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Here’s why Sean Spicer’s ‘warning’ to Assad really was just news management

Theories which have abounded since Sean Spicer the White House spokesman ‘warned’ Syria against launching a chemical attack are over complicated. All the facts point to the ‘warning’ being part of a successful campaign to bury reporting of Seymour Hersh’s story about the alleged Khan Sheikhoun attack.

Alexander Mercouris

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On Monday Sean Spicer, President Trump’s press officer, published a statement on the White House website purportedly ‘warning’ President Assad and the Syrian government against a chemical attempt which the US had supposedly detected the Syrian military preparing to carry out.

In the hours that followed it became clear that the statement had not been coordinated within the US government.  The State Department and CENTCOM were taken by surprise, and apart from the inconsequential Nikki Haley all the senior officials of the US government – Tillerson, Mattis, Coats, Pompeo, McMaster and President Trump himself – maintained a stony silence about it.

In the hours that followed reports dribbled out that US intelligence had supposedly detected the movement of something which might be a sarin gas container to a single aircraft at Syria’s Al-Shayrat air base.

This is of course the same air base the US attacked in April, and from which according to the US the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack was carried out, and which the Russians and the Syrians ever since have been unsuccessfully trying to get the OPCW inspectors to inspect.

US officials speaking informally to the media have declined to say what level of confidence the US has in this latest ‘intelligence’.

Subsequently US Defense Secretary General James Mattis said that the US is seeking ‘de-escalation’ in Syria, and the fact that no chemical attack had taken place showed that the ‘warning’ had been ‘heeded’.

This has now been followed with reports – so far unconfirmed – that the US is preparing to evacuate the base it has established in Syria at Al-Tanf.

Ever since there have been any number of attempts to make sense of this strange episode, with speculations by those who do not believe the claims made in the ‘warning’ that some sort of ‘false flag’ attack is being prepared, either to justify another US military attack on Syria, or to wreck the coming meeting at the G20 summit between Presidents Putin and Trump, or for some other sinister purpose.

There is also a theory that the episode reveals some sort of conflict within the US government between conciliators, who would presumably include General Mattis, who wish to ‘de-escalate’ in Syria, and hardline interventionists, who want to escalate there.  In support of this theory some point to reports a week ago that some hardline officials in the US government were looking to stage a conflict in Syria with Iran.

The fundamental problem with all these theories is that if the US really were planning a ‘false flag’ chemical attack in Syria then there would be no need to announce it in advance by publishing a ‘warning’ about it.   On the contrary, all that announcing such a ‘warning’ is likely to do – especially when it is backed by ‘intelligence’ which is so unconvincing – is foster more doubts about it rather than reduce them.

As it happens there is no previous case of the US warning about a chemical attack in Syria before one happens, whether that be the chemical attack which happened in Ghouta in 2013, or the alleged chemical attack which happened in Khan Sheikhoun in April this year, or any of the many other chemical attacks which have also taken place in Syria over the course of the war there.

Since there is no sense in warning of a ‘false flag’ chemical attack in advance, and since the ‘intelligence’ that the Syrian military was preparing such a chemical attack is unconvincing to say the least, and since the State Department and CENTCOM appear to have been taken completely by surprise by a ‘warning’ issued not by a senior official of the US government but by the President’s press officer, what is the explanation for this bizarre affair?

My view that it was an over-the-top piece of news management, intended to discredit and bury Seymour Hersh’s story about the Khan Sheikhoun attack, has been received with predictably little enthusiasm, but I would submit that it is the only one that makes sense.  I notice that one other writer reviewing the same facts – Jonathan Cook writing for Counterpunch – has however now come to the same conclusion.

Moreover as Jonathan Cook also says, the OPCW report published today, which appears to support the Trump administration’s claims – that there was a deliberate sarin attack on Khan Sheikhoun, with the sarin spreading from the small hole in the ground where the alleged gas canister is supposed to have been found – also seems to have been rushed out for the same purpose.

As Cook rightly says, it has long been known that the OPCW would report that a sarin gas attack took place at Khan Sheikhoun, and as Cook and the Russians also say, since the OPCW inspectors have refused to carry out an on the spot inspection of the alleged crime scene at Khan Sheikhoun (allegedly for ‘security reasons’, though a local ceasefire is supposed to be in place), and as the provenance of the samples (supposedly taken from a Jihadi controlled town without any external check of the way they were collected) cannot therefore be fully trusted, this conclusion is unsafe.

I understand the reluctance to accept that an incendiary suggestion that the Syrian government might be planning a chemical attack can have been nothing more than a grossly disproportionate and incredibly dangerous way to bury Seymour Hersh’s story.  It is human nature to think that something greater and more sinister must be involved.  I would however point out that the Trump administration has form in this regard.  By way of example, it persisted for weeks in making the ridiculous claim that the crowds which turned out for Donald Trump’s inauguration were bigger than the crowds which had turned out for Barack Obama’s first inauguration, even though comparisons of the films of the two events show that this was obviously not the case.

There have been any number of other such cases, with the reflex reaction of this administration when it is caught saying something which turns out to be untrue being to double down and go on repeating it.  That I am sure is what has happened in this case.

There will however be serious consequences even if the cause of the ‘warning’ almost certainly was a trivial one.

Firstly, as I have said previously, the Trump administration’s ‘warning’ to the Syrian government not to stage a chemical attack is a green light to the various Jihadi groups in Syria to stage a ‘false flag’ chemical attack, even if that is not the Trump administration’s intention.  There are any number of dangerous people in Syria – and any number of unscrupulous agents of the various local intelligence agencies who support them – who must now be thinking and looking for ways to carry out such an attack in order to force Trump’s hand.  I should say that I interpret Maria Zakharova’s comments hinting that Russia knows where such attacks might take place first and foremost as a warning directed to these people.

Secondly, the Russians are utterly furious because of this episode, a fact made crystal clear by the angry words they have said about it.  Not only do they (of course) know the truth that the ‘intelligence’ upon which the ‘warning’ was based is fictional, but they almost certainly suspect the cause, and they must be completely exasperated that the Trump administration is acting in such a reckless way.

Beyond this it seems that the ‘warning’ contradicts assurances which were given to the Russians during US Secretary of State Tillerson’s visit to Moscow in April.  It seems that Tillerson may have told the Russians that incidents like the Al-Shayrat attack would never again recur.  If so then the threat contained in the ‘warning’ – that President Assad and his military would “pay a heavy price” if another chemical attack took place – has told them that Tillerson’s assurances are worthless.  Probably they already suspected the fact, but it must nonetheless be exasperating for the Russians to have the truth of this exposed to them so clearly.

Whatever else this episode has done, its effect will therefore be to make the Russians trust the US if possible even less, this at a time when US and Russian military officials have been working hard together in Syria to try to reduce tensions between their militaries there.

Last but not least, I can do no better than repeat and endorse these comments by Jonathan Cook about the total blackout in the US and British media which has been imposed on Seymour Hersh’s story.  To my knowledge not a single British newspaper has reported its existence, and nor has the BBC.  This in respect of a story put together by the single most famous US investigative journalist who has in the past exposed scandals like the My Lai massacre and the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

the US threats increase, rather than reduce, the chances of a new chemical weapons attack. Other, anti-Assad actors now have a strong incentive to use chemical weapons in false-flag operation to implicate Assad, knowing that the US has committed itself to intervention. On any reading, the US statements were reckless – or malicious – in the extreme and likely to bring about the exact opposite of what they were supposed to achieve.

But beyond this, there was something even more troubling about these two stories [the ‘warning’ and the OPCW report- AM]. That these official claims were published so unthinkingly in major outlets is bad enough. But what is unconscionable is the media’s continuing blackout of Hersh’s investigation when it speaks directly to the two latest news reports.

No serious journalist could write up either story, according to any accepted norms of journalistic practice, and not make reference to Hersh’s claims. They are absolutely relevant to these stories. In fact, more than that, the intelligence sources he cites are are not only relevant but are the reason these two stories have been suddenly propelled to the top of the news agenda.

Any publication that has covered either the White House-Pentagon threats or the rehashing of the OPCW report and has not mentioned Hersh’s revelations is writing nothing less than propaganda in service of a western foreign policy agenda trying to bring about the illegal overthrow the Syrian government. And so far that appears to include every single US and UK mainstream newspaper and TV station.

These comments speak the whole truth, and I have nothing to add to them.

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Foreign Banks Are Embracing Russia’s Alternative To SWIFT, Moscow Says

Given its status as a major energy exporter, Russia has leverage that could help attract partners to its new SWIFT alternative.

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Via Zerohedge


On Friday, one day after Russia and China pledged to reduce their reliance on the dollar by increasing the amount of bilateral trade conducted in rubles and yuan (a goal toward which much progress has already been made over the past three years), Russia’s Central Bank provided the latest update on Moscow’s alternative to US-dominated international payments network SWIFT.

Moscow started working on the project back in 2014, when international sanctions over Russia’s annexation of Crimea inspired fears that the country’s largest banks would soon be cut off from SWIFT which, though it’s based in Belgium and claims to be politically neutral, is effectively controlled by the US Treasury.

Today, the Russian alternative, known as the System for Transfer of Financial Messages, has attracted a modest amount of support within the Russian business community, with 416 Russian companies having joined as of September, including the Russian Federal Treasury and large state corporations likeGazprom Neft and Rosneft.

And now, eight months after a senior Russian official advised that “our banks are ready to turn off SWIFT,” it appears the system has reached another milestone in its development: It’s ready to take on international partners in the quest to de-dollarize and end the US’s leverage over the international financial system. A Russian official advised that non-residents will begin joining the system “this year,” according to RT.

“Non-residents will start connecting to us this year. People are already turning to us,”said First Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Russia Olga Skorobogatova. Earlier, the official said that by using the alternative payment system foreign firms would be able to do business with sanctioned Russian companies.

Turkey, China, India and others are among the countries that might be interested in a SWIFT alternative, as Russian President Vladimir Putin pointed out in a speech earlier this month, the US’s willingness to blithely sanction countries from Iran to Venezuela and beyond will eventually rebound on the US economy by undermining the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency.

To be sure, the Russians aren’t the only ones building a SWIFT alternative to help avoid US sanctions. Russia and China, along with the European Union are launching an interbank payments network known as the Special Purpose Vehicle to help companies pursue “legitimate business with Iran” in defiance of US sanctions.

Given its status as a major energy exporter, Russia has leverage that could help attract partners to its new SWIFT alternative. For one, much of Europe is dependent on Russian natural gas and oil.

And as Russian trade with other US rivals increases, Moscow’s payments network will look increasingly attractive,particularly if buyers of Russian crude have no other alternatives to pay for their goods.

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US leaving INF will put nuclear non-proliferation at risk & may lead to ‘complete chaos’

The US is pulling out of a nuclear missile pact with Russia. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty requires both countries to eliminate their short and medium-range atomic missiles.

The Duran

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Via RT


If the US ditches the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), it could collapse the entire nuclear non-proliferation system, and bring nuclear war even closer, Russian officials warn.

By ending the INF, Washington risks creating a domino effect which could endanger other landmark deals like the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and collapse the existing non-proliferation mechanism as we know it, senior lawmaker Konstantin Kosachev said on Sunday.

The current iteration of the START treaty, which limits the deployment of all types of nuclear weapons, is due to expire in 2021. Kosachev, who chairs the Parliament’s Upper House Foreign Affairs Committee, warned that such an outcome pits mankind against “complete chaos in terms of nuclear weapons.”

“Now the US Western allies face a choice: either embarking on the same path, possibly leading to new war, or siding with common sense, at least for the sake of their self-preservation instinct.”

His remarks came after US President Donald Trump announced his intentions to “terminate” the INF, citing alleged violations of the deal by Russia.

Moscow has repeatedly denied undermining the treaty, pointing out that Trump has failed to produce any evidence of violations. Moreover, Russian officials insist that the deployment of US-made Mk 41 ground-based universal launching systems in Europe actually violates the agreement since the launchers are capable of firing mid-range cruise missiles.

Leonid Slutsky, who leads the Foreign Affairs Committee in parliament’s lower chamber, argued that Trump’s words are akin to placing “a huge mine under the whole disarmament process on the planet.”

The INF Treaty was signed in 1987 by then-President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The deal effectively bans the parties from having and developing short- and mid-range missiles of all types. According to the provisions, the US was obliged to destroy Pershing I and II launcher systems and BGM-109G Gryphon ground-launched cruise missiles. Moscow, meanwhile, pledged to remove the SS-20 and several other types of missiles from its nuclear arsenal.

Pershing missiles stationed in the US Army arsenal. © Hulton Archive / Getty Images ©

By scrapping the historic accord, Washington is trying to fulfill its “dream of a unipolar world,” a source within the Russian Foreign Ministry said.

“This decision fits into the US policy of ditching the international agreements which impose equal obligations on it and its partners, and render the ‘exceptionalism’ concept vulnerable.”

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov denounced Trump’s threats as “blackmail” and said that Washington wants to dismantle the INF because it views the deal as a “problem” on its course for “total domination” in the military sphere.

The issue of nuclear arms treaties is too vital for national and global security to rush into hastily-made “emotional” decisions, the official explained. Russia is expecting to hear more on the US’ plans from Trump’s top security adviser, John Bolton, who is set to hold talks in Moscow tomorrow.

President Trump has been open about unilaterally pulling the US out of various international agreements if he deems them to be damaging to national interests. Earlier this year, Washington withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on the Iranian nuclear program. All other signatories to the landmark agreement, including Russia, China, and the EU, decided to stick to the deal, while blasting Trump for leaving.

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Converting Khashoggi into Cash

After two weeks of denying any connection to Khashoggi’s disappearance, Riyadh has admitted that he was killed by Saudi operatives but it wasn’t really on purpose.

Jim Jatras

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Authored by James George Jatras via The Strategic Culture Foundation:


The hazard of writing about the Saudis’ absurd gyrations as they seek to avoid blame for the murder of the late, not notably great journalist and Muslim Brotherhood activist Jamal Khashoggi is that by the time a sentence is finished, the landscape may have changed again.

As though right on cue, the narrative has just taken another sharp turn.

After two weeks of denying any connection to Khashoggi’s disappearance, Riyadh has ‘fessed up (sorta) and admitted that he was killed by Saudi operatives but it wasn’t really on purpose:

Y’see, it was kinda’f an ‘accident.’

Oops…

Y’see the guys were arguing, and … uh … a fistfight broke out.

Yeah, that’s it … a ‘fistfight.’

And before you know it poor Jamal had gone all to pieces.

Y’see?

Must’ve been a helluva fistfight.

The figurative digital ink wasn’t even dry on that whopper before American politicos in both parties were calling it out:

  • “To say that I am skeptical of the new Saudi narrative about Mr. Khashoggi is an understatement,” tweeted Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. “First we were told Mr. Khashoggi supposedly left the consulate and there was blanket denial of any Saudi involvement. Now, a fight breaks out and he’s killed in the consulate, all without knowledge of Crown Prince. It’s hard to find this latest ‘explanation‘ as credible.”
  • California Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement that the new Saudi explanation is “not credible.” “If Khashoggi was fighting inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, he was fighting for his life with people sent to capture or kill him,” Schiff said. “The kingdom and all involved in this brutal murder must be held accountable, and if the Trump administration will not take the lead, Congress must.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan must think he’s already died and gone to his eternal recreation in the amorous embraces of the dark-eyed houris. The acid test for the viability of Riyadh’s newest transparent lie is whether the Turks actually have, as they claim, live recordings of Khashoggi’s interrogation, torture, murder, and dismemberment (not necessarily in that order) – and if they do, when Erdogan decides it’s the right time to release them.

Erdogan has got the Saudis over a barrel and he’ll squeeze everything he can out of them.

From the beginning, the Khashoggi story wasn’t really about the fate of one man. The Saudis have been getting away with bloody murder, literally, for years. They’re daily slaughtering the civilian population of Yemen with American and British help, with barely a ho-hum from the sensitive consciences always ready to invoke the so-called “responsibility to protect” Muslims in Bosnia, Kosovo, Libya, Syria, Xinjiang, Rakhine, and so forth.

Where’s the responsibility not to help a crazed bunch of Wahhabist head-choppers kill people?

But now, just one guy meets a grisly end and suddenly it’s the most important homicide since the Lindbergh baby.

What gives?

Is it because Khashoggi was part of the MSM aristocracy, on account of his relationship with the Washington Post?

Was it because of his other, darker, connections? As related by Moon of Alabama: “Khashoggi was a rather shady guy. A ‘journalist’ who was also an operator for Saudi and U.S. intelligence services. He was an early recruit of the Muslim Brotherhood.” This relationship, writes MoA, touches on the interests of pretty much everyone in the region:

“The Ottoman empire ruled over much of the Arab world. The neo-Ottoman wannabe-Sultan Recep Tayyip Erdogan would like to regain that historic position for Turkey. His main competition in this are the al-Sauds. They have much more money and are strategically aligned with Israel and the United States, while Turkey under Erdogan is more or less isolated. The religious-political element of the competition is represented on one side by the Muslim Brotherhood, ‘democratic’ Islamists to which Erdogan belongs, and the Wahhabi absolutists on the other side.”

With the noose tightening around Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS), the risible fistfight cock-and-bull story is likely to be the best they can come up with. US President Donald Trump’s having offered his “rogue killers” opening suggests he’s willing to play along. Nobody will really be fooled, but MbS will hope he can persuade important people to pretend they are fooled.

That will mean spreading around a lot of cash. The new alchemy of converting Khashoggi dead into financial gain for the living is just one part of an obvious scheme to pull off what Libya’s Muammar Kaddafi managed after the 1988 Lockerbie bombing: offer up some underlings as the fall guys and let the top man evade responsibility. (KARMA ALERT: That didn’t do Kaddafi any good in the long run.)

In the Saudi case the Lockerbie dodge will be harder, as there are already pictures of men at the Istanbul Consulate General identified as close associates of MbS. But they’ll give it the old madrasa try anyway since it’s all they’ve got.Firings and arrests have started and one suspect has already died in a suspicious automobile “accident.” Heads will roll!

Saving MbS’s skin and his succession to the throne of his doddering father may depend on how many of the usual recipients of Saudi – let’s be honest – bribery and influence peddling will find sufficient pecuniary reason to go along. Saudi Arabia’s unofficial motto with respect to the US establishment might as well be: “The green poultice heals all wounds.”

Anyway, that’s been their experience up to now, but it also in part reflects the same arrogance that made MbS think he could continue to get away with anything. (It’s not shooting someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue, but it’s close.) Whether spreading cash around will continue to have the same salubrious effect it always has had in the past remains to be seen.

To be sure, Trump may succeed in shaking the Saudi date palm for additional billions for arms sales. That won’t necessarily turn around an image problem that may not have a remedy. But still, count on more cash going to high-price lobbying and image-control shops eager to make obscene money working for their obscene client. Some big American names are dropping are dropping Riyadh in a sudden fit of fastidiousness, but you can bet others will be eager to step into their Guccis, both in the US and in the United Kingdom. (It should never be forgotten how closely linked the US and UK establishments are in the Middle East, and to the Saudis in particular.)

It still might not work though. No matter how much expensive PR lipstick the spinmeisters put on this pig, that won’t make it kissable. It’s still a pig.

Others benefitting from hanging Khashoggi’s death around MbS’s neck are:

  • Qatar (after last year’s invasion scare, there’s no doubt a bit of Schadenfreude and (figurative) champagne corks popping in Doha over MbS’s discomfiture. As one source close to the ruling al-Thani family relates, “The Qataris are stunned speechless at Saudi incompetence!” You just can’t get good help these days).

Among the losers one must count Israel and especially Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu. MbS, with his contrived image as the reformer, was the Sunni “beard” he needed to get the US to assemble an “Arab NATO” (as though one NATO weren’t bad enough!) and eliminate Iran for him. It remains to be seen how far that agenda has been set back.

Whether or not MbS survives or is removed – perhaps with extreme prejudice – there’s no doubt Saudi Arabia is the big loser. Question are being asked that should have been asked years ago. As Srdja Trifkovic comments in Chronicles magazine:

“The crown prince’s recklessness in ordering the murder of Khashoggi has demonstrated that he is just a standard despot, a Mafia don with oil presiding over an extended cleptocracy of inbred parasites. The KSA will not be reformed because it is structurally not capable of reform. The regime in Riyadh which stops being a playground of great wealth, protected by a large investment in theocratic excess, would not be ‘Saudi’ any longer. Saudia delenda est.”

The first Saudi state, the Emirate of Diriyah, went belly up in 1818, with the death of head of the house of al-Saud, Abdullah bin Saud – actually, literally with his head hung on a gate in Constantinople by Erdogan’s Ottoman predecessor, Sultan Mahmud II.

The second Saudi state, Emirate of Nejd, likewise folded in 1891.

It’s long past time this third and current abomination joined its antecedents on the ash heap of history.

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