I write this open letter, George, because you have been using your public platform to defend claims about Syria that I fear may be damaging for its people.
Most recently, you blogged a note about the 4th April, 2017 chemical incident in Khan Sheikhoun, Syria, and you related this to the more general issue of competing narratives.
Professor Theodore Postol of MIT criticised the NATO/Gulf State account of the incident and you say his claims ‘should be treated with great caution’. That’s fair enough. Shouldn’t we apply a similar standard of scrutiny to claims made on both sides? You replied to the Media Lens article reporting Postol’s claims without acknowledging that it also mentioned that ‘former and current UN weapons inspectors Hans Blix, Scott Ritter and Jerry Smith, as well as former CIA counterterrorism official Philip Giraldi, had all questioned the official narrative of what happened on April 4.’ We can be cautious about what they all say, of course, but I hope we may avoid the hubris of just dismissing their concerns.
There are serious unsettled questions about every aspect of the incident, not only the anomalies concerning time of incident, identity of victims, causes of death, role of White Helmets, and about whose interests it served, but also concerning the forensic evidence itself. Regarding the latest claim made by France, a very elementary issue is chain of custody: with no French representatives on the ground, the test samples appear to have come from Al Qaeda by way of Turkey. Must we simply trust the testimony of a terrorist organisation in collaboration with a major conduit and supplier of anti-government forces in Syria? Do we find any corroboration? Western powers, you might be aware, have blocked the independent investigation sought by Russia.
The reported results themselves are opaque. The French reports are no clearer on the science than the earlier UK ones (and I note that the UK has since gone rather silent about those rather than address questions about them). Moreover, the French claims rely on the veracity of claims relating to a 2013 incident, which are highly questionable.
Still, even aside from the facts around the Khan Sheikhoun incident, you are confident that there is a mountain of compelling evidence that is disregarded by ‘a few contrarians’. In tweets, too, you seem to be impressed by the sheer quantity of evidence purporting to establish President Assad’s complicity in war crimes and crimes against humanity. Yet you surely realise that what actually matters is the quality of evidence?
I therefore ask you: what evidence are you referring to? Whose evidence? In your note you link to a Guardian article by an Egyptian, raised in Dubai and living in Lebanon, who conveys reports from an Al Qaeda base; you also link to another Guardian article, by the same author, reporting claims from Turkey – one of the chief supporters of anti-government forces. Meanwhile, on Twitter, you respond to ‘contrarians’ with the advice to read a lengthy thread authored by Kuwaiti activist Iyad El-Baghdadi who is renowned for talking up the ‘Arab Spring’. Based in Norway, he cites evidence from sources like the New York Times.
Why should utterances from your recommended sources inspire less caution than those of MIT professors and professional weapons inspectors? You seem to think that anyone who questions the official narrative is a conspiracy nut, or an “Assadist”. I personally find a little condescending your reference to “an element on the left that seems determined to produce a mirror image of the Washington Consensus … and denies the crimes of the West’s official enemies.”
At any rate, that begs the question: what crimes have been demonstrated? We have had mountains of allegations from organisations like Amnesty International since the ‘Arab Spring’, but what credible evidence have they ever produced? I earnestly invite you to cite some. Having looked at their reports over the past ten years myself, I have not found it. Instead, I have found very clear traces of a narrative produced in Washington. And not just a narrative, but a strategy for getting the liberal intelligentsia on board with the hawks.
I think we need to look very closely at who is being misled by whom. Wouldn’t you agree?
Meanwhile, with the upcoming UK election to think about – and the imperative of removing this warmongering government – I will understand if you direct your focus and energies towards areas of public life where you have a strong intellectual and political contribution to make.
 You might start by taking a more dispassionate look at the people you imagine have ‘debunked’ criticism of the mainstream narrative. Your link to Louis Proyect’s attack on Postol, for instance, betrays what I would regard as some want of judgement. In an update to your note, you add a link to further ‘debunkers’ who turn out to rely on the same Guardian evidence you are claiming they offer further support for! Incidentally, when the Guardian tells readers it is ‘the first western media organisation to visit the site of the attack’ it should really be careful what it boasts about, given that the area is controlled by Al Qaeda.
- Did the Porton Down analysis of samples collected from the alleged attacks on 19 March 2013 support the finding of the Russian Laboratory for Chemical and Analytical Control that the material contained diisopropyl fluorophosphate and that the sarin had been produced under “cottage industry” conditions?
- What were the findings with respect to the synthetic pathway by which the sarin was produced? Specifically, did this synthesis start from trimethyl phosphite (which the Foreign Secretary stated had been sold to the Syrian government by UK companies) or from phosphorus trichloride or elemental phosphorus (which Turkish prosecutors stated was on the procurement list of the Nusra Front members arrested in Adana, Turkey in May 2013)?
- What efforts have been made by the UK government to establish whether or not the sarin used in alleged chemical attacks in Syria originated from Syrian military stocks, based on comparison of the chemical profiles of the environmental samples analysed at DSTL with the stocks of the sarin precursor methylphosphonyl difluoride that were profiled by mass spectrometry under the supervison of OPCW inspectors before they were destroyed on the MV Cape Ray in 2014?
Those of us who struggle even to understand questions like these can very easily be bamboozled by bullshit responses from government spokespersons. But when scientists put such questions, I think they merit answer rather than dismissive tweets bidding us trust the word of foreign activists. I am grateful to Professor Paul McKeigue for the formulation of these questions. For a more considered view of disagreement on the left, see, e.g., the recent short talk by Jay Tharappel [delivered at the University of Sydney, Australia on April 18]: Syria and the Confusion of the Western Left.
More New York Times ‘spin’ on the Syria-sarin case, by Robert Parry, Consortium News, April 28, 2017
The New York Times is at it again with another slanted report on the April 4 chemical weapons incident in Syria, applying ridicule rather than reason to prevent a real evaluation of this war-or-peace moment.
An impeachable offence’: Professor Theodore Postol and Syria, published on Media Lens, April 26, 2017