The latest article of Seymour Hersh, printed in the London Review of Books, is being widely debated in Turkey.
In an article in the same periodical in December, Hersh claimed it was not the Syrian regime but the country's opposition forces that used chemical weapons. That article, too, generated intense reactions and was criticized for not paying heed to the UN's report and other credible evidence. Now, Hersh has added a sensational dimension to those allegations by claiming that the chemical weapons attack was planned by Turkish intelligence and carried out by Jabhat al-Nusra.
Is he on the mark this time? Is he realistic?
Let’s first recall the proven findings of all the intelligence services — minus the Russians — and the UN’s field investigations.
On Aug. 21, 2013, up to a dozen locations controlled by the opposition near Damascus were targeted. The attack originated from an area under regime control. Chemical weapons were followed up by heavy conventional artillery fire to erase the traces of chemical weapons. From the UN reports we learned that the chemicals were fired using Vulkan rockets, which are found in the Syrian army’s arsenal.
Now, the question is: Who has the ability and capacity to carry out such an attack?
While the UN report did not assign responsibility for the attack, some might consider the Syrian regime's decision to surrender its chemical weapons — and Russia’s support for that decision — shows the regime implicitly admitting responsibility.
Now, on to Hersh’s allegations and the problems in his article. Hersh says chemical weapons were manufactured by Jabhat al-Nusra, and that the group used weapons transported to Damascus from Turkey. Hersh’s source is an unidentified retired American intelligence official. No names or other evidence back up this charge.
According to Hersh, hundreds of liters of chemicals were taken from Turkey to the area under regime control. Similarly, Turkey manufactured 12 Vulkan rockets with precise specifications and delivered them to Syria. These rockets, which are over 2 meters (6.5 feet) long, were launched from the regime-controlled area and followed by artillery fire. While all this was happening, neither the regime nor any other intelligence organization, of which there are plenty in the area, noticed. And all this was supposedly carried out by Turkish intelligence. Remember, this is the same Turkish intelligence that couldn't even prevent the leaking of a high-level Syria discussion between Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and intelligence chief Hakan Fidan. Thanks to that incompetence, on March 27 the "private bedroom" of the Turkish state was opened wide to the entire world by the Gulenists. Let’s not forget that the trucks that Turkish intelligence was trying to send to Syria were stopped by Gulenist prosecutors and police, and Fidan’s personnel were beaten up.
Turkish journalist Ceren Kenar has this to say about Hersh’s claims:
"Under normal circumstances, without any evidence [and there is none], such claims would be dismissed as nonsense. Actually, this was the reaction of Western and Arab journalists working on the Syria issue after Hersh’s article appeared yesterday. But quarters that could not defeat Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan through legitimate and political methods, preferred to treat Hersh’s claims as the gospel, despite the absence of proof. As they had no evidence to back Hersh’s claims and they know nothing about the issue, such quarters could not come up with any argument other than to meekly say 'Well, Hersh is a reputable journalist with Pulitzer awards.'"
True, Hersh is a journalist who has done formidable work in the past. But, as Kenar writes, to have Pulitzers doesn’t guarantee that you will write reliable and accurate reports all your life. For example, The New York Times writer Thomas Friedman has three Pulitzers, but they did not stop him from getting it wrong on the Iraq invasion.
Is this Hersh's first dubious reporting? Wasn’t it Hersh who said that the US operation to kill Osama bin Laden was a big lie? Wasn’t it Hersh who said that the Fatah al-Islam outfit in Lebanon was financed by Saad Hariri and the United States? Didn’t it later come out that Fatah al-Islam was supported by the Syrian intelligence?
One of Hersh's main sources at that time was former Lebanese Minister Michel Samaha, who has now been charged with organizing attacks in Lebanon on behalf of Syrian intelligence.
And wasn’t it Hersh who said the United States was about to attack Iran?
Let's put Hersh aside. There is no question that the Turkish government has been committed to overthrowing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and it continues to support the opposition forces. But providing chemical weapons to Jabhat al-Nusra seems, to put it mildly, a stretch of reality.