By Stephen Gowans
British foreign secretary William Hague says there’s no doubt that the Syrian military is responsible for last week’s alleged gas attack which killed scores of people in Syria. So too do the editors of major newspapers in the United States and Britain. US officials have also said the Syrian government is responsible, though at the same time they admit they are still trying to ascertain the facts. The Wall Street Journal could report, as a consequence, that there’s an “emerging consensus” that the Assad government was behind the attack. The consensus, however—and it’s one limited to Syria’s political enemies—is backed up by not a scintilla of evidence.
You might wonder why journalists haven’t challenged Hague’s assertion that the only possible culprit is the Syrian government. After all, there is another possible culprit: the opposition.
In May, Carla Del Ponte, a member of the United Nations independent commission of inquiry on Syria, told reporters that that the commission had gathered evidence that chemical weapons had been “used by the opponents, by the rebels.” 
Last month, the New York Times reported on an investigation that “had found evidence of crudely manufactured sarin, a nerve agent, delivered via an unguided projectile with a crude explosive charge — not the sort of munitions stockpiled by the Syrian military.” 
And the Wall Street Journal reported that, “Islamist rebel brigades have several times been reported to have gained control of stockpiles of chemicals, including sarin.” 
What’s more, the Syrian government “said its soldiers had found chemical supplies in areas seized from rebel forces.” 
Doubtlessly, the last statement will be dismissed on grounds that the source is the Syrian government, and that Damascus is an interested party, motivated to provide misleading information. But the Syrian government is only as much an interested party as are the rebels, William Hague, the White House and French officials. That, however, hasn’t stopped Western journalists from accepting the pronouncements of their own leaders without question. You might call it chauvinist journalism.
Still, chauvinist journalists could at least evince a modicum of scepticism. After all, their leaders have a history of fabricating evidence to mislead public opinion. Think no further than Iraq’s phantom weapons of mass destruction. Or, given recent talk about using NATO’s 1999 terror bombing of Serbia as a model for intervention in Syria, we might consider the tens of thousands of corpses NATO promised that forensic pathologists would uncover in the “killing fields” of Kosovo, but didn’t.
So, why are newspaper editors taking William Hague, along with US and French officials, at their word?
Three possibilities suggest themselves, none of them encouraging. The editors are:
• Gullible, chauvinists, or both;
• Enslaved to a business model of keeping costs low by simply echoing what people in power say about what’s going on in the West’s former colonies (journalism as stenography);
• Knowingly complicit in misleading public opinion to give license to their governments to pursue neo-colonial agendas.
As mentioned, there’s not one iota of evidence to back up Hague’s assertion. U.S. intelligence is “still trying to determine whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad unleashed a deadly chemical weapons attack against his people earlier this week. “  The State Department says that the facts remain to be determined.  And while much has been made by the media about the statement from Doctors without Borders that hundreds died from what appears to be exposure to a neurotoxin, the organization could not say “who was responsible for the attack.” 
No one, however, should be surprised if supporting facts are provided soon. As the New York Times explained, the White House doesn’t have a smoking gun…”yet.” The rush to judge Assad guilty on no evidence makes clear that the conclusion has already been arrived at. We’re just waiting for US intelligence to assemble the “facts”. 
It pays then to be equipped to resist the propaganda assault. There are plenty of reasons to dismiss the “emerging consensus” among Assad’s political enemies. It is based on a story that is full of holes.
What could the Syrian government possibly hope to gain by gassing civilians? If the aim was to kill a few hundred people, conventional weapons could have done the job far more readily, and without the unwelcome consequence of handing the United States, and hated former colonial powers, a pretext to resume their meddling in Syrian affairs.
And wouldn’t it make more sense to kill armed rebels, not unarmed civilians?
Also, why would the Syrian military undertake this pointless act at precisely the time a UN team has arrived to investigate possible use of chemical agents? Only if we believe the Syrian government and military are made up of complete imbeciles does the story hang together.
I have no more evidence for what I’m about to say than the Americans, British and French have that the deaths in Syria were due to a chemical attack launched by the Syrian military, but all the same, if we’re to compare scenarios for plausibility, the more plausible scenario is that the rebels staged the attack to provide their allies in the West with a pretext to step up their military intervention. There’s reason to believe they have access to chemical weapons. They have a motive (they can’t topple Assad without Western intervention.) And as they’ve documented themselves with endless atrocity videos, they have no squeamishness about killing large numbers of people in gruesome ways.
So, no, Mr Hague, it is not at all clear that Syrians were killed by a gas attack launched by a government you seek to overthrow. It seems more plausible, on the other hand, that your allies in the opposition did the deed.
1. Syrian rebels may have used Sarin” Reuters, May 5, 2013.
2. Rick Gladstone, “Russia says study suggests Syria rebels used sarin”, The New York Times, July 9, 2013.
3. Margaret Coker and Christopher, “Chemical agents reflect brutal tactics in Syria”, The Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2013.
4. Ben Hubbard, “Signs of chemical attack detailed by aid group”, The New York Times, August 24, 2013.
5. Bradley Klapper and Robert Burns, “Obama weighs options for military action against Syria as U.S. naval forces move closer”, The Associated Press, August 24, 2013.
6. Ben Hubbard, “Signs of chemical attack detailed by aid group”, The New York Times, August 24, 2013.
7. Ben Hubbard, “Signs of chemical attack detailed by aid group”, The New York Times, August 24, 2013.
8. Mark Landler, Mark Mazzetti and Alissa J. Rubin, “Obama officials weigh response to Syria assault”, The New York Times, August 22, 2013.
11 thoughts on “Syrian Rebels Most Likely Culprits in Gas Deaths”
“One gets suspicious when it is said that there is mounting evidence of something and the evidence isn’t presented.”
Mr Cockburn seems to have been inspired, by something, to re-think the concept of “evidence” …
A Diary of Four Wars
Where War Reporting Goes Wrong by PATRICK COCKBURN October 07, 2013.
1. the ‘rebels” are known to have some CW capability (in part thanks to the US and its European allies, and Saudi Arabia and probably Israel)
2. “The Rebels” are not exactly that. Lying Jackass Juan cole made the misleading jackass statement that its “completely implausible the rebels gassed themselves.” I agree although not with cole’s sly suggestion . The rebels did not gas themselves they gassed some Syrian peasants who they herded into Ghouta for that very purpose – to writhe in agony while dying a horrible, yet photogenic death . The salafist fanatic- mercenaries armed and paid by the US and company,do not care the tiniest bit for the fate of anyone they harm. Im losing patience with sideways talking shills like cole. Remember, its the US who is largely responsible for the war crimes of these mercenary sub-humans.
3. The US backed mercenaries, often referred to as “the rebels” in western media, are losing the proxy war they are waging for the US, Israel and SA.. They have proven to be willing to stop at nothing to achieve their masters goals,, and here is no exception.
just because its Cockburn means nothing: dont give writers a free ride: they may have ties to the establishment that are hidden
the ;pictures of children calculated to arouse public outrage
They have no ethics whatsoever. The ruling classes of the West have proven themselves over and over again to be complete sociopaths.
By conquering Syria, US and its satellites would be able to move heavy weaponry to the Persian Gulf by land, in great quantities, without using air or sea route. In this way, they’d avoid a confrontation with Iran by sea or just by air, and would be able better chances to conduct land operation at Iran territory.
Indeed you’re right. He doesn’t present the evidence. And it’s right to note that. A little odd for him, because, as I wrote, he has been skeptical, and, generally, he piles on facts.
But perhaps I assumed too much and thought that through your familiarity with sources you might view him as reliable, as I do and I think a lot of readers of his work, and accurate in reporting on the Middle East. If it were any other journalist claiming “mounting evidence” I probably wouldn’t have given it a second thought. But it’s Cockburn, so what he says is worth a pause at least.
I suppose at this point we can only await more reporting from him.
One gets suspicious when it is said that there is mounting evidence of something and the evidence isn’t presented. That Patrick Cockburn, in your view, is a “reliable” reporter, and that he writes that evidence is mounting of Syria gassing its own people, is all very well, but neither you nor Cockburn presents a scintilla of this mounting evidence for anyone to inspect. So, if there is mounting evidence, what is it?
There are two matters in question. Were chemical weapons used? Who used them? Cockburn, it seems, believes that the answer to the second question is a given (it must by the Syrian military), and therefore, proving that Assad gassed his own people requires only that evidence be adduced that there was a gas attack. In effect, he’s saying there is mounting evidence that a gas attack occurred, not mounting evidence that the Syrian military launched one.
Cockburn’s position is really no different from Hague’s, since it accepts as axiomatic that if gas was used, it was used by Syrian forces.
My article rejects that view. It is a matter of some wonder, then, that you declared the article “good” when, invoking the authority of “the reliable” Patrick Cockburn, you so obviously disagree with it.
As an exercise, it might be useful for you to examine the reasons why I reject the Hague-Cockburn view that Syrian government involvement in the gas attack is beyond dispute. If my article is good, as you say, then Cockburn must be wrong and not as reliable as you think.
It is interesting how the chemical attack – allegedly by the Syrian government – constitute a crime greater than the use of depleted uranium, which the United States, with the blessings of the “West” have so generously deployed in this area of the globe. The chemicals disperse after a very short period, while DU has a half-life of 4.5 Billion years and a total of 20 times that long to degrade to a safe level. That is a very long time in which to ponder the wisdom!
Just where does the West park their ethics while drawing the line in the sand?
Good article. The reported facts seem solid.
However, on Aug. 25 Patrick Cockburn, a reliable reporter on several ME countries including Syria, heretofore skeptical of Syria govt. responsibility for CW attacks and likely a kindred spirit, wrote:
“So it is difficult to think of any action by the Damascus government more self-destructive than the Syrian army launching a massive chemical-weapons attack on rebel-held districts in its own capital. Yet the evidence is piling up that this is exactly what happened last Wednesday and that the Syrian army fired rockets or shells containing poison gas which killed hundreds of people in the east of the city. The opposition may be capable of manufacturing evidence of government atrocities, but it is highly unlikely it could do so on such a large scale as this.”
I generally assume that a shift like that of Syria from the back burner to the front burner has more to do with the plans of the cooks than of the stove or the frying pan. That is, I suspect that, if there is actually a material intention to do something in or to Syria, it relates to some kind of domestic scheme or problem. At this point about the only thing I can think of is Mr. O’s hissy fit about Snowden. Russia helped Snowden escape U.S. government vengeance, therefore to be a big man and punish Russia, overthrow the regime in Syria and deprive the Russians of the base at Tartus. Other than this, there doesn’t seem to be anything to gain by attacking Syria, and there are many, many risks. But hissy fits must be served, I suppose.