Whilst I do not know who carried out the Syrian chemical attack in Idlib province, I must agree with my colleague Adam Garrie that it is unlikely it was carried out by the Syrian government, and I think it is barely conceivable it was authorised by President Assad.
No one seriously disputes that a Syrian air strike on a Jihadi facility took place in Idlib province, and that as a consequence of that attack many civilians died from what look like the effects of sarin gas. However it beggars belief that at a time when President Assad’s military is on the brink of victory he would risk everything by launching a poison gas attack on civilians which could have no conceivable military or political benefit for him.
It seems far more likely that the version of events suggested by the Russians and the Syrians – that the Syrian air force struck a Jihadi arms depot where sarin gas canisters were being stored, causing sarin gas to be released into the atmosphere – is the most likely explanation for what happened.
UN investigators have previously confirmed that Jihadi groups – not just ISIS – have used sarin during the Syrian war, and that they in fact did so before the chemical attack on Ghouta in August 2013. Claims that the Jihadis do not possess sarin gas and are incapable of manufacturing it are therefore untrue.
British officials have derided suggestions that sarin could be released into the atmosphere from ruptured canisters as a result of an air strike. However the Podesta leaks show that Hillary Clinton in one of her speeches to Goldman Sachs warned of that very thing if the US had conducted air strikes on the Syrian military’s chemical facilities before 2013.
There is nothing therefore remotely implausible about the Russian-Syrian version of what happened, and on the basis of the information available it seems by far the most likely explanation of what happened.
However that is not of course how Western governments and the Western media have reported what happened. At this point I am sorry to say it is impossible to avoid certain recurring features about the way news of this attack has been reported:
(1) the Western media has failed to say that all reporting of the strike originates with the Jihadi groups that control the area of the attack. As with the previous reports of the attacks in Ghouta in August 2013 and in eastern Aleppo, there are no Western journalists or Western officials present to provide any independent corroboration of what happened. Nor do they show any inclination to go there.
(2) no attempt has been made by anyone to establish control of the crime scene. On past experience it is unlikely outside investigators will be allowed to go there. If they do, by the time they get there the crime scene will have been contaminated probably beyond retrieval;
(3) the Western media has failed to say that the Jihadi group in control of the area is actually Al-Qaeda. This is despite the fact that it is Al-Qaeda through its various proxies which is known to be in control of Idlib province where the attack took place, and which has been so ever since Idlib province’s fall to the so-called ‘Army of Conquest’ (another Jihadi umbrella group) in 2015. Instead the people in control of the area are invariably referred to by the neutral word “rebels”;
(4) the group known as the White Helmets is again reported on the scene, and once more its reporting is taken as authoritative even though its links to various Jihadi groups and to Al-Qaeda and its strong opposition to the Syrian government are by now matters of public record;
(5) as always there is a rush to assign responsibility to the Syrian government and to shout down anyone who disagrees. The result is that guilt is assigned before any investigation can take place, putting enormous pressure on future investigators to arrive at the conclusion which has already been announced.
This has been the recurring pattern in incident after incident throughout the Syrian conflict. The only instance I can think of when it went awry was following the attack on the Red Cross convoy in the autumn. The UN investigation ordered by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon rejected suggestions that the Russians were involved and implied the attack was not a deliberate war crime but was the result of an error by the Syrian air force. The investigation however revealed in its report the pressure it was brought under by the US to arrive at a different conclusion, and it is difficult to avoid the impression that it only arrived at the conclusion that it did because the Indian army officer who headed it was a strong minded man who proved immune to pressure. The result is that the findings of this investigation have gone almost completely unreported.
I doubt that this incident will have any long term bearing on the future of the Syrian war. Instead it should be seen as a further example of the extent to which reporting of this war by the Western media and by Western governments has become so manipulated that it is impossible any longer to take it seriously.