CIA Cover-Up Thwarted FBI’s Nuclear Diversion Investigations Evidence that missing uranium went to Israel withheld since 1968
October 23, 2015
According to formerly top-secret and secret Central Intelligence Agency files (PDF) released August 31 in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit (PDF), the agency’s long retention of key information ultimately stymied two FBI investigations into the 1960s diversion of weapons-grade uranium from a Pennsylvania-based government contractor into the Israeli nuclear weapons program.
The Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation (NUMEC) was a nuclear fuel processing company founded by legendary chemist Zalman Mordecai Shapiro and financed by entrepreneur David Luzer Lowenthal. According to the Department of Energy, during Shapiro’s reign at NUMEC, the company lost more weapons-grade uranium – 337 kilograms after accounting for losses – much of a particularly unique and high enrichment level than any other U.S. facility. Losses only returned to industry norms after Shapiro, who later unsuccessfully tried to get a job working on advanced hydrogen bomb designs, was forced out of NUMEC.
In the 1950’s Shapiro developed vital breakthroughs for US Navy nuclear propulsion systems. In the 1940s Lowenthal fought in Israel’s War of Independence, serving as a smuggler who developed close contacts with high Israeli intelligence officials. An ardent supporter of Israel, Shapiro was Pittsburgh Chapter President of the Zionist Organization of America. According to the Jerusalem Post, Shapiro later joined the board of governors of the Israeli Intelligence Heritage Center, an organization that honors spies who secretly took action to advance Israel. NUMEC holding company Apollo Industries President Morton Chatkin also held a ZOA leadership role while Apollo Executive Vice President Ivan J. Novick went on to become ZOA’s national president. David Lowenthal, who raised capital for acquiring NUMEC’s facilities (an old steel mill in the center of the village) served as Apollo’s treasurer.
In 1968 CIA Director Richard Helms sent an urgent request for an investigation to Attorney General Ramsey Clark (PDF) stating “You are well aware of the great concern which exists at the highest levels of this Government with regard to the proliferation of nuclear weapons…It is critical for us to establish whether or not the Israelis now have the capability of fabricating nuclear weapons which might be employed in the Near East…I urge that the Federal Bureau of Investigation be called upon to initiate a discreet intelligence investigation of all source nature of Dr. Shapiro in order to establish the nature and extent of his relationship with the Government of Israel.” (PDF)
The FBI investigation documented Shapiro’s many meetings with top Israeli nuclear weapons development officials such as Avraham Hermoni and wiretapped a conversation representative of the overall lack of concern over worker safety and the environment by Shapiro and Lowenthal. The FBI discovered that NUMEC had formed a joint venture with the Israel Atomic Energy Commission called Isorad to supply food irradiators to Israel. The now-defunct Atomic Energy Agency questioned Zalman Shapiro in 1969 – never asking if he had diverted material – over his many meetings with Israelis known to the FBI to be intelligence operatives. After the AEC defended Shapiro and his continued holding of security clearances, the FBI terminated its intelligence investigation.
In 1976 the Ford administration reopened the NUMEC investigation in order to determine if a diversion had occurred and whether a government cover-up had ensued. The 130-page release is replete with formal CIA denials to Congressional Committee investigators, the GAO and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission inquiries about whether the CIA had participated in any illegal diversions, or whether it was aware of any presidential finding authorizing such an operation. Arizona Democrat Morris Udall asked bluntly on August 23, 1977 “Is it possible that President Johnson, who was known to be a friend of Israel, could have encouraged the flow of nuclear materials to the Israelis?” Citing CIA’s role in alerting the attorney general to the problem as evidence that it was not involved, the agency also repeatedly emphasized “we in CIA are not and have not been concerned with the law enforcement aspects of this problem. Indeed, Dick Helms turned the matter over to the FBI in order to avoid such involvement.” Rather, exploring the NUMEC-Israel link was part of CIA’s intelligence function to substantiate why its National Intelligence Estimate concluded Israel had a nuclear arsenal.
FBI special agents soon lost morale over being sent unprepared into a second investigation. The CIA, for its part, continued withholding critical information that could have provided both motivation and a tool for confronting hostile interviewees. This was according to the newly released CIA files “information…of obvious importance in reaching an intelligence decision on the probability of diversion, it is not of any legal pertinence to the FBI’s criminal investigation of NUMEC. In our discussions with the FBI we have alluded to this information but we have not made the details available to special agents from the Washington Field Office of the FBI who are working on the case. While Mr. Bush’s [then-CIA Director George H.W. Bush] conversations are not known to us, we have had no substantive discussions with officials at FBI Headquarters on this matter.” It was this sensitive CIA information, made available only to the president, cabinet, and a limited number of top agency officials that led one National Security Council staffer to conclude, “I do not think that the President has plausible deniability.”
On June 6, 1977 Associate Deputy Director for Operations Theodore Shackley briefed the FBI agents in charge of the NUMEC investigation. They grumbled that since they had not established that the diversion took place, they could not begin to address the second question about a cover-up. They then pleaded for “new information” from the CIA, blithely ignorant that their reasoning was completely backward – it was old information they required, and it was the CIA’s withholding of it that was the true cover-up. The FBI also thought it needed a NUMEC insider willing to blow the whistle in order to finally break the case open.
Unknown to the FBI, every CIA director was complicit in withholding a key clandestine operational finding from investigators. According to a May 11, 1977 report by Shackley, the “CIA has not furnished to the FBI sensitive agent reporting…since the decision was made by Directors Helms, Colby and Bush that this information would not further the investigation of NUMEC but would compromise sources and methods.”
Though carefully redacted from the CIA release, the omitted fact was likely that highly enriched uranium of a signature unique to NUMEC had been detected in Israel, a country that did not have facilities to enrich uranium. This sensitive information (PDF) was delivered to former Atomic Energy Commissioner Glen Seaborg by two Department of Energy investigators sifting for more facts about NUMEC in June of 1978. It was powerful enough evidence that the retired Seaborg subsequently refused to be interviewed by less informed FBI investigators.
The CIA noted FBI investigators “indicated that even if they came up with a case, it was extremely unlikely that Justice and State would allow it to come to trial…they feel that they have been given a job to do with none of the tools necessary to do it.” Although in 1981 special agents finally identified a former NUMEC employee who had personally witnessed the means of the diversion – Zalman Shapiro and other NUMEC officials stuffing HEU canisters into irradiators (PDF) sealed and rushed to Israel – lacking the missing CIA puzzle piece the FBI investigation went dormant as the statute of limitations for Atomic Energy Act violations – punishable by death – finally expired.
Grant F. Smith is the author of DIVERT! NUMEC, Zalman Shapiro, and the diversion of U.S. weapons-grade uranium into the Israeli nuclear weapons program. He currently serves as director of research at the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy in Washington (IRmep), D.C. Read other articles by Smith, or visit the IRmep website.
by Grant Smith, September 07, 2015
Find this story at 7 September 2015
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U.S. Suspected Israeli Involvement in 1960s Missing Uranium (2014)
October 23, 2015
Officials Believed Ally Used Materials Lifted From Pennsylvania Toward a Weapons Program
Declassified documents from the 1970s provide new evidence that federal officials believed bomb-grade uranium that disappeared from a Pennsylvania nuclear facility in the 1960s was likely taken for use in a clandestine Israeli atomic-weapons program.
The documents, obtained earlier this year through public-records requests by a Washington-based nonprofit group, also indicate that senior officials wanted to keep the matter under wraps for fear it could undermine U.S. Middle East peace efforts.
Though the Central Intelligence Agency’s case for the suspected theft wasn’t conclusive, it was sufficiently persuasive that “I do not think that the President has plausible deniability” regarding the question, said a memo dated July 28, 1977, by a National Security Council staffer in President Jimmy Carter’s administration.
A security council memo to Mr. Carter a few days later expressed more uncertainty about whether a theft had occurred, but noted that then-Secretary of State Cyrus Vance had a coming Middle East trip and discussed the need to keep attention “away from the CIA’s information.”
The question of whether one of America’s closest allies was involved in the theft of some of its most valuable and dangerous material in pursuit of nuclear weapons has been one of the enduring mysteries of the atomic age. The suspected theft has drawn the attention of at least three presidents and other senior government officials.
The evidence suggested that “something did transpire,” said Zbigniew Brzezinski, Mr. Carter’s national-security adviser, in a recent interview. “But until you have conclusive evidence you don’t want to make an international incident. This is a potentially very explosive, controversial issue.” Besides, he added, even if a theft was proved, “What are we going to say to the Israelis, ‘Give it back?’ ”
Israel hasn’t ever said whether it has nuclear weapons. A spokeswoman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., declined to comment for this article.
So did a spokeswoman for the Obama administration, which like past U.S. administrations has declined to say whether it believes Israel has an atomic arsenal. A CIA spokesman also declined to comment.
Mr. Carter, who said at a 2008 gathering in Britain that he believes Israel has nuclear weapons, declined through a spokeswoman to be interviewed.
His diplomatic efforts as president, which helped produce a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1979, likely wouldn’t have been possible “if there was some huge scandal at the time about this,” said John Marcum, the staffer who wrote the July 28, 1977, memo, in a recent interview.
The theft suspicions surround events at a now-dismantled facility in Apollo, Pa., owned by a company called Nuclear Materials & Equipment Corp., or Numec. In the mid-1960s, some 200 pounds of bomb-grade uranium—enough possibly for several Hiroshima-sized bombs—couldn’t be accounted for there.
An FBI investigation begun in the late 1960s, which drew interest from top Nixon administration officials, including the president, couldn’t determine what happened to the uranium, according to Federal Bureau of Investigation and other agency documents. But FBI officials did raise questions about suspected dealings between Numec’s founder and president, Zalman Shapiro, and Israeli intelligence officials, according to government documents. Babcock & Wilcox Co., a nuclear-technology and energy company that acquired Numec in 1971, declined to comment.
In an interview late last year, the 93-year-old Mr. Shapiro, who has long argued the material had been lost in the production process, said that no theft took place. He said his dealings with Israel, where Numec had commercial activities, were legitimate and to his knowledge never involved intelligence officials.
Potentially crucial sections of the recently released documents—obtained by the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy, an organization that has been critical of Israel—remain classified.
The latest document release underscores the need for the government to declassify the remaining information about the suspected theft, some former federal officials say.
“We know the CIA thought the material was stolen. We want to know why they thought that,” said Victor Gilinsky, a former commissioner of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Government records show that a federal nuclear-enrichment facility in Ohio sent shipments to Numec containing the highest percentage of U235, the explosive form of uranium, ever known to have been produced, said Roger Mattson, another former NRC official.
Did the CIA later find that such uranium had turned up in Israel, as some documentary evidence suggests? “That’s not something that’s declassified,” said Jessica Tuchman Mathews, a national-security official in the Carter administration who wrote or received some of the recently declassified documents.
By JOHN R. EMSHWILLER
Updated Aug. 6, 2014 7:41 p.m. ET
Find this story at 6 August 2014
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The Red Line and the Rat Line; Seymour M. Hersh on Obama, Erdoğan and the Syrian rebels (2014)
July 27, 2015
In 2011 Barack Obama led an allied military intervention in Libya without consulting the US Congress. Last August, after the sarin attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, he was ready to launch an allied air strike, this time to punish the Syrian government for allegedly crossing the ‘red line’ he had set in 2012 on the use of chemical weapons.＊ Then with less than two days to go before the planned strike, he announced that he would seek congressional approval for the intervention. The strike was postponed as Congress prepared for hearings, and subsequently cancelled when Obama accepted Assad’s offer to relinquish his chemical arsenal in a deal brokered by Russia. Why did Obama delay and then relent on Syria when he was not shy about rushing into Libya? The answer lies in a clash between those in the administration who were committed to enforcing the red line, and military leaders who thought that going to war was both unjustified and potentially disastrous.
Obama’s change of mind had its origins at Porton Down, the defence laboratory in Wiltshire. British intelligence had obtained a sample of the sarin used in the 21 August attack and analysis demonstrated that the gas used didn’t match the batches known to exist in the Syrian army’s chemical weapons arsenal. The message that the case against Syria wouldn’t hold up was quickly relayed to the US joint chiefs of staff. The British report heightened doubts inside the Pentagon; the joint chiefs were already preparing to warn Obama that his plans for a far-reaching bomb and missile attack on Syria’s infrastructure could lead to a wider war in the Middle East. As a consequence the American officers delivered a last-minute caution to the president, which, in their view, eventually led to his cancelling the attack.
For months there had been acute concern among senior military leaders and the intelligence community about the role in the war of Syria’s neighbours, especially Turkey. Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan was known to be supporting the al-Nusra Front, a jihadist faction among the rebel opposition, as well as other Islamist rebel groups. ‘We knew there were some in the Turkish government,’ a former senior US intelligence official, who has access to current intelligence, told me, ‘who believed they could get Assad’s nuts in a vice by dabbling with a sarin attack inside Syria – and forcing Obama to make good on his red line threat.’
The joint chiefs also knew that the Obama administration’s public claims that only the Syrian army had access to sarin were wrong. The American and British intelligence communities had been aware since the spring of 2013 that some rebel units in Syria were developing chemical weapons. On 20 June analysts for the US Defense Intelligence Agency issued a highly classified five-page ‘talking points’ briefing for the DIA’s deputy director, David Shedd, which stated that al-Nusra maintained a sarin production cell: its programme, the paper said, was ‘the most advanced sarin plot since al-Qaida’s pre-9/11 effort’. (According to a Defense Department consultant, US intelligence has long known that al-Qaida experimented with chemical weapons, and has a video of one of its gas experiments with dogs.) The DIA paper went on: ‘Previous IC [intelligence community] focus had been almost entirely on Syrian CW [chemical weapons] stockpiles; now we see ANF attempting to make its own CW … Al-Nusrah Front’s relative freedom of operation within Syria leads us to assess the group’s CW aspirations will be difficult to disrupt in the future.’ The paper drew on classified intelligence from numerous agencies: ‘Turkey and Saudi-based chemical facilitators,’ it said, ‘were attempting to obtain sarin precursors in bulk, tens of kilograms, likely for the anticipated large scale production effort in Syria.’ (Asked about the DIA paper, a spokesperson for the director of national intelligence said: ‘No such paper was ever requested or produced by intelligence community analysts.’)
Last May, more than ten members of the al-Nusra Front were arrested in southern Turkey with what local police told the press were two kilograms of sarin. In a 130-page indictment the group was accused of attempting to purchase fuses, piping for the construction of mortars, and chemical precursors for sarin. Five of those arrested were freed after a brief detention. The others, including the ringleader, Haytham Qassab, for whom the prosecutor requested a prison sentence of 25 years, were released pending trial. In the meantime the Turkish press has been rife with speculation that the Erdoğan administration has been covering up the extent of its involvement with the rebels. In a news conference last summer, Aydin Sezgin, Turkey’s ambassador to Moscow, dismissed the arrests and claimed to reporters that the recovered ‘sarin’ was merely ‘anti-freeze’.
The DIA paper took the arrests as evidence that al-Nusra was expanding its access to chemical weapons. It said Qassab had ‘self-identified’ as a member of al-Nusra, and that he was directly connected to Abd-al-Ghani, the ‘ANF emir for military manufacturing’. Qassab and his associate Khalid Ousta worked with Halit Unalkaya, an employee of a Turkish firm called Zirve Export, who provided ‘price quotes for bulk quantities of sarin precursors’. Abd-al-Ghani’s plan was for two associates to ‘perfect a process for making sarin, then go to Syria to train others to begin large scale production at an unidentified lab in Syria’. The DIA paper said that one of his operatives had purchased a precursor on the ‘Baghdad chemical market’, which ‘has supported at least seven CW efforts since 2004’.
A series of chemical weapon attacks in March and April 2013 was investigated over the next few months by a special UN mission to Syria. A person with close knowledge of the UN’s activity in Syria told me that there was evidence linking the Syrian opposition to the first gas attack, on 19 March in Khan Al-Assal, a village near Aleppo. In its final report in December, the mission said that at least 19 civilians and one Syrian soldier were among the fatalities, along with scores of injured. It had no mandate to assign responsibility for the attack, but the person with knowledge of the UN’s activities said: ‘Investigators interviewed the people who were there, including the doctors who treated the victims. It was clear that the rebels used the gas. It did not come out in public because no one wanted to know.’
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In the months before the attacks began, a former senior Defense Department official told me, the DIA was circulating a daily classified report known as SYRUP on all intelligence related to the Syrian conflict, including material on chemical weapons. But in the spring, distribution of the part of the report concerning chemical weapons was severely curtailed on the orders of Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff. ‘Something was in there that triggered a shit fit by McDonough,’ the former Defense Department official said. ‘One day it was a huge deal, and then, after the March and April sarin attacks’ – he snapped his fingers – ‘it’s no longer there.’ The decision to restrict distribution was made as the joint chiefs ordered intensive contingency planning for a possible ground invasion of Syria whose primary objective would be the elimination of chemical weapons.
The former intelligence official said that many in the US national security establishment had long been troubled by the president’s red line: ‘The joint chiefs asked the White House, “What does red line mean? How does that translate into military orders? Troops on the ground? Massive strike? Limited strike?” They tasked military intelligence to study how we could carry out the threat. They learned nothing more about the president’s reasoning.’
In the aftermath of the 21 August attack Obama ordered the Pentagon to draw up targets for bombing. Early in the process, the former intelligence official said, ‘the White House rejected 35 target sets provided by the joint chiefs of staff as being insufficiently “painful” to the Assad regime.’ The original targets included only military sites and nothing by way of civilian infrastructure. Under White House pressure, the US attack plan evolved into ‘a monster strike’: two wings of B-52 bombers were shifted to airbases close to Syria, and navy submarines and ships equipped with Tomahawk missiles were deployed. ‘Every day the target list was getting longer,’ the former intelligence official told me. ‘The Pentagon planners said we can’t use only Tomahawks to strike at Syria’s missile sites because their warheads are buried too far below ground, so the two B-52 air wings with two-thousand pound bombs were assigned to the mission. Then we’ll need standby search-and-rescue teams to recover downed pilots and drones for target selection. It became huge.’ The new target list was meant to ‘completely eradicate any military capabilities Assad had’, the former intelligence official said. The core targets included electric power grids, oil and gas depots, all known logistic and weapons depots, all known command and control facilities, and all known military and intelligence buildings.
Britain and France were both to play a part. On 29 August, the day Parliament voted against Cameron’s bid to join the intervention, the Guardian reported that he had already ordered six RAF Typhoon fighter jets to be deployed to Cyprus, and had volunteered a submarine capable of launching Tomahawk missiles. The French air force – a crucial player in the 2011 strikes on Libya – was deeply committed, according to an account in Le Nouvel Observateur; François Hollande had ordered several Rafale fighter-bombers to join the American assault. Their targets were reported to be in western Syria.
By the last days of August the president had given the Joint Chiefs a fixed deadline for the launch. ‘H hour was to begin no later than Monday morning [2 September], a massive assault to neutralise Assad,’ the former intelligence official said. So it was a surprise to many when during a speech in the White House Rose Garden on 31 August Obama said that the attack would be put on hold, and he would turn to Congress and put it to a vote.
At this stage, Obama’s premise – that only the Syrian army was capable of deploying sarin – was unravelling. Within a few days of the 21 August attack, the former intelligence official told me, Russian military intelligence operatives had recovered samples of the chemical agent from Ghouta. They analysed it and passed it on to British military intelligence; this was the material sent to Porton Down. (A spokesperson for Porton Down said: ‘Many of the samples analysed in the UK tested positive for the nerve agent sarin.’ MI6 said that it doesn’t comment on intelligence matters.)
The former intelligence official said the Russian who delivered the sample to the UK was ‘a good source – someone with access, knowledge and a record of being trustworthy’. After the first reported uses of chemical weapons in Syria last year, American and allied intelligence agencies ‘made an effort to find the answer as to what if anything, was used – and its source’, the former intelligence official said. ‘We use data exchanged as part of the Chemical Weapons Convention. The DIA’s baseline consisted of knowing the composition of each batch of Soviet-manufactured chemical weapons. But we didn’t know which batches the Assad government currently had in its arsenal. Within days of the Damascus incident we asked a source in the Syrian government to give us a list of the batches the government currently had. This is why we could confirm the difference so quickly.’
The process hadn’t worked as smoothly in the spring, the former intelligence official said, because the studies done by Western intelligence ‘were inconclusive as to the type of gas it was. The word “sarin” didn’t come up. There was a great deal of discussion about this, but since no one could conclude what gas it was, you could not say that Assad had crossed the president’s red line.’ By 21 August, the former intelligence official went on, ‘the Syrian opposition clearly had learned from this and announced that “sarin” from the Syrian army had been used, before any analysis could be made, and the press and White House jumped at it. Since it now was sarin, “It had to be Assad.”’
The UK defence staff who relayed the Porton Down findings to the joint chiefs were sending the Americans a message, the former intelligence official said: ‘We’re being set up here.’ (This account made sense of a terse message a senior official in the CIA sent in late August: ‘It was not the result of the current regime. UK & US know this.’) By then the attack was a few days away and American, British and French planes, ships and submarines were at the ready.
The officer ultimately responsible for the planning and execution of the attack was General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs. From the beginning of the crisis, the former intelligence official said, the joint chiefs had been sceptical of the administration’s argument that it had the facts to back up its belief in Assad’s guilt. They pressed the DIA and other agencies for more substantial evidence. ‘There was no way they thought Syria would use nerve gas at that stage, because Assad was winning the war,’ the former intelligence official said. Dempsey had irritated many in the Obama administration by repeatedly warning Congress over the summer of the danger of American military involvement in Syria. Last April, after an optimistic assessment of rebel progress by the secretary of state, John Kerry, in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee that ‘there’s a risk that this conflict has become stalemated.’
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Dempsey’s initial view after 21 August was that a US strike on Syria – under the assumption that the Assad government was responsible for the sarin attack – would be a military blunder, the former intelligence official said. The Porton Down report caused the joint chiefs to go to the president with a more serious worry: that the attack sought by the White House would be an unjustified act of aggression. It was the joint chiefs who led Obama to change course. The official White House explanation for the turnabout – the story the press corps told – was that the president, during a walk in the Rose Garden with Denis McDonough, his chief of staff, suddenly decided to seek approval for the strike from a bitterly divided Congress with which he’d been in conflict for years. The former Defense Department official told me that the White House provided a different explanation to members of the civilian leadership of the Pentagon: the bombing had been called off because there was intelligence ‘that the Middle East would go up in smoke’ if it was carried out.
The president’s decision to go to Congress was initially seen by senior aides in the White House, the former intelligence official said, as a replay of George W. Bush’s gambit in the autumn of 2002 before the invasion of Iraq: ‘When it became clear that there were no WMD in Iraq, Congress, which had endorsed the Iraqi war, and the White House both shared the blame and repeatedly cited faulty intelligence. If the current Congress were to vote to endorse the strike, the White House could again have it both ways – wallop Syria with a massive attack and validate the president’s red line commitment, while also being able to share the blame with Congress if it came out that the Syrian military wasn’t behind the attack.’ The turnabout came as a surprise even to the Democratic leadership in Congress. In September the Wall Street Journal reported that three days before his Rose Garden speech Obama had telephoned Nancy Pelosi, leader of the House Democrats, ‘to talk through the options’. She later told colleagues, according to the Journal, that she hadn’t asked the president to put the bombing to a congressional vote.
Obama’s move for congressional approval quickly became a dead end. ‘Congress was not going to let this go by,’ the former intelligence official said. ‘Congress made it known that, unlike the authorisation for the Iraq war, there would be substantive hearings.’ At this point, there was a sense of desperation in the White House, the former intelligence official said. ‘And so out comes Plan B. Call off the bombing strike and Assad would agree to unilaterally sign the chemical warfare treaty and agree to the destruction of all of chemical weapons under UN supervision.’ At a press conference in London on 9 September, Kerry was still talking about intervention: ‘The risk of not acting is greater than the risk of acting.’ But when a reporter asked if there was anything Assad could do to stop the bombing, Kerry said: ‘Sure. He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week … But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.’ As the New York Times reported the next day, the Russian-brokered deal that emerged shortly afterwards had first been discussed by Obama and Putin in the summer of 2012. Although the strike plans were shelved, the administration didn’t change its public assessment of the justification for going to war. ‘There is zero tolerance at that level for the existence of error,’ the former intelligence official said of the senior officials in the White House. ‘They could not afford to say: “We were wrong.”’ (The DNI spokesperson said: ‘The Assad regime, and only the Assad regime, could have been responsible for the chemical weapons attack that took place on 21 August.’)
The full extent of US co-operation with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar in assisting the rebel opposition in Syria has yet to come to light. The Obama administration has never publicly admitted to its role in creating what the CIA calls a ‘rat line’, a back channel highway into Syria. The rat line, authorised in early 2012, was used to funnel weapons and ammunition from Libya via southern Turkey and across the Syrian border to the opposition. Many of those in Syria who ultimately received the weapons were jihadists, some of them affiliated with al-Qaida. (The DNI spokesperson said: ‘The idea that the United States was providing weapons from Libya to anyone is false.’)
In January, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a report on the assault by a local militia in September 2012 on the American consulate and a nearby undercover CIA facility in Benghazi, which resulted in the death of the US ambassador, Christopher Stevens, and three others. The report’s criticism of the State Department for not providing adequate security at the consulate, and of the intelligence community for not alerting the US military to the presence of a CIA outpost in the area, received front-page coverage and revived animosities in Washington, with Republicans accusing Obama and Hillary Clinton of a cover-up. A highly classified annex to the report, not made public, described a secret agreement reached in early 2012 between the Obama and Erdoğan administrations. It pertained to the rat line. By the terms of the agreement, funding came from Turkey, as well as Saudi Arabia and Qatar; the CIA, with the support of MI6, was responsible for getting arms from Gaddafi’s arsenals into Syria. A number of front companies were set up in Libya, some under the cover of Australian entities. Retired American soldiers, who didn’t always know who was really employing them, were hired to manage procurement and shipping. The operation was run by David Petraeus, the CIA director who would soon resign when it became known he was having an affair with his biographer. (A spokesperson for Petraeus denied the operation ever took place.)
The operation had not been disclosed at the time it was set up to the congressional intelligence committees and the congressional leadership, as required by law since the 1970s. The involvement of MI6 enabled the CIA to evade the law by classifying the mission as a liaison operation. The former intelligence official explained that for years there has been a recognised exception in the law that permits the CIA not to report liaison activity to Congress, which would otherwise be owed a finding. (All proposed CIA covert operations must be described in a written document, known as a ‘finding’, submitted to the senior leadership of Congress for approval.) Distribution of the annex was limited to the staff aides who wrote the report and to the eight ranking members of Congress – the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate, and the Democratic and Republicans leaders on the House and Senate intelligence committees. This hardly constituted a genuine attempt at oversight: the eight leaders are not known to gather together to raise questions or discuss the secret information they receive.
The annex didn’t tell the whole story of what happened in Benghazi before the attack, nor did it explain why the American consulate was attacked. ‘The consulate’s only mission was to provide cover for the moving of arms,’ the former intelligence official, who has read the annex, said. ‘It had no real political role.’
Washington abruptly ended the CIA’s role in the transfer of arms from Libya after the attack on the consulate, but the rat line kept going. ‘The United States was no longer in control of what the Turks were relaying to the jihadists,’ the former intelligence official said. Within weeks, as many as forty portable surface-to-air missile launchers, commonly known as manpads, were in the hands of Syrian rebels. On 28 November 2012, Joby Warrick of the Washington Post reported that the previous day rebels near Aleppo had used what was almost certainly a manpad to shoot down a Syrian transport helicopter. ‘The Obama administration,’ Warrick wrote, ‘has steadfastly opposed arming Syrian opposition forces with such missiles, warning that the weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists and be used to shoot down commercial aircraft.’ Two Middle Eastern intelligence officials fingered Qatar as the source, and a former US intelligence analyst speculated that the manpads could have been obtained from Syrian military outposts overrun by the rebels. There was no indication that the rebels’ possession of manpads was likely the unintended consequence of a covert US programme that was no longer under US control.
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By the end of 2012, it was believed throughout the American intelligence community that the rebels were losing the war. ‘Erdoğan was pissed,’ the former intelligence official said, ‘and felt he was left hanging on the vine. It was his money and the cut-off was seen as a betrayal.’ In spring 2013 US intelligence learned that the Turkish government – through elements of the MIT, its national intelligence agency, and the Gendarmerie, a militarised law-enforcement organisation – was working directly with al-Nusra and its allies to develop a chemical warfare capability. ‘The MIT was running the political liaison with the rebels, and the Gendarmerie handled military logistics, on-the-scene advice and training – including training in chemical warfare,’ the former intelligence official said. ‘Stepping up Turkey’s role in spring 2013 was seen as the key to its problems there. Erdoğan knew that if he stopped his support of the jihadists it would be all over. The Saudis could not support the war because of logistics – the distances involved and the difficulty of moving weapons and supplies. Erdoğan’s hope was to instigate an event that would force the US to cross the red line. But Obama didn’t respond in March and April.’
There was no public sign of discord when Erdoğan and Obama met on 16 May 2013 at the White House. At a later press conference Obama said that they had agreed that Assad ‘needs to go’. Asked whether he thought Syria had crossed the red line, Obama acknowledged that there was evidence such weapons had been used, but added, ‘it is important for us to make sure that we’re able to get more specific information about what exactly is happening there.’ The red line was still intact.
An American foreign policy expert who speaks regularly with officials in Washington and Ankara told me about a working dinner Obama held for Erdoğan during his May visit. The meal was dominated by the Turks’ insistence that Syria had crossed the red line and their complaints that Obama was reluctant to do anything about it. Obama was accompanied by John Kerry and Tom Donilon, the national security adviser who would soon leave the job. Erdoğan was joined by Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey’s foreign minister, and Hakan Fidan, the head of the MIT. Fidan is known to be fiercely loyal to Erdoğan, and has been seen as a consistent backer of the radical rebel opposition in Syria.
The foreign policy expert told me that the account he heard originated with Donilon. (It was later corroborated by a former US official, who learned of it from a senior Turkish diplomat.) According to the expert, Erdoğan had sought the meeting to demonstrate to Obama that the red line had been crossed, and had brought Fidan along to state the case. When Erdoğan tried to draw Fidan into the conversation, and Fidan began speaking, Obama cut him off and said: ‘We know.’ Erdoğan tried to bring Fidan in a second time, and Obama again cut him off and said: ‘We know.’ At that point, an exasperated Erdoğan said, ‘But your red line has been crossed!’ and, the expert told me, ‘Donilon said Erdoğan “fucking waved his finger at the president inside the White House”.’ Obama then pointed at Fidan and said: ‘We know what you’re doing with the radicals in Syria.’ (Donilon, who joined the Council on Foreign Relations last July, didn’t respond to questions about this story. The Turkish Foreign Ministry didn’t respond to questions about the dinner. A spokesperson for the National Security Council confirmed that the dinner took place and provided a photograph showing Obama, Kerry, Donilon, Erdoğan, Fidan and Davutoğlu sitting at a table. ‘Beyond that,’ she said, ‘I’m not going to read out the details of their discussions.’)
But Erdoğan did not leave empty handed. Obama was still permitting Turkey to continue to exploit a loophole in a presidential executive order prohibiting the export of gold to Iran, part of the US sanctions regime against the country. In March 2012, responding to sanctions of Iranian banks by the EU, the SWIFT electronic payment system, which facilitates cross-border payments, expelled dozens of Iranian financial institutions, severely restricting the country’s ability to conduct international trade. The US followed with the executive order in July, but left what came to be known as a ‘golden loophole’: gold shipments to private Iranian entities could continue. Turkey is a major purchaser of Iranian oil and gas, and it took advantage of the loophole by depositing its energy payments in Turkish lira in an Iranian account in Turkey; these funds were then used to purchase Turkish gold for export to confederates in Iran. Gold to the value of $13 billion reportedly entered Iran in this way between March 2012 and July 2013.
The programme quickly became a cash cow for corrupt politicians and traders in Turkey, Iran and the United Arab Emirates. ‘The middlemen did what they always do,’ the former intelligence official said. ‘Take 15 per cent. The CIA had estimated that there was as much as two billion dollars in skim. Gold and Turkish lira were sticking to fingers.’ The illicit skimming flared into a public ‘gas for gold’ scandal in Turkey in December, and resulted in charges against two dozen people, including prominent businessmen and relatives of government officials, as well as the resignations of three ministers, one of whom called for Erdoğan to resign. The chief executive of a Turkish state-controlled bank that was in the middle of the scandal insisted that more than $4.5 million in cash found by police in shoeboxes during a search of his home was for charitable donations.
Late last year Jonathan Schanzer and Mark Dubowitz reported in Foreign Policy that the Obama administration closed the golden loophole in January 2013, but ‘lobbied to make sure the legislation … did not take effect for six months’. They speculated that the administration wanted to use the delay as an incentive to bring Iran to the bargaining table over its nuclear programme, or to placate its Turkish ally in the Syrian civil war. The delay permitted Iran to ‘accrue billions of dollars more in gold, further undermining the sanctions regime’.
The American decision to end CIA support of the weapons shipments into Syria left Erdoğan exposed politically and militarily. ‘One of the issues at that May summit was the fact that Turkey is the only avenue to supply the rebels in Syria,’ the former intelligence official said. ‘It can’t come through Jordan because the terrain in the south is wide open and the Syrians are all over it. And it can’t come through the valleys and hills of Lebanon – you can’t be sure who you’d meet on the other side.’ Without US military support for the rebels, the former intelligence official said, ‘Erdoğan’s dream of having a client state in Syria is evaporating and he thinks we’re the reason why. When Syria wins the war, he knows the rebels are just as likely to turn on him – where else can they go? So now he will have thousands of radicals in his backyard.’
A US intelligence consultant told me that a few weeks before 21 August he saw a highly classified briefing prepared for Dempsey and the defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, which described ‘the acute anxiety’ of the Erdoğan administration about the rebels’ dwindling prospects. The analysis warned that the Turkish leadership had expressed ‘the need to do something that would precipitate a US military response’. By late summer, the Syrian army still had the advantage over the rebels, the former intelligence official said, and only American air power could turn the tide. In the autumn, the former intelligence official went on, the US intelligence analysts who kept working on the events of 21 August ‘sensed that Syria had not done the gas attack. But the 500 pound gorilla was, how did it happen? The immediate suspect was the Turks, because they had all the pieces to make it happen.’
BIRMINGHAM CITY – MA MEDIA AND CREATIVE ENTERPRISE
As intercepts and other data related to the 21 August attacks were gathered, the intelligence community saw evidence to support its suspicions. ‘We now know it was a covert action planned by Erdoğan’s people to push Obama over the red line,’ the former intelligence official said. ‘They had to escalate to a gas attack in or near Damascus when the UN inspectors’ – who arrived in Damascus on 18 August to investigate the earlier use of gas – ‘were there. The deal was to do something spectacular. Our senior military officers have been told by the DIA and other intelligence assets that the sarin was supplied through Turkey – that it could only have gotten there with Turkish support. The Turks also provided the training in producing the sarin and handling it.’ Much of the support for that assessment came from the Turks themselves, via intercepted conversations in the immediate aftermath of the attack. ‘Principal evidence came from the Turkish post-attack joy and back-slapping in numerous intercepts. Operations are always so super-secret in the planning but that all flies out the window when it comes to crowing afterwards. There is no greater vulnerability than in the perpetrators claiming credit for success.’ Erdoğan’s problems in Syria would soon be over: ‘Off goes the gas and Obama will say red line and America is going to attack Syria, or at least that was the idea. But it did not work out that way.’
The post-attack intelligence on Turkey did not make its way to the White House. ‘Nobody wants to talk about all this,’ the former intelligence official told me. ‘There is great reluctance to contradict the president, although no all-source intelligence community analysis supported his leap to convict. There has not been one single piece of additional evidence of Syrian involvement in the sarin attack produced by the White House since the bombing raid was called off. My government can’t say anything because we have acted so irresponsibly. And since we blamed Assad, we can’t go back and blame Erdoğan.’
Turkey’s willingness to manipulate events in Syria to its own purposes seemed to be demonstrated late last month, a few days before a round of local elections, when a recording, allegedly of a government national security meeting, was posted to YouTube. It included discussion of a false-flag operation that would justify an incursion by the Turkish military in Syria. The operation centred on the tomb of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of the revered Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Empire, which is near Aleppo and was ceded to Turkey in 1921, when Syria was under French rule. One of the Islamist rebel factions was threatening to destroy the tomb as a site of idolatry, and the Erdoğan administration was publicly threatening retaliation if harm came to it. According to a Reuters report of the leaked conversation, a voice alleged to be Fidan’s spoke of creating a provocation: ‘Now look, my commander, if there is to be justification, the justification is I send four men to the other side. I get them to fire eight missiles into empty land [in the vicinity of the tomb]. That’s not a problem. Justification can be created.’ The Turkish government acknowledged that there had been a national security meeting about threats emanating from Syria, but said the recording had been manipulated. The government subsequently blocked public access to YouTube.
Barring a major change in policy by Obama, Turkey’s meddling in the Syrian civil war is likely to go on. ‘I asked my colleagues if there was any way to stop Erdoğan’s continued support for the rebels, especially now that it’s going so wrong,’ the former intelligence official told me. ‘The answer was: “We’re screwed.” We could go public if it was somebody other than Erdoğan, but Turkey is a special case. They’re a Nato ally. The Turks don’t trust the West. They can’t live with us if we take any active role against Turkish interests. If we went public with what we know about Erdoğan’s role with the gas, it’d be disastrous. The Turks would say: “We hate you for telling us what we can and can’t do.”’
Vol. 36 No. 8 · 17 April 2014
Find this story at 4 April 2014
© LRB Limited 2014
The Story of ‘Operation Orchard’ How Israel Destroyed Syria’s Al Kibar Nuclear Reactor
July 27, 2015
In September 2007, Israeli fighter jets destroyed a mysterious complex in the Syrian desert. The incident could have led to war, but it was hushed up by all sides. Was it a nuclear plant and who gave the orders for the strike?
The mighty Euphrates river is the subject of the prophecies in the Bible’s Book of Revelation, where it is written that the river will be the scene of the battle of Armageddon: “The sixth angel poured out his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up to prepare the way for the kings from the East.”
Today, time seems to stand still along the river. The turquoise waters of the Euphrates flow slowly through the northern Syrian provincial city Deir el-Zor, whose name translates as “monastery in the forest.” Farmers till the fields, and vendors sell camel’s hair blankets, cardamom and coriander in the city’s bazaars. Occasionally archaeologists visit the region to excavate the remains of ancient cities in the surrounding area, a place where many peoples have left their mark — the Parthians and the Sassanids, the Romans and the Jews, the Ottomans and the French, who were assigned the mandate for Syria by the League of Nations and who only withdrew their troops in 1946. Deir el-Zor is the last outpost before the vast, empty desert, a lifeless place of jagged mountains and inaccessible valleys that begins not far from the town center.
But on a night two years ago, something dramatic happened in this sleepy place. It’s an event that local residents discuss in whispers in teahouses along the river, when the water pipes glow and they are confident that no officials are listening — the subject is taboo in the state-controlled media, and they know that drawing too much attention to themselves in this authoritarian state could be hazardous to their health.
Some in Deir el-Zor talk of a bright flash which lit up the night in the distant desert. Others report seeing a gigantic column of smoke over the Euphrates, like a threatening finger. Some talk of omens, while others relate conspiracy theories. The pious older guests at Jisr al-Kabir, a popular restaurant near the city’s landmark suspension bridge, believe it was a sign from heaven.
All the rumors have long since muddied the waters as to what people may or may not have seen. But even the supposedly advanced Western world, with its state-of-the-art surveillance technology and interconnectedness through the mass media, has little more solid information than the people in this Syrian desert town. What happened in the night of Sept. 6, 2007 in the desert, 130 kilometers (81 miles) from the Iraqi border, 30 kilometers from Deir el-Zor, is one of the great mysteries of our times.
‘This Incident Never Occurred’
At 2:55 p.m. on that day, the Damascus-based Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) reported that Israeli fighter jets coming from the Mediterranean had violated Syrian airspace at “about one o’clock” in the morning. “Air defense units confronted them and forced them to leave after they dropped some ammunition in deserted areas without causing any human or material damage,” a Syrian military spokesman said, according to the news agency. There was no explanation whatsoever for why such a dramatic event was concealed for half a day.
At 6:46 p.m., Israeli government radio quoted a military spokesman as saying: “This incident never occurred.” At 8:46 p.m., a spokesperson for the US State Department said during a daily press briefing that he had only heard “second-hand reports” which “contradict” each other.
To this day, Syria and Israel, two countries that have technically been at war since the founding of the Jewish state in 1948, have largely adhered to a bizarre policy of downplaying what was clearly an act of war. Gradually it became clear that the fighter pilots did not drop some random ammunition over empty no-man’s land on that night in 2007, but had in fact deliberately targeted and destroyed a secret Syrian complex.
Was it a nuclear plant, in which scientists were on the verge of completing the bomb? Were North Korean, perhaps even Iranian experts, also working in this secret Syrian facility? When and how did the Israelis learn about the project, and why did they take such a great risk to conduct their clandestine operation? Was the destruction of the Al Kibar complex meant as a final warning to the Iranians, a trial run of sorts intended to show them what the Israelis plan to do if Tehran continues with its suspected nuclear weapons program?
In recent months, SPIEGEL has spoken with key politicians and experts about the mysterious incident in the Syrian desert, including Syrian President Bashar Assad, leading Israeli intelligence expert Ronen Bergman, International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohammed ElBaradei and influential American nuclear expert David Albright. SPIEGEL has also talked with individuals involved in the operation, who have only now agreed to reveal, under conditions of anonymity, what they know.
These efforts have led to an account that, while not solving the mystery in its entirety, at least delivers many pieces of the puzzle. It also offers an assessment of an operation that changed the Middle East and generated shock waves that are still being felt today.
Syria’s Unpredictable President
Tel Aviv, late 2001. An inconspicuous block of houses located among eucalyptus trees is home to the headquarters of the legendary Israeli foreign intelligence agency, the Mossad. A memorial to agents who died in commando operations behind enemy lines stands in the small garden. There are already more than 400 names engraved on the gray marble, with room for many more. In the main building, intelligence analysts are trying to assemble a picture of the new Syrian president.
In July 2000, Bashar Assad succeeded his deceased father, former President Hafez Assad. The Israelis believed that the younger Assad, a politically inexperienced ophthalmologist who had lived in London for many years and who was only 34 when he took office, would be a weak leader. Unlike his father, an unscrupulous political realist nicknamed “The Lion” who had almost struck a deal with the Israelis over the Golan Heights in the last few months of his life, Bashar Assad was considered relatively unpredictable.
According to Israeli agents in Damascus, the younger Assad was trying to consolidate his power by espousing radical and controversial positions. He supplied massive amounts of weapons to the Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon, for their “struggle for independence” from the “Zionist regime.” He received high-ranking delegations from North Korea. The Mossad was convinced that the subject of these secret talks was a further upgrading of Syria’s military capabilities. Pyongyang had already helped Damascus in the past in the development of medium-range ballistic missiles and chemical weapons like sarin and mustard gas. But when Israeli military intelligence informed their Mossad counterparts that a Syrian nuclear program was apparently under discussion, the intelligence professionals were dismissive.
Nuclear weapons for Damascus, a nuclear plant literally on Israel’s doorstep? For the experts, it seemed much too implausible.
Besides, the senior Assad had rebuffed Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani “father of the atom bomb,” when Khan tried to sell him centrifuges for uranium enrichment on the black market in the early 1990s. The Israelis also knew all too well how complex the road to the bomb is, after having spent a lengthy period of time in the 1960s to covertly procure uranium and then develop nuclear weapons at their secret laboratories in the town of Dimona in the Negev desert. They took extreme measures to prevent then-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from following their example: On a June night in 1981, Israeli F-16s, in violation of international law, entered Iraqi airspace and destroyed the Osirak nuclear reactor near Baghdad.
The Israelis took a pinprick approach to dealing with the “little” Assad. In 2003, the air force conducted multiple air strikes against positions on the Syrian border, and in October Israeli fighter jets flew a low-altitude mission over Assad’s residence in Damascus. It was an arrogant show of power that even had many at the Mossad shaking their heads, wondering how Assad would respond to such humiliating treatment.
At that time, the nuclear plant on Euphrates had likely entered its first key phase. In the spring of 2004, the American National Security Agency (NSA) detected a suspiciously high number of telephone calls between Syria and North Korea, with a noticeably busy line of communication between the North Korean capital Pyongyang and a place in the northern Syrian desert called Al Kibar. The NSA dossier was sent to the Israeli military’s “8200” unit, which is responsible for radio reconnaissance and has its antennas set up in the hills near Tel Aviv. Al-Kibar was “flagged,” as they say in intelligence jargon.
In late 2006, Israeli military intelligence decided to ask the British for their opinion. But almost at the same time as the delegation from Tel Aviv was arriving in London, a senior Syrian government official checked into a hotel in the exclusive London neighborhood of Kensington. He was under Mossad surveillance and turned out to be incredibly careless, leaving his computer in his hotel room when he went out. Israeli agents took the opportunity to install a so-called “Trojan horse” program, which can be used to secretly steal data, onto the Syrian’s laptop.
The hard drive contained construction plans, letters and hundreds of photos. The photos, which were particularly revealing, showed the Al Kibar complex at various stages in its development. At the beginning — probably in 2002, although the material was undated — the construction site looked like a treehouse on stilts, complete with suspicious-looking pipes leading to a pumping station at the Euphrates. Later photos show concrete piers and roofs, which apparently had only one function: to modify the building so that it would look unsuspicious from above. In the end, the whole thing looked as if a shoebox had been placed over something in an attempt to conceal it. But photos from the interior revealed that what was going on at the site was in fact probably work on fissile material.
One of the photos showed an Asian in blue tracksuit trousers, standing next to an Arab. The Mossad quickly identified the two men as Chon Chibu and Ibrahim Othman. Chon is one of the leading members of the North Korean nuclear program, and experts believe that he is the chief engineer behind the Yongbyon plutonium reactor. Othman is the director of the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission.
By now, both Israeli military intelligence and the Mossad were on high alert. After being briefed, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert asked: “Will the reactor be up and running soon, and is there is a need to take action?” Hard to say, the experts said. The prime minister asked for more detailed information, preferably from first hand.
The CIA Catches a Big Fish
Istanbul , a CIA safe house for high-profile defectors, February 2007. An Iranian general had decided to switch sides. He was a big fish, of the sort rarely caught in the nets of the CIA and the Mossad.
Ali-Reza Asgari, 63, a handsome man with a moustache, was the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard in Lebanon in the 1980s and became Iran’s deputy defense minister in the mid-1990s. Though well-liked under the relatively liberal then-President Mohammad Khatami, Asgari fell out of favor after the election victory of hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005. Because he had branded several men close to Ahmadinejad as corrupt, there was suddenly more at stake for Asgari than his career: His life was in danger.
Sources in the intelligence community claim that Asgari’s defection to the West was meticulously planned over a period of months. However Amir Farshad Ebrahimi, a former Iranian media attaché in Beirut who fled to Berlin in 2003 and who had known Asgari personally for many years, told SPIEGEL that the general contacted him twice to ask for help in his escape — first from Iran in the second half of 2006 and later from Damascus. In Ebrahimi’s version of events, Asgari succeeded in crossing the border into Turkey at night with the help of a smuggler. Ebrahimi says he only notified the CIA and turned his friend over to the Americans after Asgari had reached Istanbul.
But from that point on, the versions of the story coincide again. The Americans and Israelis soon discovered that the Tehran insider was an intelligence goldmine. For the Israelis, the most alarming part of Asgari’s story was what he had to say about Iran’s nuclear program. According to Asgari, Tehran was building a second, secret plant in addition to the uranium enrichment plant in Natanz, which was already known to the West. Besides, he said, Iran was apparently funding a top-secret nuclear project in Syria, launched in cooperation with the North Koreans. But Asgari claimed he did not know any further details about the plan.
After a few days, the general’s handlers flew him from Istanbul, considered relatively unsafe, to the highly secure Rhein-Main Air Base near Frankfurt. “I brought my computer along. My entire life is in there,” Asgari told his friend Ebrahimi, who identified him for the Americans. Asgari contacted Ebrahimi another two times, once from Washington and then from “somewhere in Texas.” The defector wanted his friend to let his wife know that he was safe and in good hands. The Iranian authorities had announced that Asgari had been “kidnapped by the Mossad and probably killed.” But then nothing further was heard from Asgari. The American authorities had apparently created a new identity for their high-level Iranian source. Ali-Reza Asgari had ceased to exist.
The Need for US Support
Olmert was kept apprised of the latest developments. In March 2007, three senior experts from the political, military and intelligence communities were summoned to his residence on Gaza Street in Jerusalem, where Olmert swore them to absolute secrecy. The trio was to advise him on matters relating to the Syrian nuclear program. Olmert wanted results, knowing that he would have to gain the support of the Americans before launching an attack. At the very least, he needed the Americans’ tacit consent if he planned to send aircraft into regions that were only a few dozen kilometers from military bases in Turkey, a NATO member.
In August, Major General Yaakov Amidror, the trio’s spokesman, delivered a devastating report to the prime minister. While the Mossad had tended to be reserved in its assessment of Al Kibar, the three men were now more than convinced that the site posed an existential threat to Israel and that there was evidence of intense cooperation between Syria and North Korea. There also appeared to be proof of connections to Iran. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi, who experts believed was the head of Iran’s secret “Project 111” for outfitting Iranian missiles with nuclear warheads, had visited Damascus in 2005. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad traveled to Syria in 2006, where he is believed to have promised the Syrians more than $1 billion (€675 million) in assistance and urged them to accelerate their efforts.
According to this version of the story, Al Kibar was to be a backup plant for the heavy-water reactor under construction near the Iranian city of Arak, designed to provide plutonium to build a bomb if Iran did not succeed in constructing a weapon using enriched uranium. “Assad apparently thought that, with his weapon, he could have a nuclear option for an Armageddon,” says Aharon Zeevi-Farkash, the former director of Israeli military intelligence.
Olmert approved a highly risky undertaking: a fact-finding mission by Israeli agents on foreign soil. On an overcast night in August 2007, says intelligence expert Ronen Bergman, Israeli elite units traveling in helicopters at low altitude crossed the border into Syria, where they unloaded their testing equipment in the desert near Deir el-Zor and took soil samples in the general vicinity of the Al Kibar plant. The group had to abort its daring mission prematurely when it was discovered by a patrol. The Israelis still lacked the definitive proof they needed. However those in Tel Aviv who favored quick action argued that the results of the samples “provided evidence of the existence of a nuclear program.”
One of them was the head of the trio of experts, Yaakov Amidror. Amidror, a deeply religious man strongly influenced by his fear of a new Holocaust, also found evidence suggesting that construction on the Syrian plant was to be accelerated. He told Olmert about a ship called the Gregorio, which was coming from North Korea and which was seized in Cyprus in September 2006. It was found to have suspicious-looking pipes bound for Syria on board. And in early September 2007, the freighter Al-Ahmad, also coming from Pyongyang, arrived at the Syrian port of Tartous — with a cargo of uranium materials, according to the Mossad’s information.
At the time, no one was claiming that Al Kibar represented an immediate threat to Israel’s security. Nevertheless, Olmert wanted to attack, despite the tense conditions in the region, the Iraq crisis and the conflict in the Gaza Strip. Olmert notified then-US National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley and gave his own military staff the authority to bomb the Syrian plant. The countdown for Operation Orchard had begun.
Ramat David Air Base, Sept. 5, 2007. Israel’s Ramat David air base is located south of the port city of Haifa. It is also near Megiddo, which according to the Bible will be the site of Armageddon, the final battle between good and evil.
The order that the pilots in the squadron received shortly before 11 p.m. on Sept. 5, 2007 seemed purely routine: They were to be prepared for an emergency exercise. All 10 available aircraft, known affectionately by their pilots as “Raam” (“Thunder”), took off into the night sky and headed westward, out into the Mediterranean. It was a maneuver designed to deflect attention from the extraordinary mobilization that had been taking place behind the scenes.
Three of the 10 F-15’s were ordered to return home, while the remaining seven continued flying east-northeast, at low altitude, toward the nearby Syrian border, where they used their precision-guided weapons to eliminate a radar station. Within an additional 18 flight minutes, they had reached the area around Deir el-Zor. By then, the Israeli pilots had the coordinates of the Al Kibar complex programmed into their on-board computers. The attack was filmed from the air, and as is always the case with these strikes, the bombs were far more destructive than necessary. For the Israelis, it made little difference whether a few guards were killed or a larger number of people.
Immediately following the brief report from the military (“target destroyed”), Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, explained the situation, and asked him to inform President Assad in Damascus that Israel would not tolerate another nuclear plant — but that no further hostile action was planned. Israel, Olmert said, did not want to play up the incident and was still interested in making peace with Damascus. He added that if Assad chose not to draw attention to the Israeli strike, he would do the same.
In this way, a deafening silence about the mysterious event in the desert began. Nevertheless, the story did not end there, because there were many who chose to shed light on the incident — and others who were intent on exacting revenge.
Washington , DC , late October 2007. The independent Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) is located less than a mile from the White House. It is more important than some US federal departments.
The office of its founder and president, David Albright, who holds a degree in physics and was a member of the United Nation’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) group of experts in Iraq, is in suite 500 of the brick building that houses the ISIS. As relaxed as he seems to his staff, in his pleated khaki trousers and rolled up shirtsleeves, they know that it is no accident that Albright has managed to turn the ISIS into one of the leading think tanks in Washington. Albright’s words carry significant weight in the world of nuclear scientists.
The ISIS spent four weeks analyzing the initial reports about the mysterious air strike in Syria, combing over satellite images covering an area of 25,000 square kilometers (9,650 square miles) before they discovered the destroyed complex of buildings in the desert.
In April 2008, Albright received an unexpected invitation from the CIA to attend a meeting. There, then-CIA Director Michael Hayden showed him images that the Israelis had obtained from the Syrian computer in London (much to the outrage of officials in Tel Aviv, incidentally, as it provided insights into Mossad sources). The photos enabled Albright, who was familiar with the dimensions and characteristics of North Korea’s Yongbyon reactor, to compare the various stages at Al Kibar. “There are no longer any serious doubts that we were dealing with a nuclear reactor in Syria,” the scientist concluded.
Albright believes that the CIA’s strange behavior had to be understood in the context of the Iraq disaster. At the time, the administration of then-President George W. Bush, citing CIA information, constantly repeated the false claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. This time around, American intelligence wanted to prove that the threat was real.
But where did the Syrians get the uranium they needed for their heavy-water reactor, and in which secret plants was it enriched? In addition to the North Koreans, were the Iranians also involved? And what did the latest images of this “Manhattan project” in the Syrian desert actually depict — the conversion of an existing plant or a completely new facility?
The Sisyphus of Non-Proliferation
Vienna, the UN complex on Wagramer Straße, headquarters of the IAEA’s nuclear detectives. An impressive collection of national flags hangs in the lobby, like sails waiting for a tailwind. Of the 192 UN member states, 150 are also members of the IAEA, and almost all UN members have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The problem children of the nuclear world, Israel, Pakistan and India, have not signed the treaty. All three of them possess — or in the case of Israel, are believed to possess — nuclear weapons.
Signatory states like Syria and Iran are entitled to support in pursuing the peaceful use of nuclear energy. They are also required to either phase out nuclear weapons and prevent their proliferation (in the case of the nuclear “haves”) or refrain from developing them in the first place (in the case of the “have-nots”).
The IAEA, whose job is to verify compliance with the provisions of the NPT, has 2,200 employees and an annual budget of roughly $300 million. That may sound impressive, but it is really just peanuts if the claim repeatedly made by politicians around the world is true, namely that the possibility of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of blackmailing dictators or terrorists poses the greatest danger to humanity.
During an interview with SPIEGEL in his Vienna office in May 2009, IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei, 67, sighed as he took stock of his life. At times, the IAEA boss says, he has felt like Sisyphus, the tragic figure in Greek mythology who is constantly pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to lose hold of it shortly before the summit. ElBaradei, the winner of the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize, has repeatedly pointed out that his organization is subject to the whims of the member states. The nuclear detectives can admittedly be deployed to use their highly sensitive testing equipment to obtain a “nuclear fingerprint” in any particular place, but they also need access to reactors. Libya has caused problems in the past, while today’s recalcitrants are North Korea and Iran — in other words, the usual suspects. And now Syria. The news about the desert nuclear plant came as a great shock to the IAEA.
“What the Israelis did was a violation of international law. If the Israelis and the Americans had information about an illegal nuclear facility, they should have notified us immediately,” says ElBaradei, who only learned of the dramatic incident from media reports. “When everything was over, we were supposed to head out and search for evidence in the rubble — a virtually impossible task.”
But he had underestimated his inspectors. In June 2008, a team of IAEA experts visited the destroyed Al Kibar plant. The Syrians had given in to pressure from the weapons inspectors, but they had also done everything possible to dispose of the evidence first. They removed all the debris from the bombed facility and paved over the entire site with concrete. They told the inspectors that it had been a conventional weapons factory, and not a nuclear reactor, which they would have been required to report to the IAEA. They also insisted that foreigners had not been involved.
The IAEA experts painstakingly collected soil samples, and used special wipes to remove minute traces of material from furnishings or pipes still on the site. The samples were sent to the IAEA special laboratories in Seibersdorf, a town near Vienna, where they were subjected to ultrasensitive isotope analyses capable of determining whether samples had come into contact with suspicious uranium. And indeed, the analysis produced some very alarming findings.
In its report, the IAEA describes “a significant number of anthropogenic natural uranium particles (i.e. produced as a result of chemical processing)” which were “of a type not included in Syria’s declared inventory of nuclear material.” The Syrian authorities claimed that the uranium was introduced by the Israeli bombing, something that the IAEA said was of “low probability.”
In its latest report, released in June 2009, the IAEA demanded, in no uncertain terms, that Damascus grant it permission for another series of inspections, this time with access to “three other locations” that may have been related to Al Kibar. “The characteristics of the complex, including the cooling water capacities, bear a strong similarity to those of a nuclear reactor, something which urgently requires clarification,” says one IAEA expert. In the cautious language of UN officials, this is practically a guilty verdict.
In the Crosshairs
“Syria is not giving us the transparency we require,” ElBaradei says angrily. A picture hanging in his office seems to reflect his mood. It is a print of “The Scream,” by the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, which depicts a deeply distraught person. ElBaradei does not believe that he is too lenient with those suspected of illegally pursuing nuclear weapons programs, as the Bush administration repeatedly claimed, particularly in relation to Iran. The IAEA, he says, will probably receive permission for a new inspection trip to Syria soon. Or at least he hopes it will.
If and when that happens, a different host will greet the UN team. The affable Brigadier General Mohammed Suleiman, an Assad confidant in charge of all manner of “sensitive security issues,” was formerly in charge of presiding over the inspections. However he was assassinated in 2008. He landed in the crosshairs of his pursuers, just like Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyah.
For the Israelis, Mughniyah was the epitome of terror, the most notorious terrorist mastermind in the Middle East. He was responsible for the bloody attack on American military headquarters in Beirut in the 1980s and on Jewish institutions in Argentina in the 1990s, attacks in which hundreds of innocent people died. He is regarded by some as the inventor of the suicide attack and was deeply rooted in Iranian power structures.
The Mossad had information that Mughniyah was planning to avenge the air strike on Al Kibar with an attack on an Israeli embassy — either in the Azerbaijani capital Baku, Cairo or the Jordanian capital Amman.
Assassinated in an SUV
Damascus, the building complex of the Atomic Energy Commission of Syria in the city’s Kafar Soussa diplomatic quarter, February 2008. Visitors are not welcome. “Please contact post office box 6091,” says the guard at the entrance. There is also an email address (email@example.com). But inquiries sent to both addresses remain unanswered. No wonder, say experts, who speculate that the threads of a secret nuclear weapons program come together in the inconspicuous AECS complex.
It was precisely on the street where the AECS complex is located that Imad Mughniyah, a.k.a. “The Fox,” parked his Mitsubishi Pajero on Feb. 12, 2008 while he attended a reception at the nearby Iranian embassy. It was a rare appearance by a man who normally avoided being seen in public. But on that evening Mughniyah knew that he would be among friends, including Hamas leader Khaled Mashal and Syrian General Mohammed Suleiman, whom he had met many times in Tehran and at Hezbollah centers in Lebanon.
Shortly after 10:30 p.m., Mughniyah drank his last glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. Then he kissed the host, the newly installed Iranian diplomat Ahmed Mousavi, on both cheeks, as local custom dictates, and left the party. Mughniyah was “probably the most intelligent, most capable operative we’ve ever run across,” said former CIA agent Robert Baer, who had been tracking him for a long time. The terrorist knew that he was at the very top of the Mossad’s hit list, and he also knew that the FBI was offering a $5 million reward for information leading to his arrest. But he felt relatively safe in Syria, as he did in Beirut and Tehran, which he visited on a regular basis.
The explosion completely destroyed the SUV and ripped apart Mughniyah’s body. He was killed instantly. But the explosive charge was apparently calculated so carefully that nearby buildings were barely harmed. The terrorist leader remained the only victim on that night in Damascus.
Whoever committed the act, “the world is a better place without this man,” the American government announced the next day through State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. Hezbollah, which had no doubts as to who was responsible for the killing, called Mughniyah a “martyr” and vowed to retaliate against the “Zionists.”
The Israel government neither confirmed nor denied any involvement in the assassination. But agents at the Mossad could hardly contain their delight. According to information leaked to intelligence expert Uzi Mahnaimi, Israeli agents had removed the driver’s seat headrest and filled it with a compound that would detonate on contact. Intelligence expert Ronen Bergman can even describe the reaction of Israelis who were involved. “It was a shame about that nice new Pajero,” one of them reportedly said.
Tartous, a medieval stronghold of the Knights Templar on the Syrian Mediterranean coast, five months later. It was at this port city, 160 kilometers northwest of Damascus, that the mysterious freighter Hamed had once berthed with its supposed cargo of cement from North Korea. Here, on a beach 13 kilometers north of the medieval city walls, General Suleiman had a weekend house, not far from the Rimal al-Zahabiya luxury beach resort. In the summer, Suleiman traveled to his weekend house almost every Friday to review files, relax and swim. On this first August weekend in 2008, President Assad’s eminence grise must have taken along a particularly large number of documents. A few days later, he had planned to accompany Assad on a secret visit to Tehran.
As always, Suleiman drove from Damascus to Tartous in an armored vehicle. Additional bodyguards were waiting for him at his chalet. They never let him out of their sight, even escorting him into the water when he went swimming. After Mughniyah’s murder on a busy Damascus street, security was at the highest possible level. The general, who interacted with the global community as the regime’s senior representative on nuclear issues, was considered particularly at risk.
The sea was calm that morning. Yachts were cruising off the coast, and there was nothing to raise suspicions in Tartous, a popular sailing destination for Syria’s moneyed aristocracy where boats can be chartered for visits to nearby Arwad Island and its fish restaurants. An unusually sleek yacht came within 50 meters of the coast, but it was not close enough to raise any red flags with the bodyguards when their boss decided to jump into the sea.
No one even heard the gunshots, which were probably fired from precision rifles equipped with silencers. But they clearly came from offshore, striking Sulaiman in the head, chest and neck. The general died before his bodyguards could do anything for him. The yacht carrying the snipers turned away and disappeared into international waters.
The Syrian authorities kept the news of the murder from the public for days. After that, it issued terse statements about the “vicious crime.” According to the official account, the general was “found shot dead near Tartous.” There was no mention of a yacht or of the angle from which the shots were fired.
Speculation was rife in Damascus. Diplomats assumed that Suleiman had become too powerful for his fellow cabinet members, and that his killing was evidence of an internal Syrian power struggle. According to Western critics of the president, Suleiman had become a burden for Assad after the debacle involving the bombed nuclear plant and the Mughniyah murder, and he was eliminated on orders from Assad. For experts, however, the most likely scenario is that the Israelis were behind the highly professional assassination.
Suleiman, who was nicknamed “the imported general” because of his European appearance, was buried in a private ceremony in his native village of Draykish two days after his murder. President Assad sent his younger brother Maher to attend the secret funeral, while he himself embarked on his scheduled trip to Tehran. It was important for him to put on a show of self-control, no matter how distressed he may have felt.
Can bomb attacks and hit squads against real or presumed terrorists bring about progress in the Middle East? Is it true that Arabs and Israelis only understand the language of violence, as many in Tel Aviv are now saying? Did the operation against the Al Kibar complex, which violated international law, bring the Syrian president to his senses, or did it merely encourage him to harden his position?
And what does all this mean for a possible Iranian nuclear bomb?
The Consequences of Operation Orchard
“The facility that was bombed was not a nuclear plant, but rather a conventional military installation,” Syrian President Bashar Assad insisted during a SPIEGEL interview at his palace near Damascus in mid-January 2009. “We could have struck back. But should we really allow ourselves to be provoked into a war? Then we would have walked into an Israeli trap.” What about the traces of uranium? “Perhaps the Israelis dropped it from the air to make us the target of precisely these suspicions.”
Damascus, he said, is not interested in becoming a nuclear power, nor does it believe that Tehran is developing the bomb. “Syria is fundamentally opposed to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. We want a nuclear-free Middle East, Israel included.”
Assad, outraged over Israeli belligerence in the Gaza Strip, has suspended secret peace talks with the enemy, which had been brokered by Turkey. But it is also abundantly clear that Assad is eager to remove himself from the list of global political pariahs and enter into dialogue with the United States and Europe.
In the autumn of 2009, relations between Damascus and the West seem to be on the mend, probably as the result of American concessions rather than Israeli bombs. French President Nicolas Sarkozy received Assad at the Elysée Palace and told him that the normalization of relations would depend on the Syrians meeting a provocatively worded condition: “End nuclear weapons cooperation with Iran.” In the first week of October, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad traveled to Washington to meet with his counterparts there. And Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, with Washington’s explicit blessing, went to Damascus in an attempt to make a shift to the moderate camp more palatable for Assad.
President Barack Obama will probably send a US military attaché to Damascus soon, followed by an ambassador. Syria could be removed from the US’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, a list which also includes Iran, Cuba and Sudan. The prospect of billions in aid, as well as transfers of high technology, is being held out to Assad. The Syrian president knows that this is probably his only hope to revive his ailing economy in the long term.
Relations between Damascus and Tehran have worsened considerably in recent weeks. Western intelligence agencies report that the Iranian leadership is demanding that Syria return — in full and without compensation — substantial shipments of uranium, which it no longer needs now that its nuclear program has been destroyed.
The latest news from Damascus, the ancient city where Saulus turned into Paulus according to the old scripts: According to information SPIEGEL has obtained from sources in Damascus, Assad has been considering taking a sensational political step. He is believed to have suggested to contacts in Pyongyang that he is considering the disclosure of his “national” nuclear program, but without divulging any details of cooperation with his North Korean and Iranian partners. Libyan revolutionary leader Moammar Gadhafi reaped considerable benefits from the international community after a similar “confession” about his country’s nuclear program.
The reaction from North Korea was swift and extremely harsh: Pyongyang sent a senior government representative to Damascus to inform Syrian authorities that the North Koreans would terminate all cooperation on chemical weapons if Assad proceeded with his plan. And this regardless whether he mentioned Pyongyang in this context or not.
Tehran’s reaction is believed to have been even more severe. Saeed Jalili, the country’s leading nuclear negotiator and a close associate of Iran’s supreme religious leader, apparently brought along an urgent message from the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in which Khamenei called Assad’s plan “unacceptable” and threatened that it would spell the end of the two countries’ strategic alliance and a sharp decline in relations.
According to intelligence sources, Assad has backed down — for the time being. However he is also looking for ways to do business with his enemies, even Israel’s hard-line prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Nevertheless, Assad is loath to give up his contacts to Hezbollah and Tehran completely, and he will demand a very high price for the possible recognition of Israel and for playing the role of mediator with Tehran, namely the return of the entire Golan Heights.
Time on Its Side
Did Operation Orchard make an impression on the Iranians, and did they understand it the way it was probably intended by the Israelis: as a final warning to Tehran?
The Iranians have — literally — entrenched themselves, and not only since the Israeli attack on Syria. Many of the centrifuges they use for uranium enrichment are now operating in underground tunnels. Not even the bunker-busting super-bombs the Pentagon has requested be made available soon, citing “urgent operational requirements,” are capable of fully destroying facilities like the one in Natanz.
The Americans — or the Israelis — would have to conduct air strikes for several weeks and destroy more than a dozen known nuclear facilities to set back the Iranian nuclear program by more than a few weeks. It would be a far more complex undertaking than the Israelis’ past attacks on the Osirak reactor in Iraq and Syria’s Al Kibar nuclear plant. And even after such a comprehensive operation, which would expose them to counterattacks, they could not be entirely sure of having wiped out all key elements of the Iranian nuclear program. Just in September, Tehran surprised the world with the confession that it had built a previously unreported uranium enrichment plant near Qom.
Operation Orchard achieved only one thing: If the Iranians had planned to build a “spare” nuclear plant in Syria, that is, a backup plutonium factory, their plans were thwarted. But Tehran has time on its side. The Iranians are already believed to have reached breakout capacity — in other words, the ability to begin building a nuclear weapon if they so desire. Iran is on the verge of becoming a nuclear power.
And Syria? There is nothing to suggest that Damascus will or is even able to play with fire once again. A conventional factory has in fact been built over the ruins of the Al Kibar plant. There is no access to the plant — for “security reasons,” as residents of Deir el-Zor say tersely — at the roadblock near the great river and the desert village of Tibnah.
The turquoise-colored river flows slowly, the river that Moses, according to the Bible, promised to the Israelites as part of their holy land. To this day, many radical Israelis take the relevant passage in the Bible as seriously as an entry in the land register: “Every place that your foot shall tread upon shall be yours. From the desert, and from Libanus, from the great river Euphrates unto the western sea.”
Referring to the same river, the Prophet Muhammad is supposed to have said: “The Euphrates reveals the treasures within itself. Whoever sees it should not take anything from it.”
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
11/02/2009 04:53 PM
By Erich Follath and Holger Stark
Find this story at 11 February 2009
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2009
New Data Raise Further Doubt on Official View of August 21 Gas Attack in Syria
May 1, 2014
President Barack Obama speaks to reporters about possible US action against Syria during a meeting with the leaders of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania at the White House in Washington, August 30, 2013. Obama said he was considering a “limited” attack and Secretary of State John Kerry earlier declared there was “clear” and “compelling” evidence that the Syrian government had used poison gas against its citizens. (Photo: Christopher Gregory / The New York Times)
President Barack Obama speaks to reporters about possible US action against Syria during a meeting with the leaders of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania at the White House in Washington, August 30, 2013. Obama said he was considering a “limited” attack and Secretary of State John Kerry earlier declared there was “clear” and “compelling” evidence that the Syrian government had used poison gas against its citizens. (Photo: Christopher Gregory / The New York Times)
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Eight months after an August 21 attack in the Damascus suburbs, the assumption that it was a Syrian government-sponsored attack continues to dominate discussion of the issue. But significant new information has become available that makes an attack by opposition forces far more plausible than appeared to be the case in the first weeks after the event.
Seymour Hersh’s revelation in an early April article in the London Review of Books that the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) had collected intelligence on a Jabhat al-Nusra cell working on a sarin weapons capability was far from being definitive evidence of a plot by jihadist groups to mount a false-flag sarin attack.
But the totality of the new information has eliminated or cast doubt on the major arguments that were advanced by the Obama administration and others in the aftermath as to why the attack must have been carried out by the Syrian regime. The new information suggests a much less lethal attack with munitions that were less effective and perhaps even using much less sarin than was initially assumed.
The “Smoking Guns” That Failed
The debate over the August 21 attacks has focused primarily on a series of assertions about “smoking guns” that allegedly proved Syrian government guilt. The first – and best known – of those “smoking guns” was the generally accepted belief that the rockets said to have delivered the sarin must have originated in a government-controlled area. The United Nations investigating team’s initial report, issued on September 16, gauged the angle of one rocket’s impact in Zamalka and its arc without reporting explicitly on its launch point. But Human Rights Watch immediately showed that the trajectory led to the Syrian Army Republican Guard 106th Brigade’s Base 9.6 km away. And it calculated that the UN report’s bearings for two other impact points in Moamadiyah showed trajectories ending in the same Syrian army base.
Those calculations depended on the assumption that the ranges of the rockets in question were more than 9 kilometers. But within weeks, a rocket specialist blogger at the website Who Attacked Ghouta, going by the name “Sasa Wawa,” had concluded that the maximum range of the rockets that hit Zamalka was 2.5 kilometers. And former UN weapons inspector Richard Lloyd and weapons analyst Theodore A. Postol of MIT determined that the maximum range of the previously unknown rockets that landed in Zamalka would have been 2 kilometers or 1.2 miles. In his press conference on the release of the second UN investigation report in December, the head of the UN investigating team, Ake Sellstrom, agreed that the estimate of 2 kilometers “could be a fair guess” for the maximum range of the rockets.
The debate over the August 21 attacks has focused primarily on a series of assertions about “smoking guns” that allegedly proved Syrian government guilt.
Blogger Eliot Higgins – better known as “Brown Moses” – who has achieved the status of favorite news media source on munitions issues in Syria, has argued in recent months that the rockets must have been fired from in or near the Jobar-Qaboun industrial zone, wedged in between Jobar and Qabun neighborhoods, which is between 2.2. and 2.5 km from the farthest impact points in Zamalka, over which he claimed the government had control. Still later, Higgins pinpointed an area near the cloverleaf east of that zone over which, he said, government had exercised control through a series of checkpoints.
But apart from the fact that those sites are all farther away from the impact sites than current research supports, the Higgins argument suffers from an additional problem: Charles Wood, a Perth, Australia-based forensic expert who has studied the military situation in that area at the time of the August 21 attack, told Inter Press Service (IPS) that, far from being government-controlled, the entire area in and around the industrial zone was actually thoroughly infiltrated by the rebels through tunnels they had built into the area. Based on videos posted by the rebels themselves, Wood said the rebels had fought off a government attack on a position in the area pinpointed by Higgins on August 21. He also pointed out that, three days later, the insurgents carried out a chemical IED attack against one of the government checkpoints very near the open field from which Higgins says the attack was launched.
The rocket found in Moadamiyah on the morning of August 21 was a BM-14 440 mm rocket manufactured in the Soviet Union in the 1960s. UN inspectors were taken to the scene where the BM-14 rocket hit and were told that it had killed everyone in an adjoining apartment. The BM-14 rocket was known to have a range of 9.8 km, so it was certainly capable of delivering an attack from the army base to Moadamiyah.
There is very serious question, however, whether that rocket actually held sarin. Of five swipes taken in the bedroom where an entire family was said to have perished in the attack, only one showed any trace of sarin or byproducts in the lab results from one of the labs, and none of them registered any trace of sarin or byproducts in the other laboratory’s test results. There were traces of sarin found on various items, including metal fragments sampled outside the building near the impact point. But the UN report complains about the fact that evidence had been moved and that the site may have been “manipulated.”
A second “smoking gun” was the discovery of traces of a form of hexamine (hexamethylenetetramine) that can be used as a stabilizer in sarin production, in some of the samples taken at rocket impact sites. UK-based chemical weapons analyst Dan Kaszeta noticed that the official Syrian declaration of chemical weapons listed 80 tons of hexamine and concluded that that combination of facts indicated government culpability. The head of the UN investigating team, Ake Sellstrom of Sweden, referred to the form of hexamine as being in Syria’s “formula” and as “their acid scavenger” in a portion of the interview with Gwyn Winfield, the editor of CBRNe World that was not published in the February 2014 issue due to lack of space, according to Kaszeta. (CBRN stands for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense.)
But further research revealed that hexamine is also used to make explosives, and a form of hexamine was found on a swipe taken from the central tube of one of the rockets – the location of the explosive in the rockets. Mark Bishop, who teaches chemistry at Monterey Peninsula College, Monterey, California and is the author of a college textbook on the subject, told Truthout he believes the presence of hexamethylenetetramine most likely means that it was an impurity formed in the making of the explosive.
The incriminating 80 tons of hexamine declared by the Syrian government to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) also turned out to have an another explanation: It is also used as a stabilizer for the form of mustard gas found in the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal.
The rockets would not have been difficult to duplicate.
The main argument that the attack had to be launched by the Syrian government was that the government alone possessed the 330 mm rockets with a long barrel and tail fins called “Volcanos” that were found at the sites of the attack and had used such weapons before August 21. That was misleading, however: The rockets that government forces had used, from late 2012 on, had been configured for high explosives, and none of the alleged chemical attacks involved that type of rocket.
The question is whether the rebels could have copied the type of rocket that had been used by the Syrian army over the previous year and made adjustments for chemical use. Certainly, the rebels had access to the remnants of the rockets configured for high explosives and white phosphorous payloads, as well as videos showing the intact rockets.
The rockets would not have been difficult to duplicate, according to Postol and Lloyd, based on both their own personal experience and video evidence. Postol recalled in an interview with Truthout that he had personally constructed comparable devices in his own machine shop as a graduate student. Lloyd pointed out in a separate interview that videos show that the insurgents had “production lines” for rockets. “I have pictures showing 40 to 60 rockets stacked in a row, with people working on the tail assemblies,” he said.
Who Had the Capability to Make Sarin?
After Seymour Hersh reported April 6 that DIA analysts had compiled a highly classified five-page “talking points” brief for Deputy Director David Shed in June 2013, outlining the intelligence indicating that Al Nusra had a Sarin production cell, the possibility of an opposition sarin program could not longer be dismissed out of hand.
The intelligence paper, from which Hersh was able to quote extensively, referred to intelligence reports from various agencies that Turkey- and Saudi-based “chemical facilitators” were attempting to obtain the “precursors” for sarin in quantities of tens of kilograms, prompting speculation about plans for “large-scale production” in Syria. It cited the reported plan of al Nustra’s “emir for military manufacturing for two associates to ‘perfect a process for making sarin, then go to Syria to train others to begin large-scale production at an unidentified lab in Syria.'”
The argument for Syrian government culpability has not been that the rebels could not make sarin, but that they would never be able to make enough of it.
The spokesperson for the US Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, issued what appeared to be a denial of the DIA document but was not. “No such paper was ever requested or produced by intelligence community analysts,” the spokesperson said. But Hersh had not suggested that the paper had been “requested” or “produced” by “community analysts” – a term reserved for intelligence assessments arrived by a process coordinated by the office of the DNI.
A former intelligence official told Truthout he recalls papers such as the one described by Hersh being issued by DIA. “They were called talking points papers,” he said. Such papers were used to brief not only the top officials of the agency, but the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he said. “This one would have gone to Chairman [General Martin] Dempsey.”
The argument for Syrian government culpability has not been that the rebels could not make sarin, but that they would never be able to make enough of it. In a Foreign Policy magazine article by Higgins, Kaszeta compared the sarin requirements of the August 21 attack with the sarin program of the Japanese terrorist group Aum Ashinryko, which attacked the Tokyo subway system with sarin in 1995. “Even if the Aug. 21 attack is limited to the eight volcano rockets that we seem to be talking about,” said Kaszeta, “we’re looking at an industrial effort two orders of magnitude larger than the Aum Shinrikyo effort.”
But a study of the Aum Shinryko’s weapons programs, published by the pro-military think tank Center for a New American Security (CNAS), shows that the Aum Shinryko facility in which sarin was to be made was intended to be a major factory for the production of as much as 70 tons of sarin. That would have been orders of magnitude greater than the largest amount that anyone has suggested might have been used in the August 21 attack. On the other hand, the CNAS account shows that the lab actually achieved a production of 40-50 liters of sarin within roughly a year, and with a minimal staff.
Kaszeta has estimated that as much as a ton of sarin may have been used in the attack, based on an old US military manual for planning a battlefield attack to achieve sufficient casualties – an amount presumed to be beyond the capability of the Syrian opposition. Postol and Lloyd have estimated, on the other hand, that 600 liters of sarin would have been required to launch the attack on August 21, based on a total capacity of 50 liters of sarin for each rocket and a total of 12 rockets.
That estimate was based on the volume of the rockets, which can hold roughly 50 liters of liquid. Postol told Truthout he believes they must have been fully loaded, because loading them only partially could have resulted in the rockets being unstable and “tumbling,” rather than traveling their full range.
But sarin is soluble in water, and if the pH of the water is neutral (i.e., pH=7), the sarin does not break down for roughly 5.4 hours, according to a 2002 article in the journal Critical Care Medicine. That means that each rocket could have contained as little as 5 to 10 liters of sarin mixed with 40 to 45 liters of water, thus reducing the total amount of sarin used in the attack to as little as 60 liters – the same order of magnitude of Sarin as produced by the clandestine Aum Shinryko laboratory.
How Lethal Was the Attack?
The use of a water solution to fill the rockets would have dramatically reduced the lethality of the attack compared with what has been widely assumed and would help explain anomalies in the data published in the UN investigation report that have puzzled chemical weapons experts. The data gathered by the UN team from a few dozen survivors showed that most of those claiming to have been most heavily exposed to sarin failed to present symptoms that would be expected from such exposure.
The UN team reported that the investigating team had asked an opposition leader to help identify a total of 80 people “who had been badly hurt but had survived.” The opposition leader chose the doctors who in turn identified the patients to be interviewed. The 36 individuals ultimately selected for detailed profiles of symptoms described themselves as among the most seriously exposed to sarin. Thirty of those 36 reported rocket strikes either on or near their homes. The remaining six said they had gone to a point of impact to help those suffering from the attack.
The UN report states that the data on symptoms collected on the 36 individuals are “consistent with organophosphate intoxication.” But both Kaszeta and Dr. Abbas Faroutan, who treated Iranian victims of Iraqi nerve gas attacks, have pointed to serious irregularities in the symptoms reported by these people.
Twenty-eight of the 36 victims – nearly four-fifths of the sample – said they had experienced loss of consciousness, according to the UN report. The second most frequent symptom was difficulty breathing, which was reported by 22 of the 36, followed by blurred vision, which 15 of them suffered. But only five of the 36 reported miosis, or constricted pupils.
Kaszeta explained to Truthout that miosis is the most basic and reliable indicator of nerve gas poisoning. And according to the 2002 Critical Care Medicine article, exposure of only 1 mg of sarin per cubic meter for as little as 3 minutes would have caused miosis. Yet it was the least prevalent symptom among these people claiming to have been very seriously exposed to sarin. Faroutan noted that the data were “not logical.”
“The objective was not to kill people, but to terrify people.”
Even stranger, seven of the 36 victims told investigators they had lost a combined total of 39 members of their immediate families killed in buildings they said were either points of impact of the rockets or only 20 meters (64 feet) away from one. Yet only one of the seven exhibited the most common symptom of exposure to sarin – the constriction of pupils – and only one reported nausea and vomiting.
The UN team found that six people who claimed high levels of exposure had no trace of sarin in their blood, but the rest all showed evidence of exposure to sarin. The fact that all but seven of them failed to exhibit the most basic sign of such exposure suggests that the amount of sarin to which they were exposed was extremely low. After comparing the data on the 36 survivors with comparable data on survivors of the Tokyo sarin attack, Kaszeta told Truthout that the people interviewed and evaluated by the UN “didn’t have serious exposure” to nerve gas.
The UN investigating team itself apparently came to a similar conclusion about the survivors who had supposedly experienced the most serious exposure to Sarin. The head of the UN Investigating team, Ake Sellstrom, appeared to suggest in a February 2014 interview with Gwyn Winfield, the editor of the CBRNe World Magazine, that many of the survivors to whom they had been steered by the opposition had merely imagined that they had been victims of sarin. “In any theater of war,” he told Winfield, “people will claim they are intoxicated. We saw it in Palestine, Afghanistan and everywhere else.”
The individuals claiming to have been victims of sarin were not necessarily falsifying their testimony. The symptoms they described were consistent with those associated with conventional weapons such as smoke and tear gas munitions known to be used by the Syrian military.
Another factor may also help to explain the evidence from the UN investigating team’s report indicating that the August 21 attack was much less lethal than was claimed by the opposition and the Obama administration. In research that has not yet been published but that the researchers have described to Truthout, Postol and Lloyd discovered that the amount of explosive in the rocket used to disperse the sarin may have been much smaller than they had originally assumed. The resulting explosion, they concluded, would not have created the large, dense cloud of droplets in the air that would normally characterize a sarin attack. Instead, the rocket would have dispensed a puddle of sarin on the ground that would then have evaporated into a much smaller and less dense plume of sarin.
They carried out computer simulations on the ground effects of the plumes that would have been created by such a rocket. They concluded that such a plume could still be lethal, but would result in much higher numbers of people who survived than who died – contrary to the usual pattern in a sarin attack.
Because of the new information about the attack, Postol now suspects that the attack was not planned to have the highest possible level of lethality – regardless of who was responsible. “The objective was not to kill people, but to terrify people,” he told Truthout. “Or it was to look as much like the Syrian government [attacking] as possible.”
The UN team found evidence that the total number of victims being claimed by the opposition was also exaggerated. Sellstrom told Winfield that the figures presented to the team by hospital administrators at the two hospitals it had visited could not possibly have been accurate. “[I]t is impossible that they could have turned over that amount of people they claim they did,” declared Sellstrom.
The Obama administration’s use of the figure of 1,429 fatalities in the August 21 attack in its August 30 intelligence summary has always been suspect. Despite the Obama administration’s claim that the figure was derived from a complicated methodology for counting bodies in videos and still pictures, the head of the independent, UK-based anti-Assad Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), Rami Abdurrahman, told Associated Press that US officials had not consulted SOHR about the total casualty figure. Abdurrahman said US officials were “working with only one part of the opposition that is deep in propaganda”.
Capabilities vs. Motive
What is now known about the attack makes it highly questionable that only the government side had the capability to carry out the August 21 attack. The exaggerated numbers of sarin patients admitted by hospitals, the dubious data on symptoms from those supposedly most affected, and the new evidence that the attack was much less lethal than believed at first are all consistent with a sarin attack that a determined rebel group such as Al Nusra could have carried out.
The UN team’s Sellstrom was not convinced that only the regime had the capability to carry out the attack. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Sellstrom said he believes both sides in the conflict had the “opportunity” and the “capability” to “carry out chemical weapons attacks.”
It was always easier to see the capability of the Syrian government to mount such an attack, but it was also easier to see the opposition’s motive for doing so. The rebels would have benefited dramatically from US military intervention in response to an ostensible crossing of the “red line” Obama had publicly adopted in August 2012. The opposition had charged the Syrian military with using chemical weapons repeatedly beginning in December 2012, with the obvious hope of provoking a major US military response.
The only motive attributed to support the argument of the Syrian regime’s guilt is that it was allegedly losing the war, especially around Damascus, and therefore used chemical weapons out of desperation. But the two-page assessment issued by the British Joint Intelligence Organisation August 29 appeared to contradict that argument. “There is no obvious political or military trigger,” it said, “for regime use of Chemical War on an apparently larger scale now, particularly given the current presence of the UN investigating team.”
Even more puzzling, were it the guilty party, was the Syrian regime’s agreeing within 24 hours of the United Nations request to allow UN investigators to have access to the areas where it was being accused of having launched sarin attacks, thus allowing the UN to take samples for traces of sarin.
Tuesday, 29 April 2014 10:13
By Gareth Porter, Truthout | News Analysis
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Sy Hersh Reveals Potential Turkish Role in Syria Chemical Strike That Almost Sparked U.S. Bombing
April 10, 2014
Was Turkey behind last year’s Syrian chemical weapons attack? That is the question raised in a new exposé by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh on the intelligence debate over the deaths of hundreds of Syrians in Ghouta last year. The United States, and much of the international community, blamed forces loyal to the Assad government, almost leading to a U.S. attack on Syria. But Hersh reveals the U.S. intelligence community feared Turkey was supplying sarin gas to Syrian rebels in the months before the attack took place — information never made public as President Obama made the case for launching a strike. Hersh joins us to discuss his findings.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: As Syria continues to remove its chemical weapons arsenal under the monitoring of the United Nations, a new article by the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh questions what happened last year in the Syrian city of Ghouta, when hundreds of Syrians died in a chemical weapons attack. The United States and much of the international community blamed forces loyal to the Assad government, and the incident almost led the U.S. to attack Syria. But according to Hersh, while President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry were making the case for U.S. strikes, analysts inside the U.S. military and intelligence community were privately questioning the administration’s central claim about who was behind the chemical weapons attack.
According to Hersh, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency issued a highly classified five-page “talking points” briefing on June 19th which stated the Syrian rebel group al-Nusra maintained a sarin production cell. According to the DIA, it was, quote, “the most advanced sarin plot since al-Qaida’s pre-9/11 effort.” The DIA document went on to state, quote, “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.” A month before the DIA briefing was written, more than ten members of al-Nusra were arrested in southern Turkey with what local police told the press were two kilograms of sarin.
Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh now joins us from Washington, D.C. His latest piece is headlined “The Red Line and the Rat Line.” It was just published in the London Review of Books.
Sy Hersh, welcome back to Democracy Now! Lay out what you have found.
SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, you just laid out part of it. I think the most important thing about the document is that—as you know, I was on this show, and the London Review did a piece that I wrote, months ago, questioning just the whole issue of “Whose Sarin?”—was the title. It wasn’t clear. This doesn’t mean we know exactly what happened in eastern Ghouta. What we do know—I’m talking about the military, the Pentagon and the analysts—is that the sarin that was recovered wasn’t the kind of sarin that exists in the Syrian arsenal. It just raises a grave question about one of the basic elements of the president’s argument for planning to go to war. The real point of the Shedd document, and the reason I wrote so much about it, is because when I did that piece months ago, the White House said they know of no such document, and there’s no—they have no information about sarin being in the hands of al-Nusra or other radical groups or jihadist groups inside Syria.
Here’s what’s scary about it. What’s scary about it is the military community—I know that the Southern Command, etc., were very worried about this possibility. The war is going badly for some of these jihadist groups. They obviously—more than al-Nusra, other groups obviously have the capacity now to manufacture sarin, with the help of Turkey, and the fear is that as the war goes bad, some of this sarin—you can call it a strategic weapon, perhaps; when used right, it can kill an awful lot of people very quickly—is going to be shipped to their various units outside of Syria. In other words, they’re going to farm out the chemicals they have, who knows where—northern Africa, the Middle East, other places—and then you have a different situation that we are confronting in terms of the war on terror. That’s the reality.
Meanwhile, the White House’s position, again, with this article, once again, even though we—this document they claim no longer existed, we ran a big chunk of it. Clearly, I have access to it. They are still insisting, “We know of no such document.” This head-in-the-sand approach really has to do with something I write about in the article. I quote people as saying, once the president makes a decision, it’s almost impossible to change—to get it changed. The president decided that the Syrians did it, and we’re justified in thinking that and continuing to think that, no other option exists. And so, he’s predicated a foreign policy which is a head-in-the-sand policy, because, meanwhile, we have a serious problem with these kind of weapons, particularly as Syria gets rid of the weapons. The only people inside Syria with those weapons are the wackos. And so, there we are.
AMY GOODMAN: What is the rat line?
SEYMOUR HERSH: The rat line is an informal designation of a—the CIA is—there’s a lot of very competent people in the CIA. I give it a hard time, but you’ve got to acknowledge a very—a lot of very bright people still work there, and they know what they’re doing. During the Iranian war, when—during when Cheney and Bush were deeply involved in trying to find out whether there was a secret underground nuclear facility inside Iran—they absolutely believed it—we would send in Joint Special Operation Command teams undercover from Pakistan, from wherever, through routes that the CIA had known for smuggling and moving cash. They would use those rat lines to go in.
And the rat line in this case is, very early in 2012, when this—I don’t know why, but maybe because of the hubris over what—the victory we thought we had in Libya ousting Gaddafi, which is a mess of its own, we set up a covert, a very secret operation inside Libya to funnel arms through Turkey into the Syrian opposition, including all sides—those who were secular, those who had legitimate grievances against the Assad government, and the other groups sponsored by the Saudis and Qataris, who are really trying to create a Wahhabi or Salafist government in Syria, take it over. And this was a very secret operation. It went for a long time. It only ended when the consulate in Benghazi was overrun. And it was done without—as I write, without telling Congress. And the reason we even know about it, there was a recent Senate Intelligence Committee report on Benghazi that was published a few months back raising questions about security, etc., the same issues Republicans constantly talk about, but there was a secret annex to the report that described this process of funneling stuff. And it was done with money, actually, from the Turks, from the Saudis and the Qataris. We sort of used their money, and we funneled—to use it to buy weapons and funnel it. The CIA was deeply involved in this.
In effect, you could almost say that, in his own way, Obama—you can call it shrewd or brilliant. He was almost channeling Saudi Arabia and Qatari and the Turks to get something done we wanted done, which was to have the opposition defeat Bashar al-Assad. And that’s what it was. It was a long-running operation. It only ended—and, by the way, when it ended with the—when we shut it down after Benghazi was overrun, we suddenly saw all kinds of crazy weapons be showing up, including MANPADS, the shoulder-held anti-aircraft missiles. We showed—they were suddenly showing up inside—inside Syria in the hands of various jihadist groups. So, clearly, the rat line we set up after we shut it down had a life of its own, which is often that happens in these kind of operations.
AMY GOODMAN: After the Syria talks concluded earlier this year, Secretary of State John Kerry renewed his backing of the departure of Bashar al-Assad and said the United States is prepared to increase support for the rebel opposition.
SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: No one has done more to make Syria a magnet for terrorists than Bashar al-Assad. He is the single greatest magnet for terrorism that there is in the region. And he has long since, because of his choice of weapons, because of what he has done, lost any legitimacy. … I will just say to you that lots of different avenues will be pursued, including continued support to the opposition and augmented support to the opposition.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Secretary of State John Kerry. Sy Hersh, your response?
SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, by this time, they knew from the Joint Chiefs of Staff—they knew that the British had come to us with sarin that had been analyzed at their laboratory and that—we share a laboratory on chemical and biological warfare issues with Britain, place called Porton Down. It’s their chemical warfare facility. And we, Americans, share that in terms of analyzing international problems when it comes to chemical and biological warfare. So it’s a lot of—we have a lot of confidence in the British competence. And so, the Brits came to us with samples of sarin, and they were very clear there was a real problem with these samples, because they did not reflect what the Brits know and we know, the Russians knew, everybody knew, is inside the Syrian arsenal. They have—professionals armies have additives to sarin that make it more persistent, easier to use. The amateur stuff, they call it kitchen sarin, sort of a cold phrase. You can make sarin very easily with a couple of inert chemicals, but the sarin you make isn’t very—isn’t as lethal as a professional military-grade sarin and doesn’t have certain additives. So, you can actually calibrate what’s in it. They came to us, very early, within six, eight days, 10 days, of the August 21, last year’s terrible incident inside—near Damascus, when hundreds were killed. And it was overwhelming evidence.
And so, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, led by its chairman, Martin Dempsey, an Army officer of many years of experience—he was commander of the Central Command, covered the Middle East—they did go to the president, and they raised questions. They let him know the problems. And they also talked about the fact that the military was, I can say, unhappy. Military people tend to be—when you give them an assignment, they’ll do it, but often they see the risk more than civilian leaders. The first—the president wanted a wave of bombing, and the military came up with a list of a number of targets—I think 21, 31, something like that, targets—runways and other stuff. And they were told by the White House—I don’t know who—that they wanted something that would create more pain for Bashar. So then, the next thing you know, they’re coming back with a massive bombing attack, two air wings of B-52 bombers dropping 2,000-pound bombs, hitting power nodes, electricity nodes, etc., the kind of attack that would cause an awful lot of damage to civilian infrastructure. And that was an awful lot for the Joint Chiefs, and they really raised that question with the president.
And as I write, I don’t think there’s any other issue that would have forced him to stop as he did. The notion of we’re going to suddenly go back and sign a chemical disarmament treaty with the Syrians, that the Russians had been talking about, that had been raised a year earlier, and we didn’t bite them. He clearly jumped on it then. And he—look, you’ve got to give the president credit. As much as he wanted to and as much as he talked about it, when faced with reality, he backed down. He didn’t say why. But, you know, we don’t expect—we have learned not to expect very much credibility on foreign policy issues. Unfortunately, the fact that we don’t get straight talk from the top means that the bureaucracy can’t do straight talk. If you’re inside the bureaucracy, you can’t really tell the White House something they don’t want to know.
AMY GOODMAN: Uh—
SEYMOUR HERSH: That’s—yes, go ahead.
AMY GOODMAN: Sy, I want to talk Turkey for a minute.
SEYMOUR HERSH: Sure.
AMY GOODMAN: In your piece, you mention the leaked video of a discussion between the Turkish prime minister, Erdogan, and senior officials of a false flag operation that would justify Turkish military intervention in Syria. This is Erdogan’s response to the leaked recording.
PRIME MINISTER RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: [translated] Today they posted a video on YouTube. There was a meeting at the Turkish Foreign Ministry on Syria, on the tomb of Suleyman Shah. And they even leaked this on YouTube. This is villainous. This is dishonesty.
AMY GOODMAN: Turkey briefly imposed a ban on YouTube following the leaked recording. Sy Hersh, could you explain what the Erdogan administration’s support for the rebels, the Turkish support for the rebels, has consisted of and where the U.S. now stands on this?
SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, where we stand on it now is that there’s not much we can do about it, because—well, let me just tell you what we know. What we do know, that Turkey is—that al-Nusra groups have been inside Turkey buying equipment. There’s also reports that they’ve also received some training from the Turkish intelligence services, which is very—is headed by a man named Fidan, who is very known. There’s reports, wonderful report in The Wall Street Journal recently about Fidan’s closeness not only to Erdogan, the prime minister and the leader of Turkey, but also to the most radical units. And so is Erdogan. They’re all supporting—if they have a choice, they’re supporting the more fundamental groups inside Syria. And so, we know they supply training. We know also there’s a—there’s, I guess you could call it, another rat line. There’s a flow—if you’re going to send the chemicals that, when mixed together, meddled together, make sarin, they flow—that flow comes from inside Turkey. A sort of a paramilitary unit known as the gendarmy—Gendarmerie and the MIT [Milli Istihbarat Teskilati] both are responsible for funneling these things into radical groups. There’s actually a flow of trucks that brings the stuff in. And so, Turkish involvement is intense.
And I can tell you, and as I wrote in this article, the conclusion of many in the intelligence community—I can’t say it’s a report, because they didn’t write a report about it—the conclusion was, based on intercepts we have, particularly after the event, was that there were elements of the Turkish government that took credit for what happened in eastern Ghouta, with the point being that this sarin attack crossed Obama’s famous red line. If you know, Obama had said in the summer of 2012, there’s a red line that, if they cross in terms of using chemicals or doing too much, the opposition, he will bomb to stop Bashar. And so, Turkey was dying, trying, repeatedly in the spring—there’s a lot of evidence there were some attacks in the spring. The U.N. knows this, although they don’t say it. I write about that, too, in the article. And also, the American community knew. That’s the reason why that secret report I wrote about, the talking paper, was written. We knew that the radicals were—had used—the jihadist groups had access to nerve agent and had used it against Syrian soldiers in March and April. Those incidents that were always described by our government as being the responsibility of the rebels, with high confidence, it’s just not so. And the report makes it clear. We have had a huge problem before the August attack in—near Damascus. We knew about this potential for months before. We just—it’s the kind of information, for some reason, it doesn’t fit with what the administration wanted to hear, so it just never got out. And that—
AMY GOODMAN: On—
SEYMOUR HERSH: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Sy, on Sunday, the website EA WorldView published a piece headlined “There is No Chemical Weapons Conspiracy—Dissecting Hersh’s ‘Exclusive’ on Insurgents Once More.” The author, Scott Lucas, questioned the claim that rebels could have been responsible for the chemical weapons attack last August, given the range and scale of the operation. He wrote, quote, “Reports on the day and subsequently indicated that 7-12 sites were attacked with chemical agents at the same time. In other words, whoever was responsible for the attacks launched multiple surface-to-surface rockets with chemical payloads against opposition-held towns in East Ghouta and one town in West Ghouta, near Damascus. [The chemical] attacks were … followed by … heavy conventional attacks.” The author, Scott Lucas, says that you fail to ask questions about whether anyone, apart from the regime, would have the ability to carry out such an extensive operation. Sy?
SEYMOUR HERSH: [inaudible] first article on—we’re past that. We now know. Actually, The New York Times even ran a retraction, of sorts. You had a—it was like reading Pravda. But if you read the article carefully, The New York Times had run a series of articles after the event saying that the warheads in question that did the damage came from a Syrian army base, something like nine kilometers, six miles, away. And at that time, there were a number of analysts, a group from MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], led by Ted Postol, who used to be a science adviser to the CNO, the chief of naval operations, clearly somebody with a great deal of background and no bias. He did a series of studies with his team that concluded that the warheads probably didn’t go more than one or two, at most, kilometers—two kilometers, 1.2 miles. And we now know from the U.N. report—a man named Ake Sellstrom, who ran the U.N. investigation, he’s concluded the same thing: These missiles that were fired were fired no more than a mile.
They were—one looks—just from the footage one saw, they were homemade. They didn’t fit any of the nomenclature of the known weapons. And don’t think we don’t have a very good picture of what the Syrians have in terms of warheads. They have a series of warheads that can deliver chemical weapons, and we know the dimensions of all of them. And none of these weapons fit that. And so, you have a U.N. report. You have this independent report saying they were—went no more than one or two kilometers. And so, I don’t know why we’re talking about multiple-launch rockets. These are homemade weapons. And it seems very clear to most observers—as I say, even to the U.N. team that did the final report—the U.N., because of whatever rules they have, wasn’t able to say that—who fired what. They could just say—they just could describe the weapons and never make a judgment. But I can tell you, I quote somebody from inside that investigation unit who was very clear that the weapons fired were homemade and were not Syrian army. This is asked and answered; these are arguments that go on. This is—I assume it’s a blog. I don’t know the—I don’t know the blog.
AMY GOODMAN: And—
SEYMOUR HERSH: But this has been going—yes?
AMY GOODMAN: And Turkey’s interest, if it were the case, in pushing the red line and supporting an attack that would be attributed to Assad—their interest in getting the U.S. to attack Syria?
SEYMOUR HERSH: Oh, my god, totally of great interest, because Erdogan has put—the prime minister of Turkey has put an enormous amount of effort and funds and others, including his intelligence service, in the disposable in the—he and Bashar are like, you know, at loggerheads. He wants to see him go. And he’s been on the attack constantly, supporting the most radical factions there. And also, I must say he’s also supporting the secular factions, the people who seriously want to overthrow Bashar and don’t want to see a jihadist regime; they just want to see a government that’s not controlled by one family, you know? But there’s no question Turkey has a deep investment in this. And it’s going badly. It’s very clear now that the Syrian army has the upper hand and is essentially—the war is essentially over. I know, I don’t like to—in terms of getting rid of Bashar, that’s no longer a done deal. There’s going to be some outpost, perhaps, in areas near Turkey where there will be various factions. They’ll be under pressure from the Syrian army all the way. But, essentially, this is a losing card we have. We don’t like to admit it, but that’s it. Bashar has held on. And whatever that means—
AMY GOODMAN: Seymour Hersh, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist, Washington, [D.C.]. We will have a link to your latest piece in the London Review of Books, headlined “The Red Line and the Rat Line.” This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, 20 years ago today, the genocide in Rwanda began. We’ll go to Kigali. Stay with us.
MONDAY, APRIL 7, 2014
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The silent military coup that took over Washington
September 23, 2013
This time it’s Syria, last time it was Iraq. Obama chose to accept the entire Pentagon of the Bush era: its wars and war crimes
Children, many of whose deformities are believed to be the results of the chemical dioxin that the US used in the Vietnam war, play outside a hospital in Ho Chi Minh City. Photograph: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
On my wall is the Daily Express front page of September 5 1945 and the words: “I write this as a warning to the world.” So began Wilfred Burchett’s report from Hiroshima. It was the scoop of the century. For his lone, perilous journey that defied the US occupation authorities, Burchett was pilloried, not least by his embedded colleagues. He warned that an act of premeditated mass murder on an epic scale had launched a new era of terror.
Almost every day now, he is vindicated. The intrinsic criminality of the atomic bombing is borne out in the US National Archives and by the subsequent decades of militarism camouflaged as democracy. The Syria psychodrama exemplifies this. Yet again we are held hostage by the prospect of a terrorism whose nature and history even the most liberal critics still deny. The great unmentionable is that humanity’s most dangerous enemy resides across the Atlantic.
John Kerry’s farce and Barack Obama’s pirouettes are temporary. Russia’s peace deal over chemical weapons will, in time, be treated with the contempt that all militarists reserve for diplomacy. With al-Qaida now among its allies, and US-armed coupmasters secure in Cairo, the US intends to crush the last independent states in the Middle East: Syria first, then Iran. “This operation [in Syria],” said the former French foreign minister Roland Dumas in June, “goes way back. It was prepared, pre-conceived and planned.”
When the public is “psychologically scarred”, as the Channel 4 reporter Jonathan Rugman described the British people’s overwhelming hostility to an attack on Syria, suppressing the truth is made urgent. Whether or not Bashar al-Assad or the “rebels” used gas in the suburbs of Damascus, it is the US, not Syria, that is the world’s most prolific user of these terrible weapons.
In 1970 the Senate reported: “The US has dumped on Vietnam a quantity of toxic chemical (dioxin) amounting to six pounds per head of population.” This was Operation Hades, later renamed the friendlier Operation Ranch Hand – the source of what Vietnamese doctors call a “cycle of foetal catastrophe”. I have seen generations of children with their familiar, monstrous deformities. John Kerry, with his own blood-soaked war record, will remember them. I have seen them in Iraq too, where the US used depleted uranium and white phosphorus, as did the Israelis in Gaza. No Obama “red line” for them. No showdown psychodrama for them.
The sterile repetitive debate about whether “we” should “take action” against selected dictators (ie cheer on the US and its acolytes in yet another aerial killing spree) is part of our brainwashing. Richard Falk, professor emeritus of international law and UN special rapporteur on Palestine, describes it as “a self-righteous, one-way, legal/moral screen [with] positive images of western values and innocence portrayed as threatened, validating a campaign of unrestricted political violence”. This “is so widely accepted as to be virtually unchallengeable”.
It is the biggest lie: the product of “liberal realists” in Anglo-American politics, scholarship and media who ordain themselves as the world’s crisis managers, rather than the cause of a crisis. Stripping humanity from the study of nations and congealing it with jargon that serves western power designs, they mark “failed”, “rogue” or “evil” states for “humanitarian intervention”.
An attack on Syria or Iran or any other US “demon” would draw on a fashionable variant, “Responsibility to Protect”, or R2P – whose lectern-trotting zealot is the former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans, co-chair of a “global centre” based in New York. Evans and his generously funded lobbyists play a vital propaganda role in urging the “international community” to attack countries where “the security council rejects a proposal or fails to deal with it in a reasonable time”.
Evans has form. He appeared in my 1994 film Death of a Nation, which revealed the scale of genocide in East Timor. Canberra’s smiling man is raising his champagne glass in a toast to his Indonesian equivalent as they fly over East Timor in an Australian aircraft, having signed a treaty to pirate the oil and gas of the stricken country where the tyrant Suharto killed or starved a third of the population.
Under the “weak” Obama, militarism has risen perhaps as never before. With not a single tank on the White House lawn, a military coup has taken place in Washington. In 2008, while his liberal devotees dried their eyes, Obama accepted the entire Pentagon of his predecessor, George Bush: its wars and war crimes. As the constitution is replaced by an emerging police state, those who destroyed Iraq with shock and awe, piled up the rubble in Afghanistan and reduced Libya to a Hobbesian nightmare, are ascendant across the US administration. Behind their beribboned facade, more former US soldiers are killing themselves than are dying on battlefields. Last year 6,500 veterans took their own lives. Put out more flags.
The historian Norman Pollack calls this “liberal fascism”: “For goose-steppers substitute the seemingly more innocuous militarisation of the total culture. And for the bombastic leader, we have the reformer manqué, blithely at work, planning and executing assassination, smiling all the while.” Every Tuesday the “humanitarian” Obama personally oversees a worldwide terror network of drones that “bugsplat” people, their rescuers and mourners. In the west’s comfort zones, the first black leader of the land of slavery still feels good, as if his very existence represents a social advance, regardless of his trail of blood. This obeisance to a symbol has all but destroyed the US anti-war movement – Obama’s singular achievement.
In Britain, the distractions of the fakery of image and identity politics have not quite succeeded. A stirring has begun, though people of conscience should hurry. The judges at Nuremberg were succinct: “Individual citizens have the duty to violate domestic laws to prevent crimes against peace and humanity.” The ordinary people of Syria, and countless others, and our own self-respect, deserve nothing less now.
The Guardian, Tuesday 10 September 2013 19.15 BST
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Your Labor Day Syria Reader, Part 2: William Polk
September 11, 2013
Many times I’ve mentioned the foreign-policy assessments of William R. Polk, at right, who first wrote for the Atlantic (about Iraq) during Dwight Eisenhower’s administration, back in 1958, and served on the State Department’s Policy Planning staff during the Kennedy years. He now has sent in a detailed analysis about Syria.
Polk wrote this just before President Obama switched from his go-it-alone policy and decided to seek Congressional approval for a Syrian strike. It remains relevant for the choices Congress, the public, and the president have to make. It is very long, but it is systematically laid out as a series of 13 questions, with answers. If you’re in a rush, you could skip ahead to question #7, on the history and use of chemical weapons. Or #6, about the under-publicized role of drought, crop failure, and climate change in Syria’s predicament. But please consider the whole thing when you have the time to sit down for a real immersion in Congress’s upcoming decision. It wouldn’t hurt if Senators and Representatives read it too.
By William Polk
Probably like you, I have spent many hours this last week trying to put together the scraps of information reported in the media on the horrible attack with chemical weapons on a suburb of Damascus on Wednesday, August 21. Despite the jump to conclusions by reporters, commentators and government officials, I find as of this writing that the events are still unclear. Worse, the bits and pieces we have been told are often out of context and usually have not been subjected either to verification or logical analysis. So I ask you to join me in thinking them through to try to get a complete picture on what has happened, is now happening and about to happen. I apologize for both the length of this analysis and its detail, but the issue is so important to all of us that it must be approached with care.
Because, as you will see, this is germane in examining the evidence, I should tell you that during my years as a member of the Policy Planning Council, I was “cleared” for all the information the US Government had on weapons of mass destruction, including poison gas, and for what was then called “Special Intelligence,” that is, telecommunications interception and code breaking.
[JF note: This is the list of questions around which the rest of the essay is structured.] I will try to put in context 1) what actually happened; 2) what has been reported; 3) who has told us what we think we know; 4) who are the possible culprits and what would be their motivations; 5) who are the insurgents? 6) what is the context in which the attack took place; 7) what are chemical weapons and who has used them; 8) what the law on the use of chemical weapons holds; 9) pro and con on attack; 10) the role of the UN; 11) what is likely to happen now; 12) what would be the probable consequences of an attack and (13) what could we possibly gain from an attack.
1: What Actually Happened
On Wednesday, August 21 canisters of gas opened in several suburbs of the Syrian capital Damascus and within a short time approximately a thousand people were dead. That is the only indisputable fact we know.
2: What Has Been Reported
Drawing primarily on Western government and Israeli sources, the media has reported that canisters of what is believed to be the lethal nerve gas Sarin were delivered by surface-to-surface rockets to a number of locations in territory disputed by the Syrian government and insurgents. The locations were first reported to be to the southwest, about 10 miles from the center of Damascus, and later reported also to be to the east of the city in other suburbs. The following Voice of America map shows the sites where bodies were found.
3: Who Told Us What We Think We Know
A UN inspection team that visited the site of the massacre on Monday, August 26, almost 5 days after the event.
Why was the inspection so late? As a spokesman for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon pointed out (Gareth Porter in IPS, August 27), the request to the Syrian government to authorize an inspection was not made until August 24 and was granted the next day. In any event, according to the spokesman, the delay was not of fundamental importance because “Sarin can be detected for up to months after its use.”
What was the American government position on inspection? Secretary of State John Kerry initially demanded that the Syrian government make access to the suspected site or sites possible. Then it charged that the Syrian government purposefully delayed permission so that such evidence as existed might be “corrupted” or destroyed. On the basis of this charge, he reversed his position and urged UN Secretary General Ban to stop the inquiry. According to The Wall Street Journal of August 26, Secretary Kerry told Mr. Ban that “the inspection mission was pointless and no longer safe…” To emphasize the American position, according to the same Wall Street Journal report,“Administration officials made clear Mr. Obama would make his decision based on the U.S. assessment and not the findings brought back by the U.N. inspectors.”
IPS’s Gareth Porter concluded after talks with chemical weapons experts and government officials that “The administration’s effort to discredit the investigation recalls the George W. Bush administration’s rejection of the position of U.N. inspectors in 2002 after they found no evidence of any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the administration’s refusal to give inspectors more time to fully rule out the existence of an active Iraqi WMD programme. In both cases, the administration had made up its mind to go to war and wanted no information that could contradict that policy to arise.” Is this a fair assessment?
Why was the first UN inspection so limited? The only publicly known reason is that it came under sniper fire while on the way to the first identified site. Who fired on it or for what reason are, as of this writing, unknown. The area was contested by one or more rebel groups and under only limited or sporadic control by the Syrian government. Indeed, as photographs published by The New York Times on August 29, show the UN inspectors in one area (Zamaka) guarded by armed men identified as “rebel fighters.” So the sniper could have been almost anyone.
How limited was the first phase of inspection? According to a report in The Guardian (Monday, August 26, 2013), the small team of UN Inspectors investigating the poison gas attack in Syria spent only an hour and a half at the site. So far, we have not been given any report by the UN team, but the doctor in charge of the local hospital was apparently surprised by how brief and limited was their investigation. According toThe Guardian reporter, he said,
“The committee did not visit any house in the district. We asked the committee to exhume the bodies for checking them. But they refused. They say that there was no need to do that.
‘We had prepared samples for the committee from some bodies and video documentation. There were urine and blood samples as well as clothes. But they refused to take them.
‘After an hour and a half, they got an order from the regime to leave ASAP. The security force told the committee if they did not leave now, they could not guarantee their security. They could not visit the main six sites where the chemical rockets had fallen and lots of people were killed.’ ”
Why did the investigators not do a more thorough job? The doctor at the site told the Guardian reporter that the Assad regime warned the investigators that they should leave because it could not guarantee their safety but the newspaper’s headline says that the Syrian government authorities ordered them out. Which is true? Is there another explanation? And why did the inspection team not have the means to retrieve parts of the delivery equipment, presumably rockets? Were they told by the UN or other authorities not to retrieve them or were they refused permission by the Syrian government? We simply do not know.
To say the least, the inspection was incomplete. The best that the State Department spokesman could say about such evidence as was gathered is that there is “’little doubt’ [Vice President Biden later raised the certainty from the same limited evidence to “no doubt”] that forces loyal to Mr. Assad were responsible for using the chemical weapons.” (“’Little Doubt’ Syria Gassed Opposition,” The Wall Street Journal,August 26, 2013).
Much was made of the belief that the gas had been delivered by rocket. However, as The New York Times correspondent Ben Hubbard reported (April 27, 2013) “”Near the attack sites, activists found spent rockets that appeared to have been homemade and suspected that they delivered the gas.” Would the regular army’s chemical warfare command have used “homemade” rockets? That report seemed to point to some faction within the opposition rather than to the government.
Several days into the crisis, we have been given a different source of information. This is from Israel. For many years, Israel is known to have directed a major communications effort against Syria. Its program, known as Unit 8200 is Mossad’s equivalent of NSA. It chose to share what it claimed was a key intercept with outsiders. First, a former officer told the German news magazine Focus (according to The Guardian,August 28, 2013) that Israel had intercepted a conversation between Syrian officers discussing the attack. The same Information was given to Israeli press (see “American Operation, Israeli Intelligence” in the August 27 Yediot Ahronoth,) It also shared this information with the American government. Three Israeli senior officers were reported to have been sent to Washington to brief NSC Director Susan Rice. What was said was picked up by some observers. Foreign Policy magazine reported (August 28, “Intercepted Calls Prove Syrian Army Used Nerve Gas, U.S. Spies Say”) that “in the hours after a horrific chemical attack east of Damascus, an official at the Syrian Minister of Defense exchanged what Israeli intelligence described as “panicked phone calls” with a leader of a chemical weapons unit, demanding answer for a nerve agent strike that killed more than 1,000 people.”
But, as more information emerged, doubts began to be expressed. As Matt Apuzzo reported (AP, August 29, “AP sources: Intelligence on weapons no ‘slam dunk.’”), according to a senior US intelligence official, the intercept “discussing the strike was among low level staff, with no direct evidence tying the attack to an Assad insider or even a senior commander.” Reminding his readers of the famous saying by the then head of the CIA, George Tenet, in 2002 that the intelligence against Saddam Husain was “slam dunk,” when in fact it was completely erroneous, the AP correspondent warned that the Syrian attack of last week “could be tied to al-Qaida-backed rebels later.”
Two things should be borne in mind on these reports: the first is that Israel has had a long-standing goal of the break-up or weakening of Syria which is the last remaining firmly anti-Israeli Arab state. (the rationale behind this policy was laid out by Edward Luttwak in the OpEd section of the August 24, 2013 New York Times). It also explains why Israel actively had sought “regime change” in Iraq. The second consideration is that Israeli intelligence has also been known to fabricate intercepts as, for example, it did during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
So, unless or until more conclusive evidence is available, the request by Mr. Ban (“U.N. seeks more time for its inspectors,”International Herald Tribune, August 29, 2013) for more time appears to be prudent. Despite what Messrs Biden and Kerry have said, I believe a court would conclude that the case against the Syrian government was “not proven.”
4: Who Are the Possible Culprits and What Would be Their Motivations?
Since such information as we have is sketchy and questionable, we should seek to understand motives. As a historian, dealing as one always does, with incomplete information, I have made it a rule when trying to get at the “truth” in any contentious issue to ask a series of questions among which are who benefits from a given action and what would I have done in a given situation? Look briefly at what we think we now know in light of these questions:
First, who gains by the action. I do not see what Assad could have gained from this gas attack. It is evident that while the area in which it took place is generally held to be “disputed” territory, the government was able to arrange for the UN inspection team to visit it but not, apparently, to guarantee their safety there. If Assad were to initiate an attack, it would be more logical for him to pick a target under the control of the rebels.
Second, to have taken the enormous risk of retaliation or at least loss of support by some of his allies (notably the Russians) by using this horrible weapon, he must have thought of it either as a last ditch stand or as a knockout blow to the insurgents. Neither appears to have been the case. Reports in recent weeks suggest that the Syrian government was making significant gains against the rebels. No observer has suggested that its forces were losing. All indications are that the government’s command and control system not only remains intact but that it still includes among its senior commanders and private soldiers a high proportion of Sunni Muslims. Were the regime in decline, it would presumably have purged those whose loyalties were becoming suspect (i.e. the Sunni Muslims) or they would have bolted for cover. Neither happened.
Moreover, if it decided to make such an attack, I should have thought that it would have aimed at storage facilities, communications links, arms depots or places where commanders congregated. The suburbs of Damascus offered none of these opportunities for a significant, much less a knockout, blow.
Third, as students of guerrilla warfare have learned guerrillas are dispersed but civilians are concentrated. So weapons of mass destruction are more likely to create hostility to the user than harm to the opponent. The chronology of the Syrian civil war shows that the government must be aware of this lesson as it has generally held back its regular troops (which were trained and armed to fight foreign invasion) and fought its opponents with relatively small paramilitary groups backed up by air bombardment. Thus, a review of the fighting over the last two years suggests that its military commanders would not have seen a massive gas attack either as a “game changer” or an option valuable enough to outweigh the likely costs.
So, what about the enemies of the Assad regime? How might such an attack have been to their advantage?
First, a terrorizing attack might have been thought advantageous because of the effect on people who are either supporting the regime or are passive. There are indications, for example, that large numbers of the pathetic Palestinian refugees are pouring out their camps in yet another “displacement.” The number of Syrian refugees is also increasing. Terror is a powerful weapon and historically and everywhere was often used. Whoever initiated the attack might have thought, like those who initiated the attack on Guernica, the bombing of Rotterdam and the Blitz of London, that the population would be so terrorized that they might give up or at least cower. Then as food shortages and disease spread, the economy would falter. Thus the regime might collapse.
That is speculative, but the second benefit to the rebels of an attack is precisely what has happened: given the propensity to believe everything evil about the Assad regime, daily emphasized by the foreign media, a consensus, at least in America, has been achieved is that it must have been complicit. This consensus should make it possible for outside powers to take action against the regime and join in giving the insurgents the money, arms and training.
We know that the conservative Arab states, the United States, other Western powers and perhaps Israel have given assistance to the rebels for the last two years, but the outside aid has not been on a scale sufficient to enable them to defeat the government. They would need much more and probably would also need foreign military intervention as happened in Libya in April 2011 to overthrow Muamar Qaddafi. The rebels must have pondered that situation. We know that foreign military planners have. (See “Military Intervention in Syria” Wikileaks reprinted on August 25, 2013, memorandum of a meeting in the Pentagon in 2011.) Chillingly, the just cited Wikileaks memorandum notes that the assembled military and intelligence officers “don’t believe air intervention would happen unless there was enough media attention on a massacre, like the Ghadafi [sic] move against Benghazi.” (See Time, March 17, 2011.) As in Libya, evidence of an ugly suppression of inhabitants might justify and lead to foreign military intervention.
Clearly, Assad had much to lose and his enemies had much to gain. That conclusion does not prove who did it, but it should give us pause to find conclusive evidence which we do not now have.
5: Who are the insurgents?
We know little about them, but what we do know is that they are divided into hundreds – some say as many as 1,200 — of small, largely independent, groups. And we know that the groups range across the spectrum from those who think of themselves as members of the dispersed, not-centrally-governed but ideologically-driven association we call al-Qaida, through a variety of more conservative Muslims, to gatherings of angry, frightened or dissatisfied young men who are out of work and hungry, to blackmarketeers who are trading in the tools of war, to what we have learned to call in Afghanistan and elsewhere “warlords.”
Each group marches to its own drumbeat and many are as much opposed to other insurgents as to the government; some are secular while others are jihadists; some are devout while others are opportunists; many are Syrians but several thousand are foreigners from all over the Middle East, Europe, Africa and Asia. Recognition of the range of motivations, loyalties and aims is what, allegedly, has caused President Obama to hold back overt lethal-weapons assistance although it did not stop him from having the CIA and contractors covertly arm and train insurgents in Jordan and other places.
The main rebel armed force is known as the Free Syrian Army. It was formed in the summer of 2011 by deserters from the regular army. Similar to other rebel armies (for example the “external” army of the Provisional Algerian Government in its campaign against the French and various “armies” that fought the Russians in Afghanistan) its commanders and logistical cadres are outside of Syria. Its influence over the actual combatants inside of Syria derives from its ability to allocate money and arms and shared objectives; it does not command them. So far as is known, the combatants are autonomous. Some of these groups have become successful guerrillas and have not only killed several thousand government soldiers and paramilitaries but have seized large parts of the country and disrupted activities or destroyed property in others.
In competition with the Free Syrian Army is an Islamicist group known as Jabhat an-Nusra (roughly “sources of aid”) which is considered to be a terrorist organization by the United States. It is much more active and violent than groups associated with the Free Syrian Army. It is determined to convert Syria totally into an Islamic state under Sharia law. Public statements attributed to some of its leaders threaten a blood bath of Alawis and Christians after it achieves the fall of the Assad regime. Unlike the Free Syrian Army it is a highly centralized force and its 5-10 thousand guerrillas have been able to engage in large-scale and coordinated operations.
Of uncertain and apparently shifting relations with Jabhat an-Nusra, are groups that seem to be increasing in size who think of themselves as members of al-Qaida. They seem to be playing an increasing role in the underground and vie for influence and power with the Muslim Brotherhood and the dozens of other opposition groups.
Illustrating the complexity of the line-up of rebel forces, Kurdish separatists are seeking to use the war to promote their desire either to unite with other Kurdish groups in Turkey and/or Iraq or to achieve a larger degree of autonomy. (See Harald Doornbos and Jenan Moussa, “The Civil War Within Syria’s Civil War,” Foreign Policy, August 28, 2013). They are struggling against both the other opposition groups and against the government, and they too would presumably welcome a collapse of the government that would lead to the division of the country into ethnic-religious mini-states.
It seems reasonable to imagine that at least some and perhaps all of these diverse groups must be looking for action (such as a dramatic strike against the regime) that would tip the scale of military capacity. Listening to the world media and to the intelligence agents who circulate among them, they must hope that an ugly and large-scale event caused by or identified with the government might accomplish what they have so far been unable to do.
6: What Is the Context in Which the Attack Took Place?
Syria is and has always been a complex society, composed of clusters of ancient colonies. Generally speaking, throughout history they have lived adjacent to one another rather than mixing in shared locations as the following map suggests.
[Syrian ethnic and/or religious communities. The large white area is little-inhabited desert. Courtesy of Wikipedia]
The population before the outbreak of the war was roughly (in rounded numbers) 6 in 10 were Sunni Muslim, 1 in 7 Christian, 1 in 8 Alawi (an ethnic off-shoot of Shia Islam), 1 in 10 Kurdish Muslim, smaller groups of Druze and Ismailis (both off-shoots of Shia Islam) and a scattering of others.
Syria has been convulsed by civil war since climate change came to Syria with a vengeance. Drought devastated the country from 2006 to 2011. Rainfall in most of the country fell below eight inches (20 cm) a year, the absolute minimum needed to sustain un-irrigated farming. Desperate for water, farmers began to tap aquifers with tens of thousands of new well. But, as they did, the water table quickly dropped to a level below which their pumps could lift it.
[USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, Commodity Intelligence Report, May 9, 2008]
In some areas, all agriculture ceased. In others crop failures reached 75%. And generally as much as 85% of livestock died of thirst or hunger. Hundreds of thousands of Syria’s farmers gave up, abandoned their farms and fled to the cities and towns in search of almost non-existent jobs and severely short food supplies. Outside observers including UN experts estimated that between 2 and 3 million of Syria’s 10 million rural inhabitants were reduced to “extreme poverty.”
The domestic Syrian refugees immediately found that they had to compete not only with one another for scarce food, water and jobs, but also with the already existing foreign refugee population. Syria already was a refuge for quarter of a million Palestinians and about a hundred thousand people who had fled the war and occupation of Iraq. Formerly prosperous farmers were lucky to get jobs as hawkers or street sweepers. And in the desperation of the times, hostilities erupted among groups that were competing just to survive.
Survival was the key issue. The senior UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) representative in Syria turned to the USAID program for help. Terming the situation “a perfect storm,” in November 2008, he warned that Syria faced “social destruction.” He noted that the Syrian Minister of Agriculture had “stated publicly that [the] economic and social fallout from the drought was ‘beyond our capacity as a country to deal with.’” But, his appeal fell on deaf ears: the USAID director commented that “we question whether limited USG resources should be directed toward this appeal at this time.” (reported on November 26, 2008 in cable 08DAMASCUS847_a to Washington and “leaked” to Wikileaks )
Whether or not this was a wise decision, we now know that the Syrian government made the situation much worse by its next action. Lured by the high price of wheat on the world market, it sold its reserves. In 2006, according to the US Department of Agriculture, it sold 1,500,000 metric tons or twice as much as in the previous year. The next year it had little left to export; in 2008 and for the rest of the drought years it had to import enough wheat to keep its citizens alive.
So tens of thousands of frightened, angry, hungry and impoverished former farmers flooded constituted a “tinder” that was ready to catch fire. The spark was struck on March 15, 2011 when a relatively small group gathered in the town of Daraa to protest against government failure to help them. Instead of meeting with the protestors and at least hearing their complaints, the government cracked down on them as subversives. The Assads, who had ruled the country since 1971, were not known for political openness or popular sensitivity. And their action backfired. Riots broke out all over the country, As they did, the Assads attempted to quell them with military force. They failed to do so and, as outside help – money from the Gulf states and Muslim “freedom fighters” from the rest of the world – poured into the country, the government lost control over 30% of the country’s rural areas and perhaps half of its population. By the spring of 2013, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), upwards of 100,000 people had been killed in the fighting, perhaps 2 million have lost their homes and upwards of 2 million have fled abroad. Additionally, vast amounts of infrastructure, virtually whole cities like Aleppo, have been destroyed.
Despite these tragic losses, the war is now thought to be stalemated: the government cannot be destroyed and the rebels cannot be defeated. The reasons are not only military: they are partly economic– there is little to which the rebels could return; partly political – the government has managed to retain the loyalty of a large part of the majority Muslim community which comprises the bulk of its army and civil service whereas the rebels, as I have mentioned, are fractured into many mutually hostile groups; and partly administrative — by and large the government’s structure has held together and functions satisfactorily whereas the rebels have no single government.
7: What are Chemical Weapons and Who Has Used Them?
When I was a member of the Policy Planning Council and was “cleared” for all information on weapons of mass destruction, I was given a detailed briefing at Fort Meade on the American poison gas program. I was so revolted by what I learned that I wrote President Kennedy a memorandum arguing that we must absolutely end the program and agree never to use it. Subsequently, the United States is said to have destroyed 90% of its chemical weapons.
My feelings aside, use of chemical weapons has been common. As the former head of the US Congress’s committee on foreign affairs and later president of the Woodrow Wilson Center, Lee Hamilton, told me, his experience was that when a weapon was available, the temptation to use it was almost irresistible. History bears him out. While most people were horror-stricken by the use of gas, governments continued to use it. In times of severe stress, it became acceptable. As Winston Churchill wrote, use “was simply a question of fashion changing as it does between long and short skirts for women.” Well, perhaps not quite, but having begun to use gas in the First World War, when about 100,000 people were killed by it, use continued.
After the war, the British, strongly urged by Churchill, then Colonial Secretary, used combinations of mustard gas, chlorine and other gases against tribesmen in Iraq in the 1920s. As he said, “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes.” In the same spirit, the Spaniards used gas against the Moroccan Rif Berbers in the late 1920s; the Italians used it against Ethiopians in the 1930s; and the Japanese used it against the Chinese in the 1940s. Churchill again: during the Second World War, he wrote that if the Blitz threatened to work against England, he “may certainly have to ask you [his senior military staff] to support me in using poison gas. We could drench the cities of the Ruhr and many other cities in Germany…” More recently in 1962, I was told by the then chief of the CIA’s Middle Eastern covert action office, James Critichfield that the Egyptians had used lethal concentrations of tear gas in their campaign against royalist guerrillas in Yemen.
America used various chemical agents including white phosphorus in Vietnam (where it was known as “Willie Pete”) and in Fallujah (Iraq) in 2005. We encouraged or at least did not object to the use of chemical agents, although we later blamed him for so doing, by Saddam Husain. Just revealed documents show that the Reagan administration knew of the Iraqi use in the Iraq-Iran war of the same poison gas (Sarin) as was used a few days ago in Syria and Tabun (also a nerve gas). According to the US military attaché working with the Iraqi army at the time, the US government either turned a blind eye or approved its use (see the summary of the documents in Shane Harris and Matthew Aid, “Exclusive: CIA Files Prove America Helped Saddam as He Gassed Iran,” Foreign Policy, August 26, 2013) We were horrified when Saddam Husain used poison gas against the Kurdish villagers of Halabja in 1988 (killing perhaps 4-5 thousand people) but by that time we had dropped our support for the Iraqi government. Finally, Israel is believed to have used poison gas in Lebanon and certainly used white phosphorus in Gaza in 2008.
I cite this history not to justify the use of gas – I agree with Secretary Kerry that use of gas is a “moral obscenity” — but to show that its use is by no means uncommon. It is stockpiled by most states in huge quantities and is constantly being produced in special factories almost everywhere despite having been legally banned since the Geneva Protocol of June 17, 1925.
8: What Is Current Law on the Use of Chemical Weapons?
Use, production and storage of such weapons was again banned in the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (to which Syria it not a party). But nearly all the signatories to that convention reserved the right legally to use such weapons if the weapons had been used against them (i.e. no first strike). The Convention, unfortunately, contains no provision banning the use of weapons, as Saddam certainly did and as Assad is accused of doing, in civil war. My understanding of the current law, as set out in the 1993 Convention, is that the United States and the other NATO members are legally entitled to take military action only when we – not their citizens — are actually threatened by overt military attack with chemical weapons.
9: Pro and Con on Attack
Putting the legal issue aside, there is precedent. A part of the rationale for the 2003 U.S. attack on Iraq was the charge that it had or was developing weapons of mass destruction including poison gas which it planned to use against us. This was the essence of Secretary of State Collin Powell’s presentation to the United Nations Security Council on February 6, 2003.
Powell then realized that there was no evidence to back up his charge (and it was later shown to be false), but that did not stop or even delay the attack. The determination to attack had already been made, regardless of evidence. An attack was undoubtedly then generally approved by the American public and its elected representatives. They, and our NATO allies, concluded on the basis of what the second Bush administration told them that there was a threat and, therefore, that action was not only necessary for defense but also legal. It is the memory of this grave misleading of the public that haunts at least some government officials and elected representatives today.
Memory of the Iraqi deception and the subsequent disaster is apparently responsible for the Parliamentary rejection of British Prime Minister David Cameron’s announced plan to take military action against the Syrian government. “The vote was also a set back for Mr. Obama, who, having given up hope of getting United Nations Security Council authorization for the strike, is struggling to assemble a coalition of allies against Syria…
But administration officials made clear that eroding support would not deter Mr. Obama in deciding to go ahead with a strike.” (“Obama Set for Limited Strike on Syria as British Vote No,” The New York Times, August 29, 2013)
The New York Times editorial board essentially joined with the British Parliament in arguing that “Despite the pumped-up threats and quickening military preparations, President Obama has yet to make a convincing legal or strategic case for military action against Syria.” (Editorial of August 28, 2013)
“As he often so eloquently does, President Obama said on August 23, ‘…what I think the American people also expect me to do as president is to think through what we do from the perspective of, what is in our long-term national interests?…Sometimes what we’ve seen is that folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff, that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations, can result in us being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region.’ ”
However, as I point out below, his actions, as unfortunately also is typical of him, do not seem to mesh with his words.
Meanwhile, at the United Nations, Secretary General Ban urged the European heads of state and President Obama to “Give peace a chance…give diplomacy a chance.”
There has been a steady outpouring of informed non-governmental opposition to an attack. Sir Andrew Green, the former British ambassador called it “poor foolishness…It beggars belief that we appear to be considering an armed attack on Syria with no clear purpose and no achievable objective.” (Blundering into war in Syria would be pure foolishness.” The English Conservative Party daily, Conservative Home, August 26, 2013). This was from a member of the Prime Minister’s Conservative party; the Labour opposition was even more opposed to the adventure.
The Russian government was outspoken in opposition. Many Western commentators regarded their opposition as a sort of echo of the Cold War, but the Russians were acutely aware of the danger that their own large (16% of their population) and growing Muslim population might be affected by the “forces of extremism in country after country in the Middle East by [the US] forcing or advocating a change in leadership – from Iraq to Libya, Egypt to Syria.” (Steven Lee Myers, “Putin stays quiet as his aides assail the West,”International Herald Tribune, August 29, 2013) As I have mentioned, President Obama believed that the Russians would veto the resolution the British had submitted to the Security Council before the English Parliament voted down the Prime Minister’s plan to intervene.
10): What is the role of the United Nations?
Perhaps the most important role of the United Nations has not been in the highly publicized meetings and decisions of the Security Council, but in its specialized agencies, particularly the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) in the attempt to mobilized food aid and the High Commission for Refugees (HCR) in attempting to ameliorate the conditions of the millions of people displaced by the fighting. They have had little to work with.
But it is the UN in its more peace seeking role that is now in the forefront. Weapons experts from the UN are conducting the investigation of the sites where the victims were killed. There has been, as I mentioned above, an effort to end their work after their initial visit, but the UN Secretary General insisted that they continue for at least two more days. The British, French and American governments have attempted also to limit the role of the UN to give them more latitude for whatever action they wish to take. Indeed, the US State Department spokesman was quoted as saying that whatever the inspectors reported would make no difference to the decisions of the Western powers. Of course, the Western powers are concerned that whatever might be laid before the UN Security Council might be vetoed by Russia and perhaps also by China.
11: What is Likely to Happen Now
[This section written just before the president’s surprise announcement that he would go to Congress.]
While President Obama has spoken of caution and taking time to form a coalition, the gossip around the White House (The Wall Street Journal,August 26 and later accounts cited above) suggests that he is moving toward a cruise missile strike to “deter and degrade” the Syrian government even if this has to be a unilateral action. (Paul Lewis and Spencer Ackerman, “White House forced to consider unilateral strikes against Assad after British PM unexpectedly loses key motion on intervention,” The Guardian, August 30, 2013) The US Navy has moved 5 cruise missile armed destroyers into the Mediterranean off the Syrian coast and “all indications suggest that a strike could occur soon after United nations investigators charged with scrutinizing the Aug. 21 attack leave the country. They are scheduled to depart Damascus on Saturday [August 31, 2013].” (Mark Lander et al, “Obama Set for Limited Strike on Syria as British Vote No,” The New York Times, August 29, 2013)
12: What Would Be the Probable Consequences of an Attack?
Retired Marine General Anthony Zinni, who was head of the Central Command when missiles were launched against Iraqi and Afghan targets warned (Ernesto Londoño and Ed O’Keefe, “imminent U.S. strike on Syria could draw nation into civil war,” The Washington Post, August 28, 2013) that “The one thing we should learn is that you can’t get a little bit pregnant.” Taking that first step would almost surely lead to other steps that in due course would put American troops on the ground in Syria as a similar process did in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Stopping at the first step would be almost impossible as it was in those campaigns. As the former American ambassador to Syria commented “A couple of cruise missiles are not going to change their way of thinking.” And, Zinni put it in more pointed terms, “You’ll knee-jerk into the first option, blowing something up, without thinking through what this could lead to.”
Why is this? It is called “mission creep.” When a powerful government takes a step in any direction, the step is almost certain to have long-term consequences. But, it seldom that leaders consider the eventual consequences. What happens? Inevitably, having taken step “A,” it narrows its options. It is embarked upon one path and not another one. At that point, step “B” often seems the logical thing to do whereas some other, quite different sort of action on a different path, seems inappropriate in the context that step “A” has created. At the same time, in our highly visual age with the forces of television coming to bear, governments, particularly in societies where public opinion or representation exist, come under pressure to do something as President Obama said in the remarks I have just quoted. Where lobbies represent sectors of the economy and society with vested interests, the pressure to do something become immense. We have often seen this in American history. One political party stands ready to blame the other for failure to act. And fear of that blame is often persuasive. Thus, step “C” takes on a life of its own quite apart from what is suggested by a calm analysis of national interest, law or other considerations. And with increasing speed further steps are apt to become almost inevitable and even automatic. If you apply this model to Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, you can see how modest first steps led to eventual massive involvement.
During this time, it is likely that the victims of the attacks or their allies would attempt to strike back. Many observers believe that the Syrian government would be prepared to “absorb” a modest level of attack that stopped after a short period. However, if the attacks were massive and continued, it might be impossible for that government or its close allies, the Iranian and Iraqi governments and the Hizbulllah partisans in Lebanon, to keep quiet. Thus, both American installations, of which there are scores within missile or aircraft range, might be hit. Israel also might be targeted and if it were, it would surely respond. So the consequences of a spreading, destabilizing war throughout the Middle East and perhaps into South Asia (where Pakistan is furious over American drone attacks) would be a clear and present danger.
Even if this scenario were not played out, it would be almost certain that affected groups or their allies would seek to carry the war back to America in the form of terrorist attacks.
13: So what could we possibly gain from an attack on Syria?
Even if he wanted to, could Assad meet our demands? He could, of course, abdicate, but this would probably not stop the war both because his likely successor would be someone in the inner circle of his regime and because the rebels form no cohesive group. The likely result would be something like what happened after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, a vicious civil war among competing factions.
No one, of course, can know what would happen then. My hunch is that Syria, like Afghanistan, would be torn apart not only into large chunks such as the Kurds in the northeast but even neighborhood by neighborhood as in the Iraqi cities. Muslims would take revenge on Alawis and Christians who would be fighting for their lives. More millions would be driven out of their homes. Food would be desperately short, and disease probably rampant. If we are worried about a haven for terrorists or drug traffickers, Syria would be hard to beat. And if we are concerned about a sinkhole for American treasure, Syria would compete well with Iraq and Afghanistan. It would probably be difficult or even impossible to avoid “boots on the ground” there. So we are talking about casualties, wounded people, and perhaps wastage of another several trillion dollars which we don’t have to spend and which, if we had, we need to use in our own country for better heath, education, creation of jobs and rebuilding of our infrastructure.
Finally, if the missile attacks do succeed in “degrading” the Syrian government, it may read the signs as indicating that fighting the war is acceptable so long as chemical weapons are not employed. They may regard it as a sort of license to go ahead in this wasting war. Thus, the action will have accomplished little. Thus, as General Zinni points out, America will likely find itself saddled with another long-term, very expensive and perhaps unwinnable war. We need to remind ourselves what Afghanistan did – bankrupting the Soviet Union – and what Iraq cost us — about 4,500 American dead, over 100,000 wounded, many of whom will never recover, and perhaps $6 trillion.
Can we afford to repeat those mistakes?
By James Fallows
Find this story at 2 September 2013
Copyright © 2013 by The Atlantic Monthly Group.
Obama’s rogue state tramples over every law it demands others uphold
September 11, 2013
For 67 years the US has pursued its own interests at the expense of global justice – no wonder people are sceptical now
US troops fire a white phosphorous mortar towards a Taliban position on 3 April 2009 in Helmand province, Afghanistan. Photograph: John Moore/Getty
You could almost pity these people. For 67 years successive US governments have resisted calls to reform the UN security council. They’ve defended a system which grants five nations a veto over world affairs, reducing all others to impotent spectators. They have abused the powers and trust with which they have been vested. They have collaborated with the other four permanent members (the UK, Russia, China and France) in a colonial carve-up, through which these nations can pursue their own corrupt interests at the expense of peace and global justice.
Eighty-three times the US has exercised its veto. On 42 of these occasions it has done so to prevent Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians being censured. On the last occasion, 130 nations supported the resolution but Barack Obama spiked it. Though veto powers have been used less often since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the US has exercised them 14 times in the interim (in 13 cases to shield Israel), while Russia has used them nine times. Increasingly the permanent members have used the threat of a veto to prevent a resolution being discussed. They have bullied the rest of the world into silence.
Through this tyrannical dispensation – created at a time when other nations were either broken or voiceless – the great warmongers of the past 60 years remain responsible for global peace. The biggest weapons traders are tasked with global disarmament. Those who trample international law control the administration of justice.
But now, as the veto powers of two permanent members (Russia and China) obstruct its attempt to pour petrol on another Middle Eastern fire, the US suddenly decides that the system is illegitimate. Obama says: “If we end up using the UN security council not as a means of enforcing international norms and international law, but rather as a barrier … then I think people rightly are going to be pretty skeptical about the system.” Well, yes.
Never have Obama or his predecessors attempted a serious reform of this system. Never have they sought to replace a corrupt global oligarchy with a democratic body. Never do they lament this injustice – until they object to the outcome. The same goes for every aspect of global governance.
Obama warned last week that Syria’s use of poisoned gas “threatens to unravel the international norm against chemical weapons embraced by 189 nations”. Unravelling the international norm is the US president’s job.
In 1997 the US agreed to decommission the 31,000 tonnes of sarin, VX, mustard gas and other agents it possessed within 10 years. In 2007 it requested the maximum extension of the deadline permitted by the Chemical Weapons Convention – five years. Again it failed to keep its promise, and in 2012 it claimed they would be gone by 2021. Russia yesterday urged Syria to place its chemical weapons under international control. Perhaps it should press the US to do the same.
In 1998 the Clinton administration pushed a law through Congress which forbade international weapons inspectors from taking samples of chemicals in the US and allowed the president to refuse unannounced inspections. In 2002 the Bush government forced the sacking of José Maurício Bustani, the director general of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. He had committed two unforgiveable crimes: seeking a rigorous inspection of US facilities; and pressing Saddam Hussein to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention, to help prevent the war George Bush was itching to wage.
The US used millions of gallons of chemical weapons in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. It also used them during its destruction of Falluja in 2004, then lied about it. The Reagan government helped Saddam Hussein to wage war with Iran in the 1980s while aware that he was using nerve and mustard gas. (The Bush administration then cited this deployment as an excuse to attack Iraq, 15 years later).
Smallpox has been eliminated from the human population, but two nations – the US and Russia – insist on keeping the pathogen in cold storage. They claim their purpose is to develop defences against possible biological weapons attack, but most experts in the field consider this to be nonsense. While raising concerns about each other’s possession of the disease, they have worked together to bludgeon the other members of the World Health Organisation, which have pressed them to destroy their stocks.
In 2001 the New York Times reported that, without either Congressional oversight or a declaration to the Biological Weapons Convention, “the Pentagon has built a germ factory that could make enough lethal microbes to wipe out entire cities”. The Pentagon claimed the purpose was defensive but, developed in contravention of international law, it didn’t look good. The Bush government also sought to destroy the Biological Weapons Convention as an effective instrument by scuttling negotiations over the verification protocol required to make it work.
Looming over all this is the great unmentionable: the cover the US provides for Israel’s weapons of mass destruction. It’s not just that Israel – which refuses to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention – has used white phosphorus as a weapon in Gaza (when deployed against people, phosphorus meets the convention’s definition of “any chemical which through its chemical action on life processes can cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm”).
It’s also that, as the Washington Post points out: “Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile results from a never-acknowledged gentleman’s agreement in the Middle East that as long as Israel had nuclear weapons, Syria’s pursuit of chemical weapons would not attract much public acknowledgement or criticism.” Israel has developed its nuclear arsenal in defiance of the non-proliferation treaty, and the US supports it in defiance of its own law, which forbids the disbursement of aid to a country with unauthorised weapons of mass destruction.
As for the norms of international law, let’s remind ourselves where the US stands. It remains outside the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, after declaring its citizens immune from prosecution. The crime of aggression it committed in Iraq – defined by the Nuremberg tribunal as “the supreme international crime” – goes not just unpunished but also unmentioned by anyone in government. The same applies to most of the subsidiary war crimes US troops committed during the invasion and occupation. Guantánamo Bay raises a finger to any notions of justice between nations.
None of this is to exonerate Bashar al-Assad’s government – or its opponents – of a long series of hideous crimes, including the use of chemical weapons. Nor is it to suggest that there is an easy answer to the horrors in Syria.
But Obama’s failure to be honest about his nation’s record of destroying international norms and undermining international law, his myth-making about the role of the US in world affairs, and his one-sided interventions in the Middle East, all render the crisis in Syria even harder to resolve. Until there is some candour about past crimes and current injustices, until there is an effort to address the inequalities over which the US presides, everything it attempts – even if it doesn’t involve guns and bombs – will stoke the cynicism and anger the president says he wants to quench.
During his first inauguration speech Barack Obama promised to “set aside childish things”. We all knew what he meant. He hasn’t done it.
The Guardian, Monday 9 September 2013 20.30 BST
Find this story at 9 September 2013
© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies.
Abhör-Spezialisten decken auf; Assad-Kommandeure wollten seit Monaten Giftgas einsetzen; Deutsches Spionageschiff belauscht Funkverkehr der syrischen Truppen
September 11, 2013
Fast 1500 Menschen starben beim Giftgas-Angriff des Assad-Regimes am 21. August in Damaskus. BILD am SONNTAG erfuhr jetzt aus deutschen Sicherheitskreisen: Die Truppen des Diktators wollten schon häufiger Giftgas einsetzen.
Seit rund vier Monaten haben syrische Divisions- und Brigadekommandeure immer wieder den Einsatz von Chemiewaffen beim Präsidentenpalast in Damaskus gefordert. Das belegen Funkgespräche, die vom Flottendienstboot „Oker“ abgefangen wurden. Das Spionageschiff der Marine kreuzt vor Syriens Küste.
Die „Oker“ kreuzt vor der Küste Syriens, kann den Funk- und Telefonverkehr abhören
Laut den Erkenntnissen der Abhör-Spezialisten wurden die von den Kommandeuren verlangten Giftgas-Angriffe stets abgelehnt und der Einsatz vom 21. August wahrscheinlich nicht von Assad persönlich genehmigt.
Unabhängig von einem Militärschlag der USA gegen Syrien geht der Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) davon aus, dass Diktator Assad sich noch lange an der Macht halten kann. Nach Informationen von BILD am SONNTAG berichtete BND-Präsident Gerhard Schindler am vergangenen Montag dem Verteidigungsausschuss des Bundestages in geheimer Sitzung, der blutige Bürgerkrieg werde sich noch lange hinziehen. Schindler wörtlich: „Das kann noch Jahre dauern.“
Einig gegen Assad?
Die Bereitschaft zum Einsatz von Chemiewaffen ist innerhalb der Assad-Truppen weiter verbreitet als bekannt.
In der Geheimsitzung verglich Schindler die Gefechte zwischen Rebellen und Assad-Truppen im Großraum Damaskus mit dem „Kampf um Stalingrad“. Teilnehmer der Sitzung wollten vom Geheimdienstchef wissen, ob sich der Bürgerkrieg in einem Endkampf befindet.
Schindler erklärte daraufhin seinen ungewöhnlichen Vergleich: Für die Herrschaft der alawitischen Minderheit in Syrien, zu der Assad gehört, habe Damaskus eine ähnlich hohe symbolische Bedeutung wie Stalingrad für die Sowjetunion unter Stalin.
Von einer dramatischen Machtverschiebung innerhalb der Rebellen berichtete den Ausschuss-Mitgliedern der Generalinspekteur der Bundeswehr, Volker Wieker. Danach hat die vom Westen unterstützte Freie Syrische Armee (FSA) ihre einstige militärische Führungsrolle eingebüßt.
Der Zusammenschluss von Deserteuren der Assad-Truppen sei – so der ranghöchste deutsche Soldat – de facto nicht mehr existent. Stattdessen werde der Einfluss der islamistischen Terrororganisation al-Qaida auf die Rebellen-Bewegung immer stärker – mit dramatischen Folgen. Laut Wieker gibt es kaum noch Überläufer aus den Reihen der Assad-Truppen. Denn Deserteure würden von den Rebellen in der Regel sofort erschossen.
Gestern haben die 28 EU-Regierungen die USA aufgefordert, mit einem Militärschlag bis zur Vorlage eines UN-Berichtes über den Einsatz von Chemiewaffen zu warten.
08.09.2013 – 00:01 Uhr
Von MARTIN S. LAMBECK, KAYHAN ÖZGENC und BURKHARD UHLENBROICH
Find this story at 8 September 2013
The US has little credibility left: Syria won’t change that; Obama’s argument for intervention is a hollow one: America’s use of chemical weapons in Falluja makes that clear
September 11, 2013
UN chemical weapons experts carry samples from one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack in Damascus on August 28, 2013. Photograph: Stringer/REUTERS
‘I created Transjordan,” Winston Churchill once boasted, “with a stroke of a pen one Sunday afternoon in Cairo.” Take a look at what remains of Jordan 90 years later and you can see how. Straight borders drawn with a ruler carve indifferent frontiers through a complex region with the kind of callous colonial hubris that displayed scant regard for linguistic, ethnic or religious affiliation.
Much of the contemporary turmoil in the Middle East owes its origins to foreign powers drawing lines in the sand that were both arbitrary and consequential and guided more by their imperial standing than the interests of the region. The “red line” that president Barack Obama has set out as the trigger for US military intervention in Syria is no different.
He drew it unilaterally in August 2012 in response to a question about “whether [he envisioned] using US military” in Syria. “A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilised. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”
On 21 August there was a chemical weapons attack outside Damascus believed to have been carried out by the Syrian government. That changed both Obama’s calculus and his memory. “I didn’t set a red line,” he claimed last week. I didn’t draw it, he insisted, everybody did. “The world set a red line”.
This was news to the world, which, over the weekend, sought to distance itself from his line, as the US president doubled-down on his double-speak.
“My credibility is not on the line,” he argued. “The international community’s credibility is on the line. And America and Congress’s credibility is on the line …. The US recognises that if the international community fails to maintain certain norms, standards, laws, governing how countries interact and how people are treated, that over time this world becomes less safe.”
The alleged urgency to bomb Syria at this moment is being driven almost entirely by the White House’s desire to assert both American power and moral authority as defined by a self-imposed ultimatum. It is to this beat that the drums of war are pounding. But thus far few are marching. The American public is against it by wide margins. As a result it is not clear that Congress, whose approval he has sought, will back him. The justification and the objectives for bombing keep changing and are unconvincing. He has written a rhetorical cheque his polity may not cash and the public is reluctant to honour. On Tuesday night he’ll make his case to a sceptical nation from the White House.
Before addressing why people are right to be sceptical, it is necessary to attend to some straw men lest they are crushed in the stampede to war. The use of chemical weapons is abhorrent and the Syrian regime is brutal (whether it used chemical weapons in this case or not). With more than 100,000 dead in the civil war, diplomatic efforts have clearly not been successful thus far. Those who claim the principles of human solidarity and internationalism should not sit idly by while the killing continues. Nobody can claim, with any integrity, that they have a plan that will stem the bloodshed.
But the insistence that a durable and effective solution to this crisis lies at the end of an American cruise missile beggars belief. It is borne from the circular sophistry that has guided most recent “humanitarian interventions”: (1) Something must be done now; (2) Bombing is something; (3) Therefore we must bomb.
The roots of this conflict are deep, entangled and poisoned. Arguments against the Syrian regime and the use of chemical weapons are not the same as arguments for bombing. And arguments against bombing are not the same as arguments to do nothing. That is why most remain unconvinced by the case for military intervention. It carries little chance of deterring the Syrian regime and great risk of inflaming an already volatile situation. Intensifying diplomatic pressure, allowing the UN inspectors to produce their report while laying the groundwork for a political settlement between the rival factions, remains the best hope from a slender range of poor options.
The problem for America in all of this is that its capacity to impact diplomatic negotiations is limited by the fact that its record of asserting its military power stands squarely at odds with its pretensions of moral authority. For all America’s condemnations of chemical weapons, the people of Falluja in Iraq are experiencing the birth defects and deformities in children and increases in early-life cancer that may be linked to the use of depleted uranium during the US bombardment of the town. It also used white phosphorus against combatants in Falluja.
Its chief ally in the region, Israel, holds the record for ignoring UN resolutions, and the US is not a participant in the international criminal court – which is charged with bringing perpetrators of war crimes to justice – because it refuses to allow its own citizens to be charged. On the very day Obama lectured the world on international norms he launched a drone strike in Yemen that killed six people.
Obama appealing for the Syrian regime to be brought to heel under international law is a bit like Tony Soprano asking the courts for a restraining order against one of his mob rivals – it cannot be taken seriously because the very laws he is invoking are laws he openly flouts.
So his concerns about the US losing credibility over Syria are ill-founded because it has precious little credibility left. The call to bomb an Arab country without UN authority or widespread international support, on the basis of partial evidence before UN inspectors have had a chance to report their findings, sounds too familiar both at home and abroad. The claim that he should fight this war, not the last one, is undermined by the fact that the US is still fighting one of the last ones. And with a military solution proving elusive in Afghanistan, the US is trying to come to a political settlement with the Taliban before leaving.
Obama would enhance US credibility not by drawing lines for others to adhere to, but by drawing a line under the past and championing a foreign policy that bolstered international law and acted with the rest of the world rather than ignoring it. “The noble art of losing face,” Hans Blix told me shortly after the Iraq war started, “will one day save the human race.”
The Guardian, Sunday 8 September 2013 19.47 BST
Find this story at 8 September 2013
© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies.
Revealed: UK Government let British company export nerve gas chemicals to Syria; UK accused of ‘breath-taking laxity’ over export licence for potassium fluoride and sodium fluoride
September 6, 2013
The Government was accused of “breathtaking laxity” in its arms controls last night after it emerged that officials authorised the export to Syria of two chemicals capable of being used to make a nerve agent such as sarin a year ago.
The Business Secretary, Vince Cable, will today be asked by MPs to explain why a British company was granted export licences for the dual-use substances for six months in 2012 while Syria’s civil war was raging and concern was rife that the regime could use chemical weapons on its own people. The disclosure of the licences for potassium fluoride and sodium fluoride, which can both be used as precursor chemicals in the manufacture of nerve gas, came as the US Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States had evidence that sarin gas was used in last month’s atrocity in Damascus.
Mr Kerry announced that traces of the nerve agent, found in hair and blood samples taken from victims of the attack in the Syrian capital which claimed more than 1,400 lives, were part of a case being built by the Obama administration for military intervention as it launched a full-scale political offensive on Sunday to persuade a sceptical Congress to approve a military strike against Syria.
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills insisted that although the licences were granted to an unnamed UK chemical company in January 2012, the substances were not sent to Syria before the permits were eventually revoked last July in response to tightened European Union sanctions.
In a previously unpublicised letter to MPs last year, Mr Cable acknowledged that his officials had authorised the export of an unspecified quantity of the chemicals in the knowledge that they were listed on an international schedule of chemical weapon precursors.
Downing Street insisted today that Britain’s system for approving arms exports to Syria is working even though licences for two chemicals capable of being used in making nerve gas were approved by the Government and blocked only by EU sanctions.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “You see the system working, with materials not exported. The facts are that the licences were revoked and the exports did not take place. The Prime Minister’s view is that that demonstrates that the system is working. There is a sanctions regime, which is a very active part.”
Critics of the Business Secretary, whose department said it had accepted assurances from the exporting company that the chemicals would be used in the manufacture of metal window frames and shower enclosures, said it appeared the substances had only stayed out of Syria by chance.
The shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna told The Independent: “It will be a relief that the chemicals concerned were never actually delivered. But, in light of the fact the Assad regime had already been violently oppressing internal dissent for many months by the beginning of 2012 and the intelligence now indicates use of chemical weapons on multiple occasions, a full explanation is needed as to why the export of these chemicals was approved in the first place.”
The Labour MP Thomas Docherty, a member of the Commons Arms Export Controls Committee, will today table parliamentary questions demanding to know why the licences were granted and to whom.
He said: “This would seem to be a case of breath-taking laxity – the Government has had a very lucky escape indeed that these chemicals were not sent to Syria.
“What was Mr Cable’s department doing authorising the sale of chemicals which by their own admission had a dual use as precursors for chemical weapons at a time when the Syria’s war was long under way?”
The licences for the two chemicals were granted on 17 and 18 January last year for “use in industrial processes” after being assessed by Department for Business officials to judge if “there was a clear risk that they might be used for internal repression or be diverted for such an end”, according to the letter sent by Mr Cable to the arms controls committee.
Mr Cable said: “The licences were granted because at the time there were no grounds for refusal.”
Although the export deal, first reported by The Sunday Mail in Scotland, was outlawed by the EU on 17 June last year in a package of sanctions against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the licences were not revoked until 30 July. Chemical weapons experts said that although the two substances have a variety of uses such as the fluoridation of drinking water, sodium and potassium fluoride are also key to producing the chemical effect which makes a nerve agent such as sarin so toxic.
Western intelligence has long suspected the Syrian regime of using front companies to divert dual-use materials imported for industrial purposes into its weapons programmes. It is believed that chemical weapons including sarin have been used in the Syrian conflict on 14 occasions since 2012.
Mr Cable’s department last night insisted it was satisfied that the export licence was correctly granted. A spokesman said: “The UK Government operates one of the most rigorous arms export control regimes in the world.
“The exporter and recipient company demonstrated that the chemicals were for a legitimate civilian end-use – which was for metal finishing of aluminium profiles used in making aluminium showers and aluminium window frames.”
Cahal Milmo, Andy McSmith, Nikhil Kumar
Monday, 2 September 2013
Find this story at 2 September 2013
UK ‘approved nerve gas chemical exports to Syria’
September 6, 2013
British companies were given government licences in January 2012 to export chemicals that could have been used to make nerve gas in Syria, ten months after civil broke out in the country, it was revealed Sunday.
The UK government approved licences for British firms in January 2012 to export chemicals to Syria that could have been used to produce nerve gas, it emerged Sunday.
Export licences for potassium fluoride and sodium fluoride were granted ten months after the country descended into civil war, reports first published in the Scottish Sunday Mail revealed.
The licences specified that the chemicals should be used in industrial processes, but fluoride is also a key element in the production of chemical weapons such as sarin – thought to be the nerve gas used in the Assad regime’s alleged August 21 attack in a suburb of Damascus.
Although the licences were revoked six months later, this was due to EU-imposed sanctions on the Assad regime, rather than a decision by the UK government.
The issuing of the licences, by the Department for Innovation, Business and Skills, was confirmed by a little-publicised letter sent in September 2012 by Business Secretary Vince Cable to the House of Commons’ Arms Export Controls Committee.
US Government map of areas reportedly affected by Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack
In the letter, Cable admits that licences were “issued on 17 and 18 January 2012 and authorised the export of dual-use chemicals to a private company for use in industrial processes. The chemicals were sodium fluoride and potassium fluoride”.
The letter stresses that the chemicals “were to be used for metal finishing of aluminium profiles used for making aluminium showers” but admits that “they could also be used as precursor chemicals in the manufacture of chemical weapons”.
UK government ‘has very serious questions to answer’
The revelations come at a time when the US and France are pushing for military action against the Assad regime in response to its alleged use of chemical weapons. Britain, however, ruled itself out of taking part in any armed intervention in Syria following a surprise vote against such a move in the House of Commons last week.
While the August 21 attack, which according to the US killed at least 1,429 Syrians, took place months after the licences were approved, Syria has been suspected of using chemical weapons many times in the past.
Opposition MPs are now calling on the coalition government and Vince Cable in particular to explain the decision to sanction the exports.
“The chair of the joint intelligence committee confirmed last week that their assessment was that the Syrian regime had used lethal chemical weapons on 14 occasions from 2012,” said Labour’s shadow business secretary, Chuka Umunna.
“There are, therefore, very serious questions to answer as to why, in January 2012, export licences for chemicals to Syria which could be used in the manufacture of chemical weapons were approved.
“It will be a relief that the chemicals concerned were never actually delivered. But, in light of the fact the Assad regime had already been violently oppressing internal dissent for many months by the beginning of 2012 and the intelligence now indicates use of chemical weapons on multiple occasions, a full explanation is needed as to why the export of these chemicals was approved in the first place,” Umunna added.
Umunna’s statement follows comments made by Vince Cable last Wednesday, after the UK announced it was suspending export licences to Egypt because of the ongoing political turmoil.
Cable insisted that: “The UK position is clear: we will not grant export licences where there is a clear risk that goods might be used for internal repression.
He added: “The government takes its export responsibilities very seriously and operates one of the most rigorous arms export control regimes in the world.”
By Sam Ball (text)
Find this story at 2 September 2013
Revealed: Britain sold nerve gas chemicals to Syria 10 months after ‘civil unrest’ began
September 6, 2013
FURIOUS politicians have demanded Prime Minister David Cameron explain why chemical export licences were granted to firms last January – 10 months after the Syrian uprising began.
BRITAIN allowed firms to sell chemicals to Syria capable of being used to make nerve gas, the Sunday Mail can reveal today.
Export licences for potassium fluoride and sodium fluoride were granted months after the bloody civil war in the Middle East began.
The chemical is capable of being used to make weapons such as sarin, thought to be the nerve gas used in the attack on a rebel-held Damascus suburb which killed nearly 1500 people, including 426 children, 10 days ago.
President Bashar Assad’s forces have been blamed for the attack, leading to calls for an armed response from the West.
British MPs voted against joining America in a strike. But last night, President Barack Obama said he will seek the approval of Congress to take military action.
The chemical export licences were granted by Business Secretary Vince Cable’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills last January – 10 months after the Syrian uprising began.
They were only revoked six months later, when the European Union imposed tough sanctions on Assad’s regime.
Yesterday, politicians and anti-arms trade campaigners urged Prime Minister David Cameron to explain why the licences were granted.
Dunfermline and West Fife Labour MP Thomas Docherty, who sits on the House of Commons’ Committees on Arms Export Controls, plans to lodge Parliamentary questions tomorrow and write to Cable.
He said: “At best it has been negligent and at worst reckless to export material that could have been used to create chemical weapons.
“MPs will be horrified and furious that the UK Government has been allowing the sale of these ingredients to Syria.
“What the hell were they doing granting a licence in the first place?
“I would like to know what investigations have been carried out to establish if any of this
material exported to Syria was subsequently used in the attacks on its own people.”
The SNP’s leader at Westminster, Angus Robertson MP, said: “I will be raising this in Parliament as soon as possible to find out what examination the UK Government made of where these chemicals were going and what they were to be used for.
“Approving the sale of chemicals which can be converted into lethal weapons during a civil war is a very serious issue.
“We need to know who these chemicals were sold to, why they were sold, and whether the UK Government were aware that the chemicals could potentially be used for chemical weapons.
“The ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria makes a full explanation around these shady deals even more important.”
A man holds the body of a dead child
Mark Bitel of the Campaign Against Arms Trade (Scotland) said: “The UK Government claims to have an ethical policy on arms exports, but when it comes down to practice the reality is very different.
“The Government is hypocritical to talk about chemical weapons if it’s granting licences to companies to export to regimes such as Syria.
“We saw David Cameron, in the wake of the Arab Spring, rushing off to the Middle East with arms companies to promote business.”
Some details emerged in July of the UK’s sale of the chemicals to Syria but the crucial dates of the exports were withheld.
The Government have refused to identify the licence holders or say whether the licences were issued to one or two companies.
The chemicals are in powder form and highly toxic. The licences specified that they should be used for making aluminium structures such as window frames.
Professor Alastair Hay, an expert in environmental toxicology at Leeds University, said: “They have a variety of industrial uses.
“But when you’re making a nerve agent, you attach a fluoride element and that’s what gives it
its toxic properties.
“Fluoride is key to making these munitions.
“Whether these elements were used by Syria to make nerve agents is something only subsequent investigation will reveal.”
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said: “The UK Government operates one of the most rigorous arms export control regimes in the world.
“An export licence would not be granted where we assess there is a clear risk the goods might be used for internal repression, provoke or prolong conflict within a country, be used aggressively against another country or risk our national security.
“When circumstances change or new information comes to light, we can – and do – revoke licences where the proposed export is no longer consistent with the criteria.”
Assad’s regime have denied blame for the nerve gas attack, saying the accusations are “full of lies”. They have pointed the finger at rebels.
UN weapons inspectors investigating the atrocity left Damascus just before dawn yesterday and crossed into Lebanon after gathering evidence for four days.
They are now travelling to the Dutch HQ of the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons.
It could take up to two weeks for the results of tests on samples taken from victims of the attack, as well as from water, soil and shrapnel, to be revealed.
On Thursday night, Cameron referred to a Joint Intelligence Committee report on Assad’s use of chemical weapons as he tried in vain to persuade MPs to back military action. The report said the regime had used chemical weapons at least 14 times since last year.
Russian president Vladimir Putin yesterday attacked America’s stance and urged Obama to show evidence to the UN that Assad’s regime was guilty.
Russia and Iran are Syria’s staunchest allies. The Russians have given arms and military backing to Assad during the civil war which has claimed more than 100,000 lives.
Putin said it would be “utter nonsense” for Syria to provoke opponents and spark military
retaliation from the West by using chemical weapons.
But the White House, backed by the French government, remain convinced of Assad’s guilt, and Obama proposes “limited, narrow” military action to punish the regime.
He has the power to order a strike, but last night said he would seek approval from Congress.
Obama called the chemical attack “an assault on human dignity” and said: “We are prepared to strike whenever we choose.”
He added: “Our capacity to execute this mission is not time-sensitive. It will be effective tomorrow, or next week, or one month from now.
“And I’m prepared to give that order.”
Some fear an attack on Syria will spark retaliation against US allies in the region, such
as Jordan, Turkey and Israel.
General Lord Dannatt, the former head of the British Army, described the Commons vote as a “victory for common sense and democracy”.
He added that the “drumbeat for war” had dwindled among the British public in recent days.
By Russell Findlay, Billy Briggs
1 Sep 2013 07:21
Find this story at 1 September 2013
Former head of MI6 threatens to expose secrets of Iraq ‘dodgy dossier’<< oudere artikelen
September 6, 2013
A former head of MI6 has threatened to expose the secrets of the ‘dodgy dossier’ if he disagrees with the long-awaited findings of the Chilcot Inquiry into the UK’s role in the Iraq War.
Sir Richard Dearlove has threatened to expose secrets behind the Iraq ‘dodgy dossier’. Photo: JOHN TAYLOR
Sir Richard Dearlove, 68, has spent the last year writing a detailed account of events leading up to the war, and had intended to only make his work available to historians after his death.
But now Sir Richard, who provided intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) that was apparently ‘sexed up’ by Tony Blair’s government, has revealed that he could go public after the Chilcot Inquiry publishes its findings.
Sir Richard is expected to be criticised by the inquiry’s chairman, Sir John Chilcot, over the accuracy of intelligence provided by MI6 agents inside Iraq, which was used in the so-called ‘dodgy dossier’.
Now the ex-MI6 boss, who is Master at Pembroke College, Cambridge University, has said: “What I have written (am writing) is a record of events surrounding the invasion of Iraq from my then professional perspective.
“My intention is that this should be a resource available to scholars, but after my decease (may be sooner depending on what Chilcot publishes).
MI6 chief Sir Richard Dearlove tells all 04 May 2008
Ex-MI6 head: We did not assassinate Diana 20 Feb 2008
Security blunder at MI6 man’s college 01 Nov 2011
“I have no intention, however, of violating my vows of official secrecy by publishing any memoir.”
Sources close to Sir Richard said that he insists Chilcot should recognise the role played by Tony Blair and the Prime Minister’s chief spokesman Alastair Campbell in informing media reports which suggested Saddam could use chemical weapons to target British troops based in Cyprus, a claim which led to Britain entering the war in Iraq.
Sir Richard is said to remain extremely unhappy that this piece of intelligence, which his agents stressed only referred to battlefield munitions which had a much shorter range, led to media reports that UK bases were under threat.
However, he accepts that some of MI6’s information on the WMDs was inaccurate, the Mail on Sunday reported.
Mr Blair and Mr Campbell have repeatedly denied making misleading statements about WMD.
Last week it was revealed that Sir John had written to Prime Minister David Cameron informing him of his intention to write personally to those individuals he intends to criticise, with Tony Blair reported to be among those on Sir John’s list.
Sir Richard has taken a sabbatical from his duties at Cambridge University to research and write his record of events, and is expected to resume his Master’s role at the start of the new academic year.
A security source told The Mail on Sunday: “This is Sir Richard’s time-bomb. He wants to set the record straight and defend the integrity of MI6. And Sir Richard has taken a lot of personal criticism over MI6’s performance and his supposedly too-cosy relationship with Mr Blair.
“No Chief of MI6 has done anything like this before, but the events in question were unprecedented.
“If Chilcot doesn’t put the record straight, Sir Richard will strike back.”
Last night the committee’s chairman, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who was appointed in 2010, offered Sir Richard his support, saying: “I have never heard of a former MI6 chief putting something out there in these terms but I would be interested in what Sir Richard has to say in response to the Chilcot Inquiry which is clearly going to have some meat in it.
“I know Sir Richard and worked with him in the Foreign Office many years ago. He is a very able man of the highest character and a man of his own opinions. We shall have to wait to see what he says.”
Last night, Alastair Campbell and the office for Tony Blair declined to comment on Sir Richard’s account.
By Melanie Hall
8:48AM BST 21 Jul 2013
Find this story at 21 July 2013
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