Who Trusts Russian Spies on Syria?
The investigative reporter Seymour Hersh just published a potentially dynamite claim in the London Review of Books: It wasn't the Syrian government that bombarded a rebel-held district outside Damascus with chemical weapons last year, but the rebels themselves, supplied with sarin gas by U.S. ally Turkey.
Given the unhinged state of the Turkish government right now, and the sick nature of some of the rebel fighters in Syria, that claim seems intuitively plausible. What gives me pause is not the vehement denial of the U.S. government, but the parts of Hersh's story that should have set off alarm bells for such a veteran reporter, but apparently didn't.
The biggest clanger comes with Hersh's statement that the chemical sample on which his story lives and dies -- demonstrating that the sarin gas used in Ghouta on Aug. 21 was not a match for that in the Syrian government's stocks -- came from "Russian military intelligence operatives." The Russian operative who then delivered the sample to the U.K.'s Porton Down laboratory for testing was "a good source" who had "a record of being trustworthy," according to the unnamed former U.S. intelligence official who appears to be the sole source for Hersh's claims.
Given the industrial scale dissimulation now being exercised by Russian intelligence operatives in Ukraine, it is hard to grasp how anyone with Hersh's experience could publish such a statement without qualification. Russia, after all, was desperately trying to prevent the U.S. from intervening militarily in Syria. Since when is the intelligence operative of a foreign state who produces evidence to promote his state's goals "trustworthy"? If they are, they aren't doing their job.
Then there is the quantity of sarin gas required for the attack. Hersh seems to start out by saying that Turkey was training the rebels to make sarin inside Syria. But the time and facilities required to make the quantity of gas used on Aug. 21 are inconceivable. Dan Kaszeta, a former U.S. Army Chemical Corps officer has calculated that the attack at Ghouta required at least a ton of sarin gas, which even in a large and well-equipped laboratory (hard to imagine in rebel-held Syria) is produced 2 gallons at a time.
Later, Hersh says Turkey provided the sarin and the training required to move and use it. That is certainly possible, although Turkey is not known to possess a chemical weapons program. Hersh doesn't mention Turkey's lack of a known program or discuss from where it might have sourced the sarin.
Nor does Hersh address the physical and photographic evidence that has emerged since the bombing, showing that the chemical warheads were delivered using a number of large "Volcano" rockets and their launchers, which are unique to Syria's military. Again it is conceivable that Syria's rebels might have got hold of that equipment in the chaos of civil war, but Syria hasn't claimed such thefts and Hersh doesn't even mention the rockets or how they might have been acquired and armed with chemical warheads.
There is a fascinating section of the article that describes an ill-tempered meeting at the White House between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and President Barack Obama. Erdogan wags his finger at the U.S. president, and Obama repeatedly cuts off the Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan as he tries to speak, before telling him: "We know what you're doing with the radicals in Syria." This scene, sourced to former U.S. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, is just about the only piece of Hersh's article that feels solid. But "we know what you're doing" is hardly a gotcha on chemical weapons.
That Turkey has been arming and aiding the Syrian rebels, including Islamists, and that Erdogan is deeply resentful of the U.S. failure to act more decisively in removing Assad is well known. From there, however, it is a big leap to show that Turkey got hold of large quantities of sarin gas and provided it to the rebels, who then got rockets and launchers from the Syrian military, successfully built and installed the warheads, and secretly fired them from near Syrian positions.
The U.S., U.K. and French governments still haven't said enough about what they know of the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack, and we still don't know for sure what happened. Hersh, however, has shed no light.
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Marc Champion is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter at @MarcChampion1
To contact the author on this story:
Marc Champion at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor on this story:
Toby Harshaw at email@example.com