Q and A: Behind the accusations of rebel chemical weapons use in Syria

Mark LeVine talks to Dan Murphy about Syria and chemical weapons.

Dan Murphy sheds some light on the accusations that the rebels used chemical weapons in Syria [Reuters]

Dan Murphy is a senior staff writer at the Christian Science Monitor who has covered the Middle East since 2003. From 2003-2008 he split his time between Cairo and the Monitor’s Iraq bureau. From 1993-2003 he lived and worked in Southeast Asia, based in Indonesia. He is currently based in Boston. Mark LeVine talks to Dan Murphy about his September 23 column, “Syrian rebels and chemical weapons: a disinformation operation? which debunks most of the major arguments in support of accusations against rebels for launching the attacks on August 21.

ML: Your recent column looked at one of the most important reports used to back accusations that Syrian rebels rather than the government were behind the use of chemical weapons (CW) in the Damascus suburbs in late August. Can you describe what you’ve found?

DM: I didn’t believe the story in the first place. While the Saudis are involved in the war against [Bashar al-] Assad, the notion that Prince Bandar [bin Sultan, Director General of Saudi Intelligence]  would be directly involved in giving nerve agents to untrained rebels, many of whom the US is afraid have jihadi sympathies, just couldn’t pass my smell test. Perhaps I’m naive. I also don’t believe that if Bandar was involved, he’d be dumb enough to allow a low level insurgent (an unnamed woman fighter only called “K”in the story) to know he was involved. If this story came across my desk at the Monitor, particularly from an unknown quantity like Ababneh, I would never have run it as is in a million years. At least I would have filled it with caveats and warnings to the reader that these are mere claims.

The Mint Press piece was written/edited the way a prosecutor would present a case to a court, not how a journalist should do it. At any rate, the story itself was marketed on the credibility of Ms Gavlak, who I don’t think I’ve ever met but has been a freelancer in the region for years and is reasonably well known. Three weeks after publication (why wait so long?) she went public and said the story had nothing to do with her – it was all based on Ababneh’s work and reporting. It later emerged she’d helped translate/edit the piece, and according to Mint Press, had vouched for the piece. She denies that. So what we’re left with is a guy who appears to have at least two online aliases, claims of working for news outlets (Al Jazeera and al-Quds al-Arabi among them) who have no record of ever carrying his byline, who hasn’t made himself available for interviews (I’ve tried contacting him, as have others), writing a story that fits perfectly into the Russian/Syrian narrative of the event. I find the UN evidence (I’m not naive, but am inclined to trust their work was reasonably professional) that there were at least two strikes, at least 16km apart, also compelling. An accidental release of a small amount of sarin underground doesn’t kill people 16km apart.

ML: Beyond Assad partisans/supporters, why do think so many people were and remain so invested in blaming the rebels for the attack?

DM: As the Iraq WMD circus taught us, it’s not unreasonable to look at the claims of knowledge from the US and other governments with great scepticism. The Obama administration has been demanding that Assad “must go” for two years now, and been playing footsy with various rebel factions. It is not crazy to worry that the US would seek war with Syria under false pretences. I know many people who are no friends of Assad, nor of the so-called “anti-imperial left,” who never the less were and remain deeply sceptical – they largely want the US to stay out of the war, and fear an effort to hoodwink the US public into supporting one. As the say, the first casualty when war comes is truth (and prior to Iraq WMD there was the outrageous scandal involving Hill and Knowlton and the Kuwaiti ambassadors daughter, I think it was, with her testimony to congress about Kuwaiti babies being dashed to their deaths out of their incubators following Saddam’s invasion of that country). Then there are the anti-imperial left types – the people who view the US as a great evil in the world, and who seem to take the side of anyone opposed to the US, whatever their own odious behaviour. 

ML: In your view, is there any persuasive evidence that the rebels have used CW in the past, as other reports suggest?

DM: I haven’t seen any. I haven’t seen anything persuasive to me about the earlier chemical attack claims for or against either side. One thought: Crude chlorine gas attacks are easy to carry off and to make – I remember a few chlorine tanker bombs carried out by insurgents during the Iraq war. So that’s possible (whether it’s happened I couldn’t say). I think the obsessing over CW has been a bit of a sideshow, to be honest: If there’s a moral case for war to be made, it’s got to focus on the 100,000 dead, not on a relative handful of deaths caused by a specific means.

ML: Sciences Po (Institut d’etudes politiques de Paris) professor and retired French diplomat Jean-Pierre Filiu recently returned from a field visit to Aleppo and was surprised at the resilience, not merely of the rebel forces, but the Syrian civil resistance against the constant government onslaught. What’s your assessment of the current balance of forces in the civil war and why Assad hasn’t been able to command an even stronger position despite a free hand to do almost anything he wants? Can the civil resistance continue to hold out long-term against Assad and, to a certain degree, against the increasingly brutal Salafi fighters as well?

DM: I don’t feel really competent to speak to this – since I haven’t been on the ground with the rebels in Syria. It seems to me that if the Salafi/FSA (or whatever we want to call it) war is really on, this would be very dangerous for the rebels. The growing strength of the jihadis is in some way to Assad’s advantage, I suspect, since it might encourage fence sitters to side with his forces. But to get back to the substance of your question – I see no evidence from my great distance that the tide is turning decisively one way or another. Civil wars all burn out eventually, somehow, but this state of affairs is likelier to continue for some time, I’m afraid. Both sides seem sufficiently armed and resupplied to keep fighting, but not well enough to win a decisive national victory. I wonder if someday there will be some kind of enclaving.

ML: You were in Iraq for the CSM during some of the worst years of the civil conflict. How does Syria today compare to Iraq in the mid-late 2000s?

DM: My sense is, at least as bad and perhaps worse. And my big fear is what happens if/when Assad’s forces are defeated. The sectarian cleavages in Syria are a real fact of life, and the desire for revenge by many of the victors will be high. I haven’t covered Syria because of personal safety concerns. But almost as strong in my decision was the (perhaps weak) desire not to get that close to so many people who were imminently going to die again. The scars from Iraq are very real for most of us that covered it – and nothing like the scars of the Iraqis who lived the carnage at its worst. Whatever happens in Syria, it seems a safe bet that the wounds of this war will ooze for decades after it ends. 

ML: How does the role of both Arab Sunni, Iranian and Western governments compare to the Iraqi theatre?

DM: When it comes to the West, no comparison, no? No occupation, no invasion, no massive foreign modern war machine. The Iranians have, of course, been much more hands on, much sooner in Syria, but that’s perfectly natural. In Iraq, the US et al were removing one of their great enemies and balances against their own power and influence, and bringing into power a government certain to be far more friendly to their interests. The Iranians did get involved in arming/training Shiite militias in Iraq, partially as a way to tie down/increase the costs for the US (which, after all, had been speaking in a bellicose way about Iran), but ultimately their interests and ours aligned. We wanted to leave, they wanted us to go. Why get in our way? I think the Gulf monarchies – particularly the “informal” flows of Saudi money to Sunni insurgents – are probably behaving similarly. 

ML: From over a decade’s experience covering wars in the region, what do you think is the future of reporting from the front lines? Can citizen and freelance journalists, and the increasing ubiquity of real-time live video reporting  and Vlogging, now with Google glasses, herald a new age in war reporting? What are some of the dangers/pitfalls of these media and the changing nature of reporting?

DM: I’m not that old, but the game has entirely changed since I got started in the mid-1990s. A story I like to tell is about being in East Timor in 1999, when a group of pro-Indonesian militias overran a Dili neighbourhood near the main UN compound. Practically the entire foreign press corps was chased into the UN compound and were basically besieged there for a few hours. One of the photographers had his computer with him and was shooting digital. He found a working phone line and got his photos out – while all his competition were twiddling their thumbs. It was the day I realised the power of new technology. Amateur footage and pictures of conflict are now here to stay – and international news budgets will continue to shrink. The problem is reliance on decontextualised pictures not just from amateurs, but people with a clear axe to grind in a conflict. Propaganda is easier to produce, there are fewer people on the ground to check out claims, so the problem is disinformation and having really good filters on desks to separate the wheat from the chaff. But there are also  fewer and fewer senior editors with conflict reporting experience. It’s a real problem. Inexperienced reporters, even when they’re trying to present the “facts” as they seem them, are also frequently emotionally involved and not cynical enough. What’s to be done about it? Nothing. You can’t hold back the tide. 

Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine, and  distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh.