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Friday, May 12, 2017

Dr. Ted Postol misreads the HRW Report on Khan Sheikhoun

On the heels of the French Report on the sarin massacre at Khan Sheikhoun on 4 April 2016, Human Rights Watch came out with their own report on May Day, Death by Chemicals: The Syrian Government’s Widespread and Systematic Use of Chemical Weapons. While the HRW report agrees with the basic findings of the White House Report, the French Report, and Syrians on the ground at Khan Sheikhoun, that in the early morning hours of 4 April 2016, a single Syrian air force Su-22 bomber dropped a chemical bomb in a civilian area and a lot of people died, it went further because it documented a pattern of chemical weapons use by the regime that involved at least four chemical attacks in the last six months.

The HRW Report does go into detail about the Khan Sheikhoun attack, and provides some important new information. In summary it says:
Human Rights Watch interviewed 60 people with first-hand knowledge of the chemical attacks and their immediate aftermath, and reviewed dozens of photos and videos of impact sites and victims that were posted online and provided directly by local residents, but was unable to conduct ground investigations of the attack sites.

Information from local residents in Khan Sheikhoun indicates that a warplane flew over the town twice around 6:45 a.m. on April 4, 2017. One resident said he saw the plane drop a bomb near the town’s central bakery in the northern neighborhood during the first fly-over. Several people, including the person who saw the bomb falling, said they heard no explosion but saw smoke and dust rising from the area, consistent with the relatively small explosive charge in a chemical bomb. Several people also confirmed that they saw people injured or heard reports of injuries immediately after the first fly-over. A few minutes later, they said, a warplane dropped three or four high-explosive bombs on the town.

Human Rights Watch identified 92 people, including 30 children, whom local residents and activists said died due to chemical exposure from this attack. Medical personnel said the attack injured hundreds more.

Human Rights Watch reviewed dozens of photos and videos provided by residents of a crater from the impact of the first bomb. Local residents believed this site was the source of the chemical exposure because those who died lived nearby and people who came near it, including first responders, exhibited the strongest symptoms of chemical exposure. One of the first photos of the crater, taken by first responders, shows what appears to be liquid on the asphalt. That would be consistent with the use of a bomb containing sarin, which is in liquid form at room temperature.
Doctor Theodore A. Postol, Professor Emeritus of Science, Technology, and National Security Policy, Massachusetts Institute of Technology believes these local residents don't know what they are talking about, or worst, they are part of a deep state conspiracy that involves obviously the White House, as usual, the French, a couple of guys in England, and now apparently also Human Rights Watch.  In spite of those odds, his Syrian Sister can rest assured that Dr. Ted is as yet undaunted in his defense of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He maintains staunchly that Assad wouldn't hurt a fly, at least not with chemicals, so fresh on the heels of his attack on the French Report, which I critiqued here, he has penned a new attack on the HRW report dated 8 May 2017 and titled The HRW Evidence Disaffirms Its Own Conclusions in Its Report of May 1, 2017



In the best journalistic and humanistic traditions, HRW takes upon itself the task of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. Now, Dr. Ted can't say that, because when he writes about human rights atrocities it is to comfort the afflicter. He earlier made a name for himself for his pseudo-scientific defense of Assad in the case of the 21 August 2013 sarin murders. In the present case, he is attempting to get Assad off the hook for the sarin murders of 4 April 2017. I believe this is his sixth attempt. There were those first three attacks on the easiest target, the White House Report, the first pdf, the addendum, and the Truthdig article, all that claimed the evidence pointed to terrorists setting off a sarin pipe bomb in the street, and not an air strike. Then there was the second Truthdig article that said the Russians might be right about bombing a terrorists arms depot that stored chemical weapons. Then there was the attack on the French Report, and now this attack on the HRW Report. That makes six. If we were to include the Scott Horton show in which Postol attacks Bellingcat, Elliot Higgins, and Dan Kaszeta, that would make seven.

In examining Dr. Postol's critique in some of these earlier works, I noted that they seem to come from issues the good doctor has with reading comprehension. As we shall see, that is also at the heart of his problem with the HRW report. His reading error with the HRW Report is similar to the one he made with the French Report. In that case he read "a sign of" as meaning "a unique indicator," and then he used his confusion to "prove" the French Report didn't prove what he thought it said. With the HRW Report he misreads it as saying a certain model of Soviet era weapon was definitely used, and then bases his critique on that, whereas it only referenced it as an example, and not the weapon that was definitely used to the exclusion of all others, that is Postol's mis-reading.

In his critique, Dr. Ted speaks as though the HRW Report had identified the specific weapon used [my emphasis]:
The KhAB-250 and KhAB-500 airdropped munitions identified by HRW are designed to dispense sarin by bursting at low altitude in the air, creating an aerosol cloud of nerve agent-droplets that are carried downwind as they fall from the point of the airburst (see diagrams and photos on page 5 of 13 pages). A properly functioning “250” or “500” munition would not create the crater that is the focus of the HRW analytical conclusion that there is evidence that this munition was used



In addition his misreading of the weapons type, his whole critique discounts any of the eye-witness reports or sarin tests done by multiple agencies. It is almost entirely based on his view that the HRW report is talking about this weapon. But does the HRW Report say that? [again my emphasis]:
The photos and videos of the crater show two remnants from the chemical weapon used: a twisted thin metal fragment with green paint and a smaller circular metal object. Green coloring is widely used on factory-produced weapons to signify that they are chemical weapons. The KhAB-250, for example, one of two Soviet-produced bombs specifically designed to deploy sarin from a warplane, has two green bands. The circular object seen in photos of the crater appears similar to the cap covering the filling hole on the KhAB-250.


These remnants, combined with witness observations, the victims’ symptoms, and the identification of sarin as the chemical used in the attack by the French[1] and Turkish[2] governments and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons,[3] suggest that the Syrian warplane dropped a factory-made sarin bomb. According to open source material, the only Soviet-produced bombs designed specifically to deliver sarin are the KhAB-250 bomb, and its bigger version, the KhAB-500.
You will notice that HRW never says that a KhAB-250 or KhAB-500 was dropped on Khan Sheikhoun. They did use those for purpose of comparison, "similar" - their word, because both have the green markings for chemical weapons, but not the same, because the green markings are different. They definitely say that the available evidence "suggest that the Syrian warplane dropped a factory-made sarin bomb," and they do point to KhAB-250 and KhAB-500 as publicly known examples of such weapons from this very secret world. Of course we have no way of knowing what variants of these old designs, or even completely new designs for "a factory-made sarin bomb," the Assad regime may have come up with. The North Vietnamese became famous for re-engineering the Soviet and Chinese anti-aircraft rockets to get more range out of them than anyone thought possible. That is something else Postol should consider when he is promoting his 2km limit as the reason Assad couldn't possibly have done the people in Ghouta with sarin in 2013. 

Reading comprehension is thus the core problem with Postol's critique of the HRW report. He says:
The HRW claim that their analysis shows that this “standard” Russian munition was the source of the sarin release is therefore unsupported by the observed evidence they put forward. Put in other words, the HRW report does not contain any basic forensic evidence to support its claim that a standard Russian munition was the source of a sarin release at the crater.
But the HRW Report does not claim that "a standard Russian munition" was used. It only cites those as examples. The HRW report did conclude "a factory-made sarin bomb," was used. Since the focus of Postol's critique is that HRW never proved claims it never made, all his charts and diagrams miss the point. He could have better spent his time improving his reading skills.

There is one place where he tries to clean up a bent position that I must address, however. In a number of his previous defense briefs on the Khan Sheikhoun sarin massacre, Dr. Postol referenced a video that show workers taking samples from the crater some 30 hrs. after the attack, and said that if it was really sarin, they would be dead. A number of his critics, including me, pointed out that sarin was a low persistence nerve agent. It would be gone in 60 minutes or less. His obvious ignorance on this point must have been an embarrassment to him, so in this latest piece he tries to clean that up a bit. In this new piece he says:
Since the evaporation rate from the saturated soil would be slow relative to sarin deposited on the flat surrounding road surface, the area in and around the crater could have easily been highly toxic for 5 to 10 or more hours after the impact. During this period it would have not been possible for “White Hats” without hazmat protective equipment to dig inside the crater or linger in the immediate area around the crater, as observed in videos.
Since he had previously identified the videos as being taken 30 hrs. after the attack, there is little point in arguing his thesis that soil under the road surface could have "easily been highly toxic for 5 or 10 or more hours" to people that "linger in the immediate area." Although he had previously correctly identified the sample collectors in the video as being from the Idlib Health Directorate, now he calls them "White Hats." This smells like an attempt to get extra strokes out of the tar brush that has been used against a different group, the White Helmets. Denigrating anyone who comes to the aid of the victims is central to the work of the holocaust enabler.

While Postol demands exacting evidence that meets his high standards from those he is criticizing, he offers wild statements without anything like a shred of evidence as the premise for his conclusions. For example he says:
Given that there is substantial evidence that groups other than the Syrian government possess sarin precursors, indications of sarin poisoning do not alone indicate that the Syrian government was the source of the sarin, assuming the observed medical effects were from sarin.
Yes, assuming the French, the Turkish and the OPCW, weren't all conspiring together to "independently" find that samples tested positively for sarin, what proof is there that groups other than the Syrian government has sarin precursors beyond rubbing alcohol, or that even if in possession of all the necessary precursors, could formulate sarin? None is offered. Afterall, I can get plenty of coal but I can't make diamonds.

Postol offers this assertion about the widespread possession of sarin precursors, again without proof in this "Summary and Conclusions," and it is there that we find out what he really thinks. He starts out by acknowledging that whatever happened was a crime against humanity, and then immediately jumps into what I would call the "who didn't do it mode," in which you work to exonerate the most obvious killer. This is another thing that shows Postol and others of his ilk act like defense council for Assad rather than prosecutors for the people. If they were representing the people, and believed Assad didn't do it, they still should have pursued the "case of 2013" until the "real killer" was convicted or at least identified. That is how prosecutors prevent crimes from recurring. Defense counsels don't worry about that. After their guy gets off, they go home. Recurring crime is only their problem if their guy is being charged again.

This is why we are again hearing Postol et al speak out in Assad's defense. Bear in mind that Assad is most certainly a mass murderer many times over even if he can be acquitted in this particular case: 
There can be no doubt that using any form of murderous weapon, chemicals or otherwise, against innocent civilians and children constitute crimes against humanity.

It is also clear that there are multiple groups in Syria who have, or who have had access to the precursor chemicals needed to produce sarin. There is substantial evidence that the nerve agent attack of August 21, 2017 in Damascus might not have been executed by the Syrian government.
The future date of "August 21, 2017" is obviously a mistake, but it is Postol's mistake. Maybe Dr. Ted has problems with proofreading comprehension as well? He means 2013. Even after the United Nations said the sarin used in Damascus on 21 August 2013 came from "the chemical weapons stockpile of the Syrian military," he is still arguing Assad's innocent. His thesis would mean that opposition groups possess sarin and have used it twice against their own civilians, in 2013 and now in 2017, but never once used it in battle against Assad's forces.

In the case of the 2013 attack, Assad and most of his supporters, including Postol, argued that the opposition had a motive for gassing its own people. They said that because Obama had made this "red-line" pledge to intervene militarily if CW was used; they faked this attack so that he would intervene. It wasn't a very good "motive" then. Now it is a terrible one, but that doesn't stop Dr. Ted from raising it:
Human Rights Watch should have considered the possibility that at least some of these attacks could be perpetrated by groups who are interested in manipulating the United States into taking military actions that would support their political and military objectives against the Syrian government.
Really? Most of those attacks were done by aircrafts and those groups don't have them. Does HRW have a duty to entertain Dr. Ted's fantasies? Because if that was a thin thread in 2013, it is a gossamer one in 2017. Why would anyone stage a false flag attack that killed less than a hundred in the hopes of getting Trump to intervene against Assad right after he has announced a new more pro-Assad US policy, when the sarin deaths of over a thousand didn't prompt Obama to enforce his own red-line four years ago?

The French Report actually had a section on "the presence of armed groups in Hama and of their capabilities," but Dr. Ted chose to ignore it. He said the French Report didn't have any "details" like this:
Neither do the French services assess that the theory of a staged attack or manipulation by the opposition is credible, particularly because of the massive influx in a very limited time towards hospitals in Syria and Turkey, and the simultaneous, massive uploading of videos showing symptoms of the use of neurotoxic agents. 
Postol accuses HRW of encouraging groups to continue murdering innocent civilians and children in pursuit of US military intervention:
If this is the case, Human Rights Watch could be inadvertently encouraging these groups to continue murdering innocent civilians and children in pursuit of this objective.
I appreciate his logic, because even if Assad were somehow innocent of one or more chemical attacks, he clearly is guilty of the majority of the carnage in Syria. So what should we call those who come out to defend Assad whenever his mass murders get media attention, but holocaust enablers?

The next paragraph gives us his bottom line on the Syrian conflict. There is no just and moral side. There is no people's side in Syria. They are all bad people committing atrocities. No reason to single out the Assad Regime:
It is not foreseeable that when multiple groups are all engaged in routine wartime atrocities that one of the groups will suddenly transform itself into a moral and just winner while all the others would surely continue their monstrous behavior.

Clearly, he knows nothing of the history of Syria, its people, or this revolution. One of the groups is still the millions of Syrians that started this upheaval in 2011 by demanding an end to the fascist 40+ year old Assad dictatorship, and refusing to take "no" for an answer. They are still refusing to take "no" for an answer. That is the reason Assad is dropping sarin bombs on them. Those that still argue, as they did in 2013, that "Assad has almost won," don't understand the fight, because after all this carnage, Assad has still not forced them to accept his "no" for an answer. They didn't have to suddenly transform themselves into a moral and just cause, they have been that all along. Dr. Postol just can't see that from his perch on the other side. He probably can't read these banners either, so let me simplify them for him:

The People Demand an End to the Regime!


Bonus Feature...
Scott Lucas on sarin gas attack disinformation


Syria is the Paris Commune of the 21st Century!

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