The April 4th, 2017 incident at Khan Sheikhoun has provoked an emotional response around the world after images began to emerge showing civilian adults and children apparently suffering from the effects of chemical weapons. President Donald Trump has stated that the attack has totally changed his views towards the Syrian civil war, and may alter his intended strategy there.
Although Western media immediately accused Bashar al-Assad of participating in a gas attack against his own people, the evidence indicates that the intended target was not immediately in a civilian area and was in fact a location where Syrian White Helmets were on the scene with rebel groups at what observers have claimed was a storage facility for conventional and chemical munitions. Additionally, evidence indicates that rebel groups may have had prior knowledge of the attack and knew that there was a risk of chemical weapons being unleashed. The attack also came in the aftermath of a trip by Senator John McCain to meet with groups known to associate with radical jihadist factions in Syria, at a time when the United States government has been engulfed in a power struggle between different political factions who disagree strongly over what should be appropriate policy in regards to the Syrian civil war.
I. Evidence From Khan Sheikhoun Does Not Support Assertions Of Airborne Chemical Weapons Use
Evidence which has emerged in the aftermath of the attack at Khan Sheikhoun indicates that not only was the nature of the attack misreported by the media, but that certain individuals on the ground in Syria may have had foreknowledge of the attack up to several days before it happened. On April 3rd, 2017, an anti-Assad journalist tweeted that the next day he would be launching a media campaign to cover airstrikes on the Hama countryside, including the use of chemical weapons. It is not clear how the reporter was able to know that chemical weapons would be used an entire day before the attacks occurred.
Observers further noted that on April 1st, 2017, a doctor on the ground in Khan Sheikhoun, Dr. Shajul Islam, had received several shipments of gas masks in the days running up to the chemical incident. The revelations on Twitter fueled speculation that opposition figures were aware of the chemical attack days before it actually happened, contesting the narrative that the Syrian government was responsible. Daily Mail has reported that Dr. Shajul Islam was at one point sought by the British government in connection with the abduction of two journalists in Syria, and security services have stated that Islam and his brother may have had ties to ISIS executioner "Jihadi John."
Additionally, footage from the scene of the incident taken by the Syrian White Helmets appears to show that their operatives were not assisting victims in a manner that was consistent with established protocol on how to handle sarin saturated bodies. Images appear to show that Syrian White Helmet operatives were handling purported sarin victims with their bare hands, rather than with gloves, which is necessary to prevent the rescuer being injured by the chemical themselves. They also appear to be using simple dust masks, which are not suitable protection in the event of a sarin attack.
Disobedient Media has reported in January that the Syrian White Helmets are heavily supported by the United State government via USAID, are implicated in war crimes committed in Aleppo and other parts of Syria during the civil war and appear to have a large number of members who are involved with local Syrian militia groups and jihadist organizations. The White Helmets have also been caught staging rescue footage for propaganda purposes in the past.
United Arab Emirates-based Al-Masdar News has also cited Twitter users who noted that photos of the Khan Sheikhoun attack appear to show storage facilities rather than a residential area and speculated that the White Helmets may have been using the location alongside rebel groups who were storing munitions in the area. The Russian Ministry of Defense have stated that the release of any chemicals was a result of a Syrian government airstrike against rebel supply depots in the area where chemical arms were being produced.
II. Rebels Are Known To Have Possessed And Used Chemical Weapons In Syria For Some Time
While the Syrian government surrendered their chemical arms stockpiles for destruction several years ago, evidence indicates that rebel groups in Syria have ramped up their own supplies of the deadly weapons systems and have not hesitated to deploy them in combat. On June 23rd, 2014, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Syrian government had completed the removal of all chemical weapons from the country per and agreement they had reached with the United States. The handover was confirmed by the United Nations Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. While the Syrian government have surrendered their chemical weapons, rebel groups have acquired and used them in increasing numbers.
The supplies for these weapons appear to come from multiple sources. Before they were handed over to the U.S. military, rebel groups such as ISIS were able to capture stockpiles of chemical weapons from Syrian army depots. On July 9th, 2014, just weeks after the Syrian army's handover, The Guardian reported that ISIS had captured a massive former Iraqi chemical weapons facility northwest of Baghdad, confiscating over 2,500 degraded chemical rockets filled with sarin. Research has also led to speculation that ISIS and other rebel groups may have been able to access materials for chemical weapons stored by Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. In November 2016, The New York Times acknowledged that ISIS had used chemical arms at least 52 times in Syria and Iraq.
ISIS is not the only rebel group to possess sarin and other kinds of chemical munitions in Syria however. Video obtained by Daily Mail shows that Syrian rebel groups in Libya have been experimenting with various kinds of chemical weapons for some years now. In 2014, the United Nations acknowledged that "abandoned" sarin gas cylinders had been located in the city of Aleppo. On April 8th, 2016, Voice of America reported that jihadist group Jaysh al-Islam used chemical weapons in attacks against Kurdish troops in Aleppo.
III. The Khan Sheikhoun Incident May Be Part Of An Ongoing Power Struggle Over U.S. Policy In Syria
The chemical attack also appears to play into the ongoing power struggle between the American political establishment and members of the new Trump administration. Political figures who are hawkish towards the Syrian government have noted with some dismay that President Trump had until this week been apparently unwilling to prosecute the United States' stated goal of enacting regime change in Syria, citing the larger threat of ISIS and other jihadist terror groups as a priority.
The United States politicians who have taken funds from countries known to supply rebel groups with materials for the production of chemical weapons were also meeting with rebel factions who are reported to associate with jihadist groups in the run up to the attack. On February 22nd, 2017, CNN reported that McCain had made a secret trip to northern Syria the week prior. McCain's made the trip despite the fact that since late 2015, the Western media has finally admitted that there were no longer any "moderate" rebel groups in Syria. In January 2017, Representative Tusli Gabbard returned from a visit to Syria to confirm these reports, as well as to reveal that U.S. support was effectively delivering arms to jihadist groups such as al-Nusra, al-Qaida, Ahrar al-Sham and ISIS who are operating inside Syria. McCain claimed to be meeting with forces who are preparing to combat ISIS in Eastern Syria, but The Guardian has reported that these groups are mainly comprised of mercenaries who have and will fight for jihadist groups if the price is right. Disobedient Media has also previously reported that in 2014, McCain accepted a donation of $1 million from Saudi Arabia. The CEO of Al-Masdar News, Leith Abou Fadel, recently posted images on Twitter in April 2017 showing Saudi-made chlorine agents found in East Aleppo which were being used to create chemical bombs.
The trip to meet with rebel groups is not McCain's first. On May 27th, 2013, The Daily Beast ran an exclusive report revealing that Senator John McCain had made another secret trip into Syria to meet with "assembled leaders of Free Syrian Army." McCain made the trip in spite of the fact that documents obtained by Judicial Watch which state that the United States was fully aware of the growing jihadi presence among Syrian rebel groups, and reports emerging in the American press indicating that rebels were increasingly engaging in war crimes. In August 2013, three months after McCain's visit, civilians in the Ghouta neighborhood of Damascus were hit with a chemical attack after rockets containing sarin struck the area. Though most of the mainstream press immediately blamed the Syrian government for the tragedy, German paper Die Welt has since run a report alleging that the sarin did not come from the Syrian government, but from stockpiles held by jihadist rebel group Al-Nusra.
ZeroHedge has reported that McCain angrily slammed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson after the White House backed comments Tillerson and ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley made stating that the United States would no longer primarily focus on regime change in Syria. McCain's desire to push regime change in Syria, his constant drive to seek confrontation with Russia, his close financial relationship to a state which is known to have supplied rebel groups with materials for crude chemical weapons and the now common knowledge that there are no "moderate" rebels remaining in Syria raises serious questions about the true nature of McCain's secret missions he has embarked on in the country over the past few years.
The Syrian government has been making serious gains in the civil war, recapturing the city of Aleppo and pushing against rebel groups in many other parts of the country with the support of the Russian Federation. It is strategically counterintuitive to assume that Bashar al-Assad would engage in a chemical attack on Syrians just one week after figures in the American government expressed the opinion that they would be willing to allow him to remain in power. The Syrian government no longer even possesses chemical weapons, as the United Nations and U.S. Department of State have already confirmed.
The involvement of the US-supported White Helmets, who have a history of association with war crimes and extremist groups in Syria and the apparent anger from the factions in the American government who oppose President Trump's policies in Syria suggests that the facts surrounding the Khan Sheikhoun attack are being intentionally distorted for political gain. The apparent association of Senator John McCain with groups linked to extremism in Syria just weeks before the attack and his financial ties to states which have supplied rebel groups with chemical arms only serves to create further concerns that factions of the United States government are illicitly attempting to promote confrontation and drive increased U.S. military involvement in Syria. It may be some time before the full picture about the Khan Sheikhoun tragedy becomes apparent, but is more than clear that Syrian rebel groups hope to use the incident as a means of provoking increased Western support in their fight against the Russian-backed government.