Dirty tricks are like favourite records: play them too much and they get jaded. We haven’t heard about gas attacks in Syria for some time, but now, once again, the media — and, sadly, the Trump administration — is in overdrive about what is claimed to be a gas attack on the Syrian town of Khan Sheikoun by the Assad government.
First of all, the use of gas should not be regarded as particularly “evil” in a war that has also seen bombing and shelling of civilian areas as a matter of course, not to mention all the refinements to cruelty that ISIS and their like have introduced. But it is. We get it. Gas is “evil,” and you’re very, very bad if you use it. OK? So, stop!
But this means that gas attacks are also an extremely useful means of propaganda — but only if your opponents are seen to do them. In fact, this negative propaganda effect totally outweighs gas’s military benefits. And, yes, using gas may have military benefits, although in this case it’s hard to see how any possible benefits could outweigh the costs in terms of increasing the level of Western hostility.
An important precedent is the major gas attack, apparently by sarin rockets, that took place in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta in 2013 in which from between 350 and 1,400 people died.
Now, horrific as the attack was, there was a certain logic in it that made blaming the Syrian government plausible. The Syrian army was fighting street-to-street, house-to-house, trying to recapture urban territory, which any professional soldier can tell you is a nightmare for soldiers and civilian population alike. A way round this would be to use gas to clear out nests of entrenched opposition to make advances and pacification possible. Not ideal, obviously, but a way to break the deadlock and get a result. So, when the Ghouta attacks happened they at least made sense in a basic military tactical sense.
But any gains in this respect — and there weren’t many, as four years later Ghouta is still held by anti-Assad rebels — were soon outweighed by the negative international and diplomatic backlash, with the Obama and Cameron governments using the “propaganda” value of the attacks to push for military intervention.
Only strong countermeasures by the Russians, who claimed the attacks were false flag attacks designed to prepare the way for Western intervention, and a strong Russian commitment to support Assad, prevented this gas attack — false flag or not — becoming the death knell of the Assad government. Indeed, it is at least highly doubtful (see also here) that the attack was carried out by the Assad government.
Obviously gas attacks are an extremely risky and inefficient option for anyone, but especially the Assad government, so it simply doesn’t make sense that they would do this on purpose now. In fact there are a whole list of reasons why this couldn’t be a willful use of poison gas by the Assad government.
First, there’s the fact that Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters on March 30 that removing Assad was no longer a priority for the US:
You pick and choose your battles and when we’re looking at this, it’s about changing up priorities and our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out…
Do we think he’s a hindrance? Yes. Are we going to sit there and focus on getting him out? No. What we are going to focus on is putting the pressure in there so that we can start to make a change in Syria…
We can’t necessarily focus on Assad the way that the previous administration did…Our priority is to really look at how do we get things done, who do we need to work with to really make a difference for the people in Syria.
Given this, why would Assad risk the displeasure of the United States by doing something that reinforces the image presented by much of the media that he is a prime candidate for regime change? Why give fuel to Trump’s many critics by putting him in a difficult situation when he has just given you a free pass? On the other hand, if you really want renewed US effort to topple Assad, a false flag gas attack is just the ticket. Trump, under pressure from the media and many Republicans, may decide to change his mind and opt for a military confrontation.
So it’s no surprise that the neocon media immediately concluded that Assad was responsible. Michael Warren, writing in The Weekly Standard, hopes that the attack will change Trump’s policy toward Syria. For Neocon Jonathan Tobin, writing in National Review, it’s certain that Assad did it, and he wants to use this event to go after the neocons’ bête noire, Russia:
The Syrian government dropped a poison-gas bomb on a hospital, taking the lives of dozens, including eleven children. … This is a moment for the president, who is not generally shy about sounding off on his views of the world, to say something that puts the onus on Putin for Assad’s atrocities and makes clear that the U.S. won’t continue to turn a blind eye to the horror there.
Like 9-11, the gas attack is exactly the sort of thing the neocons want in order to panic the US into military intervention by providing a powerful moral rationale. Remember the moral opprobrium attached to Saddam Hussein that was so important in selling the disastrous Iraq war to the American people? Assad’s supposed gas attack on children in a hospital paints him as the epitome of evil.
I’m sure they are encouraged to know the United States is withdrawing and seeking a new arrangement with the Russians. It is another disgraceful chapter in American history and it was predictable.
Sorry, but it seems ridiculous to try to launch a gas attack that kills a few dozen people in a civil war that has already killed between 321,000-400,000 people when it will be condemned by virtually everyone and has been used in the past as a pretext for US involvement. How could such a small-scale attack yield a strategic advantage? How can attacking a hospital and killing children have any military benefit at all?
There’s also the location. Khan Sheikoun is not on the front line. It is well in the rear, at least 10 miles from where the fighting is taking place, and ten miles is an enormous distance in this war where front lines have been moving slowly for years. This is clearly not Assad’s army clearing out an area of entrenched opposition so that they can advance.
So, there is absolutely no clear military rationale behind such an attack. In fact quite the reverse. In terms of negative propaganda for the Syrian government, the location is ideal: an isolated gas attack that harms civilians, but does not significantly endanger or inhibit journalists, allowing the latter to film and highlight the suffering of the former. We are now being inundated with images of dead babies and children writhing in pain—the emotional currency of Fourth Generation Warfare.
So, absolutely zero military benefit and a massive negative propaganda effect for the Syrian government. They would have to be insane to do it.
There are other possibilities. The worst one for the Syrian government would be an unwitting use of a bomb, shell, or rocket containing gas. This is not impossible, as there is always a chance that some gas weapons slipped through the net when the Assad government agreed to clear out its stockpiles of chemical weapons.
Another possibility is that a normal bomb, shell, rocket hit an opposition chemical weapons depot. Again there is no reason why this is impossible. Chemical weapons have been in the hands of various sides in this chaotic war.
Then there is the possibility of a false flag. In its favour is the fact that Syria and gas attacks haven’t been at the top of the news agenda for some time, so the shock effect on the uninformed public will be fresh and strong. If it worked in the 2013 attack in getting the US involved, maybe it will work again. Also arguing in favour of a false flag is the fact that the Assad government has been making gains and has been growing stronger for months. In short, they have been on a roll. The last thing they need is to be blamed for gassing civilians, while this clearly favors their opponents who need all the help from the West that they can get. Indeed, Zerohedge notes:
What was lost in all of today’s conflicting narratives is that it was an almost identical alleged chemical attack by Assad in 2013 that got the Obama administration involved in the Syria proxy war in the first place; the motive behind today’s attack is hardly any different.
It is clear then that the most likely explanation for this tragic event is either an accident (as claimed by Russia: the rebels accidentally detonating their own sarin) or a false flag, and certainly not an intentional action by the Assad government.