10 05 2014

Have we been taken for a ride – again?

The chemical attack on the rebel held Damascus suburb Eastern Ghouta on August 21 last year brought us very close to a US attack on Syria. It was called off in last minute, after Russian President Vladimir Putin brokered an agreement with the Syrian Government to give up its chemical weapons. But who was behind the Ghouta attack? The US and most Western countries have no doubt: it was the Syrian Government. Russia - after some dithering - ended up pointing to the rebels. However, proofs are very scarce for either accusation. So it leaves at least some of us with an unpleasant feeling of having being taken for a ride – once again.

Some three weeks after the attacks, the US NGO Human Rights Watch presented a report concluding that there was no doubt: drawing up the trajectory of the rockets, it was clear all three had been fired from the same location around 9.6 km away, a Syrian Army base. This was widely reported in the mainstream press, and backed by the US government. The red line had been crossed – now an attack on Syrian would be prepared in retaliation. It turned out, however, that this theory could not be right, as the range of the rockets was much shorter, not more than 2 kms. A new theory was then floated that the rockets could have been fired from another area 2.5 km away, a disputed area, but mainly under the Syrian Army's control. Further evidence for the Syrian Army as the culprit is related to the type of rocket, and the chemical composition of the sarin gas. And finally, it is said that even if the rebels had wanted to bomb their own people, they didn't have the capacity to produce the amount of sarin needed. The arguments for and against are extremely detailed and difficult for us laypeople to have a meaning about.

That is basically where we are now. Most of the mainstream press considers the case as closed. There are however some disturbing doubts that have never been dissipated, taken into account that the attack brought us to the brink of one more international war in the Middle East.

The main doubt as I see it, is the motive. The Romans used to pose the question: Cui bono (who benefits)? The question of the motive is still important in most modern legal system. The motive, or lack of it, constitutes no proof. But without a motive, the evidence required will normally have to be much stronger.

And the motive for the Syrian Army to use chemical weapons has proved difficult to establish. Two possible motives have been suggested:

The first is that the Syrian Army was cornered by the rebels and therefore recurred to the use of chemical weapons as a last resort. But since the spring 2013, the Syrian Army had been on the offensive. In May 2013 the Syrian Army had just won the battle of Al-Qusayr, by friends and foes considered a possible turning point in the war. The Syrian Army was under pressure, but it had no reason to be desperate.

The second is that there was some power struggle going on within the Syrian Regime, where one of the factions thought that the use of chemical weapons could help their cause. This has never been substantiated, and if there had been a decisive factional strife, it must have petered out surprisingly silently. The Syrian Regime still looks quite united, now nine months later.

Then to the arguments against. The chemical attack took place just as the UN inspectors had arrived in Syria. Why would the Syrian Regime want to make a chemical attack right under the noses of the UN inspectors? The Syrian Regime has shown that it can be brutal and despotic, but hitherto not irrational.

Then did the rebels have a motive strong enough to make an attack on their own people? Well, the reaction of the rebels to the attack was immediate, asking for the US and other foreign powers to intervene and topple the regime. The same was the reaction of Turkey and Saudi Arabia. They had everything to win from the attack, particularly taking into account that the rebels were on the defensive. When Obama accepted the deal to destroy the Syrian Chemical Weapons, the frustration was enormous and the reactions furious. It was obviously not the chemical weapons that was their concern - in that case they would have welcomed the deal. It was the failure of the chemical attacks to provoke a US intervention.

There has been much speculation that Saudi Arabia could have been behind the attack. But a recent article by the prize winning American journalist Seymor Hersch points us surprisingly in another direction: Turkey and its Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Many were puzzled when Obama suddenly turned around and accepted to call off the attack on Syria. A possible explanation is that his own advisers had doubts about who had been behind the attack. The story makes sense – if it actually is true is of course difficult to know.

Some of us still remember the Tonkin Gulf incident in 1964, which was used as a pretext for the escalation of the Vietnam war. Of much more recent date is of course the infamous Weapons of Mass Destruction allegations used to justify the invasion of Iraq. Should it turn out that we have been taken for a ride in the case of the Ghouta gas attack, then it is obviously not the first time. And depressingly, don't expect the mainstream press to question this type of false flag operations – expect it to pour gasoline on the fire. And as to Human Rights Watch, it seems they are also on the side of the arsonists.

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Thorbjorn Waagstein

Thorbjørn Waagstein, Economist, PhD, since 1999 working as international Development Consultant in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

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