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Syria, ‘experts’ and George Monbiot


by Jonathan Cook in Nazareth

Investigative journalist Gareth Porter has published two exclusives [see HERE and HERE] whose import is far greater than may be immediately apparent. They concern Israel’s bombing in 2007 of a supposed nuclear plant secretly built, according to a self-serving US and Israeli narrative, by Syrian leader Bashar Assad.

Although the attack on the “nuclear reactor” occurred a decade ago, there are pressing lessons to be learnt for those analysing current events in Syria.

Porter’s research indicates very strongly that the building that was bombed could not have been a nuclear reactor – and that was clear to experts at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) even as the story was being promoted uncritically across the western media.

But – and this is the critical information Porter conveys – the IAEA failed to disclose the fact that it was certain the building was not a nuclear plant, allowing the fabricated narrative to be spread unchallenged. It abandoned science to bow instead to political expediency.

The promotion of the bogus story of a nuclear reactor by Israel and key figures in the Bush administration was designed to provide the pretext for an attack on Assad. That, it was hoped, would bring an end to his presidency and drag into the fray the main target – Iran. The Syrian “nuclear reactor” was supposed to be a re-run of the WMD deception, used in 2003 to oust another enemy of the US and Israel’s – Saddam Hussein of Iraq.

It is noteworthy that the fabricated evidence for a nuclear reactor occurred in 2007, a year after Israel’s failure to defeat Hizbullah in Lebanon. The 2006 Lebanon war was itself intended to spread to Syria and lead to Assad’s overthrow, as I explained in my book Israel and the Clash of Civilisations.

It is important to remember that this Israeli-neocon plot against Syria long predated – in fact, in many ways prefigured – the civil war in 2011 that quickly morphed into a proxy war in which the US became a key, if mostly covert, actor.

The Left’s Witchfinder General

The relevance of the nuclear reactor deception can be understood in relation to the latest efforts by Guardian columnist George Monbiot (and many others) to discredit prominent figures on the left, including Noam Chomsky and John Pilger, for their caution in making assessments of much more recent events in Syria. Monbiot has attacked them for not joining him in simply assuming that Assad was responsible for a sarin gas attack last April on Khan Sheikhoun, an al-Qaeda stronghold in Idlib province.

Understandably, many on the left have been instinctively wary of rushing to judgment about individual incidents in the Syrian war, and the narratives presented in the western media. The claim that Assad’s government used chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun, and earlier in Ghouta, was an obvious boon to those who have spent more than a decade trying to achieve regime change in Syria.

In what has become an ugly habit with Monbiot, and one I have noted before, he has enthusiastically adopted the role of Witchfinder General. Any questioning of evidence, scepticism or simply signs of open-mindedness are enough apparently to justify accusations that one is an Assadist or conspiracy theorist. Giving house room to the doubts of a ballistics expert like Ted Postol of MIT, or an experienced international arms expert like Scott Ritter, or a famous investigative journalist like Seymour Hersh, or a former CIA analyst like Ray McGovern, is apparently proof that one is an atrocity denier or worse.

Inconvenient facts buried

Monbiot’s latest attack was launched at a moment when he obviously felt he was on solid ground. A UN agency, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), issued a report last month concluding that the 100 people killed and 200 injured in Khan Sheikhoun last April were exposed to sarin. Monbiot argues that the proof is now incontrovertible that Assad was responsible – a position that he, of course, adopted at the outset – and that all other theories have now been decisively discounted by the OPCW.

There are reasons to think that Monbiot is seriously misrepresenting the strength of the OPCW’s findings, as several commentators have observed. Most notably, Robert Parry, another leading investigative journalist, points out that evidence in the report’s annex – the place where inconvenient facts are often buried – appears to blow a large hole in the official story.

Parry notes that the time recorded by the UN of the photo of the chemical weapons attack is more than half an hour *after* some 100 victims had already been admitted to five different hospitals, some of them lengthy drives from the alleged impact site.

But potentially more significant than such troubling inconsistencies are the conclusions of Gareth Porter’s separate investigation into Israel’s bombing of the non-existent Syrian nuclear reactor. That gets to the heart of where Monbiot and many others have gone badly wrong in their certainty about events in Syria.

Extreme naivety

Monbiot has been only too willing to promote as indisputable fact claims made both by highly compromised and unreliable western sources and by supposedly reputable and independent organisations, such as international human rights groups and UN agencies. He, like many others, assumes that the latter can always be relied upon to stand apart from western interests and can therefore be implicitly trusted.

That indicates an extreme naivety or possibly the lack of any experience covering on the ground highly charged conflicts in which western interests are paramount.

I have been based in Israel for nearly two decades and have on several occasions taken to task Human Rights Watch (HRW), one of the world’s most esteemed human rights organisations. I have shown that assessments it has made were patently not rooted in evidence or even credible interpretations of international law but in geopolitical considerations. [http://www.jonathan-cook.net/2006-11-30/palestinians-are-being-denied-the-right-of-non-violent-resistance/] That was especially true in the case of the month-long fighting between Israel and Hizbullah in 2006. (See here and here.) My concerns about HRW’s work, I later learnt from insiders, were shared in its New York head office, but were silenced by the organisation’s most senior staff. [See HERE and HERE]

Nuclear plant deception

But Porter helps shine a light on how even the most reputable international agencies can end up similarly following a script written in Washington and one that rides roughshod over evidence, especially when the interests of the world’s only superpower are at stake. In this case, the deceptions were perpetuated by one of the world’s leading scientific organisations: the International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors states’ nuclear activities.

Porter reveals that Yousry Abushady, the IAEA’s foremost expert on North Korean nuclear reactors, was able immediately to discount the aerial photographic evidence that the building Israel bombed in 2007 was a nuclear reactor. (Most likely it was a disused missile storage depot.) [op. cit.]

The Syrian “nuclear plant”, he noted, could not have been built using North Korean know-how, as was claimed by the US. It lacked all the main features of a North Korean gas-cooled reactor. The photos produced by the Israelis showed a building that, among other things, covered too small an area and was not anywhere near high enough, it had none of the necessary supporting structures, and there was no cooling tower.

Abushady’s assessment was buried by the IAEA, which preferred to let the CIA and the Israelis promote their narrative unchallenged.

Atomic agency’s silence

This was not a one-off failure. In summer 2008, the IAEA visited the area to collect samples. Had the site been a nuclear plant, they could have expected to find nuclear-grade graphite particles everywhere. They found none.

Nonetheless, the IAEA again perpetrated a deception to try to prop up the fictitious US-Israeli narrative.

As was routine, they sent the samples to a variety of laboratories for analysis. None found evidence of any nuclear contamination – apart from one. It identified particles of man-made uranium. The IAEA issued a report giving prominence to this anomalous sample, even though in doing so it violated its own protocols, reports Porter. It could draw such a conclusion only if the results of all the samples matched. [op. cit.]

In fact, as one of the three IAEA inspectors who had been present at the site later reported, the sample of uranium did not come from the plant itself, which was clean, but from a changing room nearby. A former IAEA senior inspector, Robert Kelley, told Porter that a “very likely explanation” was that the uranium particles derived from “cross contamination” from clothing worn by the inspectors. This is a problem that had been previously noted by the IAEA in other contexts.

Meanwhile, the IAEA remained silent about its failure to find nuclear-grade graphite in a further nine reports over two years. It referred to this critical issue for the first time in 2011.

Chance for war with Iran

In other words, the IAEA knowingly conspired in a fictitious, entirely non-scientific assessment of the Syrian “nuclear reactor” story, one that neatly served US-Israeli geopolitical interests.

Porter notes that vice-president Dick Cheney “hoped to use the alleged reactor to get President George W Bush to initiate US airstrikes in Syria in the hope of shaking the Syrian-Iranian alliance”. [op. cit.]

In fact, Cheney wanted far more sites in Syria hit than the bogus nuclear plant. In his memoirs, the then-secretary of defence, Robert Gates, observed that Cheney was “looking for an opportunity to provoke a war with Iran”.

The Bush administration wanted to find a way to unseat Assad, crush Hizbullah in Lebanon, and isolate and weaken Iran as a way to destroy the so-called “Shia crescent”.

That goal is being actively pursued again by the US today, with Israel and Saudi Arabia leading the way. A former US ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, recently warned that, after their failure to bring down Assad, the Saudis have been trying to switch battlefields to Lebanon, hoping to foment a confrontation between Israel and Hizbullah that would drag in Iran.

Abandoning science

Back in 2007, the IAEA, an agency of scientists, did its bit to assist – or at least not obstruct – US efforts to foster a political case, an entirely unjustified one, for military action against Syria and, very possibly by extension, Iran.

If the IAEA could so abandon its remit and the cause of science to help play politics on behalf of the US, what leads Monbiot to assume that the OPCW, an even more politicised body, is doing any better today?

That is not to say Assad, or at least sections of the Syrian government, could not have carried out the attack on Khan Sheikhoun. But it is to argue that in a matter like this one, where so much is at stake, the evidence must be subjected to rigorous scrutiny, and that critics, especially experts who offer counter-evidence, must be given a fair hearing by the left. It is to argue that, when the case against Assad fits so neatly a long-standing and self-serving western narrative, a default position of scepticism is fully justified. It is to argue that facts, strong as they may seem, can be manipulated even by expert bodies, and therefore due weight needs also to be given to context – including an assessment of motives.

This is not “denialism”, as Monbiot claims. It is a rational strategy adopted by those who object to being railroaded once again – as they were in Iraq and Libya – into catastrophic regime change operations.

Meanwhile, the decision by Monbiot and others to bury their heads in the sands of an official narrative, all the while denouncing anyone who seeks to lift theirs out for a better view, should be understood for what it is: an abnegation of intellectual and moral responsibility for those around the globe who continue to be the victims of western military supremacism.

Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His website is http://www.jonathan-cook.net.

18 Comments

  1. HotScot says

    Monbiot, a Zoologist with politically connected parents. This apparently endows him with the ability to comment on political issues that have a remote connection to the environment, or not.

    I like his environmental stuff, even if it’s a bit out there, but even acknowledging the political worm, with comment on his political views here, is endowing him with far more credibility that he deserves.

    Stick to fondling worms George. Your politics are loony tunes.

    Like

  2. Tom Warwick says

    Jonathan Cook (& by extension, this website) is sounding increasingly desperate here, as the actual verifiable empirical evidence increasingly contradicts his (and your) narrative – leading him to stray further and further into evidence-free assertion.

    Your cartoon of Monbiot is pure inadvertent self-parody/projection – a hilarious reversal of the in-front-of-your-nose actuality. Really up there with reality-denying cults. You ought to join up with Infowars and Breitbart. Monbiot is clearly the one basing his argument on actual on-the-ground, confirmed, documented evidence here. As much as you don’t like this (given your history of running pieces that attack GM over such issues). Cook is left only with “questioning” official narrative – and lots of assertion and “clever” polemical BS. Substance-free rhetoric. He needs to stop digging at this point. Anyone who still falls for this needs to take a step back, and ask themselves what really constitutes evidence (clue: it’s not just the increasingly dwindling selection of “facts” that line up with your preferred story).

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    • Harry Stotle says

      The OPCW have already confirmed that Assad was compliant with an agreement to end the Syrian governments chemical weapons capability.
      http://archive.is/wnGWa

      While the Guardian reported on the ISIS capture of sarin (in Baghdad)
      http://archive.is/xuVwC

      Your post does not seem to offer any argument or insight other than lambasting those who do not share Monbiots unshakable belief that the quality of evdince regarding the chemicals weapons attack is definitive.

      We already know Monbiot was a cheer leader for the neocon 9/11 conspiracy theory despite the mountain of evidence proving the 2 planes 3 tower theory defies both the laws of logic and science.

      And now we are being asked to belive that as the Syrian war took a decisive turn in Assads favour he decided to gas his own people – it just doesn’t make sense, especially since OPCW confirmed that government forces had no such weapons capability while ISIS did.

      I don’t know who is repsonsible for these actions but as I say you offer no counter argument to suggest why accepting at face value media reports from a man with a poor grasp of suspect evidence is preferable to some degree of skepticism.

      Beyond parroting Monbiot is there something you know about these attacks that we don’t?

      Liked by 2 people

    • @Tom Warwick
      Where do I begin
      UNO: What evidence may I ask that you are referring to; 2007 report 2 out of three samples negative. 2011 report further nullifies whatever so called evidence which their is none. Hence verifiable facts . What facts scientific and forensics.
      DUE: None to this day still no verifiable facts connecting Gas attacks to the SAA and the legal sovereign government of the Syrian State.
      TRE: WMD in Iraq none. We have scientific and forensic data nailing NATO for falsification fabrications and intent to invade bomb and occupy a country. Nuremberg articles 51 and 52 come to mind.
      Qauttro:There is a mountain of scientific and forensic evidence nailing NATO /US Coalition of the willing
      using depleted uranium and leaving a trail of Cancer and death that has statistical and forensic data . Indiscriminate bombing of civilians/Predator drones . Where in International law does it state that predator drones are justified.
      Cinque: Libya Jugoslavia all countries that have been destroyed and all the innocent civilians that perished.
      Conclusion : I suggest you look in the mirror and wipe that western exceptionalist /colonial/totalitarian smug attitude off and really dwell into some decency and humanity.

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  3. Harry Stotle says

    Jonathan Cook is absolutely correct; investigating of war crimes is often polluted by conflicitng vested interests, while those brave enough to contradict the official narrative, i.e. whistleblowers, have found themselves in solitary, an Equadorian broom cupboard, or a functional apartment on the outskirts of Moscow.

    Monbiot should at least be aware of these contextualising factors before wading into a murky sphere that requires the kind of skepticism, and curiosity expected from any individual who wants to be taken seriously as a journalist.
    In my opinion George has tarnished his reputation irrevocably be lending the weight of the Guardian, and of course his own status to what may turn out to be just the latest episode in a long tradition of imperialist violence.
    Apart from anything else combat conditions in Syria make measured investigation on the ground, even for the most impartial experts, a huge challenge in itself.

    So how about something closer to home, since we are talking about war crimes and the use of propaganda to rationalise atrocities?
    The Hutton inquiry, set up by Falconer felt that an inquest was not necessary after the untimely death of David Kelly – in other words the inquiry was an all too predictable whitwash, and like Chilcot did little to ruffle the feathers of those who organised and prosecuted evil deeds in the Middle East.

    If we can’t expect impartiality even when emminent British scientists die in suspicious circumstances on our door step what hope is there of a meaningful investigation in a war torn country that has been laid low by sinister proxies in pursuit of their never ending geopolitical interests.
    The other examples cited by Jonathan Cook are all part of the same process were criminals are charged with investigating their own crimes – honestly, its hard to know whether to laugh or cry.

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  4. Bryan Kinnear says

    I feel as though I so completely disemboweled Monbiot on Phillip’s recent post: no need to gloat here. But Jonathan, there simply is no evidence for an attack at Khan Sheikhoun at all. No need to blame (elements of ) the Assad military to assuage your more mainstream readers.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. James Graham says

    Here’s my own take…first impressions…of Khan Sheikhoun, 4 April, 2017: as the “video evidence” was broadcast originally. You investigate for true and false knowledge from start to finish, so what’s alleged to have happened from the start counts. The White Helmets are not “rescuing” anyone…they don’t know the first thing about First Aid. If this was a real Sarin attack they would be dead or in bad shape…they are fit and healthy. One of the videos shows “The Doc” Shajul Islam in a hospital somewhere. He is not a doctor. It was staged. They have a declared military interest in regime change…a war crime. They were created, backed and funded by foreign agencies. They are known liars, thieves and killers. Would The Guardian trust that lot to “look after” their kids? Not a snowball’s chance in hell. The alleged witnesses are totally unreliable and untrustworthy. Not a credible source.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Shajul Islam is trained as a doctor. He was an NHS doctor but has been struck off since.

      When a ‘rebel’ group kidnapped two journalists and also shot one of them when trying to escape, one of the journalists claimed Shajul was disappointed that both had not been executed. Upon his return to the UK he was arrested for terrorism charges but when the case came to court the two key witnesses did not appear, so the trial collapsed. But he was removed as an NHS doctor.

      Likewise I have no doubt that he is faking in the video. None of these people are credible. Simple eye drops create pin point pupils. There are also numerous other anomalies to the claims.

      Liked by 1 person

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