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August 21st – The Rebels Did It!

July 17, 2014

By Eliot Higgins

In the weeks and months after the August 21st Sarin attacks in Damascus there have been many theories about oppostion responsibility for the attacks from diverse sources including the conspiracy theorists, a nun, and a Pulitzer Prize winner.  Some of these theories have been repeated by the Syrian government’s allies, in particular Russia, even though key elements of the stories would appear to be incompatible with each other.  Here’s a look at some of the more popular theories that have been doing the rounds since August 21st.

The Rebels Faked It

Probably the earliest theory was that the rebels had faked the attack, with the first “proof” being the upload dates on the YouTube videos of the attack.  A number of sites had noticed the upload dates on YouTube were August 20th, citing this as proof that the videos were uploaded before the early morning attack on August 21st opposition groups had reported.  Posts on sites like Islamic Invitation Turkey were picked up by sites such as Voice of Russia a day after the attack, then by Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Aleksandr Lukashevich who stated

More new evidence is starting to emerge that this criminal act was clearly provocative.  On the internet, in particular, reports are circulating that news of the incident carrying accusations against government troops was published several hours before the so-called attack. So, this was a pre-planned action.

This would mark the beginning of an on going trend of the Russian Foreign Ministry appearing to base their statements on August 21st on the latest stories circulating on the internet, and this particular theory was quickly debunked by Storyful on their Open Newsroom.  The Storyful team noted that upload times displayed on YouTube videos were often the time of the YouTube servers in America, so several hours before the early morning Sarin attacks, and it was in fact possible to find out the exact upload time by examining metadata from YouTube, which showed all the videos had been uploaded after the reported time of attack.

Another key figure in the theory the opposition were responsible for faking the attack was Mother Agnes Mariam de la Croix, a controversial figure who produce a report claiming to show the opposition had faked the attack.  Her report was criticised by Human Rights Watch, and Mother Agnes made claims including some of the victims were hostage that had been taken in Latakkia, and claimed to have spoken to families in the area

The study I have prepared is based primarily on testimonies collected in the highland areas of the Latakia Governorate, which we visited as part of our organization’s reconciliation effort. I met with several families in the area. They told me they had recognized their children in the videos capturing the alleged victims of the chemical attack in East Ghouta.

Human Rights Watch stated they had spoken to people in the area the kidnappings had taken place, and none of them made the same claims.  Mother Agnes also failed to explain how hundreds of captured women and children could have been transported hundreds of miles from Latakkia to Damascus through wartorn Syria.  Her claims were further undermined when videos of the hostages being released as part of the May 2014 deal to evacuate Homs were posted online.

The Rebels Did It (Maybe By Accident) With Saudi Chemical Weapons

A week after the attacks a piece in Mint Press garner a great deal of attention when it claimed “Syrians In Ghouta Claim Saudi-Supplied Rebels Behind Chemical Attack“.  The article itself only claims the opposition were responsible in the headline and in one line of the story, “Many believe that certain rebels received chemical weapons via the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, and were responsible for carrying out the dealing gas attack.”.  Most of the story dealt with claims that there had been an accident with what were described as chemical weapons, some of which had a “tube-like structure”, others which were like a “huge gas bottle”.  It’s unclear in the article if the accident was linked to the Sarin attack, and most of the remaining article is dedicated to detailing the Saudi intelligence services involvement with Syria, with details of the key claim made in the headline left by the wayside.

The article become very controversial when one of the supposed authors, Dale Gavlak, denied writing the article, only helping the virtually unknown author of the article Yahya Ababneh with his English, and to edit the piece, stating “Mint Press News has refused to act professionally or honestly in regards to disclosing the actual authorship and sources for this story.”  Mint Press countered those claims, stating, among other things, that “Gavlak wrote the article in it’s entirety as well as conducted the research”.

Later, it appears Mint Press became more interested in the claims made by Seymour Hersh about the August 21st attacks, which claimed Turkey had provided Jabhat al-Nusra with the chemical weapons used on August 21st, publishing the lengthy piece “The Failed Pretext For War: Seymour Hersh, Eliot Higgins, MIT Rocket Scientists On Sarin Gas Attack“, with Mnar Muhawesh, CEO and editor-in-chief of Mint Press, stating that she still stood by the earlier Mint Press piece, but “that report was based on interviews with locals and their allegations. No one said it was the fact.”

As with the Mother Agnes theory, the Mint Press story makes no attempt to explain the remains of Volcano rockets at the attack sites, or other key pieces of information that have been gathered about the attacks in the months since the attacks.  As we’ll see next, this is a theme common to theories of opposition responsibility for the August 21st attacks.

Al Qaeda Rebels Did It With Turkey’s Help To Trick the US

The most recent popular theory blaming the opposition for the Sarin attacks came from Pulitzer Prize winner Seymour Hersh, who in a pair of articles, Whose sarin? and The Red Line and the Rat Line, constructs a narrative where Turkey provide Al-Qaeda aligned Jabhat al-Nusra with chemical weapons.  In it, Hersh ignores a number of key pieces of information, and when questioned about this has been unable to come up with little more ad hominem attacks on those disagreeing with him.

One example of this is his claims about the munitions used in the attack.  After the publication of The Red Line and the Rat Line in April, Hersh appeared on Democracy Now, and made a number of claims, including “I quote somebody from inside that investigation unit who was very clear that the weapons fired were homemade and were not Syrian army.”

As I’ve detailed elsewhere, this is clearly incorrect, there’s a huge amount of information linking Volcano rockets used to the Syrian military, including videos from pro-government sources, and Hersh totally ignores the use of M14 140mm artillery rockets, certainly not homemade, and documented by the UN/OPCW report into the attacks, which one would assume Hersh would have read as part of any research into a piece on August 21st.

When asked about claims regarding the chemistry of the Sarin used in the attacks put forward by Dan Kaszeta, his response was little more than an ad hominem attack on Dan Kaszeta, falsely claiming Dan owns “a bunch of companies” and that he hadn’t worked in the field for 10 years.  As of yet, Hersh has not been willing to address the issues raised about his work on the August 21st attacks, and without addressing those issues the narrative Hersh has constructed falls apart.

Al-Qaeda Rebels Did It With Chemical Weapons From Georgia (The State Not The Country) Smuggled Via Gerogia (The Country Not The State) With The Help Of Google Ideas, DynCorp, And Political Groups In Israel And The US With Additional Fake Intelligence From Israel

Off the back of the controversy surrounding the Hersh piece, a bizarre theory resurfaced, which demonstrates some people can appear to utterly convince themselves of things that are complete nonsense.  In August of 2013, Gordon Duff put together the following video, claiming it was proof of a rather complicated conspiracy

In the video he states “over the past few days we have tracked chemical weapons shipments from Georgia, the chemical weapons that were seen there, had been deployed from a research facility controlled by the US government, the Jack Kemp research facility, named after an American senator. The weapons closely resemble weapons that were built by Saddam Hussein, you’re seeing the weapon being loaded onto a launcher.  These weapons were, we are told, brought through Georgia, shipped through Turkey by contracting companies that had previously worked for the State Department.  We have no proof that these weapons have been contracted by the state department or CIA. Among the companies involved one is Google Ideas Groups (sic), through safe-houses and individuals that they had hired from DynCorp, who have been delivering unusual packages believed to be WMDs to Al Qaeda operatives closely aligned to political groups within Israel and the US and nations in the Gulf.”

In a September video Gordon Duff claimed to have found more evidence of Sarin being used by the opposition

In light of the April Seymour Hersh article, Veterans Today revisited the theory in a lengthy interview with Gordon Duff, clearly unaware or uninterested that the entire story was complete nonsense.  The “chemical weapon” Duff was certain was a US made weapon is the popular “Hell Cannon” DIY mortar produced by the Syrian opposition, featuring in dozens of videos from Syria, and it’s clear that no matter how much Duff believes his own stories, they are pure fantasies.

As the above examples show, Duff isn’t the only person unwilling to engage with the evidence, so is he really any worse than those who peddle narratives which deflects blame from the Syrian government and ignores evidence of government responsibility?

 

Eliot Higgins

Eliot Higgins is the founder of Bellingcat and the Brown Moses Blog. Eliot focuses on the weapons used in the conflict in Syria, and open source investigation tools and techniques.

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5 Comments

  1. AndreasRiis

    Hi Elliot.
    Could you make sort of like ebooks or pdf’s featuring for instance all your world on the chemical weapons attack on August 21st and make them available on bellingcat, for more in depth reading?

    Reply
    • bellingcatadmin

      I’ll think about doing that, I’m actually still working on it, so there might be more to come on that.

      Reply
  2. ScroLL

    Veteran’s Today is a conspiracy theory blog attempting to pin everything bad in the world on the US and Israel. They also publish tons of UFO and paranormal stuff. I expected no less of Gordon Duff. PressTV and Russia Today usually grab him when they need to present their propaganda with a white American face.

    Seymour Hersh seems to be rather hit or miss.

    Reply
    • Jim Dobbin

      I agree regarding Veterans Today. It reads like something out of the Alex Jones show at times. But complete amateurs trying to discredit Hersh because he dares says something that makes their own conspiracies more transparent is lunacy.

      What Hersh says makes more sense today than at any time in the conflict given that we know as fact that Turkey was arming al-Nusra and trucks loaded with all kinds were regularly being sent across the border from MIT to al-Nusra in Syria. We know Turkey were furious the US wouldn’t attack Syria which could be seen from the breakdown in diplomatic relations. Then when Obama declared his “red line” who did it suit more that line was crossed, Syria who had just invited the UN to investigate alleged chemical weapons usage or Turkey to this very day is arming al-Nusra and openly calls for No Fly Zones and Assad to go?

      Reply
      • StrangerThenRedz

        moron the evidence is beyond doubt its assad & nothing apart from your wacky theory, turkey is a nato member doesnt have active CW program & idea turkey would give CW to nusra over sending its own armed forces is ridicilous, turkey hasnt even armed rebels the FSA in any noticable way, nevermind giving rebels surface to air missiles, i can go on, seriously this is far far worse then denying holocoust or bosnia

        Reply

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