When the Syrian regime launched a series of chemical strikes on the town of Khan Shaykhoun last April, a slew of self-styled contrarians—journalists, academics, and activists alike—stepped up to explain away every possible detail that implicated President Bashar Al-Assad in the war crime. Despite eye-witness reports, video evidence, and survivor testimonies, Khan Shaykhoun truthers insisted it made no sense for Assad to launch such a grotesque attack against his own people, since he was already winning the war and could only hurt his standing by doing something so foolish.
Perhaps the most well-known proponent of this narrative is veteran war journalist, Seymour Hersh, who argued in a Die Welt article last June that Assad did not deliberately carry out a chemical attack in Khan Shaykhoun. By relying on dodgy science and citing only one direct source (an anonymous “senior adviser to the American intelligence community, who has served in senior positions in the Defense Department and Central Intelligence Agency”), Hersh claimed that, if Syrian warplanes did indeed drop bombs on Khan Shaykhoun, they were regular explosives targeting “jihadists,” rather than chemical agents intended to harm civilians. Hersh speculated that the bombs must have struck a site which inadvertently released “a mixture of chemicals, including chlorine and the organophosphates used in many fertilizers, which can cause neurotoxic effects similar to those of sarin.”
Some, like Professor Stephen R. Shalom, penned powerful responses to Hersh’s claims, taking him to task for his faulty logic and lack of transparency:
A further problem with the “there was no reason for Assad to do this” argument is that the same argument could be advanced to explain why Assad would not have done many of the things that he undoubtedly did do. Why did he need to use barrel bombs, which so enflamed world opinion? Why did he use chlorine gas after he committed to a chemical weapons treaty that prohibits it? Why did his forces return to bomb Khan Sheikhoun just days after the American missile strike? Why did his forces and allies advance on an area protected by the United States? Why did a Syrian warplane drop bombs near American-backed forces and their advisers?
If it seems crazy for Assad to use sarin when he’s already winning the war, doesn’t it seem even more provocative to drop bombs near US-backed forces? Why would Assad behave this way?
Again, there’s a reasonable explanation. Consider the lesson Assad might have drawn from the response to his previous actions. He acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention and agreed to eliminate his stockpile. The UN Security Council passed a resolution stating that any violation of this agreement would trigger punitive measures.
Nevertheless, the Syrian government used banned chlorine gas, as was documented by the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) of the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The United States enacted some sanctions, but Russia — which challenged the JIM finding — blocked a broader international response.
The Left must use the same critical eye it applies to the corporate media’s nonsense to analyses that support popular left positions. The Left can — and should — oppose American imperial machinations without losing our critical judgment. A careful analysis of Hersh’s sourcing, the science behind his argument, and a comparison between his and other versions of the events in Khan Sheikhoun demonstrates that we shouldn’t take his story seriously.
For all the weaknesses in Hersh’s “facts,” and even with compelling counterarguments like Shalom’s, the Die Welt article continues to be astonishingly popular among leftwing and rightwing supporters of Bashar Al-Assad. Worse yet, according to Al-Bab, Hersh “is this year’s winner of an annual prize for truth-telling,” which is due to be presented to him at “the Sam Adams Award for Integrity on September 22 during a conference at the American University in Washington.” As if this were not bad enough, Hersh is being given this award “specifically for his article about Khan Sheikhoun.”
By now, Hersh and his supporters must certainly be aware of the latest report published by UN war crime investigators, which found that Assad’s forces deliberately deployed chemical agents against civilians over twenty times—including in Khan Shaykhoun in April. The Guardian described the report as “the most conclusive findings to date from investigations into chemical weapons attacks during the the country’s six-year civil war.” The report has, however, elicited little more than silence from those who have been valiantly denying the many pieces of evidence that already pointed to Assad’s responsibility for the attacks.
When it comes to Syria, Assad’s apologists rarely admit to their factual misjudgments, and are unlikely to do so now. Their continued dedication to outlandish conspiracy theories and outright fabrications has almost nothing to do with a genuine commitment to alleged “facts.” More often than not, those “facts” are merely convenient talking points used to substantiate pre-existing ideological beliefs about the Syrian conflict. No matter how strong the actual evidence might be, these individuals, like September 11 truthers and flat Earthers, will always skirt around the realities and truths that undercut their fantastical narratives.