A letter to the Chair of the Commons Defence Committee, the Rt Hon Julian Lewis MP, and his colleagues on 13 April. A parallel letter was been sent to the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Crispin Blunt MP, and his colleagues.
"Dear Dr Lewis,
Re: Evidence re Ghouta sarin atrocity on 21 August 2013
I am writing to you and your colleagues on the Foreign Affairs Committee with reference to a piece of mine on the Ghouta atrocity which was recently posted on his ‘Sic Semper Tyrannis’ blog by Colonel W. Patrick Lang. He is a distinguished American military Arabist, formerly in charge of the Middle East, South Asia and Terrorism at the Defense Intelligence Agency, the first Director of its ‘Humint’ service, and also the first Professor of Arabic at West Point.
My piece develops arguments made by the veteran American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh in an article entitled ‘The Red Line and the Rat Line’ published in the ‘London Review of Books’ in April 2014. If his arguments are correct, they have very significant, and disturbing, implications for us in Britain – implications particularly relevant in the light of the recent incident at Khan Sheikhoun and subsequent events.
They may be even more disturbing, against the background of claims made yesterday by our Ambassador to the UN about that incident. Actually, these appear contradictory. So the identification of ‘Sarin, or a Sarin like substance’ in samples from the incident by scientists from Porton Down provides, Matthew Rycroft told the Security Council, good grounds for believing the Syrian government to have been responsible. But then, we were assured on ‘Twitter’ by Mr Rycroft that ‘Scientists in UK have analysed samples from #Khan Sheihoun. Tested positive for #Sarin.’
As sarin is a member of a group called ‘organophosphates’, which includes several other compounds which can be used as chemical weapons, the natural construction of his statement to the Security Council is that material of this kind was identified in the samples tested, but it was not established – yet at least – that it was sarin. But if this was so, it is difficult to see what grounds there could have been for the confidence expressed in the ‘Tweet’.
It would be just possible, although it is not the obvious interpretation, that Mr Rycroft meant to suggest that both sarin and some other ‘organophosphate’ were identified. But, even if the claims can withstand critical analysis, which is not clear, this would also have quite different implications to the suggestion that only sarin was found. It is far from obvious that it would make the Syrian government the likely suspect.
Particularly given the sorry history of accusations against the government of Saddam relating to WMD by American and British officials and politicians which turned out to be baseless, and had disastrous consequences, it would be helpful if Mr Rycroft could be more precise. And, hopefully, we will soon have clarification about exactly what the tests carried out at Porton Down are supposed to have established, and on what basis.
As it happens, it is precisely such clarification that we also need in relation to the Ghouta atrocity. And what makes this all the more relevant to the current situation is that Porton Down plays a central role in Hersh’s account of what was described in press coverage at the time as the ‘head-spinning reversal’ by President Obama.
It was to almost universal surprise, and against the advice of most of his senior national security advisors, that on 30 August 2013 President Trump’s predecessor abandoned plans to respond to Ghouta with air strikes.
According to the ‘Red Line and Rat Line’ article, his change of mind resulted from an intervention by the then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey. And this, Hersh claims, was successful because General Dempsey was able to support his case with the results of tests on samples from Ghouta carried out at Porton Down, which definitively exonerated the Syrian government.
In subsequent interviews, Hersh has claimed that these tests showed that the toxin used at Ghouta was ‘kitchen sarin.’ The question of what tests carried out at Porton Down and elsewhere established about its precise composition is critical to assessing whether his case his credible. The question of what parallel tests establish about the composition of toxins used at Khan Sheikhoun do or do not establish will be highly significant in assessing whether claims such as those made by Mr Rycroft are credible.
What makes the parallels particularly relevant is that, in support of his – unsuccessful – attempt on 29 August 2013 to secure the support of the Commons for British participation in air strikes in Syria, David Cameron was able to rely on an ‘assessment’ from the Joint Intelligence Committee.
Its then Chairman, Sir Jon Day, provided precisely the same kind of endorsement to claims made on the other side of the Atlantic as Mr Rycroft has just given, asserting that there were ‘no plausible alternative scenarios to regime responsibility’ for Ghouta. As Obama’s change of mind happened on the day following, if in fact test results from Porton Down account for it, these would have had to be in General Dempsey’s possession by that date at the latest.