Thursday, 13 July 2017

This Rush From Suspicion To Certainty

I vividly recall telling Hilary Armstrong’s then office boy, whose name I and everyone else have since forgotten, that the Iraq War that was then about to break out would vindicate those of us who had always despised Tony Blair, and indeed was already beginning to do so. No one, absolutely no one at all, disagrees with that now. Yet here we go again. As Peter Hitchens writes:

I see Sir John Chilcot has noticed that A. Blair was perhaps not wholly straight with the country about Iraq.

Oh, get over it.

Most of those who were fooled by the ludicrous smirking Blair puppet were taken in because they wanted to be.

That’s why they’re so angry with him now. They can’t arrest themselves for war crimes, so they want to do it to somebody else.

Here’s a suggestion. The time to spot you’re being fooled is when you are being fooled. That way, you can stop it happening.

And currently Mr Alexander ‘Boris’ Johnson is fooling you like anything, this time over Syria.

He recently supported Donald Trump’s wholly illegal missile attack on that country, claiming to be speaking on your behalf. It’s WMD all over again, you wait and see.

The Make War Not Love Faction in the West are currently working very hard to entangle us in a Syrian conflict.

France’s grand new President, whom I think of as Napoleon the Fourth, wants to join in the next attack. Britain probably doesn’t have the kit to take part, but promises to cheer as the bombs fall.

Mr Johnson remarked last week: ‘As I have said previously, the UK’s assessment is that the Assad regime almost certainly carried out this abominable attack’ – by which he means an alleged poison gas attack on the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun.

The Foreign Office have no proof for this claim.

A new report by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is incredibly cautious about what happened (its scientists couldn’t go to the site, which is controlled by jihadis).

It doesn’t allocate blame. It just suits people like Mr Johnson to believe it was Syria, because they want a war.

Sir Geoffrey Adams, our man at the OPCW, said last week that ‘there is no evidence to suggest that any party to the conflict in Syria, other than the Syrian government, has access to a complex nerve agent such as sarin’.

There is such evidence.

Mokhtar Lamani, the distinguished diplomat and academic, helped investigate a sarin gas attack in Khan al-Assal, Syria, in March 2013.

He reported to the UN serious evidence that the Islamist fanatics of the Nusra Front might have possessed poison gas products.

I put this as cautiously as I can.

In May of that year, several Nusra operatives were arrested in Turkey. Turkey’s government is sympathetic to Nusra and, like the USA and Britain, hostile to the Syrian government.

To begin with, the Nusra men were accused of possessing sarin, but the charge was later dropped. Two Turkish opposition MPs have since claimed their government is soft-pedalling the probe.

Reminded of this, the FO changed their position, saying instead there is ‘no serious evidence’.

Why are they so anxious to believe their Nusra friends don’t have poison gas, yet so frantic to believe that Syria is using poison gas?

We can’t know. That’s exactly the point. As in Iraq, our leaders have begun to believe what they want to believe.

And when the inquiry into the disastrous, yet-to-happen Syria war is held, I hope someone notices this. 

My thanks to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) for providing me with a link to this report on an alleged use of sarin in Syria.

I recommend anyone seriously concerned over the future peace of the world to read it carefully, as I have done, especially Members of Parliament, Congressmen, Deputies etc.

It may be important that as many active and conscious citizens of free countries as possible are properly informed of what it actually contains.

I very much welcome any corrections or criticisms. All emphases in the text are mine.

The link will take you to the OPCW’s recent report on the Chemical Weapons (CW) episode at Khan Sheikhoun in Syria, an area under the control of the Islamist insurgent group which as traded under various names but which I tend to refer to as al Nusra.

Al Nusra now seeks a new image but was for some years the local franchise of ‘Al Qaeda’ and is therefore a strange ally for the USA and Britain to have.

Even so, Western diplomacy in the area very much favours al Nusra over the current Syrian government. 

Neither, it is true, is very nice. But then that is exactly why one must wonder why Western powers would go to such lengths to help a body such as al Nusra.

If they were law-abiding democrats and followers of J.S.Mill, I could see it. But a private army of ultra-violent Islamists seems an unlikely recipient of Western backing.

The Khan Sheikhoun event, last April, has been claimed by the British government as being almost certainly the work of the Syrian state headed by its President Bashar Assad.

In one case noted below the assertion of guilt by the UK government was unqualified.

It was the pretext for the US Government’s later cruise missile raid on a Syrian Air Force field, on the assumption that the events had been caused by the deliberate actions of the Syrian state.

As far as I can discover, this missile attack was entirely contrary to international law, about which the US and UK governments claim to be very concerned, especially our own Foreign Office.

But the USA did it, and the UK backed it, as I think did France.

Britain’s Ambassador to the UN, the youthful Matthew Rycroft (born 1968, came to prominence in the Blair era), declared it was ‘highly likely’ that Syria was responsible. 

The Prime Minister’s spokesperson seemed to have thrown off all caution about who was responsible, saying:

The UK Government fully supports the US action, which we believe was an appropriate response to the barbaric chemical weapons attack launched by the Syrian regime, and is intended to deter further attacks.

Note the unqualified use of the verb ‘launched’, unsoftened by any of the normal cautious adverbs of diplomacy and legality, such as ‘allegedly’ or ‘apparently’.

I have asked Downing Street to explain this certainty. For it is this rush from suspicion to certainty which scares me so much.

Crises don’t come in identical packages, but the British and French states (the French are very involved in this)  are both going down a twisting lane very similar to one Britain took over Iraq.

They are so convinced of their case that they cannot examine the facts objectively any more. What do we actually know about what happened at Khan Sheikhoun?

As I have pointed out several times, very little. I summed up the problem here hereI reproduce this passage for those who may have missed it the first time:

Any report which comes from that region is filtered through people who you never see in the film that does get out. I have met men like them on my travels. I would not want to offend them.

These are the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, alias the Al-Nusra Front, alias Al Qaeda, the Syrian ‘opposition’ which we in the West have been supporting for several years.

Yes, that’s right, the people we have been helping are not Liberal Democrats or Girl Guides or Quakers.

No, they are the same movement which destroyed Manhattan’s Twin Towers.

The only big difference between them and Islamic State is that we drop bombs on Islamic State. And we drop bombs on behalf of Al-Nusra/Al Qaeda.

I’ve noted here before how these people have publicly kidnapped, killed and even sunk their teeth into the entrails of dead enemies.

But in this case, another small detail may make you wonder about what you are being told.

In some reports of the alleged atrocity, a supposed ‘British doctor’, Shajul Islam, was quoted or shown on the spot, described as a ‘volunteer treating victims in hospital’.

Actually, he shouldn’t really be called a British doctor. He was struck off the British medical register for ‘misconduct’ in March 2016. The General Medical Council won’t say why.

And in 2012 Shajul Islam was charged with terror offences in a British court.

He was accused of imprisoning John Cantlie, a British photographer, and a Dutchman, Jeroen Oerlemans.

Both men were held by a militant group in Syria and both were wounded when they tried to escape. Shajul Islam, it was alleged, was among their captors.

Shajul Islam’s trial collapsed in 2013, when it was revealed that Mr Cantlie had been abducted once again, and could not give evidence.

Mr Oerlemans refused to give evidence for fear that it would further endanger Mr Cantlie. Mr Oerlemans has since been killed in Libya.

So the supposedly benevolent medical man at the scene of the alleged atrocity turns out to be a struck-off doctor who was once put on trial for kidnapping.’ 

Then  there is the simple problem of what Assad could possibly hope to gain by using poison gas, when it is the one action he could take which was  certain to bring the USA openly and fully  into his civil war, on the side of al Nusra.

What conceivable gain, on the battlefield or otherwise, could possibly counterbalance such a huge diplomatic and military reverse as winning the armed and active enmity of a superpower?

Assad is cruel and ruthless, but he is not stupid and he has, to the astonishment of many, survived long after many commentators thought he would be gone.

He does not wish to be incinerated by a cruise missile targeted on his personal bunker, nor does he wish to be tried at the Hague and sent to prison for the rest of his life. So why take an action that risks these outcomes?

Next there is the fact that accounts of the alleged gas attack come to us through some pretty powerful filters.

I have no opinions on what actually happened, by the way. I wasn’t there before the event,  at the time or afterwards and have no way of knowing.

No independent western journalists or diplomats or others qualified to make reports were there either. The area was and remains under the control of ultra-violent fanatics.

I doubt that they would let me in if I asked them to, and would not feel safe that they would then left me out afterwards.

Nor would I feel able to be sure of the testimony of any person whose life was under their control or influence.

This is why I concentrate entirely on what we do not know. And why I am astonished at the confidence of some other parties about what did happen.

How and why can they be so sure?  Let us turn to the OPCW report itself, and see where it leaves us. Once again, here’s the link to it.

I shall refer to the report’s own paragraph numbers, which are clearly shown. I urge readers to make their own studies, and indeed to read the document in full. It is much easier to do so if you print it out. 

The key sections are para 6 , which says:

Based on its work, the FFM is able to conclude that a large number of people, some of whom died, were exposed to sarin or a sarin-like substance. The release that cause this exposure was most likely initiated at the site where there is now a crater in the road. It is the conclusion of the FFM that such a release can only be determined as the use of sarin, as a chemical weapon. … 

and para 7, which adds:

As regards the question of an on-site visit by the FFM to the scene of the incident, it is an area located outside the effective control of the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic. It is to be noted that the use of sarin or a sarin-like substance is not questioned. This is also evident from the position of the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic which provided to the FFM its own information and materials as evidence. Since the mandate of the FFM is confined to establishing only the fact of the use of chemical weapons, the security risks associated with a deployment to Khan Shaykhun far outweighed any additional corroboration of the facts that have already been established. The Director-General has therefore decided that the FFM will not undertake an on-site visit to Khan Shaykhun.

I’d note here that modern analysts are able, given good samples of poison gas, to be extraordinarily precise about where it comes from and whose it is.

What’s more, Western governments and, as far as I know, the OPCW, have had detailed access to the Syrian government’s poison gas stocks, which were destroyed under supervision in June 2014 aboard the ship MV Cape Ray, which belongs to the US Maritime Administration.

So why the vague conclusion referring to ‘sarin or a sarin-like substance’, a phrase repeatedly used in the report.

Well para 7 gives part of the answer. The OPCW didn’t want to risk going there, quite reasonably in my view. As they put it, rather tactfully:

The security risks associated with a deployment to Khan Shaykhun far outweighed any additional corroboration of the facts that have already been established. 

And note, it is not the Syrian Government that’s stopping them going there. Assad, as they point out,  does not control the area.

So you will have to deduce for yourselves what sort of ‘security risks’ the OPCW is worried about. 

They are, of course, the same risks which kept Western journalists and diplomats from going there, at the time of the event or later.

But the fundamental point is: they didn’t go there.

In fact they think the fact that they did not go there is so important that they mention it over and over again. See if you can count the mentions. 

The trouble is not many facts have been established. 

I’d like to know, for instance, what the flight-path was of the Syrian warplane alleged to have dropped the alleged gas bombs. 

It now seems fairly clear where the victims of the poison gas were.

Was this anywhere near the flight-path of the plane, which US intelligence has ways of knowing and has to some extent publicised , as here. If so, can we please be told so? If not, not.

We don’t know much detail about the gas.

This is because ‘environmental’ samples, taken at the site by qualified technicians,  preserved carefully and safe from interference in a known and detailed ‘custody chain’ from scene to laboratory, are essential for any such determination. 

This simply didn’t happen. See Para 3.46.

Typically, samples from an incident would be collected by the investigating team immediately after the incident, using approved procedures and equipment, including full documentation of the chain of custody of the samples.

As noted earlier, the team was constrained due to the inability to access the site of the alleged incident and the amount of time that had passed between the alleged incident and receipt of samples by the team (depending on the source, between 1 week and 2 months after the incident). 

As a result, the team was unable to: (a) assess the geography and conditions of the location of the alleged incident; (b) directly select sampling points and items; (c) conduct on-site collection of samples; and (d) implement a complete chain of custody, by the team, for samples from source. The report is extraordinarily coy about where it did examine those samples that it had. It refers repeatedly to a ‘neighbouring country’, plainly Turkey.

Why doesn’t it name Turkey? It is unlikely to have been Israel, Jordan or Lebanon, I think. Anyone can guess it is Turkey.

Could it be because the Turkish government is, like the USA, Britain, France and Saudi Arabia, a known opponent of the Syrian state  and sympathiser with the anti-government jihadists, and what is more a country in which the freedom of speech, the neutrality of the civil service  and of the press is currently being vigorously suppressed, and therefore cannot provide a dispassionate background for the forensic examination of samples?

On the ‘chain of custody’ itself, para 3.66 is categorical. There isn’t one.

I have asked British government and other advocates of the ‘Syria did it, obviously’ faction about this chain many times. I get no answer but here it is from the OPCW itself, their own main source.

3.66 Most of the samples delivered to the FFM (Fact Finding Mission) were supported by witness testimony and accompanied by documents, including photographs and video. Although the documentation and testimony, in most cases, provided a good degree of confidence in the chain of custody prior to receipt by the FFM, the entire chain of custody could not be categorically verified. Such samples included biomedical samples that were not collected in the presence of team members, environmental samples, and dead creatures (referred to biological-environmental samples). 

No verifiable Chain of Custody 

Well, if the entire chain of custody could not be categorically verified, you have not actually got anything resembling reliable evidence. 

The chain of custody is vital because without it nobody can establish that the material came from where it is said to have come from, or was definitely not tampered with, added to or subtracted to on its journey to the laboratory.

In such a contentious issue as this, to admit that the entire chain of custody could not be categorically verified is deeply damaging to the claims then based on the material involved.

Please remember this, when the issue comes up again, and indeed in future such cases. 

Do I detect in this section a suggestion that others, unnamed, may have messed about with the site? You judge.

But once again the OPCW stresses that it unable to deal with this:

3.57 As with other evidence, visits to the site of an alleged incident and collection of evidence at the site would have provided the most valuable input, particularly if the collection could have been donevery close to the time of the alleged incident. 

3.58 Further means of validation would ideally be provided by comparing observations from interviewees against the expected behaviour of a known device or theoretical design. Given the uncertainty around the volume of the chemical and how it might behave under unknown energetic and mechanical dispersion conditions, it would not be possible to compare the theoretical dispersion of chemicals and fragments to that described by interviewees and shown in photographs and videos. 

3.59 Exploitation of the site by other parties also adversely impacted the FFM’s ability to receive a broader range of evidence from the site and build a picture of the alleged method of dispersion.

This mention is also odd. How come the main state hospital in the area had been ‘taken out of service a few days earlier’, as described here?

5.23 Initially, no patients were transferred to Al Ma’arra National Hospital, which was the main hospital in the region, as it was taken out of service a few days earlier. It is unclear whether or not this facility opened later in the day on a limited basis to support the treatment of casualties.

Whatever the reason, several patients were instead taken to ‘Medical Facility F’ (MF-F). So look at:

5.21 A number of casualties were initially transferred to MF-F. The local headquarters of the SCD were also located in the vicinity of the medical centre. Once it became apparent to the staff of the hospital and to the SCD that they were dealing with a potential chemical incident, patients were washed with water by the fire crew of the SCD upon arrival. 

5.22 Given the limited health care capability at MF-F, patients were transferred to several different medical facilities in the region, either passing through MF-F or going directly to other facilities…

Is this significant?

‘SCD’ refers to what the report describes as ‘Syrian Civil Defence’. This is in fact another name for the ‘White Helmets’, a group which is, I believe financed by Western states who oppose the Assad government, and whose role is, to put it mildly,  disputed.

For an example of such disputation, please see this article by Scott Ritter in a post to which I recently drew attention.

I also draw attention here to evidence given to OPCW by interviewees in Damascus (and therefore within reach of the Syrian state and seemingly provided through it).

You may make what you like of this. I decline to take anything as fact until verified.

But it is interesting because it contrasts with the other evidence quite strongly.

5.27 The narrative collected from two interviews conducted in Damascus over the period of 21 – 22 June 2017 differs. One interviewee stated that “members of” … an armed opposition group… “had evicted tenants from a house in Khan Shaykhun, replacing them with new tenants and the house was used for the storage of weapons, munitions and barrels some two months prior to the incident on 4 April 2017”. That house appeared to have been damaged at some time during the incident on 4 April 2017.’

I would like to know whether it was the interviewee, or the OPCW, which decided to use the phrase ‘an armed opposition group’.  There can, after all, be little doubt of which group this would have been if the story is true.

In para 5.28 there is also this interesting bit, ‘He recalled that the roads were blocked and only ambulances “from a neighbouring country” and water tankers were allowed inside the affected area.’

Why were only those ambulances from ‘a neighbouring country’ (no, not Israel)  allowed into the area?  If this is true, that is. It’s an odd thing to make up.

From 5.41 onwards, my eye was caught by the way in which the fact-finding mission had often been compelled to accept second-hand information.

A medical facility had discharged all its patients the day before the mission arrived. Instead they had to rely on the testimony of an unnamed doctor.

Doctors (see above) may possibly not be neutral actors in this matter.

At Medical Facility B, the patients had not been discharged but ‘the team was informed that all but one of the remaining patients who had been admitted with symptoms of chemical poisoning were in intensive care or were otherwise unable to be interviewed.’

At Medical facility C, ‘the team was informed that all remaining patients who had been admitted with symptoms of chemical poisoning were in intensive care or were otherwise unable to be interviewed.’

Seeking information about Medical Facilities D, E and F, the team once again received their information from unidentified doctors.

At Medical facility H (Para 5.61), the team interviewed one doctor who was on duty at Medical Facility H (MF-H) when casualties started to arrive. The following is a summary of his testimony. 

The doctor did not have details or records of casualties related to the whole medical facility, aside from the number of deceased, and described the casualties who he personally attended to.

I won’t go into the curious affair of the material provided by a mysterious volunteer and then through the Syrian government. 

It is of course as suspect as all the other indirect bits of information we have. But I was struck by paragraph 5.107:

However, the FFM was informed that remnants of a munition from the impact crater (point 1 in Figure 5) have been secured and could be made available in the future.

Why not now? And in any case, what is its chain of custody? How can we even know it came from where it would be said to come from?

As I said, the OPCW document seems to me quite rightly not to attribute blame, as it simply has no objective testable basis on which to do so.

Anyone on any side or in any, profession who maintains that they know who did this seems to me to be bluffing.

Anyone who reads this can see how very far away we are from a definite attribution of guilt.

What’s more, any reader can see how very difficult it would now be to get evidence that would be any better

 The site is still inaccessible. The event was months ago. What chance of getting a reliable chain of custody for reliable evidence?

I’m especially interested in the way in which the official world, which must have access to full details of Syria’s acknowledged official gas stocks, when they were destroyed aboard the MV Cape Ray, has yet to offer any comparison between what samples it has and the Cape Ray stocks.

Surely it would be conclusive.

I have discussed elsewhere the possibility, more or less dismissed by the British Foreign Office, that the Islamist jihadis (backed by us) might have access to chemical weapons. 

I think this needs much more serious consideration, myself. 

In the meantime, do not be rushed into war and, if it comes to that, please urge your MPs, Deputies, Congressmen etc not to be rushed into it either.

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