A note on the poison gas attack at Khan Sheikhoun, Syria

By George Monbiot, published on monbiot.com, 27th April 2017

There’s an element on the left that seems determined to produce a mirror image of the Washington Consensus. Just as the billionaire press and Western governments downplay and deny the crimes of their allies, so this element downplays and denies the crimes of the West’s official enemies.

The pattern is always the same. They ignore a mountain of compelling evidence and latch onto one or a few contrarians who tell them what they want to hear (a similar pattern to the 9/11 conspiracy theories, and to climate change denial). The latest example is an “alert” published by an organisation called Media Lens, in response to a tweet of mine.

They rely on the claims of one man without expertise in chemical weapons, Theodore Postol, who has quite a history when it comes to these issues. His hypothesis seems to me to stretch the bounds of credulity. This does not necessarily mean it is wrong. It does mean that it should be treated with great caution, especially in view of the evidence stacking up on the other side of the case. Such caution is missing from Media Lens’s treatment.

Update: Since posting this note, I have read a thorough and – to my eyes – convincing debunking of Postol’s hypothesis. You can read it here.

As it happens, just as Media Lens published its article, the French intelligence agency released a new report, which adds substantially to the growing – and, you would hope, un-ignorable – weight of evidence strongly suggesting that the Assad government was responsible.

Doubtless the French government will now be added to the list of conspirators.

Further Update, 1st May 2017: Human Rights Watch has now published a report on the gas attack at Khan Sheikhoun, and a further 19 chemical weapons attacks in Syria that appear to have been perpetrated by the government. Already, HRW is being denounced as part of the conspiracy by some of my correspondents on the left, using a meme developed by the paranoid right as their excuse for not reading or crediting its report: namely funding for HRW by the evil mastermind of the new world order, George Soros.

For the record, I oppose Western military intervention in Syria. I believe it is likely only to make a dreadful situation worse. I believe that the best foreign governments can do at the moment is to provide humanitarian relief, seek to broker negotiated settlements and accept refugees from the horrors inflicted by all sides in that nation.

I have no agenda here other than to ensure that the reality suffered by the people of Khan Sheikhoun is not denied. The survivors of the chemical weapons attack are among the key witnesses to the fact that the weapons were delivered by air – it is their testimony as well as that of investigators that is being dismissed by people who would prefer to deny that the Assad government could have been responsible.

When people allow geopolitical considerations to displace both a reasoned assessment of the evidence and a principled humanitarianism, they mirror the doctrines of people such as Henry Kissinger and Tony Blair. The victims become an abstraction, a political tool whose purpose is to serve an agenda. That this agenda stands in opposition to the objectives of people like Kissinger and Blair does not justify the exercise.

The implications should be obvious. If we deny crimes against humanity, or deny the evidence pointing to the authorship of these crimes, we deny the humanity of the victims. Aren’t we supposed to be better than this? If we do not support the principle of universalism – human rights and justice for everyone, regardless of their identity or the identity of those who oppress them – what are we for?