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UN Claims Syrian Gov’t Behind Chemical Attacks — But Where’s The Motive?

A new report from the U.N. has concluded Syrian government forces are to blame for a chemical weapons attack in April of this year in Khan Sheikhoun. The report from the U.N. and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) says the investigators are “confident that the Syrian Arab Republic is responsible for the release of sarin at Khan Sheikhoun on 4 April 2017.”

TIME explained:

“The report said the JIM experts talked with 17 witnesses in addition to those interviewed by the OPCW fact-finding mission and collected and reviewed material the OPCW did not have. It said the experts also obtained ‘substantial information’ on activities by the Syrian air force on April 4.”

In other words, the investigators never even visited the site, relying on witness testimony instead. The report also stated that the possibility that an improvised explosive device caused the crater “could not be completely ruled out,” as TIME noted.

TIME also noticed the following inconsistency:

“The report said the investigators received information that Syrian air force planes ‘may have been in a position to launch aerial bombs in the vicinity’ of the town. But it said air force flight records and other records provided by Syria’s government made no mention of Khan Sheikhoun. The experts said they received ‘conflicting information’ about aircraft deployments in the town that morning.”


In September this year, MIT professor Theodore Postol reiterated to Anti-Media his longstanding contention that “there is absolutely no evidence of bomb damage at any of the three alleged sites [originally presented by the York Times]” and referred Anti-Media staff to his published report that concluded none of the cited evidence supported the U.S. government’s claims. Postol also argued there was no evidence the munitions had been dropped by aircraft. Postol stated:

“The report [the White House’s report in April] contains absolutely no evidence that this attack was the result of a munition being dropped from an aircraft. In fact, the report contains absolutely no evidence that would indicate who was the perpetrator of this atrocity.”

Postol previously worked for the Pentagon and is considered somewhat of an expert on these matters. Other notable critics of the evidence against the Syrian government include former weapons inspector Scott Ritter and Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Seymour Hersh.

Considering respected experts have disputed the claim that the Syrian government launched the chemical weapons attack, the question of motive is an important one. One should bear in mind that despite what one sees in Hollywood dramas the motive is not the be-all and end-all of a criminal case. However, when the evidence is in dispute, it is important to consider whether Syrian government forces had any motive to order such a deadly attack on a civilian population, as this may provide the missing pieces of the puzzle.

The mainstream media has advanced two core arguments as to why the Syrian government would stoop so low as to launch a chemical weapons attack in a war they are already winning.

The first goes something like this:

“The answer lies in Assad’s refusal to compromise or offer any significant concessions since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011, and later morphed into a civil war. Assad overplayed his hand this time, after being emboldened by recent statements from White House officials that it was time for Western powers to accept the ‘political reality’ of Assad’s continued dominance. Assad likely decided to test those boundaries, not expecting Trump to respond militarily because the U.S. president has made it clear that he sees fighting Islamic State as his highest priority in Syria and Iraq.”

Further, Reuters wrote:

“After Trump was elected, Assad became more confident because Trump had pledged to end U.S. support for rebels fighting the Syrian regime and direct most American efforts to fighting Islamic State. Assad and his allies have rarely fought directly against the jihadist group, which established its self-proclaimed capital in the eastern city of Raqqa.”

Reuters’ claim that “Assad and his allies have rarely fought against the jihadist group” is ludicrously false, according to a report published by the London-based IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center, a leading security analysis agency. The agency actually found that 43 percent of ISIS’ battles between April 1, 2016, and March 31, 2017, were fought against the Syrian military and its allies.

Reuters’ argument essentially rests on the contention that Russia’s support in the Syrian war has given Assad free reign to do as he pleases with little to no consequences. However, it is hard to know what this is based on given it is little more than an assumption. When the U.S. and NATO powers attempted to frame Assad for a string of chemical weapons attacks in 2013, Barack Obama came up with a very extensive missile strike plan that would have seen the fall of the Syrian government. Following the Khan Sheikhoun attack in April, the media went into full swing in its attempts to demonize the Syrian government before Donald Trump launched a missile strike of his own in response. In the days that followed, Trump’s press secretary compared Assad to Hitler.

Further, there is a host of countries directly bombing Syria without Assad’s direct approval. His troops have come under fire from coalition forces multiple times, for example, by Australian warplanes. Even if someone has the ability to do as he pleases, it still doesn’t necessarily follow that said person would commit the worst types of crimes imaginable.

This is why western media has come up with a separate argument to supplement the above. This second argument was advanced by the Washington Post:

“History tells us that Assad had plenty to gain from using chemical weapons, U.S. Tomahawk missiles notwithstanding. Since last year, the Syrian government has been mopping up rebel-held enclaves around Damascus and offering their residents  ‘cease-fire’ deals — essentially negotiated surrenders…The chemical attack came at a time when Assad’s military is overstretched. Chemical weapons are a cheap, effective force multiplier — a way to inflict terror despite limitations of manpower and supply. Their use instills fear in civilians and rebels alike. By discouraging them from joining the last pockets of resistance, this tactic saves Assad something more precious than money: time.”

As Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, once said:

“I think Assad and his generals want to win and have a depleted and exhausted army…Using atom bomb on Nagasaki and Hiroshima helped the US to win [the second world war]. Neither city had military value. Demonstration effect. Shock and awe?”

The argument entails that Assad’s aim is to make life in rebel-held areas as miserable as possible so its inhabitants would prefer to live in government-controlled areas, breaking the rebels’ resolve in the process. It also relies on the assumption that despite Assad’s many victories, his forces are actually overstretched and under-resourced.

This is certainly possible and not completely unlikely. There are many ways of winning a war, and the United States certainly understands the “shock and awe” tactic more than any other military in the world.

However, both of these arguments are mere assumptions that directly seek to describe Assad’s state of mind. When it comes to alternative media’s criticism of western governments, we rely on leaks. We don’t assume what the government is thinking without evidence. We have a number of leaked documents, cables, audios and videos that give us some insight into the state of mind of the powers-that-be.

Not once has anything of the sort been advanced regarding the Syrian government. In fact, during the chemical weapons fiasco in 2013, German intelligence showed they were unable to intercept any communications of any kind directly implicating Assad in the chemical weapons attacks.

So what are these assumptions based on? Can they be proven by the standards we would require in a court of law?

As more U.N.-sanctioned “evidence” begins to mount against the Syrian government, perhaps we will learn the truth about these fateful attacks in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, however, we should continue to remain skeptical about western media’s claims that purport to know the state of mind of a leader and his people who have been battling a deadly and violent war for over half a decade.

Darius Shahtahmasebi
Darius Shahtahmasebi is a New Zealand-based legal and political analyst, currently specializing in immigration, refugee and humanitarian law. Contact Darius: Support Darius' work on Patreon:

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