Black flags over Syria

Whose sarin, indeed.

The allegations presented by veteran journalist Seymour Hersh in the past few days have attracted a fair bit of (expected) controversy. Hersh claims that the U.S. government basically cherry-picked intelligence it had gathered on the August Ghouta chemical weapons attack. By omitting some intelligence, presenting other assumptions as facts, and manipulating timing and sequencing, all after the fact, the administration essentially paraded a fraud to the American public to justify some sort of action against Assad. One of Hersh’s major points is that one of the participants to the Syrian conflict which should have been suspect – the al-Nusra Front – was conveniently ignored to paint Assad as the perpetrator.

The Washington Post and the New Yorker both passed on the article, and, not surprisingly, Hersh’s allegations have become a contentious source of debate, with some dismissing it as more “conspiracy theories” and, others, praising it as an exposing of more governmental “calculated fraud”. It should be noted that Hersh is not just your average journalist; he has been credited with breaking both the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War and the Abu Ghraib prison abuses. Both of these turned into major scandals and, more than that, became individual examples of the sorts of conducts that were commonplace and sanctioned during their respective conflicts.

I am no conspiracy theorist; that is, not in the way a conspiracy theory is stereotypically portrayed. I am a skeptic. I do not usually subscribe to the various, admittedly crackpot, theories that people have maintained over the years about secretive government (or shadow government) actions. It raises an interesting question, however, of the label of ‘conspiracy theory’. It is not a very likable label. It should not be to anyone, and not just if you have the habit of believing conspiracy theories. This is because, to put it shortly, allegations that are credible or valid (and turn out to be true) are lumped in with faked Moon landings, reptilians, and Holocaust denials.

There is a very real history, not just in the United States, of conspiracies which turn out to be more than just ‘theories’. The label ‘conspiracy theory’, unfortunately, conjures up images of people sitting in cabals, planning operations in secret, of irrational and unreasonable people with tinfoil hats posting on fringe forums and talking about the recent conference Obama had with Marvin the Martian. This label does an injustice to the actual conspiracies, the very real government and administrative malpractices, frauds, operations, etc., which are going on around the world. It closes people’s minds off from thinking.

A second reason is that there need not actually be a conspiracy. People from elite families go to elite schools and end up working at elite firms with the rest of their elite friends; they do not need to sit around in elite cabals discussing how best to spread elitism worldwide. Thus, there can be a complete lack of conspiracy. It is ingrained. But being human (elite or not) often comes with the very real attribute of being simply incompetent, or immoral, or unknowing, or ignorant, or arrogant. Some people want to lie afterwards to cover their own ass. Some people just want to lie as they go along. It gets very ugly for them when somebody else, a Sy Hersh, perhaps, catches them in a lie.

So when Richard Spencer tells us to “ignore the conspiracy theories”, that Assad was assuredly behind the chemical attacks, you almost picture, somewhere in the back of your mind, a man whose ego clearly dwarfs the size of his head. Also, he has been saying this since April. Back then, he told his readers, in headline-form, no less, that “before you get at the truth on Syria’s chemical weapons, you have to debunk the conspiracy theorists”. What does that mean? Does that not start with the assumption that the conspiracy theorists are wrong, or, at least, are untruthful or unknowing of the truth? We know that in Spencer’s mind anything which suggests a hint of secretive and shadowy actions is labeled a conspiracy theory. But it is comforting to know that Spencer apparently has a ‘monopoly’ on “the truth”.

Except for the fact that Spencer’s entire article is a painful read of mainstream media’s complete lack of it. He seems to make a half-hearted stab at refuting Hersh’s allegations, under the implicit and tacit admittance that he, himself, has no idea what is going on. One of the problems, of course, of attempting to expose such things is that everything happens in the ‘shadows’. I am in no way saying that Hersh, himself, has a monopoly on the truth either. But listen to some of Spencer’s arguments here. At this point he is questioning the “naivety” and thought-processes of those who refute the mainstream view of the chemical attack. I honestly had to do a double-take because I was not sure who he was describing:

“It is just so hard to believe that a proper government, run by sensible-seeming people with whom we have done business, could do this sort of thing.”

I have no idea which part of this I should respond to first, if at all. Is he talking about the “conspiracy theorists’” view of Assad? How many reasonable people have a favorable view of Assad? Spencer deftly dodges the allegations by painting the “conspiracy theorists” as some sort of Assad regime sympathizers. Also, it seems you could paint yourself, Spencer, with the very same description.

And he continues:

“It is much easier, psychologically, to blame the crazy, hairy people.”

I do not know if Assad is crazy or not. He is calculating, ruthless, for sure, and probably hairy, but crazy seems a bit misleading. He seems to know what he is doing. So at most, Spencer is probably half-right. In all seriousness though, Spencer is supposed to be talking about how people like to blame “the crazy, hairy” rebels. The irony of his statements is that they could just about refer to anybody.

Relenting, for a moment, on picking a fight with Spencer, I do want to draw attention to two things he mentions in passing which are integral (and which he still somehow mishandles). The first is “Occam’s commonsensical razor”, a concept I am not sure Spencer understands. I am a staunch proponent, if there even is such a thing, of Occam and his razor, his razor being that among competing hypotheses opt for the one that makes the fewest assumptions. The succinct beauty of this concept should not have to be made clear. With fewer assumptions, one need not concoct fantasy scenarios and rely on what-ifs. Rely on the evidence, not assumptions. This is why so many so-called conspiracy theories seem outright farfetched. There is too much reliance on assuming things; inevitably, assumptions also beget assumptions. The reason Spencer gets this wrong is because he fails to consider that there may be more assumptions to be made in blaming Assad for the attack.

I would like to direct Spencer, and anyone else, for that matter, to this site. In summarizing their conclusion, they state that: “An analysis of all evidence relating to the August 21st chemical attack indicate it was carried out by opposition forces. According to the most likely scenario, they used looted incendiary rockets, refilled them with sarin they manufactured themselves, and launched them from a rebel-held territory 2 km north of Zamalka.” Now, I realize that one site on the Internet is not foolproof. It certainly is not meant to be. We are not talking here (yet) of concrete, but mud. What they present, based on their analysis, is the most plausible scenario. I implore you to look through the evidence (not just on that site, if need be), apply Occam’s razor, and ask yourself which of the competing hypotheses is the most plausible and has the fewest assumptions.

Hersh’s allegations are not even that extreme at this point. A UN report states that “chemical weapons have been used on government soldiers”. Hersh goes one step further in claiming that the al-Nusra Front “mastered the mechanics of creating sarin”. It is not as if he is saying that the CIA or US Army Special Forces or whomever infiltrated Damascus physically and fired the rockets themselves. His allegations against the US government, more-or-less at this point, amount to fraud, deception, lies. For Spencer to unabashedly dismiss the idea that it might not have been Assad as “conspiracy theories” is a bit disconcerting. But Spencer tries one final card: motive. He says:

“It doesn’t really make sense: we are supposed to believe that the Obama administration lied in order to justify a military intervention in Syria which it clearly didn’t want to authorise and which, in the end, it didn’t. It makes more sense, given the pressure Obama is under from his allies in the Gulf on this, that he would be keen to discredit the rebels himself. But then we are also supposed to believe that Russia demanded, and Assad agreed, that Syria hand over its known, large stocks of chemical weapons because… his enemies had used exactly the same sort of chemical weapons.”

Spencer just does not seem to get it.

Spencer must be at some point beyond the looking glass, where discrediting the people you are (or were) aiding, and then arming, seems to make “more sense”. His words also belie his complete misunderstanding of the allegations. The important claim to note here is that the US government had no idea what was happening and then stitched together this fanciful (perhaps even fantastic) narrative after-the-fact. Their version of the events, despite the evidence that has presented contrarily, painted Assad as the perpetrator. Maybe he was. He might have done it before. In fact, I doubt there is anybody in the world who would argue that Assad’s regime does not have the capacity to carry out such a massacre. The Assads, father and son, have engaged in their share of bloodletting. It makes it easier to portray Bashar as the sanguine perpetrator (in every sense). But there is a lot here that has been potentially ignored.

This is where a bit of conspiratorial theory comes in.

In military parlance, there is something called a false flag (or black flag) operation. When you conduct an operation against somebody and make (or attempt to make) it look like it was the work of somebody else, you are engaged in a false/black flag op. If a false flag op carried out by the rebels – who have their own chemical weapons – discredits Assad in the eyes of the international community and forces him to disarm, who comes out on top?

One of the irksome aspects of many a conspiracy theory is the disconnect between the theory and the whys and hows. If we assume rationality on the part of human endeavor, we assume decision-making capacities. We assume a person can evaluate what is to be gained (or lost) with the risk undertaken. What are the advantages and disadvantages? Why this particular course of action? Who wins? Who loses? What is the motive? This does not mean that people cannot make stupid, hasty, rash, or miscalculated decisions, which can also look infinitely worse in hindsight.

But let us begin with that assumption of rationality. There is no point in discussing people who are legitimately insane, and totally irrational, because their decision-making is tampered by some sort of a mental condition. By rational, I mean the person is mentally-sound enough that they have the capability for decision-making, that they can calculate, especially regarding advantage versus disadvantage, the decision’s risks, meaning its benefits or consequences, what can be gained or lost. So Assad might be mad, but he could still be capable of making a rational decision. That’s one assumption.

Following that, if somebody is rational, then they have motives and goals. We can consider that the second assumption.

Unless Bashar al-Assad was (and is) crazy (meaning completely irrational and uncalculating, or too mad to make a levelheaded decision), or he experienced a temporary moment of craziness, what must we further assume about Assad and his risky venture?

  1. He is shortsighted or irrational enough to launch a chemical attack while he is at a military advantage.
  2. He is likewise shortsighted enough to risk condemning himself to international ostracization.
  3. He is not farsighted enough to realize the consequences of failure, such as the risk of isolation, disarmament, retaliation, etc.
  4. He risks making the rebels look like the victims.
  5. He is willing to risk directly crossing Obama’s ill-fated (perhaps even ill-conceived) “red line”.
  6. He is willing to risk pissing off his own allies.
  7. The Syrian regime pressed for a UN investigation following an alleged chemical attack on its troops. When the UN team arrived in August, the regime, presumably, decided to launch the attack on Ghouta. Not only do they derail a legit investigation, they make themselves the culpable party.
  8. Finally, if Assad’s regime really saw the benefits to risk the massacre of civilians, why the need to resort to chemical weaponry?
  9. In short, he risks “political suicide”.

An answer or refutation of each of these points is going to require some severe assumptions. As for what he gains for taking this risk, if anything, it is hard to tell. Perhaps the madman needed a perceived show of force. Perhaps he wanted to convince rebel forces that he was willing to do anything to hold onto power? Perhaps Assad (or him and his cronies) just made a very, very stupid (heinousness notwithstanding) and miscalculated decision. This is always possible, even if it is implausible.

On the other hand, the rebels, opposition, jihadis, or what have you, were being routed militarily. Their allies and donors were dragging their feet about supporting them. What happened if they launched the attack and could pin it successfully somehow on Assad’s regime? What if they could get the international community to ostracize him? Or, better yet, cross that dreaded red line of Obama’s and secure US intervention? How hard could it be to convince the world that Assad was already a monster? The perfect false flag scenario. They had everything to gain, little to lose. At least, in the short run. The biggest (foreseeable) risk they were taking in the short run was the possibility that the false flag would show its true colors.

For years, jihadis have been trying to acquire some sort of unconventional – be it chemical, biological, nuclear – weapon, either through manufacture or misappropriation. In 1998, Osama bin Laden declared that to do so was his Islamic duty. Apparently, al-Qaeda still has not given up that duty. And neither have its subsidiaries. The Syrian branch, the al-Nusra Front, the likeliest rebel culprit, has its stained hands all over the place. In fact, according to at least one report, the al-Nusra Front flat-out claimed responsibility for the attack. The report claims, however, that it was not really attack, but a severe mishandling of the material.

So Seymour Hersh’s claims are not exactly ‘new’. The Russians, of course, were in protest from day one; with a foreign ministry spokesman quoted as saying that the fairytale that the US administration was weaving was all just another attempt to “create artificial groundless excuses for military intervention”. AP reported in August that there were “questions remaining about who actually controls some of Syria’s chemical weapons stores and doubts about whether Assad himself ordered the strike”. There have also been widespread reports about the rebels’ sources for acquiring weapons, which seems to be no short list. From producing the weapons in Turkey or on their own soil to looting government sources to getting them from friendly countries, there seems to be no shortage of the places from which the weapons can be obtained.

Yet, on September 19th, John Kerry appeared defiant and ready to present to the world that Assad’s regime was using or had “unequivocably [sic]” used “chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin”. Not only that, the report claimed that the Syrian regime attempted to “shell the area and destroy the evidence”. Funny. It was not an attempt to destroy enemy chemical weapons stocks? I guess not. Kerry continues with an insult to our intelligence, stating that the report made it easy for people to connect the dots. This sly insult to our intelligence is potentially made worse by the fact that any report with an agenda or preconceived notions is going to point its readers in the general direction of its preconceptions, anyway. But the basic insult is there: if you do not come away from this report thinking that Assad is a chemical mass murderer, you are an idiot.

He claims:

“We know the Assad regime possesses sarin, and there is not a shred of evidence, however, that the opposition does.”

Who are you kidding, Kerry? Not one shred of evidence? I guess all of these reports coming out otherwise are from Spencer’s “conspiracy theorists”. Kerry might have presented the ‘facts’. Kerry is right when he says Syria possesses chemical weapons. But if Hersh is right, then he clearly cherry-picked the intelligence here, he was clearly lying when he said, “We have observed,” (unless they somehow observed after-the-fact), he was clearly misleading the people when he said, “We know”.

It is not at all possible when Assad claims that, “We didn’t use any chemical weapons on Ghouta,” he might just be telling the truth?

False flags, admittedly, are a rarity; they are, indeed, the stuff of conspiracy theories. I am not saying conclusively that Assad did not do it. He has all the capability in the world (or, at least, in Syria). I am not saying conclusively that opposition forces did do it. However, it is highly plausible, and there is compelling evidence, motive, and goalkeeping that lends credence to such a view. The point is that things are not always as simple as people claim, and even Occam’s clichéd razor means opting between several competing, and often complex, hypotheses. When people in the mainstream like Richard Spencer seem ready to dismiss anything seemingly fringe-worthy, when people like John Kerry claim that they undoubtedly know, that is when I start paying a little more attention. It becomes disappointing, then, to see such a shoddy case propping up a military intervention.

Maybe it was not even a false flag. Maybe, for instance, the rebels did do it, only to find that international condemnation was surprisingly and conveniently directed at Assad. Or maybe I am making assumptions. Here is something that might seem real:

The most ironic thing about all this is that regardless of who did it – that is, if Assad had made a miscalculated decision, or if the rebels the opposite – Assad looks to have come out the stronger. Or, at least, he looks far more reasonable than the opposition. Putin bails out his ailing ally, Assad agrees to dismantle his chemical stockpiles (to the best of someone else’s ability), there is no US intervention, he gets to continue fighting, and he appears on television looking like a well-spoken, rational, and reasonable person, one who is willing to compromise, unlike some of our rebel friends, many of whom are rather extremist Muslims. He loses chemical weapons; rebels gain more aid and arms. But non-lethal has been suspended it seems, in northern Syria, anyway.

Maybe it was a double false flag operation by the regime. Or a triple false flag operation by the rebels. Or a huge false American flag flying high overhead.

But, then, there seem to be black flags everywhere.

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