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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Seymour Hersh's chemical weapons fetish

The Assad regime had Ghouta under siege and been killing the civilians and fighters in this resistive community with conventional shot and shell for almost a year before the sarin gas attack of 21 August killed over 1400 people including 400 children, and immediately after that poison gas attack, they continued the slaughter by conventional means. For example the Violations Documentation Center reports the local opposition media center was attacked the next day:
The day following the massacre, on 22-8-2013, the fighter jets, by two air raids, shelled the Coordination office itself. The office has also been shelled by "FozdiKa" that left it heavily damaged.
While none have the audacity to claim that someone other than the Assad regime is dropping barrel bombs on Aleppo, Homs, Idlib and other opposition areas, that those aren't regime war planes and helicopters that have been bombing schools, hospitals and playgrounds, or that regime artillery hasn't been shelling these areas for more than two years, a wide range of observers from both the far right and the phony left, have come forward to support Assad's claim that he didn't do the sarin attack. Perhaps this is because precisely one year before this attack, in a statement that gave Assad a green-light to continue the slaughter by these conventional means, US President Barack Obama threaten a serious response if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad crossed his redline and used chemical weapons to increase the slaughter.

Probably Assad's most prominent defender against the charge that he was also responsible for the sarin gas attack that his regime initially denied even happened, has been the noted journalist Seymour Hersh, who found a home for his poorly sourced arguments twice in the London Review of Books. Both of these lengthy essays promote Assad's thesis that the opposition gassed their own people in the faint hope that Obama would honor his "red-line" pledge and attack Assad.

Between the 21 August sarin gas attack and Sy Hersh's first defense of Assad for those attacks, Whose Sarin?, 19 December 2013, some 10,176 civilians and opposition fighters were killed without the use of poison gas, and between that essay and his second one, The Red Line and the Rat Line, 7 April 2014, another 10,670 Syrians have been slaughtered, none by poison gas. These figures have been compiled from VDC monthly and weekly martyrs reports. The VDC says these figures only account for those killed by regime forces. They list the regime's army deaths separately. They also use a very conservative methodology in their count. For example they only claim  932 martyrs killed in the 21 August chemical attacks whereas most other sources say between 1400 and 1700 died, they say only 91,923 opposition civilian and fighters, and 12,809 regime forces have been killed since the beginning of the revolution in March 2011, whereas the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says 150,345 were killed by the end of March 2014. Most likely either of those figures represents a serious undercount of the dead, given that an estimated 50,000 are missing, or in Assad's prisons, and we know from recent reports that 11,000, and probably many more of those thought to be in detention are already dead.

Many very good critiques of Sy Hersh's denial of Assad's responsibility for the sarin gas attacks have taken him to task for failing to prove his case, I have written two myself, and those are listed, along with many others, at the end of this piece. The purpose of this essay is not to add more proofs of Assad's responsibility for the poison gas attacks, but put that in a larger context and to point out that most of those killed in the Syrian conflict have been killed with conventional weapons and the vast majority of those have been killed by the Assad regime, so no matter how you slice it, Hersh et al are defending a mass murderer while ignoring all those murders by non-chemical means.

The same people who deny Assad's responsibility for the chemical attacks would also have you believe that the hundred thousand plus non-chemical deaths are more or less equally divided between the combatants, but this is simply not the case. Just this week Reuter reported what Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said:
Pillay said monitors in her office and investigators with the U.N. commission of inquiry in Syria, led by Paulo Pinheiro, had consistently blamed both parties to the Syrian conflict for human rights violations "but you cannot compare the two."

"Clearly the actions of the forces of the government far outweigh the violations (by rebels)," Pillay told reporters. "It's the government that is mostly responsible for the violations and all these perpetrators should be identified and can if there's a referral to the International Criminal Court."
So even if Sy Hersh et al, were successful in their attempts to absolve Bashar al-Assad of the chemical deaths, there can be no doubt that the man they are defending is a mass murderer many times over. Between his two LRB articles, Hersh has spent over ten thousand word denying Assad's responsibility for the chemical attacks without saying anything about his wholesale slaughter by other methods. Sy Hersh has turned Assad's chemical weapons attack into something of a fetish, as if disproving Assad culpability for those 1400 deaths makes him less of a mass murderer.

I am reminded of Bob Marley's song "I Shot The Sheriff" but in Sy Hersh's version it goes like this:

Assad shot the children, but he didn't gas no families.


Many others have critiqued Sy Hersh's thesis, among the best are:

From EA Worldview
There is No Chemical Weapons Conspiracy — Dissecting Hersh’s “Exclusive” by Scott Lucas 8 April 2014
Dissecting Hersh’s “Insurgents Did Chemical Weapons Attacks” — A Sequel by Scott Lucas 8 April 2014

From Brown Moses Blog
Seymour Hersh's Volcano Problem by Eliot Higgins 7 April 2014
What Does Seymour Hersh Knows About Volcano Rockets? by Eliot Higgins 7 April 2014

From War in Context
Seymour Hersh’s alternate reality by Paul Woodward 6 April 2014
Does Seymour Hersh understand how hexamine fits into Syrian sarin? by Paul Woodward 7 April 2014
Seymour Hersh as Dorian Gray by Louis Proyect 9 April 2014

From Arms Control Wonk
Turkey’s Syria Policy: Why Seymour Hersh Got it Wrong by Stein 8 April 2014

From NOW
Hersh and the Red Herring by Dan Kaszeta 8 April 2014

From Linux Beach
Seymour Hersh's Believe It or Don't by Clay Claiborne 8 April 2014
Whose Seymour Hersh? by Clay Claiborne 9 December 2013

From Al Monitor
Seymour Hersh gets it wrong on Turkey by Rasim Ozan Kutahyali, 10 April 2014

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