Early on the morning of April 7, American warships stationed in the Mediterranean Sea fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack carried out by the Syrian regime. But in a report published on Sunday at the German newspaper Die Welt, veteran investigative reporter Seymour Hersh throws cold water on the claim of Syrian culpability, exposing yet another instance of military action based on flawed—or in this case, entirely nonexistent—intelligence.
Russian Intelligence and the April 4 Strike
On April 4 at about 6:55 a.m., Syrian time, the Syrian government carried out an airstrike on a two-story cinder block building determined by Russian intelligence to be a rebel command center, where commanders of the Syrian opposition’s most radical Islamist factions frequently met. The strike killed up to four jihadist leaders, according to an intelligence estimate.
Hersh sets the scene:
The Syrian target at Khan Sheikhoun […] was depicted as a two-story cinder-block building in the northern part of town. Russian intelligence, which is shared when necessary with Syria and the U.S. as part of their joint fight against jihadist groups, had established that a high-level meeting of jihadist leaders was to take place in the building, including representatives of Ahrar al-Sham and the al-Qaida-affiliated group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra.
The two groups had recently joined forces, and controlled the town and surrounding area. Russian intelligence depicted the cinder-block building as a command and control center that housed a grocery and other commercial premises on its ground floor with other essential shops nearby, including a fabric shop and an electronics store.
In order to confirm this intelligence, the Russians flew a surveillance drone over the site for a period of several days, establishing a “POL,” or “Pattern of Life” for the compound.
“It was an established meeting place,” one senior adviser to American intelligence agencies who has served in senior positions of the Defense Department and the CIA told Hersh. “A long-time facility that would have had security, weapons, communications, files and a map center.”
In the days before the April 4 strike, Russia shared its intelligence regarding the high value targets who were expected to meet at the site in Khan Sheikhoun and made its intentions known to U.S. officials stationed in Qatar, whose mission is to coordinate operations between the United States and regional actors participating in the Syrian war. The Russians also informed American forces stationed in Syria.
“Russian and Syrian Air Force officers gave details of the carefully planned flight path to and from Khan Shiekhoun on April 4 directly, in English, to the deconfliction monitors aboard the AWACS plane, which was on patrol near the Turkish border, 60 miles or more to the north,” Hersh writes, citing transcripts of real-time communications between officials.
The senior intelligence adviser said the Russians were going through all the proper procedures before it gave Syria the go-ahead on the strike. “They were playing the game right,” the adviser said.
The advance intelligence provided by Russia was, according to Hersh, “given the highest possible score inside the American [intelligence] community,” validating it as solid, actionable information.
Within hours of the April 4 strike, the world’s press was teeming with dramatic reports and photographs of victims suffering the symptoms of what was claimed to be a nerve agent, namely sarin gas. Pundits and writers the world over were proclaiming the guilt of the Assad regime and demanding decisive retaliation from Trump.
The hue and cry was especially acute in light of prior incidents in Syria during the Obama administration, the former president having established a “Red Line” for the Assad regime in 2012 warning that the use of chemical weapons would trigger a direct American response.
After one particular episode in the summer of 2013, wherein the Assad regime was accused of using sarin in Ghouta, a suburb east of Damascus, Obama came close to an outright assault on the Syrian government, but ultimately relented in the face of insufficient evidence.
Hersh, in two explosive reports at the London Review of Books, put the lie to the claims of Syrian guilt regarding the Ghouta incident, presenting a far likelier picture of a rebel false flag operation intended to frame the Syrian regime.
The similarities between the claims surrounding Ghouta and Khan Sheikhun have been difficult to ignore, but are now entirely unavoidable in light of the revelations contained in Hersh’s report. Both incidents involved strong allegations of war crimes, but no evidence to back them up.
Despite serious skepticism from military and intelligence officials, President Trump was heart-set on a military response to what was being labeled a Syrian regime chemical attack, regardless of what the intelligence indicated—and the intelligence definitively did not support any of the claims about Syrian responsibility that were then making the rounds in the media.
“This was not a chemical weapons strike,” the senior adviser told Hersh. “That’s a fairy tale. If so, everyone involved in transferring, loading and arming the weapon—you’ve got to make it appear like a regular 500-pound conventional bomb—would be wearing Hazmat protective clothing in case of a leak,” which the adviser suggested did not happen.
According to Hersh, a U.S. military Bomb Damage Assessment (BDA) later concluded that the heat and force of the 500-pound bomb triggered a cascade of secondary explosions within the targeted building, perhaps creating a plume of poisonous gas from a mixture of the chlorine disinfectants, fertilizers and other chemicals stored inside the building.
Gareth Porter, another investigative journalist, theorized that the release of lethal chemicals may have been caused by phosphine-producing smoke munitions, known to be used by Syrian rebels and held in abundance. Porter suggests a cache of the munitions were stored at the site in Khan Sheikhoun and were inadvertently hit in the Syrian strike on April 4. Exposure to phosphine gas, according to Porter, can mimic the neurological symptoms usually associated with nerve agents like sarin because both damage the body’s ability to produce an enzyme known as cholinesterase.
While sarin gas, odorless and colorless, is typically undetectable, Porter reports that witnesses of the April 4 strike said the smell garlic or rotting food was in the air near the site, precisely the smell of phosphine gas.
While it is not clear if the smoke munitions were preset at site in Khan Sheikhoun, Hersh reports that the site likely contained a stockpile of organophosphate fertilizers, some types of which, according to an expert in the field, can produce phosphine gas if exposed to heat.
In either case, the munition dropped by the Syrian warplane was not the source of the poisonous gas.
“We knew there was a cloud and we knew it hurt people,” the senior adviser said. “But you cannot jump from there to certainty that Assad had hidden sarin from the UN because he wanted to use it in Khan Sheikhoun. It’s typical of human nature. You jump to the conclusion you want. Intelligence analysts do not argue with a president. They’re not going to tell the president, ‘if you interpret the data this way, I quit.’”
To date, no international observers have visited the site to conduct an investigation into the alleged sarin attack, allowing not only Americans, but much of the world, to continue to believe the story presented by the Trump administration.
Before Hersh’s June 25 report, other sources gave reasons to doubt that story, including retired CIA and DIA officer Phil Giraldi, who told radio host Scott Horton that “People in both the [Central Intelligence] Agency and in the military who are aware of the intelligence are freaking out about this.”
“There was indeed an attack, but it was an attack with conventional weapons, with a bomb,” Giraldi said, citing his sources in the military and intelligence communities.
In an article published in April, former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter cites infrared signatures which the author says indicate the use of a conventional munition, not a G-shell containing a nerve agent.
The aforementioned Gareth Porter also shed light on inconsistencies in the administration’s assertions in a piece published around the same time as Ritter’s.
After 48 hours of briefings, the president made the decision, against the advice of many of the people surrounding him, to strike the Shayrat airfield with 59 Tomahawks. Some 24 of them missed the mark, and only a few actually made their way into an aircraft hangar, destroying nine non-operational planes.
The limited destruction was purposeful, according to Hersh’s sources, a way for Trump’s military advisers to minimize the damage done by the strike, both materially and in terms of international relations.
The retaliatory strike is perhaps indicative of the type of president Donald Trump is going to be—brash, impervious to dissent and willing to wield military force recklessly.
“Everyone close to him knows his proclivity for acting precipitously when he does not know the facts,” the senior adviser told Hersh. “He was told we did not have evidence of Syrian involvement and yet Trump says: ‘Do it.’”
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