Quirico (l), Piccinin (r)
The first time I ever post something on my blog or on Facebook or Marxmail that takes the word of a defector from the Baathist military that it used chemical weapons as good coin you have permission to seize my computer. There’s an article in the September 19, 2013 Times of Israel that begins:
High-ranking Syrian regime officials ordered soldiers to use chemical weapons against fighters and civilians in rebel-occupied areas, a former Syrian army officer and chemical warfare expert has declared.
In an interview with Abu Dhabi newspaper The National, Brigadier General Zaher Saket, a commander in the military’s 5th division who defected from President Bashar Assad’s army in March, claimed he had been instructed to attack rebels with poison gas on numerous occasions.
“I am a witness and received orders three times to use chemical gas last year,” Saket said.
I would reject this out of hand for two reasons. To start with, anything printed in an Israeli newspaper (except Haaretz, but only certain conditions) is suspect. But more importantly, aren’t defectors likely to “deliver the goods” on any military that they have fled from? During the contra war in Nicaragua, there were articles every few months about some high-level defector from the Sandinista military attesting to war crimes ordered personally by Daniel Ortega. It does not matter to me if the defector is saying something that on first blush might help me win the ongoing debate about the source of chemical weapons attacks in Syria. I only look foolish in lending credibility to such a dubious source.
Apparently the pro-Assad left has no such qualms.
A jihadist group released Domenico Quirico, a reporter for the Italian daily La Stampa, and Pierre Piccinin, a Belgian academic, from captivity on September 8th. Upon their release, they claimed that they had overheard rebels taking credit for the Ghouta chemical attack. Since the wsws.org credibility is so low to start with, it is hard to imagine the editors worrying about how inquisitive minds would react to such an obviously ridiculous tale. (I should add that MRZine tweeted links to articles that also took these characters seriously.) WSWS reported on September 12:
Speaking to Luc Gilson of Belgium’s RTL television, Piccinin said: “It is a moral obligation to say this. It is not the government of Bashar al-Assad who used sarin or other military gases in the Damascus suburbs of Ghouta. We are sure of that, after having listened to a conversation that we overheard. I say it even though, since May 2012, I have ferociously defended the Free Syrian Army in its just struggle for democracy.”
Piccinin said he and Quirico overheard a Skype conversation, in which a Farouq Brigade commander and an FSA general took part from the facility where they were being detained. He explained, “According to the statements of officers of the opposition, it is not the regime of Bashar al-Assad that is responsible.”
I imagine that this is the same Piccinin who wrote an article lustily defending Bashar al-Assad on March 6, 2012:
The main reported cases of unrest are linked to regular attacks from Salafist bands which are of an extremely violent nature and more importantly, the Free Syrian Army. The latter counts amid its ranks numerous Qataris and Libyans, all whom have been trained in the art of urban guerilla warfare by the French army in refugee camps, which provide perfect bases from which to operate and orchestrate attacks.
So what likelihood is there that the “academic” who wrote these words in March would two months later become a “ferocious defender” of the FSA? Less than zero, in my opinion. He is what we might call a big, fat, liar to put it bluntly.
In fact Piccinin has a long record of open and virulent hostility to the rebels in Syria. On January 24, 2012, the BBC painted a portrait of a man slavishly devoted to the Baathist dictatorship:
Piccinin added that he spent a whole day with an armed group as their guest, indicating that they were 20 individuals, and that each one has certain kinds of firearms to snipe people from their hideout.
He stressed that the authorities used no force or suppression in dealing with protesters as alleged by some opposition sides, adding that no live ammunition was used except in certain circumstances, and that all that has been used was tear-gas.
He said that the government troops were strictly committed to the instructions of not using weapons against the protesters.
Piccinin concluded that what he has read in the western newspapers over months about events in Syria was not true as the country does not live in a catastrophe and the Syrian leadership is not weak to the extent that it may give up as media circulated.
One is surprised that he did not accuse the rebels themselves or shooting the protesters.
Turning to Domenico Quirico, it seems he has a penchant for getting kidnapped during civil war. Qaddafi’s troops kidnapped him in Libya in 2011 rather than the rebels but he along with some other journalists were released unharmed.
Quirico’s newspaper was one among a handful that published the Danish cartoon that depicted Mohammad as a bearded terrorist with a bomb in his turban. His own views, however, are a bit harder to pin down. In a May 1, 2012 article about the growth of Islam in Africa, he concluded:
The fundamentalism of the US Protestant sects, the Christian capitalism that seeks to buy souls by putting dictator Presidents on their payroll. In response to the interminable repetition of dilapidation, and the huge pressure of poverty which flows, branches out, and extends throughout the continent like flood water, we have proposed not an identification with those that are suffering, but the preaching of free market policies: which profits mostly us. In this world of poverty and losses, man has a hunger for faith and irrationality. But capitalism is not a credo, and is not a magnet. It is only a way of living which we, and only we, have got used to.
Maybe this relatively nuanced analysis foreshadowed Quirico’s distancing himself somewhat from the rabidly counter-revolutionary Piccinin. On September 9 the Lebanon Times reported Quirico as saying that it would be “madness” to say for sure that Assad was not culpable. Referring to the Skype conversation, in English no less, that the two captives overheard and that supposedly revealed rebel culpability, Quirico said: “I have no evidence to confirm this theory and I do not know who these people were or if they are reliable. It is impossible for me to say if this conversation was based on real events or on rumours and hearsay. It is not my habit to hold true conversations overheard through a door.”
Then there is, of course, the sheer unlikelihood that their captives would be having a Skype phone call in English within earshot. Does this make any sense?
Frankly, the supporters of Bashar al-Assad keep clutching at straws to make their case. First, the Ghouta gassings were the result a rebel accident according to Mint Press. Next, we heard from Ray McGovern that they were a false flag operation intended to cross Obama’s red line. Then, we heard from McNeil and al-Gharbi that it was no false flag, just jihadist terror directed indiscriminately at Christians in Ghouta. The latest installment jibes with McGovern but on the flimsiest basis—a Skype phone call conducted in English within earshot of two captives.
The way to proceed obviously is for the Syrian government to present the counter-evidence to the UN report or for al-Assad’s fans in the West to painstakingly gather together the evidence in the manner of Brown Moses, an independent and respected researcher. Instead, it relies on gossip and rumors, a function no doubt of the hazards to one’s mental health when carrying the Baathist banner. It rots your brain out like an advanced case of syphilis.