Dec 13, 2013
Truthdiggers of the Week: Skeptics of Obama’s Syrian Weapons Claims
Posted on Sep 1, 2013
Truthdig Editor-in-Chief Robert Scheer this week described bin Sultan as “the most effective Machiavellian politician of the modern era” and “the main source of arms for pro-al-Qaida insurgents in Syria.” That bin Sultan and the Saudis are among of the chief foreign promoters of the Syrian opposition is beyond question. But whether bin Sultan would even be capable of transporting chemical weapons across the Syrian border in a quantity corresponding to last month’s attack seems doubtful. The head spy is known to have become cozy with the Washington establishment during 20 years of service as a Saudi ambassador to the U.S., and The Independent reports that it was his agents who first alerted “Western allies to the alleged use of sarin gas by the Syrian regime in February.” Members of the C.I.A. are said to have cheered when it was announced that bin Sultan was installed as the head of Saudi Arabian intelligence, taking from the appointment that the country was “serious” about toppling Assad. Bin Sultan, they anticipated, “could deliver what the CIA couldn’t: planeloads of money and arms, and, as one U.S. diplomat put it, wasta, Arabic for under-the-table clout.” And given the complicatedness of Middle Eastern political relationships, it’s not just Assad that bin Sultan is after. He is also targeting, at least, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iran, both of which are obstacles to the political and economic interests in the Middle East of the historical and current American leadership. Robert Fisk at The Independent went as far as to say an American assault on Syria would act as a stealth attack on Iran.
The Telegraph this week offered a grim portrait of bin Sultan’s negotiating style. Leaked transcripts of talks that took place with Russian President Vladimir Putin last month reportedly show the “Machiavellian” Saudi mixing threats and incentives, offering protection from Chechen terrorists under Saudi Arabian control during the upcoming Winter Olympics as well as cheap access to Saudi Arabian oil. The deal would be made in exchange for Putin easing off his support for Assad in Syria. Bin Sultan depicted the Chechens as active among the Syrian opposition as entirely under Saudi Arabian control and able to be called off on command.
The Independent correspondent Patrick Cockburn, who began covering Syria in the 1970s, has made it clear that U.S. leaders like a Syria preoccupied with civil war. This means the Syrian government can’t effectively oppose American policies. It also means that Hezbollah is largely too distracted and spread out to attack Israel. Four days after the chemical attack, Cockburn offered a simple and obvious framing that begged a satisfying answer to the question of why Assad would gas the Ghoutans. “The priority for Syrian foreign policy for the past two-and-a-half years has been to avoid foreign military intervention on behalf of the rebels,” he wrote. “By the same token, the opposition has tried by every means to secure armed intervention by the US and its allies sufficient to win the war.” A chemical attack by any means could make intervention to the apparent benefit of the opposition by a U.S. looking to thumb its nose at Assad more likely.
But the mere fact that there are holes in the evidence is not proof of Assad’s innocence, especially so early in the reporting of events. “Unsurprisingly,” Cockburn wrote in a piece published Sept. 1, “people who feel they were swindled into war 10 years ago by bloodcurdling accounts of Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction are dubious about their government’s claim that President Bashar al-Assad’s army used poison gas on a mass scale on 21 August. All the questions that should have been asked in 2003 about Iraq are being asked about Syria: what is the evidence for chemical weapons? How partial are the sources of information? Why should Assad do something so much against his own interests? Would a limited air assault on Syrian military bases deter him from using chemical weapons again, supposing he used them this time, or would it be the first step towards ever-deeper British and American involvement in the war?”
Elsewhere Cockburn confirmed that just because it would be against the interests of Assad or a Syrian military faction to use chemical weapons does not mean it didn’t happen. “Governments and armies do stupid things,” he wrote.
Critics of Obama’s plan to bomb Syria seem to be unanimous in the belief that an attack would destabilize the region more than it already is, potentially bringing Russia and other Syrian allies into a protracted multinational war. They agree it wouldn’t be as quick and easy as the 2011 intervention in Libya, a country that had few allies and was led by a dictator who was clearly on his way out. Another long war would be a dream for the U.S.’ already grotesquely bloated and predatory military-industrial complex. But it would be disastrous for the world Obama claims he wants to keep safe, including the Syrians he says his assault would be intended to protect. The president’s expressed disinterest in ousting Assad seems at odds with his peace and protection story too.
There has not been a complete accounting of the reports and criticisms shedding light on the circumstances surrounding the horror in Ghouta, or the appropriate responses, or the possible motivations of all parties involved. It is too early for that. Additionally, as Patrick Cockburn told me during a conversation on the challenges of covering the Syrian civil war in July, we are faced with the fact that the quality of coverage of places like Syria has “gone down” in recent years—no doubt in large part because of the slashing of foreign staff by major newspapers. If those offices remained in their previous size, there might have been fewer questions about the responsibility of last month’s chemical attacks, and a smaller probability of what Fisk called “the stupidest Western war in the history of the modern world.”
What I can say beyond a doubt is that we at Truthdig admire people worldwide and at every level of society who retain their commitment to truth in the face of easy answers, uncomfortable ambiguity, incomplete reporting, official misinformation and greasy moral pronouncements from governments that lost the mandate to make them over decades of military aggression. We value those who resist the temptation to throw uncritical support behind leaders who present themselves as champions of the helpless—of people whose suffering at the hands of their leaders represents a convenient geopolitical opportunity. We also admire reporters, critics and politicians who act as checks against these inclinations in others.
Amid lingering but narrowing uncertainty about what happened in Ghouta, we honor those who remain skeptical of power in all its forms and sympathetic to the welfare of others as our Truthdiggers of the Week.
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