As could have been predicted, the Sarin gas incident that left 58 dead in the Idlib town of Khan Sheikhoun has been compared by various Assadist websites to what they considered a “false flag” operation in East Ghouta in August 2013. And a year before East Ghouta, there was a massacre in Houla in which 108 civilians, including 34 women and 49 children, had their throats slashed by Assad’s death squads. According to German journalist Rainer Hermann, it was actually Sunni extremists killing Alawites, a claim that the Baathist amen corner took up eagerly. Hermann’s reporting was debunked but that hardly made a dent in Assad’s considerable worldwide network of thick-skulled sycophants.
Indeed, if you Google Syria and “false flag”, you will get 556,000 results—most of them linking to conspiracist outlets like 21st Century Wire, The Duran and Zero Hedge. As I have seen in propaganda offensives like these, you can count on such explicitly over-the-top, pro-Assad websites to act as the shock troops in a propaganda offensive, to be followed within months by Seymour Hersh articles in the LRB and other high-toned purveyors of mass murder apologetics.
A template for future articles was written by Paul Antonopoulos. Expect versions of his piece to show up in its original version or plagiarized in places like Moon of Alabama, Global Research, DissidentVoice, et al. I also expect his talking points to be repeated by Rania Khalek, Ben Norton and Max Blumenthal who have indeed insinuated something like this on Twitter.
Titled “Something is Not Adding Up in Idlib Chemical Weapons Attack”, Antonopoulos’s article offers up a howlingly preposterous account of supposedly what really happened in Khan Sheikhoun. The corpses were not really victims of Sarin gas but the corpses of 250 al-Nusra kidnapping victims from the towns of Majdal and Khattab whose images became props in a false flag scenario. As unlikely as this seems, this was the same story concocted by Assadist nun Sister Agnes Maryam about the East Ghouta Sarin gas massacre in 2013. She produced a report that identified its victims as pro-Assad villagers having been killed by jihadists in Latakia who then made a video that was exploited by the rebels in East Ghouta for their own purposes. A plot like this would have been rejected by the producers of “X-Files” but it passes muster in these quarters.
Clearly not even up to speed on Assadist talking points, Antonopoulos refers to a claim by UN weapons inspector Carla del Ponte that there was no evidence that Assad ordered the hit on East Ghouta. I hope this PhD student is more on top of data gathering when he submits his dissertation but del Ponte was rendering a judgement on something altogether different, namely the jihadist use of Sarin gas in Khan al-Assal on March 2013, a full 4 months before East Ghouta. There’s not much point in taking up that case but I will say that del Ponte is not very trustworthy in the eyes of Jeff St. Clair and Alexander Cockburn, two people who could hardly be charged with backing US imperialism. Referring to the war crimes tribunal against Milosevic, they wrote on May 22, 2000:
On March 15, Mandel sent another complaint to Justice Carla del Ponte, the new chief prosecutor for the tribunal, who replaced Justice Louise Arbour in October. Mandel’s sharply worded letter protests the tribunal’s refusal to investigate NATO’s actions, saying that del Ponte has turned “the investigation into more of a farce than a judicial proceeding.” Mandel’s letter makes a solid case that far from being an independent investigator, the tribunal has conducted itself “as if it were an organ of NATO and not the United Nations.”
Stumbling forward in his bogus investigative reporter mode, Antonopoulos is constrained by parameters set by Assad, whose military issued a statement that the Sarin gas was disseminated accidentally as the result of a bombing raid on a jihadist weapons depot by Su-22 bombers. Unlike East Ghouta, which we were told was a “false flag” mounted by the rebels, Khan Sheikhoun then becomes the unintended product of a bombing raid that only had military purposes.Antonopoulos’s most important argument against the Su-22 being the conveyor of Sarin-laced weapons was this: “Most importantly, the Su-22’s bombs are unique and cannot be filled with any chemical substances, which is different to the bombs dropped from attack helicopters.”
I often wonder if people like Antonopoulos expect their readers to be typical Information Clearing House readers–dimwitted pigs lining up at the propaganda trough. Five minutes of research on the net would tell you that the Su-22 can fire chemical weapons as Saddam Hussein did against Iran and hoped to do in the first Gulf War. Furthermore, it does not take rocket science to retrofit a Syrian Su-22 to fire missiles carrying Sarin gas. That’s what Assad did in August 2013, when his killers fired Volcano rockets laden with Sarin gas. All you need to do is replace the factory-supplied warhead with an oversized warhead. Not a big deal at all.
What is a big deal, however, is producing Sarin gas. You get the impression from reading Antonopoulos that there was something like a warehouse in Khan Sheikhoun that had big bottles of Sarin gas on the sort of racks you see in Home Depot. The problem is that even if they were capable of producing Sarin gas, they would have huge problems storing it.
In a must-read article on Bellingcat by Dan Kaszeta, we learn that Sarin gas is extremely volatile and cannot be stored as the final product used in military strikes since the main chemical reaction that produces Sarin creates one molecule of hydrogen fluoride (HF) for every molecule of Sarin. This hydrogen fluoride byproduct destroys nearly anything the Sarin would be stored in and quickly degrades the Sarin gas itself. The USA and Russia developed technology that could purge HF but have kept it top-secret and proprietary for obvious reasons. Syria certainly does not have that capability and only managed to produce Sarin by combining its ingredients just moments before weaponizing it. Even if the jihadists had such ingredients, it is beyond belief that they had mastered the same technology as the US and Russia to keep them safe and stable over a long shelf-life. Kaszeta writes:
Even assuming that large quantities of both Sarin precursors were located in the same part of the same warehouse (a practice that seems odd), an air-strike is not going to cause the production of large quantities of Sarin. Dropping a bomb on the binary components does not actually provide the correct mechanism for making the nerve agent. It is an infantile argument. One of the precursors is isopropyl alcohol. It would go up in a ball of flame. A very large one. Which has not been in evidence.
He concludes his article with the same observation he made after the East Ghouta attack:
Finally, we are back to the issue of industrial capacity. It takes about 9 kg of difficult to obtain precursor materials to generate the necessary steps to produce Sarin. The ratio is similar with other nerve agents. Having a quantity of any of the nerve agents relies on a sophisticated supply chain of exotic precursors and an industrial base. Are we to seriously believe that one of the rebel factions has expended the vast sums of money and developed this industrial base, somehow not noticed to date and not molested by attack? It seems an unlikely chain of events.
What is even more unbelievable to me is the notion that if al-Nusra or any other merciless Muslim foe of Western civilization of the sort found in films like “American Sniper” or “Zero Dark Thirty” had such a potent WMD, why would they only use them against their own supporters?
Why didn’t the jihadists lob Sarin-bearing rockets into West Aleppo or into the area of Damascus containing government buildings? Instead they tend to use mortars and even clumsy DIY artillery that can certainly kill enemy combatants (and cause collateral damage unfortunately) but not as efficiently as weaponized Sarin. For all the fears about rebels getting their hands on MANPAD’s, how do you explain a warehouse filled with the stuff in Idlib sitting idly? Just go ahead and Google al-Nusra and Sarin and nothing comes up except links to idiotic Seymour Hersh articles about a ratline from Turkey into Syria for Sarin gas. Since he was making a point exactly like Antonopoulos’s, there’s not much to support a case that they are being used against Assad’s military. Why bother with a false flag when you can mount a real flag over enemy territory? With Assad responsible for hundreds of thousands of casualties, what holds back the jihadi? Have they been reading Gandhi speeches?
Finally, there is this mind-numbing stupidity about this being another “regime change” operation. Antonopoulos write:
All evidence suggests this is another false chemical attack allegation made against the government as seen in the Ghouta 2013 attack where the terrorist groups hoped that former President Obama’s “red-line” would be crossed leading to US-intervention in Syria against the government.
What can you say? It is now six years of war and the USA has not mounted a “regime change” operation in the George W. Bush mode. This is like Waiting for Godot. Furthermore, Donald Trump has announced that he has no intention of removing Assad and his Secretary of State has refused to condemn Assad. If believe that this is a government so determined to remove Assad and replace him with one supported by the Sunni poor, you can probably believe anything. That, sadly, is the state of the anti-Imperialist left today—one so corrupt and cynical that it makes Stalinism of the mid-30s look pristine by comparison.