Over the weekend, Seymour Hersh published an article in the London Review of Books claiming that the Obama administration got it wrong regarding the August 21 chemical weapons attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. It wasn’t Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s forces that launched the attack. Rather, it was the Syrian rebels who did it, in particular an al Qaeda affiliated group, Jabhat al-Nusra.
Eliot Higgins, writing in FP.com, dismantled Hersh’s piece, using video evidence to show that the chemical weapons attack was almost certainly conducted by Assad forces. Higgins, author of the Brown Moses blog that covers the ongoing Syrian conflict, quotes a chemical weapons specialist who applies “a simple logic test” to Hersh’s thesis. “Who is more likely to have done the deed? The regime, which has confessed to CW [chemical weapon] production facilities and has declared a stockpile of precursors that match the Aug. 21 chemistry very well? Or persons unknown, with their alleged mystery factory, with no actual location, no trace of either supply chain or waste stream, no known employees, and far better things to do with the required amount of money?"
Higgins’s meticulous reporting merits praise, but the fact is that the thrust of Hersh’s article is absurd on the face of it. According to the New Yorker’s Pulitzer-winning reporter, the White House was cooking intelligence because Obama wanted a war with Syria. That is, a president who repeatedly ignored the red line he’d drawn over Assad’s use of chemical weapons, who after deciding to strike Syria sought a congressional authorization for the use of force that he knew he was almost surely not going to get, who was saved from embarrassment, and from striking Syria, with the Russian initiative to rid Assad of his unconventional arsenal, and who was in secret negotiations with Syria’s ally Iran, actually wanted nothing more than a pretext to bomb Assad. It’s a story only the Assad regime could love.
It’s hardly news that Hersh has served as a reliable sounding board for the Syrian regime and Assad for more than a decade. One of his regular sources on Syria and Lebanon, Assad ally and former Lebanese minister of information Michel Samaha was listed last December by the State Department as a specially designated global terrorist. At the time, Samaha was under arrest in Lebanon where he was charged with plotting terrorist attacks on Syrian orders, including a planned assassination attempt against a Christian cleric that was to be blamed on Sunni jihadis. It’s noteworthy that at least since America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Assad regime’s public messaging campaign has been consistent—we’re not the problem, it has told both the Bush and Obama administrations, al Qaeda and other Sunni extremist groups are the problem, for both you and for us, an Alawite regime.
Hersh’s London Review article comports with the regime’s propaganda campaign and is consistent with his reporting on Syria and Lebanon, which is regularly informed by Assad allies at the expense of parties, especially from the Sunni community, opposed to Assad, Hezbollah and Iran.
Hersh’s most infamous effort in this vein was his March 2007 New Yorker article, “The Redirection,” in which he accused the Bush administration, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanese Sunni figures of backing al Qaeda as a countermeasure to Iranian influence. As Lebanese journalist Michael Young explained at the time, Hersh lacked a basic grasp of facts. The Islamist group, Fatah al-Islam, that Hersh claimed Dick Cheney, Elliott Abrams, Prince Bandar bin Sultan and Saad Hariri funded and armed was in fact a function of Syrian intelligence services. Fatah al-Islam was created not to push back against Hezbollah, as Hersh’s source claimed, but to destabilize Lebanon, led at the time by an anti-Assad government.