A Personal Comment on Syria

Setting aside the question of evidence, there’s a serious problem with the contention that Syria carried out the recent chemical attack in Douma. It requires us to accept not only that the Syrian government is evil but also that it’s comically stupid. It was on the point of liberating the area after years of jihadi occupation and Trump had announced only a week before that the US was looking to get out of Syria, and soon. There was really only one way to screw things up and that was by conducting a chemical attack.

The remaining jihadis, on the other hand, had much to gain. They had refused the Syrian government offer to be bussed out together with family, hangers on and small arms (but minus serious weaponry) and were therefore planning on one of two things. Either a fight to the death or some sort of changed circumstances that would allow them to persist and perhaps even, in their best of all worlds, triumph. Since they were surrounded and unable to access fresh supplies or fighters, that could only mean some kind of external intervention. How could that be brought about? Given the power of the anti-Assad narrative, a false flag chemical attack would do nicely. Et voilà.

To me it seems like obvious Kabuki theatre but most in the West still buy the “Assad did it” story. That’s probably not surprising. Doubting the powers that be at such a profound level is not a pleasant experience and there’s no reason why most people would even consider the possibility. Particularly not when the reporting and commentary is so spectacularly one-sided. I still occasionally wonder whether Trump, May and Macron truly believe the official line or simply profess to do so in pursuit of some larger goal. Despite a natural inclination to plump for the latter, it’s not clear which alternative is the more alarming. For now, I suppose the question must remain unanswered. What does seem certain, to me at least, is that there are those within the governing elites in the West who do know the truth and manipulate it for their own perceived ends.

Quite apart from the logical improbability of the mainstream narrative on this, and related, issues, there’s the question of evidence. The reports to date stem from the jihadis themselves, or groups, like the White Helmets, who have long cooperated with them. Hardly disinterested parties. Treating their allegations so seriously is akin to a court taking the word of the accused as sufficient without any external corroboration. It’s inherently absurd and a measure of how far we have drifted into conceptual and factual incoherence. Deconstruction indeed.

The correct answer to the dilemma is obvious. Carry out a verifiably objective investigation as quickly as possible so that whatever decisions need to be made can rest on a sound foundation, and then make them within the framework of the UN and international law. Even if this took a month or two, so what? Here too, unfortunately, the answer seems all too clear. For each week that passes the Syrian government comes closer to completely securing its core territory and killing or ejecting the remnants of the jihadi forces that have been terrorising Syria for 6-7 years. Some find that prospect intolerable, amongst them most of the Gulf states, the current Israeli government and powerful factions within the US and Europe.

Instead, as we all now know, limited strikes on Syria were carried out by the US, the UK and France in the early hours of Saturday morning. Such wickedness had to be punished at once, it seems, lest it become overconfident or proliferate. We can at least be grateful that sufficient sense prevailed to ensure these attacks were limited in scope and intended to avoid unduly antagonising Russia. So far. If we’re really lucky, perhaps the previously unfolding path in Syria will be resumed.

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38 Responses to A Personal Comment on Syria

  1. conrad says:

    The alternative is that the Syrian government assumed that people would believe what would you do, and therefore that if they did the attack it wouldn’t matter — indeed it might help them and would be a quick way of getting rid of some annoyances with few of their own casualties. As it happens, however, I’d bet on your scenario.

    In terms of an investigation, I find it hard to see how this could be done with any great level of authority, so I suspect the answer will remain unknown until all of the people responsible have died of old age or are old enough to claim senility and not be tried.

  2. I am and will always be Not Trampis says:

    the shells were if we are to believe you delivered by artillery into people who would give this story legs yet they have not.

    I am with conrad.

  3. R. N. England says:

    There is a good argument for the moral near-equivalence of poisoning people and shooting them, or blowing bits off them. Poisoning people with agents that don’t persist in the environment actually has a moral advantage over TNT of leaving the survivors with somewhere to live. Given the state of Syria after years of war, that is something its government must have considered. Perhaps the Syrian government did use poison, and is denying it rather than justifying it. Truth is the first casualty. They may have concluded that the West will always come out with some hate propaganda or other as a prelude to attacking them.

    As many others have noted, the horror of chemical weapons is a product of British Government propaganda in World War I, part of its war-effort to fuel the hatred of Germans. The West is still flogging that horse. The present-day knee-jerk horror of “chemicals” is perhaps a lasting outcome of that propaganda effort: as if nature had not produced and abundance of life-threatening chemicals before human beings had ever set foot on the earth.

  4. Hi Ingolf
    Are the reports that state that not long after the attack the rebels in Douma agreed to an Russian mediated offer of safe passage and have left the town and that the Syrian army has now occupied Douma incorrect?

    • Ingolf says:

      Hi John,

      No, as far as I know they’re correct. Douma is now in government hands as, I believe, is the whole of Damascus.

      • Hi Ingolf
        So is it fair to say that if the attack was staged by the rebels in the hope that the consequences for the Assad regime would help them persist in Douma , it didn’t work that well?

        BTW would be surprised if the allied attack- about 100 cruise missiles- would have done serious damage to the regimes capacities. They had plenty of time to move things disperse and i gather that the allies avoided targeting Russian instalations.

        • derrida derider says:

          On that last, there were no – zero, nada, zip – casualties from the missiles. Because, as Macron has all but admitted, the Syrians were pre-advised of the targets.

          I suspect that is so that when inspections of the bombed “chemical weapon precursor sites” are done and no trace of chlorine etc (the precursor of which is common salt) is found then we will be told “ahh but those monsters hid them because we told them we were going to bomb”.

          I’m once more surprised by just how little challenge there is to our heavily manipulated mainstream media (I know, I shouldn’t be). The narrative they are putting is now obviously internally illogical, not merely selective in its chosen facts (which it has ever been).

          • John R Walker says:

            Tend to agree .

          • Ingolf says:

            Yes, me too DD, and I also know I shouldn’t be.

            When it comes to the likely findings at the sites that were hit, iit’s kind of amusing that at least one of them was apparently checked and cleared by the OPCW late last year, if memory serves. As you say, the narrative has become essentially incoherent.

            The latest vote in the Security Council suggests one day that might even matter. The latest Russian resolution was only voted down 5 to 3 wwith seven abstentions.

            • Ingolf says:


              I misread the tweet. The five that voted against didn’t include the US, UK and France so the actual totals were three for the resolution and eight against with four abstentions.

  5. Ingolf says:


    Yes, it will be difficult, maybe even impossible, to complete an investigation whose results are widely accepted. Not only because of deeply fractured views on the whole conflict but also because of the time that’s elapsed and, most likely, deliberate dissimulation.

    It’s been a propaganda war for a long time and the question of who to trust isn’t an easy one to answer. Over the years I’ve gradually come to rate the Russians more highly than the West but that’s obviously still an extreme minority viewpoint.

    R N England,

    At one level, I accept the argument you’re making but good luck with making much ground on that front.

    As for whether the Syrian government would pragmatically adopt it, while I’m obviously not in a position to rule it out it seems to me highly improbable. The risk/reward is terrible and I’m also pretty sure the Russians would vehemently oppose any such idea.

  6. Chris Hostettler says:

    Since Bush Junior the USA has the policy to shoot or drop bombs first before an independent investigation has been done by the UN. If the outcome will not be favorable Trump will declare it as fake news and soon legislation will be implemented to jail the messengers of unfavorable information. Perfect censorship!

  7. Hi Ingolf

    If the rebels were intending to fight to the death and had some cylinders of poison gas then it would surely be more likely that they would use them in ,parting gift boby traps etc no?
    On the other hand if they were hoping to leverage global outrage over a (staged )attack ets , why did they fold and walk so quickly?

    • Ingolf says:

      Hi John,

      The short answer is I don’t know. A few thoughts for what they’re worth.

      Given what happened, they clearly weren’t intending to fight to the death. Perhaps they were pushed to create an incident by some of their sponsors, did so and then time ran out because of the speed of the ongoing offensive by the SAA and the Russians. Faced with extinction, they took the deal and lived to fight another day, as most of their fellow jihadis already had.

      In any case, the larger purpose had already been achieved. I’d guess any such sponsors hoped the US would go for a less symbolic attack, one that might have forced the Russians into a meaningful response. Not a foolish hope IMO, indeed the danger is far from over.

  8. Ingolf says:

    John, DD, indeed everyone,

    Just read an exceptional piece by Patrick Lawrence. It delves deeply, and in my view fairly, into precisely the issues we’re discussing here.

    “As the week begins, let us know we do not know enough and know those things we are able to know.

    Being of a certain age, I bring to these matters an almost bottomless suspicion of anything our intelligence “community” — what a word in such a context — may offer as an explanation of events. This also applies to those international organizations Western intelligence agencies are able to compromise. I have no intention of surrendering this distrust. It is well-earned. How most of us came around to nodding our heads like naïve schoolchildren when the spooks speak I have yet to figure out.

    A condition of doubt is imperative. It is enough for now. As everyone deserves an accurate accounting of his or her history and fate, every innocent Syrian deserves this.”

    • Hi Ingolf
      Thanks! the Lawrence piece is very good. (I have not been following this biz that closely. )
      BTW did you ever read Dalrymple’s “From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium”? Its a good historical backgrounder to the extraordinary entangled complexity of religious-ethnic identities in Syria and the holy lands.

      • Ingolf says:

        Thanks John, glad you enjoyed it and no, I didn’t; perhaps one of these days!

        • John R Walker says:

          Dalrymple researching the book , in the early 90s renacted the journey of a 6th C author-monk around the eastern Mediterranean.
          Hindsight has made it chilling reading,so many of the people he met must be either dead or refugees and so many of the places , towns shrines mosques monasteries and churches reduced to piles of stone and dust.
          And many of those he met could at the time see the slaughter genocide and madness coming

          • Ingolf says:

            You’ve convinced me. Just ordered it.

            • John R Walker says:

              Re the complexity of religion(s) in the Mid East.
              While Assad is described as secular, his family are Alawites. While Alawites are Muslims, they drink, don’t support sharia , and believe in the Trinity.

              • Ingolf Eide says:

                Yes, no question it’s complex. Probably impossibly so for anyone not born to it or at least deeply immersed over decades.

                Still, I guess the only truly critical issue is that the Alawites appear perfectly comfortable with a multi-confessional state.

                P.S. By the way, John, I’m having all sorts of minor hassles with the site. Almost every time I try to do anything I have to login afresh. Any idea what I might be doing wrong?

                • John R Walker says:

                  Agree Troppo’s site software has been a bit weird for sometime , perhaps Nicholas might be able to help?

                  Re faith, I’m roughly Anglican ,am told that there are( from memory) 6 or seven main threads in Christianity.
                  For Anglicans there is a unstated agreement) that dates back to around 1680 )that none of those six or seven threads can come to total dominance over the rest.
                  Funny thing is , the closer people or groups are the greater the potential for bloody minded civil war.

  9. I am and will always be Not Trampis says:

    Assad has killed well over 100,00 of his countrymen and women. why would he care about using chemical weapons?

    • derrida derider says:

      Because, Homer, his using chemical weapons is about the only way that could ensure he is not free to kill more of his countrymen or women. It’s not that we doubt Assad’s ruthlessness, it’s that we doubt you can win a bitter civil war fostered by outside powers (mostly our “allies” the Saudis) by being stupid – and he has won it.

      There are plenty of equally ruthless people in Syria with access to old chemical weapons stocks and a much better motive to use them. But they are Assad’s enemies.

  10. Jay says:

    derrida derider,

    You are assuming something isn’t true because to you it does not appear rational.

    I can make an alternative argument that Assad’s chemical attack was entirely rational;

    (a) the chemical attack quickly led to Assad defeating a persistent and demoralising insurgency on the outskirts of the capital city and was therefore both rational and successful;
    (b) Assad made the entirely rational (and patently obvious to close observers) calculation that Western forces no longer seek the overthrow of the Assad regime because whilst the Assad regime is bad, no credible alternative has emerged during the civil war that isn’t much worse;
    (c) because of (b) any Western retaliation would be symbolic and pose no threat to the regime. If Assad had made such such a calculation, he was correct;
    (d) the use of chemical weapons puts fear in the heart of the enemy like nothing else. Consequently it would have demoralise the remaining insurgency;
    (e) the pitiful response by the West to Assad’s chemical attacks is a morale saping signal to the insurgency that the Western world has abandoned them. Indeed, this view has been expressed by the remaining insurgents. If Assad reasoned this would be the case, his actions were rational as well as successful

    Moreover, whilst Assad is now allowing the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) inspectors into the area, he stalled without reasonable cause presumably so that he would have more time to conceal the eveidence.

    It is also stomach churning to see Ingolf say he trusts Russia more than the West. Putin now controls most the the Russian media and 48 Russian journalists, most of whom have been critical of Putin, have been murdered in recent years whilst others have simply disappeared.

    Apart from the 48 journalists who are official murder victims, it appears that journalists who are critical of Putin are also unusually clumsy, such as Maksim Borodin, who died after falling off a balcony a couple days ago.

    • Ingolf Eide says:

      Jay, I can understand your dismay at my comment. As I said, I know it’s an extreme minority viewpoint in most of the West.

      I came to it after observing the consistency of Russia’s foreign policy words and actions over many years. There’s no mystery and very few surprises; they openly and often painstakingly lay out their working premises and intentions and then generally deliver on them. To know what’s coming, for the most part all one has to do is read their speeches, interviews and press briefings.

      Does Russia murder inconvenient journalists or others? Perhaps, but I don’t think so. I can’t prove it however and trying to do so would devolve into duelling sources and no resolution. As I’m sure you’re aware, we have for quite some time been in the midst of intense infowars.

      If you’re really interested in this subject, do as I suggested for a few weeks. Read Putin’s and Lavrov’s speeches and interviews as well as the weekly Press Briefing done by Maria Zakharova. The former can be found here while the latter two can best be found either on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Twitter feed or at the MFA website. Zakharova’s weekly briefings are on Thursdays so the latest one is from the 12th and can be found here.

      If nothing else, it does no harm to check out the “enemy”.

      • conrad says:

        I agree with R. N. England above that the difference between what we consider conventional and chemical weapons really isn’t so great. It’s also the case that large powers with huge conventional weapon stockpiles that sell them for great amounts around the world are not going to like to see them because they’re far cheaper and hence allow poorer armies to catch up on destructive power easily.

        I also don’t see why the people fighting Assad are really going to be any more scared than when getting bombed to pieces by Russian fighter jets (or tortured etc.) given most of them are going to be war hardened fighters. Sure, dying of chemical poisoning might sound more terrible than, say, bleeding to death after losing a limb, but after 7 years of death and destruction, are these fighters really going care about the difference?

        • Jay says:

          Conrad: “I also don’t see why the people fighting Assad are really going to be any more scared than when getting bombed to pieces by Russian fighter jets”.

          Sigh. There is a huge amount of evidence from WW2 about the terror inspired by chemical weapons. But even if there wasn’t, it says much about your own peculiar lack of common sense, insight and affinity with the human condition that you can’t see why gas warfare and conventional conventional bombing are not the same.

          I recall my own WW1 veteran great grandfather reminiscing about the horror of gas attacks, when I was a boy.

          From a readily available paper on the psychology of gas warfare:

          “Even before the mass use of chemical weapons on the battlefield, the ‘subjective effect’ of toxins on an individual’s mind had been recorded. Early in 1915 British scientists tested the possible use of ethyl iodoacetate (a lachrymator given the code name ‘South Kensington’ after the experimental work conducted at Imperial College of Science and Technology). A number of army officers from Chatham garrison were invited to attend field trials: ‘One of them, who was stationed at least 50 yards up wind from the point of burst, immediately left the trench showing every sign of great mental disturbance and stating that he felt very ill.’58 It was established that he could not have inhaled any of the vapour and yet had been deeply affected by the experience.

          Douglas observed that, although not primarily designed to inspire terror, the ‘violent irritant or choking sensations’ of chlorine and phosgene had the capacity to undermine the resolve of all but the most resolute soldier.59 Specialist medical officers increasingly recognized the importance of gas as a psychological weapon. Captain H.W. Barber, who treated mustard gas cases at No. 25 General Hospital, argued that the ‘sudden shock’ of being gassed often caused as many symptoms as ‘any toxic property of the gas itself’.60 Writing in spring 1917, Lieutenant Colonel S.L. Cummins, adviser in pathology to the British armies in France, concluded that any division subjected to a series of gas attacks in close succession was likely to exhibit a significant drop in morale,61 while Charles Wilson, a regimental medical officer, believed that ‘the majority of men who left the front line in 1917 “gassed” were frankly frightened’.62

          The capacity of poison gas to inspire strong emotion led to a range of unwanted outcomes: panic even when protected by a respirator, the misinterpretation of harmless sounds and smells and taking evasive action, soldiers reporting sick when actually well, and doctors referring mild or transient cases of gassing for lengthy treatment in base hospitals. Panic is defined as precipitate and unreasoning behaviour not likely to serve the interests of the subject; it often involves actual or attempted physical flight.63 Captain A.J. Waugh, medical officer to the 1st North Staffordshires, reported such a case when his battalion was exposed to cloud gas in May 1916: ‘a few men lost their heads, took off their [anti-gas] helmets and ran back, being severely gassed in consequence’.64

          Examples of troops misinterpreting harmless visual and olfactory stimuli were common and revealed the power of gas to disrupt military routine and discipline. Lieutenant G.L. Grant, medical officer of the London Scottish, treated large numbers of officers and men in September 1915 who believed they had been gassed. None had any objective signs of toxic exposure and all responded miraculously to a placebo.65 In February 1918 a soldier in a working party of 1/22nd London Regiment felt swelling and soreness of his throat and reported that he had been gassed. Although no shelling had taken place and no one had observed any signs of gas, fear swept through the unit and within a few hours 67 of the 105 men had been evacuated to an advanced dressing station as casualties,66 where some ‘acted as though they had temporarily lost their reason’.67 No organic cause could be discovered and the fact that no officer reported any ill effects suggested that this was an example of contagious anxiety. Similarly, a group of US machine-gunners became convinced that their food had been contaminated by toxins from a shell that had exploded nearby. Presenting to a nearby aid post, they complained of stomach pains, and some had even vomited. Doctors could find no evidence of exposure to gas and they were treated with bicarbonate of soda.68

          Diphenyl chlorarsine (‘blue cross’), a nasal irritant and vomiting agent first used against the British in July 1917, caused short-term incapacity: sometimes ‘the pain and discomfort is sufficient to cause a man to lose his mental control for a short time’.69 Although the toxic effects were temporary, servicemen often continued to experience symptoms after the poison had worn off. Five soldiers were examined by Captain C.D. Christie three days after they had been exposed to chlorarsine gas. They complained of ‘extreme weakness and inability to use all of their extremities’. Christie observed that ‘it is very hard to reconcile the bizarre nature and distribution of the neurological findings on any anatomical or physiological basis’, though he believed the symptoms to be ‘genuine’,70 which suggested an unconscious mechanism rather than malingering.”


  11. Nicholas Gruen says:


    Please express yourself in a less abrasive way.

    We’re all very nice here at CT, where too much niceness is barely enough.

  12. R. N. England says:

    Jay’s long quote on the psychology of gas warfare documents its effectiveness in disabling the enemy’ fighting capability even in cases where it does no physical harm to him. That effect would surely be stronger on soldiers revved up by their own side’s propaganda on how unspeakably evil poison gas was compared with shredding people and destroying a country’s housing stock.

    • Jay says:

      “That effect would surely be stronger on soldiers revved up by their own side’s propaganda on how unspeakably evil poison gas was compared with shredding people and destroying a country’s housing stock.”

      France, Britain and the US used the same tonnage or slightly more gas than the Germans during WW1. Churchill was a big fan.

      I wonder how the Club Troppo gas warfare fans and Assad apologists would fare if they were subject to a gassing experiment? It is easy to be brave when ticking the keys on a keyboard.

      • derrida derider says:

        Well of course Churchill as Colonial Secretary in 1920 was famously the original proponent of bombing disobedient Iraqi villages with chemical weapons – Saddam just copied him. As you say, a big fan.

        Assad does not control some of the militias fighting for him (had any of the parties on the ground exhibited much military discipline the war would have been over some time ago). So it is possible that one of these have used chemicals (chlorine is of course easier to make than high explosive, though less deadly). But the evidence for that is not strong and bombing Assad is not going to get him control of these people anyway. But it is very, very clear that the only possible beneficiary of all this is Assad’s OPPONENTS.

        • Russell Affleck says:

          No its not even the least bit possible. Its the Western media lying again. Like they did the last two times. This time we don’t even have serious evidence for a real event. He never used them in the past. He does not have them, the Russians supervised their removal. There is no evidence that he used them now. Nor any of his armed forces.

  13. Russell Affleck says:

    We know Syria didn’t do it. The accusations in every case have been lies. You would have to not be able to learn from the past to suggest that Syria did it.

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