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Apr 28 2017

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Untangling the Conflicting Narratives from Khan Sheikhoun

General Mattis, in a recent interview in Israel, stated that “there can be no doubt” that Syria held back some of it’s chemical weapons in 2013. The fact is that the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) supervised the removal of Syrians chemical weapons which were later destroyed by Americans on a U.S. warship at sea.  Russia was not directly involved at all.    The OPCW reported that they had got all of the Syrian CW except the ones stored in areas under control of the ‘opposition fighters’.   According to an official who reported on Democracy Now! as they were wrapping up, the Syrians were very cooperative.  He further explained that most of the CW they had found in Syria were unopened canisters of precursor chemicals.

Mattis’ evidence, say members of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, showed traces that most likely came from normal activities of moving the CW.  It might conceivably indicate foul play,  but that type of evidence falls far short of certainty.    The discussion is somewhat technical, so it may not be widely read, but it is important to note that over and over, the same half truths and lies that led to the Iraq war are being recycled around the Syrian conflict.   In an article published shortly after the recent chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun, these same experts posted an article throwing doubt on Trump’s intelligence around that attack and his arrogant use of a US military response to punish the Syrians, antagonize their Russian allies and threaten Chinese President Xi Jinping over dinner.   Since then new information has emerged that presents a pretty clear logical argument that the incident did involve chemicals and a bomb but it was not what it seemed to be.

According to interviews I watched on CGTN, the Chinese international news network,  Early in the morning on April 4, the people of Khan Sheikhoun were awakened by a loud blast.  Some rose from their beds and went outside to see what was going on.   They smelled something nasty, and saw a low cloud of gas rolling over the town.   Shortly thereafter, people began to cough.  Some became very ill and eventually, many died.  They claimed a number of people were missing and information was coming about other victims still , which is occupied by Al Nusra (Al Qaeda in Syria) who had died or remained in Syria.  The interviews took place in a hospital in Turkey where these victims were taken,  due to  the proximity of Khan Sheikhoun to the Turkish border.    There is a hospital in the town, but Turkey would have a larger, better supplied facility.

The White Helmets produced videos allegedly  at the time of the crisis, of the victims coughing and apparently in the throes of death, and corpses including young children.  They showed themselves hosing off victims, handling the bodies of small children, and generally moving people around and  into a ‘hospital’ of some sort.   It is a visually distressing bit of evidence that disturbs you but doesn’t provide a single bit of evidence regarding who perpetrated the crime or what actually happened.   One of the first videos released has a known terrorist who actually lost his license to practice medicine in the UK, walking around pointing to victims in what appears to be an emergency room, and claiming they are the victims of sarin poisoning.   This would not have been a scientific evaluation as, with people still racing in from somewhere with victims on gurneys there was no time for any significant evaluation.

President Trump blamed the Syrian Government, which he inaccurately refers to as ‘Assad’, for the event, and so retaliated against  Shayrat Air Base, a Syrian military base that had been pointed out to him as the one the flights that bombed Khan Sheikhoun had taken off from.  He claimed that Shrayat, which the Syrians use mostly for fighting ISIS, was a chemical weapons depot.    He had 49 tomahawk missiles sent into Syria from a ship in the Mediterranean.  The attack cost U.S. tax payers up to $200 Million.   Such a launch would likely have required some time to arrange.   The attack launched byPresident Trump seems typically radical and random, unplanned.  Yet one might conclude that the U.S. military had the ship in waiting for an event that would merit such an attack.

According to the Russians (we don’t talk to Syrians) only 23 missiles actually struck the base, leading some to believe that the attack was a ruse of some sort to cover Trump’s friendly relations with the Russians.  However, at least one of the tomahawks hit a nearby town, killing 9 civilians, including 4 children.   That said, the U.S Russian relationship also appears to have been seriously damaged by this event.  More on this later.   Combined with the deployment of U.S. forces in eastern Syria, this attack appears to be a major policy turn-around for the Trump Administration which had, only a week before, said that ISIS and Al Qaeda, not  Assad, are the target of US operations, and the US would no longer press for his removal.   The fact that Steve Bannon left the National Security Council on the same day would reinforce that interpretation.

The attack on Al Shayrat was launched while President Trump was having dinner with Chinese President Xi at his Florida resort.  At the time, Trump also announced that he is deploying a carrier strike group to the South China Sea near North Korea.    Given Trump’s challenging posture towards China, this was a literally bizarre thing to do.  Was it a coincidence? a threat?   It would appear to be another instance of a U.S. official trashing an opportunity for diplomatic rapprochement by using the opportunity to mount a unilateral position backed by a threat   Gunboat diplomacy appears to be Trumps’ idea of negotiation.

But, back to Khan Sheikhoun, the Russians and the Syrian government said that the Syrian plane was targeting an Al Qaeda/Al Nusra storage facility for weapons and explosives.   They flew the mission around noon.   When confronted, a Russian spokesperson said that they had planned to strike a weapons cache, and went on to conjecture that there must have been chemical weapons stored in the same location.   This explanation was dismissed out of hand by the Trump Administration and the U.S. press.   In fact, it appears that the warehouse they struck was empty except for some kind of chemicals that produced a cloud visible on satellite imagery.  However the claim cannot be so easily ignored for a couple of reasons.   First, the Syrian military has pretty good intelligence in opposition held areas because there are many people held hostage there by the fighters, and they have direct sources of information on the ground.

Second, I hadn’t thought about it before Russian President Putin announced his withdrawal from the deconfliction line by which U.S./Russian communications over Syria are shared.   A big point was made of the fact that the US used the deconfliction line to inform the Russians about their strike on the Syrian military base in advance.   No mention was made of the Syrian strike in Khan Sheikhoun, but the Russians would surely have shared the information on the raid in Khan Sheikhoun over deconfliction channel as well.  So, the Americans would have known about it in advance, and even if they didn’t pay attention at the time, the record would be there to reference.    In fact,  the memorandum released by Veteran intelligence Professionals for Sanity have released saying that their contacts in the region concurred with the Russian explanation of the event, urged the President to call for an international investigation rather than pursue an immediate course of retaliation.

So, the Syrians planned this raid based on local intelligence, using Russian planes and a Russian missile.  The latter fact was initially presented as evidence that it would not have been a chemical weapon. They planned to strike a weapons storage warehouse around noon.  Nothing exceptional in all this.   So, without a reason for suspicion or a lot of time to consider, the Russians said that the Syrian plane bombed the weapons depot, which must have contained chemical weapons of some kind, so when it blew, the chemicals would have traveled to Khan Sheikhoun and poisoned the civilians there.   They confirmed that the Syrians destroyed the warehouse around noon.

This is the narrative that was out of hand dismissed by the Trump Administration.   Why?  We can look at the ‘Declassified Intelligence Report‘ they released to see what they were thinking.     In fact, the report is not a standard Intelligence report because it isn’t a formal document and cannot possibly been signed off on by all 17 U.S. Intelligence agencies,   ** Moon of Alabama, 4/13/17

The Trump administration stuck to their own version of the story,  the one asserted by the White Helmets and other Al Nusra sources – not the one told to the retired intelligence professionals (and presumably the President’s advisors) by their active friends on the ground.   In doing so, they focus on another piece of information.   The ‘intelligence’ assessment released by the White House points to a twisted fragment of a missile of some kind in a blast hole very near the town.  There are images with local fighters standing over the crater, and Trump’s advisors found the site on a satellite image of the town.  They assert that this is the impact site of the CW missile launched from the air.

Theodore Postol, Professor Emeritus of Science, Technology, and National Security Policy at MIT, read the report and immediately posted a public evaluation of the evidence.  He later posted an update to his report where he corrected a mistaken factor of wind direction, saying that the correction strengthened his thesis.   Dr. Postol concluded that the crater was not the result of an airstrike, but rather the result of a ground based explosion.   He describes clearly how the gas might have been in a  missile tube under an explosive charge, which when exploded, caused a force like a hammer to break the tube and release the gas.

So, the ‘intelligence assessment’, which doesn’t appear to have been processed by any experienced intelligence professional, is completely dependent on satellite information and information provided by the local Al Qaeda approved reporters and their White Helmet allies.   They knew that a plane flew to the area of Khan Sheikhoun, and that there was a chemical attack,.   They noted that the warehouse didn’t explode the way it should have if explosives were stored there.   They saw the victims in the White Helmet videos.   They looked at the satellite images and found the crater on a road with the missile fragment shown in the White Helmet videos.    So, now they had their smoking gun, an impact site not near any weapons warehouse, which contained the remnants of what appeared to be a spent chemical weapon delivery rocket.

But there are many other disconnects in the various narratives of what happened that day in Khan Sheikhoun.   First, you may already have noted that the Russians said the flight occurred around noon, and the Syrians said there was no flight (at 7am).   The victims heard the explosion, but not a plane, at the time of the CW attack, which was early in the morning.   Some locals did report seeing a Syrian plane come and bomb something around noon.

And the poison gas, was it sarin?   Dr. Denis O’Brien,  a PhD with credentials as a neuroscientist, wrote several blog posts on the alleged chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun, the last of which is most pertinent,  LogoPhere’s Top Ten Ways to Tell When You’re Being Spoofed by False-Flag Sarin Attacks.   Dr. O’Brien has written a book that examines the forensic evidence of the 2013 chemical weapons attack in Ghouta called Murder in the SunMorgue.

In this case, Dr O’Brien makes a clear case that there is no evidence of sarin poisoning in any of the videos supplied by the local Al Nusra people to illuminate the situation.   He notes  that those handling the victims and others near the supposed impact site aren’t wearing adequate protection.  Sarin is absorbed through the skin and is toxic in very small quantities.  He  argues that some victims appear to suffer from chlorine inhalation and their skin tone is very red, while others don’t appear to be particularly sick at all in the video of the emergency room. Since  sarin is absorbed through the skin, lung irritation is a secondary issue.  Sarin victims are generally incontinent and unable to control their muscles to walk or talk,   They have seizures,  and they have a blue skin tone, not red.   One video focuses on pinpoint pupils, but O’Brien says this is an easy effect to mimic and the lack of mucus or fluids draining from the eyes would contradict the diagnosis of sarin poisoning,

So, we have two experts saying in effect that the proposed weapon site is the site of a ground attack and the CW gas was likely chlorine, not sarin.     We have a timeline that says the Syrians flew at noon, and another that says the CW attack occurred in the early morning.

Meanwhile,  this story continues to make headlines.   While the US is actually blocking attempts for a thorough investigation, OPCW has ‘confirmed’ that it was indeed sarin that killed or sickened the people in Khan Sheikhoun based on information from the Turkish officials..   On April 20th, Moon of Alabama has posted, “Chlorine, Not Sarin, Was Used In The Khan Sheikhun Incident”  where he quotes early reports from the Turkish team treating the victims where they state that their patients are suffering from chlorine poisoning, not sarin.   He says that only later, the Turkish Health Ministry claimed that the victims were victims of a sarin incident, but even then the symptoms they described are textbook descriptions of chlorine, not sarin poisoning.   Chlorine is readily available everywhere, is far less toxic than sarin,  and Al Nusra, who controlled a large chlorine factory in Aleppo for several years,  has a history of using it.

But lets get back to examining the narratives.   We have an attack with some kind of gas (asserted to be sarin, but probably chlorine) early in the morning while people were just rising.    We have claims that attack was by a Syrian airplane, but the evidence presented indicates a ground based device. .  There are claims that 100s of people were affected, including many children.   Of these, about 30 were taken to Turkey for treatment and though these people point to missing and killed relatives, there is no evidence of the numbers claimed by the videos from Al Nusra.  Trumps’ people say they saw a plane head from the Shayrat air base to Khan Sheikhoun at the time of this attack (on radar or satellite imagery).  The Syrians admit to flying a mission to destroy an ammunition depot around noon.  The intended target, however, did not produce the explosion one might expect from detonating a large stash of explosives.   Since the Syrians usually have good intelligence, we have to ask  “Could the weapons and explosives have been removed?”

Can we connect these 2 narratives?   Well, we can begin  the expert reports that the gas was chlorine and the delivery was a ground based bomb.   We add to that Robert Parry’s possible explanation of the ‘plane’ Trump’s people saw on the satellite imagery.

On April 12, Robert Parry reported in “Trump Withholds Syria-Sarin Evidence” as follows:

In the case of the April 4 chemical-weapons incident in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, which reportedly killed scores of people including young children, I was told that initially the U.S. analysts couldn’t see any warplanes over the area in Idlib province at the suspected time of the poison gas attack but later they detected a drone that they thought might have delivered the bomb.

And

According to a source, the analysts struggled to identify whose drone it was and where it originated. Despite some technical difficulties in tracing its flight path, analysts eventually came to believe that the flight was launched in Jordan from a Saudi-Israeli special operations base for supporting Syrian rebels, the source said, adding that the suspected reason for the poison gas was to create an incident that would reverse the Trump administration’s announcement in late March that it was no longer seeking the removal of President Bashar al-Assad.

It starts to look like a pretty complicated ruse to implicate the Syrian government in the one action that has been a ‘red line’ in this war.   But how would they know when to strike?   Well, the first thing Putin did when he saw where this was going, was to close down the deconfliction communication line where the Russians would have shared information on the pending flight (Syrians flying a Russian plane) with their American counterparts.   The deconfliction line exists to protect US and Russian planes and those of their allies from (not so) friendly fire.   I guess he would have been pretty angry to see the US use the line  to implicate his Syrian allies in a barbaric human rights violation.  Or maybe the US forces manning the line were just sloppy about security, and some one dropped the information to one of their allies, Israel, Turkey or Saudi Arabia, all of whom provide direct support to the forces opposing the Syrian government.

But he wouldn’t have been entirely surprised by a betrayal because last September the US bombed a Syrian military outpost near Deir Ezzor for over an hour while the Russians called and called the deconfliction line to get them to stop.   Nearly a hundred Syrian soldiers died and more were wounded.   The Russians provided air cover so the remaining men could escape but ISIS was waiting nearby to capture the area and there was no one there to stop them.   Apparently the US military reserves the right to use the deconfliction line in a strategic way when it suits their purposes.   Paul Larudee of Syria Solidarity Movement,  discusses the political context of the current action in his article, How did al-Qaeda know in advance about the Syrian air strike? on Dissident Voice.

In September, the US strike on Deir Ezzor ended a US-Russian agreement  to work together in Aleppo Just to make sure peace would not have a chance, a UN vetted aid convoy was blown up at a warehouse in East Aleppo in an area where Al Nusra rules.  The attack was blamed on the Russian and Syrian air forces.   And would it surprise you to know that the evidence, provided by the White Helmets, appeared to show the result of some sort of ground strike, not the claimed barrel bombs.   We are told that the attack on Deir Ezzor was a rogue military decision implemented to derail Obama’s potential rapprochement with Russia in Syria. But that would not account for attack on the convoy which was dramatically raised by Samantha Power at the UNSC to disrupt the formal Russian protest over the US attack on the Syrian Army in Deir Ezzor, a clear violation of international law.

In this instance , a lot more is at stake.   Trump needs to be freed from the stigma of embracing (diplomacy with) Russia.   And, from the standpoint off the military, he needs a change of course.  He had just said that ‘Assad’ doesn’t need to ‘go’.   The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) had taken Aleppo, and since then, they have been successful in clearing the mercenaries from a number of areas.   They are now moving into areas where they might  interfere with US plans to occupy eastern Syria from the Kurdish lands in the north down along the Euphrates to Raqqa.    So yes, this moment might actually have demanded an elaborate ruse implemented by both Al Nusra and their facilitators, who are losing in Idlib, and the ‘deep state’ military industrial complex here, who fear being restrained from achieving the goals they have been pursuing for the last 6 years in Syria.

 

 

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