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Was Assad Not Responsible for the Chemical Weapons Attack Last August?

sarininterviewThe journalist who broke the story of the My Lai massacre and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal believes that the al Nusra Front backed by Turkey, not Assad, was responsible for the chemical weapons attack last August. Numerous Turkish commentators disagree with his assessment.

Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, who broke the story of the My Lai massacre and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, has recently reported that the Assad regime might not be responsible for the chemical weapons attacks in Syria. He stressed that the Obama administration and other senior level American officials knew this while they were making the case against Assad.

According to the article that Hersh published in the London Review of Books, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been supporting the al Nusra Front alongside other opposition rebel groups. The fact that Turkey is supporting the opposition in the Syrian civil war is no secret. However, a former senior level U.S. intelligence official told Hersh that there were some in the Turkish government 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.”

Hersh claims that the Obama administration knew quite well that 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,” Hersh wrote. He reported that a classified document confirmed that al Nusra maintained a sarin production cell and it was the “most advanced sarin plot since Al Qaeda’s pre-9/11 effort.”

As Robert Fisk wrote in the Independent, “The Syrian government were, of course, the first to claim that the sarin gas which killed hundreds of Syrian civilians in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta last August had come from Turkey — and had then been used by Islamist groups in the hope that the West would blame Assad and turn its strategic weapons against the regime. When The Independent inquired about the attacks in Syria, Russian sources stated that the chemicals had not been sold to Assad. They had come from stocks sold by Moscow to the former Gaddafi regime in Libya.”

“Syrian army officers and one figure close to Assad complained to me, too, that when the US and its allies insisted the regime was to blame for the gas attack – which of course they did at once – no heed was paid to public evidence that sarin gas was being transported through part of Turkey for rebels in the north of Syria,” Fisk reported. Interestingly enough, Hersh claims that the U.S. had transported weapons from Qaddafi’s Libya to Turkey: “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. 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.”

Fisk noted that al Nusra Front members were caught in the possession of sarin. He stated that in his conversation with Syrian government officials, “they constantly referred to a 130-page Turkish indictment of ten al-Nusra men accused of transporting through southern Turkey what local police identified as chemical precursors for sarin. They were correct. The ringleader of the group, Haytham Qassab, appeared in court where a Turkish prosecutor demanded 25 years imprisonment, but he was later released ‘pending trial.’ They have all since disappeared.”

Other sources don’t believe that Hersh’s allegations are true. “On Aug. 21, 2013, up to a dozen locations controlled by the opposition near Damascus were targeted,” Gergiz Candar wrote in Al Monitor. “The attack originated from an area under regime control. Chemical weapons were followed up by heavy conventional artillery fire to erase the traces of chemical weapons. From the UN reports we learned that the chemicals were fired using Vulkan rockets, which are found in the Syrian army’s arsenal.”

Candar noted that while the U.N. did not assign responsibility for the chemical weapons attacks, which many profess to be a sign that the U.N. caved into Russia, some might believe that the Syrian regime’s decision to at least profess to surrender their chemical weapons “shows the regime implicitly admitting responsibility.” Candar also stressed that Hersh’s source that the Jabhat al Nusra Front used weapons transported from Turkey was an “unidentified retired American intelligence official. No names or other evidence back up this charge.”

Candar does not believe that the Turkish intelligence have the ability to provide the al Nusra Front with chemical weapons and then to sit by as they would use them against innocent civilians while most of the world didn’t notice and found Assad responsible. “Remember, this is the same Turkish intelligence that couldn’t even prevent the leaking of a high-level Syria discussion between Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and intelligence chief Hakan Fidan. Thanks to that incompetence, on March 27, the private bedroom of the Turkish state was opened wide to the entire world by the Gulenists. Let’s not forget that the trucks the Turkish intelligence was trying to send to Syria were stopped by Gulenist prosecutors and the police, and Fidan’s personnel were beaten up.”

Turkish journalist Ceren Kedar wrote, “Under normal circumstances, without any evidence [and there is none], such claims would be dismissed as nonsense. Actually, this was the reaction of Western and Arab journalists working on the Syria issue after Hersh’s article appeared. But quarters that could not defeat Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan through legitimate and political methods, preferred to treat Hersh’s claims as the gospel, despite the absence of proof. As they had no evidence to back Hersh’s claims and they know nothing about the issue, such quarters could not come up with any argument other than to meekly say ‘Well, Hersh is a reputable journalist with Pulitzer awards.” A Turkish colonel stressed that it is “crazy” to think that the Turkish state would hand over chemical weapons to the al Nusra Front to make the Assad regime look bad.

Nonetheless, the Hersh article is coming at a very bad time for Erdogan. A Turkish diplomat told Al Monitor “we’re in deep” trouble “if our American counterparts think that we would go so far as to use chemical weapons in Syria to blame it on Assad. I don’t think that is the case that the Americans think we are behind the chemical attacks, but when you combine the Hersh article with the recent leaks that our government is trying to start a war in Syria, it looks bad.”



Rachel Avraham

Rachel Avraham is the CEO of the Dona Gracia Center for Diplomacy and the editor of the Economic Peace Center, which was established by Ayoob Kara, who served as Israel's Communication, Cyber and Satellite Minister. For close to a decade, she has been an Israel-based journalist, specializing in radical Islam, abuses of human rights and minority rights, counter-terrorism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Azerbaijan, Syria, Iran, and other issues of importance. Avraham is the author of “Women and Jihad: Debating Palestinian Female Suicide Bombings in the American, Israeli and Arab Media," a ground-breaking book endorsed by Former Israel Consul General Yitzchak Ben Gad and Israeli Communications Minister Ayoob Kara that discusses how the media exploits the life stories of Palestinian female terrorists in order to justify wanton acts of violence. Avraham has an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from Ben-Gurion University. She received her BA in Government and Politics with minors in Jewish Studies and Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Maryland at College Park.