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

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer arrives for his daily briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S. June 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

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.

What do you think?

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