Monday, April 17, 2017

The Chemical Attack on Khan Sheikhoun

On Tuesday, April 4th, there was a chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun in Syria, a town held by rebels in the ongoing hellhole quagmire that is Syrian today.  President Bashar al-Assad has denied that Syria was responsible for the attack.  Many have wondered why in God's name Assad would take such an action.  It seems so implausible that some have suggested that, perhaps, he's being sincere, and didn't launch the attack at all.
Why, when the civil war seemed to be trending his way - with America and Russia finally teaming up, after a fashion, to help crush ISIS, leaving Assad to rule the remains of Syria - would Assad take such an inflammatory action?  After all, it's fine to kill your own citizens en masse with conventional firearms and ordnance, but not to kill them with chemical weapons.  That's gauche!  (And not for bad reasons, honestly).

Could the attack have been staged by the "Deep State", the "intelligence community" here in the United States to keep a perpetual war going?  I've some interesting theorizing in this regard.  Some folks who regard all 9/11 "truthers" as absolute nutters are, in this case, willing to entertain the premise that the chemical attack was staged.  It seems to me that you should pick your poison.  Either you're a conspiracy theorist or you aren't.  There have been plenty of real, honest-to-goodness conspiracies in history, and American history to boot.  Being a conspiracy theorist is always derided, and often the deriding is done by people who are quick to comment but can't actually be bothered to pick up a magazine or book and do some reading on the subject.

Still, I have to go with the anti-conspiratorial side with regard to this chemical attack, for several reasons, prime among them that Assad's own explanation regarding the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun strains credibility:

Vilified by accusations of using a chemical bomb, Syria’s president intensified his counterpropaganda campaign on Thursday, suggesting that child actors had staged death scenes to malign him and that American warplanes had bombed a terrorist warehouse full of poison gases, killing hundreds of people.


“We don’t know whether those dead children were killed in Khan Sheikhoun,” Mr. Assad told Agence France-Presse in the television interview from Damascus, which was recorded on Wednesday. “Were they dead at all?” (NY Times)

(emphasis added mine)

"Child actors" doesn't pass the smell test.  So, let's assume for the sake of argument that Assad did it, that he used sarin gas to attack rebels rather than other means.  Why?

This Guardian article suggests a possible line of reasoning that makes sense but is hard to grasp at first pass.  I'm going to try to sum it up for you because I think it's a completely fascinating analysis.

So, to reiterate: to date, since Donald Trump came to town, the consensus shaping  up for Assad had been that Russia, America, and Turkey were all more or less burying the hatchet and making ISIS their top priority, with Assad to be left more or less alone, the "victor" by dint of being the last man standing in this bloody, destructive civil war.  The Sunni Arab Gulf states (Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia) which had been the prime backers of anti-Assad rebels were slowly backing out; all that was left to Assad was to mop up.  Why use sarin in this instance, as opposed to some more conventional form of killing?

Well, first of all, the shock factor of employing such a unique form of mass murder has its appeal if your goal is to break the psyche of your opponent in particular.  Using sarin, long considered a no-go for warfare in the modern era, says "I am willing to use ANY method to crush you."  That's the conventional explanation, and maybe that's all this boils down to.

Could there be more to it than that?  A sarin attack has a few other benefits for Assad beyond simple terror.  Given the new-ness of the Trump era, it might make sense for Assad to test the limits of what he can and cannot get away with.  If sarin flies, great!  Then Assad has presumably set the tone for an anything-goes era as long as Trump is President.

But what if sarin doesn't fly? What if America retaliates, as it did?  Well, here's where things get trickier.

Assad has long been a de facto agent of Iran.  Recently he's cozied up to Russia, but Syria has long been in Iran's "orbit".  It is perhaps not so easy for Assad to break with Iran.  And here comes this relative new, still-feeling-its-sea-legs Russia/America working alliance in Syria.  Even if that alliance leaves Assad around, it does so at the expense of Iran, which now has to contend with Russia and America occupying the patron saint role for Assad that Iran previously provided.

This has implications all over the region.  America and Iran are contending through proxies in not only Syria, but in Iraq and Yemen as well.

Russia has made clear that any attempt to reconquer ISIS-held Raqqa must be cleared and coordinated by Syria and Russia.  Therefore, if you can turn America against Syria - with an inflammatory sarin gas attack, for instance - you can break the Russia/America alliance and leave Iran's influence intact.

If this twisted logic was responsible for a chemical attack by Assad, it appears to be working.  Emphases added mine:

Russia’s approach in Syria is not in sync with that of Damascus and Tehran, even if they all work for the same goal – the preservation of the regime. Moscow’s outreach to some rebel forces, to Turkey and to the US goes counter to the Iranian-led approach before the Russian intervention in September 2015. At least some Syrian and Iranian circles see risks in the US-Russian understanding in Syria and the potential to force a settlement on them in the future. Instead of separating Russia from Iran, the US action brings them closer and increases the distance between Russia and the US. Russia already announced it was suspending a “deconfliction” agreement with the US to avoid air accidents in Syria. (Guardian)

So it's a possibility.  And yet, despite Assad's ridiculous protestations concerning "child actors," it's also possible Assad really didn't launch the chemical attacks!  Britain's former ambassador to Syria here points out the parallels to the absurd "weapons of mass destruction" claims made in advance of the invasion of Iraq.

Frequently in this blog I have a strong opinion I can back up with fact, that I state unequivocally in the attempt to convince you to hold that opinion as well.  When it comes to the attack on Khan Sheikhoun, I'd simply be lying if I told you what to believe.  I'm inclined to think Assad launched the attacks because he thought he could get away with them - the "test the waters" thesis.  But if this turned out to be some CIA, etc. "false flag" operation?  That wouldn't surprise me either.

Let me conclude for now on a side note, a little stroll down memory lane: Winston Churchill's love of chemical weapons, which he used against Bolsheviks and hoped to used against Indians as well.  That lovable scamp!
A U.S. soldier stands in front of a mass grave for the victims of the Halabja gas attack in Iraq

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