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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.”

  • Tim LaRocco

    Of course it was the jihadists. Whose interests does it serve to use chemical weapons on civilians? Assad, who was going around the country at the time trying to drum up support for SAA? Or the jihadists, to get NATO and Israel to join the fray and remove Assad?

    Most of these jihadists are from Libya; CIA funneled weapons through Benghazi to the rebels to use against SAA and civilians in Syria. The rest of the “rebels” are from Iraq, Egypt and Jordan. There are not many Syrian rebels in the FSA. But you wouldn’t know that if you listened to FOX/MSNBC.

  • wimroffel

    There are a lot of small peaces of evidence that Hersh may be right:

    – the first reported chemical attack was at Khan al-Assal. There it was claimed by the Syrian government that the rebels had used chemical arms. The rebels made some counterclaims but these were not very convincing. Surprisingly (or not) the US was very reluctant to send UN investigators to investigate the case – throwing up all kinds of barriers.

    – there was the case of the rebels caught transporting sarin precursors inside Turkey. The Turkish government tried to divert the attention from that case – at one time claiming it had been antifreeze.

    – there was the strange timing of the Ghouta attack. Either Assad had lost his mind or someone was trying to frame him.

    – there is lots of evidence that weapons from Libya transported via Turkey are very important for the Syrian rebels.

    – rebels have even transported tanks over Turkish territory.

    – in the article Gergiz Candar claims that the Ghouta attack originated from an area under regime control. This is an old claim – made by by extrapolation. Later it was established that the used missiles didn’t have the range to come from the claimed point of origin. If they had followed the claimed trajectory they would have to be fired from rebel hold territory.

  • Susan O’neill

    “The MKE
    [Turkish Mechanical and Chemical Industry Corporation] is also an actor that is
    mentioned in the investigation file. Here is the indictment. All the details
    about how sarin was procured in Turkey
    and delivered to the terrorists, along with audio recordings, are inside the
    file,” Erdem said while waving the file.

    Erdem also
    noted that the prosecutor’s office conducted detailed technical surveillance
    and found that an al-Qaeda militant, Hayyam Kasap, acquired sarin, adding:
    “Wiretapped phone conversations reveal the process of procuring the gas at
    specific addresses as well as the process of procuring the rockets that would
    fire the capsules containing the toxic gas. However, despite such solid
    evidence there has been no arrest in the case. Thirteen individuals were
    arrested during the first stage of the investigation but were later released,
    refuting government claims that it is fighting terrorism,” Erdem noted.


Rachel Avraham
Rachel Avraham

Rachel Avraham is a senior media research analyst at the Center for Near East Policy Research and a correspondent for the Israel Resource News Agency. She is based in Israel and publishes in a variety of media outlets throughout the world. She is the author of "Women and Jihad: Debating Palestinian Female Suicide Bombings in the American, Israeli and Arab media." Avraham has an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from Ben-Gurion University and a BA in Government and Politics with minors in Jewish Studies and Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Maryland at College Park.