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Monday, December 9, 2013

Whose Seymour Hersh?

When considering various opinions as to what is going on in Syria today, I find it extremely useful to know where the commentator stands with regards to the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Does he support or oppose it? After all, whatever the conflict in Syria has become, it began in the spring of 2011 as a mass struggle to overthrow the Assad Regime. Many believe, myself included, that it remains, at heart, a struggle to overthrow this 43 year old dictatorship.

None can read my blog and not know that I am a strong advocate of the overthrow of the Assad Regime. Given its totalitarian, police state methods, its wanton use of torture, rape and mass murder as tools of social control and its criminal indifference to the lives and welfare of its youngest citizens, the Syrian people can certainly build a better government.

Seymour M. Hersh, on the other hand, wants to see Assad prevail in the current struggle. He told Amy Goodman as much on Democracy Now this morning while discussing his new piece in the London Review of Books, Whose sarin?:
inside the [intelligence] community, for the last year, it’s been known that the only game in town, whether you like it or don’t like it, was Bashar, because otherwise the—what we call the secular anti—the opposition to Bashar, the legitimate, non-radical, if you will, dissenters, people from within the army, people—civilians who didn’t like the lack of more social progress, etc., etc., they were overrun, even by—we know that beginning in early in the year. We knew they were being overrun by jihadists. And so, the only solution, it seemed to me, for—it seems for the government at the time, the people I know—and I’ve talked to people about this for years; it’s been more than a year of talk—is, the only solution for stability was Bashar. You have to just like it or don’t like it.

Israel, which—don’t forget, Damascus is, what, 40 miles, 45 miles from the Golan Heights and 130 miles south of—north of—northeast of Tel Aviv, easily within range of any missiles. The Israelis are not going to tolerate a jihadist government inside Syria, or even any area that the jihadists will claim as an area of sharia law. They’ll hit it. The only potential for stability was to keep Bashar there, or at least to get him in a position where maybe he’d be willing to negotiate some sort of collaborative government, which seems to be the only sensible theme right now.
It would seem that many who are "not going to tolerate a jihadist government inside Syria" are more than willing to tolerate a return of the complete domination of Syria by a murderous and criminal gang in the name of "stability." What they might see as a return to stability would most likely mean a bloodbath of retribution inside of Syria, but they don't mind about that because they are outside of Syria so that kind of "12 Years a Slave" stability is just fine with them.

They didn't too much mind that the Assads ran Syria as a brutal police state for four decades so long as he brought stability to the region. They've never had a problem with it and they don't have a real problem with Assad carrying on as he always has in the future. Apparently this is also Seymour Hersh's view.

He agrees with Assad that the only real choice for Syria's future is between the jihadists and his regime, and given those choices, he favors the Assad Regime.

It is important to understand that this is were Seymour Hersh is coming from in evaluating Whose sarin?, because, for all of Seymour Hersh's historic accomplishments, it is little more than another poorly written and poorly sourced piece designed to muddy the waters as to who is responsible for the sarin gas attack in Ghouta on 21 August this year. It was so poorly sourced that it was rejected by the Washington Post and The New Yorker before ending up in the LRB.

The LRB piece makes the case that the sarin attack that killed more than 1400 people in Ghouta on 21 August could have come from the opposition and that the Obama administration cherry picked the intelligence when it came to the hasty conclusion that the Syrian military was responsible for the attack.

Hersh doesn't make the claim that Assad didn't do it and he doesn't make the claim that such and such opposition force did do it. He argues that the Obama administration was about to go to war with Syria when it couldn't possibly know the Assad regime had carried out the attack.

Seymour M. Hersh's history with Bashar al-Assad

In the early months of the Obama presidency, Seymour M. Hersh wrote a piece that was sourced well enough to be published in The New Yorker, 6 April 2009. It was titled SYRIA CALLING, with the subtitle "The Obama Administration’s chance to engage in a Middle East peace." The article argues that Obama's best chance for a Middle East peace deal is a peace between Bashar al-Assad and Israel.

Hersh was one of the first to pick up on the shift in Syria policy between Bush and Obama, a shift that most of the Left is still blind to, as proven by their willingness to use Bush era statements to prove Obama policies toward Syria.
"A major change in American policy toward Syria is clearly under way. "
writes Hersh:
A former American diplomat who has been involved in the Middle East peace process said, “There are a lot of people going back and forth to Damascus from Washington saying there is low-hanging fruit waiting for someone to harvest.” A treaty between Syria and Israel “would be the start of a wide-reaching peace-implementation process that will unfold over time.”
Seymour Hersh didn't miss that because he was very active in promoting it. From the article we gather that Seymour M. Hersh had direct contact with Bashar al-Assad:
President Assad was full of confidence and was impatiently anticipating the new Administration in Washington when I spoke to him late last year in Damascus
In his e-mail after the Gaza war, Assad emphasized...
In his e-mail, Assad praised the diplomatic efforts of former President Jimmy Carter.
The official Syrian position toward Iran, which Assad repeated to me, is...
Assad felt he could speak frankly with Hersh, and showed that he knew not to take Obama's verbal threats too seriously:
During the long campaign for the White House, Obama often criticized Syria for its links to terrorism, its “pursuit of weapons of mass destruction,” and its interference in Lebanon, where Syria had troops until 2005 and still plays a political role. (Assad dismissed the criticisms in his talk with me: “We do not bet on speeches during the campaign.”)
Bashar al-Assad has even used Seymour M. Hersh as a conduit in his duplicitous deals:
At an Arab summit in Qatar in mid-January, however, Bashar Assad, the President of Syria, angrily declared that Israel’s bombing of Gaza and the resulting civilian deaths showed that the Israelis spoke only “the language of blood.” He called on the Arab world to boycott Israel, close any Israeli embassies in the region, and sever all “direct or indirect ties with Israel.” Syria, Assad said, had ended its talks over the Golan Heights.

Nonetheless, a few days after the Israeli ceasefire in Gaza, Assad said in an e-mail to me that although Israel was “doing everything possible to undermine the prospects for peace,” he was still very interested in closing the deal.
Seymour Hersh knows that Assad is no saint. Two years before the Arab Spring came to Syria, he wrote:
One issue that may be a casualty of an Obama rapprochement with Syria is human rights. Syrians are still being jailed for speaking out against the policies of their government. Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director for Human Rights Watch, said that Assad “has been offering fig leafs to the Americans for a long time and thinks if he makes nice in Lebanon and with Hamas and Hezbollah he will no longer be an outcast. We believe that no amount of diplomatic success will solve his internal problems.” The authorities, Whitson said, are “going after ordinary Syrians—like people chatting in cafés. Everyone is looking over their shoulder.”
And two years ago before the Arab uprising and before 126,000 Syrians died in the struggle to overthrow Assad, Seymour Hersh was channelling Assad's theme that he is a necessary evil in the fight against Islamic extremism in Syria, just as he does today. Then he said:
Assad, in his interview with me, acknowledged, “We do not say that we are a democratic country. We do not say that we are perfect, but we are moving forward.” And he focussed on what he had to offer. He said that he had a message for Obama: Syria, as a secular state, and the United States faced a common enemy in Al Qaeda and Islamic extremism.
In another New Yorker piece almost a year later, Seymour Hersh gives us a clue as to the sort of things Assad had to offer Obama. Saying "I spoke to Bashar Assad, the president of Syria, this winter [2010] in Damascus," he then goes on to complain about deficiencies in the transcript:
One note: a transcript of our talk, provided by Assad’s office, was generally accurate but it did not include an exchange we had about intelligence. A senior Syrian official had told me that, last year, Syria, which is on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, had renewed its sharing of intelligence on terrorism with the C.I.A. and with Britain’s MI6, after a request from Obama that was relayed by George Mitchell, the President’s envoy for the Middle East.
So we can see that Seymour Hersh has enjoyed a long relationship with Bashar al-Assad, and his willingness to overlook a certain level of brutality towards the Syrian people because he views Assad as the only alternative to Islamist terrorism, is not new.

The factual arguments that Seymour Hersh makes in Whose sarin? are plagued with very serious problems and it is ironic that he accuses the Obama administration of cherry-picking the intelligence because he cherry picks his "facts" and ignores other. His core argument is that both al Nusra Front, and the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, two al Qaeda linked groups in the Syrian opposition, know how to make sarin, US intelligence knows this and therefore the Obama administration had no business blaming the Assad regime for the attack without first ruling out the possibility that it came from the jihadists.

There have been denials from US government that Hersh's information is correct and they know these groups can produce sarin. And while advocates of the view that the opposition gassed its own people want us to think sarin is easily produced, Bashar al Assad told Dennis Kucinich "anyone can make sarin in his house,” chemical weapons experts tell us this is far from the case.

One source on this subject who is not afraid to backup his intelligence with his name is David Kaszeta, a former officer in the U.S. Army Chemical Corps and former member of the U.S. Secret Service. Kaszeta has 22 years working with chemical weapons and he says:
That statement should be met with disbelief.
I'll refer you to this link for the details as to why he says that.

Also, according to the UN report, the sarin they found was of a military grade and very unlikely to be produced outside of a government laboratory. Also Hersh ignores the defectors that have come forward to testify about Assad's use of chemical weapons, defectors from his CW special forces. Also he ignores the fact that the area that was attacked with chemical weapons was under attack by Assad forces for months both before and after the sarin attack with conventional weapons.

I will leave it to others to pen a detailed critique of the "facts" and arguments Seymour Hersh makes in this latest defense of Assad. I just wanted to point out why he is going this.

Seymour M. Hersh wants Assad to win.

Click here for a list of my other blogs on Syria


  1. Good post, and thanks for the kind words on my NOW Lebanon article

  2. Your input and expertise have been vital in proving that making sarin is no simple matter and can't be made in a kitchen as Assad said or even in a backyard as Hersh said, aping Assad.

    I don't know what is involved in making sarin so my approach is simpler. My question to Hersh and Assad and all those making this claim is if it is so easy to make and use, how come only one non-state actor has ever done so - and they spent $30 million converting a 3 story building into a sarin factory.

    Since we know the world is not lacking in groups bent on mass murder, why haven't many others used sarin to slaughter - if it can be whipped up in a kitchen or a backyard?

    If al Qaeda knows how to make and use sarin, why would they use it exclusively in Syria and not in Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Pakistan and elsewhere?

    I'll be looking for the answer to these questions from the "sarin is easy to make" crowd.

  3. Would it be unreasonable to imagine that certain senior brass in Assad's military deployed these weapons without first seeking consent from the regime? I have not looked extensively into Bashar's dialogue immediately following the attack but such actions do not seem to follow any rational course even by dictator-in-hiding standards, when he is so adamant in maintaining his position that he wouldn't resort to the chemical option.

    1. No that may be pretty much how it would work. In fact, in these days of post-Nuremberg ICC threat days, a ruler has every reason to arrange some distance between himself and the used of weapons that are considered illegal in international court. After all, he probably wouldn't have used them in the first place if he was completely sure he would win.

      If Assad was so adamant in his unwillingness to use CW I doubt he would have spent the hundreds of millions making sarin cost him.

      But if you look at the situation for him there, it has really been quite desperate. East Ghouta, near Damascus, had been liberated for over a year. Surrounded and under siege by Assad for 8 months before the CW attack, which, for all the children and old people it killed, didn't make much difference to the military situation. Since August 21, it been under bombardment and siege for another 4 months.

      And the opposition has increased the areas liberated around East Ghouta.