Why would anyone believe Seymour Hersh? True, he’s the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who broke the story of the massacre committed by the US army in My Lai during the Vietnam War, and revealed the torture and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners by American military police in Abu Ghraib prison. But he’s getting old (77), and he’s a freelancer, and he won’t even disclose the name of his key informant.
Whereas the government of the United States of America has hundreds of thousands of people working for it just gathering and analysing intelligence, and the American media are famed worldwide for their brave defence of the truth. Besides, has the US government ever lied to you in the past? So we obviously should not give much credence to Hersh’s most recent story. It alleges that the poison gas attack in Damascus, which killed more than a thousand people and almost triggered a massive US air attack on Syria, was not carried out by Bashar al-Assad’s tyrannical regime. It was, Hersh says, a false-flag operation carried out by the rebel Al-Nusra Front with the purpose of triggering an American attack on Assad. If you can believe that, you would probably also believe his allegation that it was the Turkish government, a US ally and Nato member, that gave the jihadi extremists the chemicals to make sarin (nerve gas) and the training to carry out the attack. Hersh even says that it was General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, who told President Barack Obama days before the American strikes on Syria were due to start that the evidence was not strong enough to justify an American attack.
The rest of the story we already know. Obama postponed the attack by deciding, quite suddenly, that he had to get Congressional support for it. Then he cancelled it entirely once the Russians gave him the face-saving alternative of getting Assad to hand over all of his chemical weapons for destruction. There is no chance of an American attack on Syria now. But could Hersh’s back-story be true?
By last August, it was clear that Assad’s regime would eventually win the civil war unless there was some radical change in the situation. So Assad’s survival depended on not giving the US any reason to attack him. Obama had already said that any use of poison gas by the Syrian regime would cross a “red line” and trigger an American attack. In mid-August, there were United Nations inspectors in Damascus to look into two much smaller attacks earlier in 2013 that seemed to involve poison gas. And we are asked to believe that at that precise moment Assad thought it would be a neat idea to kill one or two thousand innocent civilians in the city with poison gas.
So who did it? The obvious question to ask is this: who stands to benefit from this attack? The answer was certainly not Assad. He would not have done this unless he was very stupid, and being wicked does not make you stupid. Whereas the rebels had every reason to do it, in order to suck American firepower in on their side.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister for the past 11 years, has backed the Islamist rebels in the Syrian civil war from the start, and he will be in deep trouble if they lose. They will lose, unless either Turkey or the US comes to their aid. Erdogan would obviously rather have the US air force do it rather than his own armed forces. So he had a good motive for giving the rebels the poison gas. Hersh says that he has been told by a former senior official in the US Defense Intelligence Agency that that is what happened. You can read the details on the website of the London Review of Books. And yes, he’s old, but that just means he has been getting it right about a lot of different things for a long time.