Syria: Deciphering the Propaganda War over the Ghouta Massacre
The politicised debate over the realities of last month’s chemical attack in Ghouta is a further manifestation of a propaganda war – being fought on all sides and for competing national and geopolitical interests – that shows scant regard for the human cost of the conflict.
If there is anything to learn from the Syrian conflict, it is that, in the fog of war, truth really is the first casualty. Narratives and counter-narratives of the conflict have plagued media accounts and the blogosphere ever since peaceful protests erupted on the streets of Syria over two years ago, and increasingly so in the wake of the Ghouta chemical weapons attack of the 21st August.
While the West’s case against Assad in this respect appears politicised and less than conclusive, the same, if not worse, can be said about the case against the rebels. Almost every single piece of evidence that has been put forward to support that case has been disputed at the very least, or proved entirely false. And the politicisation of Russian and Iranian intelligence, the role of Assad in spearheading propaganda, has been overlooked.
From the White House dossier to the United Nations report, from Syrian nuns to revelations from former and active intelligence officials, the propaganda war between pro and anti-interventionists to control the paradigm through which we understand the conflict – manifesting itself in Bashar al-Assad’s latest call for a ceasefire – may be feeding into little-known strategic imperatives that see the Syrian people as mere pawns in a wider gambit.
The Ghouta verdict
On September 16th, a UN investigation released its interim findings on the chemical weapons incident in Ghouta, Damascus of August 21st, stating that:
“… the environmental, chemical and medical samples, we have collected, provide clear and convincing evidence that surface-to-surface rockets containing the nerve agent sarin were used in Ein Tarma, Moadamiyah and Zamalka in the Ghouta area of Damascus.”
But there were faultlines. Acknowledging that the investigation would not have been possible without the consent of both the Syrian government and on-the-ground cooperation of opposition forces, the report is fully cognisant of potential efforts to manipulate evidence at the various sites of the attack. In Moadamiya (p. 18), the report notes that: “The sites have been well travelled by other individuals both before and during the investigation. Fragments and other possible evidence have clearly been handled/moved prior to arrival of the investigation team.”
And in Zamalka and Ein Tarma (p. 22), the report flags up similar reservations that “the locations have been well travelled by other individuals prior to the arrival of the Mission” Even while the inspectors were present, “individuals arrived carrying other suspected munitions indicating that such potential evidence is being moved and possibly manipulated”:
These caveats are important, but they should not be overblown. That the inspection team recognised these issues and took them into account in assessing the implications of the physical evidence mitigates against jumping quickly to the sort of simplistic counter-conclusion opportunistically (and misleadingly) misinterpreted by the likes of Iran’s state-controlled ‘Press TV’. On the other hand, the fact that the UN team documented efforts by individuals at these rebel-controlled areas to “possibly manipulate” some “potential evidence” at the sites is a concern.
But the UN report was also corroborated by independent experts. Dan Kaszeta, a chemical weapons specialist formerly with the U.S. Army Chemical Corps who had previous expressed doubt about the attacks due to inconsistencies in symptoms and other issues, nevertheless assessed that the UN report had identified “conclusive evidence” from environmental and medical data that this was a Sarin gas attack. Kaszeta pointed out that to address the limitations identified, the inspection team utilised a range of controls to ensure a lack of cross-contamination, and obtained a variety of different samples from in and around sites to avoid potential effects of tampering. An earlier Human Rights Watch (HRW) investigation undertaken with support from independent experts noted that the nature of the munitions, their trajectories, as well as the testimony from victims and eyewitnesses, pointed to a sophisticated operation most “likely” to have been carried out by the Syrian military via a regime-held base.
Counter-posed to these assessments is a barely-literate, self-contradictory “report” based essentially on analysis of YouTube videos by an unidentified “investigative team” headed up by Sister Agnes Miriam de la Croix, a Carmelite nun based in Syria who has long openly supported Assad. If there remain questions about the UN’s findings (itself arguable), this report is far worse, making a large number of interlinked and largely spurious claims implying that there was no chemical weapons attack at all, and the Ghouta massacre was entirely staged by the rebels with the complicity of international news media. Agnes Miriam, however, has a track record of unreliability and unverifiable accusations, explicable in the context of being close to Assad’s security services—so close, that according to the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ), the nun was complicit in a successful regime plot to kill international journalists. Unfortunately, that dearth of credibility has not prevented outlets like ‘Russia Today‘ from broadcasting the nun and her claims on satellite television. That’s not entirely surprising though, because Russian ‘intelligence’ attributing the attack to the rebels appears to be based exactly on such speculative partisan online analysis proven wrong in the past.
Not surprisingly, the White House moved quickly to stating that the UN’s findings vindicated its case that the attacks were carried out by Assad’s forces. On Aug. 30, the White House had published a document squarely attributing the Aug. 21 use of chemical weapons in Ghouta to the Syrian military. The document described itself as a U.S. “government assessment“, encapsulating “an unclassified summary of the U.S. intelligence community’s analysis” of the attack. But the document admitted to falling short of conclusive “confirmation.”
Less than a week after the White House assessment was published, on Sept. 6, an open letter to president Barack Obama signed by a respected group of retired US intelligence officers claimed that active U.S. intelligence community officials disagreed with the White House assessment. The memo by the group known as Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS)—led by 27-year CIA analyst Ray McGovern who chaired National Intelligence Estimates and prepared the President’s Daily Brief—opens as follows:
“… our former co-workers are telling us, categorically, that contrary to the claims of your administration, the most reliable intelligence shows that Bashar al-Assad was NOT responsible for the chemical incident that killed and injured Syrian civilians on August 21, and that British intelligence officials also know this.”
The veterans group does have a solid track record, having addressed its first memo to President George W. Bush warning presciently that Secretary of State Colin Powell’s notorious 2003 UN speech on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction intelligence was fraudulent. The group’s other members include well-known former intelligence officers from the CIA, State Department and National Security Agency.
They wrote that “CIA officers working on the Syria issue” told them that Syria’s chemical incident was “not the result of an attack by the Syrian Army using military-grade chemical weapons from its arsenal.” On the contrary: “They tell us that CIA Director John Brennan is perpetrating a pre-Iraq-War-type fraud on members of Congress, the media, the public—and perhaps even you.”
The memo describes the White House report as “a political, not an intelligence document.” It cites Middle East sources linked to the Syrian opposition confirming that “the August 21 chemical incident was a pre-planned provocation by the Syrian opposition and its Saudi and Turkish supporters”, designed precisely to “bring the United States into the war.”
The memo quickly went viral online. If the VIPS account is accurate, of course, then it raises serious questions not just about the White House assessment that it contested, but also about the possibility that the rebels’ supporters could have interfered with evidence critical to the integrity of the UN investigation.
So who is right?
Politicisation of Intelligence
Backing up the VIPS’ case, other intelligence experts have stated that the very nature of the White House document probably means it does not represent the untarnished conclusions of the US intelligence community.
One anonymous ex-senior intelligence official who held dozens of security classifications over a decades-long career said that the language used by the White House “means that this is not an intelligence community document.” He had “never seen a document about an international crisis at any classification described/slugged as a U.S. government assessment.” This means that the administration “decided on a position and cherry-picked the intelligence to fit it… The result is not a balanced assessment of the intelligence.”
Paul Pillar, a former National Intelligence Council (NIC) officer who participated in drafting national intelligence estimates, described the White House report as “evidently an administration document.” Even if senior intelligence officials signed off on the document at some stage, he said, the White House may have drafted its own paper to “avoid attention to analytic differences within the intelligence community.”
Others have pointed out that the document appears to mislead on its sources of information. At one point, for instance, it claims:
“We have a body of information, including past Syrian practice, that leads us to conclude that regime officials were witting of and directed the attack on August 21. We intercepted communications involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on August 21 and was concerned with the UN inspectors obtaining evidence.”
However, as noted by former British Ambassador Craig Murray who headed the British Foreign Office’s Cyprus section in the 1990s, the Mount Troodos listening post in Cyprus responsible for monitoring all electronic communications across the Middle East on behalf of both U.S. and British intelligence (which share all this information as a matter of protocol) did not appear to have picked up these intercepts. Murray’s intelligence sources told him that such intercepts “were not available to the UK Joint Intelligence Committee” – but if they had been picked up, they should have been. The only explanation was that the alleged intercept evidence was provided by Mossad, he said—but the fact that Troodos did not pick up on it suggests Mossad may have doctored the intercepts.
On the other hand, German intelligence picked up intercepts showing that Syrian military officers had been requesting Assad permission to use chemical weapons for over the preceding four months—but crucially that Assad himself had always denied permission up to and including the Ghouta attack.
So at first glance, the VIPS memo’s core contention that U.S. intelligence is being politicized over Syria, as happened in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War, appears compelling.
But a deeper look reveals that the VIPS memo fails to withstand the same level of scrutiny and verifiability it demands from the Obama administration. From where, for instance, does its narrative of the Aug. 21 attack actually come from?
Disturbingly, certain sections of the VIPS letter to Obama seem to plagiarise verbatim an older article by Yossef Bodanksy, former Director the U.S. Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare of the U.S. House of Representatives, published in the Washington DC journal Defense & Foreign Affairs. The latter, a publication of the International Strategic Studies Association (ISSA)—a private intelligence group providing consultancy services for the U.S. and other governments and corporations—attributed the chemical weapon attacks to the rebels.
Here are some extracts from the VIPs memo and the Bodanksy article—published about a week before the former (and available online here)—which are almost exactly the same (added emphasis ours):
There is a growing volume of new evidence from numerous sources in the Middle East—mostly affiliated with the Syrian opposition and its sponsors and supporters—that makes a very strong case, based on solid circumstantial evidence, that the August 21, 2013, chemical strike in Damascus suburbs was indeed a pre-meditated provocation by the Syrian opposition.
There is a growing body of evidence from numerous sources in the Middle East—mostly affiliated with the Syrian opposition and its supporters—providing a strong circumstantial case that the August 21 chemical incident was a pre-planned provocation by the Syrian opposition and its Saudi and Turkish supporters. The aim is reported to have been to create the kind of incident that would bring the United States into the war.
Western-sponsored opposition forces in Turkey started advance preparations for a major and irregular military surge. Initial meetings between senior opposition military commanders and representatives of Qatari, Turkish and US intelligence took place at the converted Turkish military garrison in Antakya, Hatay Province, used as the command center and headquarters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and their foreign sponsors. Very senior opposition commanders who had arrived from Istanbul briefed the regional commanders of an imminent escalation in the fighting due to “a war-changing development” which would, in turn, lead to a U.S.-led bombing of Syria.
In addition, we have learned that on August 13-14, 2013, Western-sponsored opposition forces in Turkey started advance preparations for a major, irregular military surge. Initial meetings between senior opposition military commanders and Qatari, Turkish and U.S. intelligence officials took place at the converted Turkish military garrison in Antakya, Hatay Province, now used as the command center and headquarters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and their foreign sponsors.
Senior opposition commanders who came from Istanbul pre-briefed the regional commanders on an imminent escalation in the fighting due to “a war-changing development,” which, in turn, would lead to a U.S.-led bombing of Syria.
The opposition forces had to quickly prepare their forces for exploiting the US-led bombing in order to march on Damascus and topple the Bashar al-Assad Government, the senior commanders explained. The Qatari and Turkish intelligence officials assured the Syrian regional commanders that they would be provided with plenty of weapons for the coming offensive.
Indeed, unprecedented weapons distribution started in all opposition camps in Hatay Province on August 21-23, 2013. In the Reyhanli area alone, opposition forces received well in excess of 400 tons of weapons, mainly anti-aircraft weaponry from shoulder-fired missiles to ammunition for light-guns and machine guns. The weapons were distributed from store-houses controlled by Qatari and Turkish intelligence under the tight supervision of U.S. intelligence.
Opposition leaders were ordered to prepare their forces quickly to exploit the U.S. bombing, march into Damascus, and remove the Bashar al-Assad government.
The Qatari and Turkish intelligence officials assured the Syrian regional commanders that they would be provided with plenty of weapons for the coming offensive. And they were. A weapons distribution operation unprecedented in scope began in all opposition camps on August 21-23. The weapons were distributed from storehouses controlled by Qatari and Turkish intelligence under the tight supervision of U.S. intelligence officers.
I queried several VIPS signatories regarding their alleged sources for this narrative. Ex-NSA senior executive Thomas Drake described the sources as “sensitive” but attributed primary authorship of the memo to Ray McGovern—Bodansky’s article, of course, being available for free online is hardly a “sensitive source.”
Former CIA and State Department counter-terrorism officer Larry Johnson said that he had obtained some information related to this account from one “highly reliable and trusted” source, rather than multiple sources. When asked if the source was based in the Middle East or Syrian opposition, as claimed in the memo, Johnson said he would not divulge any other information about this source.
Further, when pressed to elaborate on the nature of their sources, VIPS chair McGovern referred to: “Senior officials in the U.S. intelligence community with access to this information.”
However, their real—unacknowledged—source is Bodanksy’s article, as the clear textual evidence of blatant plagiarism above reveals. But Bodansky is not a senior official in the U.S. intelligence community. VIPS do not have on the ground sources in the Middle East or among the Syrian opposition at all. Rather than learning the lesson of the plagiarised British dossier on Iraq’s (non-existent) WMD, the VIPS memo replicates it in a misguided effort to oppose an intervention.
When I then put the charge of plagiarism to VIPS, McGovern responded by saying: “Sorry if I did not make it clear. ‘Senior officials’ and Bodansky are two separate and distinct things. The former have nothing to do with the latter. Were it not for the former, we would not have written the piece.” The former CIA analyst added:
“If, as we are told by people we trust (amid suspicions from a whole array of other circumstantial evidence) that the government is not telling the truth, then, in essence we have (or almost had) Iraq Part II, as far as fraudulent intelligence is concerned.”
I asked him why VIPS needed to rely on Bodansky’s narrative if their U.S. intelligence sources were privy to information proving Assad’s innocence, and whether they had verified Bodanksy’s own alleged sources, but received no further comment.
Vacuous Viral Memes
The contradictory White House and VIPS memos are part of an ongoing propaganda war to ‘fix’ the intelligence on Syria for partisan interests, well meaning or not. They illustrate how difficult it is to make sense of the situation in Syria for outside observers due to inherently politicised, conflicting reports. Neither the U.S. and British, nor Iranian and Russian media are impartial sources of information.
Is it possible to assess whether Bodansky’s claims have any merit? Although he has been right in the past, his services having been sought as a U.S. government defence consultant, he has also been ridiculously wrong. In relation to Syria, Bodansky is openly supportive of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, as well as of Alawite domination of Syria. He specifically supported Assad’s uncle Rifaat, who led the 1982 massacre in Hama. So his alleged sources might well also be partisan. (Bodansky could not be reached for comment on his relationship with the Assad regime or the reliability of his own alleged sources, and my email to him on these issues received no response.)
Are VIPS being too credulous about pro-Assad propaganda? Responding to questions about sources over Twitter, Thomas Drake replied with a link to another viral article by Jordan-based Dave Gavlak, a veteran Middle East correspondent for Associated Press, co-writing with on-the-ground reporter Yahya Ababneh. The report cited interviews with mostly unnamed “doctors, Ghouta residents, rebel fighters and their families” saying that the Aug. 21 attack was conducted accidentally by rebels supplied with chemical weapons by Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan. Bandar reportedly provided the weapons to the rebels via the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front. But the article, published by a little-known alternative news outlet known as ‘Mint Press News’, came with the following caveat: “Some information in this article could not be independently verified. Mint Press News will continue to provide further information and updates.”
Subsequently, the integrity of the report was completely thrown into question when its purported lead author, Gavlak, issued a statement confirming that he had, in fact, nothing to do with the authorship of the article, and had repeatedly requested Mint Press News to remove his name from the piece without success:
“To date, Mint Press News has refused to act professionally or honestly in regards to disclosing the actual authorship and sources for this story. I did not travel to Syria, have any discussions with Syrian rebels, or do any other reporting on which the article is based. The article is not based on my personal observations and should not be given credence based on my journalistic reputation. Also, it is false and misleading to attribute comments made in the story as if they were my own statements.”
Worse, the story is disputed by accounts obtained by London’s Independent from Ghouta residents who “repeatedly recounted separate landings of ‘chemicals’ at Kafr Batna, Zayina, Ein Tarma, Zamalka, Ain Tarma and Moadamiyeh Al Sham, at varying times, pointing out that a single home-made rocket could not have carried out multiple strikes.” While tunnels in Ghouta do exist, “any chemical accidents in them would not have reached the areas affected, the residents insisted.” Additionally, al-Nusra “has no presence of any significance in Ghouta”, with the largest Islamist group in the area being Liwa al-Islam, who “are not as hardline.”
How to explain the discrepancy between the two stories? The Houla massacre provides a clue—in that case, Assad agents were bribing poor Syrians to spread propaganda blaming the rebels for the killings. The propaganda even made news attributed to so-called Syrian “opposition sources”, but was eventually discredited by UN investigators. The simple physical and eyewitness evidence at the sites of multiple surface-to-surface rocket attacks also undermines the Mint Press News’ claims about an accidental underground detonation.
Another viral story blaming the rebels for the Aug. 21 attacks cites two Belgian and Italian writers who had been taken hostage by Syrian rebel forces for five months. After their release on 8th September, they described overhearing a conversation between their captors saying the rebels had launched the attack to trigger a Western intervention. Compelling? The Italian journalist later emphasised he did not know the rebels were responsible for the chemical attack, as he could not tell whether the overheard conversation was based on real events as opposed to discussion of rumour or hearsay, and could not even confirm the exact identities of its participants.
The ongoing war of words illustrates that Syria is not just a civil war, but a propaganda war being fought for competing geopolitical interests. The end-result of this tug of war between pro-interventionist and anti-interventionist narratives has been the victory of neither, and thus, the entrenchment of violence amidst a Syrian stalemate.
Unfortunately, some parties see this stalemate as a strategic boon. Noting “the synergy between the Israeli and American positions”, the New York Times recently reported that: “For Jerusalem, the status quo, horrific as it may be from a humanitarian perspective, seems preferable to either a victory by Mr. Assad’s government and his Iranian backers or a strengthening of rebel groups, increasingly dominated by Sunni jihadis.” In this context, the threat of “limited” military strikes is more about sending a message to Iran and Syria, rather than about decisively defeating Assad—which may be because “the West needs more time to prop up opposition forces it finds more palatable.”
This coheres uncannily well with a 2008 U.S. Army-funded RAND report tasked with setting out strategic options for regional policy, whose key objective it describes as protecting Western access to Persian Gulf oil supplies. This requires “shoring up the traditional Sunni regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan as a way of containing Iranian power and influence in the Middle East and Persian Gulf”, as well as “exploiting fault lines” between jihadist groups “to turn them against each other and dissipate their energy on internal conflicts.” This is now well underway in Syria, where al-Qaeda and Hizbullah are being dragged into a spiral of mutually-debilitating violence.
Another strategic upshot is the sidelining of longstanding regional pipeline plans that could challenge U.S. aspirations to become a major gas exporter to European markets, directly competing with Russian hegemony. With Qatar and Iran at loggerheads over potential Syria-crossing transit routes designed to supply gas to Europe (with Assad favouring the Iran-backed route based on utilising the Russian-controlled Syrian port of Tartus), the civil war stalemate prevents both from materialising, giving the U.S. an unexpected edge as its shale gas production booms.
In short, the U.S. gets to sideline its gas export competitors while undermining Iranian influence; Israel gets its regional enemies embroiled in war-without-end; Russia gets its arms sales to Iran and Syria; Saudi Arabia and Qatar get to escalate their game of geopolitical brinkmanship; and even the UN gets to rack up its depleted ‘peacekeeping’ credentials over self-congratulatory chemical weapons negotiations. And as the world has watched the debate over intervention drag on like an obscene international game of ping pong, the military-industrial complex rakes in huge profits from rocketing share prices.
Meanwhile, Syrian civilians continue to be killed largely by conventional, not chemical, weapons. According to the latest UN human rights report, both Syrian government forces and Free Syrian Army rebels—and not just those affiliated to al-Qaeda—have committed war crimes, although government forces are culpable in the vast bulk of the violence including at least eight massacres. But under the feel-good smokescreen of chemical ‘peacemaking’ resulting in the rightly-lauded framework agreement, the U.S. and Russia are still fuelling the conflict by stepping up military support to their favoured sides.
Despite the heavy-handed moral rhetoric from all quarters, it seems that everyone is jockeying in pursuit of their own interests, the Syrian people be damned.