The recent publication of Seymour Hersh’s article on the chemical weapon attack in Syria on August 21 has been the subject of criticism by some=e. Notably, both Elliot Higgins and Dan Kaszeta, who collaborate together on Syrian weapon issues, have published articles critical of Hersh’s essay.
I first saw the criticism of Mr. Hersh’s article from Elliott Higgins and others prior to reading the article. I see Hersh’s article and Higgins’s work as primarily concerned with different information. Hersh has excellent sources as his credentials suggest, and he added new information (whether true or not) about the amount of intelligence the United States had prior to and contemporaneously with the attack. His conclusion: the United States had none. Hersh says that the United States had chemical detectors that should have detected the mixing of precursor chemicals to form Sarin or loading of Sarin into weapons, that we had satellite monitoring of the area as well, and none of this detected any chemical weapon activity by the regime. This is interesting information but of course does not mean that the government was not responsible for the attack.
Hersh also points out the range of the missiles at issue in the attack was grossly overestimated by some (Human Rights Watch overestimated the range by far in its analysis of the attack and the White House put out an unfortunate graphic doing the same). Elliot Higgins recently concluded the range was overestimated as well and then looked to find locations controlled by the regime that were within the new, shorter range of these missiles. These are not contradictory points. Hersh points to evidence that Nusra and possibly others were in possession of Sarin. Dan Kaszeta argues that a small amount of Sarin does not explain the Aug. 21st attack and that he has seen no evidence of the production means by the rebels to produce large quantities of Sarin. Both are points to consider as we all try to determine what happened on Aug. 21st.
If you read my blog prior to today, you know that I believed that the best explanation of the open source information that we have on the 330mm rockets pointed to them being designed to deliver a fuel air explosive. This was based upon pictures and videos of the rockets, the rocket and payload design, very similar missiles designs being used by other militaries for fuel air explosive payloads, patented designs for fuel air explosives and video and stills of the impact sites. I still believe that fuel air explosive versions of these weapons likely exists and have been used.
Yet when I saw the videos of the UN inspection sites, and later read the UN report, I saw that the UN team found two locations where a 330mm missile fell that tested positive for sarin. Therefore, I accepted that I was wrong in my analysis and that some of these weapons did contain a Sarin payload. Therefore, I concluded as most have that the 330mm missiles used in the Aug. 21st attack were 1) government or a pro-government group’s rockets, 2) fired by government or government supported forces toward rebel held areas, that 3) contained Sarin in at least two missile payloads. Based upon a totality of the evidence, this seems the more probable circumstance.
I do not know the truth however, and I would not conclude that the pro-Syrian government forces are culpable beyond a reasonable doubt. Even though I’ve concluded that the evidence best supports that conclusion, an alternative theory would be this: We are told through news reports and others (as reported by Hersh) that some rebel groups had obtained or produced Sarin and, equally important, were judged by Western intelligence as having the technical means and know how to produce it. Further, we just learned that Matthew Van Dyke, an American filmmaker/raconteur that was embedded with rebel forces and wanted to fight with them, believed from a source he trusted that the rebels had obtained chemical weapons from a building that Mr. Van Dyke knew the location of and believed contained chemical weapons. Further, he said that he believed the rebels would use them against their own people if they believed it would cause the West to intervene on their side. Motive for chemical weapon use seems clearly to be on the rebel side and almost nonexistent on the government side. Ms. Elizabeth O’Bagy’s claims at the Institute for the Study of War that the the chemical attack was a desperate attempt to stop a rebel advance on Damascus are silly in hindsight. We also know that as of at least Aug. 27th, video exists of rebels taking a supply depot that contained a smaller versions of the so called “Volcano” rockets that were used in the Aug. 21st attack. It is possible that these depots contained the 330mm version of this rocket as well. The rebel video showing this seizure was posted or located just days after the Aug. 21st attack and it is unclear when the seizure took place (or if other seizures had taken place in the past and not placed on youtube.) Therefore, we know the rebels possessed at least a version of these regime rockets within days after the attack, and they could have launched these missiles in an effort to bring on a Western military response just as Mr. Van Dyke said they would.
It would also be simple for the rebels to create the same rockets of their own in one of their many weapon manufacturing machine shops.
Yet in weighing the evidence from afar, I think it is more likely that pro-government forces fired missiles with Sarin at rebel-held areas. I don’t know this with absolute certainty, though, or even beyond a reasonable doubt in the terms of jurisprudence.
We all should strive to be impartial observers and gathers of facts on this issue. Elliot Higgins and others have done good and important work discovering facts related to the Aug. 21st attack. Mr. Hersh uncovered some important facts as well. We need to consider all of them as we weigh the evidence of responsibility and admit that none of us know with certainty the truth of what happened that night.