Were the Turks behind the sarin gas attacks in Syria?

Kicking Russian and Chinese asses, Idlib, Syria, photo AP-Shaam News Network

Seymour Hersh operates in such murky waters of intelligence and security issues and uses so many anonymous sources that it is always hard to judge the likely veracity of his bombshell conclusions.  But he has a long record of unearthing what is really going on, so his latest revelation about the use of chemical weapons in Syria is worth taking seriously.

The US came very close to bombing Syria last September: the US military chiefs publicly opposed it but the video of an apparent sarin gas attack near Damascus on 21 August suggested that Assad had crossed Obama’s ‘red line’ and demanded response.  But it didn’t happen.  Obama backed himself into a corner and said he would seek authorization from Congress.  Then the Russians — longtime allies of Assad and Obama antagonists — seemed to come to Obama’s rescue with a plan for Assad to dismantle his chemical weapons program, which is still ongoing.  Sy Hersh, writing in the London Review of Books, contends that it was the Turks — longtime allies of the Syrian rebels and would-be power broker in the Middle East — not Assad behind the sarin attacks, trying to force Obama to intervene.  Here is the money quote from Hersh:

A US intelligence consultant told me that a few weeks before 21 August [when the sarin attacks occurred] 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.’

There’s much else to ponder in that article, including details about the corruption scandal that briefly threatened to sink Erdoğan and the arms-funneling role of the CIA center that was attacked in Benghazi.  But there is one link in the chain of suspicion regarding the sarin attacks, at least as laid out by Hersh, that bears more examination than he gave it: it was Russian military intelligence that provided the sample from the site of the sarin attack that then got traced back to the Turks.

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.’

Now, it is possible there were other corroborating samples: the Porton Down spokesman sort of implies that.  But ‘sort of’ and ‘implication’ are how spokespeople get out of revealing facts so it is quite possible the Russian-supplied sample was the critical one.  The Russians, of course, had a very strong interest in thwarting an attack on Assad so it would be no surprise to me if they tried to load the evidentiary dice.  I am surprised Hersh didn’t look into that more closely.

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Click here for all my posts on Syria and the Middle East.  Or here to read my takedown of this ridiculous apologia for Gaddafi that the London Review of Books once ran.

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