DYER: Two unconvincing explanations for Syrian attacks

By on April 11, 2018
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.


The FBI raid on the office, home and hotel room of President Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, may persuade the president that a larger, longer-lasting distraction is needed, but it’s still likely that his response to the alleged poison gas attack by the Syrian government in Douma on Saturday will be short, sharp and soon forgotten.

 That’s how it worked last April, when Trump ‘punished’ Bashar al-Assad’s regime for another alleged poison gas attack in rebel-held Idlib province by dropping 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles on the Syrian airbase at Shayrat from which the attack supposedly originated.

Lots of explosions, not many hurt, no lasting political consequences.

Trump is talking tougher this time. Asked on Sunday if military action was possible, he said: “Nothing is off the table…If it’s Russia, if it’s Syria, if it’s Iran, if it’s all of them together, we’ll figure it out.” And what if Russian President Vladimir Putin bears some responsibility for the attack? “He may, yeah, he may. And if he does, it’s going to be very tough, very tough. Everybody’s going to pay a price. He will, everybody will.”

It may just be the usual Trump bluster, but the Russians are so concerned that their UN envoy, Vasily Nebenzia, warned on Tuesday that the use of “armed force under mendacious pretext against Syria, where, at the request of the legitimate government of a country, Russian troops have been deployed, could lead to grave repercussions…I would once again beseech you to refrain from the plans that you’re currently developing.”

Now, it’s hard to believe that the Russians would not know if the Syrians were using poison gas: after all, they are using the same air bases. American advisers certainly knew what was going on when they were giving Saddam Hussein targeting data for poison gas attacks against Iranian troops in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.

“The Iraqis never told us that they intended to use nerve gas,” said retired U.S. Air Force Col. Rick Francona, who was a military attaché in Baghdad during the 1988 strikes.

“They didn’t have to. We already knew.” The Russians would know, too — but then why would they go along with it?

The great puzzle about poison gas use in Syria is that it has no plausible military purpose. The targets are never fighters. The victims in the various videos are always civilians, and using poison gas obviously has a big political price.

Why would the Syrian regime pay it, especially when it has already won the military battle?

It just doesn’t make sense for the regime to be deliberately killing civilians with poison gas. Maybe it doesn’t have to make sense: you will often hear explanations that essentially say that Assad and his partners-in-crime are simply evil. They do it because it’s wicked, and because they can. But even then you have to explain why the Russians would let them do it.

Moscow says that the Douma gas attack didn’t actually happen. “Our military specialists have visited this place, along with representatives of the Syrian Red Crescent… and they did not find any trace of chlorine or any other chemical substance used against civilians,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Saturday.

Instead, Lavrov suggested, it was a ‘false flag’ operation in which the besieged rebels deliberately staged a gas attack and blamed it on the Assad regime, or at least used video footage from somewhere else and pretended it had been shot in Douma.

Can you really believe that Syrian rebels would kill their own innocent civilians in such a horrible way?

Well, if they are losing the war, and the only way to turn the tide is Western military intervention against Assad, and the only way to mobilise Western opinion to support that intervention is to get him blamed for using poison gas, then maybe they would.

Getting the poison gas would be no problem: the rebels overran about half of Syria in the early stages of the war, and gained control of a number of chemical weapons facilities belonging to the Syrian army. They are almost all Islamist radicals by now, and would be comfortable with the argument that the end justifies the means.

I don’t know which of these explanations for the gas attacks is true. Is it the brutal, incredibly stupid Syrian regime that unfailingly undermines every one of its successes by making a pointless gas attack on civilians just as it wins a major battle fought with conventional weapons?

Or is it ruthless Islamist rebels making false-flag chemical attacks because that is the only thing that might trigger a Western military intervention big enough to save them from ultimate defeat? Very stupid monsters or very clever monsters, or maybe both. Who knows?

What I do know is that I feel as isolated, writing this, as I did back in early 2003 when I was one of the few Western journalists questioning all the nonsense and outright lies about Saddam Hussein’s nuclear and chemical weapons that provided a justification for the invasion of Iraq.

And I know that the evidence is not strong enough either way to justify a major Western military attack on the Assad regime now.


Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.


  1. Rick Francona

    April 12, 2018 at 9:59 am

    That’s not exactly what I said.

    See: Iraq’s chemical weapons – shoddy journalism and me (https://goo.gl/jNjAqN)

    • Michael

      April 12, 2018 at 10:57 pm

      With respect, your quibble seems misplaced and overstated. I’ve read your rebuttals and in them, you accept that you said what Mr. Dyer and others have similarly quoted. Your opposition to it seems to be largely centred on the appropriate context in which it was said and perhaps most importantly, that there wasn’t active U.S. coordination with the use of chemical weapons by Iraq. The initial chemical weapon attack you reference is from April 1988, after which you claimed the U.S. learned about the Iraqi chemical capabilities; the reasoning behind your disputed comments. While different than the potential implication (which is not what Mr. Dyer seems to be suggesting) that the US knew about chemical weapons attacks prior to them occurring, the U.S. still supported (according to you) Iraq despite having the knowledge of their possession and use of them. The U.S. determined it was in their strategic interests to continue supporting Iraq, despite the attacks.

      This is also ignoring the evidence from earlier periods in the war, which confirmed Iraqi capabilities in this regard, including “A UN security council statement condemning Iraq’s use of chemical weapons in the war was issued in 1986”.(http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/middle_east/02/iraq_events/html/chemical_warfare.stm)

      I see your rebuttal as a distinction without a difference. The U.S. knew about Iraqi chemical weapons through evidence like your first-hand investigations, as well as throughout the years of reports and condemnation by the international community. In spite of this, the U.S. (as you reveal) chose to keep working with Iraq.

      Mr. Dyer seems to be using your account accurately in comparing the Russian knowledge of chemical weapons possessed by Assad and U.S. knowledge of those possessed by Iraq. As the main benefactors of the belligerent parties in the respective conflicts and given the depth of coordination on the ground that both the U.S. and Russia provide, it’s unlikely not to be known.

      Thank you for your clarification.



  2. Longtime reader

    April 12, 2018 at 11:54 am

    This argument emerged the day after the first gassing. I dismissed it. It’s a very middle eastern (and russian) way of argueing.

    Did you do ___ really bad thing? …why would I do that?! …followed by a long, disingenuous pseudo-strategic explanation about why it would not made sense to do ___ bad thing. Assad has one of those in almost every interview he’s ever given.

    Fwiw, in this case, I’m genuinely unsure. I have a lot of respect for Gwynne Dyer and if he thinks this (this is the 3rd or 4th article) then doubt is reasonable.

    There’s an obvious other disingenuous side to this. There are half a million dead in this horrible war, so far. They were bombed, shot, beheaded, burned alive on camera. Thousands may have been tortured to death by Assad. If dozens or hundreds were gassed… I understand the red line aspect, the non-normalization of non conventionals. But… on the moral level or even strategic level, what do chemical attacks prove about this regime that hasn’t been proven a thousand times over?

    • George Benwell

      April 12, 2018 at 8:33 pm

      If any nation in the world had a revolt that threatened to topple the current government how do you think that nations leaders would react? In 1970 when two people were kidnapped in Canada and a few post office boxes were blown up the Federal Government had troops on the streets and martial law declared….that’s what governments do. Before you judge the actions of the Syrian government you might reflect a bit.

  3. delia ruhe

    April 13, 2018 at 10:11 am

    And America chooses to whine about Russia’s alleged interference in US politics.

    The problem is that most US allies and adversaries know that Americans are raised on fear and are easily aroused to a state of hysteria. Add to that, it’s also widely known that American leaders have itchy trigger fingers, as Baby Bush, Obama, and now Trump appear to have demonstrated on a pretty regular basis.

    So anybody out there, if you want Washington to listen, don’t call, just drop a few bombs or gas a few people.

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