Reporter Sharmine Narwani on the secret history of America’s defeat in Syria
After years covering the “main battlefield in World War III,” Narwani says everything you think you know is wrong
When the war in Syria was recently declared decisively over, there were few correspondents or witnesses to turn to for a credible look at exactly what happened during eight years of conflict. The questions were many, but I could count on one hand those worth putting them to. Among these was Sharmine Narwani, whose work I have long counted distinctly thorough and honest amid coverage that — in her view as well as mine — hit a new low by way of collapsed professional standards and abandoned ethics. Narwani’s pieces, written for a variety of publications, consistently reflect her hard work on the ground — work nearly no one else did. She is eyes wide open and beholden to no national interest or media slant.
Narwani brings impressive credentials to the craft. After earning a masters in journalism from Columbia, she was for four years (2010–14) a senior associate at St. Antony’s College, Oxford. It was during those years that she began to make her mark covering the Middle East from her bureau-of-one in Beirut. Her accounts of the war as it truly unfolded have opened many eyes over the years, mine included.
Having witnessed the Syrian war from start to finish, she now casts it in a usefully broad context. “The Syrian conflict constitutes the main battlefield in a kind of World War III,” she said during our lengthy exchange. “The world wars were, in essence, great-power wars, after which the global order reshuffled a bit and new global institutions were established.” This, in outline, is what Narwani sees out in front of us, now that the Western powers’ latest “regime change” operation has failed.
Narwani and I conducted our exchange via email, Skype and WhatsApp over a period of several weeks in late March and early April. In this, the first of two parts, Narwani dissects the role of various constituencies — radical jihadists and the nations that backed them, the Western press, the NGOs — in prolonging a war that, in her view, could have ended far sooner than it did. I have edited the transcript solely for length. Part 2 will follow.
You returned from Syria just last week — this after going in several times last year. The intervening months were important, given the war has just ended. What have you been seeing on the ground?
My trips last year took place in May and June, in the weeks before the battle for the south of Syria began. I visited Daraa, Suweida and Quneitra, the three southern governorates most critical to the upcoming battle. It was fascinating. It dispelled a number of myths about the conflict for me. One of these was the discovery that al–Qaida was smack in the middle of the fight in Daraa, indistinguishable from Western-supported militant groups in all the main theaters. Another shocker was when I interviewed former al–Nusra and FSA [Free Syrian Army] fighters near the Lebanese border: They told me their salaries had been paid by the Israelis for the entire year before they surrendered, around $200,000 per month from Israel to militants in the town of Beit Jinn alone.
The southern battle was very swift, and since then all focus has moved to the north — to Idlib, where the most extreme militants have amassed in their final stronghold, and in the northeast, where U.S. troops have begun a slow withdrawal, without having yet ceded those territories back to the Syrian state…. Last week, I visited Idlib to see what I could glean about the timing of the upcoming battle, but nothing much has changed. There has to be a political decision first; some hope this will come after Russia, Iran and Turkey meet in late April. Idlib is different from Daraa because the militancy there is probably around 80 percent al–Qaida, and the rest, its allies. But Turkey and the Western powers — including the U.S. — continue to protect it for the moment.
What is the latest you have on reconstruction efforts, plans for a new constitution, and a political settlement? Russia, Iran and Turkey are said to be trying to establish a constitutional mechanism of some kind at the U.N. Russia and Turkey have summited with Germany and France on reconstruction plans — not that we’ve seen a word about it in the American press. Where is all this headed, in your estimation?
We need to put what is commonly called the Syrian “political process” into perspective. Syria, Russia and Iran won. Turkey is crippled by its Syria losses and is desperately seeking a new geopolitical equilibrium. France and Germany are very worried about more refugees — and extremists — flooding their borders, and they are willing to break with the U.S.’ goals in Syria over this issue.
In short, the “political process” is whatever Syria, Russia and Iran want it to be. Their meetings in Astana [the Kazakh capital, where a series of peace talks have taken place] demilitarized the hotspots in Syria and placed them back under government control. And their meetings in Sochi [the Russian resort city] managed to get Syrians of all walks together, in a room talking. So these three countries will figure out the constitutional process. Just expect it to be mostly under the victor’s terms. Major concessions to Western interests — in exchange for reconstruction funds — will be unlikely because the whole Middle East now knows the U.S. doesn’t stick to its agreements. Syria isn’t betting on Western funds anyway, contrary to what media reports suggest.
I predict that the endgame will take Syria back to where it was in 2011, right after Assad passed unprecedented reforms that the international community decided to ignore.
That’s a very interesting observation. In your writing, you previously suggested that the 2016 peace talks in Geneva would lead to the same thing. Very few people in the West know that Assad proposed numerous reforms in response to the initial unrest in 2011. Some of them are strikingly liberal by any standard. Please tell us about these, and why you think Assad’s 2011 proposals are where things will finish up now.
When the Syrian government introduced reforms in 2011 and 2012, the only thing we ever really heard about them was “it’s too late” and “they’re window-dressing.” But these reforms were far-reaching and significant. So much carnage could have been avoided had they been given the time and space to take hold.
Starting in 2011, Assad issued decrees suspending almost five decades of emergency law that prohibited public gatherings. This was a big deal, as other Arab leaders were doing the opposite in response to their “uprisings.” Other decrees included the establishment of a multi-party political system, term limits for the presidency, the suspension of state security courts, prisoner releases, amnesty agreements, decentralizing down to local authorities, sacking controversial political figures, introducing new media laws that prohibited the arrest of journalists and provided for more freedom of expression, investment in infrastructure, housing, pension funds, establishing direct dialogue between populations and governing authorities, setting up a committee to dialogue with the opposition — many of whom turned down the offer.
You could feel these reforms unfolding in Damascus by early 2012. I would drive into the city from Beirut, call up opposition figures on their mobile phones, go to their homes, talk to regular folks about politics. I could even access Twitter and Facebook in Syria — platforms that had been banned for years.
What was the reaction among Syrians? Mixed, I gather. You’ve written that some Syrian dissidents were also critical of these reforms.
Many people were skeptical about reforms initially. The narratives against the Syrian state were very pervasive, and folks were confused with all the competing information. Most domestic opposition figures were certain that Assad was going to be gone within a few weeks, so that impacted their readiness to dialogue with his government or support reforms publicly. At the same time, these figures — many of whom had languished in Syrian prisons for years — rejected foreign intervention, the imposition of sanctions, and the militarization of the conflict. In early 2012, the dissidents I met mostly scoffed at reforms, but when massive bombs tore apart Damascus that summer, I saw a marked shift in their positions.
In terms of the general population, I think sentiments were split — not so much on the reforms themselves, but on whether they would actually be implemented. One way to gauge public support would be to look at how many Syrians turned out for the constitutional referendum. Many boycotted it, but the participation rate was just under 60 percent, so I would argue that a modest majority of Syrians were willing to put their trust in the reforms.
What is your assessment of the U.S. plan to withdraw from Syria? I think you suggested in one piece you wrote some time ago that the U.S. effectively ceded Syria to Russia as far back as the first Russian air sorties in September 2015.
Yes, in September 2015 the U.S. lost the conflict to Russia and its allies. The reason is very simple. The Russian intervention provided the Syrian army and its ground allies with the necessary cover to do their jobs effectively. He who dominates the air and the ground wins the war.
To be fair, it also seemed highly unlikely that Obama was prepared to turn this into a full-on U.S. air war. He was happy to do “regime change” in that passive-aggressive way Democrats do it: all “humanitarian intervention” and marketing spin and tragic soundbites. But the Nobel Peace Prize winner was not going to put U.S.–piloted planes in Russian-dominated airspace over Syria in any significant way — not after Iraq and Afghanistan, certainly, and not after the Russians and Chinese blocked Obama’s U.N. Security Council route to war by vetoing all resolutions that might legitimize intervention.
To what extent do you think Syria changed the U.S. position in the Middle East as a whole? It seems as if we are coming out of an important passage in the long story of American involvement in the region.
The U.S. was already exiting the Middle East before the so-called “Arab uprisings” kicked off. Whoever in the U.S. national security apparatus made the decision to stick around and redirect these uprisings against regional adversaries made a colossal mistake. I want to write about this one day because it’s important. I believe the Syrian conflict constitutes the main battlefield in a kind of World War III. The world wars were, in essence, great-power wars, after which the global order reshuffled a bit and new global institutions were established.
Look around you now. We have had a reshuffle in the balance of power in recent years, with Russia, China, Iran in ascendance and Europe and North America in decline. That’s not to say that Washington, London or Paris don’t have levers left to pull: They do. But it is on the back of the Syrian conflict that a great-power battle was fought, and in its wake, new international institutions for finance, defense and policymaking have been born or transformed.
I’m not just talking about the strengthening of the BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa], the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the Eurasian Union, etc. I mean the world’s networks are shifting hands, too. What will happen to Western-controlled shipping routes now that Asia has started to build faster, cheaper land routes? Will the SWIFT [bank messaging] system survive when an alternative is agreed upon to bypass U.S. sanctions everywhere? There are so many examples of these shifts. It’s not to say that they are due to events in Syria, but rather that Syria triggered the great-power battle that unleashed the potential of this new order much more quickly and efficiently.
Keep in mind that World War III was never going to be like the other two conventionally fought wars…. It was always going to be an irregular war that would escalate on multiple fronts — not just regime change events, but financial pressures, sanctions, propaganda, political subversion activities, destabilization, increased terrorism, proxy fights and so on. The battle for global hegemony really began to unfold over Syria, though, when the Russians, Iranians and Chinese decided to draw a line and put up a fight. The world changed after that.
As you’ve just suggested, Syria has long seemed to be a different kind of war, a new kind — a war fought with images, information and disinformation, true and false portrayals of events, people, organizations, and so on. Based on what you’ve written over many years — and from inside Syria, on the ground — I would think you agree with this.
In some ways, Syria wasn’t that different. All modern Western wars have been fought with manipulated imagery and disinformation. We call it propaganda and accuse the Nazis and Soviets of doing it, but the U.S. does it better than anyone. It’s literally the main tool in America’s military kit: Otherwise, Americans would never accept the never-ending wars. There used to be laws forbidding the U.S. government from propagandizing the American people. The Obama administration undid many of those legal barriers. If you ever have a chance to read the U.S. Special Forces’ Unconventional Warfare manual, you will see how fundamental propaganda is to U.S. efforts to maintain hegemony. Everything starts and ends with “scene-setting” and “swaying perceptions” to prepare a population to support invasion, occupation, drone wars, “humanitarian interventions,” rebellion, regime change.
It was no different in Syria. The U.S. government imposed key narratives from day one — that Assad was indiscriminately killing civilians in a popular, peaceful revolution. Was this true? Not particularly. Eighty-eight soldiers were killed across Syria in the first month of protests. You never heard that in the Western media. That information would have altered your perception of the conflict, wouldn’t it?
The Syrian opposition used to burn tires on the tops of buildings to simulate shelling for TV cameras. Did you see that footage here? The only reason Syria seems like a “different kind of war” is because we had Twitter and Facebook and alternative media punching holes in Washington’s storyline every day — and because Syrians had the audacity to resist for eight years. You can’t keep up an act for eight years. People catch on.
Let’s focus on a few topics that you’ve argued very effectively were key factors in prolonging and, as you say, “weaponizing” the conflict. The first of these is the question of casualty counts — “the casualty count circus,” I think you called it in one of your pieces. Can you summarize what you found and how you came to be so at odds with mainstream reporting?
I first investigated the Syrian death toll 10 months into the conflict. In that month, January 2012, the U.N.’s figure for casualties in Syria was around 5,000 dead. The U.N.’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria issued its first report two months later, in March, stating that 2,569 Syrian security forces had been killed in the first year. Right there we know that half of the dead were neither civilians nor with the opposition. Half of the Syrian dead were security forces, which also informed us that the opposition was, in fact, armed, organized, and very, very lethal.
How about the other half of the death toll — the remaining 2,431 casualties? I found that they were a mixture of pro-government civilians, pro-opposition civilians, and opposition gunmen in civilian clothing. The “rebels” were not wearing military gear, so they were indistinguishable from civilians. Mainstream media just didn’t want to know this obvious stuff. They asked no questions, they investigated nothing.
A year later, one of the main opposition casualty counters, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which the Western media quote all the time, told me it was hard to differentiate rebels from civilians because “everybody hides it.” By then, in year two, the Syrian death toll had increased tenfold and the U.N. released a casualty analysis that included the information that 92.5 percent of the dead were male. That is not a death toll representative of a “civilian population.”
The point is, why wasn’t there a single other journalist out there asking the question, “Who is killing and who is dying?” If they had asked that elementary question, the way we view this conflict would have been very, very different. There was, at the very least, parity in the killing, which also means the Syrian government’s response to opponents was not at all disproportionate.
Another area of interest is the question of when and how the opposition — supposedly unarmed at the start — came to be armed. The question of proportionate responses to violence comes into this, as you’ve just suggested.
Elements of the opposition were armed from the very start of the conflict. We have visual and anecdotal evidence of weapons caches, armed gunmen infiltrating the Lebanese border, and “foreign” gunmen appearing in Daraa, the city [in southern Syria] where protests first manifested. In the early days, it was hard to prove this because efforts were made to hide evidence that the opposition had weapons — and anyone claiming so was instantly marginalized. But then the Arab League (which had suspended Syria and was therefore viewed as an impartial body) sent in an observer team that produced a stunning report — one you did not read about in the Western press. The observer mission detailed the opposition’s bombings and terrorism and attacks on infrastructure and civilians.
I also know the opposition was armed from the start [March 2011] because of my own investigation and discovery that 88 Syrian soldiers were ambushed and killed across Syria in the first month of the conflict…. I have their names, ages, ranks, birthplaces — everything. Then in June 2011, over 100 Syrian soldiers were murdered in Jisr Shughour, in Idlib Province, many with their heads cut off, and nobody could dispute this anymore. Yet we continued to hear “the opposition is unarmed and peaceful” in the media for a good long while.
But you asked about proportionality, and to that I would simply ask: What if there were armed men in Washington who killed a few cops in the last week of December? In January, these unknown shooters began a campaign of ambushing American servicemen coming and going from their bases in Fairfax, Newport News, Arlington, killing 88 in total. Then, in March, over 100 U.S. soldiers are killed in a single day, half with their heads cut off. What is a “proportionate” response for you…? That answer about proportionality will be different for different people, I can assure you.
The next question is obvious. Who armed the opposition? Are we able to say?
We know today the U.S., U.K., France, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. and Turkey are the main countries that armed, trained, financed and equipped the militants, and that they found intricate ways to avoid detection, especially at the beginning. Weapons came into Syria from all five border countries at different parts of this conflict — Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Israel — but I would say the most weapons probably arrived via Turkey, arms transfers that were very much coordinated with its NATO partners.
When, why, and how did groups such as al–Nusra become involved? What were or are their relations with the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian Democratic Forces?
The Nusra Front is the Syrian franchise of al–Qaida. Bombings in Damascus in December 2011 and January 2012 were the first actions publicly attributed to al–Qaida, and these were shortly followed by a viral video of AQ chief Ayman al–Zawahiri urging fellow jihadists to flood into the Syrian theater. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the declassified 2012 Defense Intelligence Agency document on AQ? This paper shows that the U.S. and its allies had identified AQ as the strongest, most capable fighting force in Syria against the Assad government, that these extremists had intent to create a “Salafist principality” on the Syrian–Iraqi border, and that the U.S. and its allies basically supported this. Many tried to play down this document, but then Obama sacked Michael Flynn as head of the DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency], and Flynn came out and said the document was correct, that the U.S. had “willfully” supported this whole mess.
The FSA was a shitshow from the start — no central authority, no chain of command, no cohesion, etc. “FSA” became the whitewashed moniker for any militant fighting the Syrian army. Many FSA fighters joined AQ and ISIS during this conflict. The FSA often gave or sold its U.S.–provided weapons to al–Qaida — and the Pentagon knew about this all along. When I asked a CENTCOM [U.S. Central Command] spokesman in 2015 why so many U.S. weapons supplied to their trainee fighters were showing up in al–Qaida’s hands, he actually said: “We don’t ‘command and control’ these forces. We just ‘train and equip’ them.”
Here’s the bottom line. During my trip to Daraa last year, just before the battle to oust militants from Syria’s south, I discovered that al–Qaida was in every major strategic area alongside the 54 Western-backed militant factions preparing to fight the Syrian army. If you looked at any U.S. think tank map before the big battle for the south, you would have seen three colors: red for the Syrian army, green for the “rebels,” and black for ISIS. So where was al–Qaeda? They were smack right alongside the green “rebels.” That’s how indistinguishable AQ has been from U.S.–backed forces in this conflict.
You made an effort at one point to get the State Department to name even a single “moderate rebel” group. They couldn’t or wouldn’t, as you reported it. Please tell us about that episode.
I used to ask the State Department to name the so-called “moderate rebels” they supported in the Syrian conflict. They always refused to answer, claiming that info could compromise the security of rebel groups.
Here’s my takeaway: The reason the U.S. won’t name the militant groups they funded and armed is because the moment they do, we will find atrocity videos and snuff films made by that group. The liability issues are huge. But mostly the issue is that the U.S. basically armed extremist groups in the Syrian conflict, and they don’t need the public knowing who these people are.
What degree of support for the Assad government did you find? And from which sectors of the Syrian population?
First of all, let me say that Syria is not Tunisia or Egypt — those populations had pretty much zero connection to their leaders, not on the domestic front, not in terms of worldview. The Syrian state is not wealthy, yet it provided basic services, plus education, health care, food staples for its population. And it very much shared a worldview with its population — anti-imperialist, anti–Zionist, resistance against interventionist powers, independence, etc.
In a nutshell, Assad always maintained support from some very key constituencies. These are the major urban hubs of Aleppo and Damascus, the business class and elites, the armed forces (very significant), the minority groups (Alawites, Christians, Druze, Shia, etc.), and the secular Sunnis. The [governing] Baath Party has around 3 million members, and they’re mostly Sunni. That’s a big chunk of core support right there. And then, as living conditions deteriorated and political violence escalated, many opponents fled to government-controlled areas and gave up on the fight.
Let’s stay with Syria a little longer before dilating the lens. There were two factors in the war that played decisive roles in constructing and maintaining the narrative, as you say. At a certain point they intersected, but let’s take them one at a time.
First, please describe your impressions of how the Western media performed. You’ve called them “ridiculously sycophantic” in one of your pieces. I’d like to hear from you on this. Were they, for example, purposely complicit in “perception management,” as they say, or simply dupes? Maybe professional standards have just plain collapsed since my years in the field.
Mainstream Western media were absolutely complicit in disseminating disinformation about the Syrian conflict to serve the political agendas of their respective governments…. We are living through an era of full-on information warfare, and what is interesting is that populations recognize this at some gut level, because people are turning off their media and searching for alternative sources of information.
Journalists were not dupes in this conflict. Western journalists covering Syria were, for the most part, believers in the liberal order, U.S. exceptionalism, interventionism — these people are hired because they think that way. They quote their governments’ statements unquestioningly, despite the lies of Iraq, Libya, Vietnam, etc. They are fundamentally uninterested in the legalities of warfare — the U.S. and U.K. bombardment of Syria, the establishment of military bases there, the funding and arming of terrorist groups — all of it illegal under international law.
A number of Western journalists who dared to probe deeper were sacked, silenced or smeared. I know a couple of journalists who lost their jobs. The Huffington Post stopped publishing my work once I started reporting from inside Syria — and then a year or so later, they quietly removed my entire archive from their site. Other mainstream journalists who questioned the Syria narratives were badly smeared — by their colleagues, quite shockingly — which made more than a few of them back down, write less, tweet differently. The intimidation tactics by our peers have been relentless in the coverage of Syria.
In short, Western media helped to stage and grow this conflict. I no longer think journalists should be treated with a special kind of immunity when they get a story this wrong, repeatedly, and people die in the process. I prefer to call them “media combatants,” and I think that is a fair and accurate description of the part they play in wars today.
Now let’s go to the Western NGOs — Human Rights Watch and the like — or the Syrian Observatory, for that matter. What was their role? Was it principled, as most Westerners assume? They were primary sources for the Western press while, as Patrick Cockburn pointed out [in The London Review of Books], they were staffed by anti–Assad activists. Not exactly “reliable sources,” I’d say.
It’s actually quite interesting the role NGOs played in the spinning of this conflict. You’re right, they were entirely one-sided and pro-opposition. They would put out statements and reports based on the loosest definition of sourcing I’ve ever seen, their Western journalist pals would then bullhorn this rubbish across the world media, and then governments would react in outrage and cite the NGO and press reports as fact.
Most of their interviews of Syrians on the ground were coordinated by liaisons connected with the militant opposition — many were conducted via Skype. How do you know who you’re speaking to? How do you know if they’re telling the truth? Who introduced you to this “source?” Do they have a motive? NGOs — local and international — were the source of most of the information we learned about chemical weapons attacks, cluster munitions, massacres, civilian casualties of air attacks, etc.
The most ubiquitous of these is, of course, the Western-funded White Helmets “rescue team,” who worked only in areas with the most extreme militant groups and played witness to so many of the alleged chemical attacks in Syria. But troll Facebook for a while and you will find photos of dozens of these White Helmets guys flaunting weapons and posing next to al–Qaida and ISIS fighters. Despite this kind of evidence from their own pages and websites, media consistently used this group as a source, and still do.
In this line, you wrote a piece following the alleged gas attack in Eastern Ghouta — in the spring of last year, I think — that was especially fine. I was pleased to cite it at length in one of my Saloncolumns. You actually found and photographed a jihadist-held farmhouse filled with U.S.–supplied chemical weapons equipment. Nobody else had it.
Can you talk about that experience? How, generally, do you manage to get so much closer to the ground than other correspondents, especially the Beirut-dwelling Westerners? And as that story demonstrates, closer to the truth.
I have no particular advantage over other foreign journalists traveling to Syria. I have to wait just as long to receive a visa, and each visit is limited to four days, though that can be extended in-country with permission from the Ministry of Information.
When I was in Damascus last March, the ministry put out a call to reporters about a laboratory they’d discovered the day before while liberating some Ghouta farmlands…. It turns out the facility was not that secure and we had to duck and weave through some very bumpy fields on foot, with mortars and gunfire going off just meters away. I’m not a war reporter and I have no training whatsoever in that very specialized, madman’s niche, so it wasn’t pleasant in the least. The facility itself was a laboratory of sorts run by a militant, Saudi-backed faction called Jaysh al–Islam. It was clear that something was being produced there that had military applications, but since the lab had only just been discovered, it wasn’t yet clear what that was.
I never wrote that it was a chemical weapons lab, by the way. You could see in the photos the level of sophistication of the equipment, the large compression units, the pipes going from the laboratory upstairs to the heavier devices below. The one thing I did conclude from this discovery is that Syrian militants clearly had the means to access sanctioned, foreign — even American — equipment with dual-use technologies, that they were able to create production lines in the middle of war zones, that they were able to procure toxic substances. Chlorine was found in rows of containers at the front of the facility. Before this, the narrative was that the “rebels” couldn’t possibly be responsible for chemical weapons attacks because they couldn’t make or buy them. This facility showed they could make them….
Interesting. Your account prompts another question. I take it you were led to the site by Syrian officials. Were you able to conclude with confidence it wasn’t a put-up job on the government’s part?
Yes, two other media crews — TV outlets — and I were taken to the location by Syrian soldiers, with permission from the defense ministry. There are several things that made me fairly confident I wasn’t walking into a set-up. The facility had been shelled fairly extensively — there was debris and dust covering most of the equipment, so this stuff wasn’t “brought in” the day before for staging. There was so much gunfire and shelling still going on in the area that I still can’t believe the army had the gall to call this “liberated land.” With war still raging mere meters away, one could not reasonably believe the Syrian army moved in equipment for staging, carried it across the furrowed fields to this lab, then dusted it just-so with realistic looking debris from mortar hits.
Finally, the militant group that occupied this lab, the Saudi-backed Jaysh al-Islam: Not only didn’t they deny they ran this lab; they have previously admitted to using toxic agents in the Syrian conflict — against Kurds in the Sheikh Maqsood neighborhood of Aleppo.
To me the episode in Ghouta, which ended in U.S., British and French missile bombardments of Damascus, was the second-clumsiest of them all. First place goes to the August 2013 incident, when U.N. chemical weapons inspectors had just settled in their Damascus hotels — at Assad’s invitation — and there’s a gas attack in, once again, Ghouta. On cue, the U.S. instantly blamed Assad. Preposterous. False-flag and “psy-ops” just aren’t what they used to be. Or maybe in our media-saturated age, we can simply see more.
Were all these incidents in Syria faked or staged? Are you in a position to judge this conclusively?
I am not in a position to judge anything conclusively, but based on my experience I do have some opinions on this subject. In the early days, it seemed that on the eve of every U.N. Security Council meeting on Syria — or before an “international team” was about to arrive in the country — something violent and horrific would happen. You could almost time these massacres and chemical weapons attacks according to the politically significant event that was about to take place in a Western capital. It was hard not to notice this pattern and even harder not to get cynical about “massacres.” …
I did some early deep dives on the chemical weapons attacks, including the 2013 Ghouta incident. I can’t tell you exactly what happened, but here’s what I do know about that incident. A Jordanian journalist was on the ground in Ghouta the next day and he interviewed residents, militants and their families. He wrote a piece with an AP reporter explaining that militants had taken shipment of some new and unknown container weapons from the Saudis that they had mishandled and which caused the deaths. Then, we had one of the most senior U.N. officials on Syria tell us, off the record: “Saudi intelligence was behind the attacks and unfortunately nobody will dare say that.” This official, we know, gave the same information to at least two other Western reporters — who did not report it….
This is a pattern you see in most of the other attacks — evidence manipulated, unknown chain of custody, controlled and limited access for investigators. Most of the attacks happen in militant-controlled areas, so the opposition is in complete control over access and flow of information. I do not believe you could prosecute the Syrian government in an impartial court and win convictions in any of these cases. Logically, the Syrian state is the entity that least benefits from any of these CW or massacre incidents. It had no motive to launch these attacks. Why use highly controversial chemical munitions when you can do more damage with conventional ones — and escape censure?
As I hinted a moment ago, your reporting is very distinctive for its granular detail. In Syria you’re more or less in a class by yourself in this respect. One of your sources especially intrigued me, Father Frans van der Lugt, the Dutch priest who lived many years in Homs. Tell us about him. I should mention for readers’ sake, he was killed in Homs in the spring of 2014.
I never interviewed Father Frans, though I did go to his church gravesite during a visit to Homs shortly after he was killed. Through his writings, this Dutch priest gave us some rare, objective insights into what took place in the early days of the crisis — events he witnessed first-hand.
In September 2011 he wrote: “From the start there has been the problem of the armed groups, which are also part of the opposition… The opposition of the street is much stronger than any other opposition. And this opposition is armed and frequently employs brutality and violence, only in order then to blame the government.”
And then in January 2012 he expanded: “From the start, the protest movements were not purely peaceful. From the start I saw armed demonstrators marching along in the protests, who began to shoot at the police first. Very often the violence of the security forces has been a reaction to the brutal violence of the armed rebels.”
The 75-year-old Father Frans was shot at point-blank range by a gunman while sitting in a church garden in the rebel-occupied part of Homs….