The Chemical Attack at Khan Sheikhoun

We can oppose US intervention, while telling the truth about Assad’s chemical weapons use.

Stickers of Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo, Syria in 2010. Gavin Bannerman / Flickr

In late June, Seymour Hersh published an article in Die Welt claiming that the Assad government did not attack the town of Khan Sheikhoun with sarin on April 4. His argument aligns with a popular left narrative about American imperialism falsifying or exaggerating events in Syria to justify intervention and regime change.

For example, many commentators — Jonathan Cook, Uri Avnery, among others — have wondered why Bashar al-Assad would use chemical weapons when he was already winning the war. The attack seemed not only unnecessary but also likely to spark a harsh international response.

Soon after the Khan Sheikhoun bombing, the White House responded to these concerns. The short version appeared in a document released on April 11:

The Syrian regime maintains the capability and intent to use chemical weapons against the opposition to prevent the loss of territory deemed critical to its survival. We assess that Damascus launched this chemical attack in response to an opposition offensive in northern Hamah Province that threatened key infrastructure.

That same day, a senior administration official offered a longer version at a background press briefing, noting the Assad regime’s troop shortages and the danger opposition forces posed to an important airbase in Hama.

Especially given its source, this explanation demands more scrutiny, but the commentators who question Assad’s motives never address it. In fact, none even acknowledge its existence.

Indeed, as Anne Barnard reported, the sarin attack fits into Assad’s broader strategy. She writes that, since at least 2012, the Syrian government “has adopted a policy of seeking total victory by making life as miserable as possible for anyone living in areas outside its control.” These attacks are designed to let the opposition know that it remains at the regime’s mercy, that neither international law nor the international community cannot protect it, and that surrender is the only option.

Again, there may be good reasons to doubt Barnard’s analysis or her sources, but those who find it inexplicable that Assad would use chemical weapons have never responded to her argument.

A further problem with the “there was no reason for Assad to do this” argument is that the same argument could be advanced to explain why Assad would not have done many of the things that he undoubtedly did do. Why did he need to use barrel bombs, which so enflamed world opinion? Why did he use chlorine gas after he committed to a chemical weapons treaty that prohibits it? Why did his forces return to bomb Khan Sheikhoun just days after the American missile strike? Why did his forces and allies advance on an area protected by the United States? Why did a Syrian warplane drop bombs near American-backed forces and their advisers?

If it seems crazy for Assad to use sarin when he’s already winning the war, doesn’t it seem even more provocative to drop bombs near US-backed forces? Why would Assad behave this way?

Again, there’s a reasonable explanation. Consider the lesson Assad might have drawn from the response to his previous actions. He acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention and agreed to eliminate his stockpile. The UN Security Council passed a resolution stating that any violation of this agreement would trigger punitive measures.

Nevertheless, the Syrian government used banned chlorine gas, as was documented by the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) of the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The United States enacted some sanctions, but Russia — which challenged the JIM finding — blocked a broader international response.

Following the American election, Assad intensified the pace of chlorine strikes and faced minimal consequences.

Then Donald Trump, who signaled a willingness to work with Assad and Russia, took office. On February 28, the Russians and Chinese vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have sanctioned Syria for its chlorine use. The next month, Trump’s secretary of state, his UN ambassador, and his press secretary all declared that Washington was no longer focused on removing Assad.

Given this background, Assad could reasonably believe that he could get away with more illegal attacks.

Another popular line of argument asks why Putin would allow his ally to risk inciting an American response. The same answer holds: the Russians have regularly committed unnecessary and inflammatory acts.

For example, they continually bomb hospitals in Syria. The unanimous reports from international human rights groups about Russian and Syrian attacks on medical facilities have certainly turned world opinion against them, but Putin presumably calculated that he would face minimal consequences for them. He was right, and much of the global antiwar movement remained silent.

If Moscow did a similar analysis regarding Syrian use of nerve gas, they correctly predicted the weak international reaction. As Hersh put it, Trump responded with “a slap on the wrist: to bomb an airfield in Syria, but only after alerting the Russians and, through them, the Syrians, to avoid too many casualties.”

Hersh’s source claims that if Assad had used nerve gas, the Russians would have been ten times as upset as anyone in the West because Putin’s strategy for Syria involves cooperating with the United States. But other Russian activities contradict this.

Russian aircraft buzzed an American destroyer in the Black Sea on February 10; it deployed a new cruise missile that American officials believe violates the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty; it dispatched a spy ship thirty miles off the coast of Connecticut; and it had an armed plane perform a mock attack against an American ship. Needless to say, US policy in many theaters has also been dangerous and provocative. But it should be clear that Moscow is more than willing to irritate the United States.

The Left must use the same critical eye it applies to the corporate media’s nonsense to analyses that support popular left positions. The Left can — and should — oppose American imperial machinations without losing our critical judgment. A careful analysis of Hersh’s sourcing, the science behind his argument, and a comparison between his and other versions of the events in Khan Sheikhoun demonstrates that we shouldn’t take his story seriously.

Hersh’s Source

Many found Hersh’s story convincing not because of its merits but because of Hersh’s history: after all, he won the Pulitzer prize for breaking the My Lai massacre story. Unfortunately, his current article doesn’t live up to that standard.

Last year, the New York Times adopted a new — and long overdue — policy on anonymous sources:

[I]t should be information we consider “reliable” — ideally because we have additional corroboration, or because we know that the source has firsthand, direct knowledge. Our level of skepticism should be high and our questions pointed. Without a named source, readers may see the Times as vouching for the information unequivocally — or, worse, as carrying water for someone else’s agenda. As far as possible, we should explain the source’s motivation and how he or she knows the information.

Hersh’s three My Lai articles in the St. Louis Post Dispatch in 1970 follow this policy. His reporting drew on interviews with one named soldier, who directly participated in the massacres, and two named soldiers who were also present. He also quoted an anonymous soldier who was present and could corroborate the other accounts. Further, he interviewed a reticent William Calley, Calley’s attorney, the mother of one named soldier, and at least ten unnamed officials, officers, and Calley’s friends.

The lengthy interviews with the named soldiers who witnessed My Lai had a massive impact because the men were testifying to their own behavior. We know how these soldiers know what they know.

The article on Khan Sheikhoun doesn’t meet these standards. Hersh spoke to a single source, an anonymous “senior adviser to the American intelligence community,” who had previously “served in senior positions in the Defense Department and Central Intelligence Agency.”

Reporters often explain how their anonymous sources know what they know — for example, an article might include “the source, who spoke directly to someone who was present at the meeting.”

Hersh doesn’t provide any such formulations though; that is, he never indicates how his source came to have the information related in the article. We can therefore assume that his source not only was not present but also did not directly speak to anyone who was. At best, the information came to Hersh third-hand.

Further, Hersh provides no corroboration — no other source or document — that supports the senior adviser’s claims, nor does he explain his contact’s motivation. These facts all raise questions about the source’s reliability.

Hersh also implies that he interviewed many people:

To the dismay of many senior members of his national security team, Trump could not be swayed over the next forty-eight hours of intense briefings and decision-making. In a series of interviews, I learned of the total disconnect between the president and many of his military advisers and intelligence officials, as well as officers on the ground in the region who had an entirely different understanding of the nature of Syria’s attack on Khan Sheikhoun. I was provided with evidence of that disconnect, in the form of transcripts of real-time communications, immediately following the Syrian attack on April 4.

Hersh refers to “many senior members” and to “a series of interviews.” This could mean interviews with multiple people or more than one interview with the same person. Hersh clearly implies the former, but he doesn’t quote “many senior members” of Trump’s team, and indeed he quotes no one he spoke to other than the anonymous senior adviser.

He does offer a quote from “one officer” who had an electronic conversation with the senior adviser, the text of which appears on the Die Welt website. Hersh describes this quote as what the officer “told colleagues,” but it’s really what he told the senior adviser.

So when Jonathan Cook writes that doubting Hersh’s account requires believing that “a significant number of US intelligence officials” would make up a story, he obscures the fact that the “significant number” amounts to one or, at most, two sources.

Further, Hersh says he was provided with evidence “in the form of transcripts of real-time communications.” But these transcripts appear to be the electronic chat between his source and the officer, not actual military records. For all we know, the soldier is just passing on unsubstantiated rumors.

Further, the transcript shows that the senior adviser never asks the officer the things a reporter ought to ask: how do you know the things you claim to know? Do you have firsthand information? Is there some way to corroborate your claims? Instead, the exchange amounts to a love fest between disillusioned Trump supporters — “I guess it really didn’t matter whether we elected Clinton or Trump,” the soldier says — with none of the careful questioning that one expects from a serious journalist trying to determine a source’s credibility.

A careful analysis of the article shows that Hersh never claims that anyone besides his anonymous adviser gave him information, who in turn had an electronic chat with one anonymous soldier.

Of course, a single source could provide useful and reliable information. But journalists insist on corroboration because a lot of crackpots attempt to convince reporters to publish their version of events. Unfortunately, the national security community seems to have a larger percentage of conspiracy theorists than the population at large.

Recall that while Michael Flynn led the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), his staff coined the term “Flynn facts” to refer to his sometimes-dubious assertions. Indeed, just six days before the election, Flynn tweeted a fake news story that claimed the police and prosecutors in New York had found evidence linking Hillary Clinton and many of her senior campaign staff to pedophilia, money laundering, perjury, and other felonies.

This raises the question: is Hersh’s source a brave whistleblower or a nut job? The article’s conclusion offers a clue.

Hersh denies that Assad authorized a sarin gas attack, instead asserting that a Syrian bomber dropped a conventional explosive on a terrorist meeting site, inadvertently releasing chlorine and organophosphates. But the article ends with a quote from the adviser that offers a different explanation:

“The Salafists and jihadists got everything they wanted out of their hyped-up Syrian nerve gas ploy,” the senior adviser to the US intelligence community told me, referring to the flare up of tensions between Syria, Russia, and America. “The issue is, what if there’s another false flag sarin attack credited to hated Syria? Trump has upped the ante and painted himself into a corner with his decision to bomb. And do not think these guys are not planning the next faked attack. Trump will have no choice but to bomb again, and harder. He’s incapable of saying he made a mistake.”

In other words, the adviser refers to what happened on April 4 as the jihadists’ “hyped-up Syrian nerve gas ploy,” a “false flag sarin attack,” a “faked attack.”

(One sees similar conspiracism from Patrick Lang, a former senior DIA official who sounds rather like Hersh’s “senior adviser.” Lang endorses Hersh’s article, but like the senior adviser calls Khan Sheikhoun a false-flag operation, even alleging that the victims were Christian or non-Sunni captives.)

But if this was a faked attack, then Hersh’s whole story is wrong.

Faulty Science

Setting aside the issue of sourcing, we should doubt Hersh’s claim that a conventional bomb turned civilian goods into a lethal gas.

First, conventional explosions amid fertilizers, pesticides, and disinfectants do not yield sarin. Producing sarin is a complex procedure that could not be replicated in such conditions.

Perhaps, then, the lethal gas wasn’t sarin. But this would directly contradict the OPCW, which specifically identified the presence of “sarin or a sarin-like substance” and, on June 30, confirmed that people had been exposed to “sarin, a chemical weapon.” It further documented the presence of three additional compounds: sarin’s first degradation product, a sarin by-product, and a stabilizer used in sarin manufacturing.

Some have claimed that it couldn’t have been sarin because first responders suffered no ill effects. But sarin is non-persistent (“Because it evaporates so quickly, sarin presents an immediate but short-lived threat”) and in fact some first responders did suffer ill effects.

Hersh mistakenly refers to “the organophosphates used in many fertilizers.” As Elliot Higgins first pointed out, organophosphates are found in many pesticides not fertilizers. Regardless, neither carries as much risk as sarin — after all, farmers work with them. Further, it would take a vast warehouse to produce the effects observed in Khan Sheikhoun. In 1986, a fire engulfed a Sandoz warehouse outside Basle, Switzerland, that contained 1,300 metric tons of chemicals, including 859 metric tons of moderate to highly toxic organophosphates (vastly more than would have been stored in a Khan Sheikhoun basement warehouse). A foul-smelling gas cloud spread over parts of Basle. Nevertheless, only “[t]hree asthma sufferers required hospitalization. A working group commissioned by the cantonal government … reported a very low level of effects from the airborne pollution caused by the fire,” though there was considerable environmental harm as a result of water runoff mixed with chemicals ending up in the Rhine.

American officials claim that the evidence shows that the sarin gas was dispersed by leakage — consistent with how chemical weapons work — rather than by an explosion. If the United States falsified this claim, couldn’t Hersh find an on-the-record expert who would dispute it?

Hersh also claims that “chlorine-based decontaminants for cleansing the bodies of the dead before burial” were stored in the bombed building, but the World Health Organization advises that “There is no need to disinfect bodies before disposal (except in case of cholera).”

To back up his narrative, Hersh writes:

A Bomb Damage Assessment (BDA) by the U.S. military later determined that the heat and force of the 500-pound Syrian bomb triggered a series of secondary explosions that could have generated a huge toxic cloud that began to spread over the town, formed by the release of the fertilizers, disinfectants and other goods stored in the basement, its effect magnified by the dense morning air, which trapped the fumes close to the ground.

This sounds like actual documentation, but Hersh doesn’t quote from the assessment, doesn’t claim he saw it, doesn’t claim his source saw it, and doesn’t identify the document by date or issuing agency. Further, the BDA repeats the mistaken claim that fertilizer, rather than pesticides, caused the disaster.

Frankly, one wonders whether the document even exists. Defense Secretary James Mattis publicly stated that:

the Syrian regime attacked its own people using chemical weapons. I have personally reviewed the intelligence, and there is no doubt the Syrian regime is responsible for the decision to attack and for the attack itself.

While Trump’s disregard for truth is well-known, it’s hard to believe that Mattis would risk his reputation by making a statement that a leaked BDA could instantly disprove. Officials often backtrack from lies by claiming that some subordinate messed up, but Mattis said he reviewed the intelligence himself.

Further, if “many senior members” of Trump’s national security team were “dismayed” that the president ignored evidence, doesn’t it seem likely — especially considering the prevalence of leaks in the current administration — that one of them would release the document and conclusively prove that Mattis was lying?

Differing Accounts

Hersh’s story can’t account for Mattis’s behavior, but it raises even more questions with respect to the Russian and Syrian accounts of the attack, despite absolving them of blame.

Hersh and the US government claim the bombing took place at 6:30 AM. Assad and his foreign minister (at minute 6:41) both say it did not occur until 11:30. Russia’s defense spokesperson (at minute 0:44) and UN representative supported the Syrian timeframe. Moreover, The Russian defense spokesperson (at minute 2:48) and UN representative stated that the attack took place on the eastern outskirts of the city, but, according to both the American government and Hersh, it occurred in the north.

Of course, people make errors. Hersh, for example, refers to the Syrian plane that carried out the attack as an SU-24, when it was actually an SU-22. This mistake doesn’t do much more than call the quality of Die Welt’s fact-checking into question; but the Syrian and Russian misstatements seem like something different. If Russia had indeed provided the United States with the planned flight path and target coordinates, as Hersh claims, it would be odd for Moscow to get the time and place so wrong.

The Russian defense spokesperson (at minute 5:58), the Russian UN representative, and the Syrian foreign minister (at minute 6:49) all described the target of Syria’s conventional bombing attack as a facility where jihadists were producing and storing chemical weapons. This contradicts Hersh’s claims: he says they aimed at a meeting and inadvertently released a toxic cloud after striking pesticides, fertilizer, and disinfectants.

While the Syrian-Russian claim appears more plausible because it doesn’t deny the presence of sarin, it has other serious problems.

First, if bombing chemical weapons facilities spreads nerve gas, then the Syrians and Russians were at least criminally negligent in launching the attack. Nor can they claim they were caught by surprise, given their nearly instantaneous description of what was allegedly going on in the building.

Second, no evidence suggests that any jihadist groups possess sarin. (Chlorine or mustard gas, which are not nerve agents, do not become sarin when bombed.) The UN and the Red Cross have documented ISIS’s use of mustard gas, but never nerve gas. Even if ISIS had gotten its hands on sarin, they are not present in Khan Sheikhoun.

Third, it defies belief that Assad’s opponents would have stockpiled large amounts of sarin and never used it, despite military setback after military setback, starvation sieges, and other widespread atrocities.

If we accept the Russian and Syrian claims that jihadists have used sarin — claims that neutral observers have rejected — then we end up with another incredible result: rebel sarin never harms Assad forces, only rebel civilians.

Fourth, French intelligence found that the chemical characteristics of the Khan Sheikhoun sarin perfectly matched sarin the Syrian government created. Hersh never discusses the French report, which makes it seem like only the idiot American president could believe that Assad used nerve gas. If, as Hersh claims, Trump’s inner circle suppressed evidence, why would French intelligence fall for it?

Elliot Higgins and other analysts have noted that Russia could clear up much of this confusion by providing the exact coordinates of the building so that we can compare before-and-after pictures. Do satellite pictures show a two-story, concrete building full of supplies on April 3 that is bombed to smithereens by April 5? The fact that Russia has not provided this information is quite damning.

On-the-ground reporting further undermines Moscow’s account. A Guardian reporter looking for a building that matched the Russians’ initial description found no evidence supporting their claim.

As Higgins notes, it’s not just Putin who could clear up doubts by providing the building’s coordinates. Hersh — or his source or his source’s source — could do the same. If, as they claim, Russia sent the strike’s details to the United States, they only have to make that information public (even anonymously) to confirm their case. Their failure to do so suggests they have no case.

It’s also telling that Moscow has consistently tried to block objective fact finding. The Russians vetoed a draft UN Security Council resolution to investigate the Khan Sheikhoun attack. Of course, they claim that everyone — the UN, the OPCW, the NGOs, and most of the world’s governments — is biased against them.

Exaggerated Claims

Hersh accuses the Trump administration of falsifying, suppressing, and exaggerating information to justify military intervention and possible regime change in Syria. His article, however, contains more exaggerations than any American account of the chemical weapons attack.

According to Hersh, the Russians played by the rules, informing the United States that Syria was going to bomb a jihadist meeting site in the north of Khan Sheikhoun with a guided conventional munition. He explains that “U.S. and Russian officers routinely supply one another with advance details of planned flight paths and target coordinates, to ensure that there is no risk of collision or accidental encounter.”

This overstates the deconfliction process. Surely Moscow doesn’t give the United States written notice each time it plans to bomb a hospital. And why would they tell the Americans what ordnance they plan to use? That information would not help avoid collisions or accidental encounters.

Regardless, even if Hersh correctly asserts that the Russians passed on word that the Syrians were going to bomb a high-level jihadist meeting with a conventional explosive, that doesn’t preclude a chemical attack. It just means that the Russians didn’t tell the United States the whole story.

The Syrians — or the Syrians with the Russians — might have decided to carry out a chemical attack and only inform the United States that they were planning a conventional attack. If the gullible Americans bought this story and then failed to seek corroborating evidence that what the Russians said would happen is what happened, it would minimize the political fallout from a chemical attack.

A sure sign of gullibility is repeating the statements of Syrian (at minute 2:47) and Russian (at minute 5:09) representatives that Syria could not have used chemical weapons because, as the OPCW has determined, all their chemical weapons have been destroyed. But the OPCW determined no such thing. It said that while it believed Assad did destroy the weapons he admitted to having, it did not accept his accounting:

In July 2016, the Director-General informed the Executive Council, through his report to the Council’s 82nd session, that the Technical Secretariat was not able to resolve all identified gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies in Syria’s declaration and therefore could not fully verify that Syria had submitted a declaration that could be considered accurate and complete.

Hersh doesn’t crudely repeat the Damascus-Moscow claim. He writes that:

Everyone involved, except perhaps the [US] president, also understood that a highly skilled United Nations team had spent more than a year in the aftermath of an alleged sarin attack in 2013 by Syria, removing what was said to be all chemical weapons from a dozen Syrian chemical weapons depots.

Notice the slippery wording: a skilled UN team removed “what was said to be” all chemical weapons from Syrian weapons depots. Hersh omits who said it: it wasn’t the UN team, but Assad who claimed Syria destroyed the entirety of its weapons cache.

What to Believe

If we doubt Hersh’s report, we must believe that Assad could have chosen to use chemical weapons, that Russia acquiesced, and that some members of the American national security establishment believe and spread rumors.

But to accept Hersh’s account requires us to believe that Assad and Russia never undertake unnecessary actions, that every respected NGO has compromised itself on behalf of Trump, that the UN and France are in Washington’s pocket, that the OPCW produces bogus reports, that the Russians and the Syrians did nothing wrong even though they put forward stories totally inconsistent with Hersh’s account, that Mattis would have lied about personally reviewing intelligence that a leak could instantly discredit, and that even though many members of the military and the intelligence community are furious that Trump rejected and falsified evidence, Hersh could find no one willing to speak on the record, only one person willing to speak to him off the record, and not a single piece of documentary evidence.

I know which of these seems more believable to me.