The NightWatch newsletter comes over the transom in the wee hours every night. From today’s edition:
Special comment for new analysts. It always is wise to investigate as many versions of a story as are available. Each adds something to the reconstruction of what happened. The open source coverage of the chemical attack at Khan Shaykhun on 3-4 April is the latest example of the need to reserve judgment until the facts are established by credible evidence.
Open source coverage has established beyond doubt that a chemical attack or incident occurred. The Syrian rebel leaders are consistent in blaming the Syrian air force as having dropped chemical bombs. The government is equally insistent that it has no chemicals to use. Both have motives to lie. Both have used chemicals in the past, but only the rebel version of the latest incident received attention at the UN and in mainstream news coverage.
There is another version of what happened worth considering. For example, the London based news website Ra’y al-Yawm published the following version of events.
“Syria: Sources Confirm That the Explosion of a Chemical Manufacturing Workshop Belonging to Armed Factions is Responsible for Killing Scores in Khan Shaykhun in Idlib. Syrian Army Denies Possessing Chemical Weapons, and Russia Denies Conducting Raids in the Area.”
“Military sources in Syria have spoken to our correspondent about accusations against the Syrian and Russian air forces of using chemical materials and toxic gases in an attack that killed or wounded scores of people in Khan Shaykhun in the Idlib countryside.”
“The sources stated that a workshop used for fitting rockets with poisonous gas payloads exploded in Khan Shaykhun, killing or wounding the workshop’s personnel and causing a release of toxic substances that injured nearby civilians.
The news website is anti-American, but also very pro-Palestinians and pan-Arab. It is no friend of the Syrian government.
In terms of Means Opportunity and Motive (MOM), both sides could be responsible. Various rebel opposition groups have posted video images of their chemical weapons labs from time to time. We know some rebel groups use chemicals. The alternative story raises a question as to whether Western intelligence agencies knew or suspected that the rebels had a chemical or other weapons storage facility in Khan Shaykhun. If so, the location would be a target.
As to opportunity, an air attack would provide credible cover for a disastrous accident or for an accurate aerial bombing of a rebel weapons storage location that contained chemicals as well as conventional weapons. The alternative is plausible and similar events have occurred outside conflict situations, such as the Bhopal disaster in India in 1984.
As for motive, the war is going against the rebels. They have an urgent need for outside help to restrain the Syrian government forces and the Russians.
As for opportunity, the fighting in Idlib has not seemed to be going so poorly for the government that it required a chemical attack to cause a breakthrough. There is credible evidence that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons to try to reverse deteriorating tactical situations or to break hard core resistance. We do not have the sense that either condition applied to Khan Shaykhun.
Syria and Russia are less careful about civilian casualties than Western powers have tried to be. The Russians and Syrians tend to consider civilians in rebel held areas to be sympathizers or actual supporters of the rebels. The rebels also are not careful about killing civilians, sending them back to Allah, they say.
The above statements are about general intent to use chemicals, past practice and present means.
As for this attack, the Syrian air force is essentially a subset of the Russians. Both have motives to lie about a chemical attack, but both have no motive to conduct a chemical attack because the fighting is going their way. We judge the Russians would know whether Syrian aircraft dropped bombs with chemical weapons. Their denial is self-serving, but that does not make it a lie.
There is much about the ground battle situation that is not known. We remain agnostic about who was responsible for yet another disaster in Syria.
The point of this essay is that the other explanation confutes the rebel story and cautions against a quick rush to judgment based on only one side of the story. One point of certainty is that both sides have used chemical weapons in the war. One of the practices that analysts are prone to indulge is called “premature closure,” which means drawing a hard conclusion before all the pertinent evidence has been discovered.
Meanwhile, the war drums are getting louder here in the West, and even Donald Trump seems willing to dance. Lewis Amselem, A.K.A. “DiploMad”, has just written a post called Syria: The Siren Song of War. He asks exactly the right question:
Bottom line: Do we have the ability to “repeal” Assad? Yes. Do we have the ability to “replace” Assad? I doubt it.
Also: Scott Adams “calls bullshit”.