By David Edwards
Last week, we reviewed the questions and doubts surrounding claims that the chemical weapon sarin has been used in Syria.
The Obama administration has since claimed that its ‘red line’ has indeed been crossed – it now has firm evidence that Syrian government forces have used chemical weapons. As a result, the US will begin supplying Syrian insurgents with small arms and ammunition. White House foreign policy adviser Benjamin Rhodes gave dates and locations for alleged sarin attacks but no details of the fighting or numbers of people killed.
In a subsequent article for McClatchy Washington Bureau, Matthew Schofield noted that chemical weapons experts remain ‘skeptical of U.S. claim that Syria used sarin’. Jean Pascal Zanders, a leading expert on chemical weapons, until recently a senior research fellow at the European Union’s Institute for Security Studies, commented:
‘It’s not just that we can’t prove a sarin attack; it’s that we’re not seeing what we would expect to see from a sarin attack. In a world where even the secret execution of Saddam Hussein was taped by someone, it doesn’t make sense that we don’t see videos, that we don’t see photos, showing bodies of the dead, and the reddened faces and the bluish extremities of the affected.’
Greg Thielmann, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Arms Control Association, said that ‘my guess is they [US officials] have it right’. But Thielmann noted that the White House statement on the crossing of the ‘red line’ in Syria was ‘carefully and prudentially worded’ and acknowledged the lack of a ‘continuous chain of custody for the physiological samples from those exposed to sarin’.
As we discussed last month, a secure chain of custody is vital for ensuring samples have not been contaminated. Alastair Hay, a toxicologist at the University of Leeds, commented:
‘To make a legal case – whether it’s against the Syrian government or opposition group – you need an ironclad chain of custody.’
Philip Coyle, a senior scientist at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, said that the lack of hard, public evidence made it difficult for experts to assess the validity of the administration’s claims. What happened ‘doesn’t look like a series of sarin attacks to him’, Schofield reports of Coyle, who also commented: ‘Without blood samples, it’s hard to know. It does not eliminate all doubt in my mind.’
Anthony Cordesman, a security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, argues that ‘the “discovery” that Syria used chemical weapons might be a political ploy… The real reasons [for US intervention] are the broader humanitarian issues involved and far more urgent U.S. strategic interests’.
Yuri Ushakov, Vladimir Putin’s top foreign policy adviser, said:
‘What was presented to us by the Americans does not look convincing. It would be hard to even call them facts.’
The Independent’s Robert Fisk again poured scorn on the claims:
‘Washington’s excuse for its new Middle East adventure – that it must arm Assad’s enemies because the Damascus regime has used sarin gas against them – convinces no-one in the Middle East. Final proof of the use of gas by either side in Syria remains almost as nebulous as President George W. Bush’s claim that Saddam’s Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.’
Despite all of this, a Guardian editorial offered a strikingly different judgement. Noting that Obama had decided to authorise military aid on the basis ‘that Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons against the opposition’, the editors commented:
‘That use is an outrage and is against international agreements. It adds to the charge sheet against the Assad regime.’
These are among the most shocking comments we have ever seen in the Guardian. Despite the indisputable fraudulence of US-UK claims regarding Iraqi WMD, an equally staggering litany of lies on Libya, and despite the existence of gaps and doubts so reminiscent of Iraq 2002-2003, the Guardian is willing to quietly endorse the latest claims on Syria – ‘Assad’ clearly has used chemical weapons and that use should be added to the charge sheet against him.
Once again, when it really matters, the Guardian editors are on-message, on-side and boosting war propaganda.
Unfortunately, the Guardian has form. On January 24, 2003, at a crucial time, leading Guardian reporter Martin Woollacott wrote of Saddam Hussein:
‘Among those knowledgeable about Iraq there are few, if any, who believe he is not hiding such weapons. It is a given.’ (Woollacott, ‘This drive to war is one of the mysteries of our time – We know Saddam is hiding weapons. That isn’t the argument,’ The Guardian, January 24, 2003)
In fact, this was not only false, it was a near-exact reversal of the truth. Hans Blix, former head of UNMOVIC arms inspections in Iraq (November 2002-March 2003), said in June 2003:
‘If anyone had cared… to study what UNSCOM [UN arms inspection team in Iraq, 1991-1998] was saying for quite a number of years, and what we were saying, they should not have assumed that they would stumble on weapons.’ (Miles Pomper and Paul Kerr, ‘An Interview With Hans Blix,’ Arms Control Today, June 16, 2003)
Ironically, in a leading article on the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq disaster, the Guardian later observed:
‘What is already clear from the first week alone is that the decisions, secret or otherwise, that led to war were the product of systemic failure. Intelligence analysts, diplomats, in fact the entire machinery of the British government, proved supine against Washington’s will. Under that pressure, almost everyone buckled.’ (Leading Article: ‘Iraq inquiry: Dancing to American drums,’ The Guardian, November 28, 2009)
The press included!
Supposedly at the other end of the media ‘spectrum’, a leading article in The Times echoed the Guardian’s view:
‘Assad’s chemical attacks are a barbarous form of warfare intended to spread terror. Arming the rebels is a temperate response to try to force a political settlement.’ (Leading article, ‘Syria’s Red Line,’ The Times, June 15, 2013)
The French Government ‘Believes’ – An Exchange With The BBC’s Jonathan Marcus
On June 13, the BBC’s diplomatic correspondent, Jonathan Marcus, responded to last week’s media alert:
Far be it from me to puncture your corporate conspiracy view [sic] of the Journalistic world but having ones own thoughts quoted against one is a little annoying.
In your piece on Syria and Sarin you mention the BBC article’s scepticism regarding the French claims and then you castigate me for a subsequent piece where I suggest that if Sarin really has been used and the French have proof then this would be a “potential game-changer” – note the use of the word “potential”.
The earlier scepticism in the BBC article was based on my preceding piece which appeared on the same BBC web site, text below:
“Laurent Fabius is certain of one thing; that the chemical weapon sarin has been used in Syria.
“But beyond this he seems to have few facts. He cannot say – or does not choose to say – exactly where the sarin was used (except that it was employed on several occasions) or by whom.
“The Syrian government has the chemical agent in its arsenal, although it is always possible that some stocks could have fallen into the hands of rebel forces.
“This is not yet the sort of game-changer that might provoke some dramatic shift in US or Western policy. For now it looks like a renewed effort by the French to maintain the diplomatic pressure on President Bashar al-Assad as efforts continue to convene a peace conference in Geneva.”
I think this injects a sufficient note of scepticism and is clearly what the reference in the BBC article is drawn from. I don’t think either I or the BBC have swallowed any stories about CW – as us “militaristic hacks tend to call it” (irony there). My judgement is that we have not seen anything yet in the publicly available material from Syria which suggests without any doubt the use of sarin – no Halabja style footage for example.
I think we have been suitably cautious and continue to be so. We do I think have a responsibility also to report what key actors say while also highlighting, as we do – that there is little evidence so far for their assertions. Try to be reassured.
We responded the same day:
Thanks for taking the trouble to email, we appreciate it. You write that ‘having ones own thoughts quoted against one is a little annoying’. It certainly is and we apologise for any irritation caused. We’re trying to open up debate rather than offend individual journalists.
By the way, for what it’s worth, we’ve said many times that we don’t at all believe that media performance can be explained by any kind of conspiracy theory.
I am of course aware that you used the word ‘potential’ when you commented that the French sarin claims were a ‘potential game-changer’, but I was making a different point. I noted that you had written:
‘The French government now believes not only that the nerve agent sarin has been used in Syria, but that it was deployed by “the regime and its accomplices”.’
You’ve reinforced that in your reply: ‘Laurent Fabius is certain of one thing; that the chemical weapon sarin has been used in Syria.’
I’m sure you recall how in 2002 and 2003 journalists like Andrew Rawnsley of the Observer were forever making this kind of claim:
‘The intelligence material that the Prime Minister sees makes him genuinely disturbed – it would not be going too far to say petrified – about Saddam Hussein’s potential ability to use weapons of mass destruction.’ (Andrew Rawnsley, ‘How to deal with the American goliath,’ The Observer, February 24, 2002)
Our question to Rawnsley and others, then, was: ‘How on earth can a journalist know what Blair really believes?’
After all, despite their earlier impassioned claims, it is now really incontrovertible that US-UK leaders did not at all believe that Iraq was a threat to the West in 2002-2003. Ray McGovern, a former high-ranking CIA analyst, commented:
‘It was 95 per cent charade. And they all knew it: Bush, Blair, Howard.’ (Quoted, John Pilger, ‘Blair’s Mass Deception,’ Daily Mirror, February 3, 2004)
That’s the point I was making when I suggested you take a leaf out of the Greenwald book of journalism. You claim the French government ‘believes’ and is ‘certain’ that the Syrian government has used sarin. But doesn’t the example of Iraq suggest that this may not in fact be the case?
In your reply you comment:
‘My judgement is that we have not seen anything yet in the publicly available material from Syria which suggests without any doubt the use of sarin – no Halabja style footage for example.’
Agreed. Do you then agree that the BBC’s headline, ”World “must act” Over Syria Weapons’, was irresponsible?
Thanks again for writing.
Marcus wrote again on June 13:
As with newspapers the author of the piece does not write the headlines.
I only wrote to correct your error not to get drawn into a lengthy exchange.
My belief is that your view of much of the media world is wrong – though like everything it is not without is faults – and I think it does boil down to a rather simplistic conspiracy theory when all is said and done.
Thanks. Yes, I totally understand you don’t want a lengthy exchange. But do you not agree that you in fact don’t know what the French government really ‘believes’? Shouldn’t that uncertainty be reflected in your journalism?
Marcus responded briefly:
I think I probably don’t really know what you believe – though I think I have a pretty good idea !
An interesting light was thrown on this discussion the following day, when Marcus wrote on the BBC website:
‘Thus the US response to President Assad’s apparent crossing of a “red line” seems tentative at best.’
Just one day earlier, Marcus had written to us:
‘My judgement is that we have not seen anything yet in the publicly available material from Syria which suggests without any doubt the use of sarin – no Halabja style footage for example.’ (Marcus, Email to Media Lens, June 13, 2013)
We quoted these comments to Marcus, asking: ‘What happened to change your view over the last 24 hours?’
Again I don’t understand you – what does the word apparent mean in this context? The piece – if you can take in more than a sentence at a time, raises all sorts of questions about the evidence – at least I think it does.
You were plain wrong again in the last criticism of me – but clearly you are not going to admit this.
Look David – it was fun while it lasted but I am changing my policy and no longer replying to e-mails coming from you or your supporters. You are not accurate or precise in your criticisms. Far from it. I can only marvel at your application – is Medialens your part-time time hobby or a job. Do you have private means ? Oh my goodness that was a question – but please don’t answer. Or as you would put it ” don’t you agree that this is all becoming a pain in the proverbial……..”
I have been contacted in the past by a number of fellow journos far more eminent than me who marvel at my willingness to engage with you. They think I am nuts.
I am coming to the conclusion they may have been right
The comment, ‘Assad’s apparent crossing of a “red line”,’ asserts that Assad does indeed appear to have drossed a ‘red line’, that it seems to be the case. Yesterday you said there was no firm evidential basis for the claim. You could have said ‘alleged crossing of a “red line”‘, or ‘claimed’.
Why do fellow journalists think you’re nuts for responding to polite, rational challenges? Isn’t that what democracy is all about?
Once again, commentators are nodding sagely at the ‘limited but persuasive’ intelligence and sincere convictions of well-intentioned Western politicians. Our Dear Leaders are ‘certain’, ‘they are convinced’, they ‘believe‘ that sarin has been used. And why on earth would we not also ‘believe’?
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor
Email: [email protected]
Chris Elliott, Guardian readers’ editor
Email: [email protected]
Jonathan Marcus, BBC diplomatic editor
Email: [email protected]