Hersh, Saudis and the chemical attack on Syria

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Ahmet Aslan

Jumada' al-Akhirah 12, 1436 2014-05-01

News & Analysis

by Ahmet Aslan (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 43, No. 3, Jumada' al-Akhirah, 1436)

The veteran US journalist, Seymour Hersh has laid to rest one lie—that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons in al-Ghouta last August—but has left unsaid the role of Saudi Arabia in this dastardly crime.

Speculation about who carried out the chemical attack in Syria last August has been reignited following publication of award winning journalist Seymour Hersh’s article “The Red Line and the Rat Line,” in the London Review of Books in April. It was also covered in the Crescent International; after the attack took place in August 2013 and claimed the lives of around 1,400 people. It consequently evoked strong international outrage and was considered sufficient justification for military intervention against the government of Bashar al-Asad in Syria. However, a last minute Russian-brokered deal halted the planned Western attack on Syria and led to the process of destroying the entire Syrian chemical stockpile which is still underway.

Since then, mystery surrounding the attack has not ended especially regarding the identity of the perpetrator(s). Hersh’s earlier article titled “Who’s Sarin” was very important in terms of presenting some fresh evidence. In that article Hersh had provided evidence that can be summarized as follows: Owing to its secret sensor system, the US would have noticed if the Syrian army had used the chemical weapons yet no such warning was issued; according to expert testimonies the ammunition that was used to deliver the sarin gas “was an improvised munition that was very likely manufactured locally.”

In other words it is something one could produce in a modestly equipped machine shop which would rule out the possibility of the Syrian army that uses Russian supplied weaponry. And finally, in May 2013, the US intelligence reported that opposition groups such as al-Nusrah Front and some other elements in the Syrian opposition groups had been working on producing chemical weapons.

In his most recent article, Hersh further elaborates his claim while looking for an answer to the question, “Why did Obama delay and then relent on Syria when he was not shy about rushing into Libya?” According to Hersh’s argument, the reason the Obama administration called off the attack was their conviction that they had been manipulated into thinking that the culprit of the chemical attack was the Syrian government. The main evidence for their insight into the conspiracy came from British intelligence that obtained a sample of the sarin used in the August 21 attack and analysis demonstrated that the gas used did not match the Syrian army’s chemical weapons arsenal. This piece of information together with concerns expressed by the Pentagon that believed a strike against Syrian military facilities “could lead to a wider war in the Middle East” prompted Obama to call off the strike and give diplomacy a chance.

In the rest of his article, Hersh accuses the Turkish government and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for cooperating with al-Nusrah Front to plan, prepare and execute the chemical attack near Damascus. Hersh points to a highly classified briefing paper issued by the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). Referring to intelligence reports from various agencies, the paper alleges that “Turkey and Saudi-based chemical facilitators were attempting to obtain sarin precursors in bulk, tens of kilograms, likely for the anticipated large scale production effort in Syria.” According to Hersh, the Erdogan government by collaborating with al-Nusrah Front aimed to force the US into war with Syria as they knew that al-Asad’s government was winning and the only way to turn the tide of war was to get the American war machinery directly involved.

Similar to the coverage of the event in the October issue of Crescent, Hersh then draws attention to Erdogan’s famous visit to Washington on May 16, 2013, in which the Turkish prime minister together with the head of Turkish Intelligence service Hakan Fidan handed a thick dossier to Obama to convince him that it was the Syrian government that had carried out the chemical attack. Crescent did not have access to the details and the anecdotes such as Erdogan’s pointing his finger at Obama in a heated exchange nevertheless it spelled out the possibility of passive involvement of Turkey in such a conspiracy. Having put all its eggs in the Syrian basket, Ankara has been desperate to overthrow the regime in Syria. It, therefore, seemed natural that Turkey would be a prime suspect in the chemical weapon attack, especially considering the destructive role it has played since the beginning of the crisis. However, in the same article, Crescent cautioned that it “is a very serious allegation and deserves strong reliable evidence and thorough investigation.”

However, Hersh does not seem to be bothered with similar caution and considers Turkey the prime suspect. Further, he overlooks the possibility of Saudi involvement especially of the just-dismissed notorious spymaster Bandar bin Sultan. The Turks might have the required motivation and connections for such a heinous crime yet it is questionable if they also have the required evil nature to commit it. On the other hand, the Saudis for decades have initiated and abetted all forms of crimes against the Ummah, therefore no one would doubt their capabilities in committing such a crime. In this regard according to The Independent it was “Prince Bandar’s intelligence agency that first alerted Western allies to the alleged use of sarin gas by the Syrian regime in February.” Furthermore, according to a Global Research piece that quotes from Le Figaro “…two brigades of anti-government fighters that were trained by the CIA, Israelis, Saudis, and Jordanians crossed from the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan into Syria to launch an assault, respectively on August 17 and 19, 2013. The US must have invested quite a lot in training both anti-government brigades. If true, some may argue that their defeat prompted the chemical weapons attack in Damascus as a contingency plan to fall back on.”

Further, a report based on witness testimonies by those who live in the area stated that “Many believe that certain rebels received chemical weapons via the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, and were responsible for carrying out the deadly gas attack.” Bandar was so furious at US refusal to launch a military strike against Syria after the alleged chemical attack that he invited Western diplomats to the Saudi Red Sea city of Jeddah to voice Riyadh’s frustration with the Obama administration and its regional policies. He warned that Saudi Arabia has alternatives if the US does not fulfill the needs of their partnership.

It is surprising that a veteran journalist like Hersh who must have known about this story preferred to ignore it. He was perhaps charmed by the sensational side of the story that paints Turkey as the culprit. He seemed to dwell on sensational details of the encounter between Erdogan and Obama. Additionally, as a result of the bitter conflict with the Gulenists (the group led by Fethullah Gulen who currently resides in the US), Erdogan seems to be much more isolated internationally despite his landslide victory in the local elections that belie his isolation at home. Erdogan, therefore, appeared to be an easy target to blame for the atrocities (whether or not Bandar was responsible). This however could not have happened without Washington’s knowledge.

Eric Walberg is author of From Postmodernism to Postsecularism: Re-emerging Islamic Civilization (http://www.claritypress.com/WalbergII.html)

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