Fethullah Gülen: should we take his newspaper reports at face value?
As I pointed out in my article on “Baathist Truthers”, most members of the amen corner simply operate on a different basis than Marxism. Their method can be described as conspiracism and has a long history on the left. In its latest permutation, it boils down to a bastardized form of “investigative journalism” in which there is an almost obsessional need to find out the key piece of documentation—a Wikileaks cable, etc.—that will finally prove that the USA is responsible for everything bad that has happened in Syria rather than acknowledge it as the result of a bitter conflict over rival class interests. Syrian society? Don’t bother me with such irrelevancies, our conspiracists would maintain. The only thing that matters are CIA plots.
You get the same thing with Ukraine. From the minute the Euromaidan protests erupted, they were looking for the “proof” that the USA was behind the unrest. A phone call made by State Department Official Victoria Nuland was to blame, not corruption or police brutality. In such a schema, the Ukrainian or Syrian workers were marionettes sitting motionlessly on their behinds until the puppet-master began pulling their strings.
It should be mentioned that it is not just people on the left who have upheld conspiracy theories about Syria. Antiwar.com, a popular website run by Justin Raimondo who was the San Francisco coordinator of Proposition 187 that would have banned undocumented workers from using health care, public education, and other services in California, can usually be counted upon to spread the latest talking points of the conspiracist left.
As a key element of conspiracism, the false flag narrative crops up over and over. Early on, Global Research’s Tony Cartalucci was reporting that it was not Baathist snipers firing on peaceful protests but men recruited by the CIA or Saudi Arabia to make the progressive, tolerant and democratically elected Baathist state look bad.
Of course, the most infamous use of the “false flag” argument was that advanced on behalf of Bashar al-Assad immediately after the sarin gas attack in East Ghouta in August 2013. Ever since Assad surrendered his chemical weapons and began relying on impeccably clean conventional weapons to level apartment buildings and everybody who lived inside them, there hasn’t been much discussion about who was responsible.
But the topic reared its ugly head in the Oct. 23-25 weekend edition of CounterPunch with Peter Lee’s article “Hersh Vindicated? Turkish Whistleblowers Corroborate Story on False Flag Sarin Attack in Syria”. On most topics, Lee can be counted on to present logical arguments based on hard data but like most non-Marxists on the left, he makes a fool out of himself when it comes to Syria.
For example, his “proof” that Turkey mounted a false flag operation in cahoots with al-Nusra and ISIS relies on the testimony of sworn enemies of the ruling AKP:
I find the report credible, taking into full account the fact that the CHP (Erdogan’s center-left Kemalist rivals) and Today’s Zaman (whose editor-in-chief, Bulent Kenes was recently detained on live TV for insulting Erdogan in a tweet) are on the outs with Erdogan.
“On the outs”? That is like saying that Abe Lincoln was on the outs with Jefferson Davis. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been jailing Kemalist politicians and military men for years now. None other than chief conspiracist Eric Draitser considers Erdoğan to be the head of a “country that has given over to violence as a political tool, repression and censorship as standard government practice.” If you were a member of a party that was being hounded into submission by the Turkish ruling party, wouldn’t you be willing to make things up to embarrass Erdoğan or even to make him step down? This is especially true given the Kemalists’ own sleazy modus operandi. This is a party, after all, that backed one coup after another and that tortured and killed leftists and Kurds with a zeal that would make the typical Arab dictator green with envy.
Let’s assume that these sources are worth listening to for the moment. Do their reports make any sense? Lee offers up an article in “Today’s Zaman” in its entirety as evidence. This is the newspaper of the Gülen movement that has built charter schools in the USA to further its credibility with a wing of the ruling class whose favor it is attempting to curry. It shares the AKP’s goal of liquidating the Kemalist party. The relationship between the Kemalists, the AKP, and the Gülenists is quite byzantine. Prosecutors and judges sympathetic to Gülen were instrumental in railroading Kemalists to prison on behalf of the AKP. Now that the Kemalists have been tamed, the same prosecutors and judges are involved in cases being made against AKP leaders for corruption as the NY Times reported on February 26, 2014:
Many of the prosecutors and investigators in both cases — the corruption inquiry and the old military trials — are followers of Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic preacher who lives in exile in Pennsylvania. The adherents in his network were once partners in Mr. Erdogan’s governing coalition, but the government now considers them a “parallel state” to be rooted out through purges of the police and the judiciary.
A circular firing squad indeed and not conducive to impartial reports on sarin gas or much of anything else.
Basically, the Zaman report recapitulates the details of an arrest made in Adana, Turkey in May 2013, two months before the attack in Ghouta. In a nutshell, a group of 13 al-Nusra front members in Turkey had conspired with AKP officials to send sarin gas to Syria that would be used in a false flag operation meant to provoke the USA into a “regime change” invasion of Syria:
Taking the floor first, Erdem stated that the Adana Chief Prosecutor’s Office launched an investigation into allegations that sarin was sent to Syria from Turkey via several businessmen. An indictment followed regarding the accusations targeting the government.
“The MKE [Turkish Mechanical and Chemical Industry Corporation] is also an actor that is mentioned in the investigation file. Here is the indictment. All the details about how sarin was procured in Turkey and delivered to the terrorists, along with audio recordings, are inside the file,” Erdem said while waving the file.
Erdem also noted that the prosecutor’s office conducted detailed technical surveillance and found that an al-Qaeda militant, Hayyam Kasap, acquired sarin, adding: “Wiretapped phone conversations reveal the process of procuring the gas at specific addresses as well as the process of procuring the rockets that would fire the capsules containing the toxic gas. However, despite such solid evidence there has been no arrest in the case. Thirteen individuals were arrested during the first stage of the investigation but were later released, refuting government claims that it is fighting terrorism,” Erdem noted.
Over 1,300 people were killed in the sarin gas attack in Ghouta and several other neighborhoods near the Syrian capital of Damascus, with the West quickly blaming the regime of Bashar al-Assad and Russia claiming it was a “false flag” operation aimed at making US military intervention in Syria possible.
For Lee, this reporting “supports Seymour Hersh’s reporting that the notorious sarin gas attack at Ghouta was a false flag orchestrated by Turkish intelligence in order to cross President Obama’s chemical weapons ‘red line’ and draw the United States into the Syria war to topple Assad.”
If you have access to Nexis, you can check out what other newspapers were saying at the time.
To start with, the cops who arrested the 13 men reported that the two kilograms of sarin gas were going to be used against government offices in Turkey, not targeted at Syria. “The reports claimed that the al-Nusra members had been planning a bomb attack for Thursday in Adana but that the attack was averted when the police caught the suspects.” (Cihan News Agency, May 30, 2013) Things get even weirder as the same article indicates that the AKP blamed Syria for recent attacks by the terrorists. Now, there’s something you don’t see every day. Al-Assad using the al-Nusra Front in terrorist attacks on Turkey. Oh, by the way, the agency responsible for this rather incoherent article is also a Gülenist property, just like Zaman.
It should be stressed that this same news agency never claimed that ISIS was supposed to be the beneficiary of sarin gas supplied by some conspiracists either inside or outside the Turkish government. Instead it claimed that it was Ahrar al-Sham. So what’s the big deal, some might ask. They are Islamists, after all. Well, maybe so but Ahrar al-Sham was a bitter rival of ISIS so much so that it was targeted by the latter in suicide bombings. Well, who cares about such petty details when you are trying to make a bigger point, even if it is mindless conspiracism?
Later on the authorities changed their story. There was no sarin gas but only the ingredients that go into its manufacture.
But even if there was, what possible connection could that have with the East Ghouta attack that left over a thousand Syrians dead? Unless you are Mint Press that wrote at the time that the sarin gas seeped out from a storage area under rebel control due to an accidental breakage of containers, you need to be able to weaponize the stuff. This means having the technical means to construct rockets, delivery systems and the quantity of sarin gas required to disperse over a wide area.
This does not even get into the question of why al-Nusra would be involved in a “false flag” operation to precipitate a massive US intervention. Unlike the FSA, this group could not count on a free-fly zone or any other supposed benefit of intervention. It was considered a far more deadly enemy than the Baathists and one that the US has already targeted in lethal raids. I suppose that because all of these groups are “rebels” in one sense or another, it was easy for Hersh and anybody else in the amen corner to paper over the differences. Such sloppiness is endemic to the conspiracy-minded.
In April 2014, Elliot Higgins and Dan Kazseta wrote a Comments are Free piece in the Guardian taking issue with Seymour Hersh’s LRB article that remains as current as ever.
After mustering a wealth of video evidence that Baathist Volcano rockets were the means of delivery, the authors pose seven issues that had to be addressed. It is a total shame that none of the conspiracists in Assad’s amen corner has the scruples or intelligence to deal with them. Instead they would rather circulate the incoherent Gülenist press or rely on Seymour Hersh’s unnamed sources in spookworld. You are asked to take his word even if one CounterPunch contributor had this to say about him: “When there are serious political repercussions in the Middle East from Hersh’s much-read pieces, it would help for him to know better what he’s talking about.”
Firstly, sarin is difficult to make. Anyone who claims otherwise is oblivious to both history and chemical engineering. Germany, the US and the former Soviet Union took years to perfect the process. Its production requires a number of complex steps and the ability to handle highly dangerous chemicals at very closely controlled high temperatures and pressures. There is no evidence anyone has come up with any sort of streamlined method to manipulate the molecules to make sarin.
Second, quantity. Perfecting the process isn’t enough – there is a difference between making a spoonful and enough for the August attacks, which would have needed about half a ton. This assumes a scale only reached by big state production programmes. To put it in perspective, the one verified example of non-state production of sarin was the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan. Their many millions of dollars, very large purpose-built manufacturing facility and highly qualified staff got them the ability to make single batches of perhaps 8 litres of short shelf life Sarin. The alleged Aleppo plant wouldn’t need to be the size of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal in the US, but it would have needed to be closer to that than the size of a house.
Third is the choice of weapon. Of the panoply of chemical warfare agents available to modern science and engineering, sarin is one of the hardest to make. So why was this one chosen? Even its nerve agent kin, Tabun and VX, are arguably easier to produce; mustard or lewisite are easier and use less technology. Numerous toxic industrial chemicals which might “fly under the radar” of non-proliferation regimes could be used as weapons. So why pick the hardest?
Fourth, economics. To make this operation work it is going to take a lot of highly trained people, raw materials, and specialised equipment, as well as a facility. It would cost many tens of millions of dollars. When the rebel factions are so stretched for resources, does it make any sense to spend, say, $50m on a weapon of limited utility? Lavish expenditure must raise a paper trail somewhere; there would be order books and receipts. Let’s see them.
Fifth is logistics. You don’t turn precursor material magically into sarin: you need about 9kg to end up with 1kg of sarin. This stuff has to come from somewhere, but where? Hersh omits these details, as do most of the alternative narratives. It is simply assumed that things like phosphorus trichloride and thionyl chloride just get summoned up in vast quantities without someone noticing. Most commentators on this issue have also forgotten about something called conservation of mass. If you use 9kg of material to synthesize 1kg of sarin you end up with 8kg of waste, rather a lot of which is very dangerous, smelly and corrosive. This waste stream has to go somewhere, and someone will notice. There are also the logistics of getting a lot of sarin into rockets and getting those rockets from Aleppo to Damascus.
Sixth, concealment. How do you hide all of this? The building, the supply chain, the people, the money, and the very smelly waste stream. Where are they? They need to be concealed not just from the Syrian regime but from other rebel factions, western intelligence agencies, the Russians, and perhaps even your own people who might desert, get captured or say silly things on YouTube videos. There is deathly silence from Aleppo and we only find out about it from Hersh?
Lastly is the specificity of the product. There are important physical clues found in the traces of sarin at the impact sites of the 21 August rocket attack. One of these is the presence of hexamine, a chemical with no history of use in nerve agent production. But hexamine can be used as an acid scavenger, and thus its presence could be explained due to its use as an additive to the sarin. This idea has been reinforced by both the admission of the Syrian regime that they used hexamine as part of their formula, and by Syria’s declaration to the OPCW of an inventory of 80 tonnes of hexamine, specifically as part of their chemical weapons program. Surely, as an uncontrolled substance, they could have omitted it from their declarations. But they didn’t. Hexamine in field samples plus hexamine in Syrian inventories, plus an admission that hexamine was in their recipe, seems a compelling case for tying the Sarin in the field to the Syrian regime. How would an Aleppo-based rebel factory somehow come up with the same exact idea?
Taken cumulatively, all these points add up to a very high degree of improbability. Isn’t it more probable that the Sarin came from the people who confessed to having a Sarin factory, fired from areas controlled by the government 2km away from the impact sites, in munitions the government had been using since 2012?