Special Report | Syria: Deciphering the Propaganda War over the Ghouta Massacre

The politicised debate over the realities of last month's chemical attack in Ghouta is a further manifestation of a propaganda war - being fought on all sides and for competing national and geopolitical interests - that shows scant regard for the human cost of the conflict.

New in Ceasefire, Special Reports - Posted on Friday, September 20, 2013 22:27 - 20 Comments

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US - Russia - Kerry - Lavrov - Syria - Propaganda

If there is anything to learn from the Syrian conflict, it is that, in the fog of war, truth really is the first casualty. Narratives and counter-narratives of the conflict have plagued media accounts and the blogosphere ever since peaceful protests erupted on the streets of Syria over two years ago, and increasingly so in the wake of the Ghouta chemical weapons attack of the 21st August.

While the West’s case against Assad in this respect appears politicised and less than conclusive, the same, if not worse, can be said about the case against the rebels. Almost every single piece of evidence that has been put forward to support that case has been disputed at the very least, or proved entirely false. And the politicisation of Russian and Iranian intelligence, the role of Assad in spearheading propaganda, has been overlooked. 

From the White House dossier to the United Nations report, from Syrian nuns to revelations from former and active intelligence officials, the propaganda war between pro and anti-interventionists to control the paradigm through which we understand the conflict – manifesting itself in Bashar al-Assad’s latest call for a ceasefire –  may be feeding into little-known strategic imperatives that see the Syrian people as mere pawns in a wider gambit.

The Ghouta verdict

On September 16th, a UN investigation released its interim findings on the chemical weapons incident in Ghouta, Damascus of August 21st, stating that:

“… the environmental, chemical and medical samples, we have collected, provide clear and convincing evidence that surface-to-surface rockets containing the nerve agent sarin were used in Ein Tarma, Moadamiyah and Zamalka in the Ghouta area of Damascus.”

But there were faultlines. Acknowledging that the investigation would not have been possible without the consent of both the Syrian government and on-the-ground cooperation of opposition forces, the report is fully cognisant of potential efforts to manipulate evidence at the various sites of the attack. In Moadamiya (p. 18), the report notes that: “The sites have been well travelled by other individuals both before and during the investigation. Fragments and other possible evidence have clearly been handled/moved prior to arrival of the investigation team.”

UN1

And in Zamalka and Ein Tarma (p. 22), the report flags up similar reservations that “the locations have been well travelled by other individuals prior to the arrival of the Mission” Even while the inspectors were present, “individuals arrived carrying other suspected munitions indicating that such potential evidence is being moved and possibly manipulated”:

UN2

These caveats are important, but they should not be overblown. That the inspection team recognised these issues and took them into account in assessing the implications of the physical evidence mitigates against jumping quickly to the sort of simplistic counter-conclusion opportunistically (and misleadingly) misinterpreted by the likes of Iran’s state-controlled ‘Press TV’. On the other hand, the fact that the UN team documented efforts by individuals at these rebel-controlled areas to “possibly manipulate” some “potential evidence” at the sites is a concern.

But the UN report was also corroborated by independent experts. Dan Kaszeta, a chemical weapons specialist formerly with the U.S. Army Chemical Corps who had previous expressed doubt about the attacks due to inconsistencies in symptoms and other issues, nevertheless assessed that the UN report had identified “conclusive evidence” from environmental and medical data that this was a Sarin gas attack. Kaszeta pointed out that to address the limitations identified, the inspection team utilised a range of controls to ensure a lack of cross-contamination, and obtained a variety of different samples from in and around sites to avoid potential effects of tampering. An earlier Human Rights Watch (HRW) investigation undertaken with support from independent experts noted that the nature of the munitions, their trajectories, as well as the testimony from victims and eyewitnesses, pointed to a sophisticated operation most “likely” to have been carried out by the Syrian military via a regime-held base.

Counter-posed to these assessments is a barely-literate, self-contradictory “report” based essentially on analysis of YouTube videos by an unidentified “investigative team” headed up by Sister Agnes Miriam de la Croix, a Carmelite nun based in Syria who has long openly supported Assad. If there remain questions about the UN’s findings (itself arguable), this report is far worse, making a large number of interlinked and largely spurious claims implying that there was no chemical weapons attack at all, and the Ghouta massacre was entirely staged by the rebels with the complicity of international news media. Agnes Miriam, however, has a track record of unreliability and unverifiable accusations, explicable in the context of being close to Assad’s security services—so close, that according to the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ), the nun was complicit in a successful regime plot to kill international journalists. Unfortunately, that dearth of credibility has not prevented outlets like ‘Russia Today‘ from broadcasting the nun and her claims on satellite television. That’s not entirely surprising though, because Russian ‘intelligence’ attributing the attack to the rebels appears to be based exactly on such speculative partisan online analysis proven wrong in the past.

Dodgy Dossier?

Not surprisingly, the White House moved quickly to stating that the UN’s findings vindicated its case that the attacks were carried out by Assad’s forces. On Aug. 30, the White House had published a document squarely attributing the Aug. 21 use of chemical weapons in Ghouta to the Syrian military. The document described itself as a U.S. “government assessment“, encapsulating “an unclassified summary of the U.S. intelligence community’s analysis” of the attack. But the document admitted to falling short of conclusive “confirmation.”

White House assessment

Less than a week after the White House assessment was published, on Sept. 6, an open letter to president Barack Obama signed by a respected group of retired US intelligence officers­ claimed that active U.S. intelligence community officials disagreed with the White House assessment. The memo by the group known as Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS)—led by 27-year CIA analyst Ray McGovern who chaired National Intelligence Estimates and prepared the President’s Daily Brief—opens as follows:

“… our former co-workers are telling us, categorically, that contrary to the claims of your administration, the most reliable intelligence shows that Bashar al-Assad was NOT responsible for the chemical incident that killed and injured Syrian civilians on August 21, and that British intelligence officials also know this.”

VIPS

The veterans group does have a solid track record, having addressed its first memo to President George W. Bush warning presciently that Secretary of State Colin Powell’s notorious 2003 UN speech on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction intelligence was fraudulent. The group’s other members include well-known former intelligence officers from the CIA, State Department and National Security Agency.

They wrote that “CIA officers working on the Syria issue” told them that Syria’s chemical incident was “not the result of an attack by the Syrian Army using military-grade chemical weapons from its arsenal.” On the contrary: “They tell us that CIA Director John Brennan is perpetrating a pre-Iraq-War-type fraud on members of Congress, the media, the public—and perhaps even you.”

The memo describes the White House report as “a political, not an intelligence document.” It cites Middle East sources linked to the Syrian opposition confirming that “the August 21 chemical incident was a pre-planned provocation by the Syrian opposition and its Saudi and Turkish supporters”, designed precisely to “bring the United States into the war.”

The memo quickly went viral online. If the VIPS account is accurate, of course, then it raises serious questions not just about the White House assessment that it contested, but also about the possibility that the rebels’ supporters could have interfered with evidence critical to the integrity of the UN investigation.

So who is right?

Politicisation of Intelligence

Backing up the VIPS’ case, other intelligence experts have stated that the very nature of the White House document probably means it does not represent the untarnished conclusions of the US intelligence community.

One anonymous ex-senior intelligence official who held dozens of security classifications over a decades-long career said that the language used by the White House “means that this is not an intelligence community document.” He had “never seen a document about an international crisis at any classification described/slugged as a U.S. government assessment.” This means that the administration “decided on a position and cherry-picked the intelligence to fit it… The result is not a balanced assessment of the intelligence.”

Paul Pillar, a former National Intelligence Council (NIC) officer who participated in drafting national intelligence estimates, described the White House report as “evidently an administration document.” Even if senior intelligence officials signed off on the document at some stage, he said, the White House may have drafted its own paper to “avoid attention to analytic differences within the intelligence community.”

Others have pointed out that the document appears to mislead on its sources of information. At one point, for instance, it claims:

“We have a body of information, including past Syrian practice, that leads us to conclude that regime officials were witting of and directed the attack on August 21. We intercepted communications involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on August 21 and was concerned with the UN inspectors obtaining evidence.”

However, as noted by former British Ambassador Craig Murray who headed the British Foreign Office’s Cyprus section in the 1990s, the Mount Troodos listening post in Cyprus responsible for monitoring all electronic communications across the Middle East on behalf of both U.S. and British intelligence (which share all this information as a matter of protocol) did not appear to have picked up these intercepts. Murray’s intelligence sources told him that such intercepts “were not available to the UK Joint Intelligence Committee” – but if they had been picked up, they should have been. The only explanation was that the alleged intercept evidence was provided by Mossad, he said—but the fact that Troodos did not pick up on it suggests Mossad may have doctored the intercepts.

On the other hand, German intelligence picked up intercepts showing that Syrian military officers had been requesting Assad permission to use chemical weapons for over the preceding four months—but crucially that Assad himself had always denied permission up to and including the Ghouta attack.

Dodgier Dossier?

So at first glance, the VIPS memo’s core contention that U.S. intelligence is being politicized over Syria, as happened in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War, appears compelling.

But a deeper look reveals that the VIPS memo fails to withstand the same level of scrutiny and verifiability it demands from the Obama administration. From where, for instance, does its narrative of the Aug. 21 attack actually come from?

Disturbingly, certain sections of the VIPS letter to Obama seem to plagiarise verbatim an older article by Yossef Bodanksy, former Director the U.S. Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare of the U.S. House of Representatives, published in the Washington DC journal Defense & Foreign Affairs. The latter, a publication of the International Strategic Studies Association (ISSA)—a private intelligence group providing consultancy services for the U.S. and other governments and corporations—attributed the chemical weapon attacks to the rebels.

Here are some extracts from the VIPs memo and the Bodanksy article—published about a week before the former (and available online here)—which are almost exactly the same (added emphasis ours):

Bodansky:

There is a growing volume of new evidence from numerous sources in the Middle East—mostly affiliated with the Syrian opposition and its sponsors and supporters—that makes a very strong case, based on solid circumstantial evidence, that the August 21, 2013, chemical strike in Damascus suburbs was indeed a pre-meditated provocation by the Syrian opposition.

VIPS:

There is a growing body of evidence from numerous sources in the Middle East—mostly affiliated with the Syrian opposition and its supporters—providing a strong circumstantial case that the August 21 chemical incident was a pre-planned provocation by the Syrian opposition and its Saudi and Turkish supporters. The aim is reported to have been to create the kind of incident that would bring the United States into the war.

Bodansky:

Western-sponsored opposition forces in Turkey started advance preparations for a major and irregular military surge. Initial meetings between senior opposition military commanders and representatives of Qatari, Turkish and US intelligence took place at the converted Turkish military garrison in Antakya, Hatay Province, used as the command center and headquarters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and their foreign sponsors. Very senior opposition commanders who had arrived from Istanbul briefed the regional commanders of an imminent escalation in the fighting due to “a war-changing development” which would, in turn, lead to a U.S.-led bombing of Syria.

VIPS:

In addition, we have learned that on August 13-14, 2013, Western-sponsored opposition forces in Turkey started advance preparations for a major, irregular military surge. Initial meetings between senior opposition military commanders and Qatari, Turkish and U.S. intelligence officials took place at the converted Turkish military garrison in Antakya, Hatay Province, now used as the command center and headquarters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and their foreign sponsors.

Senior opposition commanders who came from Istanbul pre-briefed the regional commanders on an imminent escalation in the fighting due to “a war-changing development,” which, in turn, would lead to a U.S.-led bombing of Syria.

Bodansky:

The opposition forces had to quickly prepare their forces for exploiting the US-led bombing in order to march on Damascus and topple the Bashar al-Assad Government, the senior commanders explained. The Qatari and Turkish intelligence officials assured the Syrian regional commanders that they would be provided with plenty of weapons for the coming offensive.

Indeed, unprecedented weapons distribution started in all opposition camps in Hatay Province on August 21-23, 2013. In the Reyhanli area alone, opposition forces received well in excess of 400 tons of weapons, mainly anti-aircraft weaponry from shoulder-fired missiles to ammunition for light-guns and machine guns. The weapons were distributed from store-houses controlled by Qatari and Turkish intelligence under the tight supervision of U.S. intelligence.

VIPS:

Opposition leaders were ordered to prepare their forces quickly to exploit the U.S. bombing, march into Damascus, and remove the Bashar al-Assad government.

The Qatari and Turkish intelligence officials assured the Syrian regional commanders that they would be provided with plenty of weapons for the coming offensive. And they were. A weapons distribution operation unprecedented in scope began in all opposition camps on August 21-23. The weapons were distributed from storehouses controlled by Qatari and Turkish intelligence under the tight supervision of U.S. intelligence officers.

I queried several VIPS signatories regarding their alleged sources for this narrative. Ex-NSA senior executive Thomas Drake described the sources as “sensitive” but attributed primary authorship of the memo to Ray McGovern—Bodansky’s article, of course, being available for free online is hardly a “sensitive source.”

Former CIA and State Department counter-terrorism officer Larry Johnson said that he had obtained some information related to this account from one “highly reliable and trusted” source, rather than multiple sources. When asked if the source was based in the Middle East or Syrian opposition, as claimed in the memo, Johnson said he would not divulge any other information about this source.

Further, when pressed to elaborate on the nature of their sources, VIPS chair McGovern referred to: “Senior officials in the U.S. intelligence community with access to this information.”

However, their real—unacknowledged—source is Bodanksy’s article, as the clear textual evidence of blatant plagiarism above reveals. But Bodansky is not a senior official in the U.S. intelligence community. VIPS do not have on the ground sources in the Middle East or among the Syrian opposition at all. Rather than learning the lesson of the plagiarised British dossier on Iraq’s (non-existent) WMD, the VIPS memo replicates it in a misguided effort to oppose an intervention.

When I then put the charge of plagiarism to VIPS, McGovern responded by saying: “Sorry if I did not make it clear. ‘Senior officials’ and Bodansky are two separate and distinct things. The former have nothing to do with the latter. Were it not for the former, we would not have written the piece.” The former CIA analyst added:

“If, as we are told by people we trust (amid suspicions from a whole array of other circumstantial evidence) that the government is not telling the truth, then, in essence we have (or almost had) Iraq Part II, as far as fraudulent intelligence is concerned.”

I asked him why VIPS needed to rely on Bodansky’s narrative if their  U.S. intelligence sources were privy to information proving Assad’s innocence, and whether they had verified Bodanksy’s own alleged sources, but received no further comment.

Vacuous Viral Memes

The contradictory White House and VIPS memos are part of an ongoing propaganda war to ‘fix’ the intelligence on Syria for partisan interests, well meaning or not. They illustrate how difficult it is to make sense of the situation in Syria for outside observers due to inherently politicised, conflicting reports. Neither the U.S. and British, nor Iranian and Russian media are impartial sources of information.

Is it possible to assess whether Bodansky’s claims have any merit? Although he has been right in the past, his services having been sought as a U.S. government defence consultant, he has also been ridiculously wrong. In relation to Syria, Bodansky is openly supportive of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, as well as of Alawite domination of Syria. He specifically supported Assad’s uncle Rifaat, who led the 1982 massacre in Hama. So his alleged sources might well also be partisan. (Bodansky could not be reached for comment on his relationship with the Assad regime or the reliability of his own alleged sources, and my email to him on these issues received no response.)

Are VIPS being too credulous about pro-Assad propaganda? Responding to questions about sources over Twitter, Thomas Drake replied with a link to another viral article by Jordan-based Dale Gavlak, a veteran Middle East correspondent for Associated Press, co-writing with on-the-ground reporter Yahya Ababneh. The report cited interviews with mostly unnamed “doctors, Ghouta residents, rebel fighters and their families” saying that the Aug. 21 attack was conducted accidentally by rebels supplied with chemical weapons by Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan. Bandar reportedly provided the weapons to the rebels via the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front. But the article, published by a little-known alternative news outlet known as ‘Mint Press News’, came with the following caveat: “Some information in this article could not be independently verified. Mint Press News will continue to provide further information and updates.”

Subsequently, the integrity of the report was completely thrown into question when its purported lead author, Gavlak, issued a statement confirming that she had, in fact, nothing to do with the authorship of the article, and had repeatedly requested Mint Press News to remove her name from the piece without success:

“To date, Mint Press News has refused to act professionally or honestly in regards to disclosing the actual authorship and sources for this story. I did not travel to Syria, have any discussions with Syrian rebels, or do any other reporting on which the article is based.  The article is not based on my personal observations and should not be given credence based on my journalistic reputation. Also, it is false and misleading to attribute comments made in the story as if they were my own statements.”

Worse, the story is disputed by accounts obtained by London’s Independent from Ghouta residents who “repeatedly recounted separate landings of ‘chemicals’ at Kafr Batna, Zayina, Ein Tarma, Zamalka, Ain Tarma and Moadamiyeh Al Sham, at varying times, pointing out that a single home-made rocket could not have carried out multiple strikes.” While tunnels in Ghouta do exist, “any chemical accidents in them would not have reached the areas affected, the residents insisted.” Additionally, al-Nusra “has no presence of any significance in Ghouta”, with the largest Islamist group in the area being Liwa al-Islam, who “are not as hardline.”

How to explain the discrepancy between the two stories? The Houla massacre provides a clue—in that case, Assad agents were bribing poor Syrians to spread propaganda blaming the rebels for the killings. The propaganda even made news attributed to so-called Syrian “opposition sources”, but was eventually discredited by UN investigators. The simple physical and eyewitness evidence at the sites of multiple surface-to-surface rocket attacks also undermines the Mint Press News’ claims about an accidental underground detonation.

Another viral story blaming the rebels for the Aug. 21 attacks cites two Belgian and Italian writers who had been taken hostage by Syrian rebel forces for five months. After their release on 8th September, they described overhearing a conversation between their captors saying the rebels had launched the attack to trigger a Western intervention. Compelling? The Italian journalist later emphasised he did not know the rebels were responsible for the chemical attack, as he could not tell whether the overheard conversation was based on real events as opposed to discussion of rumour or hearsay, and could not even confirm the exact identities of its participants.

Proxy War

The ongoing war of words illustrates that Syria is not just a civil war, but a propaganda war being fought for competing geopolitical interests. The end-result of this tug of war between pro-interventionist and anti-interventionist narratives has been the victory of neither, and thus, the entrenchment of violence amidst a Syrian stalemate.

Unfortunately, some parties see this stalemate as a strategic boon. Noting “the synergy between the Israeli and American positions”, the New York Times recently reported that: “For Jerusalem, the status quo, horrific as it may be from a humanitarian perspective, seems preferable to either a victory by Mr. Assad’s government and his Iranian backers or a strengthening of rebel groups, increasingly dominated by Sunni jihadis.” In this context, the threat of “limited” military strikes is more about sending a message to Iran and Syria, rather than about decisively defeating Assad—which may be because “the West needs more time to prop up opposition forces it finds more palatable.”

This coheres uncannily well with a 2008 U.S. Army-funded RAND report tasked with setting out strategic options for regional policy, whose key objective it describes as protecting Western access to Persian Gulf oil supplies. This requires “shoring up the traditional Sunni regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan as a way of containing Iranian power and influence in the Middle East and Persian Gulf”, as well as “exploiting fault lines” between jihadist groups “to turn them against each other and dissipate their energy on internal conflicts.” This is now well underway in Syria, where al-Qaeda and Hizbullah are being dragged into a spiral of mutually-debilitating violence.

Another strategic upshot is the sidelining of longstanding regional pipeline plans that could challenge U.S. aspirations to become a major gas exporter to European markets, directly competing with Russian hegemony. With Qatar and Iran at loggerheads over potential Syria-crossing transit routes designed to supply gas to Europe (with Assad favouring the Iran-backed route based on utilising the Russian-controlled Syrian port of Tartus), the civil war stalemate prevents both from materialising, giving the U.S. an unexpected edge as its shale gas production booms.

In short, the U.S. gets to sideline its gas export competitors while undermining Iranian influence; Israel gets its regional enemies embroiled in war-without-end; Russia gets its arms sales to Iran and Syria; Saudi Arabia and Qatar get to escalate their game of geopolitical brinkmanship; and even the UN gets to rack up its depleted ‘peacekeeping’ credentials over self-congratulatory chemical weapons negotiations. And as the world has watched the debate over intervention drag on like an obscene international game of ping pong, the military-industrial complex rakes in huge profits from rocketing share prices.

Meanwhile, Syrian civilians continue to be killed largely by conventional, not chemical, weapons. According to the latest UN human rights report, both Syrian government forces and Free Syrian Army rebels—and not just those affiliated to al-Qaeda—have committed war crimes, although government forces are culpable in the vast bulk of the violence including at least eight massacres. But under the feel-good smokescreen of chemical ‘peacemaking’ resulting in the rightly-lauded framework agreement, the U.S. and Russia are still fuelling the conflict by stepping up military support to their favoured sides.

Despite the heavy-handed moral rhetoric from all quarters, it seems that everyone is jockeying in pursuit of their own interests, the Syrian people be damned.

Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed

Nafeez Ahmed is an investigative journalist, bestselling author and international security scholar. He has contributed to two major terrorism investigations in the US and UK, the 9/11 Commission and the 7/7 Coroner's Inquest, and has advised the Royal Military Academy Sandhust, British Foreign Office and US State Department, among other government agencies. His new novel, ZERO POINT, predicted a US-UK re-invasion of Iraq to put down an Islamist insurgency there. He is a regular contributor to The Guardian where he writes about the geopolitics of interconnected environmental, energy and economic crises via his Earth Insight global column. He has also written for The Independent, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Scotsman, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, Quartz, Prospect, New Statesman, Le Monde Diplomatique, among many others.

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Harel B
Sep 21, 2013 23:04

Along with some good analysis, Mr. Ahmed’s piece contains some very misleading statements. He writes: “the integrity of the report was completely thrown into question when its purported lead author, Gavlak, issued a statement confirming that he had, in fact, nothing to do with the authorship” Like others, Ahmed was in such a rush to dismiss this report that he didn’t even take 10 seconds to find out Gavlak is a she and not a “he”

While Gavlak’s gender is not central, it illustrates the glee with which evidence pointing at rebel use of chemical weapons (CW) is dismissed with no more than a cursory glance. Those who click the link Ahmed provides, discover it is in fact not a direct statement by Gavlak but a page by a blogger who claims to be sharing an email sent by Gavlak. It might be true but is unverified. Even if true, the fact is that several others have posted copies of their own emails form Gavlak, two weeks ago, and she told them she helped Ababneh write the article and said not one word to distance herself from co-authorship. She is believed to have known Ababneh (which MintPress made clear was responsible for the interviews) for some three years at the time, so presumably her choice to help him write it up was based on respect for his work she had by them developed.

It speaks volumes that Gavlak remained silent for 3 weeks and even more, what the alleged recent statement does not say. Does Gavlak say the story isn’t true? No. Does she say she has reason to doubt Ababneh or his interviewing? No. Does she say she has reason to doubt what the Ghouta residents testified to Ababneh? Again, no. Sympathies are due Gavlak; it does not take great imagination to see the immense pressure anyone is under when an article they helped someone else write goes viral which reports unpleasant things Ghouta residents have said about a Saudi Billionaire prince, let alone one which questions the narrative of the world’s most powerful state. Understandable if true, that she wishes her name was not on the piece she helped Ababneh write; the issue for those who claim to care about the victims remains elsewhere: the testimonies Ghouta area rebels and residents gave, pointing at rebel use of CW.

Aside: Mother Agnes who Ahmed tells us ” has long openly supported Assad” is on record calling the Assad government “totalitarian” This is hardly “supporting” Assad, and that fact is not changed by the fact that her own experiences and those testimonies given to her suggest many of the rebels are as or more totalitarian and brutal. She’s on record wanting a change of government from the “obsolete” totalitarian present model, but just happens to believe that funding brutally murderous jihadists, bandits, and Al Qaeda groups to tear the country to shreds is not the way to do it:”Now, this totalitarianism is not good, and it’s obsolete but if the armed insurrection is implementing another totalitarianism, which is maybe
worse, because there is blood, they can behead you, they can cut – last week, in our village, they cut the fingers of a so-called ‘collaborator’, then they behead him, and they cut him in pieces,and they left him, in the street, where even children would see..” (2:03min at YsK-12Q6rBU on YT)

Most stunning is Ahmed’s dismissal of what two pro-rebel journalists held hostage by rebels overheard, in English, in an adjacent room to where they were held. Though Ahmed does not bother repeating the words, here is Domenico Quirico’s description of what the man they knew as rebel commander, and two others, said: “During the Skype conversation, they said that the gas attack on the two neighborhoods in Damascus [Ghouta] had been carried out by rebels as a provocation, to push the West towards a military intervention” Not a commander saying he “conjectures” that but saying it “was carried out”. The other hostage Piccinin heard the same. The fact that they can’t be 100% sure of it as proof, is apparently reason enough to dismiss it entirely, and move on to other matter, rather than to call for a vigorous investigation.

One can imagine in some “opposite” parallel universe, in which two pro-Assad journalists are taken hostage, clearly held by Assad forces, and overhear such a conversation with direct CW admission by an Assad commander. Perhaps some pro-Assad hack journalist would say it’s not “compelling”, after all, since the former hostages cannot “even” be 100% certain of the identities of their captors and it “might be” a rumor – surely no one else, certainly no serious journalist, no Western journalist, would react the same way – demands for a full investigation (if not dropping bombs) would be step 1.

Surely at the very least if we care about the dead children, we should demand an investigation into these testimonies. In the actual universe, they will be brushed under the rug –what Piccinin and Quirico overheard, what Ghouta rebels and family told Ababneh– unless the public bands together to insist on an impartial inquiry into the many lines of evidence pointing at rebel use of chemical weapons. The victims deserve nothing less.

Nafeez Ahmed
Sep 23, 2013 11:41

@HarelB begins his comment with a veiled ad hominem: ‘Ahmed was in such a rush to dismiss this report that he didn’t even take 10 seconds to find out Gavlak is a she and not a “he”… While Gavlak’s gender is not central, it illustrates the glee with which evidence pointing at rebel use of chemical weapons (CW) is dismissed with no more than a cursory glance.’

That error has been corrected. It seems the aim here is to imply that I had a pre-ordained stance on the Mint Press News article which caused me to “rush” into dismissing it.

I think anyone with a half a brain reading this piece will quickly realise 1) I am not particularly gleeful about anything going in Syria, nor any arguments either way 2) I did not rush into any conclusions but rather have conducted a painstaking investigation of the arguments and counterarguments. 3) my dismissal of the Mint Press News report claiming that the Ghouta attack was carried out by rebels is based fundamentally on the fact that firstly the account is disputed by a far more reputable newspaper publication (let’s note that The Independent is also owned by a Russian oligarch), and secondly that the physical evidence at the multiple sites of the attack completely contradicts the therefore implausible scenario put forth in this article, which the HarelB bends over backwards to try to rehabilitate.

In any case, I was in no “rush” to dismiss the Mint Press article. This could have been verified by a quick google of my writings on Syria such as here:

http://www.nafeezahmed.com/2013/08/special-report-syria-intervention-plans.html

where early after the attack I have referenced multiple sources raising questions about the official account., including keeping an open mind about the Mint Press News report.

@HarelB says: “Those who click the link Ahmed provides, discover it is in fact not a direct statement by Gavlak but a page by a blogger who claims to be sharing an email sent by Gavlak. It might be true but is unverified.”

That’s a bit of a rich observation coming from someone clinging obsessively to an article which itself says some of its contents (without specifying which contents exactly) “cannot be independently verified.”

As for the blog where Dale Gavlak’s statement is posted (and I am about to notify you of some interesting updates in this regard), for those who don’t know, the Brown Moses blog is highly regarded and is a reliable source of coverage on Syria by a citizen journo with a pretty decent track record http://www.channel4.com/news/brown-moses-blog-syria-arms-weapons-croatia

@HarelB: “Even if true, the fact is that several others have posted copies of their own emails form Gavlak, two weeks ago, and she told them she helped Ababneh write the article and said not one word to distance herself from co-authorship. She is believed to have known Ababneh (which MintPress made clear was responsible for the interviews) for some three years at the time, so presumably her choice to help him write it up was based on respect for his work she had by them developed. It speaks volumes that Gavlak remained silent for 3 weeks and even more, what the alleged recent statement does not say. Does Gavlak say the story isn’t true? No. Does she say she has reason to doubt Ababneh or his interviewing? No. Does she say she has reason to doubt what the Ghouta residents testified to Ababneh? Again, no. Sympathies are due Gavlak; it does not take great imagination to see the immense pressure anyone is under when an article they helped someone else write goes viral which reports unpleasant things Ghouta residents have said about a Saudi Billionaire prince, let alone one which questions the narrative of the world’s most powerful state. Understandable if true, that she wishes her name was not on the piece she helped Ababneh write; the issue for those who claim to care about the victims remains elsewhere: the testimonies Ghouta area rebels and residents gave, pointing at rebel use of CW.”

What HarelB doesn’t seem to understand, is that for any impartial observer, there is simply no way to take the Mint Press News article seriously anymore. The idea that we can rely on this report as a credible source it just silly.

More than that, the totality of the information revealed about the Gavlak clearly and consistently raises a whole host of disturbing questions about the origins of the whole story. Mint Press News is continuing to claim that Gavlak “wrote the article in it’s entirety as well as conducted the research.” http://www.mintpressnews.com/official-statement-on-dale-gavlaks-involvement-in-syria-exclusive/169507/

Note how carefully worded this is – now compare it to Gavlak’s further statement which clarifies her exact role in the piece:

“Email correspondence between Ms. Gavlak and Mint Press News that began on August 29 and ended on September 2 clearly show that from the beginning Ms. Gavlak identified the author of the story as Yahya Ababneh, a Jordanian journalist. She also made clear that only his name should appear on the byline and the story was submitted only in his name. She served as an editor of Ababneh’s material in English as he normally writes in Arabic. She did not travel to Syria and could not corroborate his account.

“Dale Gavlak specifically stated in an email dated August 29 ‘Pls find the Syria story I mentioned uploaded on Google Docs. This should go under Yahya Ababneh’s byline. I helped him write up his story but he should get all the credit for this.’

“Ms. Gavlak supplied the requested bio information on Mr. Ababneh later that day and had further communications with Mint Press News’ Mnar Muhawesh about the author’s background. There was no communication by Mint Press News to Ms. Gavlak that it intended to use her byline. Ms. Muhawesh took this action unilaterally and without Ms. Gavlak’s permission.

“After seeing that her name was attached to the article, Dale Gavlak demanded her name be removed. However, Ms. Muhawesh stated: ‘We will not be removing your name from the byline as this is an existential issue for MintPress and an issue of credibility as this will appear as though we are lying’.”

http://brown-moses.blogspot.co.uk/2013/09/more-from-dale-gavlak-on-mint-press.html

So it does seem that Gavlak made clear her byline shouldn’t be on the piece. It also seems that she admits to helping write up the story as a friend to Ababneh, and even pitching the piece – and it’s plausible that she might have tried to check with colleagues and officials as Mint Press News claims to see if there was any corroboration of Ababneh’s reporting. Either way, what does seem clear that Gavlak was not responsible for the fundamental content of the piece, and the attribution to her is dishonest.

While I have no doubt that Gavlak probably is under immense pressure, her specific account that she had from the beginning made clear to not use her byline because she was not responsible for the content of the piece seems increasingly plausible in the context of new evidence of Mint Press News’ dubious background, along with the dubious behaviour of the other primary author of the piece Yahya Ababneh.

The New York Times has investigated the issue further and discovered that Mint Press News’ financial backers and advisers included the website editor’s father, an ethnic Jordanian of Shi’a persuasion. http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/09/21/reporter-denies-writing-article-that-linked-syrian-rebels-to-chemical-attack/?_r=0 Now that in itself would not be important except 1) sectarian issues have become extremely polarised and polarising with respect to the Syrian conflict and stances supporting and opposing intervention and 2) the NYT found evidence of vehemently sectarian and anti-Saudi anti-Wahabi sentiments linked to her father’s role in Mint Press News. So Mint Press News. For a news site that is supposed to have a semblance of impartiality doing exclusive reporting on Syria, I’m sorry but this is pretty fatal. (also see http://www.al-bab.com/blog/2013/september/syria-rebel-chemicals-story-gets-weirder.htm#sthash.6FIm6srs.dpbs)

It gets worse. An investigation by Brian Whitaker, former Mideast editor at the Guardian, has found compelling circumstantial evidence that Ababneh’s real name is Yan Barakat, has lied about his journalistic credentials, and that the whole story blaming rebels for the chemical weapons attack may have derived from a Russian source in Damascus http://www.al-bab.com/blog/2013/september/yahya-ababneh-exposed.htm#sthash.OTfitqYd.dpbs

No wonder “some” of the information “could not be independently verified.” Anyone claiming that we should now continue to applaud this article and, on its basis, call for an investigation due to its “testimonies”, should take a good look in the mirror to admire their ability to undertake the most profound sorts of mental gymnastics.

HarelB says: “Aside: Mother Agnes who Ahmed tells us ” has long openly supported Assad” is on record calling the Assad government “totalitarian” This is hardly “supporting” Assad, and that fact is not changed by the fact that her own experiences and those testimonies given to her suggest many of the rebels are as or more totalitarian and brutal.”

More admirable mental gymnastics follows as HarelB completely ignores all the evidence I’ve provided proving quite clearly that “Mother Agnes” is utterly compromised, demonstrably close to “Assad’s security forces”, and lauded his so-called “reforms”, not to mention, according to independent journalists, apparently worked with Assad’s forces to have a bunch of them exterminated (successfully). She denies this, unsurprisingly, but the journalists on the ground who witnessed it with their own eyes hold fast to their very plausible and harrowing account.

Harel B ignores all of that, and misquotes “Mother Agnes’” by quoting, not Mother Agnes, but an article by Robert Moynihan, who writes, “Yes, Syria’s president Assad is no democrat; he is a powerful totalitarian leader.” Moynihan then cites an interview in Ha’aretz with the nun titled ‘On visit to Israel, Syrian-based nun backs beleaguered President Assad’, where she says:

“She believes the Assad regime is the only thing that can save Syria from a takeover by Al-Qaida, and that most Syrians support the present regime.”

I have not found a single source where the nun actually describes Assad as “totalitarian” herself.

I myself was taken in by the nun and quoted her in the past. But we do not need “Mother Agnes” discredited pro-Assad ramblings and unverifiable claims of rebel atrocities to be aware of the danger of the Islamist forces therein, and the atrocities they have carried out, a matter I have documented at length elsewhere.

@HarelB says: “Most stunning is Ahmed’s dismissal of what two pro-rebel journalists held hostage by rebels overheard, in English, in an adjacent room to where they were held…. The fact that they can’t be 100% sure of it as proof, is apparently reason enough to dismiss it entirely, and move on to other matter, rather than to call for a vigorous investigation.”

I should call for a vigorous investigation into what exactly? Into a skype conversation overheard by journalists where one of them explicitly admits that he wasn’t sure whether the conversation was about something that had actually happened, or was a conversation about a rumour of what may have happened, and that even if the conversants were clearly amongst the rebel forces, he wasn’t sure precisely who they actually were?

An investigation by the UN is already underway. I’d suggest waiting for the results of that before jumping up and down about the allegedly groundbreaking implications of a vague report such as this in the hope it might prove your suspicions. People are free to make up their own minds, but this report, again, offers no firm ground to draw any meaningful conclusions either way to the available evidence. NOTE: I have not said the account is false. Just that with added caveats, it’s no longer compelling.

“One can imagine in some ‘opposite’ parallel universe, in which two pro-Assad journalists are taken hostage, clearly held by Assad forces, and overhear such a conversation with direct CW admission by an Assad commander. Perhaps some pro-Assad hack journalist would say it’s not “compelling”, after all, since the former hostages cannot “even” be 100% certain of the identities of their captors and it “might be” a rumor – surely no one else, certainly no serious journalist, no Western journalist, would react the same way – demands for a full investigation (if not dropping bombs) would be step 1.”

Interesting that HarelB thinks we should adhere to the standards of the Western journos and govts who might demand “dropping bombs” on Assad on the basis of such poor evidence. He completely ignores the fact that I’ve already looked that the dubious and politicised nature of the way the US government has utilised “intelligence” in relation to the CW issue. So no, we shouldn’t adopt that standard in this case and use it as a basis to think such thin evidence justifies jumping to conclusions.

“Surely at the very least if we care about the dead children, we should demand an investigation into these testimonies.”

Again, difficult to understand what is being expected here. We should all start “demanding” investigation “into these testimonies.” What HarelB clearly fails to grasp from the article is that these testimonies are a dead-end. They do not offer or open up lines of inquiry in themselves that actually lead anywhere. They are vacuous. They might be true. They might not be true. We don’t know. We might never know. Because in one case – e.g. Mint Press News – we now have a body of compelling evidence that the “report” is just garbage Russian propaganda swallowed by an amateur overly-credulous Jordanian journo looking for a scoop, and backed up by a somewhat foolish AP correspondent who tried to help him get it published without wanting to sully her name with such an evidently dubious piece. So maybe we should “investigate” the Belgian and Italian journos’ story even though their whole story is inherently unverifiable because we can’t track down the rebels that took them hostage to ask them what they were conversing about and whether or not they were discussing rumours and who exactly they were.

“In the actual universe, they will be brushed under the rug –what Piccinin and Quirico overheard, what Ghouta rebels and family told Ababneh– unless the public bands together to insist on an impartial inquiry into the many lines of evidence pointing at rebel use of chemical weapons. The victims deserve nothing less.”

What the victims deserve is not to have the public trumping up bullshit lines of inquiry as if they are made of evidentiary gold.

I remain open-minded about the CW issue and as the article above shows, have drawn no specific conclusions either way. But what I have done is shown how all parties, even so-called anti-war activists and journos who really should no better, are politicising the facts.

Nafeez Ahmed
Sep 23, 2013 12:24

My full response to this absurd comment is in this link after UPDATE http://www.nafeezahmed.com/2013/09/special-report-fixing-intelligence-on.html

thanks

Nafeez Ahmed On Syria: Deciphering the Propaganda War over the Ghouta Massacre | Stop Making Sense
Sep 25, 2013 19:48

[...] Nafeez Ahmed for Ceasefire Magazine: [...]

Syria: Deciphering the Propaganda War over the ...
Sep 26, 2013 2:56

[...] The politicised debate over the realities of last month's chemical attack in Ghouta is a further manifestation of a propaganda war – being fought on all sides and for competing national and geopolitical interests – that shows scant regard for the…  [...]

Syria: Deciphering the Propaganda War over the Ghouta Massacre | Idler on a hammock
Sep 28, 2013 7:39

[...] via Syria: Deciphering the Propaganda War over the Ghouta Massacre | Ceasefire Magazine. [...]

Syricide
Sep 30, 2013 2:02

Fog of war significantly dissipates when you dampen down the deliberate dissonance.

MSM = main stream media = multi-sensory-manipulation.

Your blog does better than most to cover as much of the conflicting factors that have ‘manifested’. But it still has managed to miss at least 3 key incidents/revelations.

1.Quirrico and Piccinin. We we should all know by the latter’s testimony about the rebels “skype call” that was overheard by both of the hostages. What we have as a riposte from the anti-Assad fraternity is an attempt to invalidate the pertinence of this incident by trumpeting the fact that Quirrico contested the validity of what they heard.
But when you pause to analyse this you realise it DOES NOT MATTER that one of the hostages questions the merits of it. The key fact is they BOTH correlated that a call was overheard by them that related to ghouta massacre. Once you accept this then you have only 2 scenarios as to why this call occurred.
a) The call was part of an elaborate hoax for them to overhear, which implies the kidnapping was also part of the plan by undercover Assad agents posing as FSA. A hoax 5 months in the planning just so they could overhear this so when they were released they would point the finger away from Assad or..
b) The FSA or associated brigades were complicit in launching the chemical weapons attack.

2.Gas missiles ‘were not sold to Syria’ http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/gas-missiles-were-not-sold-to-syria-8831792.html

Interestingly this bombshell is not taken up by any other western-oriented news source.

And this little gem..

3.Who attacked Ghouta? http://www.whoghouta.blogspot.co.il/2013/09/umlaca-simulation.html

Whats most important about this is … you cant fight the math. Science is impervious to politics.

The suspect munition trumpeted by western media, human rights watch and self pronounced twitter munitions expert “Brown Moses” as his “UMLACA” invalidates all insinuations.

Are you ready for this? The very same missile COULD NOT have travelled the 9km from Regime positions. Even if we err on the side of a 50% miscalculation it COULD NOT have travelled the distance trajectory that is being exhorted by the anti-Assad entities.

Like I said the fog of war significantly dissipates when you dampen down the deliberate dissonance. Step away from the noise, redeem your own logic and reason that MSM compels you to suspend and ask a simple question of yourself.

Cui Bono? Who benefits?

Structural Inclinations – The Leaning Tower of Propaganda: Chemical Weapons Attacks In Ghouta, Syria
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[...] energy and economic crises, provided a reasonable assessment of the evidence on September 20, here. Ahmed later commented on responsibility for the [...]

Structural Inclinations – The Leaning Tower of Propaganda: Chemical Weapons Attacks In Ghouta, Syria | Syria Solidarity Movement
Oct 12, 2013 18:45

[...] energy and economic crises, provided a reasonable assessment of the evidence on September 20, here. Ahmed later commented on responsibility for the [...]

The leaning tower of propaganda: what the media said about chemical weapons in Syria
Oct 13, 2013 13:50

[...] energy and economic crises, provided a reasonable assessment of the evidence on September 20, here. Ahmed later commented on responsibility for the [...]

fadi harb
Oct 16, 2013 15:45

Establishing oneself as a dissident is by no means an evidence of one really being so. No one can prove that Chomsky, Zinn, pilger etc. r/were real dissidents. Orwell was an imperialist racist savage pig, the absence of africans and asians in his novels and writings is striking. Living in the west makes u a savage wanting to keep your privileges, this implies integrating and adopting the west’s methods. Being a dissident in the west is no danger to it. On the contrary it strengthens the class called the mind control laborers. This is not about winning souls and minds, this is about the west having the maxim gun and the others not. This is about winning bellies. This is the bottom line.

Oorlog en waarheid. - Ook jij telt mee
Oct 18, 2013 23:11

[...] betreft? Daarmee is ook van alles aan de hand, zoals stap voor stap uit de doeken wordt gedaan in dit artikel van Nafeez Mossadeq Ahmed. Zijn eindconclusie: ‘t eerste slachtoffer in een oorlog is de waarheid en geen enkel [...]

Oorlog en waarheid. (2). - Ook jij telt mee
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Oorlog en waarheid. (3). - Ook jij telt mee
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[...] Nafeez Mossadeq Ahmed onderwerpt vervolgens ‘t memo van de VIPS aan een nader onderzoek en weet overtuigend aan te tonen dat de opstellers een eerder verschenen artikel geplagieerd hebben van Yossef Bodansky, een ‘Israeli American‘ politiek wetenschapper en voormalig ‘Director of the U.S. Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare of the U.S. House of Representatives’. [...]

Structural Inclinations – The Leaning Tower of Propaganda: Chemical Weapons Attacks In Ghouta, Syria » My WordPress Website
Nov 15, 2013 18:55

[...] energy and economic crises, provided a reasonable assessment of the evidence on September 20, here. Ahmed later commented on responsibility for the [...]

Orphan In Needs » Structural Inclinations – The Leaning Tower of Propaganda: Chemical Weapons Attacks In Ghouta, Syria
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[...] energy and economic crises, provided a reasonable assessment of the evidence on September 20, here. Ahmed later commented on responsibility for the [...]

Oorlog en waarheid. (3). - Quantralef
Nov 26, 2013 17:54

[...] Nafeez Mossadeq Ahmed onderwerpt vervolgens ‘t memo van de VIPS aan een nader onderzoek en weet overtuigend aan te tonen dat de opstellers een eerder verschenen artikel geplagieerd hebben van Yossef Bodansky, een ‘Israeli American‘ politiek wetenschapper en voormalig ‘Director of the U.S. Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare of the U.S. House of Representatives’. [...]

Oorlog en waarheid. (2). - Quantralef
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Oorlog en waarheid. (1). - Quantralef
Nov 26, 2013 17:56

[...] betreft? Daarmee is ook van alles aan de hand, zoals stap voor stap uit de doeken wordt gedaan in dit artikel van Nafeez Mossadeq Ahmed. Zijn eindconclusie: ‘t eerste slachtoffer in een oorlog is de waarheid en geen enkel [...]

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