Seymour Hersh has recently published another piece on the August 21st attack (analysis of the previous one here). The article is a mix of information and speculation on many issues, which is hard to use as evidence for our purposes, but a close read does seem to point to three interesting information sources, which I'll try to examine here.
The Main Points
A June 20 DIA report assesses that the opposition is attempting to manufacture sarin.
Since Hersh provides direct quotes from the document and in this video claims to be reading from it directly, it does seem fairly reliable. It is also in line with many other indications that the Syrian opposition was attempting to develop sarin.
Since the report was published 3 weeks after Turkey's arrest of opposition operatives attempting to procure sarin precursors, and since most of the quotes from the DIA report provide information that could be deduced from these arrests alone, it seems like this is the primary source of this report. However, the following quote goes further:
Qassab and his associate Khalid Ousta worked with Halit Unalkaya, an employee of a Turkish firm called Zirve Export, who provided ‘price quotes for bulk quantities of sarin precursors’. Abd-al-Ghani’s plan was for two associates to ‘perfect a process for making sarin, then go to Syria to train others to begin large scale production at an unidentified lab in Syria’. The DIA paper said that one of his operatives had purchased a precursor on the ‘Baghdad chemical market’, which ‘has supported at least seven CW efforts since 2004’.This looks very much like information that would be obtained in the interrogations following the arrests, indicating Turkey has shared this information with the US.
A sarin sample obtained by Russia and analyzed by British Intelligence was found not to match Syria's batches.
This claim is a bit weird, since it requires knowledge of the exact composition of all of Syria's sarin batches, which were secret at the time. Hersh's source (a former intelligence official) explains:
The DIA’s baseline consisted of knowing the composition of each batch of Soviet-manufactured chemical weapons. But we didn’t know which batches the Assad government currently had in its arsenal. Within days of the Damascus incident we asked a source in the Syrian government to give us a list of the batches the government currently had. This is why we could confirm the difference so quickly.So apparently western intelligence has a source within Syria capable of providing such detailed information on Syria's chemical weapons program. This is possible, but seems a bit unlikely. A more likely explanation is that this sample showed the same traces reported by the UN, which indicate use of very low quality chemicals, and this information got distorted on its way to Hersh's source. Indeed, in a later interview Hersh states that the assessment provided to the President was: "the sarin that we found was not military grade".
Turkey orchestrated the August 21 attacks in an attempt to bring the US to respond.
Of course, this is a severe war crime that would carry life sentences for everyone involved, and Turkey, which was not directly involved in the war, is very unlikely to commit. It therefore requires very strong evidence to be accepted. This does not seem to be the case:
"Principal evidence came from the Turkish post-attack joy and back-slapping in numerous intercepts."As we've seen in previous intercepted calls, this kind of evidence is not reliable: When such a major event happens, millions of people discuss it, speculate about it, circulate rumors, and attempt to appear more knowledgeable than they really are. It is very easy to misinterpret one of these calls as real evidence - especially from a second hand report.
Furthermore, if this theory was correct it would imply that Turkish intelligence don't know how to avoid being detected by their own police.
The Counter Claims
The article of course generated many responses. I'll review the main counter claims below:
Hersh ignores the evidence that the attack was carried out by Volcanoes - a Syrian government weapon (from Brown Moses)
This is mostly an attack on Hersh's earlier piece which quoted Ted Postol's estimate that the rockets were improvised. This was indeed a major mistake (as analyzed here), which Hersh chose not to repeat. Brown Moses provides two ways to settle this discrepancy with Hersh's false flag theory: Either the Volcanoes were looted, or they were replicated.
The latter is very unlikely, as it would be very complex and costly. The former, however, makes perfect sense, and is currently considered here to be the most likely scenario. BM counters by claiming:
"...the Syrian government has never claimed any of their chemical weapons have been captured by the Syrian opposition, even when required to do so by the OPCW".Here BM conveniently ignores the strong evidence that the Volcano was never intended to be a chemical weapon. There were two Volcano impact sites documented prior to August 21, both of them clearly showing smoke emanating from the rockets, having no effect on the cameraman. This is typical to incendiary weapons (which coincidentally have warhead designs very similar to chemical warheads).
The various Volcano variants have been spotted numerous times during the civil war, making it one of the most popular heavy weapons used by the Syrian Army. Since practically every type of heavy weapon used by the Syrian Army was captured by the opposition, and since we have evidence of the opposition capturing the small Volcano variant, it is unreasonable to assume that the incendiary Volcanoes were the only weapon to have survived the raids.
The 2 km Volcano range does not exclude government positions (from Brown Moses)
This is an attack on Hersh's statements in follow-up interviews in which he claimed the short range indicates a launch location within opposition control.
Brown Moses provides his analysis of the areas under control of the Syrian government on August 21st, some of which being within 2 km of all impact sites. Here BM chooses to ignore the strong evidence that the launch sites are north to the impact sites (not north-west), in an area that is outside government control, even according to BM's analysis.
Furthermore, the areas marked by BM are based on videos showing government incursions into opposition territory. They are far from being under complete government control, with operations mostly carried out by tanks for short periods, while other videos show opposition fighters operating within this territory. This is an extremely uncomfortable location to launch a Volcano attack - an operation that involves two unarmored trucks and requiring several people to operate in the open.
The two theories to be considered here are therefore:
- The Syrian Army chose to launch a chemical Volcano attack on a residential neighborhood from within opposition territory, despite the low-quality Volcano never been used for this purpose, and despite having many long-range dedicated chemical rockets and shells.
- The opposition launched the attack using the only rocket they could possibly use - a repurposed looted incendiary rocket, and doing so from within opposition territory, as evidenced by the impact sites and the videos documenting the launch.
BM also brings up the issue of the M14 rocket reported in Moadamiyah - something that wasn't mentioned in the August 21 discussions for a very long time, and for a good reason. This single M14 body shows no signs of ever being launched, and was recorded a few days earlier in a different location than the claimed impact site. The evidence for a chemical attack on Moadamiyah is highly questionable and should not be used in any productive discussion on the subject.
The amounts ordered by the opposition in Turkey were smaller than the amounts used in the attack (from Dan Kaszeta)
This is a very peculiar line of reasoning, that manages to turn one of the most interesting pieces of evidence for opposition culpability into a counter claim. The fact that we somehow got a glimpse into one of the few attempts in history to produce underground sarin is nothing short of amazing. It is ridiculous to assume that the only time the opposition tried to procure sarin, they were captured. A more likely explanation is that this is a wide-scale operation, and the arrests are just the tip of the iceberg - the unlucky few who got caught.
A sarin sample provided by the Russians cannot be trusted (here)
The idea that within days the Russians fabricated a low-quality sarin sample to deceive the British could not be dismissed, but it is of course much less likely than the straightforward explanation, which also happens to match the other evidence.
Attacking Straw Man Theories
One thing to remember in this discussion is that Hersh is not a researcher of the August 21st attack. He is a journalist with sources in the intelligence community who forward to him interesting information - some reliable, and some less so. Trying to 'win' the discussion by attacking his statements is nothing more than a straw man argument.
This quote is a good example (from Dan Kaszeta):
Somehow, this Sarin was produced, using a secret hexamine acid reduction process hitherto unknown to the world, and only mastered by Syria’s chemical weapons program. It was put into rockets that are exact copies of Syrian ones, down to the paint and bolts. The Sarin-filled rockets were smuggled via the “rat line” into Syria to Damascus, without a single one being caught. And quickly, I should add, due to the short shelf life of binary Sarin. Then they were supposed to be fired onto rebel areas from government positions without the Syrian regime knowing about it? It defies belief.All of the above are straw man arguments:
- There is no evidence of a "secret hexamine process" in Syria (see here).
- No one claims the rockets were replicas.
- No one claimed sarin was smuggled from Turkey - only precursors.
- The rockets were not launched from government positions.
- Following the US's clear statement that they will only intervene in Syria following the use of chemical weapons, one of the extreme factions of the opposition chose to carry out a false flag chemical attack, which could potentially win the war and save thousands of lives.
- They produced sarin using basic chemicals procured in neighboring countries, and possibly utilizing one of the many labs and factories that they seized and are now under their full control.
- In one of their many raids of Army bases, they seized an incendiary Volcano launcher, which would prove to be an ideal weapon.
- The perfect opportunity came when Syrian forces were progressing into East Ghouta right when the UN team arrived in Damascus to investigate the Khan Al-Assal incident (which they later determined to be a sarin attack against Syrian soldiers and government-supporting civilians).
- The rockets were filled with the low-quality sarin, brought to an opposition-controlled field near the front-line and launched towards the residential neighborhood of Zamalka - a target with low military value, but one which would produce powerful images for the international media.
Furthermore, even if someone were to provide evidence that refutes this theory (which is yet to happen), this would not suffice, as that someone would also need to write an alternative plausible hypothesis that is consistent with the evidence. And once again - despite dozens of requests for such a theory, no one was able to produce one!
Conclusion: Mr. Hersh provides interesting information from his sources, but it cannot be independently verified and is therefore not usable in our investigation.
- The DIA document seems to be mostly based on the Turkey arrests, but does provide more inside information from the interrogations that followed.
- The Russian sarin sample sounds reliable and plausible, but does not add any information over the UN's analysis.
- The claims of Turkey's involvement are based on weak evidence, which is far below the evidentiary threshold required for such an outrageous claim.