On Friday, April 7, reporters for major newspapers were briefed on background at the Pentagon by a “senior U.S. military official” who spoke on condition of anonymity. The official provided background about the factual basis for the U.S. attack on the Syrian airbase at Al Shayrat. In an attempt to provide a motive for the Syrian government to use chemical weapons, the official made allegations about facts on the ground that are demonstrably not true to any close observer of the battlefield in Syria. Rather than challenge these facts, they were repeated without question in multiple publications, including the New York Times. The New York Times even repeated the allegations as facts without attribution to the anonymous official.
The New York Times wrote:
“The shifting fortunes on the battlefield may explain why the Assad government mounted its largest chemical weapons attack since August 2013. In recent weeks, rebel forces have pushed to connect the areas they controlled in Hama and Idlib Provinces. The Syrian government’s control of the Hama airfield was at risk; it was being used by the Assad government as a helicopter base and, it is suspected, as a factory for some of the barrel bombs Syria’s forces had used to deadly effect.”
The Daily Beast’s Roy Gutman went further, adding quotes from a rebel official to support the Pentagon claims with the headline, “Assad Used Nerve Gas Because He’s Desperate. Expect Worse to Come”. Gutman wrote,
“In actual fact, Syrian forces probably carried out the gas attack out of desperation, according to U.S. military officials and Syrian rebel officials.” “The Syrian regime has been under intense pressure,” a senior U.S. military official told reporters in Washington on Friday. He said rebels in an advance last month threatened to capture the Hama airfield, a key base for helicopters and a suspected barrel bomb manufacturing facility.” Further, “Losing the Hama base was a “significant risk” to the regime and U.S. analysts judged that the use of chemical weapons was “linked to a battlefield desperation decision to stop the opposition from seizing those key regime elements.”
Politico added to the reporting tonight by claiming, “Now several U.S. officials say they are reaching the consensus view that Assad was simply acting out of desperation” due to the Hama offensive. Politico did hedge slightly by writing, “While many Syria experts in Washington endorse the official consensus that Assad is desperate to fend off even a weakened rebel opposition, they are still entertaining other theories.”
These claims of a desperate Syrian army facing a strong Al-Qaeqa offensive in Hama at the time of the attack are false and are easily disproven. Any analysts or journalist, by following the battle and examining maps of the battle by even March 31, 2017, could see that the rebel offensive had been stopped and almost completely reversed.
On March 21, 2017, Syrian rebel groups led by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (“HTS”), the rebranded Nusra and al-Qaeda coalition in Syria, launched a new offensive that rebel sources claim was planned for six months. After quick initial gains fueled by suicide bombers, by March 26th, only five days after the offensive started, the Syrian army stabilized the lines and began to push back HTS. By March 31, almost all of the rebel gains had been reversed.
Peto Lucem @petolucem, publishes maps of various battle fronts in Syria. These maps of the Hama frontline are not in dispute by rebel sources as of March 31 and Syrian army gains only increased after that time. By March 31, 85% of the Al-Qaeda/HTS/rebel gains from their “intense pressure” attack had been reversed.
It is clearly evident that Hama Military Airport was not in danger by March 31st and in fact, rebel lines were collapsing and the Syrian army was on the offensive. By April 3rd, the Syrian Army had captured Maardas. On April 5th, the Syrian army was still on the offensive, capturing Batish and Tal Batish, which had not been under Syrian army control since 2016.
All of these facts are easily checked by the U.S. military, intelligence officers, and journalists, and are confirmed with rebel sources. By March 31, pro-rebel twitter accounts were already placing blame on the failed Hama offensive. The pro-rebel twitter account @worldonalert, with almost 29k followers, lamented the fact that he expected the rebel Hama offensive to use 30 SVBIEDs, short for “Suicide Vehicle Bomber Improvised Explosive Devices,” rather than 3.
SVBIEDs are vehicles that are filled with explosives and driven into opposing forces and are a favorite of Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Multiple other pro-rebels accounts were also lamenting the failed Hama offensive on March 31, including @Malcomite, followed by 16k, including many Western reporters covering Syria. Pro-rebel accounts were suggesting that HTS turn to a hit and run guerrilla war rather than trying to conquer territory in light of another failed offensive.
There are several important points to be made here. First, a senior U.S. military official is clearly spreading false propaganda to reporters in an attempt to ascribe a missing motive to the Syrian chemical attack. Many observers have questioned the lack of motive on behalf of the Syrian government given that it is clearly winning the war and has the rebels and ISIS in retreat on multiple fronts. As the doubts regarding Syrian government motives for the attack spread, the US government felt the need to provide a motive in the form of a completely false narrative about battlefield desperation. The US government likely knew that whatever it told reporters would be repeated without question. These false claims could have been easily disproven by any close observer of the conflict. Worse, these views have now become the “consensus” view of U.S. government analysts, even though they are based upon false intelligence. Second, U.S. journalists willfully ignored even the most basic fact checking of these claims. Why? Maybe because the article by Gutman was the top read article on The Daily Beast site today as it plays to its readers preconceived biases. Finally, how can journalists not question the claim that an alleged single rocket filled with a nerve gas on a town was a “desperate attempt” to stop the Hama offensive, which had already been reversed? Further, the town of Khan Shaykoun is in Idlib, not Hama. It is not located near the frontline of the Hama battle.
The Syrian armed forces may well be responsible for the chemical attack on Khan Shaykoun in a manner exactly as the U.S. has alleged. The United States, however, has put forth no evidence to support the claim. No less than Hans Blix, who led the UN search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, has challenged the United States to present evidence to support its claims in Khan Shaykoun.
If these false claims to ascribe a motive feel familiar, similar claims were used by Syrian analysts to ascribe a motive for the Syrian government to use chemical weapons in Eastern Ghouta in 2013. The Institute for the Study of War (“ISW”) claimed at the time that rebels were making a push to take Damascus from the East Ghouta. The ISW article was written by Elizabeth O’Bagy, who was soon fired by ISW for inflating her resume but was quickly hired as an aide to John McCain. This argument by Ms. O’Bagy was repeated by David Kenner, Middle East Editor for Foreign Policy Magazine, Michael Weiss of The Daily Beast, and many others.
The claims that Damascus was in danger of a rebel onslaught in 2013 are laughable in hindsight. The rebels never made any discernible push into Damascus and it is clear that Damascus was never in any imminent danger by forces in Eastern Ghouta. The claimed motive for the Syrian government to attack in Eastern Ghouta was based on the same false premises, that it was “desperate” to stop a rebel attack on Damascus and the Presidential Palace. Like much of the reporting on Syria, the claims wildly inflated the power of rebel groups, likely in an effort to secure further support for the rebel cause from foreign backers.
Four years later, similar claims were made today by Weiss:
A full and impartial investigation of the Khan Shaykoun attack is needed. Good journalism that questions dubious claims by U.S. officials is also needed. Both Russia and Iran have called for such an investigation, so hopefully it will happen under the auspicious of the U.N.
UPDATE April 17, 2017: Souran in Northern Hama has been retaken, so the 85% reversal of the Hama offensive by March 30, 2017, has now become greater than 100% as government forces have recaptured all lost territory and taken new territory from HTS.