears, adapt and work around the obstacles, which they’ve done very efficiently, and in 2021 at the latest they’ll have their new puppet in the White House to go full throttle.

    • Replies: @HallParvey
  25. @Antonio

    No link to statements, no photos, no videos of the witnesses, no tangible proof of any kind… and it’s suppossed that Assad and Putin must disprove the accusations??? Did you ever heard about presumption of innocence??? The burden of proof???

    It would be a mistake to assume that the people blaming Assad and Putin have any interest in assuming any burden or extending any presumptions…

    • Agree: Byrresheim
  26. This poxy Brit annoys me more and more every time I venture into one of his fatuous articles–is he REALLY that fucking simple? Never again, I swear.

    • Replies: @GourmetDan
  27. MEexpert says:

    One good rule is that participants in the war are often accurate about the crimes of their opponents while they invariably lie or are silent about their own.

    Apparently this “good rule” only applies to the rebels. They can blame the Syrian government and it is up to the government to disprove it, as the author goes on using neutral observers proving the rebel side. The author never gives any ink to the government side. Why? Because they are guilty, of course.

    But there is mounting evidence from neutral observers to confirm that chlorine was used last Saturday.

    Is the West really the neutral observer in the Syrian civil war? Whether it is the WHO or HRW, they are all stooges of the West.

    This has got to be the most assinine article by this author. His Kurds have lost, so he has taken up the cause of the Syrian rebels. I wasted my time reading it all the way through.

    • Replies: @GourmetDan
  28. In addition to the false-flag theory, there’s another slightly different theory that Cockburn fails to consider: conventional Syrian shells or bombs could have struck a rebel depot containing chemical weapons or ingredients for same. About a month ago, the Syrian Arab Army overran what it described as a rebel weapons depot containing at least some of the ingredients necessary for making chemical weapons. Needless to say, the story was completely ignored by the Western MSM. But still …

  29. @MEexpert

    Is the West really the neutral observer in the Syrian civil war? Whether it is the WHO or HRW, they are all stooges of the West.

    The media in the West is owned and controlled for a purpose… they don’t call it ‘programming’ for nothing…

  30. @Pissedoffalese

    This poxy Brit annoys me more and more every time I venture into one of his fatuous articles–is he REALLY that fucking simple? Never again, I swear.

    No… he’s not that simple… but unfortunately his audience is… and that explains his purpose…

  31. @Alfa158

    Nail. Head.
    Except. By saying three things at the same time, all contradictory, Trump sews confusion among the yammering heads in the MSM. Continuous streaming News, plenty of fodder for the Trump haters, in both major parties, to chew. Keep em guessing.

  32. I used to like Mr. Cockburn, but this piece is ridiculous. I can only assume that his bosses and editors tell him what to write as ‘the Independent’ tries to compete with the Guardian.

    The whole piece comes down to him saying — how can we know a chemical attack took place in Syria? Because Al-Qaeda says so. And that’s good enough for me.

  33. Wade says:
    @Randal

    Right on. The only thing you didn’t mention is the fact that Assad’s forces have been winning against the rebels and ISIS anyway. They’re gaining ground and the rebels are losing ground. Why change up the strategy and gas children? They would gain nothing and would snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by giving the US just the excuse they’ve been looking for for years!

  34. It’s taken over a year of investigation for the swamp critters to come up with an answer to the question, “did the Russians interfere in the last presidential election?”.
    And the answer still eludes them.
    However, the same swamp denizens were able to ascertain, within a week, that Assad ordered the gassing of some noncombatants, even though he had every reason to avoid such an atrocity.
    All within a week. Amazing. That mean old Assad. It really does justify bombing Syria. And maybe even Moscow.
    So far, no report of enemy casualties. Maybe there were none. If so, it’s even more amazing.

  35. If their lips are movin’ they’re lyin’ Our “government” and “media” are a fraud.
    Proven fact.
    Want you credibility back? FBI? MSM? DC goons?
    Do a real 9/11 investigation and arrest yourselves afterwards, and we’ll trust you again.

    Iraq has WMD’s. Fool me once…….

  36. Liza says:

    Why is everyone doing a jig over chemical weapons anyway? I suppose having a bomb dropped on you or receiving a blast of sloppily-aimed machine gun fire is some kind of a tea party? Since when do people in the vicinity of any kind of military attack other than chemical weapons die instantly? Who wants to burn to death or just lie there & suffer with their limbs gone?

    Such hypocrisy!

  37. @Gordo

    So you’re saying we should trust ISIS and AlQueda.

    Sure, if we can’t trust our own employees, who can we trust?

  38. @L.K

    A bit over two years ago, after my first article, Ron Unz wrote me a note in private kind of chiding me for my belief that this site was infested by shills. Ron expressed doubts that shills even existed.

    I have no idea whether his views on that have evolved. If they haven’t, I guess it’s safe to say that Ron is blissfully unaware of what everybody with a clue knows:

    Namely, that this Paddy Dickburn character is an Intel agency disinfo agent.

    The article above is a glaring example.

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