The Benefits of a Conservative Mindset. Intellectual Journalism #DumberandDouma

09 April 2018 10:26 AM

Rushing to Judgement Over Syria – some previous experiences

On 3rd November last year I published the post I reproduce below. It is, as far as I know, the most thorough and careful analysis of what we actually know about the last alleged use of poison gas by the Syrian state, in Khan Sheikhoun . I shall have more to say about the more recent accusations later, but – given that all reports of these allegations assume that the Khan Sheikhoun episode is proven beyond reasonable doubt, I thought it important to point out that this is not in fact so.
Please read with care: Link follows one in Article on DailyMail does not work for me here in Sweden.
These are the sorts of questions missing from the media discourse. Well done PeterHitchens for doing proper journalism.
2.5 The scope of the Fact-Finding Mission’s mandate does not include the task of attributing responsibility for the alleged use1 . 1 Fifth preambular paragraph of EC-M-48/DEC.1; sixth preambular paragraph of EC-M-50/DEC.1; eighth preambular paragraph of the United Nations Security Council resolution 2235 (2015).
6.24 This investigation demonstrated: (a) an unusual prior event; (b) a number of afflicted persons with a similar disease or syndrome presenting at around the same time; (c) a number of cases of unexplained disease; (d) an illness occurring in an unusual setting within a community; (e) analyses of signs and symptoms; and (f) positive laboratory results. 6.25 Whilst the conditions for a safe visit to Khan Shaykhun were not met, the FFM concludes that a large number of people, some of whom died, were exposed to sarin, and that the release that caused the exposure was likely initiated from a release in the vicinity of a crater in the road, located close to the silos in the northern part of the town. It is the conclusion of the team that such a release can only be determined as the use of the Schedule 1A(1) chemical sarin, as a chemical weapon. Annexes (English only): Annex 1: Reference Documentation Annex 2: Open Sources Annex 3: Timelines Annex 4: Evidence Obtained by the FFM Annex 5: Characteristics of Nerve Agents and Sarin
I am a great reader and admirer of your work and media appearances Mr Hitchens, This interview with Owen Jones is one of my Favourites.


Rushing to Judgement Over Syria – some previous experiences

On 3rd November last year I published the post I reproduce below. It is, as far as I know, the most thorough and careful analysis of what we actually know about the last alleged use of poison gas by the Syrian state, in Khan Sheikhoun . I shall have more to say about the more recent accusations later, but – given that all reports of these allegations assume that the Khan Sheikhoun episode is proven beyond reasonable doubt, I thought it important to point out that this is not in fact so.
Please read with care:
Did Syria use poison gas in Khan Sheykhoun last April? Does it matter any more? It seems to me that the attempt to justify a Western-backed air attack on Syria has probably failed (do I speak too soon?) now that the Saudi and Gulf-backed (and US-backed) al Qaeda affiliate, the Nusra Front has not succeeded in its attempt to overthrow the Assad state.
So perhaps it doesn’t matter in the immediate sense of, will this alleged event drag us into the worst Middle Eastern cauldron since Libya?
But what if the truth matters for its own sake? And what if a belief about this event becomes fixed in the public mind, and the belief is not justified, will it be revived at some point for another dangerous purpose?
In July I provided this account of a fact-finding mission by the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) which (fascinatingly) didn’t actually go to the site of the alleged atrocity
The report contains links to the OPCW report. My conclusion was and remains that, even following this report, perhaps especially following it, we simply do not know enough to attribute responsibility for this event.
Now I have obtained a copy of a further report. I am not sure if I can link to it, but here is an attempt. If not, I would be grateful if anyone knows of any other route to it. 
This is from the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism, sent to the UN Security Council on 26 October 2017.This is extraordinarily confident in its judgments. It states
‘Based on the foregoing, the Leadership Panel is confident that the Syrian Arab Republic is responsible for the release of sarin at Khan Shaykhun on 4 April 2017. ‘
The report (in the version seen by me)  itself is hard to reference, since its pages are not numbered, and if there is a rational numbering of paragraphs, I cannot decode it.  I have numbered the pages by hand for my personal use, but cannot be sure that my numbering would correspond to that of anyone else who printed it out.
So I suggest that you use (if you can) Control F or Command F to search for the passages which I quote.
I find the discussion of the origin and nature of the crater inconclusive and am surprised at the apparent certainty of the un-named ‘experts’ quoted that it was definitely caused by an air-dropped bomb. See if you think the stated information leads inevitably to that conclusion.
Then there is the question of whether aircraft passed close enough to the site of the crater to drop a sarin bomb there. All emphases here and later are mine:
The report says ‘The Mechanism received informationas to the operation of SAAF aircraft in the area of Khan Shaykhun indicating that SAAF aircraft may have beenin a position to launch aerial bombs in the vicinity. At the same time, however, SAAF flight records and other records provided by the Syrian Arab Republic make no mention of Khan Shaykhun on 4 April 2017. Furthermore, a representative of the SAAF stated to the Mechanism that no SAAF aircraft had attacked Khan Shaykhun on 4 April 2017. • The Mechanism received conflicting information about aircraft deployment in Khan Shaykhun that morning. On 6 and 13 April 2017, the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic made public statements that the SAAF bombed Khan Shaykhun with conventional bombs at around 1130 to 1200 hours. Furthermore, the Mechanism obtained original video footage from two separate witnesses that showed four plumes caused by explosives across Khan Shaykhun. The footage was confirmed by forensic analysis to be authentic and to have been filmed in Khan Shaykhun between 0642 and 0652 hours on 4 April 2017.’
I am not sure if I understand this. I would so very much like to see references (the report, in the version I have seen, does not provide these) for the statement that the Syrian government said it had bombed Khan Sheikhoun with conventional weapons on the date of the alleged sarin attack, several hours later than the supposed attack. I don’t recall this. And in any case, does it help much? Also, how was it possible to verify that the video footage was authentic and filmed at the time stated? What techniques were used?  This is one of several points at which unidentified experts and witnesses are cited and we are left to take their word for it, as the report seems very willing to do.
But this is, as it were, only a preliminary to the big stuff.
Look in the area around “early warning ”  and “air deployment” for more rather contentious claims and conclusions (in my view) supported by unidentified experts whose views seem remarkably unanimous and helpful to the belief that Syria did it, despite the absence of solid, objective certainties and despite the fact that no independent investigators have ever actually been to the site.  Yup. That’s still so. Not that, at this distance in time, they could find much. 
 But on my page 28 (which begins ‘At the request of the Mechanism, the Syrian Arab Republic…’) we move into another very interesting area. This is the known flight path of aircraft which were *close* to Khan Sheikhoun on the day and time of the alleged outrage.
This aircraft (as we know from flight path maps published by the US authorities at the time) was roughly 3 miles away from Khan Sheikhoun.
Another aircraft was 5 miles away.
The report says : ‘As noted in paragraphs 19, 23 and 28 (not numbered in my version, PH) of this annex, the Mechanism obtained information detailing the presence of a Su-22 within 5 km (3 miles) of Khan Shaykhun, as well as information from the pilot of a Su-22 interviewed by the Mechanism that he was within 7 to 9 km (5 miles) of Khan Shaykhun at the relevant time.
But the report sometimes treats 3 miles as the closest the aircraft got to Khan Sheikhoun, and sometimes as the limit within which it was. Confusing?
I am told (I cannot understand it myself, but others may find methods of doing so) this Russian report of a Moscow government briefing (yes, they have an interest in this and it must be taken into account) 

states that it’s just possible that the jet could have
tossed the bomb 3 miles ahead if it was travelling directly towards the
target at maximum altitude and speed for bomb release, but it would
then have had to keep travelling towards the target as its minimurn
turn radius is more than a mile and so it would have approached closer to the target.
The flight track published by the US government doesn’t show any path like this – the jet
simply flew in an east-west line south of the town.

‘The Mechanism consulted with a weapons expert to ascertain the confluence of distance and altitude from which it may be possible to hit Khan Shaykhun with an aerial bomb. The expert concluded that, depending on a number of variables such as altitude, speed and flight path taken, it would be possible for such an aerial bomb to be deployed on the town from the aforementioned distances. • To date the Mechanism has not found specific information confirming whether or not an SAAF Su-22 operating from Al-Shayrat airbase launched an aerial attack against Khan Shaykhun on 4 April 2017.’

Seems reasonable. How in that case did they reach their confident conclusion that the Syrians did it? Un-named witnesses are cited along with films allegedly recorded at the time on which aircraft sounds have been heard. Since so much weight is given to this evidence, it is frustrating that we are not, in this version, given any details of the sources or of the verification methods used.
For example: ‘The Mechanism collected two original videos filmed by two witnesses from different angles showing several plumes that were confirmed by forensic institutes to have been filmed between 0642 and 0652 hours during the morning of 4 April 2017. Forensic analysis of the videos found that, at a certain point in each video, the sound of an aircraft could be heard in the background along with an explosion.’
I continue to take the view that we lack enough definite first-hand checkable evidence to attribute blame. And I add one thing. If you go to the pages I have numbered 35 and 36, or perhaps search for the terms ‘unusual or inappropriate’. You will then arrive at this astonishing passage (the emphases are very much mine, as before)
  • ‘Based on its review of open source material showing first responders in the hours immediately after the incident, the Mechanism observed several methods and procedures that appeared either unusual or inappropriate in the circumstances. In particular, the Mechanism noted that fully equipped hazmat teams appeared at the scene later that afternoon and reported early detection of the presence of sarin, seemingly using a Dräger X-am 7000 ambient air monitor, which was not known to be able to detect sarin. Of further concern to the Mechanism was the relative unprofessionalism by which certain environmental samples appear to have been taken, e.g. sampling from a muddy puddle. • The Mechanism also noted scenes recorded just after the incident at the medical point to the east of Khan Shaykhun, where rescue and decontamination activities filmed shortly after 0700 hours showed rescue personnel hosing down patients with water indiscriminately for extended periods of time. Such video footage also depicted a number of patients not being attended to, and some para-medical interventions that did not seem to make medical sense, such as performing heart compression on a patient facing the ground. • The Mechanism obtained expert analysis on the medical symptoms and response indicated in witness statements and medical records, as well as treatment received at a range of health care facilities, including those in a neighbouring country. • Certain irregularities were observed in elements of information analysed. For example, several hospitals appeared to start admitting casualties of the attack between 0640 and 0645 hours. The Mechanism received the medical records of 247 patients from Khan Shaykhun who were admitted to various health-care facilities, including those of survivors and a number of victims who died from exposure to a 29/33 chemical agent. The admission times of the records range between 0600 and 1600 hours. Analysis of the aforementioned medical records revealed that in 57 cases, patients were admitted in five hospitals before the incident in Khan Shaykhun (at 0600, 0620 and 0640 hours). In 10 such cases, patients appear to have been admitted to a hospital 125 km (75 miles) away from Khan Shaykhun at 0700 hours while another 42 patients appear to have been admitted to a hospital 30 km (18 miles) away at 0700 hours. The Mechanism did not investigate these discrepancies and cannot determine whether they are linked to any possible staging scenario, or to poor record-keeping in chaotic conditions. • (****PH Notes, the sarin attack is said to have happened between 6.30 and 7.00 on the morning of 4th April***). An inconsistency was identified in one of the Fact-Finding Mission biomedical results from samples without a chain of custody. In sample number 133 , the blood tested negative for sarin or a sarin-like substance, while the urine sample tested positive for the sarin degradation product isopropyl methylphosphonate. There is currently no explanation regarding the inconsistency. Medical experts consulted by the Mechanism indicated that the combination of the negative result in the blood and the positive result in the urine was impossible. This inconsistency was considered to be most probably the result of cross-contamination in the sampling process. • The Mechanism observed from open sources that treatment of victims from Khan Shaykhun frequently involved oxygen and cortisone therapy. This treatment is not recommended for sarin intoxication, but is mainly for lung damage, as would be caused by either chlorine or vacuum bombs. • Based on consultations with two medical experts, the Mechanism found that the response by rescue workers and medical personnel in Khan Shaykhun on 4 April 2017 had been essentially consistent with the use of sarin on such a scale. While some potentially important irregularities were identified throughout the rescue operation and in medical records, they may be explained by factors such as poor training or the chaotic conditions, or by attempts to inflate the gravity of the situation for depiction in the media. ‘
I reproduce this segment without any comment save one question. Is it fair to say that the rather relaxed and generous treatment of *these* inconsistencies and oddities contrasts with some other parts of the report, in which any evidence tending towards the unproven view that the crater was caused by an air-dropped gas bomb and that Syrian aircraft were over the town at the time, is given ready credence? I am not an expert in these matters. Perhaps I have misread the document. But it still does not seem to me that its confident attribution of blame is justified by the material of the actual document, in this version.

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