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Furor Over Claims Of Turkish Hand In Syrian Chemical Attack

A Syrian boy, affected by nerve gas, breathes through an oxygen mask while receiving medical attention in Damascus. Hundreds of people died in the chemical weapons attack on August 21, 2013
A Syrian boy, affected by nerve gas, breathes through an oxygen mask while receiving medical attention in Damascus. Hundreds of people died in the chemical weapons attack on August 21, 2013
An acclaimed American journalist has come under fire over his report suggesting Turkey was behind an August 21 chemical weapons attack in Syria that brought the United States to the brink of military action against Damascus.

Both U.S. and Turkish officials have rejected claims in Pulitzer Prize winner Seymour Hersh's report that Syrian rebels carried out the deadly assault with the aid of Turkish intelligence to provoke Washington into launching strikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

Analysts, meanwhile, have criticized the reliability of key sources and individuals in Hersh's story published recently in the "London Review of Books," while accusing him of ignoring evidence they say corroborates the U.S. position of the Assad regime's culpability.

Hersh, however, told RFE/RL that he stands by his report, in which he cites a classified June 20 document issued by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency as saying that the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front rebels in Syria maintained a sarin-gas production cell that constituted "the most advanced sarin plot since al-Qaida's pre-9/11 effort."

Furthermore, "chemical facilitators" based in Turkey and Saudi Arabia "were attempting to obtain sarin precursors in bulk, tens of kilograms, likely for the anticipated large scale production effort in Syria," Hersh cited the document as saying.

"You have internal reports written in June – there were five other, four or five others that spring, all about the threat of sarin and the Turkish involvement in it, all known to the American community," Hersh told RFE/RL on April 8.

The August 21 poison-gas attack in the eastern Ghouta neighborhood near Damascus on August 21 left hundreds of people dead and marked a pivotal escalation in the Syrian civil war. U.S. President Barack Obama had said the deployment of chemical weapons by Assad's forces would constitute a red line that could prompt Washington to intervene in the bloody conflict.

'Funneling Weapons'

As U.S. officials publicly spoke about preparing a military response, Obama pulled back and ultimately negotiated a deal with Russia under which Assad would place his chemical weapons under international control for eventual destruction.

But Hersh cites an unidentified former intelligence official as saying that Russian intelligence operatives recovered samples of the chemical agents used near Ghouta and obtained by the Americans via the British had cast doubts on U.S. claims of Assad's responsibility, and that this prompted top U.S. military brass to warn Obama against intervention.

The report also claims that the United States was secretly funneling weapons from Libya through Turkey and onto Syrian rebels, and that the alleged arms pipeline was halted after the deadly attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi on September 11, 2012.

Hersh cites the former intelligence official as saying the August 21 chemical attack was a covert Turkish action to force a U.S. intervention. The Turkish government was worried the halting of the weapons from Libya would be a death knell for Syrian rebels, he cites an unidentified U.S. intelligence consultant as saying.

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc told an April 7 news conference that the allegation of Ankara's involvement in the poison-gas attack is a "lie and slander," the Istanbul based "Hurriyet Daily News" reported.

Shawn Turner, a spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, also pushed back against claims in Hersh's report that the Syrian government was not responsible for the Ghouta attack.

"We're not going to comment on every inaccurate aspect of this narrative, but to be clear: the Assad regime, and only the Assad regime, could have been responsible for the chemical weapons attack that took place on August 21," Turner said in a statement.

Turner added that "the idea that the United States was providing weapons from Libya to anyone is false."

Analysts have also taken Hersh to task for his report, including for basing part of his report on chemical weapons samples obtained by intelligence officers working for Russia, which vocally opposed U.S. intervention in Syria and has supported Assad's government.

Homemade Rockets?

Hersh dismissed this criticism, telling RFE/RL that the sample cited in his report was vetted by a U.S. ally before being passed on to Washington.
Seymour Hersh
Seymour Hersh

"The point is it just didn't come from the Russians. It came to the United States via the British high command via laboratory analysis, went to the president via the chairman [of the joint chiefs of staff]," Hersh said. "It makes it much more complicated than just the Russian issue."

British analyst Eliot Higgins at the Syria-focused "Brown Moses Blog" charges that Hersh ignored evidence that Syrian forces have used the type of munitions deployed in the August 21 attack for more than a year.

Hersh cited the work of Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Theodore Postol as evidence that the munitions used in the Ghouta attack were improvised and that their range of about 2 kilometers means they could not have been fired from outside rebel-controlled areas.

"I will tell you right now: They were homemade rockets," Hersh told RFE/RL.

Higgins wrote in an April 7 blog post that video footage from journalists embedded with Syrian forces indicate the impact sites were around 2 kilometers from the frontline, meaning the munitions may have been capable of being launched from Assad-controlled areas.

Hersh won a Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for his reporting on the My Lai massacre, in which U.S. soldiers murdered hundreds of Vietnamese civilians, as well as numerous other prestigious journalism awards. In recent years he has harshly criticized the Obama administration, which last year he accused of lying about details of the death of Osama bin Laden.
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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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