HABAKKUK ON THE URGENT NEED FOR BORIS JOHNSON TO CLARIFY WHAT HE IS CLAIMING ABOUT TESTS ON SAMPLES FROM KHAN SHEIKHUN. ARE THEY SUPPOSE TO MATCH THE SARIN USED AT GHOUTA, OR THAT DESTROYED ON THE M.V. ‘CAPE RAY’?
A letter to the Chairs of the Commons Defence and Foreign Affairs Committees, the Rt Hon Julian Lewis MP, and Crispin Blunt MP, and their colleagues, sent on 23 April.
Dear Dr Lewis, Mr Blunt and fellow members of the Defence and Foreign Affairs Committees:
Re: the Foreign Secretary’s claims on Khan Sheikhun
In the light of the article published by the Foreign Secretary in the ‘Sunday Telegraph’ last weekend, and his remarks on Tuesday in the House, I clearly need to add some brief further observations to those I sent to you last week.
In his 5 April article in the ‘Guardian’ Martin Chulov reported that: ‘Rescue workers have gathered soil samples from the scene of a chemical weapons attack in northern Syria and sent them to western intelligence officials’. And he went on to explain that:
Samples taken from the scene in Khan Sheikhun, as well as biological specimens taken from survivors and casualties, will be compared with samples taken by intelligence officials from the Syrian military stockpile when it was withdrawn from the country in late 2013. Syria’s stores of sarin are known to have particular properties, which experts say can be forensically matched to samples taken in the field.
What the Foreign Secretary told the House on Tuesday was that ‘we know from shell fragments in the crater that sarin had not only been used, but that it was sarin carrying the specific chemical signature of sarin used by the Assad regime.’ Responding to the Khan Sheikhoun incident on 4 April, Mr Johnson asserted that ‘this bears all the hallmarks of an attack by the regime which has repeatedly used chemical weapons.’
So, what is the Foreign Secretary now suggesting? Is it that tests have shown that the ‘particular properties’ of the sarin found in the samples purporting to come from Khan Sheikhun have been shown to match those of the materials whose destruction on the U.S. vessel MV ‘Cape Ray’ was completed in August 2014? Or is it that they have been shown to match those identified by tests on samples from the incidents which have been adduced in support of the claim that the Syrian government ‘has repeatedly used chemical weapons’?
As I pointed out last week, precisely the contention of those who have argued that the 21 August 2013 atrocity at Ghouta was a ‘false flag’ is that the test results on samples from that incident, and its predecessors, demonstrate that the sarin used there did not have the ‘particular properties’ of that in the Syrian government arsenal.
Specifically, their case is that the results on tests from Ghouta incidents indicate that the sarin used there was, ‘not manufactured professionally’ (‘sasa wawa’, on the ‘Who Attacked Ghouta?’ blog,), ‘homemade’ (Sergei Lavrov, interviewed by the ‘Washington Post’), ‘kitchen sarin’ (Seymour Hersh – in interviews on ‘Democracy Now!’ and elsewhere).
The ‘chemical signature’ of the sarin used at Ghouta, those who have argued that the incident was a ‘false flag’ assert, was totally different from that of the high-quality toxin produced for the Syrian programme, intended to provide a ‘poor man’s deterrent’ against Israel.
Before we can get involved in substantive arguments about the Foreign Secretary’s assertions, we really do need to clarify precisely what it is he and his officials are claiming. The only attempt I have seen at such clarification was made by Charles Shoebridge, a former army officer and Scotland Yard detective, on ‘Twitter’.
His attempt was provoked by a ‘tweet’ from a British diplomat in Washington covering Syria and the Middle East, Benjamin Norman, repeating the Foreign Secretary’s claims. ‘Furthermore, “we know from shell fragments in the crater that sarin had not only been used”, but it was #Assad’s sarin’, Mr Norman ‘tweeted’. And he went on to add ‘Got cut off by Twitter character limits, but analysis of samples shows chemical markers of Assad’s sarin supply.’
The thread shows Shoebridge attempting to secure clarification, and in so doing putting the crucial question – which ‘chemical markers’ were at issue. At 8.46 am on 19 April he ‘tweeted’: ‘Thanks for reply: To be clear, CW from 4.4.17 an exact match of @OPCW samples of old Syria govt sarin stocks?’ At 12.48pm, Norman responded: ‘You’re welcome! Think it is a question of same markers, but will check.’
So, when the Foreign Secretary was making confident assertions to the House, a British diplomat in Washington specialising in Syria did not really have a clear idea what he was claiming. It is now 22 April, and Norman has provided no clarification. We still do now know precisely what HMG are suggesting the test results at Porton Down prove, and it is not clear whether the Foreign Secretary does either.
The article Mr Johnson wrote in the ‘Telegraph’ was headlined ‘Assad’s murderous behaviour offers an opportunity for Russia to end a tyranny.’ In his remarks to the House, he said that it ‘will be essential to have a political process that preserves the institutions of the Syrian state while decapitating the monster.’
The case that the Russian government has made is that critical evidence purporting to prove that Assad is a ‘monster’ is the product of ‘false flag’ operations. That our signal failure to ‘preserve the institutions’ of the Iraqi and Libyan states, while ‘decapitating’ them, gives reason for scepticism about our ability to do any better in Syria is also central to the case the Russians have made about how the situation there is best handled.
It remains uncertain how far the Russian government will go to defend what it perceives to be its interests in Syria, but the risks of war involving nuclear powers if the United States and Britain want – yet again – to pursue ‘régime change’ would seem to be not entirely negligible.
In this situation, for the Foreign Secretary to make a statement to the House, in which – as has happened time and again – cloudy claims about tests on samples from Syria have been produced, without any concrete evidence, and where it is not even clear what he is claiming, is remarkable. It is almost as remarkable that one of our diplomats handling these matters in Washington appears equally at sea.
If one adds in the fact that the only visible attempt to clarify an obvious basic question is performed a former policeman on ‘Twitter’, we would seem to be confronted by a major breakdown of parliamentary government.
The letter I sent you last week has been posted on Colonel Lang’s ‘Sic Semper Tyrannis’ blog. So also will this one be.