As U.S. Pushes For Syria Strike, Questions Loom over Obama Claims in Chemical Attack

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John Kerry
John Kerry

HAVANA TIMES – During Tuesday’s Senate hearing on Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry insisted the administration has irrefutable evidence showing the Assad regime was responsible for the deadly chemical attack in late August. But questions remain over key parts of the administration’s case for military action.

To explore these issues, we speak with journalist Mark Seibel of McClatchy, co-author of the article, “To Some, U.S. Case for Syrian Gas Attack, Strike Has Too Many Holes.” “When it came to questions of the efficacy of a U.N. investigation, or the number of people killed in the conflict, or even the U.S. rendition of what happened in what order, there are contradictions,” Seibel says.

The United States has claimed it had “collected streams of human, signals and geospatial intelligence” that showed the Assad government preparing for an attack three days before the event. “That claim raises two questions,” Seibel writes. “Why didn’t the U.S. warn rebels about the impending attack and save hundreds of lives? And why did the administration keep mum about the suspicious activity when on at least one previous occasion U.S. officials have raised an international fuss when they observed similar actions?”

NERMEEN SHAIKH: During Tuesday’s Senate hearing on Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry insisted the administration has irrefutable evidence showing the Assad regime was responsible for the deadly chemical attack in late August.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: We can tell you beyond any reasonable doubt that our evidence proves the Assad regime prepared for this attack, issued instructions to prepare for this attack, warned its own forces to use gas masks. We have physical evidence of where the rockets came from and when. Not one rocket landed in regime-controlled territory. Not one. All of them landed in opposition-controlled or contested territory.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Secretary of State John Kerry.

For more on Syria, we’re joined by Mark Seibel of the McClatchy news service. He co-wrote a piece this week headlined “To Some, US Case for Syrian Gas Attack, Strike Has Too Many Holes.”

Mark, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you lay out what you see those holes are?

MARK SEIBEL: Well, thank you very much.

The holes that we identified in the piece really have to do with contradictions between what Secretary of State Kerry has said in his public announcements and what other partners, if you use that phrase, in the Syrian issue have also reported. And, basically, what we identified is that when it came to questions of the efficacy of a U.N. investigation or the number of people killed in the conflict, or even the U.S. rendition of what happened in what order, there are contradictions. Do they completely undercut the case? I don’t know. If you believe that conclusions are based on facts, then the question becomes, do we have the facts? And that’s—you know, that’s an issue.

AMY GOODMAN: So, take us through these issues one by one. Talk, for example, about the numbers. The number that Senator Kerry—Secretary of State Kerry has referenced, how did the U.S. reach that tally of 1,429 people killed in a gas attack, including 426 children?

MARK SEIBEL: Well, we actually don’t know how they obtained that number. It is the highest number that’s reported by anyone, 1,429. It’s a very precise number. The U.S. intelligence summary doesn’t tell us how they arrived at it. It’s interesting because it is so much higher than even what the local coordinating committees, which is the Syrian opposition group on the ground, reports, and they reported 1,252. Again, a precise number, but much lower than the U.S. number. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is generally considered the most authoritative source for violence in Syria, they’ve figured about 502, maybe a hundred children, some number of rebel fighters in that number. The French, who have been the most transparent about how they arrived at a number, have reported 281. The French looked at 47 videos, according to their intelligence summary, and they counted the bodies in them. So, of course, they say it’s quite likely that there were more than 281 people killed, but at least we know where their precise number came from.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So why do you think it is that we have no idea that the—how the U.S. obtained this figure?

MARK SEIBEL: Well, that’s a—that’s a good question. I mean, it, you know, is a—it seems to me simple enough to say we got it from “X” source. I don’t know why we don’t have that sort of information. Kerry has not taken questions from the news media on that, and it didn’t come up in yesterday’s hearing, because I think most people are generally unaware that the numbers are all over the map. And you can say, “Well, what’s the difference, you know, whether it was 1,400 or 200?” But I think it probably makes a difference in understanding was this the largest chemical weapons assault, or was it a middling chemical weapons assault? What do we really know about the assault? And those are—those are questions we ought to at least know the answers to as we conclude what our response is going to be.

And one of the bigger issues for me was the immediacy with which the administration denounced a U.N. investigation into the probe. I mean, even before the investigation had begun, the secretary of state was on TV telling the American people that there had been a five-day delay, which he later changed to four—there had been a five-day delay, and that was been too long to get any credible evidence. And that was just simply not a true statement. And why they work so hard to discredit the United Nations’ investigation, even before it had gotten started, you know, is an open question.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Mark Seibel, chief of correspondents for McClatchy Newspapers. You also raised the question about the proof that a chemical attack happened, and the question of who was involved with that.

MARK SEIBEL: Excuse me? Tell me the question again?

AMY GOODMAN: You raised the question in your piece in McClatchy Newspapers of the proof that a chemical attack happened and who was responsible for it.

MARK SEIBEL: Well, you know, we’ve been told that a chemical attack took place, and the evidence seems to be that some sort of attack took place. We don’t actually know what the chemical was. The U.S. has said that it was sarin. There’s every reason to think that might be true, but we don’t know what the chemical test was that led them to conclude that it was sarin. We don’t know how the evidence was obtained. We don’t know what lab it was worked in. We actually don’t know how they arrived at that conclusion so quickly. You know, they announced it Sunday. But, you know, according to—again, to the secretary of state, it will take the U.N. two, three, maybe four weeks to reach that same determination in very modern labs in Europe. So there’s an awful lot we don’t know about that. And because we don’t know it—because we don’t know the details, at least in the public case—and again, you know, we’re not sitting in the classified briefings, but we don’t really know. We are being asked to—excuse me—to trust the assertion that it was sarin and that we know that, but, here again, it’s—we’re asked to make a leap of faith.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s go to Secretary of State John Kerry, who says that humanitarian organizations working on the ground in Syria corroborated U.S. government claims that chemical weapons had been employed.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: Our understanding of what has already happened in Syria is grounded in facts, informed by conscience and guided by common sense. The reported number of victims, the reported symptoms of those who were killed or injured, the first-hand accounts from humanitarian organizations on the ground, like Doctors Without Borders and the Syria Human Rights Commission, these all strongly indicate that everything these images are already screaming at us is real, that chemical weapons were used in Syria.

AMY GOODMAN: Secretary of State Kerry speaking last week. Now, Doctors Without Borders, which also goes by its French acronym MSF for Médecins Sans Frontières, posted a statement on its website saying, quote, “MSF is aware that incorrect, manipulated information about MSF and Syria is circulating on the internet and social media. … MSF does not have the capacity to identify the cause of the neurotoxic symptoms of patients reported by three clinics supplied by MSF in Damascus governorate. … MSF does not possess the capacity or ability to determine or assign responsibility for the event that caused these reported symptoms to occur. Any statement or story that asserts any of these things is false.” Mark Seibel, if you could respond to what MSF and the secretary of state, John Kerry, is saying?

MARK SEIBEL: Well, one of the things that I think, in terms of Doctors Without Borders, is that the secretary of state talks about it as first-hand observation by Doctors Without Borders, and Doctors Without Borders has been very clear that it’s too dangerous for their people to actually go in there. So it is not Doctors Without Borders’ first-hand observation. What Doctors Without Borders does have is information from Syrian medical personnel that they have worked with previously and that they have provided supplies to. And they reported, you know, what they were told by those doctors at three hospitals that they had treated 3,600 patients who showed various symptoms and that 355 of those patients have died. But I think to say it was a first-hand observation, it’s not a first-hand observation. The information may be perfectly valid, but we don’t know that. And so, here again, it’s—does it undercut the full case? I don’t know. Does it support the full case? I don’t know. What it does say is that what we’re being told publicly is not exactly what other people are saying.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, another problem that you raise, an issue that you raise in your article, is that if the U.S. knew, through intelligence sources, as Kerry claimed last week, that the Assad regime was preparing to launch chemical weapons attacks three days before the attacks occurred, why didn’t the U.S. warn the opposition that these attacks were coming?

MARK SEIBEL: Well, that’s a—you know, that’s a very interesting question, and it gets at something that we have learned since the piece ran, because the presentation that has been made over the last several days leads you to believe that, well, we saw them getting ready for a chemical attack, we saw the rockets launched, and then there was a chemical attack. It turns out—and we’ve learned subsequent to writing this piece—that that’s not how it worked at all, that there was the chemical attack, and then apparently the U.S. began processing intelligence that it had picked up or information it had gotten previously, and determined, oh, in here we have seen some signs that they were putting on to get gas masks or mixing chemicals or whatever, but we didn’t actually pick that information up before the attack. So, here again, it’s—in the presentation of the information, we have been given a timeline that does not actually reflect what—the process by which we have, quote-unquote, “learned” what took place.

It struck a lot of the Syrian opposition as wrong that the United States would have seen preparations for a chemical attack and not bothered to say anything. And we know last December that when they perceived that there were preparations being made for a chemical attack, that the U.S. made a big fuss about it. Obama redrew his red line. Hillary Clinton made statements. The U.N. withdrew its personnel from the ground. None of that took place in August, and that had struck the Syrian opposition as odd. You know, why didn’t you let us know? But as it turns out, while we’re saying now that we detected these preparations, we did not detect those preparations in real time. That’s something we’ve concluded was taking place by looking at things we recovered after we were aware of the attack.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, then come back to this conversation with Mark Seibel, chief of correspondents for McClatchy Newspapers. His most recent piece, which he co-authored with Hannah Allam, is “To Some, US Case for Syrian Gas Attack, Strike Has Too Many Holes.” This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: While finishing his testimony in front of the Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State John Kerry was interrupted by Medea Benjamin of CodePink, who yelled “We don’t want another war!” Listen carefully.

SEN. BOB MENENDEZ: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Secretary Kerry, the American people say no to war!

SEN. BOB MENENDEZ: Committee will be in order.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Ban Ki-moon says no to war!

SEN. BOB MENENDEZ: The committee will be in order.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: The pope says no to war! We don’t want another war!

SEN. BOB MENENDEZ: I ask the police to restore order.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: [inaudible] Nobody wants this war! Cruise missiles—launching cruise missiles means another war. The American people do not want this! Secretary Kerry—

SEN. BOB MENENDEZ: Secretary Hagel.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: Can I just say, before I say—you know, the first time I testified before this committee, when I was 27 years old, I had feelings very similar to that protester, and I would just say that is exactly why it is so important that we are all here having this debate, talking about these things before the country, and that the Congress itself will act representing the American people. And I think we all can respect those who have a different point of view. And we do.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was John Kerry speaking yesterday. But let’s go back over 40 years. I want to play a short clip from 1971, when John Kerry, then a young Naval lieutenant, testifying in uniform, first pleaded with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. This time it was to stop the Vietnam War.

JOHN KERRY: Someone has to die so that President Nixon won’t be, and these are his words, “the first president to lose a war.” And we are asking Americans to think about that, because how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake? We are here to ask, and we’re here to ask vehemently, where are the leaders of our country? Where is the leadership?

AMY GOODMAN: That was John Kerry coming back from the war against Vietnam, against the war in Vietnam. Mark Seibel, you’re chief of correspondents for McClatchy Newspapers. The piece you have written is a very interesting one, “To Some, US Case for Syrian Gas Attack, Strike Has Too Many Holes.” So we go back 40 years to then John Kerry—today he’s secretary of state—and we go back 10 years to look at what happened in Iraq, to look at the argument made for weapons of mass destruction. You even had General Colin Powell, the former secretary of state, who testified February 5th, 2003, before the United Nations, actually playing the recordings of conversations, saying they proved that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. General Colin Powell would later say the speech was a blot on his career. Can you talk about what we know today and compare it to what was known 10 years ago that was used to build the case to go to war with Iraq, right about the same time, right before the Legislature, the Congress, voted for war?

MARK SEIBEL: Well, you know, it’s—I haven’t done a detailed comparison. So, impressionistically, you know, I think Colin Powell came out with some very detailed information that turned out to not be very accurate. And that’s why I’m a little bit obsessed with the details of what we’re being told, because I think if the details are wrong, then the conclusion might be wrong, as well. Kerry makes assertions—he did yesterday, for example—that moderate forces among the rebels are on the rise in Syria. You know, as a person who sends correspondents into Syria, worries about their safety while they’re there, I don’t—

AMY GOODMAN: It just froze for a minute. While we get Mark Seibel back on, I want to go to Tuesday’s hearing on Syria with Secretary of State Kerry, who was questioned by Democratic Senator Mark Udall of Colorado. Udall asked about Syrian President Assad and al-Nusra, a Syrian opposition group with ties to al-Qaeda.

SEN. MARK UDALL: By degrading his capacity, don’t you in fact make him weaker and make the people out there, like al-Nusra and al-Qaeda and these other extremist forces, stronger? And this is what I want General Dempsey to talk about in a little bit, too. But—


SEN. MARK UDALL: —will you answer that? Could you answer that?


SEN. MARK UDALL: By degrading him, you make these extremist forces stronger, do you not?

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: No, I don’t believe you do. As a matter of fact, I think you—you actually make the opposition stronger. The opposition is getting stronger by the day now. And I think General Idris would tell you that, that he is not sitting around, and his daily concern is not the opposition, it’s Assad and what Assad is doing with his scuds, with his airplanes, with his tanks, with his artillery, to the people of Syria.

But I think it’s important also to look at this, because you raised the question of, doesn’t this make the United States the policeman of the world? No. It makes the United States a multilateral partner in an effort that the world, 184 nations strong, has accepted the responsibility for. And if the United States, which has the greatest capacity to do that, doesn’t help lead that effort, then shame on us. Then we’re not standing up to our multilateral and humanitarian and strategic interests.

AMY GOODMAN: Secretary of State Kerry was also questioned by Wisconsin Republican Senator Ron Johnson. Ron Johnson is the Wisconsinite who beat Russ Feingold in the Senate. Republican Senator Ron Johnson talked about the makeup of the Syrian rebel groups, asked Kerry about this.

SEN. RON JOHNSON: It seems like initially the opposition was maybe more Western-leaning, more moderate, more democratic, and as time has gone by, it’s degraded, become more infiltrated by al-Qaeda.


SEN. RON JOHNSON: Is that—is that basically true?


SEN. RON JOHNSON: Or to what proportion has that happened?

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: No, that is actually, basically not true. It’s basically correct. The opposition has increasingly become more defined by its moderation, more defined by the breadth of its membership, and more defined by its adherence to some, you know, democratic process and to an all-inclusive minority-protecting constitution, which will be broad-based and secular with respect to the future of Syria.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Secretary Kerry yesterday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he used to sit. Mark Seibel, talk about the rebels.

MARK SEIBEL: Well, you know, the problem we see for our correspondents going in is that it’s not as safe to be there in areas that we used to think were safe, and it’s largely because of the presence of al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which are two al-Qaeda-affiliated organizations that we’ve seen their influence grow from closer to the border with Iraq, across the northeast and northern Syria, where they’re now very, very active in Idlib province and were responsible for fighting in Latakia, which is on the Mediterranean coast, though the fighting was not on the coast. And so, we’ve actually seen Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq—we’ve seen their influence grow in the last few months, and it’s one of the reasons that news organizations now are not sending correspondents into Syria in the way they used to, because it is not safe to be there. People get kidnapped. They’re being held by Nusra, and it’s not easy to work with them. Every—we had a correspondent in—fairly recently who encountered Nusra every step of the way. He was traveling with moderate rebels, if you will, but they encountered Nusra all the time. So, I’m not quite certain how—how we reached a conclusion that more moderate forces are on the ascendancy in the rebel movement.

We know, for example, that the capture of an air base in Idlib province in July, the Supreme Military Council, which is—which is our moderate military group, and the Syrian Opposition Coalition, which is the moderate civilian leadership that provide money to, when they announced the capture, they acknowledged that the al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, Nusra and Islamic State of Iraq, were very much part of that attack and that assault. And our experience has been that whenever there is a rebel triumph, that the Nusra people have usually been in the vanguard. So, you know, it’s a highly debatable topic about which it would be good to hear more information, because, of course, that has always been one of the big concerns about assisting the rebels or getting involved. And it was certainly something General Dempsey brought up in a letter to Senators McCain and Levin in July, that you don’t want to empower the extremist forces in the rebel movement with any military action you take in Syria, and that the moderate forces that we champion there—meaning the United States champion there—are not strong enough to run the country at this point. So that’s—you know, I think there are lots of questions to be asked about that, and I’d like to hear more information on what makes us think that the moderates are in the ascendancy.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, in July, during his battle for the nomination as the U.S.’s top military officer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey warned against military action in Syria, as you point out. He said, quote, “The regime could withstand limited strikes by dispersing its assets.” But during Tuesday’s congressional hearings, he appeared to have reversed his position.

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY: We’re preparing several target sets, the first of which would set the conditions for follow-on assessments, and the others would be used if necessary. And I’m—we haven’t gotten to that point yet. What we do know is that we can degrade and disrupt his capabilities and that that should put us in a better position to make the kind of assessment you’re talking about.

AMY GOODMAN: And then you have Secretary of State Kerry initially refusing to rule out the eventual deployment of boots on the ground, saying he can’t take an option off the table.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: In the event there was a threat of a chemical weapons cache falling into the hands of al-Nusra or someone else, and it was clearly in the interests of our allies and all of us—the British, the French and others—to prevent those weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of the worst elements, I don’t want to take off the table an option that might or might not be available to a president of the United States to secure our country.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, later he would walk this back, but, Mark Seibel, this is extremely important, significant, both what Dempsey said before and also what Secretary of State Kerry said yesterday, as he talked about, you know, what happens, he said, if Syria implodes.

MARK SEIBEL: Well, I mean, that’s—you know, I think that’s what Dempsey was saying in his letter to McCain and Levin back in July, which is, once you start a military campaign—and we can call this not classic war, but it’s a military campaign—once you start it, you really don’t know where it’s going to go. And it’s the, as he put it, unintended consequences that you have to be concerned with. And so, you do have to have a strategy for what you’re going to do, if, for example, the country collapses, or if you so weaken an Assad military force that they suddenly lose control of their chemical weapon stores and that a group like the Islamic State of Iraq or al-Nusra comes in and captures them. And then what do you do? So that’s a—that’s a real concern.

And so, the fact that he is holding open the possibility of having to put boots on the ground—and he did come back to that theme, and he never really rejects it—he says, “We don’t want to do that,” but he keeps the option there—is an expression, and probably a smart one, of understanding that once you begin a military operation, you do not know where it will lead, and you need to have your options open. So the question then becomes, I think for Congress, well, do you want to start? And if you start, are you prepared to finish?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, during Tuesday’s Senate hearing, Republican Senator Rand Paul accused the administration of playing, quote, “constitutional theater” with Congress.

SEN. RAND PAUL: You’re making a joke of us. You’re making us into theater. And so we play constitutional theater for the president. If this is real, you will abide by the verdict of Congress. You’re probably going to win. Just go ahead and say it’s real, and let’s have a real debate in this country and not a meaningless debate that in the end you lose and you say, “Oh, well, we have the authority anyway. We’re going to go ahead and go to war anyway.”

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Mark Seibel, very quickly, before we conclude, what do you think is going to happen now?

MARK SEIBEL: Oh, well, I don’t know. I think there’s going to be a lot of debate. I suspect that the—you know, the common wisdom in Washington is that the Senate will authorize action and that it’s—

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds, Mark.

MARK SEIBEL: And that it’s very close in the House.

AMY GOODMAN: Mark Seibel, we want to thank you very much for being with us, chief of correspondents for McClatchy Newspapers. We’ll link to your piece, “To Some, US Case for Syrian Gas Attack, Strike Has Too Many Holes.”

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