Special report: fixing intelligence on #Syria?

25 September 2013

If there is anything to learn from the Syrian conflict, it is that in the fog of war, truth really is the first casualty. Narratives and counter-narratives of the conflict have plagued media accounts and the blogosphere ever since it erupted in the form of angry street protests over two years ago. From the White House dossier to the United Nations report, from Syrian nuns to revelations from former and active intelligence officials, the propaganda war between pro and anti-interventionists to control the paradigm through which we understand the conflict — manifesting in Bashir al-Assad’s latest call for a ceasefire — may be feeding into little-known strategic imperatives that see the Syrian people as mere pawns in a wider gambit.

The Ghouta verdict

On September 16th, a UN investigation released its interim findings on the chemical weapons incident in Ghouta, Damascus of August 21st, stating that:

“… the environmental, chemical and medical samples, we have collected, provide clear and convincing evidence that surface-to-surface rockets containing the nerve agent sarin were used in Ein Tarma, Moadamiyah and Zamalka in the Ghouta area of Damascus.”

But there were faultlines. Acknowledging that the investigation would not have been possible without the consent of both the Syrian government and on-the-ground cooperation of opposition forces, the report is fully cognizant of potential efforts to manipulate evidence at the various sites of the attack. In Moadamiya (p. 18), the report notes that: “The sites have been well travelled by other individuals both before and during the investigation. Fragments and other possible evidence have clearly been handled/moved prior to arrival of the investigation team.”

And in Zamalka and Ein Tarma (p. 22), the report flags up similar reservations that “the locations have been well traveled by other individuals prior to the arrival of the Mission” Even while the inspectors were present, “individuals arrived carrying other suspected munitions indicating that such potential evidence is being moved and possibly manipulated”:

These caveats are important, but they should not be overblown. That the inspection team recognized these issues and took them into account in assessing the implications of the physical evidence mitigates against jumping quickly to the sort of simplistic counter-conclusion opportunistically (and misleadingly) misinterpreted by the likes of Iran’s state-controlled ’Press TV’. On the other hand, the fact that the UN team documented efforts by individuals at these rebel-controlled areas to “possibly manipulate” some “potential evidence” at the sites is a concern.

But the UN report was also corroborated by independent experts. Dan Kaszeta, a chemical weapons specialist formerly with the U.S. Army Chemical Corps who had previous expressed doubt about the attacks due to inconsistencies in symptoms and other issues, nevertheless assessed that the UN report had identified “conclusive evidence” from environmental and medical data that this was a sarin gas attack. Kaszeta pointed out that to address the limitations identified, the inspection team utilised a range of controls to ensure a lack of cross-contamination, and obtained a variety of different samples from in and around sites to avoid potential effects of tampering. An earlier Human Rights Watch (HRW) investigation undertaken with support from independent experts noted that the nature of the munitions, their trajectories, as well as the testimony from victims and eyewitnesses, pointed to a sophisticated operation most “likely” to have been carried out by the Syrian military via a regime-held base.

Counter-posed to these assessments is a barely-literate, self-contradictory “report” based essentially on analysis of YouTube videos by an unidentified “investigative team” headed up by Sister Agnes Miriam de la Croix, a Carmelite nun based in Syria who has long openly supported Assad. If there remain questions about the UN’s findings (itself arguable), this report is far worse, making a large number of interlinked and largely spurious claims implying that there was no chemical weapons attack at all, and the Ghouta massacre was entirely staged by the rebels with the complicity of international news media. Agnes Miriam, however, has a track record of unreliability and unverifiable accusations, explicable in the context of being close to Assad’s security services — so close, that according to the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ), the nun was complicit in a successful regime plot to kill international journalists. Unfortunately, that dearth of credibility has not prevented outlets like ’Russia Today’ from broadcasting the nun and her claims on satellite television. That’s not entirely surprising though, because Russian ’intelligence’ attributing the attack to the rebels appears to be based exactly on such speculative partisan online analysis proven wrong in the past.

All the post : http://mondediplo.com/blogs/special-report-fixing-intelligence-on-syria

#chemical-weapons, #mother-agnes