What We Know & Don't Know About the Chemical Attack on Khan Sheikhoun, Syria & Why It Matterss
Despite the nearly universal acceptance by our government and the US media that Syria conducted a deadly Sarin Gas attack on a small, rebel held town near its border with Turkey, an attack to which Trump responded with a cruise missile attack on a Syrian airbase, we don't know as much about what actually happened to the people of Khan Sheikhoun on this past Tuesday as many think we do.
We know only one thing for certain: upwards of seventy or more people died in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, Syria on the morning of April 4, 2017 from a chemical attack that has all the signs a neurotoxic agent, consistent with Sarin, was used to cause their demise. Everything else we've been told is a tangled mess of confusing and contradictory accounts by politicians, reporters, NGOs, victims and other alleged witnesses to this atrocity.
President Trump and most US politicians of both parties blame Syria for this attack. The Syrians deny they used use chemical weapons in any attack although they admit to bombing a structure in Khan Sheikhoun they claim held munitions, including chemical weapons held by the rebels. The Russians, for the moment, are standing by Syria's official story, though they have called for an independent investigation. I for one agree that such an investigation is sorely needed before we inflame the situation in Syria with further military action by US forces.
Most of the eye witnesses to the attack on agree on only one thing - that it killed a lot of people with what appears was a neurotoxic chemical in the early hours of the morning between 6:30 am and 7:00 am. After that, no one tells the same story. What follows are various reports compiled from witness statements published in primarily mainstream news media outlets. I'll provide a source for each one:
Hussam Salloum, quoted in The National on 4/5/17, claimed to be an rebel air raid volunteer who witnessed the attack from a distance of 1.5 kilometers away. He "described watching a Sukhoi-22 aircraft, a Syrian army jet, approach the town at low altitude." He also said the jet
...dropped three conventional explosive bombs – and a fourth that made little sound on impact but produced a cloud of smoke.
"The smoke was white and thick," he said. "It began to spread out, until there was a layer over the town." [...]
"The pilot carried out the bombing in one go, four bombs together," he said
Salloum's account is very detailed and specific. He knows the exact type of warplane that bombed the town, and that four bombs were dropped, three conventional high explosive bombs and then a fourth that did not explode as the others did, releasing a cloud of white smoke instead.
Unfortunately, his account doesn't match many of the other witness statements, nor is it consistent with the fact that nerve agents, such as Sarin, when released as a gas are colorless. Sources: Department of Homeland Security, Centers for Disease Control, and The Boston Globe.
Here's what other witnesses, some of them victims and some not, had to say:
, a 13-year-old resident of the town reportedly told CNN:
"At 6:30 in the morning, the plane struck. I ran up on our roof and saw that the strike was in front of my grandfather's house," he said.
He said he ran toward his house and found his grandfather slumped over. He ran outside to call for help. "I got dizzy and then fainted in front of my grandfather's garage. I next found myself here in this hospital, naked in a bed."
, 55 year-old grandmother of Mazin, claimed to have seen blue and yellow colors after the alleged bomb strike. She stated she "started choking, felt dizzy, then fainted. Mazin was trying to wake up his grandfather..."
CNN also interviewed , age 31, who did not mention any bomb at all. He claimed seeing "three rockets" carrying a "poisonous substance" hit "him" (I assume he meant three rockets hit the town near his home). He also said:
"I was in my house. I had difficulty breathing, but I feel better now. But I did throw up after getting to the hospital. I don't know if my family is dead or alive. I don't know anything," he said.
As you can see, none of the witnesses cited by CNN spoke of white smoke. Nor did any of the other with eyewitnesses I've found in the reports filed by major news outlets:
, claimed that on her way to an exam about the Quran, she saw:
[A]n aircraft drop a bomb on a one-story building a few dozen yards away. In a telephone interview Tuesday night, she described an explosion like a yellow mushroom cloud that stung her eyes. “It was like a winter fog,” she said.
A yellow mushroom cloud is not consistent with either white smoke or what you would expect from a Sarin gas release, which would be an colorless, colorless gas. However, it would be consistent with the release of a chlorine gas bomb, which appears yellow-green in color according to the CDC. Chlorine gas does share some symptoms with Sarin gas, though it is less deadly. Syria has been accused of several Chlorine gas attacks in 2015 (according to a UN report) and in 2016 according to a report published by Human Rights Watch, dated February 13, 2017. It is also not inconsistent with a statement released by Doctors Without Borders, whose treated patients from Khan Sheikhoun and said they emitted an odor like bleach, which suggests Chlorine gas may have been involved in the attack, as well.
, a photographer for the pro-opposition Edlib Media Center (EMC), told the Associated Press that he was awoken by the sound of an explosion at about [6:30 am]. When he reached the scene, there was no smell, he said. He found people lying on the floor, unable to move and with constricted pupils.
, the head of a charity ambulance service in Idlib, told the BBC that he heard about the attack at about 06:45 and that when his medics arrived 20 minutes later they found people, many of them children, choking in the street.
, which funds hospitals in rebel-held Syria, said three of its staff in Khan Sheikhoun were affected while treating patients in the streets and had to be rushed to intensive care.
None of these witnesses mentioned any cloud, fog or smoke, for whatever reason. Nor did they identify the plane (or rockets in one case) as Syrian in origin.
Then there is the controversy about when the attacks occurred and who was responsible for them. Syria admitted to a late morning attack on what it called a rebel munitions supply depot that contained chemical weapons, but not to any attack using chemical weapons themselves, nor to any early morning attack. "US officials" claimed our radar in the region detected Syrian planes in the vicinity of Khan Sheikhoun around 7:00 am, but of course they spoke on condition of anonymity because they "weren't authorized to speak on the intelligence" (even though they obviously did quite willingly).
As for the people who spoke about whether the town did have a ammunition depot for rebel forces, well whether they did depends on to whom one spoke. Pro-opposition "activists' (i.e., rebels) claimed there was no depot there, or that even of there was it didn't include chemical weapons. Pro-government sources said the exact opposite. You can read the LA Times report and compare their stories if you like. One Syrian journalist, Nizar Nayouf "quoted an unnamed doctor who told him there had been a storage area for the rebels in town." However, he this unnamed doctor did not make mention of any chemical munitions stored there.
So, as you can see, at this point we have very little, if any solid evidence that the Syrian government was responsible for the attack, except for one rebel witness. His detailed identification of a Soviet style warplane used by the Syrian air force that he saw drop four bombs on the town, including one that caused a large cloud of white smoke sounds damning. However, he admitted that he was located a distance equivalent to a mile away from the scene of the attack. That and the fact that Sarin gas or other nerve agents are colorless, and there is no other witness who can clearly prove Syrian involvement makes him not very credible in my eyes. The anonymous leak by US officials that radar showed Syrian warplanes being close to the town about 7:00 am is also just a little to convenient in my opinion.
Still the story Syria is pushing, that the destruction of a rebel ammunition dump, which included Sarin gas, was responsible for the deaths of these people has come under a great deal of criticism, and I find those critics have a point. As one expert on chemical munitions noted, nerve gas is stored in a "binary manner, which suggests that bombing a weapons depot holding Sarin munitions would not result in any release of Sarin gas.
Nonetheless, there is little other than speculation to tie Syria to this atrocity. Which brings us to the question of motive? Why would Assad risk an escalation of the war, which could result in his expulsion from power and likely death, by using deadly nerve gas against a small rebel town? What's the gain for him and his government, especially at a moment in time when the new American President was indicating a willingness to forego the previous administration's policy of regime change?
The same questions were raised back in 2013, when Sarin gas or some other nerve agent was used to kill anywhere from 280 to 1800 people living in Ghouta, an area that contained several suburbs of Damascus. At the time, the US and its allies doggedly blamed Syria for the attack and a UN investigation seemed to support their position. However, a subsequent investigation by Theodore Postol of MIT and Richard Lloyd demonstrated that much of the evidence relied upon to prove Syrian involvement in the Ghouta tragedy was actually very thin and speculative, at best. At worst, it pointed the finger of blame squarely on the US supported jihadi rebels
As in that case, the question of motive rears its ugly head again with respect to this new attack, the only difference being that President Obama held off any major military response against Syrian forces, unlike President Trump. Obviously, it is not in Bashar Assad's interest to see his regime overthrown and replaced with one more amenable to Saudi and Western influence. Not, that is, unless he has a death wish. I suppose you can't entirely rule that possibility out, but it seems to me that the people who stand to benefit from increasing US military involvement in the Syrian conflict are the same ones who supported Hillary Clinton foreign policy proposals (i.e., neocons).
As many of you know, distinguished and Pulitzer prize winning journalist, Seymour Hersh, accused Clinton, while she served as Secretary of State under Obama, of arming the so-called "moderate rebels" in Syria with Libya's arsenal, including chemical munitions. The Deep State actors in the CIA and the armed forces have long sought to escalate the war in Syria and the direct use of our military there to overturn the Assad regime and replace it with one more favorable to "our interests." They still do, despite the risks of expanding that war into a much greater conflict involving Russia and Iran.
Supposedly we became involved in Syria to fight ISIS. We now know nothing could be further from the truth. Regime change was the goal all along. It remains the goal of many leaders in both major parties, as evidenced by call for the Trump administration to come up with a plan to "deal with the violence" (i.e., get rid of Assad's government) come hell or high water.
So when looking at the evidence that Syria is responsible for the nerve gas attack on Khan Sheikhoun, ask yourself one essential question: cui bono? Who had the most to gain from some half-assed nerve gas attack on a small Syrian town under rebel control? Assad? Russia? Or the more obvious candidates closer to home: all the players who operate, and/or benefit from, the Deep State?