In the days following the US missile strike on Al-Shayrat air base in Syria, the US National Security Council published a four page white paper purporting to set out the evidence that the chemical weapons attack on Khan Sheikhoun – the reason for the missile strike – was carried out by the Syrian military.
Before discussing this document I am going to say something about the absurdity of this whole situation.
The chemical weapons attack on Khan Sheikhoun is alleged to have taken place on 4th April 2017. The President of the United States declared within hours of that attack that the Syrian President and the Syrian military were responsible. This was before any investigator had visited the site of the attack, and before any investigation could be carried out.
A missile strike on Al-Shayrat air base followed on 6th April 2017.
The US then produced – days after the missile attack – its white paper which it says is its evidence of the Syrian President’s and of the Syrian military’s responsibility.
It then agreed to an international investigation of the incident by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (the OPCW).
That this completely reverses what in any sane world ought to be the proper order – an investigation first, the publication of the evidence, a finding of who is responsible, and then a decision by the appropriate body (the UN Security Council) of what to do – is obvious. It reminds me of a passage from Alice
“No, No!” said the Queen. Sentence first – verdict afterwards”.
“Stuff and nonsense!” said Alice loudly. “The idea of having the sentence first!”
It is barely conceivable that any analyst however brilliant in Langley or anywhere else in the US could have undertaken a proper and full assessment of what happened in a remote far away corner in Syria’s Idlib province within hours of the attack sufficient to say with absolute certainty who was responsible. Such a rapid and conclusive assessment does not happen in crime investigations even when there are investigators actually on the scene gathering the forensic evidence and interviewing the witnesses. Yet that is what we are asked to believe happened in this case. I don’t believe it, and I doubt anyone else truly does.
In reality what probably happened is that the analysts in Langley rushed out a preliminary assessment based one suspects largely on subjective presumptions of President Assad’s guilt. This was then treated by the President as a definitive assessment, and on the strength of it he launched his missile strike.
People with contacts in the US intelligence community such as the journalist Robert Parry and the former CIA official Philip Giraldi speak of the anger of US intelligence officers at the speed with which what can only have been a preliminary assessment was acted upon. Though some of the details of what Robert Parry and Philip Giraldi say may be be open to challenge, of the anger of the US intelligence community’s field workers at the action taken in response to such a rushed assessment I have no doubt.
Having however now so publicly pronounced President Assad and the Syrian military guilty of the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack – and killed people on that basis – the US and the other Western Powers are now stuck with this claim, and this inevitably is going to prejudice the conduct of any future investigation carried out by the OPCW.
It is in this light that the claims in the four page white paper must be read.
The entirety of the information in the white paper is actually summed up in these two paragraphs
The United States is confident that the Syrian regime conducted a chemical weapons attack, using the nerve agent sarin, against its own people in the town of Khan Shaykhun in southern Idlib province on April 4, 2017. According to observers at the scene, the attack resulted in at least 50 and up to 100 fatalities (including many children), with hundreds of additional injuries.
We have confidence in our assessment because we have signals intelligence and geospatial intelligence, laboratory analysis of physiological samples collected from multiple victims, as well as a significant body of credible open source reporting, that tells a clear and consistent story. We cannot publicly release all available intelligence on this attack due to the need to protect sources and methods, but the following includes an unclassified summary of the US Intelligence Community’s analysis of this attack.
The rest of the white paper consists of an account of the attack as the US intelligence community has reconstructed it, and of a long and rather strange discussion seeking to rebut various alternative theories about what happened which have been floated by the Russians.
Briefly, the account is that a single bomb containing sarin was dropped by a Syrian air force SU-22 fighter bomber over the course of an air attack on Khan Sheikhoun commencing at 6:55 am local time on 4th April 2017 and continuing for around 20 minutes.
The supposed proof for this is a combination of videos and witness statements published on the day of the attack, scientific reports supposedly confirming that the cause of the fatalities was a nerve agent, and a small crater which is said to mark the impact point of the bomb which contained the sarin, whose location is pinpointed in the middle of a street in the northern part of the town.
Is this account and this evidence as open and shut as the white paper claims?
The first thing to say is that the US claims in the white paper to possess ‘proof’ of its assertions in the form of evidence it cannot disclose.
This is something which happens repeatedly in cases of this sort and at this point I repeat my longstanding objection to this practice.
The US and British governments said the same thing in connection with Iraq’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction, during the Litvinenko affair, following the Ghouta chemical attack of 2013, after the MH17 shoot-down, and following the attack on the humanitarian convoy in Idlib province in September 2016.
On the occasions when the US and British governments were pressed to produce this ‘secret evidence’, they either refused to do so (as in the case of Litvinenko affair, the attack on the humanitarian convoy, and MH17), or when it was produced it turned out to be wrong (as in the case of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction).
In the case of the Ghouta chemical attack of 2013 we now know because no less a person than President Obama has told us that the evidence was actually inconclusive.
It is a gross abuse of intelligence to use it in this way. If the US and British governments possess evidence which they cannot publish, then they should not disclose its existence. All doing so does is hopelessly prejudice subsequent investigations of a case.
I would add that whenever this has become the practice in criminal cases, especially in terrorist cases, the result has been a chain of miscarriages with individuals found guilty on the strength of evidence which because it was withheld from them they could not challenge but which afterwards all too often turned out to be wrong. There is no reason to think that in cases involving governments it is any different.
The second thing to say is that one must distinguish between two entirely separate facts which far too many people are conflating. These are (1) the attack by the Syrian air force on Khan Sheikhoun on 4th April 2017; and (2) the alleged release of chemicals during the attack.
There is no doubt that the Syrian air force did carry out an air attack on Khan Sheikhoun on 4th April 2017. After some contradictory statements – almost certainly the result of confusion and panic and almost certainly not made with any intention to deceive – the Syrian military admitted as much, and this has also been confirmed by the Russians. There is also no doubt the air attack was launched from Al-Shayrat air base, and that SU-22 fighter bombers were involved.
It does not however follow that because the Syrian air force carried out an air attack on Khan Sheikhoun that it was responsible for the release of chemicals that allegedly took place during the attack. One cannot say that conclusively until investigators have examined all the evidence.
I say this because there is a tendency to treat evidence of the air attack – the fact of which no-one disputes – as proof of the Syrian military’s responsibility for the chemical release. The US government’s white paper does this very thing.
The one is not proof of the other, and should not be treated that way.
Turning to the unclassified evidence in the white paper, it appears to me to divide into two parts
(1) Evidence that there was a chemical attack
This is provided by (1) videos and witness accounts of the incident; and (2) forensic discovery of samples of nerve agent in some of the individuals allegedly affected; and
(2) Evidence the Syrian air force carried out the chemical attack
This is provided by (1) videos and witness accounts of the incident; (2) the bomb crater; and (3) the presence of Syrian army officers known to have been previously involved in Syria’s chemical weapons programme at Al-Shayrat air base on the eve of the attack (there is what looks like a subsequent attempt at confirmation that this evidence was obtained through signals intelligence).
The evidence can therefore be summed up as follows:
(1) videos and witness accounts of the incident’
(2) the samples of nerve agent found in some of the individuals allegedly affected;
(3) the bomb crater;
(4) the presence of certain Syrian army officers at Al-Shayrat air base before the raid.
What can we say about this evidence?
We now have the evidence of two authoritative expert witnesses who are challenging at least parts of this evidence, and who are casting doubt on the whole story. They are President Assad of Syria and Professor Theodore Postol of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
President Assad is the commander in chief of the Syrian armed forces and is quite possibly the single best informed and most knowledgeable expert in the world about the political and military situation in Syria. Moreover since the US has declared him the prime suspect what he says carries particular weight. In any remotely impartial inquiry of a incident like this what is said by the prime suspect should carry at least equal weight to what is being said against him by his accusers. Any other approach is biased and wrong.
Professor Postol is a foremost forensic expert with a proven track record of correctly assessing technical evidence in incidents of this sort. He played a key role in debunking some of the erroneous claims that were made at the time of the sarin attack on Ghouta in Syria in August 2013.
What I now propose to do is go through the evidence in the white paper, testing it whenever possible against the evidence provided by President Assad and Professor Postol, and against any other evidence that is available.
I will first consider the vexed question of motive because it has featured so much in discussions of the case.
I should say that this is a departure from the usual method followed by investigators. The claim that investigators consider motive first and conduct their investigations on that basis (“cui bono”) though commonly made is actually wrong. Investigators rarely concern themselves with motive simply because motive is so difficult to guess, and guesses can so easily lead an investigation astray.
However in this case it is possible to make an exception because the US government in its white paper is claiming that the alleged chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun was intentional. If so then the Syrian military must have had some motive to do it.
The US in the white paper claims the air attack was carried out in connection with the Jihadi offensive in Hama.
This is undoubtedly correct. I have made this point myself previously. What reason did the Syrian military however have to make this attack a chemical attack?
President Assad is the expert on this question and his answer is none. This is what President Assad says
For example, less than two weeks, around ten days before that attack, the terrorists were advancing in many fronts, including the suburbs of Damascus and Hama which is not far from Khan Sheikhoun, let’s suppose we have this arsenal, and let’s suppose that we have the will to use it, why didn’t we use it when we were retreating and the terrorists were advancing? Actually, the timing of that attack or alleged attack was when the Syrian Army was advancing very fast, and actually the terrorists were collapsing. So, why to use it, if you have it and if you have the will, why to use it at that timing, not when you were in a difficult situation, logically? This is first.
Second, if you want to use it, if you have it and if you want to use it – again, this is if we suppose – why to use it against civilians, not to use it against the terrorists that we are fighting? Third, in that area, we don’t have army, we don’t have battles, we don’t have any, let’s say, object in Khan Sheikhoun, and it’s not a strategic area. Why to attack it? What’s the reason? Militarily, I’m talking from a military point of view. Of course, the foundation for us, morally, we wouldn’t do it if we have it, we wouldn’t have the will, because morally this is not acceptable. We won’t have the support of the public. So, every indication is against the whole story, so you can say that this play that they staged doesn’t hold together. The story is not convincing by any means.
It is difficult to argue either with the facts or with the logic of this, and interestingly no one has convincingly done so. Instead we have nebulous claims that President Assad was looking to test President Trump’s resolve (why should he?) or that his army is ‘tired’ (unlikely, since it is on the offensive and winning the war) or that he is stupid (contradicted by the fluency of his comments) or that he is a barbarian (why would he carry out a purposeless attack even if he was one?).
Even Britain’s Foreign Minister Boris Johnson has been forced to admit that President Assad had no discernible motive to carry out the attack
It is in some ways bizarre that Bashar al-Assad should be so reckless. It seems mystifying that he should now raise the stakes by so blatantly murdering so many of his own people with chemical weapons. Indeed, there is a sense in which it would frankly be more convenient for the outside world to pretend that it did not happen.
What of the argument that is also sometimes made that this was a rogue operation ordered by some Syrian commander on his own initiative? Here is what President Assad has to say about that
Even if you have a rogue element, the army doesn’t have chemical materials. This is first. Second, a rogue army cannot send an airplane at their will, even if they want. It’s an airplane, it’s not a small car to take it from place to place or a small machine gun to use it. You can talk about somebody who has been using his pistol on his behalf the way he wants and break the law, that could happen anywhere in the world, but not an airplane. This is second.
Third, the Syrian Army is a regular army, it’s not a militia. It’s a regular army, it has hierarchy, it has very clear way of orders, so this kind of “rough personnel tried to do something against the will of the leadership of the army” never happened during the last six years of the war in Syria.
In other words this was not and could not have been a rogue operation, and President Assad not only denies ordering a chemical attack but says he had no logical reason to do so.
Here it is also fair to point out that President Assad also categorically denies that Syria is any longer in possession of chemical weapons since it gave up its chemical weapons arsenal following the Ghouta chemical weapons attack in August 2013.
This claim is now being bitterly contested, but here is what President Assad had to say about it
We don’t have an arsenal, we’re not going to use it.
(2) Videos and witness accounts of the incident
Since the videos and witness statements were made in Syria, more often than not by people who are Syrians, President Assad is again the undisputed expert on their reliability and provenance. Moreover since he is the prime suspect and the videos and the witness statements make accusations against him, what he says about them deserves particular attention
As you know, Khan Sheikhoun is under the control of al-Nusra Front, which is a branch of Al Qaeda, so the only information the world have had till this moment is published by Al Qaeda branch. No-one has any other information. We don’t know if the whole pictures or videos that we’ve been seeing are true or fabricated. That’s why we asked for investigation to what happened in Khan Sheikhoun. This is first….
As I said, the only source is Al Qaeda, we cannot take it seriously. But our impression is that the West, mainly the United States, is hand in glove with the terrorists. They fabricated the whole story in order to have a pretext for the attack, It wasn’t an attack because of what happened in khan Sheikhoun. It’s one event, its stage one is the play that we saw on the social networking and on TVs, and the propaganda, and the stage two is the military attack. That’s what we believe is happening because it’s only few days – two days, 48 hours – between the play and the attacks, and no investigations, no concrete evidence about anything, the only thing were allegations and propaganda, and then strike…..
The allegation itself was by Al Qaeda, al-Nusra Front, so we don’t have to investigate who, they announced it, it’s under their control, no-one else. About the attack, as I said, it’s not clear whether it happened or not, because how can you verify a video? You have a lot of fake videos now, and you have the proof that those videos were fake, like the White Helmets for example, they are Al Qaeda, they are al-Nusra Front who shaved their beards, wore white hats, and appeared as humanitarian heroes, which is not the case. The same people were killing Syrian soldiers, and you have the proof on the internet anyway. So, the same thing for that chemical attack, we don’t know whether those dead children were killed in Khan Sheikhoun? Were they dead at all? Who committed the attack if there was an attack? What’s the material? You have no information at all, nothing at all, no-one investigated.
We can contrast this with what the US government’s white paper has to say about these videos and witness statements
We are certain that the opposition could not have fabricated all of the videos and other reporting of chemical attacks. Doing so would have required a highly organized campaign to deceive multiple media outlets and human rights organizations while evading detection. In addition, we have independently confirmed that some of the videos were shot at the approximate times and locations described in the footage.
This is far from being a comprehensive refutation of President Assad’s points. On the contrary the words “we are certain that the opposition could not have fabricated all of the videos” seem to at least concede the possibility that “the opposition” might have fabricated some of the videos.
The most worrying point however is that the white paper falsifies who was actually in control of Khan Sheikhoun at the time of the attack, and who was therefore in control of the territory where the videos and the witness statements were produced. As President Assad says, it was Al-Qaeda operating through one of the kaleidoscope of names it uses to conceal its identity, with the name it is now using in Syria being “Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham”.
Al-Qaeda’s current name “Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham” replaces its previous name “Jabhat Al-Nusra”. However it remains the same organisation, which continues to be classified by the US as a terrorist group. It is “Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham” – ie. Al-Qaeda – which launched the recent offensives in Damascus and in northern Hama, the latter being the cause as the US white paper admits of the Syrian air force attack on Khan Sheikhoun. It is this same group – Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham ie. Al-Qaeda – which controls Khan Sheikhoun.
The fact the white paper falsifies Al-Qaeda’s involvement by referring to the group in control of Khan Sheikhoun merely as “the opposition” must inevitably cast doubt on this part of the white paper.
Would Al-Qaeda be capable of organising “a highly organized campaign to deceive multiple media outlets and human rights organizations while evading detection”? I suspect that most people – if they knew Al-Qaeda was involved – would answer yes.
In this case there is also the further factor that “the multiple media outlets and human rights organizations” are strongly biased against the Syrian government, which might make them all too easy to deceive.
As it happens any number of people have studied the videos and have cast doubt on what they purport to show. A good example is the independent investigation carried out by the Lebanese journalist Abdel Karim previously published by The Duran.
In conclusion though the videos and the witness evidence make a circumstantial case, the way the white paper treats them shows that they are far from conclusive, and the fact that the white paper both falsifies their provenance and concedes at least the possibility of some fabrication is a sign that even the US has doubts about them.
(3) Nerve gas samples
The evidence for this is sketchy, and relies on corroboration from tests supposedly made in Turkish hospitals and from samples obtained by British scientists. Until more details of this evidence are provided it is impossible to say much about it. However I would make two points:
(1) though the video and witness statements cannot be treated as conclusive as to who carried out the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun, they do provide at least a circumstantial case that a chemical attack of some sort happened. However one should not fall into the error of treating proof of the one (the fact of the chemical attack indicated by the videos and the witness statements and allegedly confirmed by the samples) as proof of something else (that the Syrian military was responsible for the attack).
(2) The Russian Defence Ministry is now saying that no one has asked for antidotes or medicines around the location of the attack, which suggests that if an attack did take place it was not particularly severe and may have been staged. This would of course support criticism of the video evidence made by Abdel Karim and others. However it might also point to disorganisation and to a relatively small attack by the Syrian air force, consistent with only one chemical bomb being dropped.
(4) The bomb crater
The US government’s white paper refers to ‘geospatial intelligence’ amongst the evidence which cannot be disclosed, and it is a reasonable guess that this includes satellite evidence of the crater. If so then that is surprising because numerous photographs of this crater have now been released.
This evidence has now been strongly challenged by Professor Postol. His conclusion is as follows
I have located this crater using Google Earth and there is absolutely no evidence that the crater was created by a munition designed to disperse sarin after it is dropped from an aircraft. The Google Earth map shown in Figure 1 at the end of this text section shows the location of that crater on the road in the north of Khan Shaykhun, as described in the White House statement. The data cited by the White House is more consistent with the possibility that the munition was placed on the ground rather than dropped from a plane. This conclusion assumes that the crater was not tampered with prior to the photographs. However, by referring to the munition in this crater, the White House is indicating that this is the erroneous source of the data it used to conclude that the munition came from a Syrian aircraft. Assessment of White House April 17, 2017 Intelligence Report of April 11, 2017 Page 2 of 14 Pages Analysis of the debris as shown in the photographs cited by the White House clearly indicates that the munition was almost certainly placed on the ground with an external detonating explosive.
This is consistent with the current claim of the Russian and Syrian governments that the chemical attack was deliberately staged as a ‘false flag’.
The white paper discusses at great length an early Russian claim that the deaths in Khan Sheikhoun were caused by an escape of gas from a warehouse where gas canisters were being stored by the Jihadis, which was targeted by the Syrian air force during the air strike. That initially appeared to me and to many other people to be the most likely explanation of what happened. The white paper does not say such a thing was technically impossible; only that it did not happen that way.
What the writers of the white paper do not seem to know is that the Russians themselves – almost certainly as a result of their own assessments of the evidence – have come to the same conclusion. This became clear on 11th April 2017 when President Putin said that the chemical release at Khan Sheikhoun was a ‘false flag’ ie. not an accidental release of gas from a bombed warehouse.
On a number of occasions the fact that the Russians have floated different theories about particular incidents (eg. the MH17 shoot-down) is taken as proof of their guilty knowledge of what happened. It is far more likely that it is simply the product of ignorance.
This is the most likely explanation in this case. Initially the Russians believed the incident happened because they knew a warehouse was the target of the Syrian air strike. Later, as more information came to light, they changed their assessment.
I am not in a position to say whether Professor Postol is right or wrong. That is something for the OPCW investigators to decide. All that can be said for now is that one of the foremost forensic experts in the world is disputing the white paper’s claims about this evidence.
(5) the presence of the Syrian officers at Al-Shayrat air base
This evidence has to be considered in combination with evidence provided by our old friend the ‘anonymous senior US official’ to CNN in a report dated 12th April 2017. Here is what this report says
The US military and intelligence community has intercepted communications featuring Syrian military and chemical experts talking about preparations for the sarin attack in Idlib last week, a senior US official tells CNN.
The intercepts were part of an immediate review of all intelligence in the hours after the attack to confirm responsibility for the use of chemical weapons in an attack in northwestern Syria, which killed at least 70 people. US officials have said that there is “no doubt” that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is responsible for the attack.
The US did not know prior to the attack it was going to happen, the official emphasized. The US scoops up such a large volume of communications intercepts in areas like Syria and Iraq, the material often is not processed unless there is a particular event that requires analysts to go back and look for supporting intelligence material.
This almost certainly is the signals intelligence the white paper mentions but which it says cannot be disclosed.
Since this evidence has not been disclosed it is impossible to assess it fully. All I would say is that signals intelligence depends heavily on interpretation, which has often proved to be mistaken.
For example in the run up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq the US claimed to have signals intelligence of Iraqi officers bragging to each about how they had managed to fool the UN inspectors, and following the August 2013 Ghouta attack it claimed to have signals intelligence of a senior Syrian military officer confirming the attack.
On both occasions the interpretation of the signals intelligence is now admitted to have been wrong.
It is not in itself surprising that Syrian military officers should be present at a Syrian air force base. If the US intercepted messages from them confirming that a chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun was about to occur, then it is strange that this fact is not mentioned in the white paper but has instead been leaked anonymously to CNN. That may suggest that there are some doubts about it.
In summary the white paper claims the Syrian military carried out a chemical weapons attack on the strength of (1) certain videos and witness statements of which – in part because of their provenance with people associated with Al-Qaeda – it clearly has doubts, (2) a crater one of the world’s foremost forensic experts says it misrepresents, and (3) the presence of certain Syrian military officers at a Syrian air base who an anonymous US official says the US overheard discussing the attack before it happened, something which the white paper however does not itself say.
The white paper claims the attack was intentional but provides no coherent explanation of what precisely it was intended to achieve, and the person who it says was responsible – President Assad – has forcefully challenged this logic.
This is not a compelling case. Certainly it is not one that should be used to justify a missile attack on a Syrian air force base made without Congressional approval and without permission from the UN Security Council, especially when that missile attack has caused people to die.
It is not impossible that the Syrian air force did for some unfathomable reason known only to itself carry out a chemical weapons attack on Khan Sheikhoun. Though the evidence is circumstantial and open to challenge, it cannot be said that there is no evidence at all for such an attack.
However the case is far from proved, and the possibility that this was a staged attack certainly exists, and has received strong backing from the claims about the crater made by Professor Postol
If the question is of whether the Syrian government committed a crime on 4th April 2017 in Khan Sheikhoun, then on the strength of the contents of the white paper that claim is open to challenge.
The same cannot however be said about the US government’s subsequent action. That the US government committed a crime when it launched a missile attack on Al-Sharyat air base on 6th April 2017 without lawful permission which killed people on the strength of what is by any measure a shaky and incomplete case is not open to doubt.
As of now, that is all that can be said about this case. A more complete assessment depends on the results of the OPCW’s investigation.