Whose sarin? The truth is still in dispute

When I first read the accounts of the nerve gas attacks in Syria back in August, my first thought was that this didn’t make any sense.  Why would President Bashar al-Assad, who had been warned by the President Obama that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” he crossed at his peril, use such weapons to gain a trivial advantage?

Syrians gather to identify some of the victims of an alleged nerve gas attackMy experience of being wrong in the past should have told me that the fact that something doesn’t make sense is no proof at all that somebody wouldn’t do it.  As events unfolded, I realized that it would make even less sense for rebel groups to use sarin as a false flag operation, and I accepted the opinion of Doctors Without Borders and other impartial observers that the Syrian government, with or without Assad’s orders, is responsible for the killing.

A couple of days ago, my out-of-town friend Daniel Brandt e-mailed me a link to an article by Seymour Hersh in the London Review of Books (it had been turned down by the New Yorker and the Washington Post) claiming that President Obama’s charges against Assad were not backed up by U.S. intelligence.

He quoted sources as saying that the Al-Nursa Front, one of the main rebel groups, has the capacity to manufacture sarin.  He quoted other sources as saying that U.S. intelligence services have hidden sensors scattered through Syria that would have warned of a government attack.  The inspection team that went into Syria reached no conclusion about the source of the sarin, and, as Hersh pointed out, the U.S. government’s statements were carefully worded so as not to attribute its claims to the CIA.

Then Jack Clontz, an e-mail pen pal whom I’ve never met in person, sent me links to an article by a blogger named Eliot Higgins.  Based on his Internet research, he has determined that the sarin delivery system was something called Volcano munitions, which only the Syrian government forces are known to have.

Who is more likely to have been responsible for the atrocity?  Higgins asked.  The Syrian government, which is known to have stockpiles of sarin gas and Volcano delivery systems, or the Al-Nusri Front, making home-made weapons in a secret machine shop?

Logically, both Hersh and Higgins could be correct.  Hersh could be right in saying that Barack Obama and John Kerry were ready to commit acts of war based on incomplete information, and Higgins could still be right in saying that all the evidence points to Bashar al-Assad (or maybe some unauthorized person under his command).

I think the full truth is not yet known.  For practical purposes, the issue is moot.  Agreement has been reached for removal of chemical weapons from Syria, and both the Syrian government and the rebel forces have shown they are well able to kill people on a large scale by non-chemical means.

For me the lessons are as follows:

  • Beware of confirmation bias.  More than once in my life, I’ve started to look into something, found facts that appeared to confirm what I already thought, and stopped looking.  This almost always proved to be a mistake.
  • Beware of privileging secret informationSeymour Hersh uses confidential sources to provide him with inside information.  Eliot Higgins searches the Internet to find what’s publicly know.  Public information is just as relevant, and usually more reliable, than secret information.  The principle applies to journalists as much as to the CIA and NSA.


Here are links to the Hersh and Higgins articles.

Whose sarin? by Seymour M. Hersh in the London Review of Books.

Sy Hersh’s chemical misfire by Eliot Higgins in Foreign Policy magazine.

Seymour Hersh is a well-known investigative reporter.  Who is Eliot Higgins?

Inside the One-Man Intelligence Unit That Exposed the Secrets and Atrocities of Syria’s War by Bianca Bosker for Huffington Post.  Hat tip to Jack Clontz.

I don’t see any way to a good outcome for the suffering people of Syria.   It is hard to see which would be worse—continuing war, continuing rules by Bashar al-Assad, or the triumph of the rebel religious fanatics.  I think U.S. military intervention would have made matters worse, but I don’t see any positive role for the U.S. government, except helping the victims.

The following outlines the whole sad story.

Understanding Syria: From Pre-Civil War to Post-Assad by William R. Polk for The Atlantic Monthly.

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3 Responses to “Whose sarin? The truth is still in dispute”

  1. philebersole Says:

    Jack Clontz sent the following comment by e-mail.

    To my knowledge, no one has brought out the fact that Zamulka, one of the three suburban areas on the outskirts hit by the sarin attacks, is a Shi’a district and a major area for Shi’a pilgrims from Iran to visit because of a shrine sacred to their faith. I have no evidence, of course, supporting the following possible scenario. However, I think it is worth considering.

    Notice that al-Qaeda is militantly opposed to the Shi’a and has been involved in major slaughters of followers of the Shli’a faith in Pakistan and in Syria. Al-Qaeda is a militant Sunni jihadist group and some members are much more opposed to the Shi’a than they are to the West. The point is that al-Qaeda by using sarin on a Shi’a neighborhood like Zamulka could have struck hard at both its Shi’a enemies and at Assad’s regime since most of the world would automatically assume that Assad’s military would have been the culprit. This would be brilliant in the diabolical calculus used by such groups. This, however, is speculation, as you know.


  2. louisproyect Says:

    To my knowledge, no one has brought out the fact that Zamulka, one of the three suburban areas on the outskirts hit by the sarin attacks, is a Shi’a district and a major area for Shi’a pilgrims from Iran to visit because of a shrine sacred to their faith.

    Maybe that’s because there is no evidence that it is a Shi’a district. In fact it was rebel-controlled just like all the other neighborhoods that were gassed.


  3. philebersole Says:

    Here’s more from my friend Jack.


    With Google maps it seems the shrine is six or so kilometres from sarin gas areas, especially Zalmalka. However, the whole area has been hotly contested and the shrine is heavily defended. It was hit by a shell. It seems Al-Nusra is the main Jihadist Sunni group fighting in the area and they have been notorious for murdering Shi’ites and Christians, especially in northern Syria. Hezbollah has had fighters in the area too.


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