by Kit Klarenberg, Global Research:
US officials suppressed internal assessments that Al Qaeda’s Syrian wing had an “advanced” sarin production cell even as the US publicly blamed the Assad government for a 2013 chemical weapons attack, a report reveals.
Leaked documents obtained by The Grayzone show a shadowy British intelligence contractor helped sell the story that Assad was responsible – and nearly triggered Western intervention.
On September 13, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh published a US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) appraisal detailing the chemical weapons arsenal possessed by the Al Qaeda-aligned Syrian armed opposition group known as Jabhat al-Nusra.
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The document claims the terror group acquired the ability to produce sarin through Saudi Arabia and Turkey, both sponsors of the Syrian proxy war, and was attempting to achieve “large scale production” of the highly toxic nerve agent. The memo lamented that al-Nusra’s “relative freedom of operation” in the country meant its “[chemical weapons] aspirations will be difficult to disrupt in the future.”
The disclosures raise serious questions about the infamous 2013 chemical weapons attack in Ghouta, including whether the estimated 280 to 1700 people killed were in fact massacred by al-Nusra, and not Syrian loyalist forces. The revelations also cast significant doubt on claims that the government of Bashar Al-Assad was responsible for other alleged chemical attacks during the Syrian crisis.
As Hersh notes, the incident in Ghouta nearly triggered Western military intervention in Syria, which likely would have resembled the NATO operation which led to the destruction of Libya two years earlier. It would’ve been a war based on deceit comparable to the false claims that precipitated the illegal US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The role of British intelligence in attempting to escalate the conflict has been overlooked to this point. Now, never-before-seen official documents obtained by The Grayzone illustrate the crucial role UK intelligence played in the failed push to launch a NATO invasion of Syria.
‘High Confidence’ Intelligence Assessment Fails
While the Obama White House claimed to possess incontrovertible proof that the Syrian government was responsible for the attack in Ghouta, it stubbornly refused to disclose any. By contrast, communications intercepted by German spies suggested Assad neither ordered nor had any knowledge of the attack. Meanwhile, “multiple” US officials told AP that intelligence implicating Syrian forces was “not a slam dunk.”
The choice of wording was widely understood to be a deliberate reference to then-CIA Director George Tenet’s insistence that intelligence showed Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction in 2002. Apparently, American spies did not want to be blamed for triggering an invasion on false pretenses this time around.
The DIA’s internal assessment explicitly states that Al-Nusra maintained sarin production facilities, describing the “al-Nusrah Front associated sarin production cell” as “the most advanced sarin plot since al-Qaida’s pre 9/11 effort.”
According to Hersh, the report in question never reached the White House. An anonymous senior intelligence official reportedly told the journalist that in the name of “political expediency,” evidence implicating al-Nusra was deliberately withheld from President Obama, who repeatedly insisted that no such proof existed:
“We do not believe that, given the delivery systems, using rockets, that the opposition could have carried out these attacks. We have concluded that the Syrian government in fact carried these out.”
Intelligence officials in Britain struck a similar tone. On August 27 2013, London’s Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) published an assessment on Ghouta which maintained that there are “no plausible alternative scenarios” to the idea that Syrian government forces were responsible for the incident.
The assessment offered no evidence to support the charge, citing only unspecified “highly sensitive” intelligence. While the group acknowledged that a number of opposition groups were seeking chemical weapons, it insisted that “none currently has the capability to conduct [an] attack on this scale,” and that there was “no credible intelligence or other evidence to substantiate” claims that opposition groups possessed chemical weapons. But the newly-released DIA documents completely contradict that assertion.
Even less impressively, the JIC admitted that its “high confidence” in its assessment did not extend to “the regime’s precise motivation for carrying out an attack of this scale at this time.” It acknowledged the key question of why the Syrian government would conduct a chemical strike “remains a puzzle.” There was “no obvious political or military trigger” for the action, and the presence of UN weapons inspectors in Damascus when the attack took place was a clear deterrent, as was Obama making such strikes a “red line.”
One area of certainty for the JIC was the “extensive video footage attributed to the attack in eastern Damascus,” depicting vast numbers of victims suffering from the apparent effects of “a nerve agent, such as sarin.” The Committee assessed this “would be very difficult to falsify,” which lends credence to independent investigations that attribute the bodies seen in the footage to a massacre carried out by al-Nusra.
Somewhat surprisingly — given all the pro-intervention tubthumping in which it would engage over the next decade — The Guardian newspaper published a highly skeptical analysis at the time which slammed the JIC assessment for its “striking lack of any scientific evidence.” The publication quoted chemical weapons expert Alastair Hay, who received the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ Hague Award in 2015, as saying: “there are no hard facts, it is more a case of ‘believe us and our experts.’”
British lawmakers were similarly unconvinced. During an August 29 vote on military intervention, then-Prime Minister David Cameron repeatedly cited the Committee’s assessment while arguing for bombing Syria. But members of Parliament ultimately voted against the proposed war. Many MPs were concerned about trusting opaque intelligence assessments after the Iraq debacle, and several expressed fears that an initial aerial attack would ultimately lead to boots on the ground and occupation.
London’s decision to buckle on intervention also took the prospect off the table for Washington as well. By that point, MI6 had been conducting operations to smuggle soil samples out of Syria for some time. A mainstream media report on these efforts published six days after the Ghouta incident quoted an anonymous “senior Western source” who made clear the objective was to generate pressure for a US intervention:
“MI6 played the leading role but the American military wants more evidence before it agrees Assad has crossed the line in the use of chemical weapons. The question is what is the West going to do now? If nobody reacts, there was not much point in conducting the tests.”
As The Grayzone has revealed, British intelligence assets were intimately involved in either staging or marketing virtually every alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria throughout the conflict. The British skullduggery only intensified after Ghouta, as did the CIA’s notorious Operation Timber Sycamore, which saw Langley spend roughly $1 billion per year to arm and train anti-Assad insurgents. And as the CIA prosecuted its dirty war against Damascus, MI6 played a critically supportive role.
British Intel Operatives Puppeteer Syria’s Opposition
A sizable international coalition was banking on British parliamentarians greenlighting intervention, believing it would open the floodgates for regime change, and Syria being overrun by foreign forces.
John Jenkins, a veteran diplomat who served as London’s special representative to Libya following NATO’s violent ouster of Muammar Gaddafi during 2011 and later became the UK’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said there was serious resentment in Riyadh following Western governments’ failure to take the bait.
“I remember vividly the last week of August 2013, when Assad was going to be punished for stepping over that particular ‘red line,’” wrote Jenkins, who was “in Riyadh at the time and involved in seeking, on behalf of the British government, senior engagement by the Saudis in an international response, which they were willing to give.”
“The sense of frustration when the UK and US stepped back was palpable,” he noted.
Leaked documents reviewed by The Grayzone show Western-backed extremists in Syria were also despondent. A late 2013 submission to the British Foreign Office by a firm called ARK International recorded how “the Syrian opposition leadership was ‘shocked’ by the UK’s ‘no’ vote on the principle of intervention.”