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FTR #954 Syrian Chemical Weapons Attack? Not So Fast

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This broadcast was recorded in one, 60-minute segment.

SarinIntroduction: In the wake of the alleged sarin attack by Bashar al-Assad’s government and the cruise missile strike on a Syrian air base by the U.S., we examine some of the relevant issues in the crisis, including and especially intelligence evaluations sharply divergent from the official version:

  1. We begin with analysis of the area (Idlib) where the alleged Syrian government sarin attack took place. It is dominated by the Al-Nusra Front, the name given to Al-Qaeda in Iraq when it operates in Syria. Note that the top cleric in the Al-Qaeda held area is Abdullah Muhaysini, a Saudi cleric: ” . . . . who was a student [25] of Sulayman Al-Alwan, the Wahhabi cleric who oversaw what his Muslim critics have called a ‘terrorist factory [26]’ in Saudi Arabia’s Al-Qassim Province. Al-Alwan was also the instructor of the 9/11 hijacker Abdulaziz Alomari. . . .”
  2. Saddam and bin Laden worked out an arrangement in which Iraq—in order to provide for a payback capability if the U.S. ousted him—gave information about WMD’s to bin Laden’s people. Al Qaeda, in turn, was to act as a back-up unit for Saddam’s Iraq, striking at the United States if it knocked out Saddam. ” . . . . According to Arab sources, in anticipation of a foreseeable reversal of alliances in Kabul, bin Laden had been in discreet contact since September 2000 with associates of Oudai Hussein. . . . Bin Laden and the Iraqis are said to have exchanged information about chemical and biological weapons, despite the opposition of some of the Baghdad leadership, including Tarik Aziz. . . .”
  3. Robert Parry notes in Consortium News that elements in the U.S. intelligence community do not agree with the Trump administration’s assessment of the situation. ” . . . . Alarm within the U.S. intelligence community about Trump’s hasty decision to attack Syria reverberated from the Middle East back to Washington, where former CIA officer Philip Giraldi reported hearing from his intelligence contacts in the field that they were shocked at how the new poison-gas story was being distorted by Trump and the mainstream U.S. news media. Giraldi told Scott Horton’s Webcast: ‘I’m hearing from sources on the ground in the Middle East, people who are intimately familiar with the intelligence that is available who are saying that the essential narrative that we’re all hearing about the Syrian government or the Russians using chemical weapons on innocent civilians is a sham.’ . . .”
  4. Parry also notes that some analysts are reporting a strike by a drone launched from a joint Saudi-Israeli base that supports Syrian rebels. ” . . . Despite some technical difficulties in tracing its flight path, analysts eventually came to believe that the flight was launched in Jordan from a Saudi-Israeli special operations base for supporting Syrian rebels, the source said, adding that the suspected reason for the poison gas was to create an incident that would reverse the Trump administration’s announcement in late March that it was no longer seeking the removal of President Bashar al-Assad. . . .”
  5. Parry concludes one of his articles with a scathing analysis of the Trump administration’s claims by a MIT researcher: ” . . . . In a separate analysis of the four-page dossier, Theodore Postol, a national security specialist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, concluded that the White House claims were clearly bogus, writing: ‘I have reviewed the document carefully, and I believe it can be shown, without doubt, that the document does not provide any evidence whatsoever that the US government has concrete knowledge that the government of Syria was the source of the chemical attack in Khan Shaykhun, Syria at roughly 6 to 7 a.m. on April 4, 2017. In fact, a main piece of evidence that is cited in the document points to an attack that was executed by individuals on the ground, not from an aircraft, on the morning of April 4. This conclusion is based on an assumption made by the White House when it cited the source of the sarin release and the photographs of that source. My own assessment, is that the source was very likely tampered with or staged, so no serious conclusion could be made from the photographs cited by the White House.’ . . . 
  6. Detailed analysis of an August, 2013 sarin attack, originally thought to have been perpetrated by Bashar Al-Assad, was presented by Seymour Hersh in the London Review of Books. The sarin turns out not to have come from Syrian government stockpiles. “. . . . Obama’s change of mind had its origins at Porton Down, the defence laboratory in Wiltshire. British intelligence had obtained a sample of the sarin used in the 21 August attack and analysis demonstrated that the gas used didn’t match the batches known to exist in the Syrian army’s chemical weapons arsenal. The message that the case against Syria wouldn’t hold up was quickly relayed to the US joint chiefs of staff. . . .”
  7. Al-Nusra (Al-Qaeda), on the other hand, was producing Sarin and looking to ramp up production through a supply pipeline running through Turkey. ” . . . . The American and British intelligence communities had been aware since the spring of 2013 that some rebel units in Syria were developing chemical weapons. On 20 June analysts for the US Defense Intelligence Agency issued a highly classified five-page ‘talking points’ briefing for the DIA’s deputy director, David Shedd, which stated that al-Nusra maintained a sarin production cell: its programme, the paper said, was ‘the most advanced sarin plot since al-Qaida’s pre-9/11 effort’. . . .”
  8. The 2013 conclusions of general Martin Dempsey are worth examining in the context of the current crisis: ” . . . . From the beginning of the crisis, the former intelligence official said, the joint chiefs had been skeptical of the administration’s argument that it had the facts to back up its belief in Assad’s guilt. They pressed the DIA and other agencies for more substantial evidence. ‘There was no way they thought Syria would use nerve gas at that stage, because Assad was winning the war,’ the former intelligence official said. . . .”

Program Highlights Include:

  1. Review of the corporatist economic foundation of Muslim Brotherhood developmental theory. . . . . The Muslim Brotherhood hails 14th century philosopher Ibn Khaldun as its economic guide. Anticipating supply-side economics, Khaldun argued that cutting taxes raises production and tax revenues . . . The World Bank has called Ibn Khaldun the first advocate of privatization. . . .”
  2. Review of Graham E. Fuller’s support for the economic values of the Muslim Brotherhood and his strange support for Bernie Sanders, whose values are the opposite of those espoused by Fuller.
  3. The fact that war in the Middle East raises oil prices–this to be seen against the background of Rex Tillerson being Secretary of State (previously CEO of Exxon/Mobil). ” . . . . For investors like Mr. Abdullah, conflict in the Middle East means one thing: higher oil prices. ‘It’s always good for us,’ he says. . . .”
  4. Robert Parry’s view that the omission of CIA director Mike Pompeo and other top U.S. intelligence officials from a photo of Trump’s top advisors is indicative of dissent within the intelligence community from the official version of the attack.

1. The program begins with analysis of the area (Idlib) where the alleged Syrian government sarin attack took place. It is dominated by the Al-Nusra Front, the name given to Al-Qaeda in Iraq when it operates in Syria. Note that the top cleric in the Al-Qaeda held area is Abdullah Muhaysini, a Saudi cleric: ” . . . . who was a student [25] of Sulayman Al-Alwan, the Wahhabi cleric who oversaw what his Muslim critics have called a ‘terrorist factory [26]’ in Saudi Arabia’s Al-Qassim Province. Al-Alwan was also the instructor of the 9/11 hijacker Abdulaziz Alomari. . . .”

“Is Trump Rescuing ‘Al Qaeda’s Heartland’ in Syria?” by Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton; Alternet; 4/5/2017. 

“We have not yet any official or reliable confirmation” of what took place or who was responsible, said [4] the UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, at a press conference after the incident.

“We also do not have evidence at the moment,” added [5] Federica Mogherini, high representative of the EU for foreign affairs and security policy.

The chemical attack occurred just as peace talks were beginning in Geneva, and with the Syrian army in a dominant position in the sixth year of a war fueled by outside powers.

The attacks threaten to reverse the political gains made by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, leading to unrelenting bipartisan pressure for Donald Trump to authorize a bombing campaign targeting the Syrian government and its military.

For the al-Qaeda-allied rebels who were ousted from their stronghold in eastern Aleppo in December 2016, and whose gains in a recent series of offensives have been rapidly reversed, Western military intervention is the only hope.

Given its dominant position, why would the Syrian government authorize a chemical attack that was likely to trigger renewed calls for regime change? The answer remains elusive. . . .

. . . . But there has been one issue major media outlets have refused to touch, and that is the nature of the rebels who would gain from any U.S. military offensive. Who holds power in Idlib, why are they there and what do they want? This is perhaps the most inconvenient set of questions for proponents of “humanitarian” military intervention in Syria.

The reality is that Idlib is substantially controlled by al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, which has gone through a series of rebranding schemes but remains the same jihadist group it always was: Jabhat al-Nusra. In the province it rules, al-Nusra has imposed what a leading scholar has described as a Taliban-like regime that has ethnically cleansed religious and ethnic minorities, banned music and established a brutal theocracy in which it publicly executes [13] women accused of adultery.

Even analysts who have repeatedly called for U.S.-led regime change in Syria have described [14] Idlib as the “heartland of al-Nusra.” . . .

. . . . When Al Nusra and its ally, Ahrar Al Sham, took Idlib’s Abu al-Dhuhur Air Base in 2015, a cleric appeared [24] on the scene in camouflaged battle dress uniform. Standing among a group of blindfolded, exhausted captives, all Syrian army regulars, the cleric blessed their mass execution, cursing them as takfir for fighting on the government’s side.

“I don’t like to call them Sunni. They were once Sunni but became apostatized once they enlisted in the Alawites’ regime,” he said of the 56 captives. Moments later, they were lined up and riddled with bullets.

The cleric was Abdullah Muhaysini, a 33-year-old zealot from Saudi Arabia, who was a student [25] of Sulayman Al-Alwan, the Wahhabi cleric who oversaw what his Muslim critics have called a “terrorist factory [26]” in Saudi Arabia’s Al-Qassim Province. Al-Alwan was also the instructor of the 9/11 hijacker Abdulaziz Alomari.

Today, Muhaysini commands an almost mystical status among the Islamist armed groups rampaging across northern Syria. According to Bilal Abdul Kareem [27], an American-born rebel propagandist currently in Idlib, Muhaysini is “probably the most loved cleric in the Syrian territories today.” . . . .

2a.  Before continuing with analysis of the Syrian imbroglio, we pause to refresh listeners’/readers’ awareness of related issues. We noted in FTR #953, GOP and intelligence officials involved with Muslim Brotherhood/jihadi elements have figured in the ascent of Bernie Sanders & company. In addition to Karl Rove and Grover Norquist protege Faisal Gill

Graham E. Fuller, the “ex” CIA officer who is (arguably) the biggest advocate for the Muslim Brotherhood in the U.S. intelligence community describes himself as being “galvanized” by Sanders. The values espoused by Sanders are the opposite of those advocated by Fuller. WHY is Fuller so supportive of Sanders?

  • None other than Graham E. Fuller, who was CIA station chief in Kabul, helped start the first Afghan war, was something of a Godfather for al-Qaeda and figures in the investigation into the Boston Marathon bombing, is pulling for “Boinie,” as well as touting Donald Trump as a desirable candidate. “. . . . Like many others, I have been galvanized at watching the spectacle of Bernie Sanders proclaiming issues in his campaign that had been virtually off limits for political discussion for decades: gap between rich and poor, rapacious international trade deals, a fair wage, free university education, the call for US balance (gasp!) in handling the Arab-Israeli, issue, etc. The great thing about Bernie — even if he probably won’t get nominated — is that he has pushed hawkish, friend-of-Wall-Street Hillary to the left. She has as much acknowledged that. That will be Bernie’s greatest legacy. I would have hoped that the issues Sanders has raised can never be shoved back into the political toothpaste tube again. . . . .”
  • Might elements of the CIA be pulling for “Boinie?” Compare Graham E. Fuller “feeling the Bern” with his advocacy for the Muslim Brotherhood: “. . . Fuller comes from that fac­tion of CIA Cold War­riors who believed (and still appar­ently believe) that fun­da­men­tal­ist Islam, even in its rad­i­cal jihadi form, does not pose a threat to the West, for the sim­ple rea­son that fun­da­men­tal­ist Islam is con­ser­v­a­tive, against social jus­tice, against social­ism and redis­tri­b­u­tion of wealth, and in favor of hier­ar­chi­cal socio-economic struc­tures. Social­ism is the com­mon enemy to both cap­i­tal­ist Amer­ica and to Wah­habi Islam, accord­ing to Fuller. . . ‘There is no main­stream Islamic organization…with rad­i­cal social views,’ he wrote. Clas­si­cal Islamic the­ory envis­ages the role of the state as lim­ited to facil­i­tat­ing the well-being of mar­kets and mer­chants rather than con­trol­ling them. Islamists have always pow­er­fully objected to social­ism and communism….Islam has never had prob­lems with the idea that wealth is unevenly dis­trib­uted.’ . . . .”

2b. To give us some depth on Fuller’s views and how frankly fishy his support for Sanders is, we review the Brotherhood’s advocacy of corporate economics.

Ibn Khaldun is highly regarded by the Brotherhood and that attitude has led the corporate business community to support the Brotherhood. Note that no less an authority than the World Bank views Ibn Khaldun—revered by the Brotherhood—as “the first advocate of privatization”!

“Islam in Office” by Stephen Glain; Newsweek; 7/3-10/2006.

. . . . The Muslim Brotherhood hails 14th century philosopher Ibn Khaldun as its economic guide. Anticipating supply-side economics, Khaldun argued that cutting taxes raises production and tax revenues, and that state control should be limited to providing water, fire and free grazing land, the utilities of the ancient world. The World Bank has called Ibn Khaldun the first advocate of privatization. [Emphasis added.] His founding influence is a sign of moderation. If Islamists in power ever do clash with the West, it won’t be over commerce.

3. Some depth on the presence of sarin and other chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict derives from awareness of a contingency arrangement between Saddam Hussein’s government and Al-Qaeda. (Again Nusra Front is Al-Qaeda in Iraq when operating in Syria.)

Unfortunately, both the pro-war and anti-war sides got it wrong with regard to Saddam’s relationship with Al Qaeda. Although there is no indication that Iraq or Saddam were involved with 9/11, the two entities did have a “doomsday back-up” arrangement. Saddam and bin Laden worked out an arrangement in which Iraq—in order to provide for a payback capability if the U.S. ousted him—gave information about WMD’s to bin Laden’s people. Al Qaeda, in turn, was to act as a back-up unit for Saddam’s Iraq, striking at the United States if it knocked out Saddam. Of course, precisely that scenario has transpired. ” . . . . According to Arab sources, in anticipation of a foreseeable reversal of alliances in Kabul, bin Laden had been in discreet contact since September 2000 with associates of Oudai Hussein. . . . Bin Laden and the Iraqis are said to have exchanged information about chemical and biological weapons, despite the opposition of some of the Baghdad leadership, including Tarik Aziz. . . .”

In the Name of Osama Bin Laden; by Roland Jacquard; Copyright 2002 [SC]; Duke University Press; ISBN 0-8223-2991-3; pp. 112-113.

. . . It appears, however, that this version is the publicly admissible one, the one that can pass political muster. According to the same sources, there was another scenario more. In keeping with the calculating mentality of Saddam Hussein and his secret services. In 1998, after declining all offers that had been made to them through official diplomatic channels, those services are reported to have established a secret operational ‘connection’ with bin Laden in Manila and in Kashmir. It was indeed difficult for Iraq to ignore an Arab like Osama bin Laden who so effectively humiliated the Americans.’ Colonel Khairallah al Takiriti, the brother of the head of Mukkhabarat, the intelligence services, is reported to have been named case officer for the connection. The arrest of two Morroccan associates of bin Laden in Rabat on November 11, 1998, made it possible to establish to establish the link with certainty. According to Western sources, the Iraqi services have sought to secure the assistance of bin Laden’s networks, in case Iraq were again to be attacked by the United States, in order to carry out attacks against American targets in Arab countries.

According to Arab sources, in anticipation of a foreseeable reversal of alliances in Kabul, bin Laden had been in discreet contact since September 2000 with associates of Oudai Hussein, another of Saddam’s sons; the ground for agreement was the anti-Israeli and anti-American battle. Bin Laden and the Iraqis are said to have exchanged information about chemical and biological weapons, despite the opposition of some of the Baghdad leadership, including Tarik Aziz. . . .

4. A quote from an Arab investor concerning the effect of war on the price of oil is worth bearing in mind. War in the Middle East leads to a rise in the price of oil, due to fears over the availability of stocks. Trump’s Secretary of State is Rex Tillerson, the former head of Exxon/Mobil the largest U.S. oil company. ” . . . For investors like Mr. Abdullah, conflict in the Middle East means one thing: higher oil prices. ‘It’s always good for us,’ he says. . . .”

“Mideast Stocks Hold Up Well Amid Conflict” by Karen Richardson and Yasmine El-Rashidi; Wall Street Journal; 7/24/2006; p. C1/

. . . . “Lebanon is far away,” says Waleed Abdullah, a sales manager in Sharjah, one of the United Arab Emirates, who has been buying stocks in neighboring Dubai and Abu Dhabi. ‘Our investments here aren’t affected really by what happens there.’ For investors like Mr. Abdullah, conflict in the Middle East means one thing: higher oil prices. “It’s always good for us,” he says. [Emphasis added.]. . .”

5. Turning to the latest sarin incident, Robert Parry notes in Consortium News that elements in the U.S. intelligence community do not agree with the Trump administration’s assessment of the situation. ” . . . . Alarm within the U.S. intelligence community about Trump’s hasty decision to attack Syria reverberated from the Middle East back to Washington, where former CIA officer Philip Giraldi reported hearing from his intelligence contacts in the field that they were shocked at how the new poison-gas story was being distorted by Trump and the mainstream U.S. news media. Giraldi told Scott Horton’s Webcast: ‘I’m hearing from sources on the ground in the Middle East, people who are intimately familiar with the intelligence that is available who are saying that the essential narrative that we’re all hearing about the Syrian government or the Russians using chemical weapons on innocent civilians is a sham.’ . . .”

“Trump’s  ‘Wag the Dog’ Moment” by Robert Parry; Consortium News; 4/7/2017.

. . . . There is also an internal dispute over the intelligence. On Thursday night, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S. intelligence community assessed with a “high degree of confidence” that the Syrian government had dropped a poison gas bomb on civilians in Idlib province.

But a number of intelligence sources have made contradictory assessments, saying the preponderance of evidence suggests that Al Qaeda-affiliated rebels were at fault, either by orchestrating an intentional release of a chemical agent as a provocation or by possessing containers of poison gas that ruptured during a conventional bombing raid.

One intelligence source told me that the most likely scenario was a staged event by the rebels intended to force Trump to reverse a policy, announced only days earlier, that the U.S. government would no longer seek “regime change” in Syria and would focus on attacking the common enemy, Islamic terror groups that represent the core of the rebel forces. . . .

. . . . Alarm within the U.S. intelligence community about Trump’s hasty decision to attack Syria reverberated from the Middle East back to Washington, where former CIA officer Philip Giraldi reported hearing from his intelligence contacts in the field that they were shocked at how the new poison-gas story was being distorted by Trump and the mainstream U.S. news media.

Giraldi told Scott Horton’s Webcast: “I’m hearing from sources on the ground in the Middle East, people who are intimately familiar with the intelligence that is available who are saying that the essential narrative that we’re all hearing about the Syrian government or the Russians using chemical weapons on innocent civilians is a sham.”

Giraldi said his sources were more in line with an analysis postulating an accidental release of the poison gas after an Al Qaeda arms depot was hit by a Russian airstrike.

“The intelligence confirms pretty much the account that the Russians have been giving … which is that they hit a warehouse where the rebels – now these are rebels that are, of course, connected with Al Qaeda – where the rebels were storing chemicals of their own and it basically caused an explosion that resulted in the casualties. Apparently the intelligence on this is very clear.”

Giraldi said the anger within the intelligence community over the distortion of intelligence to justify Trump’s military retaliation was so great that some covert officers were considering going public.

“People in both the agency [the CIA] and in the military who are aware of the intelligence are freaking out about this because essentially Trump completely misrepresented what he already should have known – but maybe he didn’t – and they’re afraid that this is moving toward a situation that could easily turn into an armed conflict,” Giraldi said before Thursday night’s missile strike. “They are astonished by how this is being played by the administration and by the U.S. media.” . . . .

6. Parry also sees the omission of CIA director Mike Pompeo and other major intelligence officials from the official photograph of Trump conferring with his advisors as indicative of dissent within the intelligence community from the official narrative.

“Where Was the CIA’s Pompeo on Syria?” by Robert Parry; Consortium News; 4/8/2017.

There is a dark mystery behind the White House-released photo showing President Trump and more than a dozen advisers meeting at his estate in Mar-a-Lago after his decision to strike Syria with Tomahawk missiles: Where is CIA Director Mike Pompeo and other top intelligence officials?

Before the photo was released on Friday, a source told me that Pompeo had personally briefed Trump on April 6 about the CIA’s belief that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was likely not responsible for the lethal poison-gas incident in northern Syria two days earlier — and thus Pompeo was excluded from the larger meeting as Trump reached a contrary decision.

At the time, I found the information dubious since Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and other senior U.S. officials were declaring quite confidently that Assad was at fault. Given that apparent confidence, I assumed that Pompeo and the CIA must have signed off on the conclusion of Assad’s guilt even though I knew that some U.S. intelligence analysts had contrary opinions, that they viewed the incident as either an accidental release of chemicals or an intentional ploy by Al Qaeda rebels to sucker the U.S. into attacking Syria.

As strange as the Trump administration has been in its early months, it was hard for me to believe that Trump would have listened to the CIA’s views and then shooed the director away from the larger meeting before launching a military strike against a country not threatening America. . . .

. . . . But in the photo of Trump and his advisers, no one from the intelligence community is in the frame. You see Trump, Secretary of State Tillerson, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, strategic adviser Steve Bannon, son-in-law Jared Kushner and a variety of other officials, including some economic advisers who were at Mar-a-Lago in Florida for the meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

However, you don’t see Pompeo or Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats or any other intelligence official. Even The New York Times noted the oddity in its Saturday editions, writing: “If there were C.I.A. and other intelligence briefers around, … they are not in the picture.”

That made me wonder whether perhaps my original source did know something. The claim was that CIA Director Pompeo had briefed Trump personally on the analysts’ assessment that Assad’s forces were not responsible, but – then with Pompeo sidelined – Trump conveyed his own version of the intelligence to his senior staff.

In other words, the other officials didn’t get the direct word from Pompeo but rather received a second-hand account from the President, the source said. Did Trump choose to rely on the smug certainty from the TV shows and the mainstream news media that Assad was guilty, rather than the contrary view of U.S. intelligence analysts?

After the attack, Secretary of State Tillerson, who is not an institutional intelligence official and has little experience with the subtleties of intelligence, was the one to claim that the U.S. intelligence community assessed with a “high degree of confidence” that the Syrian government had dropped a poison gas bomb on civilians in Idlib province.

While Tillerson’s comment meshed with Official Washington’s hastily formed groupthink of Assad’s guilt, it is hard to believe that CIA analysts would have settled on such a firm conclusion so quickly, especially given the remote location of the incident and the fact that the initial information was coming from pro-rebel (or Al Qaeda) sources. . . .

7. The U.S. is withholding key information due to the “need to protect sources and methods.” Robert Parry notes that there is nothing secretive about the collection of satellite and other electronic intelligence. So what is so secret about the white paper? Parry also notes that some analysts are reporting a strike by a drone launched from a joint Saudi-Israeli base that supports Syrian rebels. ” . . . Despite some technical difficulties in tracing its flight path, analysts eventually came to believe that the flight was launched in Jordan from a Saudi-Israeli special operations base for supporting Syrian rebels, the source said, adding that the suspected reason for the poison gas was to create an incident that would reverse the Trump administration’s announcement in late March that it was no longer seeking the removal of President Bashar al-Assad. . . .”

After noting that the presentation of various possible scenarios for the sarin release does not indicate a “cover-up” by Russia, merely the normal weighing of facts in the process of intelligence analysis, Parry concludes his article with a scathing analysis of the Trump administration’s claims by a MIT researcher: ” . . . . In a separate analysis of the four-page dossier, Theodore Postol, a national security specialist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, concluded that the White House claims were clearly bogus, writing: ‘I have reviewed the document carefully, and I believe it can be shown, without doubt, that the document does not provide any evidence whatsoever that the US government has concrete knowledge that the government of Syria was the source of the chemical attack in Khan Shaykhun, Syria at roughly 6 to 7 a.m. on April 4, 2017. In fact, a main piece of evidence that is cited in the document points to an attack that was executed by individuals on the ground, not from an aircraft, on the morning of April 4. This conclusion is based on an assumption made by the White House when it cited the source of the sarin release and the photographs of that source. My own assessment, is that the source was very likely tampered with or staged, so no serious conclusion could be made from the photographs cited by the White House.’ . . . 

“Trump Withholds Syria-Sarin Evidence” by Robert Parry; Consortium News; 4/12/2017.

. . . . A four-page white paper, prepared by President Trump’s National Security Council staff and released by the White House on Tuesday, claimed that U.S. intelligence has proof that the plane carrying the sarin gas left from the Syrian military airfield that Trump ordered hit by Tomahawk missiles on April 6.

The paper asserted that “we have signals intelligence and geospatial intelligence,” but then added that “we cannot publicly release all available intelligence on this attack due to the need to protect sources and methods.”

I’m told that the key evidence was satellite surveillance of the area, a body of material that U.S. intelligence analysts were reviewing late last week even after the Trump-ordered bombardment of 59 Tomahawk missiles that, according to Syrian media reports, killed seven or eight Syrian soldiers and nine civilians, including four children.

Yet, it is unclear why releasing these overhead videos would be so detrimental to “sources and methods” since everyone knows the U.S. has this capability and the issue at hand – if it gets further out of hand – could lead to a nuclear confrontation with Russia. . . .

. . . . In the case of the April 4 chemical-weapons incident in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, which reportedly killed scores of people including young children, I was told that initially the U.S. analysts couldn’t see any warplanes over the area in Idlib province at the suspected time of the poison gas attack but later they detected a drone that they thought might have delivered the bomb.

A Drone Mystery

According to a source, the analysts struggled to identify whose drone it was and where it originated. Despite some technical difficulties in tracing its flight path, analysts eventually came to believe that the flight was launched in Jordan from a Saudi-Israeli special operations base for supporting Syrian rebels, the source said, adding that the suspected reason for the poison gas was to create an incident that would reverse the Trump administration’s announcement in late March that it was no longer seeking the removal of President Bashar al-Assad.

If indeed that was the motive — and if the source’s information is correct — the operation would have been successful, since the Trump administration has now reversed itself and is pressing Russia to join in ousting Assad who is getting blamed for the latest chemical-weapons incident.

Presumably, however, the “geospatial intelligence” cited in the four-page dossier could disprove this and other contentions if the Trump administration would only make its evidence publicly available.

The dossier stated, “Our information indicates that the chemical agent was delivered by regime Su-22 fixed-wing aircraft that took off from the regime-controlled Shayrat Airfield. These aircraft were in the vicinity of Khan Shaykhun approximately 20 minutes before reports of the chemical attack began and vacated the area shortly after the attack.” . . .

. . . . On April 6, before Trump’s missile strike, I and others received word from U.S. military intelligence officials in the Middle East that they, too, shared the belief that the poison gas may have resulted from a conventional bombing raid that ruptured containers stored by the rebels, who – in Idlib province – are dominated by Al Qaeda’s affiliate and its allies.

Those reports were cited by former U.S. intelligence officials, including more than two dozen who produced a memo to President Trump urging him to undertake a careful investigation of the incident before letting this crisis exacerbate U.S.-Russia relations.

The memo said “our U.S. Army contacts in the area” were disputing the official story of a chemical weapons attack. “Instead, a Syrian aircraft bombed an al-Qaeda-in-Syria ammunition depot that turned out to be full of noxious chemicals and a strong wind blew the chemical-laden cloud over a nearby village where many consequently died,” the memo said.

In other words, to suggest possible alternative scenarios is not evidence of a “cover-up,” even if the theories are later shown to be erroneous. It is the normal process of sorting through often conflicting initial reports. . . .

. . . . [In a separate analysis of the four-page dossier, Theodore Postol, a national security specialist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, concluded that the White House claims were clearly bogus, writing:

“I have reviewed the document carefully, and I believe it can be shown, without doubt, that the document does not provide any evidence whatsoever that the US government has concrete knowledge that the government of Syria was the source of the chemical attack in Khan Shaykhun, Syria at roughly 6 to 7 a.m. on April 4, 2017.

“In fact, a main piece of evidence that is cited in the document points to an attack that was executed by individuals on the ground, not from an aircraft, on the morning of April 4. This conclusion is based on an assumption made by the White House when it cited the source of the sarin release and the photographs of that source. My own assessment, is that the source was very likely tampered with or staged, so no serious conclusion could be made from the photographs cited by the White House.”]

8. A detailed analysis of an August, 2013 sarin attack, originally thought to have been perpetrated by Bashar Al-Assad, was presented by Seymour Hersh in the London Review of Books. The sarin turns out not to have come from Syrian government stockpiles.

The definitive determination that the sarin used in the August 2013 attack did not come from the Assad government was made by analysts at Porton Down, the top UK CBW facility: “. . . . Obama’s change of mind had its origins at Porton Down, the defence laboratory in Wiltshire. British intelligence had obtained a sample of the sarin used in the 21 August attack and analysis demonstrated that the gas used didn’t match the batches known to exist in the Syrian army’s chemical weapons arsenal. The message that the case against Syria wouldn’t hold up was quickly relayed to the US joint chiefs of staff. . . .”

Al-Nusra, on the other hand, was producing Sarin and looking to ramp up production through a supply pipeline running through Turkey. ” . . . . The American and British intelligence communities had been aware since the spring of 2013 that some rebel units in Syria were developing chemical weapons. On 20 June analysts for the US Defense Intelligence Agency issued a highly classified five-page ‘talking points’ briefing for the DIA’s deputy director, David Shedd, which stated that al-Nusra maintained a sarin production cell: its programme, the paper said, was ‘the most advanced sarin plot since al-Qaida’s pre-9/11 effort’. . . .”

The 2013 conclusions of general Martin Dempsey are worth examining in the context of the current crisis: ” . . . . From the beginning of the crisis, the former intelligence official said, the joint chiefs had been sceptical of the administration’s argument that it had the facts to back up its belief in Assad’s guilt. They pressed the DIA and other agencies for more substantial evidence. ‘There was no way they thought Syria would use nerve gas at that stage, because Assad was winning the war,’ the former intelligence official said. . . .”

“The Red Line and the Rat Line” by Seymour Hersh; London Review of Books ; 4/17/2014.

. . . . Obama’s change of mind had its origins at Porton Down, the defence laboratory in Wiltshire. British intelligence had obtained a sample of the sarin used in the 21 August attack and analysis demonstrated that the gas used didn’t match the batches known to exist in the Syrian army’s chemical weapons arsenal. The message that the case against Syria wouldn’t hold up was quickly relayed to the US joint chiefs of staff. The British report heightened doubts inside the Pentagon; the joint chiefs were already preparing to warn Obama that his plans for a far-reaching bomb and missile attack on Syria’s infrastructure could lead to a wider war in the Middle East. As a consequence the American officers delivered a last-minute caution to the president, which, in their view, eventually led to his cancelling the attack.

For months there had been acute concern among senior military leaders and the intelligence community about the role in the war of Syria’s neighbours, especially Turkey. Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan was known to be supporting the al-Nusra Front, a jihadist faction among the rebel opposition, as well as other Islamist rebel groups. ‘We knew there were some in the Turkish government,’ a former senior US intelligence official, who has access to current intelligence, told me, ‘who believed they could get Assad’s nuts in a vice by dabbling with a sarin attack inside Syria – and forcing Obama to make good on his red line threat.’

The joint chiefs also knew that the Obama administration’s public claims that only the Syrian army had access to sarin were wrong. The American and British intelligence communities had been aware since the spring of 2013 that some rebel units in Syria were developing chemical weapons. On 20 June analysts for the US Defense Intelligence Agency issued a highly classified five-page ‘talking points’ briefing for the DIA’s deputy director, David Shedd, which stated that al-Nusra maintained a sarin production cell: its programme, the paper said, was ‘the most advanced sarin plot since al-Qaida’s pre-9/11 effort’. (According to a Defense Department consultant, US intelligence has long known that al-Qaida experimented with chemical weapons, and has a video of one of its gas experiments with dogs.) The DIA paper went on: ‘Previous IC [intelligence community] focus had been almost entirely on Syrian CW [chemical weapons] stockpiles; now we see ANF attempting to make its own CW … Al-Nusrah Front’s relative freedom of operation within Syria leads us to assess the group’s CW aspirations will be difficult to disrupt in the future.’ The paper drew on classified intelligence from numerous agencies: ‘Turkey and Saudi-based chemical facilitators,’ it said, ‘were attempting to obtain sarin precursors in bulk, tens of kilograms, likely for the anticipated large scale production effort in Syria.’ (Asked about the DIA paper, a spokesperson for the director of national intelligence said: ‘No such paper was ever requested or produced by intelligence community analysts.’)

Last May, more than ten members of the al-Nusra Front were arrested in southern Turkey with what local police told the press were two kilograms of sarin. In a 130-page indictment the group was accused of attempting to purchase fuses, piping for the construction of mortars, and chemical precursors for sarin. Five of those arrested were freed after a brief detention. The others, including the ringleader, Haytham Qassab, for whom the prosecutor requested a prison sentence of 25 years, were released pending trial. In the meantime the Turkish press has been rife with speculation that the Erdoğan administration has been covering up the extent of its involvement with the rebels. In a news conference last summer, Aydin Sezgin, Turkey’s ambassador to Moscow, dismissed the arrests and claimed to reporters that the recovered ‘sarin’ was merely ‘anti-freeze’.

The DIA paper took the arrests as evidence that al-Nusra was expanding its access to chemical weapons. It said Qassab had ‘self-identified’ as a member of al-Nusra, and that he was directly connected to Abd-al-Ghani, the ‘ANF emir for military manufacturing’. 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’.

A series of chemical weapon attacks in March and April 2013 was investigated over the next few months by a special UN mission to Syria. A person with close knowledge of the UN’s activity in Syria told me that there was evidence linking the Syrian opposition to the first gas attack, on 19 March in Khan Al-Assal, a village near Aleppo. In its final report in December, the mission said that at least 19 civilians and one Syrian soldier were among the fatalities, along with scores of injured. It had no mandate to assign responsibility for the attack, but the person with knowledge of the UN’s activities said: ‘Investigators interviewed the people who were there, including the doctors who treated the victims. It was clear that the rebels used the gas. It did not come out in public because no one wanted to know.’

In the months before the attacks began, a former senior Defense Department official told me, the DIA was circulating a daily classified report known as SYRUP on all intelligence related to the Syrian conflict, including material on chemical weapons. But in the spring, distribution of the part of the report concerning chemical weapons was severely curtailed on the orders of Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff. ‘Something was in there that triggered a shit fit by McDonough,’ the former Defense Department official said. ‘One day it was a huge deal, and then, after the March and April sarin attacks’ – he snapped his fingers – ‘it’s no longer there.’ The decision to restrict distribution was made as the joint chiefs ordered intensive contingency planning for a possible ground invasion of Syria whose primary objective would be the elimination of chemical weapons. . . .

. . . . At this stage, Obama’s premise – that only the Syrian army was capable of deploying sarin – was unravelling. Within a few days of the 21 August attack, the former intelligence official told me, Russian military intelligence operatives had recovered samples of the chemical agent from Ghouta. They analysed it and passed it on to British military intelligence; this was the material sent to Porton Down. (A spokesperson for Porton Down said: ‘Many of the samples analysed in the UK tested positive for the nerve agent sarin.’ MI6 said that it doesn’t comment on intelligence matters.)

The former intelligence official said the Russian who delivered the sample to the UK was ‘a good source – someone with access, knowledge and a record of being trustworthy’. After the first reported uses of chemical weapons in Syria last year, American and allied intelligence agencies ‘made an effort to find the answer as to what if anything, was used – and its source’, the former intelligence official said. ‘We use data exchanged as part of the Chemical Weapons Convention. 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.’

The process hadn’t worked as smoothly in the spring, the former intelligence official said, because the studies done by Western intelligence ‘were inconclusive as to the type of gas it was. The word “sarin” didn’t come up. There was a great deal of discussion about this, but since no one could conclude what gas it was, you could not say that Assad had crossed the president’s red line.’ By 21 August, the former intelligence official went on, ‘the Syrian opposition clearly had learned from this and announced that “sarin” from the Syrian army had been used, before any analysis could be made, and the press and White House jumped at it. Since it now was sarin, “It had to be Assad.”’

The UK defence staff who relayed the Porton Down findings to the joint chiefs were sending the Americans a message, the former intelligence official said: ‘We’re being set up here.’ (This account made sense of a terse message a senior official in the CIA sent in late August: ‘It was not the result of the current regime. UK & US know this.’) By then the attack was a few days away and American, British and French planes, ships and submarines were at the ready.

The officer ultimately responsible for the planning and execution of the attack was General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs. From the beginning of the crisis, the former intelligence official said, the joint chiefs had been sceptical of the administration’s argument that it had the facts to back up its belief in Assad’s guilt. They pressed the DIA and other agencies for more substantial evidence. ‘There was no way they thought Syria would use nerve gas at that stage, because Assad was winning the war,’ the former intelligence official said. Dempsey had irritated many in the Obama administration by repeatedly warning Congress over the summer of the danger of American military involvement in Syria. . . .

. . . .A US intelligence consultant told me that a few weeks before 21 August he saw a highly classified briefing prepared for Dempsey and the defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, which described ‘the acute anxiety’ of the Erdoğan administration about the rebels’ dwindling prospects. The analysis warned that the Turkish leadership had expressed ‘the need to do something that would precipitate a US military response’. By late summer, the Syrian army still had the advantage over the rebels, the former intelligence official said, and only American air power could turn the tide. In the autumn, the former intelligence official went on, the US intelligence analysts who kept working on the events of 21 August ‘sensed that Syria had not done the gas attack. But the 500 pound gorilla was, how did it happen? The immediate suspect was the Turks, because they had all the pieces to make it happen.’

As intercepts and other data related to the 21 August attacks were gathered, the intelligence community saw evidence to support its suspicions. ‘We now know it was a covert action planned by Erdoğan’s people to push Obama over the red line,’ the former intelligence official said. ‘They had to escalate to a gas attack in or near Damascus when the UN inspectors’ – who arrived in Damascus on 18 August to investigate the earlier use of gas – ‘were there. The deal was to do something spectacular. Our senior military officers have been told by the DIA and other intelligence assets that the sarin was supplied through Turkey – that it could only have gotten there with Turkish support. The Turks also provided the training in producing the sarin and handling it.’ Much of the support for that assessment came from the Turks themselves, via intercepted conversations in the immediate aftermath of the attack. ‘Principal evidence came from the Turkish post-attack joy and back-slapping in numerous intercepts. Operations are always so super-secret in the planning but that all flies out the window when it comes to crowing afterwards. There is no greater vulnerability than in the perpetrators claiming credit for success.’ Erdoğan’s problems in Syria would soon be over: ‘Off goes the gas and Obama will say red line and America is going to attack Syria, or at least that was the idea. But it did not work out that way.’

The post-attack intelligence on Turkey did not make its way to the White House. ‘Nobody wants to talk about all this,’ the former intelligence official told me. ‘There is great reluctance to contradict the president, although no all-source intelligence community analysis supported his leap to convict. There has not been one single piece of additional evidence of Syrian involvement in the sarin attack produced by the White House since the bombing raid was called off. My government can’t say anything because we have acted so irresponsibly. And since we blamed Assad, we can’t go back and blame Erdoğan.’. . . .

 

Discussion

2 comments for “FTR #954 Syrian Chemical Weapons Attack? Not So Fast”

  1. Since suspicions that the chemical incident in Idlib could have been possibly been a false flag attack from the ground by al Nusra rely on the assumption that If case anyone was wondering whether or not the al Qaeda affiliates in Syria would be willing to kill large numbers of civilians, it’s worth recalling a devastating attack on civilians that happened near two predominantly Shia villages near Idlib that took place back in December. A deal was set up that would see 2,500 citizens leave al-Foua and Kefraya (the Shia villages near Idlib under revel seige) in two batches, in exchange for the evacuation of people from east Aleppo that were under a Syrian government-seige . But when the day arrived for the evacuations, gunmen burned the buses of civilian evacuees from the villages of al-Foua and Kefraya. The Syrian government blamed al Nusra and the rebels blamed an angry crowd and possibly the government:

    Reuters

    Gunmen burn buses, Aleppo convoy goes through

    By Lisa Barrington and Suleiman Al-Khalidi | BEIRUT/AMMAN
    Sun Dec 18, 2016 | 6:18pm EST

    Armed men burned five buses that were supposed to be used for an evacuation near Idlib in Syria on Sunday, stalling a deal to allow thousands to depart the last rebel pocket in Aleppo, where evacuees crammed into buses for hours before departing the city.

    The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said the evacuation of the villages near Idlib had been postponed as a result of the incident. Five buses leaving Aleppo were held, packed with evacuees, for hours before they could drive the 5 km (3 miles) to rebel-held territory outside.

    In return for the evacuation of fighters, their families and other civilians from Aleppo, the mostly Sunni insurgents had agreed that people in the villages of al-Foua and Kefraya, Shi’ite villages that they have besieged near Idlib, should also be allowed to leave.

    Videos posted on social media showed bearded men with guns cheering and shouting “God is great” after torching the green buses before they were able to reach the villages.

    State media said “armed terrorists”, a term it uses for all groups fighting President Bashar al-Assad, had carried out the attack. Pro-Damascus Mayadeen television and the Observatory blamed the rebel group formerly known as the Nusra Front.

    Rebel officials said an angry crowd of people, possibly alongside pro-government “operatives”, was responsible.

    Although the Aleppo evacuation convoy was eventually cleared to drive to rebel-held al-Rashideen, there was no official word on what impact the bus burning would have on the departure of more convoys from the city and the two villages.

    While the Observatory said the convoy of five buses had reached al-Rashideen, a United Nations official in Syria said only that they had left east Aleppo, adding: “The evacuations are on”.

    Robert Mardini, regional director for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) which is at the forefront of the operation, tweeted that the buses and one ambulance of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent “just left dark & cold E #Aleppo”, adding: “Hopeful operation will proceed smoothly.”

    Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad’s main foreign backer, and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, the rebels’ main supporter, agreed by telephone on Sunday that the disruptions must be quickly overcome, sources in Erdogan’s office said.

    The commander of forces allied to Assad said there was still a chance for states with influence over rebel groups to find a way to evacuate civilians safely.

    In a statement carried by a military news outlet run by Damascus’s ally, the Lebanese group Hezbollah, the allied forces leadership said responsibility for the delay in the evacuation falls with “terrorists and their state sponsors”.

    Some 40 km (26 miles) to the northeast, hundreds of fighters and their families in Aleppo sat or stood in buses, hoping the evacuation would resume after a three-day hiatus.

    Syrian state television, citing its correspondent in the city, said buses had started to leave east Aleppo where over 15,000 people had gathered in a square to wait, many after a night sleeping in the streets in freezing temperatures.

    Aleppo had been divided between government and rebel areas in the nearly six-year-long war, but a lightning advance by the Syrian army and its allies began in mid-November following months of intense air strikes, forcing the insurgents out of most of the rebel-held territory within a matter of weeks.

    “EVERYONE IS WAITING”

    According to Syria’s al-Ikhbariya TV news, about 1,200 civilians would initially be evacuated from east Aleppo and a similar number from the two villages.

    A document cited by al-Manar television and passed to Reuters by rebels and activists said the entire deal would see 2,500 citizens leave al-Foua and Kefraya in two batches, in exchange for the evacuation of people from east Aleppo in two corresponding batches.

    Following this, another 1,500 would leave al-Foua and Kefraya in exchange for the evacuation of 1,500 from the towns of Madaya and Zabadani near Lebanon, which are besieged by pro-government forces.

    Once evacuees from the villages have safely arrived in government areas, Aleppo fighters and more of their family members will be allowed to leave, in return for subsequent batches of people departing al-Foua and Kefraya, al-Ikhbariya TV reported.

    In the square in Aleppo’s Sukari district, organizers gave every family a number to allow them on buses.

    “Everyone is waiting until they are evacuated. They just want to escape,” said Salah al Attar, a former teacher with his five children, wife and mother.

    Thousands of people were evacuated on Thursday, the first to leave under a ceasefire deal that would end years of fighting for the city and mark a major victory for Assad.

    They were taken to rebel-held districts of the countryside west of Aleppo. Turkey has said Aleppo evacuees could also be housed in a camp to be constructed near the Turkish border to the north.

    “Videos posted on social media showed bearded men with guns cheering and shouting “God is great” after torching the green buses before they were able to reach the villages.”

    So who burned the buses of Shia civilians? Was it al Nusra or an angry crowd that for some reason decided to work with government operatives?


    State media said “armed terrorists”, a term it uses for all groups fighting President Bashar al-Assad, had carried out the attack. Pro-Damascus Mayadeen television and the Observatory blamed the rebel group formerly known as the Nusra Front.

    Rebel officials said an angry crowd of people, possibly alongside pro-government “operatives”, was responsible.

    While al Nusra is a pretty obvious culprit, they would have us believe that, no, it was a government false flag. They would also probably like us to ignore that al Nusra never agree the evacuation deal (and they were the ones besieging these two villages):

    Reuters

    Buses Burned During Evacuation Of Syrian Villages, Monitor Says
    Several vehicles sent to evacuate the ill and injured from besieged villages were destroyed.

    12/18/2016 09:29 am ET

    BEIRUT, Dec 18 (Reuters) – Several buses en route to evacuate ill and injured people from the besieged Syrian villages of al-Foua and Kefraya were attacked and burned on Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Syrian state television said.

    Syrian state media said “armed terrorists” – a term it uses for insurgent groups fighting against Assad’s rule – attacked five buses and burned and destroyed them.

    Rebel officials said an angry crowd of people, possibly alongside pro-government forces, carried out the attack.

    A resident in the area told Reuters it was not carried out by the group formerly known as the Nusra Front, which had previously said it had not agreed to the evacuation of the two villages.

    Most of al-Foua and Kefraya’s residents are Shi’ite Muslims.

    “A resident in the area told Reuters it was not carried out by the group formerly known as the Nusra Front, which had previously said it had not agreed to the evacuation of the two villages.”

    So did the al Nusra Front, which never agreed to the evacuations, attack the buses filled with Shia evacuees in towns al Nusra was besieging, or was it an angry crowd and government operatives? Hmm….it’s a mystery. A mystery with a very non-mysterious answer.

    And while the article below notes that multiple opposition sources said it was Jabhat Fath al-Sham (the rebranded name of al Nusra) behind the attack, as the article also notes the Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV and Beirut-based pro-Syrian government al-Mayadin TV had a slightly different explanation at one point: clashes between Jabhat Fath al-Sham and the Ahrar al-Sham (a different rebel al Qaeda affiliate) had resulted in the blaze. That would be quite a twist. Either way, since the article also notes that Jabhat Fath al-Sham/al Nusra holding up the buses before the attack it sure looks like al Nusra was involved with the attack those buses of fleeing civilians (again, unless we accept the rebel position that it was government false flag attack):

    BBC

    Aleppo battle: Rebels burn Syria evacuation buses

    18 December 2016

    Several buses sent to transport the sick and injured from two government-held villages in Syria’s Idlib province have been burned by rebels.

    The attack apparently halted the latest efforts to evacuate besieged areas.

    Pro-government forces say people must be allowed to leave the mainly Shia villages of Foah and Kefraya for the evacuation of east Aleppo to restart.

    State media said convoys began to leave Aleppo on Sunday but other reports said they turned back.

    The initial plan to evacuate the last rebel-held enclaves in the city collapsed on Friday, leaving civilians stranded at various points along the route out without access to food or shelter.

    Meanwhile, the UN Security Council agreed a draft resolution on sending UN officials to monitor the evacuations in Aleppo, diplomats said. Russia, which backs the government of President Bashar al-Assad, had earlier threatened to veto the French-drafted text.

    But after three hours of negotiations behind closed doors, the Security Council appeared to come to a compromise.

    “We expect to vote unanimously for this text tomorrow [Monday],” said US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power.

    Buses were preparing to evacuate people from both eastern Aleppo and the government-held villages in Idlib province on Sunday.

    A number of buses did succeed in entering Foah and Kefraya, according to the UK-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), which earlier reported that Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, had been holding them up.

    However, six buses were attacked and torched on the way, the SOHR said.

    Syrian state media said “armed terrorists” – a term it uses for all groups fighting against President Assad – attacked five buses, burned and destroyed them.

    A reporter for AFP news agency said armed men forced the drivers of the buses to get out before opening fire and setting the vehicles alight.

    Several reports from opposition sources said Jabhat Fatah al-Sham was responsible. But Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV and Beirut-based pro-Syrian government al-Mayadin TV said clashes between jihadist Jabhat Fath al-Sham and the rebel Islamist Ahrar al-Sham had resulted in the blaze.

    The jihadist groups have not commented on the attack.

    However, the Free Syrian Army, a more moderate rebel faction, condemned it as a “reckless act endangering the lives of nearly 50,000 people” in east Aleppo.

    “A number of buses did succeed in entering Foah and Kefraya, according to the UK-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), which earlier reported that Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, had been holding them up.

    All signs are pointing towards al Nusra. Including opposition sources. Although maybe there was an Islamist clash involved? If so, you have to wonder how that clash between two jihadists groups resulted in armed men forcing the drivers from the buses before opening fire and setting them ablaze. It must have been a complicated clash:


    A reporter for AFP news agency said armed men forced the drivers of the buses to get out before opening fire and setting the vehicles alight.

    Several reports from opposition sources said Jabhat Fatah al-Sham was responsible. But Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV and Beirut-based pro-Syrian government al-Mayadin TV said clashes between jihadist Jabhat Fath al-Sham and the rebel Islamist Ahrar al-Sham had resulted in the blaze.

    The jihadist groups have not commented on the attack.

    So that’s the mystery of who attacked those buses of fleeing civilians back in December, which, at this point, looks to mostly be a mystery as to whether or not Ahrar al-Sham was involved in this al Nusra attack. It’s the kind of incident that should remind us that the answer to the question of whether or not a group like al Nusra would be willing to mass murder civilians, the answer is of course, they have a long history of doing exactly that. It’s not like ISIS doesn’t have a terror monopoly.

    And if that wasn’t a strong enough reminder that al Nusra will attack civilians, here’s another: a large suicide car bomb just killed evacuees from the same two villages in the middle of another evacuee swap:

    Reuters

    Bombing of Syrian bus convoy kills dozens outside Aleppo

    By John Davison | BEIRUT
    Sat Apr 15, 2017 | 3:22pm EDT

    A bomb blast hit a bus convoy waiting to cross into government-held Aleppo in Syria on Saturday, killing dozens of people evacuated from two Shi’ite villages the day before in a deal between warring sides.

    The agreement had stalled, leaving thousands of people from both government-besieged and rebel-besieged areas stranded at two transit points on the city’s outskirts, before the explosion occurred.

    Late on Saturday buses began crossing into both government-held and rebel-held territory from the two transit points as the deal resumed, pro-Damascus media and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group reported.

    But the incident underscored the difficulty carrying out any agreement between warring sides in a volatile and complex Syrian conflict which, in its seventh year, shows no signs of easing.

    A media unit run by Damascus ally Hezbollah said the attack was carried out by a suicide car bomb and killed at least 40 people. The Observatory said more than 24 were killed and scores more wounded.

    Footage on state TV showed bodies lying next to charred buses with their windows blown out, and vehicles in flames.

    The blast hit buses in the Rashidin area on Aleppo’s outskirts. The vehicles had been waiting since Friday to cross from rebel-held territory into the government-controlled city itself. Ambulances later took the wounded to hospital in Aleppo.

    The convoy was carrying residents and pro-government fighters from the Shi’ite villages of al-Foua and Kefraya, which are besieged by rebels in nearby Idlib province, an insurgent stronghold.

    They had left under a deal where, in exchange, hundreds of Sunni insurgents and their families were granted safe passage from Madaya, a government-besieged town near Damascus.

    But a delay in the agreement had left all those evacuated stuck at transit points on Aleppo’s outskirts since late on Friday.

    “The convoy was carrying residents and pro-government fighters from the Shi’ite villages of al-Foua and Kefraya, which are besieged by rebels in nearby Idlib province, an insurgent stronghold.”

    Presumably al Nusra would prefer us to assume that it was a government attack. With a suicide car bomber. That blew up a van handing out crisps right when children began flocking to it:

    BBC

    Syria war: Huge bomb kills dozens of evacuees in Syria

    4/15/2017

    A huge car bomb has blasted a convoy of coaches carrying evacuees from besieged government-held towns in Syria, killing at least 45 people..

    It shattered coaches and set cars on fire, leaving a trail of bodies including children, as the convoy waited in rebel territory near Aleppo.

    What do we know of the bombing?

    The bomb reportedly went off at Rashidin, west of government-held Aleppo, around 15:30 local time (12:30 GMT) at the checkpoint where the handover was due to take place.

    A suicide bomber driving a van supposedly carrying aid supplies blew it up near the coaches, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports.

    “A van was distributing crisps,” one civilian evacuee told @ZamanEnglish News. “Children started running after it. It then exploded.”

    “”A van was distributing crisps,” one civilian evacuee told @ZamanEnglish News. “Children started running after it. It then exploded.””

    So in case anyone forget that the various al Qaeda offshoots operating in Syria are willing to kill civilians, including children, the group that just carried out this car bombing attack gave us another very timely reminder that, yes, they are more than happy to kill civilians. Sure, in this case they were predominantly Shia civilians, but it’s not like al Qaeda doesn’t have a long history of killing Sunni civilians too. And these are the groups that have no problem killing civilians will be the ones that are on track to eventually gain control of Syria if the ongoing fight to the death is the ultimate solution to the conflict. It’s something to keep in mind as both the responsible party and response to the Idlib chemical attack continues to be debated by the international community.

    We’ll have to wait for more information on exactly who was behind this latest attack, but at this point it’s a safe bet that it wasn’t due to a clash between al Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham. A very safe bet.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | April 15, 2017, 2:48 pm
  2. From the “Credit Where Credit is Due” Department, it looks like the Trump administration actually did something that wasn’t destabilizing for some part of the world: The Trump administration just ended the CIA’s program to arm the ‘moderate’ Sunni rebel forces in Syria. The Pentagon’s program of working with Kurdish-backed forces continues.

    Sadly, despite being one of the few sane moves of seen from this administration, it’s unfortunately being widely portrayed as ‘caving to Moscow’. As if a weapons program that was indirectly fueling radical far-right reactionary Islamist groups and dooming any sort of post-Assad environment was in the US’s interest. Or the interests of the Syrian people:

    The Washington Post

    Trump ends covert CIA program to arm anti-Assad rebels in Syria, a move sought by Moscow

    By Greg Jaffe and Adam Entous
    July 19 at 5:41 PM

    President Trump has decided to end the CIA’s covert program to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels battling the government of Bashar al-Assad, a move long sought by Russia, according to U.S. officials.

    The program was a central plank of a policy begun by the Obama administration in 2013 to put pressure on Assad to step aside, but even its backers have questioned its efficacy since Russia deployed forces in Syria two years later.

    Officials said the phasing out of the secret program reflects Trump’s interest in finding ways to work with Russia, which saw the anti-Assad program as an assault on its interests. The shuttering of the program is also an acknowledgment of Washington’s limited leverage and desire to remove Assad from power.

    Just three months ago, after the United States accused Assad of using chemical weapons, Trump launched retaliatory airstrikes against a Syrian air base. At the time, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, said that “in no way do we see peace in that area with Assad at the head of the Syrian government.”

    Officials said Trump made the decision to scrap the CIA program nearly a month ago, after an Oval Office meeting with CIA Director Mike Pompeo and national security adviser H.R. McMaster ahead of a July 7 meeting in Germany with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

    Spokesmen for the National Security Council and the CIA declined to comment.

    After the Trump-Putin meeting, the United States and Russia announced an agreement to back a new cease-fire in southwest Syria, along the Jordanian border, where many of the CIA-backed rebels have long operated. Trump described the limited cease-fire deal as one of the benefits of a constructive working relationship with Moscow.

    The move to end the secret program to arm the anti-Assad rebels was not a condition of the cease-fire negotiations, which were already well underway, said U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the secret program.

    Trump’s dealings with Russia have been under heavy scrutiny because of the investigations into the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 election. The decision on the CIA-backed rebels will be welcomed by Moscow, which focused its firepower on those fighters after it intervened in Syria in 2015.

    Some current and former officials who support the program cast the move as a major concession.

    “This is a momentous decision,” said a current official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a covert program. “Putin won in Syria.”

    With the end of the CIA program, U.S. involvement in Syria now consists of a vigorous air campaign against the Islamic State and a Pentagon-run train-and-equip program in support of the largely Kurdish rebel force that is advancing on Islamic State strongholds in Raqqa and along the Euphrates River valley. The Trump administration’s long-term strategy, following the defeat of the Islamic State, appears to be focused on stitching together a series of regional cease-fire deals among the U.S.-backed rebels, the Syrian government and Russia.

    Some analysts said the decision to end the program was likely to empower more radical groups inside Syria and damage the credibility of the United States.

    “We are falling into a Russian trap,” said Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, who focuses on the Syrian resistance. “We are making the moderate resistance more and more vulnerable. … We are really cutting them off at the neck.”

    Others said it was recognition of Assad’s entrenched position in Syria.

    “It’s probably a nod to reality,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a former Obama administration official and director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.

    U.S. intelligence officials say battlefield gains by rebels in 2015 prompted Russia’s direct military intervention on the side of the Assad regime. Some U.S. officials and their allies in the region urged President Barack Obama to respond by providing the rebels with advanced anti­aircraft weapons so they could better defend themselves. But Obama balked, citing concerns about the United States getting pulled into a conflict with Russia.

    Senior U.S. officials said that the covert program would be phased out over a period of months. It is also possible that some of the support could be redirected to other missions, such as fighting the Islamic State or making sure that the rebels can still defend themselves from attacks.

    U.S. officials said the decision had the backing of Jordan, where some of the rebels were trained, and appeared to be part of a larger Trump administration strategy to focus on negotiating limited cease-fire deals with the Russians.

    Earlier this month, five days into the first cease-fire in southwest Syria, Trump indicated that another agreement was under discussion with Moscow. “We are working on the second cease-fire in a very rough part of Syria,” Trump said. “If we get that and a few more, all of a sudden we are going to have no bullets being fired in Syria.”

    One big potential risk of shutting down the CIA program is that the United States may lose its ability to block other countries, such as Turkey and Persian Gulf allies, from funneling more sophisticated weapons — including man-portable air-defense systems, or MANPADS — to anti-Assad rebels, including more radical groups.

    Toward the end of the Obama administration, some officials advocated ending the CIA program, arguing that the rebels would be ineffective without a major escalation in U.S. support. But the program still had the support of a majority of top Obama advisers, who argued that the United States couldn’t abandon its allies on the ground and give up on the moderate opposition because of the damage that it would do to U.S. standing in the region.

    Even those who were skeptical about the program’s long-term value, viewed it as a key bargaining chip that could be used to wring concessions from Moscow in negotiations over Syria’s future.

    “People began thinking about ending the program, but it was not something you’d do for free,” said a former White House official. “To give [the program] away without getting anything in return would be foolish.”

    ———-

    “Trump ends covert CIA program to arm anti-Assad rebels in Syria, a move sought by Moscow” by Greg Jaffe and Adam Entous; The Washington Post; 07/19/2017

    With the end of the CIA program, U.S. involvement in Syria now consists of a vigorous air campaign against the Islamic State and a Pentagon-run train-and-equip program in support of the largely Kurdish rebel force that is advancing on Islamic State strongholds in Raqqa and along the Euphrates River valley. The Trump administration’s long-term strategy, following the defeat of the Islamic State, appears to be focused on stitching together a series of regional cease-fire deals among the U.S.-backed rebels, the Syrian government and Russia.”

    As we can see, military support for Kurdish-led rebel force is indeed continuing. Just not for the predominantly Sunni ‘moderate’ rebel forces. Which, interestingly, appears to be OK with at least some opposition leaders. Why? Because those CIA weapons kept falling into the hands of the al Qaeda offshoots that comprise the bulk of the rebels:

    The Financial Times

    Syrian rebels alarmed by reports covert CIA aid will end
    Insurgents fear Trump will cut US funding to opposition forces

    by: Erika Solomon in Beirut

    07/20/2017

    For nearly four years, Syrian rebels have clung to a programme of CIA assistance as a symbol of US support in their battle against Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

    So reports that Donald Trump’s administration will stop the limited scheme to arm and train Syria’s opposition forces have sparked anger and confusion.

    Rebels say they have not been informed of any changes to the policy introduced by Barack Obama as US president in 2013 as part of efforts to put pressure on Syria’s president and bring about a political settlement. Mr Assad’s main backer, Russia, has long pushed for the US to end support.

    According to a report first published by the Washington Post newspaper, Mr Trump decided last month to end funding for the CIA programme. A US official told Reuters that the US was not making a major concession, given Mr Assad’s grip on power, although not on all of Syria, “but it’s a signal to Putin that the administration wants to improve ties to Russia”.

    “If these reports are true, the administration is playing right into the hands of Vladimir Putin,” John McCain, the Republican chairman of the Senate armed services committee, countered. “Making any concession to Russia, absent a broader strategy for Syria, is irresponsible and short-sighted,” he said.

    Rebels contacted by the Financial Times say their CIA interlocutors had not confirmed any change, and political opposition figures who met US officials this week say they, too, were given no hint of any change. The White House has not confirmed that the programme has been cancelled.

    “Until now, nothing is confirmed. There have been no changes on the ground. When we spoke to the concerned parties [in the operations room] they were also surprised at the news,” said Hassan Hamadeh, commander of Division 101, a rebel group. “Co-ordination is ongoing, and everything has been happening normally.”

    One rebel commander who asked not to be named said US support had been waning for months but noted that the rebels had been given their salaries as normal last month. Still, he believed the decision was final. “The CIA’s role is done,” the rebel commander said.

    The programme, funded by international intelligence agencies from western countries, Gulf states and Turkey, had long been fraught by rebel rivalries and feuds between donor states. The CIA funding for rebel groups fed into two internationally backed operations that supported an array of rebel groups seen as ideological moderates: one based in Jordan to help rebels in the south and one based in Turkey to funnel aid to rebels in the north.

    Many observers and even rebels themselves criticised the programme for turning a blind eye to its funding ending up with jihadis.

    Rebels who received support would return to volatile territories in Syria, only to be pressed by an al-Qaeda-linked jihadi group to hand over a cut. “Frankly so much of the weapons and ammunition were going to [Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate] that it’s probably a good thing,” a third opposition figure said.

    For all the criticism of the US support, one of the rebel commanders said that losing it would push Syria further toward Islamists or Mr Assad.

    “I don’t want the Americans to leave, because this means Syria has been surrendered — on one side, to the Turks and the Muslim Brotherhood groups it supports in Syria, and on the other side to Russia and the regime.”

    ———-

    “Syrian rebels alarmed by reports covert CIA aid will end” by Erika Solomon; The Financial Times; 07/20/2017

    “Rebels who received support would return to volatile territories in Syria, only to be pressed by an al-Qaeda-linked jihadi group to hand over a cut. “Frankly so much of the weapons and ammunition were going to [Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate] that it’s probably a good thing,” a third opposition figure said.”

    And that summarizes why the CIA’s strategy was so hopelessly flawed barring a major US military intervention, which really would put the US and Russia at risk of open warfare: The ‘moderate’ rebels simply did not have the man-power required to ‘out compete’ groups like Jabhat al-Nusra a.k.a Jabhat Fateh al-Sham no matter how many weapons the CIA gave them. And it’s not like there hasn’t been years spent trying to train a significant ‘moderate’ rebel force. It’s just that those efforts have failed, and not for a lack of weapons.

    And in related news, on the same day that we got the reports about the end of the CIA’s program, there was a report in the Military Times about footage from Kurdish activists of a large number of US-made armored vehicles getting delivered into Syria . And the types of vehicles observed aren’t the kinds of vehicles that have been approved for the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) and are associated withe US special operations. Military officials say the vehicles aren’t part of the US’s aid to the SDF, and when questioned if the U.S. was planning to increase troops in Syria or engage in a more active role, the military would neither confirm nor deny it, citing operational security:

    The Military Times

    US armored vehicles seen pouring into Syria

    By: Shawn Snow
    July 19, 2017

    WASHINGTON — Over the last week videos and pictures posted by Kurdish activists on social media show flatbed trucks delivering U.S.-made MRAP, M-ATVs, and up-armored bulldozers into Syria.

    Military officials say these vehicles are not part of the U-S.-led coalition’s aid to Kurdish allies on the ground who are currently engaged in a tense street-by-street urban battle in Raqqa — ISIS’s self-proclaimed capital.

    The images of heavily armored American vehicles flowing into Syria emerge as the Kurdish fighters attempt to push closer to Raqqa’s city center and their progress has slowed in recent days.

    “The SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces] has reportedly encountered intensified resistance and ‘better-emplaced defenses’ over the past four weeks following initial rapid gains in districts on the outskirts of Ar-Raqqa City,” according to a report of the latest assessment from the Institute for the Study of War.

    Nevertheless, progress continues, according to Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.

    The American-backed Kurdish fighters in Syria have taken heavy casualties, Davis said. Last week, three westerners, including two Americans who were not active-duty military service members, were killed in what was described as a mine explosion by sources on the ground. In all, Kurdish fighters with the People’s Protection Unit, or YPG, have lost 35 fighters in the month of July alone, according to YPG press releases.

    “ISIS has extensively leveraged innovative tools to slow coalition advances, including drone-borne munitions and a new type of motion-activated IED,” according to the ISW report.

    Officials with Operation Inherent Resolve, which oversees American operations in Iraq and Syria, have push backed on claims that progress has slowed or stalled, calling the reports “not true.”

    “The SDF have not suspended military operations. In fact, over the course of the last week, the SDF have cleared more than 35 [square kilometers] of ISIS-held territory, in and around Raqqa,” said the OIR official.

    However, the videos of U.S. armored vehicles headed towards the embattled city of Raqqa calls into question the type of aid being delivered to the Kurdish allies and its adequacy to liberate the city from ISIS fighters.

    Armored vehicles are a part of coalition aid to the SDF, officials at the Pentagon said. Those vehicles are Guardian armored trucks and U.S. up-armored Humvees, according to officials at OIR.

    However, American-made M-ATVs and MRAPs are not included in the aid package for the SDF. Also, pictures of the M-ATVs show mounts for the Common Remotely Operated Weapon Station, or CROWs system — a remotely operated weapons system that can be controlled by troops from inside the vehicle. CROWs systems are also not included in aid to Kurdish fighters.

    These vehicles have commonly been operated by U.S special operations forces in Syria. The timing and appearance of the large convoys of M-ATVs calls into question their purpose.

    When asked by Military Times about whether the U.S. was planning to increase troops in Syria or engage in a more active role beyond advising partner forces, OIR would not confirm or deny, citing operational security.

    The clips also show armored bulldozers and earth movers. According to the Defense Department’s fiscal year 2018 request for funds for the train-and-equip program for Syrian partner forces, these vehicles are included in aid to “vetted” Syrian groups.

    Armored bulldozers have been instrumental in the fight against ISIS in Iraq and especially Mosul where more than 100 Caterpillar D7R dozers have been sent since 2015, according to a report by the Washington Post.

    ———-

    “US armored vehicles seen pouring into Syria” by Shawn Snow; The Military Times; 07/19/2017

    However, American-made M-ATVs and MRAPs are not included in the aid package for the SDF. Also, pictures of the M-ATVs show mounts for the Common Remotely Operated Weapon Station, or CROWs system — a remotely operated weapons system that can be controlled by troops from inside the vehicle. CROWs systems are also not included in aid to Kurdish fighters.”

    So a whole bunch of military vehicles not previously approved as military aid to the largely Kurdish forces are seen getting by Kurdish activists flowing into Syria, which implies there were seen heading towards Kurdish held territories. And the US military says it’s not aid to the Kurd and won’t comment on whether or not it’s a sign of increased US special forces involvement, presumably along-side the Kurdish forces:


    Military officials say these vehicles are not part of the U-S.-led coalition’s aid to Kurdish allies on the ground who are currently engaged in a tense street-by-street urban battle in Raqqa — ISIS’s self-proclaimed capital.

    These vehicles have commonly been operated by U.S special operations forces in Syria. The timing and appearance of the large convoys of M-ATVs calls into question their purpose.

    When asked by Military Times about whether the U.S. was planning to increase troops in Syria or engage in a more active role beyond advising partner forces, OIR would not confirm or deny, citing operational security.

    That all sounds like the shutting down of the CIA’s program is coinciding with an uptick in direct US military involvement with the Kurds. And while that might seem like the US is dropping one proxy-force in exchange for a policy of greater direct US military action in Syria, don’t forget that the only way the US was going to make the ‘moderate’ Sunni rebels even remotely comparable in terms of military strength to their al Qaeda/jihadist competitors is with a dramatic ramp up in direct US military action in Syria. And if the US is intent on seeing Assad’s regime fall without a mass slaughter of civilians by victorious jihadist forces who will turn Damascus into a blood bath those ‘moderate’ forces had better be the dominant Sunni military rebel force. Which, again, is only realistically possible with a massive up tick in direct US military forces operating along side them. That’s just the reality on the ground when the al Qaeda-offshoots are the overwhelmingly dominant Sunni rebel force.

    So more US special forces operations in Syria is probably a given if the US is going to continue intervening in this conflict. The big question is whether or not the primarily US goal is to defeat ISIS or defeat ISIS and collapse the Assad government. And if the goal is to defeat ISIS and collapse the Assad government, the next big question is whether or not the US is fine having jihadist groups take over and wage a civilian slaughter. And if the US isn’t fine with that outcome, the next question is how willing the US is on engaging in a massive military intervention that effectively makes the relatively weak ‘moderate’ rebels the dominant Sunni rebel force by getting into direct simultaneous conflicts with the jihadist rebels and Syrian government and possibly Russia. And, thus far, it looks like the answers the Trump administration has arrived at is to focus on ISIS alone while focusing on a cease-fire between the Syrian government and the rest of the rebels. Good for Trump *gag*. It’s a helluva lot better than the alternatives.

    Posted by Pterrafractyl | July 20, 2017, 2:49 pm

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