International investigations of these attacks produced mixed results, with some being attributed to the Syrian government (something the Syrian government vehemently denies), and the majority being attributed to anti-regime fighters, in particular those affiliated with Al Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda affiliate.
Moreover, there exists a mixed provenance when it comes to chemical weapons usage inside Syria that would seem to foreclose any knee-jerk reaction that placed the blame for what happened at Khan Sheikhoun solely on the Syrian government void of any official investigation. Yet this is precisely what occurred.
Some sort of chemical event took place in Khan Sheikhoun; what is very much in question is who is responsible for the release of the chemicals that caused the deaths of so many civilians.
No one disputes the fact that a Syrian air force SU-22 fighter-bomber conducted a bombing mission against a target in Khan Sheikhoun on the morning of April 4, 2017.
The anti-regime activists in Khan Sheikhoun, however, have painted a narrative that has the Syrian air force dropping chemical bombs on a sleeping civilian population.
A critical piece of information that has largely escaped the reporting in the mainstream media is that Khan Sheikhoun is ground zero for the Islamic jihadists who have been at the center of the anti-Assad movement in Syria since 2011.
Up until February 2017, Khan Sheikhoun was occupied by a pro-ISIS group known as Liwa Al-Aqsa that was engaged in an oftentimes-violent struggle with its competitor organization, Al Nusra Front (which later morphed into Tahrir Al-Sham, but under any name functioning as Al Qaeda’s arm in Syria) for resources and political influence among the local population.
The Russian Ministry of Defense has claimed that Liwa Al-Aqsa was using facilities in and around Khan Sheikhoun to manufacture crude chemical shells and landmines intended for ISIS forces fighting in Iraq.
According to the Russians the Khan Sheikhoun chemical weapons facility was mirrored on similar sites uncovered by Russian and Syrian forces following the reoccupation of rebel-controlled areas of Aleppo.
In Aleppo, the Russians discovered crude weapons production laboratories that filled mortar shells and landmines with a mix of chlorine gas and white phosphorus; after a thorough forensic investigation was conducted by military specialists, the Russians turned over samples of these weapons, together with soil samples from areas struck by weapons produced in these laboratories, to investigators from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons for further evaluation.
Al Nusra has a long history of manufacturing and employing crude chemical weapons; the 2013 chemical attack on Ghouta made use of low-grade Sarin nerve agent locally synthesized, while attacks in and around Aleppo in 2016 made use of a chlorine/white phosphorous blend.
If the Russians are correct, and the building bombed in Khan Sheikhoun on the morning of April 4, 2017 was producing and/or storing chemical weapons, the probability that viable agent and other toxic contaminants were dispersed into the surrounding neighborhood, and further disseminated by the prevailing wind, is high.
The counter-narrative offered by the Russians and Syrians, however, has been minimized, mocked and ignored by both the American media and the Trump administration.
So, too, has the very illogic of the premise being put forward to answer the question of why President Assad would risk everything by using chemical weapons against a target of zero military value, at a time when the strategic balance of power had shifted strongly in his favor.
Likewise, why would Russia, which had invested considerable political capital in the disarmament of Syria’s chemical weapons capability after 2013, stand by idly while the Syrian air force carried out such an attack, especially when their was such a heavy Russian military presence at the base in question at the time of the attack?
Such analysis seems beyond the scope and comprehension of the American fourth estate.
Instead, media outlets like CNN embrace at face value anything they are told by official American sources, including a particularly preposterous insinuation that Russia actually colluded in the chemical weapons attack; the aforementioned presence of Russian officers at Al Shayrat air base has been cited as evidence that Russia had to have known about Syria’s chemical warfare capability, and yet did nothing to prevent the attack.
To sustain this illogic, the American public and decision-makers make use of a sophisticated propaganda campaign involving video images and narratives provided by forces opposed to the regime of Bashar al-Assad, including organizations like the “White Helmets”, the Syrian-American Medical Society, the Aleppo Media Center, which have a history of providing slanted information designed to promote an anti-Assad message (Donald Trump has all but acknowledged that these images played a major role in his decision to reevaluate his opinion of Bashar Al-Assad and order the cruise missile attack on Al Shayrat airbase).
Many of the fighters affiliated with Tahrir Al-Sham are veterans of the battle for Aleppo, and as such are intimately familiar with the tools and trade of the extensive propaganda battle that was waged simultaneously with the actual fighting in an effort to sway western public opinion toward adopting a more aggressive stance in opposition to the Syrian government of Assad.
These tools were brought to bear in promoting a counter-narrative about the Khan Sheikhoun chemical incident (ironically, many of the activists in question, including the “White Helmets”, were trained and equipped in social media manipulation tactics using money provided by the United States; that these techniques would end up being used to manipulate an American President into carrying out an act of war most likely never factored into the thinking of the State Department personnel who conceived and implemented the program).
Even slick media training, however, cannot gloss over basic factual inconsistencies.
Early on, the anti-Assad opposition media outlets were labeling the Khan Sheikhoun incident as a “Sarin nerve agent” attack; one doctor affiliated with Al Qaeda sent out images and commentary via social media that documented symptoms, such as dilated pupils, that he diagnosed as stemming from exposure to Sarin nerve agent.
Sarin, however, is an odorless, colorless material, dispersed as either a liquid or vapor; eyewitnesses speak of a “pungent odor” and “blue-yellow” clouds, more indicative of chlorine gas.
And while American media outlets, such as CNN, have spoken of munitions “filled to the brim” with Sarin nerve agent being used at Khan Sheikhoun, there is simply no evidence cited by any source that can sustain such an account.
Heartbreaking images of victims being treated by “White Helmet” rescuers have been cited as proof of Sarin-like symptoms, the medical viability of these images is in question; there are no images taken of victims at the scene of the attack.
Instead, the video provided by the “White Helmets” is of decontamination and treatment carried out at a “White Helmet” base after the victims, either dead or injured, were transported there.
The lack of viable protective clothing worn by the “White Helmet” personnel while handling victims is another indication that the chemical in question was not military grade Sarin; if it were, the rescuers would themselves have become victims (some accounts speak of just this phenomena, but this occurred at the site of the attack, where the rescuers were overcome by a “pungent smelling” chemical – again, Sarin is odorless).
More than 20 victims of the Khan Sheikhoun incident were transported to Turkish hospitals for care; three subsequently died.
According to the Turkish Justice Minister, autopsies conducted on the bodies confirm that the cause of death was exposure to chemical agents.
The World Health Organization has indicated that the symptoms of the Khan Sheikhoun victims are consistent with both Sarin and Chlorine exposure.
American media outlets have latched onto the Turkish and WHO statements as “proof” of Syrian government involvement; however, any exposure to the chlorine/white phosphorous blend associated with Al Nusra chemical weapons would produce similar symptoms.
Moreover, if Al Nusra was replicating the type of low-grade Sarin it employed at Ghouta in 2013 at Khan Sheikhoun, it is highly likely that some of the victims in question would exhibit Sarin-like symptoms.
Blood samples taken from the victims could provide a more precise readout of the specific chemical exposure involved; such samples have allegedly been collected by Al Nusra-affiliated personnel, and turned over to international investigators (the notion that any serious investigatory body would allow Al Nusra to provide forensic evidence in support of an investigation where it is one of only two potential culprits is mindboggling, but that is precisely what has happened).
But the Trump administration chose to act before these samples could be processed, perhaps afraid that their results would not sustain the underlying allegation of the employment of Sarin by the Syrian air force.
Mainstream American media outlets have willingly and openly embraced a narrative provided by Al Qaeda affiliates whose record of using chemical weapons in Syria and distorting and manufacturing “evidence” to promote anti-Assad policies in the west, including regime change, is well documented.
These outlets have made a deliberate decision to endorse the view of Al Qaeda over a narrative provided by Russian and Syrian government authorities without any effort to fact check either position.
These actions, however, do not seem to shock the conscience of the American public; when it comes to Syria, the mainstream American media and its audience has long ago ceded the narrative to Al Qaeda and other Islamist anti-regime elements.
The real culprits here are the Trump administration, and President Trump himself.
The president’s record of placing more weight on what he sees on television than the intelligence briefings he may or may not be getting, and his lack of intellectual curiosity and unfamiliarity with the nuances and complexities of both foreign and national security policy, created the conditions where the imagery of the Khan Sheikhoun victims that had been disseminated by pro-Al Nusra (i.e., Al Qaeda) outlets could influence critical life-or-death decisions.
That President Trump could be susceptible to such obvious manipulation is not surprising, given his predilection for counter-punching on Twitter for any perceived slight; that his national security team allowed him to be manipulated thus, and did nothing to sway Trump’s opinion or forestall action pending a thorough review of the facts, is scandalous.
History will show that Donald Trump, his advisors and the American media were little more than willing dupes for Al Qaeda and its affiliates, whose manipulation of the Syrian narrative resulted in a major policy shift that furthers their objectives.
The other winner in this sorry story is ISIS, which took advantage of the American strike against Al Shayrat to launch a major offensive against Syrian government forces around the city of Palmyra (Al Shayrat had served as the principal air base for operations in the Palmyra region).
The breakdown in relations between Russia and the United States means that, for the foreseeable future at least, the kind of coordination that had been taking place in the fight against ISIS is a thing of the past, a fact that can only bode well for the fighters of ISIS.
For a man who placed so much emphasis on defeating ISIS, President Trump’s actions can only be viewed as a self-inflicted wound, a kind of circular firing squad that marks the actions of a Keystone Cop, and not the Commander in Chief of the most powerful nation in the world.
But the person who might get the last laugh is President Assad himself. While the Pentagon has claimed that it significantly degraded the Al Shayrat air base, with 58 of 59 cruise missile hitting their targets, Russia has stated that only 23 cruise missiles impacted the facility, and these did only limited damage.
The runway was undamaged; indeed, in the afternoon of April 7, 2017, a Syrian air force fighter-bomber took off from Al Shayrat, flew to Idlib Province, where it attacked Al Nusra positions near Khan Sheikhoun.