At the United Nations Security Council on April 5, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley held up pictures of children killed by a gas attack in Khan Shaykhun, south of the Syrian city of Idlib. Estimates suggest that about 50 to 60 people died in this attack. The United States, the United Kingdom and France placed a resolution before the Security Council condemning the attack and asking for an investigation of it. There is no call for armed action against anyone because the Council is divided on who perpetuated the act.
Strikingly, Ambassador Haley then said, "We don’t yet know about yesterday’s attack," meaning that nobody had definitive intelligence about the attack. Yet, there was a hasty dash to judgment in the West that the perpetuators were the government of Bashar al-Assad — perhaps with Russian assistance.
How do we know what happened in Khan Shaykhun? The sources for the Western media outlets are mainly "opposition activists," as BBC put it in one of its early reports. This BBC story from April 4 (Syria Conflict: ‘Chemical attack’ in Idlib kills 58) lists the various sources that it has relied upon:
1. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). Founded in 2006, the SOHR is based in the United Kingdom and receives funding from the European Union and — most likely — the United Kingdom. It relies upon a network of opposition activists across Syria to provide raw information, which its director — Rami Abdul Rahman — then digests. The SOHR is openly anti-Assad.
2. Khotwa (Step) news agency. Founded by opposition activists in late 2013, the Khotwa — as they say — aims to "bring the world’s attention to the suffering of the Syrian people." Its 40 correspondents are mostly based in the rebel-held areas. In 2014, its director — Mohammad Hrith — was in the news in Turkey due to a fracas between Hrith and the Prime Minister of the Syrian Interim government Ahmed Touma. Touma’s people suggested that Hrith came to demand funds from them.
3. Local Co-ordination Committee (LCC) of the town. The LCC is part of a network of local groups emerged to coordinate protests after 2011. They represent the politics of the area in which they are established. Their general tenor is anti-Assad.
4. Hussein Kayal, a photographer with the pro-opposition Edlib Media Center. Kayal and the Edlib Media Center are part of a network of journalists that include those involved with the Aleppo Media Center. They are affiliated to the Syrian Expatriate Organization, led by Mazen Hasan who is a leading figure in the Syrian opposition that is based in the West and is a key person in the Washington, D.C.-based Coalition for a Democratic Syria. This latter group — the Coalition — has been urging U.S. armed action to overthrow the Syrian government.
5. An AFP news agency journalist (unnamed). Some of the main photographs from Idlib came from two Agence France-Presse photographers, Omar Haj Kadour and Mohamed al-Bakour. Both offered vivid pictures from the hospital in Maaret al-Numan and Khan Shaykhun. Omar Haj Kadour’s Twitter account shows that he is decidedly on the side of the opposition. The account by the stringer al-Bakour seems utterly sincere. He says, "My job is to take pictures. To cover this attack. To show this horrendous crime to the world."
Neither of the AFP reporters confirms who used these weapons on the civilians, many of them little children. They merely document the act. They are not experts. Their evidence includes foam at the mouth of one of the victims and the smell ("The first thing that hits you is the smell"). Most nerve agents are odorless. The photographers say what they experience. To analyze their information would take a great deal more time on the ground. The others quoted by BBC do not hesitate. They point their fingers at Assad. Those with the densest relationship to the armed opposition are the first to claim that this attack was done by the government.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which had previously worked in Syria to destroy all banned chemical weapons, now says that it will investigate the attack in Khan Shaykhun. The OPCW has announced that the Fact Finding Mission (FFM) is already in "the process of gathering and analyzing information from all available sources." The FFM has had a very controversial history since its establishment on April 29, 2014.
Scholars Karim Makdisi and Coralie Pison Hindawai have authored an important study of the UN role in the investigation of chemical weapons in Syria ("Creative Diplomacy amidst a Brutal Conflict: Analyzing the OPCW-UN Joint Mission for the Elimination of the Syrian Chemical Weapons Program," Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, Beirut, 2016). In this study, they write that the FFM was — from its inception — seen by many well-regarded people in the United Nations as "highly political."
That the FFM was sent into Syria — led by Malik Ellahi — to find out about chlorine use was itself a problem — Makdisi and Hindawai write — since "investigating allegations of use [of chlorine] would prove extremely challenging at best, and the actual use almost impossible to establish scientifically." The FFM’s work was criticized for lacking in professionalism and for its methodology.
At any rate, the main point here was that the West seemed to want to push these investigations — knowing full well the difficulty involved in ascertaining use of chlorine — in order to create a narrative of chemical weapons use. The FFM’s reports became the basis for the UN Security Council Resolutions 2209 (2015) and 2235 (2015), both of which threated Syria with Chapter VII (armed) action by member states of the UN.
During the debate on UNSC resolution 2235 in August 2015, the Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin voted for the resolution. However, Churkin raised the "question of who had used chemical weapons." He hoped that an investigation would keep these questions alive and not begin with the assumption that the government had used these weapons. The Russian military intervened in Syria the next month. Between August 2015 and April 2017, with the Russian forces in Syria, there has been no serious allegation of chemical weapons use against the government.
Syria’s ambassador to the UN — Bashar Ja’afari — said at the August 2015 meeting that his country had "warned the Council of the danger of chemical weapons use by terrorist groups, some of which were affiliated with al-Qaeda." He pointed his finger at the Khan al-Assal incident of July 2013, which was not taken seriously in the West. SOHR posted a video which showed Syrian soldiers on the ground, lying as if gassed. Both the al-Qaeda affiliate — Jabhat al-Nusra — and the Ansar al-Khalifa brigade had conducted this attack. No investigation was held.
In June 2016, in eastern Ghouta, the Syrian army said that their soldiers had been hit with toxic gas. The Saudi proxy in the area — Jaish al-Islam — denied the use of any chemical weapons. But video evidence suggested that there was some kind of atmospheric weapon used against the soldiers.
Russia and the Syrian government now suggest that there was perhaps a stockpile of such weapons in Khan Shaykhun, which combusted perhaps by a Syrian Air Force strike. There is no confirmed evidence of any such warehouse, although the Russian Defense Ministry says that this information is "fully objective and verified." Whether aerial bombardment can have this effect on gas housed in a warehouse will need to be investigated.
The politics of the moment
The Syrian armed opposition was disheartened at the Geneva V talks. The Syrian Army and its Russian and Iranian allies have made gains across the country. The armed opposition’s political leadership in Geneva openly called for U.S. intervention to help them. They feel utterly isolated.
A few days later, the administration of Donald Trump said plainly what had been clear since the Russian intervention of September 2015: that regime change in Damascus was off the table. This had been the policy of the Obama administration for the past two years, but it did not directly say so. Trump’s people acknowledged reality: with Russia and Iran in the picture, removal of Assad would take a fierce international conflict far greater than the tragedy that has befallen Syria.
With Turkey now drifting towards the Russian-Iranian narrative and Jordan dragged into chaos by the refugee crisis, easy borders to resupply the rebels are no longer available. The defeat of the armed opposition — including the al-Qaeda proxies and others — in Aleppo was the greatest blow.
For the Syrian government — at this time — to use chemical weapons in such a public way would not only have been foolhardy but it would have welcomed a U.S. attack. It seems only an utterly arrogant and blind leadership in Damascus would have committed such a crime. But the leadership in Damascus has shown that it is crafty, using openings of all kinds of ensure its survival. This is not to say that it would not have necessarily done such an attack. Eagerness to end the war before it can impose a political settlement on the rebels could have led to the use of such weapons. But this is not considered likely.
Over half a million Syrians are dead. Half the population is displaced. There is sadness across Syria — from one side of the firing line to another. Aerial bombardment by the Americans, the Russians, the Syrians and others continues to devastate Syria and Iraq. The Americans recently admitted to a major atrocity in Mosul — where 200 civilians have been killed. That attack did not seize the Security Council or bring forth fulminations from the Western press. Hypocrisy is central to the morals at the Security Council. This does not mean that one should not be horrified by what has happened at Khan Shaykhun. One should.
But more than anything the international community must urge a thorough investigation of these events before rushing to either a forensic judgment about what happened and to a response — particularly a military response — in retaliation. Sober heads need to prevail. War is rarely the answer. Particularly when we don’t as yet know the question.