In the old days of journalism, we were taught that there were almost always two sides to a story, if not more sides than that. Indeed, part of the professional challenge of journalism was to sort out conflicting facts on a complicated topic. Often we found that the initial impression of a story was wrong once we understood the more nuanced reality.
Today, however, particularly on foreign policy issues, the major U.S. news outlets, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, apparently believe there is only one side to a story, the one espoused by the U.S. government or more generically the Establishment.
Any other interpretation of a set of facts gets dismissed as “fringe” or “fake news” even if there are obvious holes in the official story and a lack of verifiable proof to support the mainstream groupthink. Very quickly, alternative explanations are cast aside while ridicule is heaped on those who disagree.
So, for instance, The New York Times will no longer allow any doubt to creep in about its certainty that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad intentionally dropped a sarin bomb on the remote rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province in northern Syria on April 4.
A mocking article by the Times’ Jim Rutenberg on Monday displayed the Times’ rejection of any intellectual curiosity regarding the U.S. government’s claims that were cited by President Trump as justification for his April 6 missile strike against a Syrian military airbase. The attack killed several soldiers and nine civilians including four children, according to Syrian press reports.
Rutenberg traveled to Moscow with the clear intention of mocking the Russian news media for its “fake news” in contrast to The New York Times, which holds itself out as the world’s premier guardian of “the truth.” Rather than deal with the difficulty of assessing what happened in Khan Sheikhoun, which is controlled by Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate and where information therefore should be regarded as highly suspect, Rutenberg simply assessed that the conventional wisdom in the West must be correct.
To discredit any doubters, Rutenberg associated them with one of the wackier conspiracy theories of radio personality Alex Jones, another version of the Times’ recent troubling reliance on McCarthyistic logical fallacies, not only applying guilt by association but refuting reasonable skepticism by tying it to someone who in an entirely different context expressed unreasonable skepticism.
“As soon as I turned on a television here I wondered if I had arrived through an alt-right wormhole. Back in the States, the prevailing notion in the news was that Mr. Assad had indeed been responsible for the chemical strike. There was some ‘reportage’ from sources like the conspiracy theorist and radio host Alex Jones — best known for suggesting that the Sandy Hook school massacre was staged — that the chemical attack was a ‘false flag’ operation by terrorist rebel groups to goad the United States into attacking Mr. Assad. But that was a view from the [U.S.] fringe. Here in Russia, it was the dominant theme throughout the overwhelmingly state-controlled mainstream media.”
Ergo, in Rutenberg’s sophistry, the “prevailing notion in the [U.S.] news” must be accepted as true, regardless of the checkered history of such confidence in the past, i.e., the “prevailing notion” that Saddam Hussein was hiding WMD in Iraq in 2003. Today, to shut down any serious evaluation of the latest WMD claims about Syria just say: “Alex Jones.”
Thus, any evidence that the April 4 incident might have been staged or might have resulted from an accidental release of Al Qaeda-controlled chemicals must be dismissed as something on par with believing the wildest of silly conspiracy theories. (Indeed, one of the reasons that I detest conspiracy theories is that they often reject hard evidence in favor of fanciful speculation, which then can be used, in exactly the way that Rutenberg did, to undermine serious efforts to sort through conflicting accounts and questionable evidence in other cases.)
In the case of the April 4 incident, there were several alternative explanations that deserved serious attention, including the possibility that Al Qaeda had staged the event, possibly sacrificing innocent civilians in an attempt to trick President Trump into reversing his administration’s recent renunciation of the U.S. goal of “regime change” in Syria.
This notion is not as nutty as Rutenberg pretends. For instance, United Nations investigators received testimonies from Syrian eyewitnesses regarding another attempt by Al Qaeda-affiliated jihadists and their “rescue” teams to stage a chlorine attack in the town of Al-Tamanah on the night of April 29-30, 2014, and then spread word of the bogus attack through social media.
“Seven witnesses stated that frequent alerts [about an imminent chlorine weapons attack by the government] had been issued, but in fact no incidents with chemicals took place,” the U.N. report stated. “While people sought safety after the warnings, their homes were looted and rumours spread that the events were being staged. … [T]hey [these witnesses] had come forward to contest the wide-spread false media reports.”
The rebels and their allies also made preposterous claims about how they knew canisters of chlorine were contained in “barrel bombs,” by citing the supposedly distinctive sound such chlorine-infused bombs made.
The U.N. report said,
“The [rebel-connected] eyewitness, who stated to have been on the roof, said to have heard a helicopter and the ‘very loud’ sound of a falling barrel. Some interviewees had referred to a distinct whistling sound of barrels that contain chlorine as they fall. The witness statement could not be corroborated with any further information.”
Of course, the statement could not be corroborated because it was crazy to believe that people could discern the presence of a chlorine canister inside a “barrel bomb” by its “distinct whistling sound.”
Still, the U.N. team demanded that the Syrian government provide flight records to support its denial that any of its aircraft were in the air in that vicinity at the time of the attack. The failure of the Syrian government to provide those records of flights that it said did not happen was then cited by the U.N. investigators as somehow evidence of Syrian guilt, another challenge to rationality, since it would be impossible to produce flight records for flights that didn’t happen.
Despite this evidence of a rebel fabrication – and the lack of a Syrian military purpose from using chlorine since it almost never kills anyone – the U.N. investigators succumbed to intense career pressure from the Western powers and accepted as true two other unverified rebel claims of chlorine attacks, leading the Western media to report as flat-fact that the Syrian government used chlorine bombs on civilians.
The Dubious Sarin Case
Besides the dubious chlorine cases – and the evidence of at least one attempted fabrication – there was the infamous sarin attack outside Damascus on Aug. 21, 2013, when there was a similar rush to judgment blaming the Syrian government although later evidence, including the maximum range of the sarin-carrying missile, pointed to the more likely guilt of Al Qaeda-connected extremists sacrificing the lives of civilians to advance their jihadist cause.
In all these cases, the Times and other Western news outlets behaved as if there was only one acceptable side to the story, the one that the U.S. government was pushing, i.e., blaming the Syrian government. It didn’t matter how implausible the claims were or how unreliable the sources.
In both the Aug. 21, 2013 sarin case and the current April 4, 2017 case, Western officials and media ignored the obvious motives for Al Qaeda to carry out a provocation, foist blame on the government and induce the U.S. to intervene on Al Qaeda’s side.In August 2013, the Syrian government had just welcomed U.N. investigators who came to Damascus to investigate government allegations of rebels using chemical weapons against government troops. That the Syrian government would then conduct a poison-gas attack within miles of the hotel where the U.N. investigators were staying and thus divert their attention made no logical sense.
Similarly, in April 2017, the Syrian government was not only prevailing on the battlefield but had just received word that the Trump administration had reversed the U.S. policy demanding “regime change” in Damascus. So, the obvious motive to release chemical weapons was with Al Qaeda and its allies, not with the Syrian government.
Manufacturing a Motive
The West has struggled to explain why President Assad would pick that time – and a town of little military value – to drop a sarin bomb. The Times and other mainstream media have suggested that the answer lies in the barbarism and irrationality of Arabs. In that vaguely racist thinking, Assad was flaunting his impunity by dropping sarin in a victory celebration of sorts, even though the predicable consequence was a U.S. missile attack and Trump reversing again the U.S. policy to demand Assad’s ouster.
On April 11, five days after Trump’s decision to attack the Syrian airbase, Trump’s White House released a four-page “intelligence assessment” that offered another alleged motivation, Khan Sheikhoun’s supposed value as a staging area for a rebel offensive threatening government infrastructure. But that offensive had already been beaten back and the town was far from the frontlines.
In other words, there was no coherent motive for Assad to have dropped sarin on this remote town. There was, however, a very logical reason for Al Qaeda’s jihadists to stage a chemical attack and thus bring pressure on Assad’s government. (There’s also the possibility of an accidental release via a conventional government bombing of a rebel warehouse or from the rebels mishandling a chemical weapon – although some of the photographic evidence points more toward a staged event.)
But we’re not supposed to ask these questions – or doubt the “evidence” provided by Al Qaeda and its allies – because Alex Jones raised similar questions and Russian news outlets are reporting on this scenario, too.
There’s the additional problem with Rutenberg’s sophistry: Many of the April 4 sarin claims have been debunked by MIT national security and technology expert Theodore Postol, who has issued a series of reports shredding the claims from the White House’s “intelligence assessment.”
For instance, Postol cited the key photographs showing a supposed sarin canister crumpled inside a crater in a roadway. Postol noted that the canister appeared to be crushed, not exploded, and that the men in the photos inspecting the hole were not wearing protective gear that would have been required if there actually were sarin in the crater.
All of these anomalies and the problems with “evidence” generated by Al Qaeda and its allies should put the entire meme of the Syrian government using chemical weapons in doubt. But Rutenberg is not alone in treating this official groupthink as flat-fact.
Washington Post “fact-checker” Glenn Kessler awarded “four Pinocchios” – reserved for the most egregious lies – to former National Security Adviser Susan Rice for asserting last January that the Syrian government had surrendered all its chemical weapons as part of a 2013 agreement.
“The reality is that there were confirmed chemical weapons attacks by Syria – and that U.S. and international officials had good evidence that Syria had not been completely forthcoming in its declaration [regarding its surrendered chemicals], and possibly retained sarin and VX nerve agent …. and that the Syrian government still attacked citizens with chemical weapons not covered by the 2013 agreement,” i.e., the chlorine cases.
But Kessler has no way of actually knowing what the truth is regarding Syria’s alleged chemical weapons use. He is simply repeating the propagandistic groupthink that has overwhelmed the Syrian crisis. Presumably he would have given four Pinocchios to anyone who had doubted the 2003 claims about Iraq hiding WMD because all the Important People “knew” that to be true at the time.
What neither Rutenberg nor Kessler seems willing or capable of addressing is the larger problem created by the U.S. government and its NATO allies investing heavily in information warfare or what is sometimes called “strategic communications,” claiming that they are defending themselves from Russian “active measures.” However, the impact of all these competing psychological operations is to trample reality.
The role of an honest press corps should be to apply skepticism to all official stories, not carry water for “our side” and reject anything coming from the “other side,” which is what The New York Times, The Washington Post and the rest of the Western mainstream media have done, especially regarding Middle East policies and now the New Cold War with Russia.
The American people and other news consumers have a right to expect that the Western media will recall the old adage that there are almost always two sides to a story. There’s also the truism that truth often resides not at the surface but is hidden beneath.
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).
How the U.S. Government Spins the Story
Did Syria actually use chemical weapons?
Sounds like we’ve heard it all before, because we have, back in August 2013, and that turned out to be less than convincing. Skepticism is likewise mounting over current White House claims that Damascus used a chemical weapon against civilians in the village of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province on April 4th. Shortly after the more recent incident, President Donald Trump, possibly deriving his information from television news reports, abruptly stated that the government of President Bashar al-Assad had ordered the attack. He also noted that the use of chemicals had “crossed many red lines” and hinted that Damascus would be held accountable.
Twenty-four hours later retribution came in the form of the launch of 59 cruise missiles directed against the Syrian airbase at Sharyat. The number of casualties, if any, remains unclear and the base itself sustained only minor damage amidst allegations that many of the missiles had missed their target. The physical assault was followed by a verbal onslaught, with the Trump Administration blaming Russia for shielding al-Assad and demanding that Moscow end its alliance with Damascus if it wishes to reestablish good relations with Washington.
The media, led by the usual neoconservative cheerleaders, have applauded Trump’s brand of tough love with Syria, even though Damascus had no motive to stage such an attack while the so-called rebels had plenty to gain. The escalation to a war footing also serves no U.S. interest and actually damages prospects for eliminating ISIS any time soon. Democratic Party liberal interventionists have also joined with Senators John McCain, Lindsay Graham and Marco Rubio to celebrate the cruise missile strike and hardening rhetoric. Principled and eminently sensible Democratic Congressman Tulsi Gabbard, has demanded evidence of Syrian culpability, saying
“It angers and saddens me that President Trump has taken the advice of war hawks and escalated our illegal regime change war to overthrow the Syrian government. This escalation is short-sighted and will lead to more dead civilians, more refugees, the strengthening of al-Qaeda and other terrorists, and a direct confrontation between the United States and Russia—which could lead to nuclear war. This Administration has acted recklessly without care or consideration of the dire consequences of the United States attack on Syria without waiting for the collection of evidence from the scene of the chemical poisoning.”
For her pains, she has been vilified by members of her own party, who have called for her resignation.
Other congressmen, including Senators Rand Paul and Tim Kaine, who have asked for a vote in congress to authorize going to war, have likewise been ignored or deliberately marginalized. All of which means that the United States has committed a war crime against a country with which it is not at war and has done so by ignoring Article 2 of the Constitution, which grants to Congress the sole power to declare war. It has also failed to establish a casus belli that Syria represents some kind of threat to the United States.
What has become completely clear, as a result of the U.S. strike and its aftermath, is that any general reset with Russia has now become unimaginable, meaning among other things that a peace settlement for Syria is for now unattainable. It also has meant that the rebels against al-Assad’s regime will be empowered, possibly deliberately staging more chemical “incidents” and blaming the Damascus government to shift international opinion farther in their direction. ISIS, which was reeling prior to the attack and reprisal, has been given a reprieve by the same United States government that pledged to eradicate it. And Donald Trump has reneged on his two campaign pledges to avoid deeper involvement in Middle Eastern wars and mend fences with Moscow.
There have been two central documents relating to the alleged Syrian chemical weapon incidents in 2013 and 2017, both of which read like press releases. Both refer to a consensus within the U.S. intelligence community (IC) and express “confidence” and even “high confidence” regarding their conclusions but neither is actually a product of the office of the Director of National Intelligence, which would be appropriate if the IC had actually come to a consensus. Neither the Director of National Intelligence nor the Director of CIA were present in a photo showing the White House team deliberating over what to do about Syria. Both documents supporting the U.S. cruise missile attack were, in fact, uncharacteristically put out by the White House, suggesting that the arguments were stitched together in haste to support a political decision to use force that had already been made.
The two documents provide plenty of circumstantial information but little in the way of actual evidence. The 2013 Obama version “Government Assessment of the Syrian Government’s Use of Chemical Weapons on August 21, 2013,” was criticized almost immediately when it was determined that there were alternative explanations for the source of the chemical agents that might have killed more than a thousand people in and around the town of Ghouta. The 2017 Trump version “The Assad Regime’s Use of Chemical Weapons on April 4, 2017,” is likewise under fire from numerous quarters. Generally reliable journalist Robert Parry is reporting that the intelligence behind the White House claims comes largely from satellite surveillance, though nothing has been released to back-up the conclusion that the Syrian government was behind the attack, an odd omission as everyone knows about satellite capabilities and they are not generally considered to be a classified source or method.
Parry also cites the fact that there are alternative theories on what took place and why, some of which appear to originate with the intelligence and national security community, which was in part concerned over the rush to judgment by the White House. MIT Professor Theodore Postol, considered to be an expert on munitions, has also questioned the government’s account of what took place in Khan Sheikhoun through a detailed analysis of the available evidence. He believes that the chemical agent was fired from the ground, not from an airplane, suggesting that it was an attack initiated by the rebels made to appear as if it was caused by the Syrian bomb.
In spite of the challenges, “Trust me,” says Donald Trump. The Russians and Syrians are demanding an international investigation of the alleged chemical weapons incident, but as time goes by the ability to discern what took place diminishes. All that is indisputably known at this point is that the Syrian Air Force attacked a target in Idlib and a cloud of toxic chemicals was somehow released. The al-Ansar terrorist group (affiliated with al-Qaeda) is in control of the area and benefits greatly from the prevailing narrative.
If it was in fact the actual implementer of the attack, it is no doubt cleaning and reconfiguring the site to support the account that it is promoting and which is being uncritically accepted both by the mainstream media and by a number of governments. The United States will also do its best to disrupt any inquiry that challenges the assumptions that it has already come to. The Trump Administration is threatening to do more to remove Bashar al-Assad and every American should accept that the inhabitant of the White House, when he is actually in residence, will discover like many before him that war is good business. He will continue to ride the wave of jingoism that has turned out to be his salvation, reversing to an extent the negative publicity that has dogged the new administration.
Trump Enthrones Erdogan – Destroys Trust In U.S. Diplomacy
Trump contradicted his speaker, the State Department and his allies by congratulating the Turkish President Erdogan for winning Sunday’s referendum vote. He undermined his diplomacy.
Sundays referendum in Turkey makes the presidential office a quasi dictatorial position that leads the executive and can, via decrees, also overrule the legislative and judiciary elements of the state. President Erdogan is now in a dictatorial position. It maybe that a majority of the Turkish voters voted for this change but it is far from certain. The number of votes in doubt because they were not taken in accordance with the legal procedures (2-3 million) is higher than slight majority lead (1.5 million) for the “yes” side.
Official international election observers noted (pdf) that the vote was neither free nor fair. The Turkish state is under emergency rules which give the president (temporarily) extraordinary powers. The vote happened after an extreme hunt against anyone that could have endangered Erdogan’s position. He jailed opposition politicians and civil servants, forbade some political groups and closed down opposition media. All state institutions were used in support for Erdogan’s side. If he could only win by 1.5 million votes in a 80 million strong society after this extreme anti-opposition campaign how many Turks would really have agreed with him on more leveled grounds?
Twenty years ago, when he was mayor of Istanbul, Erdogan said in a Milliyet interview:
“Democracy is like a tram ride: when you reach your stop, you get off”. On Sunday Erdogan stepped off the tram.
Turkey is now a Tyranny of the Majority. There are no longer any institutional constrains to remove any minority group from the political scene or maybe even from the physical world. Turkey as we knew it is no more.
EU members refrained from accepting the vote before the ongoing legal fight over it is decided. Only Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf and Central Asian dictatorships congratulated him. The terrorist group Ahrar al Sham, which fights the people and government of Syria, also congratulated Erdogan. Al-Qaeda in Syria, under its new alliance name HTS, joined in as well as other Takfiri groups in Syria.
Like the EU countries the U.S. State Department held out on congratulations. It only released a statement that noted reports of voting “irregularities” and an “uneven playing field”. It voiced support for inner-Turkish dialog and legal processes. White House spokesman Sean Spicer said the U.S. administration would wait until the final report by the international observers mission was released.
The State Department and the spokesman were quickly undermined by President Trump. Only an hour later the Turkish side reported of a Trump-Erdogan telephone conversation:
U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to congratulate him on the referendum victory.
The two leaders had a “pleasant” call which lasted for 45 minutes, diplomatic sources said.
This was later confirmed by a White House readout of the call. (The readout is not yet on the White House website but was sent out to the press via email).
The published content of the call does not bode well for Turkey, Syria and Iraq (emphasis added):
“President Trump and President Erdogan also discussed the counter-ISIS campaign and the need to cooperate against all groups that use terrorism to achieve their ends,” the White House statement said.
The Turkish version of the readout was worse:
The two leaders also discussed an alleged chemical attack by the Syrian government on April 4 that killed approximately 100 civilians and injured 500 others in the opposition-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province.
Trump and Erdoğan agreed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was responsible for the attack.
The U.S. president also thanked Turkey for its support for U.S. missile strikes on the Shayrat air base on April 7 in retaliation for the chemical attack.
Both leaders also stressed the need for cooperation in the fight against terror groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
The Khan Sheikhun incident was likely a “false flag” attack initiated by the terrorists on the ground -possibly with Turkish support. The proven number of casualties was far less than the statement claims. The only purpose of the following U.S. missile strikes was to dispel allegations that Trump is in cahoots with Russia.
A question now is who the two countries regard as terrorist groups. The mostly Shia Hizbullah fighting on the Syrian government side is seen as such by both even while it holds parliament positions in Lebanon. While the U.S. agreed to UN Security Council resolutions designating al-Qaeda in Syria as a terrorist group that must be “eradicated”, Erdogan is sponsoring and supporting the group. The U.S. is allying with parts of the Kurdish YPK/PKK groups in Syria while Turkey has designated those as terrorist entities. Does the “against all groups that use terrorism” formulation include the Iraqi militia in Syria? Does it include Iran?
What is most concerning is the fact that a 45 minute call is extremely long for such an occasion. We can be sure that plans were made in it that have not yet been published. It is likely that a new, higher level of war against Syrian (and Iran) was agreed upon. Besides the battlefields of Syria there is Turkish military interference in Iraq. Were common plans made for that country too?
Still one wonders why Trump would undermine his speaker, his State Department and his European allies by contradicting their statements and positions with his Erdogan call. A precedent was set. Foreign countries can no longer rely on official U.S. administration statements unless Trump personally voices his agreement with them. (Which he may then retract and reverse on a moments notice.) The basis of diplomacy is a certain level of trust in reliability – words and standing by those words matter. The diplomatic standing of the United States was severely damaged by this unprecedented move.
The reversal of the original position of the Trump administration is extreme. From a realist standpoint a much more neutral position towards Erdogan’s shenanigans, as shown by the State Department, would be advisable.
Why did Trump reverse it? Has this five year old tweet something to do with it?
Ivanka Trump @IvankaTrump
Thank you Prime Minister Erdogan for joining us yesterday to celebrate the launch of #TrumpTowers Istanbul!
1:56 PM – 20 Apr 2012