West gets an excuse to join the dance of death

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This image provided by the Local Committee of Arbeen shows Syrian citizens receiving treatment after an alleged poisonous gas attack fired by regime forces, according to activists in Arbeen town, Damascus, Syria. Photo PTI
This image provided by the Local Committee of Arbeen shows Syrian citizens receiving treatment after an alleged poisonous gas attack fired by regime forces, according to activists in Arbeen town, Damascus, Syria. Photo PTI

FOR THE once peaceful and beautiful Syrian Arab Republic, the final bell has tolled. On 26 August, US Secretary of State John Kerry laid out a carefully prepared and horrifyingly precise justification for the American decision to declare war on Syria. Calling the chemical attack in Ghouta (an idyllic oasis now overtaken by Damascus’ urban sprawl) a “moral obscenity”, Kerry described in detail how the Syrian government had responded to his appeal for immediate and complete transparency by stalling for another five days and continuing to bomb the afflicted areas to destroy the evidence. Declaring that humanity required the culprits to be held accountable, he left his listeners in no doubt that the blame lay entirely with the Bashar al Assad regime and that retribution would follow. Hours later, French President Francois Hollande echoed him, saying, “France stands ready to play its part in any action to punish the perpetrators of this horrifying crime.”

No one would disagree with the two leaders that crime must be punished, and that a crime of this order must be punished in a way that strikes fear in the hearts of wannabe criminals. But punishment must be preceded by conviction, and conviction in a society that believes in justice must be based upon proof beyond reasonable doubt. It is here that Kerry’s passion strikes a false note. Because, in the entire speech, he gives not one shred of evidence that justifies the sentence of death that US President Barack Obama has passed upon Syria.

This is what Kerry had to say on the subject: “The reported number of victims, the reported symptoms of those who were killed or injured, the first-hand accounts from humanitarian organisations on the ground, like Doctors Without Borders and the Syria Human Rights Commission, these all strongly indicate that everything these images are already screaming at us is real, that chemical weapons were used in Syria… We know that the Syrian regime maintains custody of these chemical weapons. We know that they have the capacity to do this with rockets. We know that the regime has been determined to clear the opposition from those very places where the attacks took place.” So, he implied, the Assad regime must have used them. Had this been a murder trial, his case would have amounted to no more than, “Your honour, he owns a gun; he had a fight with his wife; she is dead.” He would have been laughed out of the court.

Even as he spoke, Kerry knew that he had not presented sufficient proof to justify so drastic a response. So, like a dog worrying a bone, he came back to the question of evidence again and again: “While investigators are gathering additional evidence on the ground, our understanding of what has already happened in Syria is grounded in facts… and guided by common sense… We have additional information about this attack, and that information is being compiled and reviewed together with our partners, and we will provide that information in the days ahead.” But at the time when he was informing his country, and the world, that the US was about to go to war again, he had absolutely no proof to offer.

He sought to cover this by dwelling on the horrors of the chemical attack: “Anyone who could claim that an attack of this staggering scale could be contrived or fabricated needs to check their conscience and their own moral compass.” But in doing this, Kerry has, intentionally or otherwise, sought to overwhelm his listeners with emotion and guilt, and prevent them from asking how the US has concluded that it could only have been launched by the Assad regime? How is the US so sure that it was not the rebels or some utterly fanatical and ruthless group among them, like the al Qaeda offshoot, Jabhat al Nusra?

The US would have us believe that while the Assad regime had both the motive and the means, the rebels had neither. But the overwhelming weight of circumstantial evidence points in the opposite direction. The Assad regime may have had the means, but it had nothing to gain and everything to lose from using chemical weapons. After Obama’s repeated warnings that the use of chemical weapons would be a “game-changer”, Assad and every member of his civil and military command knew that ordering a chemical attack on the precise day, and at places uncomfortably close to where the UN was starting an investigation (at Syria’s request) into three earlier chemical attacks, would snatch suicide out of the jaws of vindication. This was precisely the conclusion reached by BBC’s security correspondent, Frank Gardiner, who voiced his scepticism openly. “Firstly,” he said, “the timing is odd, bordering on suspicious… Why would the Assad government, which has recently been retaking ground from the rebels, carry out a chemical attack while UN weapons inspectors are in the country?”

Former UN weapons inspector in Iraq, Rolf Ekeus, and Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center, were equally sceptical. “It would be very peculiar,” Ekeus told the media, “if the government was to do this at the exact moment the international inspectors come into the country… at the least, it wouldn’t be very clever.” Lister echoed his sentiment.

Even the possibility of a lone act by a rogue military commander is far-fetched because there was no advantage that could be secured by using chemical weapons that could not have been gained through a more intense aerial bombardment. And if chemical weapons were to be used, why stop at one or two? Kerry studiously avoided even raising this question because asking it would destroy the motive for murder and blow the US’ justification for war out of the water.

By contrast, the rebels had the strongest of motives not only for using chemical explosives on the civilian population but for doing so before the UN investigation team arrived in Syria and began its work. By August, there was a wealth of information in the public domain that had already indicted the rebels for two earlier attacks at Khal al Assal, near Aleppo, and at a Damascus suburb. The day the team arrived was therefore almost the very last on which they could disrupt its work. This explains the choice of location for the attack on 21 August and a second attack close to where they were on 28 August, to which Kerry made a reference during his speech.

The rebels resorted to the chemical attacks in March because by 2012-end, they had lost the initiative and knew they could only win if the West joined the war.

The idea of using chemical weapons against civilians in pro-government areas, and getting the only-too-willing international community to blame the security forces, was almost certainly sown by a much publicised Israeli satellite ‘finding’ in October 2012 that the Syrian army appeared to be mixing the ingredients for Sarin gas that are normally stored separately in preparation for its use. The rebels’ ambitions must have soared in December when Obama drew his now famous red line against the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. All they now had to do was convince the West that he had crossed it.

Qatar had already established a track record for supplying arms not only to the rebels in Syria but also clandestinely to those in Libya. Leaks in The New York Times and The Washington Post after the Jabhat al Nusra had brought down a Syrian helicopter on 28 November 2012 using a Russian heat-seeking missile had revealed that Qatar had bought a large batch of these from the new Libyan government and shipped them to Syria in September. Some of these had landed in the hands of the Jabhat al Nusra.

While it is inconceivable that Qatar had Washington’s prior approval for supplying the rebels with a chemical warhead, its attempt to obtain one for them must have warned the US of the lengths that not only the rebels but its own cherished allies in the Gulf were prepared to go. Kerry’s absolute conviction that the rebels could not possibly have been responsible for the Ghouta massacre had therefore to come from wilful amnesia or from information obtained from another source that he was not willing to divulge.

The rebels scored their first propaganda success with the West on 19 March when they mounted a gas attack at Khan al Assal village on the northern outskirts of Aleppo, and hours later at a Damascus suburb. The US’ first reaction was that there was no need for one because there had been no chemical attack at Khan al Assal. But it changed its mind without any explanation five weeks later when, in answer to a query from two senators, it issued a finding that US intelligence agencies had assessed “with varying degrees of confidence” that the Syrian government had indeed used chemical weapons at the two locations. Once again, the US gave absolutely no indication of what had made it change its mind.

The change was in any case inexplicable because the rebels at Khan al Assal had given the game away on 19 March itself. Six masked and armed men claiming to be the ‘Freemen of Khan al Assal’ had uploaded a video in which they conceded that the chemical attack had indeed taken place on pro-government civilians in an area that was occupied by State troops. But they solemnly explained, this had happened because the Assad regime had fired a Scud missile at the recently liberated police academy at Khan al Assal, which had fallen short. This explained why, as the rebel-sponsored and London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported the same night, of the 26 people killed at Khan al Assal, 16 had been soldiers. This explanation would have been far-fetched at any time, but it was made more so by the fact that on 19 March, the police academy had not been overrun by the rebels. Videos uploaded by other groups showed fighting continuing as late as 29 March.

In Damascus too, an independent UN commission set up in August 2011 to look into human rights abuses in Syria, had arrived at a similar conclusion. This was revealed by one of its members, Carla del Ponte, the erstwhile chief prosecutor in the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia, who told Swiss TV that her investigation had convinced her that Sarin gas had been used on civilians in Damascus by the rebels, and not by the government. A complaisant, and therefore much embarrassed, UN hastened to distance itself from this finding by making it clear that del Ponte did not belong to the commission charged with investigating the use of chemical weapons, which the Syrians, having asked for, were stalling. The US ignored its own former star prosecutor as if she did not exist.

This story had to be told at some length because we are at what future historians will identify as one of the worst turning points in history. The point at which the democratically-elected governments of nations that had struggled for more than two centuries to enshrine the values of the enlightenment in their political systems and their hearts, decided to betray all that their ancestors had fought for and openly back, with all the awesome force at their command, the most fanatical and inhuman terrorists the world has ever seen — terrorists who have felt no qualms about filming themselves as they execute civilians and cut out and eat the hearts of those whom they consider to be apostates of Islam.

When the destruction ends, hopefully one question will continue to plague the western world and eventually force its people to hold their governments accountable: why, in the face of all the evidence cited here, that is already in the public domain, did they come so swiftly and unhesitatingly to the conclusion that Assad and Assad alone had to be responsible for all the chemical attacks? Was this the coldest of realpolitik, or were these governments fed information by a source that they trust as unquestioningly as George Bush had trusted Tony Blair, but do not wish to reveal?

The answer is that they did rely on ‘intelligence’ from one secret source and that source is Israel. Kerry was evasive about not only the source of the information, but also of the timing of the attack. But in their moment of triumph, the Israelis have felt no such qualms. Members of the government have told The Times of Israel that the attack is scheduled to take place on 3 September; that Obama is planning a two-day strike (during which, as happened in Libya, aerial bombardment and cruise missiles from the ships he has moved into Syrian waters will destroy the Assad regime’s capacity to wage war from the air and much else besides); that ‘intelligence’ supplied by Israel about the Ghouta attack had been the deciding factor in making Obama shift into war mode; and that Israel expected the strike on Syria to be a harbinger of the long-awaited strike on Iran.

In anticipation of these fruits, on 26 August, Israel leased out an oil exploration concession to a London-based Jewish oil consortium that is located on the Golan Heights, land that legally still belongs to Syria. The next step in the construction of Eretz (greater) Israel has therefore already been taken.

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