This morning a post by the ex-CIA agent and Christian anti-war activist Ray McGovern reminds us of the lessons to be learned from the “Red Line” Affair of 2013, when the current Administration warned the Assad régime in Syria that there was a ‘red line’ they could not cross and then announced that the sarin gas attack of 21 August 2013 had evidently constituted a breach of that ‘red line’. President Obama had said
“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”
As documented by Wikipedia, the United Nations investigators found ample evidence that the gas attack had used sarin gas, and that it had been delivered by missiles, one type of which was that used by the Syrian military, and another was not. The dispute whether to conclude that the Syrian government had launched the attack came down to a discussion of how the Syrian rebels could have gotten sarin gas, and whether the rockets could have launched the attack from Syrian government-held territory.
McGovern reminds his readers that it was about one year ago that a member of the Turkish Parliament, brandishing the copy of the report he was describing, stated (in as public a venue as could possibly be obtained) that the Turkish authorities had provided the Syrian rebels with the chemical precursors to sarin gas. The scoundrels in question had been arrested and indicted, but subsequent to the revelation, so damaging to the reputation of the present administration of the government of Turkey, the indictments were dismissed, says McGovern.
The rockets as well were available to the Syrian rebels, according — and here I cite Wikipedia — Seymour Hersh and Eliot Higgins. The latter, writing in the prestigious scholarly journal Foreign Policy, states:
Theodore Postol, a professor of technology and national security at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told Hersh that the Volcano is “something you could produce in a modestly capable machine shop” — in other words, a weapon the rebels could make. Postol also stated that various organizations’ flight path analysis of the Aug. 21 Volcanoes, which put the point of origin of the munitions at a Syrian military base more than nine kilometers away from the impact locations, were “totally nuts.” Postol’s analysis, Hersh wrote, had “demonstrated that the range of the improvised rockets was ‘unlikely’ to be more than two kilometres.”
All of this is presented as an argument that perhaps the Syrian government wasn’t responsible for the Aug. 21 sarin attack, despite the claims of U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration. But during my ongoing discussions with Postol’s colleague, Richard M. Lloyd, Lloyd has told me he believes the evidence collected so far would suggest the Volcano has a range of at least 2 to 2.5 kilometers. It’s worth noting that some examples of the larger Volcano rocket have been recorded with a basic nose cone, which increase the range of the munition by more than one kilometer.
Mr Higgins, while conceding that the use of homemade rockets of limited range does make possible the claim that the attack was launched by Syrian rebels, wanted also to show that the preponderance of evidence indicted the Syrian military, which used (at the very least) similarly home-made rockets.
So, the upshot is, we do not know for sure. Even now. The sarin gas sure appears to have been available to both sides, as well as the missiles that were used. But the most interesting part of the story is not, that we don’t now know for sure. It’s that, at the time, the United States government said, repeatedly and erroneously, that we did.
The White House released a damning report on 30 August, nine days after the attack:
The report blamed the chemical attacks on the Syrian government, saying rockets containing a nerve agent were fired from government-held territory into neighborhoods in the early morning, impacting at least 12 locations. It stated 1,429 people were killed, including at least 426 children. It dismissed the possibility that evidence supporting the US government’s conclusion could have been manufactured by the opposition, stating it “does not have the capability” to fabricate videos, eyewitness accounts, and other information. The report also said that the US believed Syrian officials directed the attacks, based on “intercepted communications.”
According to McGovern, on that day Secretary of State John Kerry said “we know” the Syrian government was to blame 35 times.
On Aug. 30, Kerry solemnly claimed, no fewer than 35 times, “We know” the Assad government was responsible for the sarin deaths, finally giving Kerry and the neocons their casus belli.
Going before Congress, Kerry was equally sure of the case. McGovern provides us with what he calls “a taste” of Kerry’s many, repeated, assurances.
“the Assad regime, and only, undeniably, the Assad regime, unleashed an outrageous chemical attack against its own citizens. … In their lust to hold on to power, [they] were willing to infect the air of Damascus with a poison that killed innocent mothers and fathers and hundreds of their children, their lives all snuffed out by gas in the early morning of August 21st.
“Now, some people here and there, amazingly, have questioned the evidence of this assault on conscience. I repeat here again today that only the most willful desire to avoid reality can assert that this did not occur as described or that the regime did not do it. It did happen, and the Assad regime did it.
“Within minutes of the attack, the social media exploded with horrific images of men and women, the elderly, and children sprawled on a hospital floor with no wounds, no blood, but all dead. Those scenes of human chaos and desperation were not contrived. They were real. No one could contrive such a scene. …
“And as we debate, the world wonders, not whether Assad’s regime executed the worst chemical weapons attack of the 21st century — that fact I think is now beyond question — the world wonders whether the United States of America will consent through silence to standing aside while this kind of brutality is allowed to happen without consequence.”
In response to this, the then President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, said Kerry was lying.
It seems, from what has been developed since, that Putin was correct and Kerry was indeed mendacious.
At the time, that is, at the end of August 2013, there was the Director of National Intelligence (a position above Director of the CIA) James Clapper saying to President Obama the unvarnished truth, that there was no certainty:
“Obama was … unsettled by a surprise visit early in the week from James Clapper, his director of national intelligence, who interrupted the President’s Daily Brief, the threat report Obama receives each morning from Clapper’s analysts, to make clear that the intelligence on Syria’s use of sarin gas, while robust, was not a ‘slam dunk.’
“He chose the term carefully. Clapper, the chief of an intelligence community traumatized by its failures in the run-up to the Iraq War, was not going to overpromise, in the manner of the onetime CIA director George Tenet, who famously guaranteed George W. Bush a ‘slam dunk’ in Iraq.”
At the very moment that the President is being informed that the case is quote, not a slam dunk, unquote, the Secretary of State is testifying before Congress that “only the most willful desire to avoid reality” could assert that the rebels might have done it.
We are somewhat in the position of the residents of the Soviet Union, prior to 1991: whatever they read in Pravda or Izvestiya, if they believed its exact, precise opposite, they’d be closer to the truth. Alas! then, when the much-desired-for Western-style government came in, they found there was not much improvement, and in many ways life was considerably worse (the decline in life expectancy, which prior to Gorbachev had been a great concern, got much worse after 1991).
So it is with the citizens of the United States: if we listen to the Secretary of State, and assume that he is lying his ass off, we’d be closer to the truth than if we believed a single word. The brutal dictator of the petrostate successor to the Soviet Union, the assassin of multiple advocates of honest government, he’s the one who spoke the truth.
In other words, in the memorable phrase of that great theoretician of astronomy and pioneering philosopher Immanuel Kant, “from the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing can be made.”