“False colors” redirects here. For the imaging technique, see False-color
The contemporary term false flag describes covert operations that are designed to deceive in such a way that activities appear as though they are being carried out by entities, groups, or nations other than those who actually planned and executed them.
Historically, the term “false flag” has its origins in naval warfare where the use of a flag other than the belligerent’s true battle flag before (but not while) engaging the enemy has long been accepted as a permissible ruse de guerre; by contrast, flying a false flag while engaging the enemy constitutes perfidy.
Operations carried out during peace-time by civilian organizations, as well as covert government agencies, can (by extension) also be called false flag operations if they seek to hide the real organization behind an operation.
Use in warfare
In land warfare such operations are generally deemed acceptable in certain circumstances, such as to deceive enemies providing that the deception is not perfidious and all such deceptions are discarded before opening fire upon the enemy. Similarly in naval warfare such a deception is considered permissible provided the false flag is lowered and the true flag raised before engaging in battle:auxiliary cruisers operated in such a fashion in both World Wars, as did Q-ships, while merchant vessels were encouraged to use false flags for protection.
Such masquerades promoted confusion not just of the enemy but of historical accounts: in 1914 the Battle of Trindade was fought between the British auxiliary cruiser RMS Carmania and the German auxiliary cruiser SMS Cap Trafalgar which had been altered to look like Carmania. (Contrary to some possibly mendacious accounts, the RMS Carmania had not been altered to resemble the Cap Trafalgar.)
Another notable example was the World War II German commerce raider Kormoran which surprised and sank the Australian light cruiser HMAS Sydney in 1941 while disguised as a Dutch merchant ship, causing the greatest recorded loss of life on an Australian warship. While Kormoran was fatally damaged in the engagement and its crew captured the outcome represented a considerable psychological victory for the Germans.
Other examples from WWII included a Kriegsmarineensign in the St Nazaire Raid and captured a German code book: the old destroyer Campbeltown, which the British planned to sacrifice in the operation, was provided with cosmetic modifications that involved cutting the ship’s funnels and chamfering the edges to resemble a German Type 23torpedo boat.
By this ruse the British were able to get within two miles (3 km) of the harbour before the defences responded, where the explosive-rigged Campbeltown and commandos successfully disabled or destroyed the key dock structures of the port.
In December 1922–February 1923, Rules concerning the Control of Wireless Telegraphy in Time of War and Air Warfare, drafted by a commission of jurists at the Hague regulates:
- Art. 3. A military aircraft must carry an exterior mark indicating its nationality and its military character.
- Art. 19. The use of false exterior marks is forbidden.
This draft was never adopted as a legally binding treaty, but the ICRC states in its introduction on the draft that ‘To a great extent, [the draft rules] correspond to the customary rules and general principles underlying treaties on the law of war on land and at sea’, and as such these two non–controversial articles were already part of customary law.
In land warfare, the use of a false flag is similar to that of naval warfare: the trial of Otto Skorzeny, who planned and commanded Operation Greif, by a U.S. military tribunal at the Dachau Trials included a finding that Skorzeny was not guilty of a crime by ordering his men into action in American uniforms. He had relayed to his men the warning of German legal experts: that if they fought in American uniforms, they would be breaking the laws of war; however, they probably were not doing so simply by wearing the American uniforms. During the trial, a number of arguments were advanced to substantiate this position and the German and U.S. military seem to have been in agreement.
In the transcript of the trial, it is mentioned that Paragraph 43 of the Field Manual published by the War Department, United States Army, on 1 October 1940, under the entry Rules of Land Warfare states “National flags, insignias and uniforms as a ruse – in practice it has been authorized to make use of these as a ruse. The foregoing rule (Article 23 of the Annex of the IVth Hague Convention), does not prohibit such use, but does prohibit their improper use. It is certainly forbidden to make use of them during a combat. Before opening fire upon the enemy, they must be discarded’.”
The American Soldiers’ Handbook was also quoted by Defense Counsel: “The use of the enemy flag, insignia, and uniform is permitted under some circumstances. They are not to be used during actual fighting, and if used in order to approach the enemy without drawing fire, should be thrown away or removed as soon as fighting begins.” Subsequently, the outcome of the trial has been codified in the 1977 Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 (Protocol I):
Article 37. – Prohibition of perfidy
- 1. It is prohibited to kill, injure, or capture an adversary by resort to perfidy. Acts inviting the confidence of an adversary to lead him to believe that he is entitled to, or is obliged to accord, protection under the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, with intent to betray that confidence, shall constitute perfidy. The following acts are examples of perfidy:
- (a) The feigning of an intent to negotiate under a flag of truce or of a surrender;
- (b) The feigning of an incapacitation by wounds or sickness;
- (c) The feigning of civilian, non-combatant status; and
- (d) The feigning of protected status by the use of signs, emblems or uniforms of the United Nations or of neutral or other States not Parties to the conflict.
- 2. Ruses of war are not prohibited. Such ruses are acts which are intended to mislead an adversary or to induce him to act recklessly but which infringe no rule of international law applicable in armed conflict and which are not perfidious because they do not invite the confidence of an adversary with respect to protection under that law. The following are examples of such ruses: the use of camouflage, decoys, mock operations and disinformation.
Article 38. – Recognized emblems
- 1. It is prohibited to make improper use of the distinctive emblem of the Red Cross, Red Crescent or Red Lion and Sun or of other emblems, signs or signals provided for by the Conventions or by this Protocol. It is also prohibited to misuse deliberately in an armed conflict other internationally recognized protective emblems, signs or signals, including the flag of truce, and the protective emblem of cultural property.
- 2. It is prohibited to make use of the distinctive emblem of the United Nations, except as authorized by that Organization.
Article 39. – Emblems of nationality
- 1. It is prohibited to make use in an armed conflict of the flags or military emblems, insignia or uniforms of neutral or other States not Parties to the conflict.
- 2. It is prohibited to make use of the flags or military emblems, insignia or uniforms of adverse Parties while engaging in attacks or in order to shield, favour, protect or impede military operations.
- 3. Nothing in this Article or in Article 37, paragraph 1 ( d ), shall affect the existing generally recognized rules of international law applicable to espionage or to the use of flags in the conduct of armed conflict at sea.
A false flag in the cyber domain is slightly different and easier to perpetrate than in other physical theaters of war. Cyber false flags refer to tactics used in covert cyber attacks by a perpetrator to deceive or misguide attribution attempts including the attacker’s origin, identity, movement, and/or code/exploitation. This misdirection tactic can cause misattribution (permitting response and/or counterattack as a condiciosine qua non under international law) or misperception which can lead to retaliation against the wrong adversary.
Cyber false flags can exist in the cyber domain when:
- Weaponized cyber exploits use recycled code/variants from previous attacks;
- Exploits are developed to mimic the scope and complexity of other malware;
- Exploits are procured rather than developed;
- Exploits are executed from new/unknown operator command servers;
- Malware calls out to or connects to known operator command servers;
- The action or attack is outsourced;
- The compromise is socially engineered to misguide investigations towards other operators;
- The audit trail or lack thereof conceals actual intent or actions with other exploits designed to mislead investigators.
As pretexts for war
In 1788, the head tailor at the Royal Swedish Opera received an order to sew a number of Russian military uniforms. These were then used by the Swedes to stage an attack on Puumala, a Swedish outpost on the Russo-Swedish border, on 27 June 1788. This caused an outrage in Stockholm and impressed the Riksdag of the Estates, the Swedish national assembly, who until then had refused to agree to an offensive war against Russia. The Puumala incident allowed King Gustav III of Sweden, who lacked the constitutional authority to initiate unprovoked hostilities without the Estates’ consent, to launch the Russo-Swedish War (1788–1790).
Second Sino-Japanese War
In September 1931, Japanese officers fabricated a pretext for invading Manchuria by blowing up a section of railway. Though the explosion was too weak to disrupt operations on the rail line, the Japanese nevertheless used this Mukden incident to seize Manchuria and create a puppet government for what they termed the “independent” state of Manchukuo.
World War II
The Gleiwitz incident in 1939 involved Reinhard Heydrich fabricating evidence of a Polish attack against Germany to mobilize German public opinion for war and to justify the war with Poland. Alfred Naujocks was a key organiser of the operation under orders from Heydrich. It led to the deaths of Nazi concentration camp victims who were dressed as German soldiers and then shot by the Gestapo to make it seem that they had been shot by Polish soldiers. This, along with other false flag operations in Operation Himmler, would be used to mobilize support from the German population for the start of World War II in Europe.
The operation failed to convince international public opinion of the German claims, and both Britain and France—Poland’s allies—declared war two days after Germany invaded Poland.
On November 26, 1939, the Soviet armyshelled Mainila, a Russian village near the Finnish border. Soviet authorities blamed Finland for the attack and used the incident as a pretext to invade Finland, starting the Winter War, four days later.
Operation Northwoods memorandum (13 March 1962)
The proposed, but never executed, 1962 Operation Northwoods plot by the U.S. Department of Defense for a war with Cuba involved scenarios such as fabricating the hijacking or shooting down of passenger and military planes, sinking a U.S. ship in the vicinity of Cuba, burning crops, sinking a boat filled with Cuban refugees, attacks by alleged Cuban infiltrators inside the United States, and harassment of U.S. aircraft and shipping and the destruction of aerial drones by aircraft disguised as Cuban MiGs. These actions would be blamed on Cuba, and would be a pretext for an invasion of Cuba and the overthrow of Fidel Castro‘s communist government. It was authored by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but then rejected by President John F. Kennedy. The surprise discovery of the documents relating to Operation Northwoods was a result of the comprehensive search for records related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy by the Assassination Records Review Board in the mid-1990s. Information about Operation Northwoods was later publicized by James Bamford.
As a tactic to undermine political opponents
The Reichstag fire was an arson attack on the Reichstag building in Berlin on 27 February 1933. The fire started in the Session Chamber, and, by the time the police and firemen arrived, the main Chamber of Deputies was engulfed in flames. Police searched the building and found Marinus van der Lubbe, a young Dutchcouncil communist and unemployed bricklayer, who had recently arrived in Germany to carry out political activities.
The fire was used as evidence by the Nazis that the Communists were beginning a plot against the German government. Van der Lubbe and four Communist leaders were subsequently arrested. Adolf Hitler, who was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany four weeks before, on 30 January, urged President Paul von Hindenburg to pass an emergency decree to counter the “ruthless confrontation of the Communist Party of Germany“. With civil liberties suspended, the government instituted mass arrests of Communists, including all of the Communist parliamentary delegates. With their bitter rival Communists gone and their seats empty, the National Socialist German Workers Party went from being a plurality party to the majority; subsequent elections confirmed this position and thus allowed Hitler to consolidate his power.
Historians disagree as to whether Van der Lubbe acted alone, as he said, to protest the condition of the German working class, or whether the arson was planned and ordered by the Nazis, then dominant in the government themselves, as a false flag operation.
On 4 April 1953, the CIA was ordered to undermine the government of Iran over a four-month period, as a precursor to overthrowing Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. One tactic used to undermine Mosaddegh was to carry out false flag attacks “on mosques and key public figures”, to be blamed on Iranian communists loyal to the government.
The CIA project was code-named TP-Ajax, and the tactic of a “directed campaign of bombings by Iranians posing as members of the Communist party”, involved the bombing of “at least” one well known Muslim’s house by CIA agents posing as Communists. The CIA determined that the tactic of false flag attacks added to the “positive outcome” of Project TPAJAX.
However, as “the C.I.A. burned nearly all of its files on its role in the 1953 coup in Iran”, the true extent of the tactic has been difficult for historians to discern.
Pseudo-operations are those in which forces of one power disguise themselves as enemy forces. For example, a state power may disguise teams of operatives as insurgents and, with the aid of defectors, infiltrate insurgent areas. The aim of such pseudo-operations may be to gather short or long-term intelligence or to engage in active operations, in particularassassinations of important enemies. However, they usually involve both, as the risks of exposure rapidly increase with time and intelligence gathering eventually leads to violent confrontation. Pseudo-operations may be directed by military or police forces, or both. Police forces are usually best suited to intelligence tasks; however, military provide the structure needed to back up such pseudo-ops with military response forces. According to US military expert Lawrence Cline (2005), “the teams typically have been controlled by police services, but this largely was due to the weaknesses in the respective military intelligence systems.”
of Haiti was assassinated in 1919, after checkpoints were passed by military disguised as guerrilla fighters.
The State Political Directorate (OGPU) of the Soviet Union set up such an operation from 1921 to 1926. During Operation Trust, they used loose networks of White Army supporters and extended them, creating the pseudo-“Monarchist Union of Central Russia” (MUCR) in order to help the OGPU identify real monarchists and anti-Bolsheviks.
An example of a successful assassination was United States MarineSergeantHerman H. Hanneken leading a patrol of his HaitianGendarmerie disguised as enemy guerrillas in 1919. The Patrol successfully passed several enemy checkpoints in order to assassinate the guerilla leader Charlemagne Péralte near Grande-Rivière-du-Nord. Hanneken was awarded the Medal of Honor and was commissioned a Second Lieutenant for his deed.
During the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s, captured Mau Mau members who switched sides and specially trained British troops initiated the pseudo-gang concept to successfully counter Mau Mau. In 1960 Frank Kitson, (who was later involved in the Northern Irish conflict and is now a retired British General), published Gangs and Counter-gangs, an account of his experiences with the technique in Kenya; information included how to counter gangs and measures of deception, including the use of defectors, which brought the issue a wider audience.
Another example of combined police and military oversight of pseudo-operations include the Selous Scouts in the former country Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), governed by white minority rule until 1980. The Selous Scouts were formed at the beginning of Operation Hurricane, in November 1973, by Major (later Lieutenant Colonel) Ronald Reid-Daly. As with all Special Forces in Rhodesia, by 1977 they were controlled by COMOPS (Commander, Combined Operations) Commander Lieutenant General Peter Walls. The Selous Scouts were originally composed of 120 members, with all officers being white and the highest rank initially available for black soldiers being colour sergeant. They succeeded in turning approximately 800 insurgents who were then paid by Special Branch, ultimately reaching the number of 1,500 members. Engaging mainly in long-range reconnaissance and surveillance missions, they increasingly turned to offensive actions, including the attempted assassination of Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army leader Joshua Nkomo in Zambia. This mission was finally aborted by the Selous Scouts, and attempted again, unsuccessfully, by the Rhodesian Special Air Service.
Some offensive operations attracted international condemnation, in particular the Selous Scouts’ raid on a Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA) camp at Nyadzonya Pungwe, Mozambique in August 1976. ZANLA was then led by Josiah Tongogara. Using Rhodesian trucks and armored cars disguised as Mozambique military vehicles, 84 scouts killed 1,284 people in the camp-the camp was registered as a refugee camp by the United Nations (UN). Even according to Reid-Daly, most of those killed were unarmed guerrillas standing in formation for a parade. The camp hospital was also set ablaze by the rounds fired by the Scouts, killing all patients. According to David Martin and Phyllis Johnson, who visited the camp shortly before the raid, it was only a refugee camp that did not host any guerrillas. It was staged for UN approval.
According to a 1978 study by the Directorate of Military Intelligence, 68% of all insurgent deaths inside Rhodesia could be attributed to the Selous Scouts, who were disbanded in 1980.
If the action is a police action, then these tactics would fall within the laws of the state initiating the pseudo, but if such actions are taken in a civil war or during a belligerent military occupation then those who participate in such actions would not be privileged belligerents. The principle of plausible deniability is usually applied for pseudo-teams. (See the above section Laws of war). Some false flag operations have been described by Lawrence E. Cline, a retired US Army intelligence officer, as pseudo-operations, or “the use of organized teams which are disguised as guerrilla groups for long- or short-term penetration of insurgent-controlled areas.”
Pseudo Operations should be distinguished, notes Cline, from the more common police or intelligence infiltration of guerrilla or criminal organizations. In the latter case, infiltration is normally done by individuals. Pseudo teams, on the other hand, are formed as needed from organized units, usually military or paramilitary. The use of pseudo teams has been a hallmark of a number of foreign counterinsurgency campaigns.”
Similar false flag tactics were also employed during the Algerian civil war, starting in the middle of 1994. Death squads composed of Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS) security forces disguised themselves as Islamist terrorists and committed false flag terror attacks. Such groups included the Organisation of Young Free Algerians (OJAL) or the Secret Organisation for the Safeguard of the Algerian Republic (OSSRA) According to Roger Faligot and Pascal Kropp (1999), the OJAL was reminiscent of “the Organization of the French Algerian Resistance (ORAF), a group of counter-terrorists created in December 1956 by the Direction de la surveillance du territoire (Territorial Surveillance Directorate, or DST) whose mission was to carry out terrorist attacks with the aim of quashing any hopes of political compromise”.
In espionage the term “false flag” describes the recruiting of agents by operatives posing as representatives of a cause the prospective agents are sympathetic to, or even the agents’ own government. For example, during the Cold War, several female West German civil servants were tricked into stealing classified documents by agents of the East GermanStasi intelligence service, pretending to be members of West German peace advocacy groups (the Stasi agents were also described as “Romeos,” indicating that they also used their sex appeal to manipulate their targets, making this operation a combination of the false flag and “honey trap” techniques).
The technique can also be used to expose enemy agents in one’s own service, by having someone approach the suspect and pose as an agent of the enemy. Earl Edwin Pitts, a 13-year veteran of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and an attorney, was caught when he was approached by FBI agents posing as Russian agents.
British intelligence officials in World War II allowed double agents to fire-bomb a power station and a food dump in the UK to protect their cover, according to declassified documents. The documents stated the agents took precautions to ensure they did not cause serious damage. One of the documents released also stated: “It should be recognised that friends as well as enemies must be completely deceived.”
While false flag operations originate in warfare and government, they also can occur in civilian settings among certain factions, such as businesses, special interest groups, religions, political ideologies and campaigns for office.
In business and marketing, similar operations are being employed in some public relations campaigns (see Astroturfing). Telemarketing firms practice false flag type behavior when they pretend to be a market research firm (referred to as “sugging“). In some rare cases, members of an unsuccessful business will destroy some of their own property to conceal an unrelated crime (e.g., safety violations, embezzlement) but make it appear as though the destruction was done by a rival company.
Political campaigning has a long history of this tactic in various forms, including in person, print media and electronically in recent years. This can involve when supporters of one candidate pose as supporters of another, or act as “straw men” for their preferred candidate to debate against. This can happen with or without the candidate’s knowledge. The Canuck letter is an example of one candidate creating a false document and attributing it as coming from another candidate in order to discredit that candidate.
In the final days of Florida’s 1994 gubernatorial campaign, Democratic Governor Lawton Chiles ran a false flag operation that paid for tens of thousands of calls to elderly voters using false organization names. The calls purported to be from Republican groups and told voters that Jeb Bush was against Social Security and seniors. Chiles denied his campaign was behind the calls. After winning re-election and facing an investigation, Chiles admitted the truth in November 1995.
In 2006, individuals practicing false flag behavior were discovered and “outed” in New Hampshire and New Jersey after blog comments claiming to be from supporters of a political candidate were traced to the IP address of paid staffers for that candidate’s opponent.
On 19 February 2011, Indiana Deputy Prosecutor Carlos Lam sent a private email to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker suggesting that he run a “‘false flag’ operation” to counter the protests against Walker’s proposed restrictions on public employees’ collective bargaining rights:
If you could employ an associate who pretends to be sympathetic to the unions’ cause to physically attack you (or even use a firearm against you), you could discredit the unions … Employing a false flag operation would assist in undercutting any support that the media may be creating in favor of the unions.
The press had acquired a court order to access all of Walker’s emails and Lam’s email was exposed. At first, Lam vehemently denied it, but eventually admitted it and resigned.
A bomb threat forged by Scientology operatives.
Proponents of political or religious ideologies will sometimes use false flag tactics. This can be done to discredit or implicate rival groups, create the appearance of enemies when none exist, or create the illusion of organized and directed persecution. This can be used to gain attention and sympathy from outsiders, in particular the media, or to convince others within the group that their beliefs are under attack and in need of protection.
In retaliation for writing The Scandal of Scientology, some members of the Church of Scientology stole stationery from author Paulette Cooper‘s home and then used that stationery to forge bomb threats and have them mailed to a Scientology office. The Guardian’s Office also had a plan for further operations to discredit Cooper known as Operation Freakout, but several Scientology operatives were arrested in a separate investigation and the plan was exposed.
42 FALSE-FLAG ATTACKS OFFICIALY ADMITTED TO
Mirrored from Washington’s Blog (due to their server being swamped)
Presidents, Prime Ministers, Congressmen, Generals, Spooks, Soldiers and Police ADMIT to False Flag Terror
In the following instances, officials in the government which carried out the attack (or seriously proposed an attack) admit to it, either orally, in writing, or through photographs or videos:
(1) Japanese troops set off a small explosion on a train track in 1931, and falsely blamed it on China in order to justify an invasion of Manchuria. This is known as the “Mukden Incident” or the “Manchurian Incident”. The Tokyo International Military Tribunal found: “Several of the participators in the plan, including Hashimoto [a high-ranking Japanese army officer], have on various occasions admitted their part in the plot and have stated that the object of the ‘Incident’ was to afford an excuse for the occupation of Manchuria by the Kwantung Army ….” And see this.
(2) A major with the Nazi SS admitted at the Nuremberg trials that – under orders from the chief of the Gestapo – he and some other Nazi operatives faked attacks on their own people and resources which they blamed on the Poles, to justify the invasion of Poland.
(3) Nazi general Franz Halder also testified at the Nuremberg trials that Nazi leader Hermann Goering admitted to setting fire to the German parliament building in 1933, and then falsely blaming the communists for the arson.
(4) Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev admitted in writing that the Soviet Union’s Red Army shelled the Russian village of Mainila in 1939 – while blaming the attack on Finland – as a basis for launching the “Winter War” against Finland. Russian president Boris Yeltsin agreed that Russia had been the aggressor in the Winter War.
(5) The Russian Parliament, current Russian president Putin and former Soviet leader Gorbachev all admit that Soviet leader Joseph Stalin ordered his secret police to execute 22,000 Polish army officers and civilians in 1940, and then falsely blamed it on the Nazis.
(6) The British government admits that – between 1946 and 1948 – it bombed 5 ships carrying Jews attempting to flee the Holocaust to seek safety in Palestine, set up a fake group called “Defenders of Arab Palestine”, and then had the psuedo-group falsely claim responsibility for the bombings (and see this, this and this).
(7) Israel admits that in 1954, an Israeli terrorist cell operating in Egypt planted bombs in several buildings, including U.S. diplomatic facilities, then left behind “evidence” implicating the Arabs as the culprits (one of the bombs detonated prematurely, allowing the Egyptians to identify the bombers, and several of the Israelis later confessed) (and see this and this).
(8) The CIA admits that it hired Iranians in the 1950’s to pose as Communists and stage bombings in Iran in order to turn the country against its democratically-elected prime minister.
(9) The Turkish Prime Minister admitted that the Turkish government carried out the 1955 bombing on a Turkish consulate in Greece – also damaging the nearby birthplace of the founder of modern Turkey – and blamed it on Greece, for the purpose of inciting and justifying anti-Greek violence.
(10) The British Prime Minister admitted to his defense secretary that he and American president Dwight Eisenhower approved a plan in 1957 to carry out attacks in Syria and blame it on the Syrian government as a way to effect regime change.
(11) The former Italian Prime Minister, an Italian judge, and the former head of Italian counterintelligence admit that NATO, with the help of the Pentagon and CIA, carried out terror bombings in Italy and other European countries in the 1950s and blamed the communists, in order to rally people’s support for their governments in Europe in their fight against communism. As one participant in this formerly-secret program stated: “You had to attack civilians, people, women, children, innocent people, unknown people far removed from any political game. The reason was quite simple. They were supposed to force these people, the Italian public, to turn to the state to ask for greater security” (and see this) (Italy and other European countries subject to the terror campaign had joined NATO before the bombings occurred). And watch this BBC special. They also allegedly carried out terror attacks in France, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the UK, and other countries.
False flag attacks carried out pursuant to this program include – by way of example only:
(12) In 1960, American Senator George Smathers suggested that the U.S. launch “a false attack made on Guantanamo Bay which would give us the excuse of actually fomenting a fight which would then give us the excuse to go in and [overthrow Castro]”.
(13) Official State Department documents show that, in 1961, the head of the Joint Chiefs and other high-level officials discussed blowing up a consulate in the Dominican Republic in order to justify an invasion of that country. The plans were not carried out, but they were all discussed as serious proposals.
(14) As admitted by the U.S. government, recently declassified documents show that in 1962, the American Joint Chiefs of Staff signed off on a plan to blow up AMERICAN airplanes (using an elaborate plan involving the switching of airplanes), and also to commit terrorist acts on American soil, and then to blame it on the Cubans in order to justify an invasion of Cuba. See the following ABC news report; the official documents; and watch this interview with the former Washington Investigative Producer for ABC’s World News Tonight with Peter Jennings.
(15) In 1963, the U.S. Department of Defense wrote a paper promoting attacks on nations within the Organization of American States – such as Trinidad-Tobago or Jamaica – and then falsely blaming them on Cuba.
(16) The U.S. Department of Defense even suggested covertly paying a person in the Castro government to attack the United States: “The only area remaining for consideration then would be to bribe one of Castro’s subordinate commanders to initiate an attack on Guantanamo.”
(17) The NSA admits that it lied about what really happened in the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 … manipulating data to make it look like North Vietnamese boats fired on a U.S. ship so as to create a false justification for the Vietnam war.
(18) A U.S. Congressional committee admitted that – as part of its “Cointelpro” campaign – the FBI had used many provocateurs in the 1950s through 1970s to carry out violent acts and falsely blame them on political activists.
(19) A top Turkish general admitted that Turkish forces burned down a mosque on Cyprus in the 1970s and blamed it on their enemy. He explained: “In Special War, certain acts of sabotage are staged and blamed on the enemy to increase public resistance. We did this on Cyprus; we even burnt down a mosque.” In response to the surprised correspondent’s incredulous look the general said, “I am giving an example”.
(20) A declassified 1973 CIA document reveals a program to train foreign police and troops on how to make booby traps, pretending that they were training them on how to investigate terrorist acts:
The Agency maintains liaison in varying degrees with foreign police/security organizations through its field stations ….
[CIA provides training sessions as follows:]
a. Providing trainees with basic knowledge in the uses of commercial and military demolitions and incendiaries as they may be applied in terrorism and industrial sabotage operations.
b. Introducing the trainees to commercially available materials and home laboratory techniques, likely to he used in the manufacture of explosives and incendiaries by terrorists or saboteurs.
c. Familiarizing the trainees with the concept of target analysis and operational planning that a saboteur or terrorist must employ.
d. Introducing the trainees to booby trapping devices and techniques giving practical experience with both manufactured and improvised devices through actual fabrication.
The program provides the trainees with ample opportunity to develop basic familiarity and use proficiently through handling, preparing and applying the various explosive charges, incendiary agents, terrorist devices and sabotage techniques.
(21) The German government admitted (and see this) that, in 1978, the German secret service detonated a bomb in the outer wall of a prison and planted “escape tools” on a prisoner – a member of the Red Army Faction – which the secret service wished to frame the bombing on.
(22) A Mossad agent admits that, in 1984, Mossad planted a radio transmitter in Gaddaffi’s compound in Tripoli, Libya which broadcast fake terrorist trasmissions recorded by Mossad, in order to frame Gaddaffi as a terrorist supporter. Ronald Reagan bombed Libya immediately thereafter.
(23) The South African Truth and Reconciliation Council found that, in 1989, the Civil Cooperation Bureau (a covert branch of the South African Defense Force) approached an explosives expert and asked him “to participate in an operation aimed at discrediting the ANC [the African National Congress] by bombing the police vehicle of the investigating officer into the murder incident”, thus framing the ANC for the bombing.
(24) An Algerian diplomat and several officers in the Algerian army admit that, in the 1990s, the Algerian army frequently massacred Algerian civilians and then blamed Islamic militants for the killings (and see this video; and Agence France-Presse, 9/27/2002, French Court Dismisses Algerian Defamation Suit Against Author).
(25) The United States Army’s 1994 publication Special Forces Foreign Internal Defense Tactics Techniques and Procedures for Special Forces – updated in 2004 – recommends employing terrorists and using false flag operations to destabilize leftist regimes in Latin America. False flag terrorist attacks were carried out in Latin America and other regions as part of the CIA’s “Dirty Wars“. And see this.
(26) Similarly, a CIA “psychological operations” manual prepared by a CIA contractor for the Nicaraguan Contra rebels noted the value of assassinating someone on your own side to create a “martyr” for the cause. The manual was authenticated by the U.S. government. The manual received so much publicity from Associated Press, Washington Post and other news coverage that – during the 1984 presidential debate – President Reagan was confronted with the following question on national television:
At this moment, we are confronted with the extraordinary story of a CIA guerrilla manual for the anti-Sandinista contras whom we are backing, which advocates not only assassinations of Sandinistas but the hiring of criminals to assassinate the guerrillas we are supporting in order to create martyrs.
(27) An Indonesian fact-finding team investigated violent riots which occurred in 1998, and determined that “elements of the military had been involved in the riots, some of which were deliberately provoked“.
(28) Senior Russian Senior military and intelligence officers admit that the KGB blew up Russian apartment buildings in 1999 and falsely blamed it on Chechens, in order to justify an invasion of Chechnya (and see this report and this discussion).
(29) As reported by BBC, the New York Times, and Associated Press, Macedonian officials admit that the government murdered 7 innocent immigrants in cold blood and pretended that they were Al Qaeda soldiers attempting to assassinate Macedonian police, in order to join the “war on terror”.
(30) At the July 2001 G8 Summit in Genoa, Italy, black-clad thugs were videotaped getting out of police cars, and were seen by an Italian MP carrying “iron bars inside the police station”. Subsequently, senior police officials in Genoa subsequently admitted that police planted two Molotov cocktails and faked the stabbing of a police officer at the G8 Summit, in order to justify a violent crackdown against protesters.
(31) The U.S. falsely blamed Iraq for playing a role in the 9/11 attacks – as shown by a memo from the defense secretary – as one of the main justifications for launching the Iraq war. Even after the 9/11 Commission admitted that there was no connection, Dick Cheney said that the evidence is “overwhelming” that al Qaeda had a relationship with Saddam Hussein’s regime, that Cheney “probably” had information unavailable to the Commission, and that the media was not ‘doing their homework’ in reporting such ties. Top U.S. government officials now admit that the Iraq war was really launched for oil … not 9/11 or weapons of mass destruction. Despite previous “lone wolf” claims, many U.S. government officials now say that 9/11 was state-sponsored terror; but Iraq was not the state which backed the hijackers. (Many U.S. officials have alleged that 9/11 was a false flag operation by rogue elements of the U.S. government; but such a claim is beyond the scope of this discussion. The key point is that the U.S. falsely blamed it on Iraq, when it knew Iraq had nothing to do with it.).
(32) Although the FBI now admits that the 2001 anthrax attacks were carried out by one or more U.S. government scientists, a senior FBI official says that the FBI was actually told to blame the Anthrax attacks on Al Qaeda by White House officials (remember what the anthrax letters looked like). Government officials also confirm that the white House tried to link the anthrax to Iraq as a justification for regime change in that country.
(33) According to the Washington Post, Indonesian police admit that the Indonesian military killed American teachers in Papua in 2002 and blamed the murders on a Papuan separatist group in order to get that group listed as a terrorist organization.
(34) The well-respected former Indonesian president also admits that the government probably had a role in the Bali bombings.
(35) Police outside of a 2003 European Union summit in Greece were filmed planting Molotov cocktails on a peaceful protester
(36) Former Department of Justice lawyer John Yoo suggested in 2005 that the US should go on the offensive against al-Qaeda, having “our intelligence agencies create a false terrorist organization. It could have its own websites, recruitment centers, training camps, and fundraising operations. It could launchfake terrorist operations and claim credit for real terrorist strikes, helping to sow confusion within al-Qaeda’s ranks, causing operatives to doubt others’ identities and to question the validity of communications.”
(37) Similarly, in 2005, Professor John Arquilla of the Naval Postgraduate School – a renowned US defense analyst credited with developing the concept of ‘netwar’ – called for western intelligence services to create new “pseudo gang” terrorist groups, as a way of undermining “real” terror networks. According to Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Seymour Hersh, Arquilla’s ‘pseudo-gang’ strategy was, Hersh reported, already being implemented by the Pentagon:
“Under Rumsfeld’s new approach, I was told, US military operatives would be permitted to pose abroad as corrupt foreign businessmen seeking to buy contraband items that could be used in nuclear-weapons systems. In some cases, according to the Pentagon advisers, local citizens could be recruited and asked to join up with guerrillas or terrorists…
The new rules will enable the Special Forces community to set up what it calls ‘action teams’ in the target countries overseas which can be used to find and eliminate terrorist organizations. ‘Do you remember the right-wing execution squads in El Salvador?’ the former high-level intelligence official asked me, referring to the military-led gangs that committed atrocities in the early nineteen-eighties. ‘We founded them and we financed them,’ he said. ‘The objective now is to recruit locals in any area we want. And we aren’t going to tell Congress about it.’ A former military officer, who has knowledge of the Pentagon’s commando capabilities, said, ‘We’re going to be riding with the bad boys.'”
(38) United Press International reported in June 2005:
U.S. intelligence officers are reporting that some of the insurgents in Iraq are using recent-model Beretta 92 pistols, but the pistols seem to have had their serial numbers erased. The numbers do not appear to have been physically removed; the pistols seem to have come off a production line without any serial numbers. Analysts suggest the lack of serial numbers indicates that the weapons were intended for intelligence operations or terrorist cells with substantial government backing. Analysts speculate that these guns are probably from either Mossad or the CIA. Analysts speculate that agent provocateurs may be using the untraceable weapons even as U.S. authorities use insurgent attacks against civilians as evidence of the illegitimacy of the resistance.
(39) Undercover Israeli soldiers admitted in 2005 to throwing stones at other Israeli soldiers so they could blame it on Palestinians, as an excuse to crack down on peaceful protests by the Palestinians.
(40) Quebec police admitted that, in 2007, thugs carrying rocks to a peaceful protest were actually undercover Quebec police officers (and see this).
(41) A 2008 US Army special operations field manual recommends that the U.S. military use surrogate non-state groups such as “paramilitary forces, individuals, businesses, foreign political organizations, resistant or insurgent organizations, expatriates, transnational terrorism adversaries, disillusioned transnational terrorism members, black marketers, and other social or political ‘undesirables.'” The manual specifically acknowledged that U.S. special operations can involve both counterterrorism and “Terrorism” (as well as “transnational criminal activities, including narco-trafficking, illicit arms-dealing, and illegal financial transactions.”)
(42) The former head of Secret Services and Head of State of Italy (Francesco Cossiga) advised the 2008 minister in charge of the police, on how to deal with protests from teachers and students:
He should do what I did when I was Minister of the Interior … infiltrate the movement with agents provocateurs inclined to do anything …. And after that, with the strength of the gained population consent, … beat them for blood and beat for blood also those teachers that incite them. Especially the teachers. Not the elderly, of course, but the girl teachers yes.
(43) At the G20 protests in London in 2009, a British member of parliament saw plain clothes police officers attempting to incite the crowd to violence.
(44) Egyptian politicians admitted (and see this) that government employees looted priceless museum artifacts in 2011 to try to discredit the protesters.
(45) Rioters who discredited the peaceful protests against the swearing in of the Mexican president in 2012 admitted that they were paid 300 pesos each to destroy everything in their path. According to Wikipedia, photos also show the vandals waiting in groups behind police lines prior to the violence.
(46) A Colombian army colonel has admitted that his unit murdered 57 civilians, then dressed them in uniforms and claimed they were rebels killed in combat.
(47) On November 20, 2014, Mexican agent provocateurs were transported by army vehicles to participate in the 2014 Iguala mass kidnapping protests, as was shown by videos and pictures distributed via social networks.
(48) The highly-respected writer for the Telegraph Ambrose Evans-Pritchard says that the head of Saudi intelligence – Prince Bandar – recently admitted that the Saudi government controls “Chechen” terrorists.
(49) High-level American sources admitted that the Turkish government – a fellow NATO country – carried out the chemical weapons attacks blamed on the Syrian government; and high-ranking Turkish government admitted on tape plans to carry out attacks and blame it on the Syrian government.
(50) The Ukrainian security chief admits that the sniper attacks which started the Ukrainian coup were carried out in order to frame others. Ukrainian officials admit that the Ukrainian snipers fired on both sides, to create maximum chaos.
(51) Britain’s spy agency has admitted (and see this) that it carries out “digital false flag” attacks on targets, framing people by writing offensive or unlawful material … and blaming it on the target.
(52) U.S. soldiers have admitted that if they kill innocent Iraqis and Afghanis, they then “drop” automatic weapons near their body so they can pretend they were militants
(53) Similarly, police frame innocent people for crimes they didn’t commit. The practice is so well-known that the New York Times noted in 1981:
In police jargon, a throwdown is a weapon planted on a victim.
Newsweek reported in 1999:
Perez, himself a former [Los Angeles Police Department] cop, was caught stealing eight pounds of cocaine from police evidence lockers. After pleading guilty in September, he bargained for a lighter sentence by telling an appalling story of attempted murder and a “throwdown”-police slang for a weapon planted by cops to make a shooting legally justifiable. Perez said he and his partner, Officer Nino Durden, shot an unarmed 18th Street Gang member named Javier Ovando, then planted a semiautomatic rifle on the unconscious suspect and claimed that Ovando had tried to shoot them during a stakeout.
As part of his plea bargain, Perez implicated scores of officers from the Rampart Division’s anti-gang unit, describing routinely beating gang members, planting evidence on suspects, falsifying reports and covering up unprovoked shootings.
(As a side note – and while not technically false flag attacks – police have been busted framing innocent people in many other ways, as well.)
(54) A former U.S. intelligence officer recently alleged:
Most terrorists are false flag terrorists or are created by our own security services.
(55) The head and special agent in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles office said that most terror attacks are committed by the CIA and FBI as false flags. Similarly, the director of the National Security Agency under Ronald Reagan – Lt. General William Odom said:
By any measure the US has long used terrorism. In ’78-79 the Senate was trying to pass a law against international terrorism – in every version they produced, the lawyers said the US would be in violation.
(56) Leaders throughout history have acknowledged the “benefits” of of false flags to justify their political agenda:
“Terrorism is the best political weapon for nothing drives people harder than a fear of sudden death”.
– Adolph Hitler
“Why of course the people don’t want war … But after all it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship … Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”
– Hermann Goering, Nazi leader.
“The easiest way to gain control of a population is to carry out acts of terror. [The public] will clamor for such laws if their personal security is threatened”.
– Josef Stalin
Postscript: Private parties – such as NBC News, as well as Muslims, Jews, Scientologists, African-Americans and Neo-Nazis – play this game as well.
The Red Line and the Rat Line
Seymour M. Hersh on Obama, Erdoğan and the Syrian rebels
In 2011 Barack Obama led an allied military intervention in Libya without consulting the US Congress. Last August, after the sarin attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, he was ready to launch an allied air strike, this time to punish the Syrian government for allegedly crossing the ‘red line’ he had set in 2012 on the use of chemical weapons. ＊Then with less than two days to go before the planned strike, he announced that he would seek congressional approval for the intervention. The strike was postponed as Congress prepared for hearings, and subsequently cancelled when Obama accepted Assad’s offer to relinquish his chemical arsenal in a deal brokered by Russia. Why did Obama delay and then relent on Syria when he was not shy about rushing into Libya? The answer lies in a clash between those in the administration who were committed to enforcing the red line, and military leaders who thought that going to war was both unjustified and potentially disastrous.
Obama’s change of mind had its origins at Porton Down, the defence laboratory in Wiltshire. British intelligence had obtained a sample of the sarin used in the 21 August attack and analysis demonstrated that the gas used didn’t match the batches known to exist in the Syrian army’s chemical weapons arsenal. The message that the case against Syria wouldn’t hold up was quickly relayed to the US joint chiefs of staff. The British report heightened doubts inside the Pentagon; the joint chiefs were already preparing to warn Obama that his plans for a far-reaching bomb and missile attack on Syria’s infrastructure could lead to a wider war in the Middle East. As a consequence the American officers delivered a last-minute caution to the president, which, in their view, eventually led to his cancelling the attack.
For months there had been acute concern among senior military leaders and the intelligence community about the role in the war of Syria’s neighbours, especially Turkey. Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan was known to be supporting the al-Nusra Front, a jihadist faction among the rebel opposition, as well as other Islamist rebel groups. ‘We knew there were some in the Turkish government,’ a former senior US intelligence official, who has access to current intelligence, told me, ‘who believed they could get Assad’s nuts in a vice by dabbling with a sarin attack inside Syria – and forcing Obama to make good on his red line threat.’
The joint chiefs also knew that the Obama administration’s public claims that only the Syrian army had access to sarin were wrong. The American and British intelligence communities had been aware since the spring of 2013 that some rebel units in Syria were developing chemical weapons. On 20 June analysts for the US Defense Intelligence Agency issued a highly classified five-page ‘talking points’ briefing for the DIA’s deputy director, David Shedd, which stated that al-Nusra maintained a sarin production cell: its programme, the paper said, was ‘the most advanced sarin plot since al-Qaida’s pre-9/11 effort’. (According to a Defense Department consultant, US intelligence has long known that al-Qaida experimented with chemical weapons, and has a video of one of its gas experiments with dogs.) The DIA paper went on: ‘Previous IC [intelligence community] focus had been almost entirely on Syrian CW [chemical weapons] stockpiles; now we see ANF attempting to make its own CW … Al-Nusrah Front’s relative freedom of operation within Syria leads us to assess the group’s CW aspirations will be difficult to disrupt in the future.’ The paper drew on classified intelligence from numerous agencies: ‘Turkey and Saudi-based chemical facilitators,’ it said, ‘were attempting to obtain sarin precursors in bulk, tens of kilograms, likely for the anticipated large scale production effort in Syria.’ (Asked about the DIA paper, a spokesperson for the director of national intelligence said: ‘No such paper was ever requested or produced by intelligence community analysts.’)
Last May, more than ten members of the al-Nusra Front were arrested in southern Turkey with what local police told the press were two kilograms of sarin. In a 130-page indictment the group was accused of attempting to purchase fuses, piping for the construction of mortars, and chemical precursors for sarin. Five of those arrested were freed after a brief detention. The others, including the ringleader, Haytham Qassab, for whom the prosecutor requested a prison sentence of 25 years, were released pending trial. In the meantime the Turkish press has been rife with speculation that the Erdoğan administration has been covering up the extent of its involvement with the rebels. In a news conference last summer, Aydin Sezgin, Turkey’s ambassador to Moscow, dismissed the arrests and claimed to reporters that the recovered ‘sarin’ was merely ‘anti-freeze’.
The DIA paper took the arrests as evidence that al-Nusra was expanding its access to chemical weapons. It said Qassab had ‘self-identified’ as a member of al-Nusra, and that he was directly connected to Abd-al-Ghani, the ‘ANF emir for military manufacturing’. Qassab and his associate Khalid Ousta worked with Halit Unalkaya, an employee of a Turkish firm called Zirve Export, who provided ‘price quotes for bulk quantities of sarin precursors’. Abd-al-Ghani’s plan was for two associates to ‘perfect a process for making sarin, then go to Syria to train others to begin large scale production at an unidentified lab in Syria’. The DIA paper said that one of his operatives had purchased a precursor on the ‘Baghdad chemical market’, which ‘has supported at least seven CW efforts since 2004’.
A series of chemical weapon attacks in March and April 2013 was investigated over the next few months by a special UN mission to Syria. A person with close knowledge of the UN’s activity in Syria told me that there was evidence linking the Syrian opposition to the first gas attack, on 19 March in Khan Al-Assal, a village near Aleppo. In its final report in December, the mission said that at least 19 civilians and one Syrian soldier were among the fatalities, along with scores of injured. It had no mandate to assign responsibility for the attack, but the person with knowledge of the UN’s activities said: ‘Investigators interviewed the people who were there, including the doctors who treated the victims. It was clear that the rebels used the gas. It did not come out in public because no one wanted to know.’
In the months before the attacks began, a former senior Defense Department official told me, the DIA was circulating a daily classified report known as SYRUP on all intelligence related to the Syrian conflict, including material on chemical weapons. But in the spring, distribution of the part of the report concerning chemical weapons was severely curtailed on the orders of Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff. ‘Something was in there that triggered a shit fit by McDonough,’ the former Defense Department official said. ‘One day it was a huge deal, and then, after the March and April sarin attacks’ – he snapped his fingers – ‘it’s no longer there.’ The decision to restrict distribution was made as the joint chiefs ordered intensive contingency planning for a possible ground invasion of Syria whose primary objective would be the elimination of chemical weapons.
The former intelligence official said that many in the US national security establishment had long been troubled by the president’s red line: ‘The joint chiefs asked the White House, “What does red line mean? How does that translate into military orders? Troops on the ground? Massive strike? Limited strike?” They tasked military intelligence to study how we could carry out the threat. They learned nothing more about the president’s reasoning.’
In the aftermath of the 21 August attack Obama ordered the Pentagon to draw up targets for bombing. Early in the process, the former intelligence official said, ‘the White House rejected 35 target sets provided by the joint chiefs of staff as being insufficiently “painful” to the Assad regime.’ The original targets included only military sites and nothing by way of civilian infrastructure. Under White House pressure, the US attack plan evolved into ‘a monster strike’: two wings of B-52 bombers were shifted to airbases close to Syria, and navy submarines and ships equipped with Tomahawk missiles were deployed. ‘Every day the target list was getting longer,’ the former intelligence official told me. ‘The Pentagon planners said we can’t use only Tomahawks to strike at Syria’s missile sites because their warheads are buried too far below ground, so the two B-52 air wings with two-thousand pound bombs were assigned to the mission. Then we’ll need standby search-and-rescue teams to recover downed pilots and drones for target selection. It became huge.’ The new target list was meant to ‘completely eradicate any military capabilities Assad had’, the former intelligence official said. The core targets included electric power grids, oil and gas depots, all known logistic and weapons depots, all known command and control facilities, and all known military and intelligence buildings.
Britain and France were both to play a part. On 29 August, the day Parliament voted against Cameron’s bid to join the intervention, the Guardian reported that he had already ordered six RAF Typhoon fighter jets to be deployed to Cyprus, and had volunteered a submarine capable of launching Tomahawk missiles. The French air force – a crucial player in the 2011 strikes on Libya – was deeply committed, according to an account in Le Nouvel Observateur; François Hollande had ordered several Rafale fighter-bombers to join the American assault. Their targets were reported to be in western Syria.
By the last days of August the president had given the Joint Chiefs a fixed deadline for the launch. ‘H hour was to begin no later than Monday morning [2 September], a massive assault to neutralise Assad,’ the former intelligence official said. So it was a surprise to many when during a speech in the White House Rose Garden on 31 August Obama said that the attack would be put on hold, and he would turn to Congress and put it to a vote.
At this stage, Obama’s premise – that only the Syrian army was capable of deploying sarin – was unravelling. Within a few days of the 21 August attack, the former intelligence official told me, Russian military intelligence operatives had recovered samples of the chemical agent from Ghouta. They analysed it and passed it on to British military intelligence; this was the material sent to Porton Down. (A spokesperson for Porton Down said: ‘Many of the samples analysed in the UK tested positive for the nerve agent sarin.’ MI6 said that it doesn’t comment on intelligence matters.)
The former intelligence official said the Russian who delivered the sample to the UK was ‘a good source – someone with access, knowledge and a record of being trustworthy’. After the first reported uses of chemical weapons in Syria last year, American and allied intelligence agencies ‘made an effort to find the answer as to what if anything, was used – and its source’, the former intelligence official said. ‘We use data exchanged as part of the Chemical Weapons Convention. The DIA’s baseline consisted of knowing the composition of each batch of Soviet-manufactured chemical weapons. But we didn’t know which batches the Assad government currently had in its arsenal. Within days of the Damascus incident we asked a source in the Syrian government to give us a list of the batches the government currently had. This is why we could confirm the difference so quickly.’
The process hadn’t worked as smoothly in the spring, the former intelligence official said, because the studies done by Western intelligence ‘were inconclusive as to the type of gas it was. The word “sarin” didn’t come up. There was a great deal of discussion about this, but since no one could conclude what gas it was, you could not say that Assad had crossed the president’s red line.’ By 21 August, the former intelligence official went on, ‘the Syrian opposition clearly had learned from this and announced that “sarin” from the Syrian army had been used, before any analysis could be made, and the press and White House jumped at it. Since it now was sarin, “It had to be Assad.”’
The UK defence staff who relayed the Porton Down findings to the joint chiefs were sending the Americans a message, the former intelligence official said: ‘We’re being set up here.’ (This account made sense of a terse message a senior official in the CIA sent in late August: ‘It was not the result of the current regime. UK & US know this.’) By then the attack was a few days away and American, British and French planes, ships and submarines were at the ready.
The officer ultimately responsible for the planning and execution of the attack was General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs. From the beginning of the crisis, the former intelligence official said, the joint chiefs had been sceptical of the administration’s argument that it had the facts to back up its belief in Assad’s guilt. They pressed the DIA and other agencies for more substantial evidence. ‘There was no way they thought Syria would use nerve gas at that stage, because Assad was winning the war,’ the former intelligence official said. Dempsey had irritated many in the Obama administration by repeatedly warning Congress over the summer of the danger of American military involvement in Syria. Last April, after an optimistic assessment of rebel progress by the secretary of state, John Kerry, in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee that ‘there’s a risk that this conflict has become stalemated.’
Dempsey’s initial view after 21 August was that a US strike on Syria – under the assumption that the Assad government was responsible for the sarin attack – would be a military blunder, the former intelligence official said. The Porton Down report caused the joint chiefs to go to the president with a more serious worry: that the attack sought by the White House would be an unjustified act of aggression. It was the joint chiefs who led Obama to change course. The official White House explanation for the turnabout – the story the press corps told – was that the president, during a walk in the Rose Garden with Denis McDonough, his chief of staff, suddenly decided to seek approval for the strike from a bitterly divided Congress with which he’d been in conflict for years. The former Defense Department official told me that the White House provided a different explanation to members of the civilian leadership of the Pentagon: the bombing had been called off because there was intelligence ‘that the Middle East would go up in smoke’ if it was carried out.
The president’s decision to go to Congress was initially seen by senior aides in the White House, the former intelligence official said, as a replay of George W. Bush’s gambit in the autumn of 2002 before the invasion of Iraq: ‘When it became clear that there were no WMD in Iraq, Congress, which had endorsed the Iraqi war, and the White House both shared the blame and repeatedly cited faulty intelligence. If the current Congress were to vote to endorse the strike, the White House could again have it both ways – wallop Syria with a massive attack and validate the president’s red line commitment, while also being able to share the blame with Congress if it came out that the Syrian military wasn’t behind the attack.’ The turnabout came as a surprise even to the Democratic leadership in Congress. In September the Wall Street Journal reported that three days before his Rose Garden speech Obama had telephoned Nancy Pelosi, leader of the House Democrats, ‘to talk through the options’. She later told colleagues, according to the Journal, that she hadn’t asked the president to put the bombing to a congressional vote.
bama’s move for congressional approval quickly became a dead end. ‘Congress was not going to let this go by,’ the former intelligence official said. ‘Congress made it known that, unlike the authorisation for the Iraq war, there would be substantive hearings.’ At this point, there was a sense of desperation in the White House, the former intelligence official said. ‘And so out comes Plan B. Call off the bombing strike and Assad would agree to unilaterally sign the chemical warfare treaty and agree to the destruction of all of chemical weapons under UN supervision.’ At a press conference in London on 9 September, Kerry was still talking about intervention: ‘The risk of not acting is greater than the risk of acting.’ But when a reporter asked if there was anything Assad could do to stop the bombing, Kerry said: ‘Sure. He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week … But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.’ As the New York Times
reported the next day, the Russian-brokered deal that emerged shortly afterwards had first been discussed by Obama and Putin in the summer of 2012. Although the strike plans were shelved, the administration didn’t change its public assessment of the justification for going to war. ‘There is zero tolerance at that level for the existence of error,’ the former intelligence official said of the senior officials in the White House. ‘They could not afford to say: “We were wrong.”’ (The DNI spokesperson said: ‘The Assad regime, and only the Assad regime, could have been responsible for the chemical weapons attack that took place on 21 August.’)
*The full extent of US co-operation with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar in assisting the rebel opposition in Syria has yet to come to light. The Obama administration has never publicly admitted to its role in creating what the CIA calls a ‘rat line’, a back channel highway into Syria. The rat line, authorised in early 2012, was used to funnel weapons and ammunition from Libya via southern Turkey and across the Syrian border to the opposition. Many of those in Syria who ultimately received the weapons were jihadists, some of them affiliated with al-Qaida. (The DNI spokesperson said: ‘The idea that the United States was providing weapons from Libya to anyone is false.’)
In January, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a report on the assault by a local militia in September 2012 on the American consulate and a nearby undercover CIA facility in Benghazi, which resulted in the death of the US ambassador, Christopher Stevens, and three others. The report’s criticism of the State Department for not providing adequate security at the consulate, and of the intelligence community for not alerting the US military to the presence of a CIA outpost in the area, received front-page coverage and revived animosities in Washington, with Republicans accusing Obama and Hillary Clinton of a cover-up. A highly classified annex to the report, not made public, described a secret agreement reached in early 2012 between the Obama and Erdoğan administrations. It pertained to the rat line. By the terms of the agreement, funding came from Turkey, as well as Saudi Arabia and Qatar; the CIA, with the support of MI6, was responsible for getting arms from Gaddafi’s arsenals into Syria. A number of front companies were set up in Libya, some under the cover of Australian entities. Retired American soldiers, who didn’t always know who was really employing them, were hired to manage procurement and shipping. The operation was run by David Petraeus, the CIA director who would soon resign when it became known he was having an affair with his biographer. (A spokesperson for Petraeus denied the operation ever took place.)
The operation had not been disclosed at the time it was set up to the congressional intelligence committees and the congressional leadership, as required by law since the 1970s. The involvement of MI6 enabled the CIA to evade the law by classifying the mission as a liaison operation. The former intelligence official explained that for years there has been a recognised exception in the law that permits the CIA not to report liaison activity to Congress, which would otherwise be owed a finding. (All proposed CIA covert operations must be described in a written document, known as a ‘finding’, submitted to the senior leadership of Congress for approval.) Distribution of the annex was limited to the staff aides who wrote the report and to the eight ranking members of Congress – the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate, and the Democratic and Republicans leaders on the House and Senate intelligence committees. This hardly constituted a genuine attempt at oversight: the eight leaders are not known to gather together to raise questions or discuss the secret information they receive.
The annex didn’t tell the whole story of what happened in Benghazi before the attack, nor did it explain why the American consulate was attacked. ‘The consulate’s only mission was to provide cover for the moving of arms,’ the former intelligence official, who has read the annex, said. ‘It had no real political role.’
Washington abruptly ended the CIA’s role in the transfer of arms from Libya after the attack on the consulate, but the rat line kept going. ‘The United States was no longer in control of what the Turks were relaying to the jihadists,’ the former intelligence official said. Within weeks, as many as forty portable surface-to-air missile launchers, commonly known as manpads, were in the hands of Syrian rebels. On 28 November 2012, Joby Warrick of the Washington Post reported that the previous day rebels near Aleppo had used what was almost certainly a manpad to shoot down a Syrian transport helicopter. ‘The Obama administration,’ Warrick wrote, ‘has steadfastly opposed arming Syrian opposition forces with such missiles, warning that the weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists and be used to shoot down commercial aircraft.’ Two Middle Eastern intelligence officials fingered Qatar as the source, and a former US intelligence analyst speculated that the manpads could have been obtained from Syrian military outposts overrun by the rebels. There was no indication that the rebels’ possession of manpads was likely the unintended consequence of a covert US programme that was no longer under US control.
By the end of 2012, it was believed throughout the American intelligence community that the rebels were losing the war. ‘Erdoğan was pissed,’ the former intelligence official said, ‘and felt he was left hanging on the vine. It was his money and the cut-off was seen as a betrayal.’ In spring 2013 US intelligence learned that the Turkish government – through elements of the MIT, its national intelligence agency, and the Gendarmerie, a militarised law-enforcement organisation – was working directly with al-Nusra and its allies to develop a chemical warfare capability. ‘The MIT was running the political liaison with the rebels, and the Gendarmerie handled military logistics, on-the-scene advice and training – including training in chemical warfare,’ the former intelligence official said. ‘Stepping up Turkey’s role in spring 2013 was seen as the key to its problems there. Erdoğan knew that if he stopped his support of the jihadists it would be all over. The Saudis could not support the war because of logistics – the distances involved and the difficulty of moving weapons and supplies. Erdoğan’s hope was to instigate an event that would force the US to cross the red line. But Obama didn’t respond in March and April.’
There was no public sign of discord when Erdoğan and Obama met on 16 May 2013 at the White House. At a later press conference Obama said that they had agreed that Assad ‘needs to go’. Asked whether he thought Syria had crossed the red line, Obama acknowledged that there was evidence such weapons had been used, but added, ‘it is important for us to make sure that we’re able to get more specific information about what exactly is happening there.’ The red line was still intact.
An American foreign policy expert who speaks regularly with officials in Washington and Ankara told me about a working dinner Obama held for Erdoğan during his May visit. The meal was dominated by the Turks’ insistence that Syria had crossed the red line and their complaints that Obama was reluctant to do anything about it. Obama was accompanied by John Kerry and Tom Donilon, the national security adviser who would soon leave the job. Erdoğan was joined by Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey’s foreign minister, and Hakan Fidan, the head of the MIT. Fidan is known to be fiercely loyal to Erdoğan, and has been seen as a consistent backer of the radical rebel opposition in Syria.
The foreign policy expert told me that the account he heard originated with Donilon. (It was later corroborated by a former US official, who learned of it from a senior Turkish diplomat.) According to the expert, Erdoğan had sought the meeting to demonstrate to Obama that the red line had been crossed, and had brought Fidan along to state the case. When Erdoğan tried to draw Fidan into the conversation, and Fidan began speaking, Obama cut him off and said: ‘We know.’ Erdoğan tried to bring Fidan in a second time, and Obama again cut him off and said: ‘We know.’ At that point, an exasperated Erdoğan said, ‘But your red line has been crossed!’ and, the expert told me, ‘Donilon said Erdoğan “fucking waved his finger at the president inside the White House”.’ Obama then pointed at Fidan and said: ‘We know what you’re doing with the radicals in Syria.’ (Donilon, who joined the Council on Foreign Relations last July, didn’t respond to questions about this story. The Turkish Foreign Ministry didn’t respond to questions about the dinner. A spokesperson for the National Security Council confirmed that the dinner took place and provided a photograph showing Obama, Kerry, Donilon, Erdoğan, Fidan and Davutoğlu sitting at a table. ‘Beyond that,’ she said, ‘I’m not going to read out the details of their discussions.’)
But Erdoğan did not leave empty handed. Obama was still permitting Turkey to continue to exploit a loophole in a presidential executive order prohibiting the export of gold to Iran, part of the US sanctions regime against the country. In March 2012, responding to sanctions of Iranian banks by the EU, the SWIFT electronic payment system, which facilitates cross-border payments, expelled dozens of Iranian financial institutions, severely restricting the country’s ability to conduct international trade. The US followed with the executive order in July, but left what came to be known as a ‘golden loophole’: gold shipments to private Iranian entities could continue. Turkey is a major purchaser of Iranian oil and gas, and it took advantage of the loophole by depositing its energy payments in Turkish lira in an Iranian account in Turkey; these funds were then used to purchase Turkish gold for export to confederates in Iran. Gold to the value of $13 billion reportedly entered Iran in this way between March 2012 and July 2013.
The programme quickly became a cash cow for corrupt politicians and traders in Turkey, Iran and the United Arab Emirates. ‘The middlemen did what they always do,’ the former intelligence official said. ‘Take 15 per cent. The CIA had estimated that there was as much as two billion dollars in skim. Gold and Turkish lira were sticking to fingers.’ The illicit skimming flared into a public ‘gas for gold’ scandal in Turkey in December, and resulted in charges against two dozen people, including prominent businessmen and relatives of government officials, as well as the resignations of three ministers, one of whom called for Erdoğan to resign. The chief executive of a Turkish state-controlled bank that was in the middle of the scandal insisted that more than $4.5 million in cash found by police in shoeboxes during a search of his home was for charitable donations.
Late last year Jonathan Schanzer and Mark Dubowitz reported in Foreign Policy that the Obama administration closed the golden loophole in January 2013, but ‘lobbied to make sure the legislation … did not take effect for six months’. They speculated that the administration wanted to use the delay as an incentive to bring Iran to the bargaining table over its nuclear programme, or to placate its Turkish ally in the Syrian civil war. The delay permitted Iran to ‘accrue billions of dollars more in gold, further undermining the sanctions regime’.*
The American decision to end CIA support of the weapons shipments into Syria left Erdoğan exposed politically and militarily. ‘One of the issues at that May summit was the fact that Turkey is the only avenue to supply the rebels in Syria,’ the former intelligence official said. ‘It can’t come through Jordan because the terrain in the south is wide open and the Syrians are all over it. And it can’t come through the valleys and hills of Lebanon – you can’t be sure who you’d meet on the other side.’ Without US military support for the rebels, the former intelligence official said, ‘Erdoğan’s dream of having a client state in Syria is evaporating and he thinks we’re the reason why. When Syria wins the war, he knows the rebels are just as likely to turn on him – where else can they go? So now he will have thousands of radicals in his backyard.’
A US intelligence consultant told me that a few weeks before 21 August he saw a highly classified briefing prepared for Dempsey and the defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, which described ‘the acute anxiety’ of the Erdoğan administration about the rebels’ dwindling prospects. The analysis warned that the Turkish leadership had expressed ‘the need to do something that would precipitate a US military response’. By late summer, the Syrian army still had the advantage over the rebels, the former intelligence official said, and only American air power could turn the tide. In the autumn, the former intelligence official went on, the US intelligence analysts who kept working on the events of 21 August ‘sensed that Syria had not done the gas attack. But the 500 pound gorilla was, how did it happen? The immediate suspect was the Turks, because they had all the pieces to make it happen.’
As intercepts and other data related to the 21 August attacks were gathered, the intelligence community saw evidence to support its suspicions. ‘We now know it was a covert action planned by Erdoğan’s people to push Obama over the red line,’ the former intelligence official said. ‘They had to escalate to a gas attack in or near Damascus when the UN inspectors’ – who arrived in Damascus on 18 August to investigate the earlier use of gas – ‘were there. The deal was to do something spectacular. Our senior military officers have been told by the DIA and other intelligence assets that the sarin was supplied through Turkey – that it could only have gotten there with Turkish support. The Turks also provided the training in producing the sarin and handling it.’ Much of the support for that assessment came from the Turks themselves, via intercepted conversations in the immediate aftermath of the attack. ‘Principal evidence came from the Turkish post-attack joy and back-slapping in numerous intercepts. Operations are always so super-secret in the planning but that all flies out the window when it comes to crowing afterwards. There is no greater vulnerability than in the perpetrators claiming credit for success.’ Erdoğan’s problems in Syria would soon be over: ‘Off goes the gas and Obama will say red line and America is going to attack Syria, or at least that was the idea. But it did not work out that way.’
The post-attack intelligence on Turkey did not make its way to the White House. ‘Nobody wants to talk about all this,’ the former intelligence official told me. ‘There is great reluctance to contradict the president, although no all-source intelligence community analysis supported his leap to convict. There has not been one single piece of additional evidence of Syrian involvement in the sarin attack produced by the White House since the bombing raid was called off. My government can’t say anything because we have acted so irresponsibly. And since we blamed Assad, we can’t go back and blame Erdoğan.’
Turkey’s willingness to manipulate events in Syria to its own purposes seemed to be demonstrated late last month, a few days before a round of local elections, when a recording, allegedly of a government national security meeting, was posted to YouTube. It included discussion of a false-flag operation that would justify an incursion by the Turkish military in Syria. The operation centred on the tomb of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of the revered Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Empire, which is near Aleppo and was ceded to Turkey in 1921, when Syria was under French rule. One of the Islamist rebel factions was threatening to destroy the tomb as a site of idolatry, and the Erdoğan administration was publicly threatening retaliation if harm came to it. According to a Reuters report of the leaked conversation, a voice alleged to be Fidan’s spoke of creating a provocation: ‘Now look, my commander, if there is to be justification, the justification is I send four men to the other side. I get them to fire eight missiles into empty land [in the vicinity of the tomb]. That’s not a problem. Justification can be created.’ The Turkish government acknowledged that there had been a national security meeting about threats emanating from Syria, but said the recording had been manipulated. The government subsequently blocked public access to YouTube.
Barring a major change in policy by Obama, Turkey’s meddling in the Syrian civil war is likely to go on. ‘I asked my colleagues if there was any way to stop Erdoğan’s continued support for the rebels, especially now that it’s going so wrong,’ the former intelligence official told me. ‘The answer was: “We’re screwed.” We could go public if it was somebody other than Erdoğan, but Turkey is a special case. They’re a Nato ally. The Turks don’t trust the West. They can’t live with us if we take any active role against Turkish interests. If we went public with what we know about Erdoğan’s role with the gas, it’d be disastrous. The Turks would say: “We hate you for telling us what we can and can’t do.”’
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The Ghouta chemical attack occurred in Ghouta, Syria, during the Syrian Civil War in the early hours of 21 August 2013. Two opposition-controlled areas in the suburbs around Damascus, Syria were struck by rockets containing the chemical agent sarin. Estimates of the death toll range from at least 281 people to 1,729. The attack was the deadliest use of chemical weapons since the Iran–Iraq War.
Inspectors from the United Nations Mission already in Syria to investigate an earlier alleged chemical weapons attack,(p6) requested access to sites in Ghouta the day after the attack, and called for a ceasefire to allow inspectors to visit the Ghouta sites. The Syrian government granted the UN’s request on 25 August, and inspectors visited and investigated Moadamiyah in Western Ghouta the next day, and Zamalka and Ein Tarma in Eastern Ghouta on 28 and 29 August.(p6)
The UN investigation team confirmed “clear and convincing evidence” of the use of sarin delivered by surface-to-surface rockets, and a 2014 report by the UN Human Rights Council found that “significant quantities of sarin were used in a well-planned indiscriminate attack targeting civilian-inhabited areas, causing mass casualties. The evidence available concerning the nature, quality and quantity of the agents used on 21 August indicated that the perpetrators likely had access to the chemical weapons stockpile of the Syrian military, as well as the expertise and equipment necessary to manipulate safely large amount of chemical agents.” It also stated that the chemical agents used in the Khan al-Assal chemical attack “bore the same unique hallmarks as those used in Al-Ghouta.”
The Syrian opposition, as well as many governments, the Arab League and the European Union stated the attack was carried out by forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian and Russian governments blamed the opposition for the attack, the Russian government calling the attack a false flag operation by the opposition to draw foreign powers into the civil war on the rebels’ side.Åke Sellström, the leader of the UN Mission, characterized government explanations of rebel chemical weapons acquisition as unconvincing, resting in part upon “poor theories.”
Several countries including France, the United Kingdom, and the United States debated whether to intervene militarily against Syrian government forces. On 6 September 2013, the United States Senate filed a resolution to authorize use of military force against the Syrian military in response to the Ghouta attack. On 10 September 2013, the military intervention was averted when the Syrian government accepted a US–Russian negotiated deal to turn over “every single bit” of its chemical weapons stockpiles for destruction and declared its intention to join the Chemical Weapons Convention.
The Ghouta area is composed of densely populated suburbs to the east and south of Damascus, part of the province of Rif Dimashq. Ghouta is a primarily conservative Sunni region. Since early in the civil war, civilians in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta have almost entirely sided with the opposition to Syria’s government. The opposition has controlled much of Eastern Ghouta since 2012, partly cutting off Damascus from the countryside.Muadamiyat al-Sham in Western Ghouta had been under government siege since April 2013. Ghouta had been the scene of continuing clashes for more than a year before the chemical attack, with government forces launching repeated missile assaults trying to dislodge the rebels. The week of the attack, the Syrian government launched an offensive to capture opposition-held Damascus suburbs.
The attack came one year and one day after US President Barack Obama‘s 20 August 2012 “red line” remarks, in which he warned: “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.” Syria was one of five non-signatories to the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention at the time. After the “red line” remarks, and before the chemical attack in Ghouta, chemical weapons were suspected to have been used in four attacks in the country.
Khan al-Assal chemical attack
The Khan al-Assal chemical attack occurred on 19 March 2013, when a government-controlled area of Khan al-Asal, a district of Aleppo in northern Syria, was struck by a rocket containing the nerve agent sarin. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights the attack resulted in at least 26 fatalities, including 16 government soldiers and 10 civilians. The Syrian government later reported to the United Nations that one soldier and 19 civilians died and that 17 soldiers and 107 civilians were injured.(p32) A medic at the local civilian hospital said he personally had witnessed Syrian army soldiers helping the wounded and dealing with fatalities at the scene.
The sarin used in the Khan al-Assal attack “bore the same unique hallmarks” as the sarin used in the Ghouta attack.(p19)
Independent International Commission of Inquiry
The United Nations Human Rights Council established the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic on 22 August 2011 to investigate human rights violations during the Syrian civil war. One of the topics the commission investigated was possible use of chemical weapons. In early June 2013, the Fifth Report of the Commission of Inquiry stated that there were reasonable grounds to believe that limited amounts of toxic chemicals were used in four attacks, but more evidence was needed “to determine the precise chemical agents used, their delivery systems or the perpetrator.”(p21) On 22 June, the head of the Commission of Inquiry, Paulo Pinheiro, said the UN could not determine who used chemical weapons in Syria based on evidence sent by the United States, Britain and France.
Assessments prior to the attack
US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel stated on 25 April that US intelligence showed the Assad government had likely used sarin on a small scale. However, the White House announced that “much more” work had to be done to verify the intelligence assessments.
On 13 June 2013, the United States government publicly announced it had concluded that the Assad government had used limited amounts of chemical weapons on multiple occasions against rebel forces, killing 100 to 150 people. US officials stated that sarin was the agent used. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes did not say whether this showed that Syria had crossed the “red line” established by President Obama in August 2012. Rhodes stated: “The president has said that the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus, and it has.” The French government announced that its own tests confirmed US assertions.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said “the accusations of Damascus using chemical weapons put forth by the USA are not backed by credible facts.” Lavrov further stated that the Syrian government had no motive to use chemical weapons since the government already maintained a military advantage over the rebel fighters.
The attacks affected two separate opposition-controlled districts in the Damascus suburbs, located 16 kilometres apart.(p1)
Eastern Ghouta attack
The first attack took place around 2:30 a.m. on 21 August 2013 in Eastern Ghouta, a rebel-held suburb to the east of Damascus. The area was on a rebel weapons supply route from Jordan and had been under siege by the Syrian military and Hezbollah for months.
At least 8, and possibly 12, rockets struck within a 1500 by 500 meter area in the Zamalka and nearby Ein Tarma neighborhoods.[note 1] The rockets were all of the same improvised type, each with an estimated capacity to carry 50–60 liters (11–13 imp gal; 13–16 U.S. gal) of sarin.(p9)(p24) The rocket engine was similar in type and parameters to a 122 mm GRAD unguided surface-to-surface rocket, while the chemical warhead and the stabilization fin was of an artisan-type. One (or both) of the labs examining the environmental samples taken from Zamalka (and Ein Tarma(pp28–29)) found at least traces of sarin in 14 of the 17 cases.(pp45–49) One of the labs described the sarin level as a “high level concentration” in 4 of the 17 samples.(pp45–49)
Western Ghouta attack
The second attack took place in the Western Ghouta area around 5:00 in the morning on 21 August. On 22 August, a witness who works for Moadamiya media center said he had counted seven rockets that fell in two areas of Moadamiya during the early morning of 21 August. He said four rockets hit next to the Rawda Mosque and another three in the area between Qahweh Street and Zeytouneh Street, which he said was approximately 500 meters to the east of the Rawda Mosque. He said all the rockets were of the same type.
While no chemical warhead was ever found in the Western Ghouta area, one rocket engine has been identified as a 140mm M-14 unguided surface-to-surface rocket. This type of rocket can be fitted with three types of warheads: high explosive-fragmentation, white phosphorus smoke, or a chemical warhead containing 2 liters (0.44 imp gal; 0.53 U.S. gal) of sarin.(p5) None of the 13 environmental samples taken from Western Ghouta tested positive for sarin, although three had “degradation and/or by-products.”(pp43–45)
Chemical weapons capability
At the time of the attack, Syria was not a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits the development, production, stockpiling, transfer and use of chemical weapons, although in 1968 it acceded to the 1925 Geneva Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases. In 2012 Syria publicly stated it possessed chemical and biological weapons and would use them if it faced a foreign attack.
According to French intelligence, the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC) is responsible for producing toxic agents for use in war. A group named “Branch 450” is allegedly responsible for filling munitions with chemicals and maintaining security of the chemical agent stockpiles. As of September 2013, French intelligence estimated the Syrian stockpile at 1,000 tonnes, including Yperite, VX and “several hundred tonnes of sarin.”
The UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee publicly dismissed the possibility of rebel responsibility for the attack in Ghouta, stating that rebels are incapable of an attack of its scale. The Committee stated that “there is no credible intelligence or evidence to substantiate the claims or the possession of CW by the opposition.”
Åke Sellström, a Swedish scientist who led the UN mission to investigate the attacks, said it was difficult to see how rebels could have weaponized the toxins, but admitted that he didn’t know who the perpetrator was.According to the Associated Press, “chemical and biological weapons experts have been relatively consistent in their analysis, saying only a military force with access to and knowledge of missile delivery systems and the sarin gas suspected in Ghouta could have carried out an attack capable of killing hundreds of people.”
Both the opposition and the Syrian government said a chemical attack was carried out in the suburbs around Damascus on 21 August 2013. Anti-government activists said the Syrian government was to blame for the attack, while the Syrian government said foreign fighters and their international backers were to blame.
On the day of the attack, George Sabra, the head of the Syrian National Council, said 1,300 people had been killed as shells loaded with poisonous gas rained down on the capital’s eastern suburbs of Douma, Jobar, Zamalka, Arbeen and Ein Tarma. A spokesman for the Free Syrian Army’s Supreme Military Council, Qassim Saadeddine, said, “people are growing desperate as they watch another round of political statements and UN meetings without any hope of action.”Ahmad Jarba, who was the president of the Syrian National Coalition at the time of the attack, called on the UN investigators to travel to “the site of the massacre” and for an urgent United Nations Security Council meeting on the subject. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the attack was committed by the Syrian regime and called on Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, “to apply all pressure within his powers to pressure the Syrian regime.”
The next day, a spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition, Khaled al-Saleh, said at least six doctors died after treating victims, and that they didn’t yet have the number of dead first responders.
Syria’s Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs, Qadri Jamil, said foreign fighters and their international backers were to blame for the attack. Syrian state television, SANA, said the accusations were fabricated to distract a team of UN chemical weapons experts which had arrived three days before the attacks. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said the claims that his government had used chemical weapons would go against elementary logic and that “accusations of this kind are entirely political.”
On 19 March 2013, the Syrian government reported to the UN Security Council that the rebels had fired a rocket containing chemical materials into a government controlled part of Khan al-Asal, a district of Aleppo in northern Syria, and requested a UN mission to investigate it. As a response, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon created the “United Nations Mission to Investigate Alleged Uses of Chemical Weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic.” The Syrian government first refused to allow the UN mission to be expanded to places outside Khan al-Assal, but agreed in July 2013 to also allow investigation of the alleged attack in Sheikh Maqsood on 13 April 2013 and the alleged attack in Saraqib on 29 April 2013.(p7)
On 23 April 2013, the New York Times reported that the British and French governments had sent a confidential letter to the UN Secretary-General, stating there was evidence that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons in Aleppo, Homs and perhaps Damascus. Israel also claimed that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons on 19 March near Aleppo and Damascus. On 24 April, Syria blocked UN investigators from entering Syria, while UN Under-Secretary for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman said this would not prevent an inquiry from being carried out.
On 18 August 2013, three days before the Ghouta attack, a UN mission headed by Åke Sellström arrived in Damascus with permission from the Syrian government to investigate earlier alleged chemical weapons use. On the day of the attack, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed “the need to investigate [the Ghouta incident as] soon as possible,” hoping for consent from the Syrian government. The next day, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay urged government and opposition forces to allow an investigation and Ban requested the government provide immediate access. On 23 August, clashes between rebel and government forces continued in and around Ghouta, government shelling continued and UN inspectors were denied access for a second day.White House officials were convinced that the Syrian government was trying to hide the evidence of chemical weapons use by shelling the sites and delaying their inspection. Ban called for a ceasefire to allow the inspectors to visit the attack sites. On 25 August the government and various rebel factions agreed to a ceasefire for five hours each day from 26 to 29 August.
Early in the morning of 26 August several mortars hit central Damascus, including one that fell near the Four Seasons Hotel where the UN inspectors were staying. Later in the day the UN team came under sniper fire en route to Moadamiyah in western Ghouta (to the southwest of central Damascus), forcing them to return to their hotel and replace one of their vehicles before continuing their investigation four hours later. The attack prompted a rebuke from Ban toward the fighters. After returning to Moadamiyah the UN team visited clinics and makeshift field hospitals, collected samples and conducted interviews with witnesses, survivors and doctors. The inspectors spoke with 20 victims of the attacks and took blood and hair samples, soil samples, and samples from domestic animals. As a result of the delay caused by the sniper attack, the team’s time in Moadamiyah was substantially shortened, with the scheduled expiry of the daily cease-fire leaving them around 90 minutes on the ground.
On 28 and 29 August the UN team visited Zamalka and Ein Tarma in Eastern Ghouta, east of central Damascus, for a total time of five-and-a-half hours.(p6) On 30 August the team visited a Syrian government military hospital in Mazzeh and collected samples. The mission left Syria early on August 31, promising to return to complete the original objective to investigate the previously alleged attack sites. The Syrian government wanted the mission to stay and investigate them at that time.
UN Ghouta Area report
The UN report on the investigation into the Ghouta chemical attacks was published on 16 September 2013. The report stated: “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.”(p8) UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the findings “beyond doubt and beyond the pale,” and clear evidence of a war crime. “The results are overwhelming and indisputable,” he said. Ban stated a majority of the blood samples, environmental samples and rockets or rocket fragments recovered tested positive for sarin. The report, which was “careful not to blame either side,” said that during the mission’s work in areas under rebel control, “individuals arrived carrying other suspected munitions indicating that such potential evidence is being moved and possibly manipulated.” The UN investigators were accompanied by a rebel leader:
A leader of the local opposition forces … was identified and requested to take ‘custody’ of the Mission … to ensure the security and movement of the Mission, to facilitate the access to the most critical cases/witnesses to be interviewed and sampled by the Mission and to control patients and crowd in order for the Mission to focus on its main activities.(p13)
The British UN Ambassador stated that the report’s lead author, Åke Sellström, said the quality of the sarin used in the attack was higher than that used by Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war, implying a purity higher than the Iraqi chemical weapons program‘s low purity of 45–60%. (By comparison, Aum Shinrikyo used nearly pure sarin in the 1994 Matsumoto incident.)
According to Human Rights Watch, hundreds of kilograms of sarin were used in the attack, which it said suggested government responsibility, as opposition forces were not known to possess significant amounts of sarin.
The Russian government dismissed the initial UN report after it was released, calling it “one-sided” and “distorted.” On 17 September, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated his government’s belief that the opposition carried out the attacks as a “provocation.” The United Nations High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Angela Kane said the inspection team would review Russia’s objections.
An August 2013 Scientific American article described difficulties that could arise when attempting to identify the manufacturer of sarin from soil or tissue samples.
An Iranian chemical weapons expert, Abbas Foroutan, said in October 2013 that the UN should publish more details about the investigation than were provided in the report, including victims’ pulse rates and blood pressure and their response to the atropine treatment, the victims’ levels of acetylcholinesterase (sarin is an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor) and more technical details on the lab testing process.
Final UN Mission report
The UN inspection team returned to Syria to continue investigations into other alleged chemical attacks in late September 2013. A final report on Ghouta and six other alleged attacks (including three alleged to have occurred after the Ghouta attack) was released in December 2013. The inspectors wrote that they “collected clear and convincing evidence that chemical weapons were used also against civilians, including children, on a relatively large scale in the Ghouta area of Damascus on 21 August 2013.” The conclusion was based on:
- Impacted and exploded surface-to-surface rockets, capable to carry a chemical payload, were found to contain sarin;
- Close to the rocket impact sites, in the area where patients were affected, the environment was found to be contaminated by sarin;
- The epidemiology of over fifty interviews given by survivors and health care workers provided ample corroboration of the medical and scientific results;
- A number of patients/survivors were clearly diagnosed as intoxicated by an organophosphorous compound;
- Blood and urine samples from the same patients were found positive for sarin and sarin signatures.(p19)
UN Human Rights Council report
The 7th Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, a different group than the UN fact-finding mission, stated the sarin used in the Ghouta attack bore the “same unique hallmarks” as the sarin used in the Khan al-Assal attack. The report, dated 12 February 2014, also indicated that the perpetrators likely had access to the chemical weapons stockpile of the Syrian military. These conclusions were based on the fact-finding mission’s evidence, as the Commission of Inquiry did not conduct its own investigation of either chemical attack.
The continuous fighting has severely limited the quality of medical care for injured survivors of the attack. A month after the attack, approximately 450 survivors still required medical attention for lingering symptoms such as respiratory and vision problems. By early October 2013, the 13,000 residents of Moadhamiya, one of the places targeted in the August attack, had been surrounded by pro-government forces and under siege for five months. Severe malnourishment and medical emergencies become pressing as all supply lines had stopped. Care for chronic symptoms of sarin exposure had become “just one among a sea of concerns.”
As countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom debated their response to the attacks, they encountered significant popular and legislative resistance to military intervention. In particular, British Prime Minister David Cameron’s request to the House of Commons to use military force was declined by a 285–272 margin. UK government policy subsequently focused on providing humanitarian assistance inside Syria and to refugees in neighboring countries.
Within a month of the attacks, Syria agreed to join the Chemical Weapons Convention and allow all its stockpiles to be destroyed.The destruction began under OPCW supervision on 6 October 2013. On 23 June 2014, the last shipment of Syria’s declared chemical weapons was shipped out of the country for destruction. By 18 August 2014, all toxic chemicals were destroyed aboard the US naval vessel MV Cape Ray.
Nine months after the attack, there is evidence that mothers from the affected areas are giving birth to children with defects and as stillborn.
Witness statements and victim symptoms
Syrian human rights lawyer Razan Zaitouneh, who was present in Eastern Ghouta, stated, “Hours [after the shelling], we started to visit the medical points in Ghouta to where injured were removed, and we couldn’t believe our eyes. I haven’t seen such death in my whole life. People were lying on the ground in hallways, on roadsides, in hundreds.” Several medics working in Ghouta reported the administration of large quantities of atropine, a common antidote for nerve agent toxicity, to treat victims.
Doctors Without Borders said the three hospitals it supports in Eastern Ghouta reported receiving roughly 3,600 patients with “neurotoxic symptoms” over less than three hours during the early morning of 21 August. Of those, 355 died. The Local Coordination Committees of Syria claimed that of the 1,338 victims, 1,000 were in Zamalka, of which 600 bodies were transferred to medical points in other towns and 400 remained at a Zamalka medical center. Some of the fatalities were rebel fighters. The deadliness of the attack is believed to have been increased due to civilians reacting to the chemical attack as if it was typical government bombardment. For conventional artillery and rocket attacks, residents usually went to the basements of buildings, where in this case the heavier-than-air sarin sank into these below-ground, poorly ventilated areas. Some of the victims died while sleeping.
Abu Omar of the Free Syrian Army told The Guardian that the rockets involved in the attack were unusual because “you could hear the sound of the rocket in the air but you could not hear any sound of explosion” and no obvious damage to buildings occurred. Human Rights Watch’s witnesses reported “symptoms and delivery methods consistent with the use of chemical nerve agents.” Activists and local residents contacted by The Guardian said that “the remains of 20 rockets [thought to have been carrying neurotoxic gas] were found in the affected areas. Many [remained] mostly intact, suggesting that they did not detonate on impact and potentially dispersed gas before hitting the ground.”
A child in Ghouta froths from the mouth, a medical condition “associated with exposure to nerve agents such as Sarin.”
Doctors Without Borders also reported seeing a “large number of victims arriving with symptoms including convulsions, excessive saliva, pinpoint pupils, blurred vision and respiratory distress.” Symptoms reported by Ghouta residents and doctors to Human Rights Watch included “suffocation, muscle spasms and frothing at the mouth.”
Witness statements to The Guardian about symptoms included “people who were sleeping in their homes [who] died in their beds,” headaches and nausea, “foam coming out of [victims’] mouths and noses,” a “smell something like vinegar and rotten eggs,” suffocation, “bodies [that] were turning blue,” a “smell like cooking gas” and redness and itching of the eyes.Richard Spencer of The Telegraph summarised witness statements, stating, “The poison … may have killed hundreds, but it has left twitching, fainting, confused but compelling survivors.”
On 22 August, the Center for Documentation of Violations in Syria published numerous testimonies. It summarised doctors’ and paramedics’ descriptions of the symptoms as “vomiting, foamy salivation, severe agitation, [pinpoint] pupils, redness of the eyes, dyspnea, neurological convulsions, respiratory and heart failure, blood out of the nose and mouth and, in some cases, hallucinations and memory loss”.
Analysis of symptoms
Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior associate for the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, said the reported symptoms are a textbook case of nerve-agent poisoning.
Médecins Sans Frontières Director of Operations Bart Janssens stated that MSF “can neither scientifically confirm the cause of these symptoms nor establish who is responsible for the attack. However, the reported symptoms of the patients, in addition to the epidemiological pattern of the events – characterised by the massive influx of patients in a short period of time, the origin of the patients, and the contamination of medical and first aid workers – strongly indicate mass exposure to a neurotoxic agent.”
Gwyn Winfield, Editorial Director at CBRNe World, analysed some videos from the day of the attack and wrote on the magazine’s website: “It is difficult to define [an] agent by the signs and symptoms. Clearly respiratory distress, some nerve spasms and a half hearted washdown (involving water and bare hands?!), but it could equally be a riot control agent as a [chemical warfare agent].”
A RPU-14 multiple rocket launcher, of a type that may have launched M-14 munitions found by UN inspectors on 26 August at a site in Moadamiyah.
Human Rights Watch reported that two types of rockets were used: in Western Ghouta, a 140mm rocket made in the Soviet Union in 1967 and exported to Syria;(p5) and in Eastern Ghouta, a 330mm rocket of unknown origin.(p9) HRW also reported that at the time of the attack, Syrian rebels were not known to be in possession of the rockets used.(p20)
Seymour Hersh has suggested that the 330mm rockets may have been produced locally, and with a limited range. Blogger Eliot Higgins has looked at the munitions linked to the attack and analysed footage of the putative launchers inside government territory.
According to a study published in January 2014 by Theodore Postol and Richard Lloyd, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the rockets used in the attack had a range of about two kilometers, indicating the munitions could not have been fired from the ‘heart’ or from the Eastern edge of the Syrian Government Controlled Area shown in the Intelligence Map published by the White House on 30 August 2013. A response from Higgins and Kaszeta included an observation that the Russian-language news site ANNA News had posted videos showing a Syrian government military operation running from June to August 2013 to clear positions between Jobar and Qaboun, a strip of land about 2 km away from the 21 August impact sites. MIT Professor Theodore Postol contacted Dan Kaszeta and asked him how he came to the conclusion that Hexamine was the “smoking gun” regarding the alleged culpability of the Syrian Government. Åke Sellström told Postol that indeed “the presence of hexamine may mean that this substance was used as scavenger for protons when producing sarin” but that it was a common substance and not conclusive evidence implicating the Syrian government.
Many of the munitions and their fragments had been moved; however, in two cases, the UN could identify the likely launch azimuths. Triangulating rocket trajectories suggests that the origin of the attack may have been within government or rebel-held territory. Consideration of missile ranges influences calculations as to whether rockets originated from the government or rebel-held regions.
Two purported intercepts of communications that appeared to implicate the Syrian government received prominent media coverage. One was a phone call allegedly between Syrian officials which Israel’s Unit 8200 was said to have intercepted and passed to the US. The other was a phone call which the German Bundesnachrichtendienst said it had intercepted, between a high-ranking representative of Hezbollah and the Iranian embassy, in which the purported Hezbollah official said that poison gas had been used and that Assad’s order to attack with chemical weapons had been a strategic error.
On 29 August the Associated Press reported that, according to two U.S. intelligence officials and two other U.S. officials, the U.S. intercept was a conversation between “low-level” Syrian officials with no direct link to the upper echelons of the government or military.
The Bild am Sonntag newspaper subsequently reported that German intelligence indicated that Assad had likely not ordered the attacks. According to Bild, “intelligence interception specialists” relying on communications intercepted by the German vessel Oker said that Syrian military commanders had repeatedly been asking permission to launch chemical attacks for around four months, with permission always being denied from the presidential palace. The sources concluded that 21 August attack had probably not been approved by Bashar al-Assad.
Murad Abu Bilal, Khaled Naddaf and other Center for Documentation of Violations in Syria and Local Coordination Committees of Syria (LCC) media staff went to Zamalka soon after the attacks to film and obtain other documentary evidence. Almost all the journalists died from inhalation of the neurotoxins, except Murad Abu Bilal, who was the only Zamalka LCC media member to survive. The videos were published on YouTube, attracting worldwide media attention.
Experts who have analysed the first video said it shows the strongest evidence yet consistent with the use of a lethal toxic agent. Visible symptoms reportedly included rolling eyes, foaming at the mouth, and tremors. There was at least one image of a child suffering miosis, the pin-point pupil effect associated with the nerve agent Sarin, a powerful neurotoxin reportedly used before in Syria. Ralph Trapp, a former scientist at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, said the footage showed what a chemical weapons attack on a civilian area would look like, and went on to note “This is one of the first videos I’ve seen from Syria where the numbers start to make sense. If you have a gas attack you would expect large numbers of people, children and adults, to be affected, particularly if it’s in a built-up area.”
Some experts, among them Jean Pascal Zanders, initially stated that evidence that sarin was used, as claimed by pro-rebel sources, was still lacking and highlighted the lack of second-hand contaminations typically associated with use of weapons-grade nerve agents: “I remain sceptical that it was a nerve agent like sarin. I would have expected to see more convulsions,” he said. “The other thing that seems inconsistent with sarin is that, given the footage of first responders treating victims without proper protective equipment, you would expect to see considerable secondary casualties from contamination – which does not appear to be evident.” However, after Zanders saw footage imminently after the attack, he changed his mind, saying: “The video footage and pictures this time are of a far better quality. You can clearly see the typical signs of asphyxiation, including a pinkish blueish tinge to the skin colour. There is one image of an adult woman where you can see the tell-tale blackish mark around her mouth, all of which suggests death from asphyxiation.” Zanders however cautioned that these symptoms covered a range of neurotoxicants, including some available for civilian use as pest control agents, and said that until the UN reported its analysis of samples, “I can’t make a judgement. I have to keep an open mind.”
According to a report by The Daily Telegraph, “videos uploaded to YouTube by activists showed rows of motionless bodies and medics attending to patients apparently in the grip of seizures. In one piece of footage, a young boy appeared to be foaming at the mouth while convulsing.”
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former commander of British Chemical and Biological counterterrorism forces, told BBC that the images were very similar to previous incidents he had witnessed, although he could not verify the footage.
Foreign government assessments
According to public statements, intelligence agencies in Israel, the United Kingdom, the United States, France,Turkey, and Germany concluded that the Syrian government was most likely responsible for the attacks. Western intelligence agencies agreed that video evidence is consistent with the use of a nerve agent, such as sarin. Laboratory tests showed traces of sarin, in blood and hair samples collected from emergency workers who responded to the attacks.
Russia said there was no evidence tying the Syrian government to the attack and that it was likely carried out by an opposition group.
On 2 September, the French government published a nine-page intelligence report blaming the Syrian government for the Ghouta attacks. An unnamed French government official said that the analysis was carried out by the Directorate-General for External Security (DGSE) and Direction du renseignement militaire (DRM) based on satellite and video images, on-the-ground sources, and samples collected from two April attacks. The report said analysis of samples collected from attacks in Saraqeb and Jobar in April 2013 had confirmed the use of sarin.
The Guardian reported that French intelligence had images that showed rocket attacks on opposition neighborhoods from government-controlled areas to the east and west of Damascus. The report said that the government later launched conventional bombing of those neighborhoods in order to destroy evidence of a chemical attack. Based on analysis of 47 videos, the report said at least 281 fatalities occurred. Using other sources and extrapolation a chemical attack model estimated the total number of death at approximately 1,500.
The Bundesnachrichtendienst said it intercepted a phone call between a Hezbollah official and the Iranian Embassy in which the Hezbollah representative criticised Assad’s decision to attack with poison gas, apparently confirming its use by the Syrian government. German newspaper Der Spiegel reported on 3 September that BND President Gerhard Schindler told them that based on the agency’s evidence, Germany now shared the United Kingdom, United States, and France’s view that the attacks were carried out by the Syrian government. However, they also said the attack may have been much more potent than intended, speculating that there may have been an error in mixing the chemical weapons used.
Without going into detail, Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said on 22 August 2013 that Israel’s intelligence assessment was that the Syrian government used chemical weapons in the Damascus area. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said the Syrian government had already used chemical weapons against the rebels on a smaller scale multiple times prior to the Ghouta attacks.Fox News reported that Unit 8200 helped provide intelligence to the United States, Israel’s closest international ally, implicating the Syrian government in the attacks. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the General debate of the sixty-eighth session of the United Nations General Assembly that Syrian government used the chemical weapons against its own people.
Russian officials said that there was no proof that the government of Syria had a hand in the chemical attacks. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described the American, British and French intelligence reports as “unconvincing” and said at a joint news conference with his French counterpart Laurent Fabius after the release of the United Nations report in mid-September that he continued to believe the rebels carried out the attack.Russian President Vladimir Putin said he wanted to see evidence that would make it “obvious” who used chemical weapons in Ghouta.
In a commentary published in The New York Times on 11 September 2013, Putin wrote that “there is every reason to believe [poison gas] was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons,”. Lavrov said on 18 September that “new evidence” given to Russia by the Syrian government would be forthcoming.
The Turkish government-run Anadolu Agency published an unconfirmed report on 30 August 2013, pointing to the Syrian 155th Missile Brigade and the 4th Armored Division as the perpetrators of the two attacks. It said the attack had involved 15 to 20 missiles with chemical warheads at around 02:45 on 21 August, targeting residential areas between Douma and Zamalka in Eastern Ghouta. It claimed that the 155th Missile Brigade had used 9K52 Luna-M missiles, M600 missiles, or both, fired from Kufeyte, while other rockets with a 15- to 70-kilometer range were fired by the 4th Armored Division from Mount Qasioun. The agency did not explain its source.
A report on the attacks by the United Kingdom’s Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) was published on 29 August 2013 prior to a vote on intervention by the House of Commons of the United Kingdom. The report said at least 350 people were killed and that it was “highly likely” that the attacks had been carried out by the Syrian government, resting in part on the firm view that the Syrian opposition was not capable of carrying out a chemical weapons attack on this scale, and on the JIC view that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war on a small scale on 14 previous occasions. Analysis of the Ghouta attacks themselves was based largely on reviewing video footage and publicly available witness evidence. The report conceded problems with motivation for the attacks, saying there was “no obvious political or military trigger for regime use of CW on an apparently larger scale now.” British officials said they believe the Syrian military used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition on at least 14 times prior to the Ghouta attacks and described “a clear pattern of regime use” of the nerve agent since 2012.
The report was met with substantial scepticism in the British media, with the Daily Mail explicitly comparing it with the “dodgy dossier” the UK government had published in 2003 prior to the Iraq War. A vote in the House of Commons to approve UK participation in military action against Syria was narrowly rejected, with some MPs arguing that the case for Syrian government culpability was not sufficiently strong to justify approving action.Prime Minister David Cameron himself had been forced to concede that “in the end there is no 100 percent certainty about who is responsible.”
The map of “Areas of Influence” and “Areas Reportedly affected by the 21 August Chemical Attack” that was published by the White House on 30 August 2013.
A controversial “US government assessment of the Ghouta attacks” was published by the White House on 30 August 2013, with a longer classified version made available to members of Congress. The report blamed the chemical attacks on the Syrian government, saying rockets containing a nerve agent were fired from government-held territory into neighborhoods in the early morning, impacting at least 12 locations. It stated 1,429 people were killed, including at least 426 children. It dismissed the possibility that evidence supporting the US government’s conclusion could have been manufactured by the opposition, stating it “does not have the capability” to fabricate videos, eyewitness accounts, and other information. The report also said that the US believed Syrian officials directed the attacks, based on “intercepted communications.” A major element, as reported by news media, was an intercepted telephone call between a Syrian Ministry of Defense official and a Syrian 155th Brigade chemical weapons unit commander in which the former demanded answers for the attacks. According to some reports, this phone intercept was provided to the U.S. by Israeli Intelligence CorpsUnit 8200.
The U.S. government assessment suggested a motive for the attack, describing it as “a desperate effort to push back rebels from several areas in the capital’s densely packed eastern suburbs.” The report then states that evidence suggests “the high civilian death toll surprised and panicked senior Syrian officials, who called off the attack and then tried to cover it up.” Secretary of State John Kerry later announced that hair, blood, soil, and cloth samples collected from the attack sites had tested positive for sarin or its immediate breakdown products.
At least three members of Congress, including at least one member of President Barack Obama‘s Democratic Party, expressed skepticism about the US intelligence report, calling the evidence circumstantial and thin. Obama’s request that Congress authorize military force was not put to a vote of either the House of Representatives or the Senate, and the president ultimately admitted that “I wouldn’t say I’m confident” that he could convince Congress to support strikes against Syria.
Democratic Party Representative Alan Grayson offered some details regarding the classified report, which he described as 12 pages long, and criticized both the four-page public summary and the classified report. Grayson said the unclassified summary relied on “intercepted telephone calls, ‘social media’ postings and the like, but not one of these is actually quoted or attached … (As to whether the classified summary is the same, I couldn’t possibly comment, but again, draw your own conclusion.)” Grayson cited as a problematic example the intercepted phone call between a Syrian Ministry of Defense official and the Syrian 155th Brigade, the transcript of which was not provided in the classified report, leaving Grayson unable to judge the accuracy of a report in The Daily Caller that the call’s implications had been misrepresented in the report.
The AP quoted anonymous US intelligence officials as saying that the evidence presented in the report linking Assad to the attack was “not a slam dunk.”Jeffrey Goldberg also reported that James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, personally told President Obama that the case for the Syrian government’s responsibility was strong but not a “slam dunk.” The AP later characterized the evidence released by the administration as circumstantial and said the government had denied its requests for more direct evidence, including satellite imagery and communications intercepts cited in the government assessment.
IPS news analyst Gareth Porter questioned why the report was released by the White House as a “government assessment” as opposed being released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence as an “intelligence community assessment.” Porter quoted former intelligence officials who said the report was “evidently an administration document” and who also suggested evidence was “cherry-picked” to support the conclusion that the Syrian government carried out the attacks.
On 8 September 2013, the then White House Chief-of-Staff, Denis McDonough said the administration lacks the “irrefutable, beyond-a-reasonable-doubt evidence”, but that a “common-sense test” implicates Assad. The U.S. publicly stated there was no “reliable” evidence that the opposition had access to chemical weapons, although Seymour Hersh reported that U.S. intelligence agencies privately assessed some rebel factions to be capable of sarin production.
At the time of the attack, Syria was not a member of the Chemical Weapons Convention. However, Human Rights Watch argues that the Ghouta chemical attack was illegal under a different international agreement:
Syria is a party to the 1925 Geneva Gas protocol, which bans the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices. The use of chemical weapons is also prohibited as a matter of customary international humanitarian law, or the laws of war. The prohibition on the use of chemical weapons applies to all armed conflicts, including so-called non-international armed conflicts such as the current fighting in Syria. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, in the Tadic case, stated “there undisputedly emerged a general consensus in the international community on the principle that the use of [chemical] weapons is also prohibited in internal armed conflicts.”(p21)
International Criminal Court referral
Human Rights Watch stated that the UN Security Council should refer the Syria situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC) “to ensure accountability for all war crimes and crimes against humanity.”Amnesty International also said that the Syria situation should be referred to the ICC because “the best way for the United States to signal its abhorrence for war crimes and crimes against humanity and to promote justice in Syria, would be to reaffirm its support for the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court.” However, as the amendment to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court explicitly making it a war crime to use chemical weapons in an internal conflict has not been ratified by any major state nor Syria, the legal situation is complex and reliant on the attack being a part of a wider war crime.
Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi was quoted by the official state news agency, Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), as saying that the government did not and would not use such weapons, if in fact they even existed. Al-Zoubi said, “everything that has been said is absurd, primitive, illogical and fabricated. What we say is what we mean: there is no use of such things (chemical weapons) at all, at least not by the Syrian army or the Syrian state, and it’s easy to prove and it is not that complicated.” SANA called the reports of chemical attacks as “untrue and designed to derail the ongoing UN inquiry.” A Syrian military official appeared on state television denouncing the reports as “a desperate opposition attempt to make up for rebel defeats on the ground.” Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad declared it a tactic by the rebels to turn around the civil war which he said “they were losing” and that, though the government had admitted to having stocks of chemical weapons, stated they would never be used “inside Syria”.Democratic Union Party leader Salih Muslim said he doubted that the Syrian government carried out the chemical attack.
The National Coalition called the attack a “coup de grace that kills all hopes for a political solution in Syria.” In a statement on Facebook, the Coventry-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-government activist network, blamed the attack on the Syrian military and said of the incident that “we assure the world that silence and inaction in the face of such gross and large-scale war crimes, committed in this instance by the Syrian regime, will only embolden the criminals to continue in this path. The international community is thus complicit in these crimes because of its [polarisation], silence and inability to work on a settlement that would lead to the end of the daily bloodshed in Syria.”
The international community condemned the attacks. United States President Barack Obama said the US military should strike targets in Syria to retaliate for the government’s purported use of chemical weapons, a proposal publicly supported by French President François Hollande, but condemned by Russia and Iran. The Arab League stated it would support military action against Syria in the event of UN support, though member states Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and Tunisia opposed it.
At the end of August, the House of Commons of the United Kingdom voted against military intervention in Syria. In early September, the United States Congress began debating a proposed authorisation to use military force, although votes on the resolution were indefinitely postponed amid opposition from many legislators and tentative agreement between Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin on an alternative proposal, under which Syria would declare and surrender its chemical weapons to be destroyed under international supervision.
In contrast to the positions of their governments, polls in early September indicated that most people in the US, UK, Germany and France opposed military intervention in Syria. One poll indicated that 50% of Americans could support military intervention with cruise missiles only, “meant to destroy military units and infrastructure that have been used to carry out chemical attacks.” In a survey of American military personnel, around 75% said they opposed air strikes on Syria, with 80% saying an attack would not be “in the U.S. national interest”. Meanwhile, a Russian poll suggested that most Russians supported neither side in the conflict, with less than 10% saying they supported Assad.
Allegations of false flag attack
The attacks prompted some U.S. intelligence officials to speculate they were meant to draw the West into the war, a concept dismissed by others. In December 2013 Seymour Hersh wrote that in the days before and after the attack, sensors notifying U.S. intelligence agencies of Syrian chemical weapons deployment did not activate, and intelligence briefings shown to the U.S. president contained no information about an impending government chemical weapons attack. Publicly, the U.S. government cited classified intercepts of communications it said were between Syrian officials, unavailable to the public, which they state prove Syrian government forces carried out the chemical attack. Criticizing what they called a misleading presentation of intelligence, a former senior U.S. intelligence official quoted by Seymour Hersh said the transcript actually included intercepts from many months prior to the attack, collated to make them appear related to the Ghouta attacks.
In April 2014 Hersh wrote an article proposing the attacks were committed by Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front, whom Hersh writes were supplied with sarin by Turkey. Hersh’s argument received some support,but was dismissed by other commentators. The US and Turkish governments denied the accuracy of Hersh’s article. On October 20, 2015, Republican People’s Party deputy Eren Erdem stated that documents from a Turkish government investigation showed that ISIL and affiliated groups received help from Turkish intelligence to carry out the Ghouta chemical attack.
The victims of a bombing in northern Syria this week were exposed to sarin, a banned but easily manufactured poison that has been widely used in chemical weapons, Turkish officials who conducted autopsies on the victims said on Thursday.
What is sarin?
Sarin is a nerve agent, one of a class of chemical weapons that affect the brain’s ability to communicate with the body’s organs through the nervous system. It is a colorless, tasteless, odorless liquid that was first synthesized in Germany in 1938 as a potential pesticide.
Sarin is considered “the most volatile of the nerve agents,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “This means it can easily and quickly evaporate from a liquid into a vapor and spread into the environment.”
Sarin vapor does not last long, but it can be deadly if inhaled. Contact with sarin liquid on exposed surfaces, in food, or in water can also be fatal. Its effects may strike quickly or be delayed after exposure.
How does it work?
All nerve agents belong to a class of organic compounds that contain phosphorous, and work in essentially the same way, by inhibiting the action of a crucial enzyme in the body that allows muscles and organs to contract. Without the enzyme’s action, the muscles and organs are constantly stimulated and stop working properly; asphyxiation soon follows.
How is it weaponized?
Sarin is dangerous to handle and has a short shelf life, so it is usually stored in the form of two separate precursor compounds that will produce sarin when mixed together.
On the battlefield, sarin and other nerve agents can be used against targets by spraying them as a liquid or an aerosol. Chemical bombs are designed to spray out the liquid on detonation. The Syrian government is believed to have used such a bomb this week in Idlib Province.
The United Nations Chemical Convention, which bans the use of sarin in war, went into effect in 1997. The Syrian government agreed in 2013 to destroy its chemical weapons stockpile, including sarin.
How toxic is it?
According to the United States military, sarin is 81 times as toxic as cyanide and 543 times as toxic as chlorine, which has been used in Syria as a chemical weapon. Chlorine has legitimate commercial uses and is not banned.
What are the symptoms of exposure?
Symptoms of exposure may include the pupils of the eyes shrinking to pinpoints, rapid breathing, vomiting, convulsions, paralysis and respiratory failure. Swift medical attention can reverse the effects of low levels of exposure.