Was There Really a Chemical Weapons Attack?

Ghouta VictimsI haven’t given much thought to the intelligence that supposedly shows that the Assad government launched a chemical weapons attack or even that there was a chemical weapons attack. Certainly I’ve noticed that the words coming out of John Kerry’s mouth sound very much like what the Bush administration was saying in the lead up to the Iraq War. But then as now, it didn’t matter to me. Then as now, the intelligence is simply being used as a pretext for an attack taken for other reasons. But it looks like the intelligence now is as shaky as it was then.

At Truthout, Gareth Porter wrote an amazing article, How Intelligence Was Twisted to Support an Attack on Syria. Most of it consists of the unclassified summary of the intelligence assessment that was made available last Friday. Porter points out a number of slippery statements intended to deceive—to make the intelligence look better than it is.

Take, for example, the following claim, “We intercepted communications involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on August 21 and was concerned with the UN inspectors obtaining evidence.” But it turns out that the evidence did not come from the United States or the UK, but rather by the Israelis. What’s more, the Israelis released the information to the press themselves. This created that wonderful echo chamber effect we saw in the lead up to the Iraq War. It’s not just the United States that has this information, it’s the Israelis too! None of this means that the information is wrong, but the way it is being used indicates that someone is pushing this war rather than letting the information speak for itself.

What’s more, the context of this intercepted communication may be exactly backwards from what the White House is pushing. This was supposed to be “panicked phone calls” fom the Syrian Defense Ministry to the chemical weapons unit. They seemed to want to know if it had really happened. In addition, the Syrian government let UN weapons inspectors in almost immediately after they asked. So at very least, these communications indicate the the situation is not clear. But it could certainly be the case that the Syrian command didn’t know about a chemical weapons attack or even that there was no chemical weapons attack.

There are other dubious aspects of the report. One of which is the fact that the chemical weapons unit had been in the area before and through the time of the attack. But it, like all of the information was reported by intelligence sources as neutral. It was only when Kerry began screaming for war that suddenly neutral information became “telling.” For example, there was no intelligence to indicate that the chemical weapons unit was doing anything related to a chemical attack. Could they have been preparing a strike? Of course! But there is no indication that they did. So just like in Iraq, the government seems to be distorting the evidence just the make their case.

By far the most troubling aspect of the article is the information it discloses about uncertainties in the very fact of a chemical weapons attack. In addition to the administration’s labeling as chemical weapons victims all the pictures of corpses without obvious physical signs of death, the videos of survivors don’t indicate chemical weapons:

The symptoms of a nerve agent attack are clear-cut: Soon after initial symptoms of tightness of chest, pinpoint pupils and running nose, the victim begins to vomit and to defecate and urinate uncontrollably, followed by twitching and jerking. Ultimately, the victim becomes comatose and suffocates in a series of convulsive spasms. The symptoms shown in dozens of videos of victims being treated in medical centers in Ghouta, however, are quite different. In an interview with Truthout, Dan Kaszeta, a specialist on chemical, biological and radiological weapons who has advised the White House on those issues, pointed out that a nerve gas attack would have been accompanied by a pattern of symptoms that are not shown in the videos posted online. “There should be more or less universal vomiting,” Kaszeta said. But he did not see any vomiting or evidence of such vomiting on the clothing or on the floor in any of the videos he saw. Stephen G. Johnson, a chemical weapons forensics expert at Cranfield University in the United Kingdom, noticed the same thing. “Why aren’t more people vomiting?” he asked Truthout in an interview.

A number of specialists, including Kaszeta and Johnson, also noticed that personnel were shown handling the victims without any special protective clothing but not exhibiting any symptoms themselves. Paula Vanninen, director of the Finnish Institute for Verification of Chemical Weapons, and Gwynn Winfield, the editor of CBRNe World, a magazine specializing in chemical weapons, made the same point in interviews with AFP on August 21. The only evidence of such effects is secondhand at best: Statements issued the following day by both the spokesman for the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army, Khaled Saleh, and the spokesman for its Washington, DC, arm, the Syrian Support Group, said that doctors and “first responders” had reported that they were suffering symptoms of neurotoxic poisoning. Saleh claimed that at least six doctors had died.

So chemical weapons experts don’t think it looks like a chemical attack. What’s more, the only direct claims of chemical attacks come from two second-hand sources with a distinct ax to grind. But it gets even worse.

Generally, in chemical attacks there are very few survivors: one for every ten fatalities. At first, the administration claimed this must be because Assad was diluting the chemicals in order to sneak it by the UN inspectors. But chemical experts noted that wasn’t very possible. The difference in concentration between having any effect at all and killing is very small. In other words: it’s kind of all or nothing. So since that approach didn’t work, the administration just bumped up the number of fatalities by an order of magnitude, which they also claimed included “426 children.”

The whole thing makes me think that there likely was no chemical weapons attack. God knows it isn’t hard to find lots of dead people in Syria these last two years. And I don’t doubt something terrible happened in Ghouta on 21 August 2013—which may even have killed 426 children. But was it a chemical weapon? It doesn’t look at all clear. But whether is was or was not, it is clear that the administration is pushing for this war regardless of the facts.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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