Trump and allies approach World War III in Syria, on literally no evidence

How much do we really know about the alleged chemical attack in Syria? Almost nothing. Has anyone noticed?

Published April 15, 2018 6:00AM (EDT)

Smoke billows in the town of Douma, the last opposition holdout in Syria's Eastern Ghouta. (Getty/Salon)
Smoke billows in the town of Douma, the last opposition holdout in Syria's Eastern Ghouta. (Getty/Salon)

“… to punish President Bashar al-Assad for a suspected chemical attack…”

Do we all understand what is gravely wrong with this phrase? It is taken from the lead sentence of the Saturday New York Times story reporting that the U.S. and two European allies attacked Syrian targets in an air campaign the previous evening.

Anyone who needs help with my question suffers from overexposure to American media without resorting to available antidotes. Anyone who does not see the tragedy embedded in these words does not understand that we live amid a radical failure of leadership in the West and the collapse of public discourse into what is now limitless illogic to avoid the truth of this very circumstance.

Do not talk to me about speaking truth to power. Far too few have any right to this incessantly abused phrase.

To put the matter plainly: The U.S.–led assault on targets very close to Damascus on Friday came a few hours after international investigators arrived in Syria’s capital city to seek evidence supporting allegations of a chemical weapons attack last weekend. Bombs and missiles hit three targets a few hours before these investigators were to begin work in the Damascus suburb where the alleged use of chlorine gas occurred. This sequence of events requires no further comment.

We are now closer to a third world war than we have been at any time since the Cuban missile crisis, that interim in the autumn of 1962 when those of us then alive sat before our television sets in a state of wholly unfamiliar existential angst. Nerve-wracking, as one still vividly recalls. Castro and missiles then, the Assad government and chemical weapons now. It is remarkable how few of us seem to give a damn this time. I cannot get over this. It is as if the crisis in Syria unfolds in some distant universe and is of no concern to us. Or as if it is generally understood that it does not matter what ordinary citizens may think at this critical moment: We leave it now to sequestered elites to decide on questions of war and peace. But this is only one of the points worth making after a week that reprised the Cold War’s worst moment 56 years ago.

We now await the Syrian and Russian responses to Friday’s dramatic turn. Assad came out with a curious remark: “Honorable souls cannot be humiliated.” I do not know where honor figures in the Syrian tragedy, but I wonder if he had Matthew 15:11 in mind: Those who would defile others defile only themselves by what they do. One can see the point, if this was Assad’s. President Trump’s miscalculated bluster last week landed the U.S. in the worst of predicaments: It had to act, and there was no possible point to acting.

But it is Moscow that matters now. Anatoly Antinov, Russia’s ambassador at the UN, was terse after news broke. “We warned that such actions will not be left without consequences,” he reminded us. I do not doubt this, but there was telephone communication in advance of the strikes, interestingly, in which Washington advised the Putin government of what was coming. Its ensuing silence suggests restraint.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis played the good cop Friday when he termed the missiles-and-bombs assault “limited” and said the attack on Damascus had nothing to do with Russia — this in contradiction to everything the administration had said all week. This constitutes an out, and Moscow will probably take it. I therefore see two signs at this early moment: Russia will prove to have the cooler heads, as it often does, and will get no credit for it, as it never does.

Now we must step back.

When we do we find there is only one place to begin when considering the drastic escalation of fighting in Eastern Ghouta last weekend, subsequent assertions that Damascus dropped deadly canisters of chlorine gas, and then the casualty counts, and then claims that Russia is ultimately responsible and then the military response from Washington, London and Paris. We have to start by knowing how little we know.

Progressively since the Ukraine crisis broke open four years ago this spring, we have been subjected to an informational quarantine. I have suggested this previously in this space. But our condition is now code red. I never imagined the totality of the ignorance within which we are confined. Those managing this deprivation campaign have done an especially impressive job in the Eastern Ghouta case, one must admit: We know next to nothing but draw conclusions with passionate conviction. Just the intended effect.

Do I have to explain what this condition brings to mind? To grasp just how fearsome the threat of open conflict in Syria is, we must understand that mass manipulation, primarily by way of our grossly corrupt press, is essential to it. The danger of war would not be so close were we not so thoroughly in the dark and hence so acquiescent, to put the point another way.

On the face of it we find a peculiar rush to convict and sentence the Assad government for its alleged use of chemical weapons last weekend. No one has produced any reliable evidence that this is so. Press reports are well-salted with “alleged,” “said to have’s,” and “apparently’s.” “If confirmed” is the favored qualifier among political figures. The only significant exceptions to this, so far as I know, are Emmanuel Macron and the State Department. In a speech last week the French president professed to have proof of Assad’s culpability but provided no accounting of it. State did the same thing in the same terms Friday. We arrive here: Uncertainty is acknowledged and investigations only now begin, but the policy cliques in Washington, London and Paris nonetheless have staged attacks that could lead to global war.

I do not care what your political stripe or view of the Assad government may be, there is no logical defense of this. I see similarities with the Skripal case and find these disturbing. An event or alleged event occurs and we can be certain of little of the little we are told about it, a brusque advance to unsubstantiated conclusions follows, and then comes aggressive action in response to what is not established. I detect some feverish haste has entered the West’s long-running campaign to isolate and disable “Vladimir Putin’s Russia” — directly or by way of a proxy such as Syria. We are asked to swallow ever-larger gulps of nonsensical reasoning. Why this might be so is another thing we cannot know with any certainty.

*  *  *

Not to make too much of our unenlightened state, there is a fair amount to be learned about last week’s events if one goes looking. The Syrian Arab Army mounted a ferocious attack on Eastern Ghouta, ground and air, a week ago last Friday. This is certain. Decisive victory appears to have been the objective. There have been interesting reports in the non–Western press as to what led up to this assault. You have read none of this in the American press.

While given no credit for it, the Russians had been brokering an intense series of talks between Damascus and the Army of Islam, the jihadist sect in control of Douma, where the final battles in Eastern Ghouta occurred. These yielded several agreements providing for the evacuation of the “rebels,” as the Western press insists on calling these Islamic extremists, but the Army of Islam consistently breached their terms. It failed to honor pledges to release civilians it had taken captive, for instance. These numbered in the thousands. They refused to surrender heavy weapons.

Roughly 3,000 Army of Islam fighters and their families did leave Eastern Ghouta in three mobilizations during the first week of April, but those remaining ignored an agreement for a fourth evacuation — apparently because some “rebel” commanders refused to abandon the cause. That was to take place on the decisive Friday. Mortar fire into the Syrian capital had resumed prior to the SAA’s offensive. Then the offensive came, and it met with less-than-expected resistance. The Army of Islam holdouts reached a final agreement to depart the following Sunday morning.

Some of what I have just related derives from a report carried by Xinhua, the Chinese wire service. One reads Xinhua with all the caution one reads any press report, at times more, but one does not ignore Xinhua. In this case I see vastly more reason to credit the Xinhua report than I do the reporting of Western correspondents, pockmarked as it typically is with omissions and misleading assertions.

What about the chemical weapons? Where do they figure in this, if they do?

Here we run into a “battle of narratives,” as a writer named Sharmine Narwani puts it. At one end of the continuum, you have scores of incidents or alleged incidents, in all of which Damascus is assigned responsibility. This may be so, or partly so, or not so at all: This is the principled position. There are claims of evidence, but no persuasive evidence — evidence without serious flaws — has been made public. In the middle there is blur. None other than Defense Secretary Mattis acknowledged a few months ago that, no, there is no evidence that the Assad government has used chemical weapons. You read that once in the American press and never again.

On this point, I am still stuck with statements made in late 2013, when international inspectors confirmed that Damascus had disposed of its chemical weapons inventories after the Obama administration’s “red line” debacle. The State Department supported this finding, but it has proven inconvenient ever since: We are now told without qualification that Damascus has had toxic stockpiles all along. I simply do not find this acceptable without a great deal of supporting evidence, given the gravity of the question.

At the other end of the spectrum you have indications that the jihadists fighting to depose the Assad government, a secular government, and replace it with another Islamist regime governed by sharia law, have chemical weapons capabilities and no compunction against using them. You have cases strongly suggesting they have staged attacks so as to create the provocation necessary to draw the U.S. more directly into the conflict. This may be the case in the Eastern Ghouta incident, indeed. One of the questions now to be answered is whether this latest case will indeed put U.S. sponsorship of a coup in Damascus back in play. I doubt it, but we are likely to see a revival of the long-running fight in Washington on this question: Do we or do we not knock over another head of state in contravention of international law and the “rules-based order” Washington goes on and on about?

Pursuant to the Eastern Ghouta allegations: Sharmine Narwani holds advanced degrees from Oxford and Columbia and has written widely on Middle Eastern politics, including for this publication. She is not without her controversies, but she digs where others do not. Once again, I see no grounds other than ideological prejudice to dismiss her reports out of hand.

Last month Narwani filed a report after visiting tracts of farmland in Eastern Ghouta that Army of Islam militias had recently abandoned. As she noted, no Western correspondent had been anywhere near the place. This is still the case. What she found there was a chemical laboratory. Here is some of what she wrote, not quite a month before the Army of Islam’s final rout:

The chemical facility lies only a few dozen meters away from the current military frontline and was liberated as recently as Monday. [This would have been March 12.] The lab is surrounded by farmlands — the last place one would expect to find this stash. I see fields of wheat, green peas, beans and chickpeas scattered liberally in a conflict area Western media dubs a “starvation siege.” The building itself is shell-pocked and littered with debris, like so many of the structures I pass in Shifouniyeh and other towns in Eastern Ghouta where war rages.

But the sight inside is astounding. Upper rooms packed with electronic hardware, basements outfitted with large boilers, shelves filled with chemical substances, corners heaving with blue and black canisters (reportedly containing chlorine), chemistry charts, books, beakers, vials, test tubes and all the paraphernalia familiar to the average student of science. And then, in several corners, piles of pipe-shaped projectiles — clear munitions of some sort.

There’s one real standout in an upper room of the facility. It’s a newish looking piece of equipment with “Hill-Rom Medaes Medplus Air Plant” written on its front. A cursory Google search pulls up several interesting facts immediately — the machine is some kind of air or gas compressor, it’s a US-manufactured product, and Saudi Arabia put out tenders for this device in 2015.

Narwani observes that her battle of narratives “has been raging ferociously for years,” and indeed it has. The notable episodes are the August 2013 incident outside Damascus — which occurred in none other than Ghouta, please note — and the incident in Khan Sheikhoun a year ago this month. When she filed in March she expected her discovery in Eastern Ghouta’s pastures “to change the parameters of the discourse,” and indeed it has not. There is plenty to indicate that all three of these incidents — and many more — are of a piece, staged provocations.  They occur just when radical jihadists have much to gain — their desire to draw the U.S. further into the war is a given — and Damascus much to lose. In the case Narwani investigated, do we propose that she made up the name stenciled on the machine she found? Are the extraordinary pictures she published with her file staged?

I have a hard time imagining any such suggestions to be so. But I decline to commit the offense — assertion without evidence — that plagues our perceptions of the Syria crisis.

Here I will note another report available to us concerning Syrian realities. It is written by Max Blumenthal, whose Gray Zone Project is incomparably good on Middle Eastern affairs. Blumenthal’s exceptional investigation drills to the bottom of the Syrian American Medical Society. SAMS is one of those NGOs habitually quoted in our corporate media as if they were, as claimed, nonpartisan, non-political, non-everything angels doing good in the world.

Take a look: SAMS is a vigorous, maybe even vicious agent in behalf of “regime change” with associations running from al-Qaida to the National Endowment for Democracy, the State Department’s adjunct managing the coup function now that we are into “transition initiatives” rather than assassinations (with exceptions such as Libya). SAMS has been key in building the case for Assad’s culpability in the Eastern Ghouta incident last weekend. Blumenthal exposes SAMS as a shuck that beggars belief.

His report goes to a vital point we must not miss. It has long been evident that Western press reports are with few exceptions dependent on sources such as SAMS and other “civil-society” groups, “activists” — by definition anti-Assad activists — and social media reports provided by all of the above. This is the fatal flaw in Western coverage of Syria. Now, to be noted in this context are the sources of “evidence” and “proof” offhandedly cited by the administration Friday: “reliable intelligence” — unspecified, of course — and “social media users, non-governmental organizations, and other open-source outlets,” its statement said. Once again, I simply do not find this acceptable, especially given what has just come about on the basis of these supposed findings.

Mattis, notably, capitulated on the question of evidence Friday, joining the unanimous chorus in claiming the U.S. has what it needs. At this point, American officials have been so all over the place for so long that I question whether Friday evening’s assault can be understood as a response to the use of chemical weapons. It begins to shape up as a tactically calculated move to take advantage of an interim of opportunity during which the U.S. could recruit its most pliable allies to bomb Syria without the risk of international condemnation.

Investigators from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, having arrived in Syria just before the air assault, are now to begin their work. Damascus advised them Friday they can range without limits in the area in question. As we await we need to recall: In the Khan Sheikhoun case last year, the OPCW never went to the site and breached scientific protocol by taking samples with no identified chain of custody — a serious transgression under the circumstances. Its final report on Khan Sheikhoun crashed in controversy when presented at the UN earlier this year. Equally, Russian military police went to the Eastern Ghouta site last week and said they found no evidence of a chemical attack.

One final point in the matter of evidence: Have you noticed the prevalent use of pictures in these cases? I find this interesting. Nikki Haley is especially high on pictures. Always be wary, I would say, when the American ambassador to the UN starts brandishing pictures. They are bound to prove precisely nothing.

Yes, photographs can be essential to a given case, and there is no question of their persuasive power. But they are wholly free of context: This applies even to those extraordinary shots Sharmine Narwani took at the chemical lab. The absence of context is the value of photographs when used as propaganda. They usually do not work as standalone evidence. Last week, for instance, we had videos of gas canisters found on the roofs of the very buildings wherein victims of chlorine gas poisoning were said to be found. Much was made of these videos. Fine. How did the canisters get there? May we know this with evidence, please? We have none so far. It is disreputable to report on these objects or the videos of them without noting this.

As the week begins, let us know we do not know enough and know those things we are able to know.

Being of a certain age, I bring to these matters an almost bottomless suspicion of anything our intelligence “community” — what a word in such a context — may offer as an explanation of events. This also applies to those international organizations Western intelligence agencies are able to compromise. I have no intention of surrendering this distrust. It is well-earned. How most of us came around to nodding our heads like naïve schoolchildren when the spooks speak I have yet to figure out.

A condition of doubt is imperative. It is enough for now. As everyone deserves an accurate accounting of his or her history and fate, every innocent Syrian deserves this.

By Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is an essayist, critic, editor and contributing writer at The Nation. His most recent book is “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century”. Follow him on Twitter. Support him at His web site is

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