With the Obama administration in an all-out blitz to gain congressional authorization for a strike On Syria, the debate over chemical weapons and a potential U.S. military retaliation has taken an inevitable turn: The conspiracy theories have arrived.
Perhaps President Obama planned the chemical weapons attack to create an excuse to intervene? Or maybe he just framed the Syrians? Or perhaps it was in fact a "false flag" attack carried out at Israel’s behest? Or maybe the intelligence has just been wildly distorted? Or maybe the attack was in fact no attack at all but an accidental release of chemical weapons provided to the rebels by Saudi Arabian intelligence officials?
One theory is crazier than the next, but for these modern conspiracy theorists, no conjecture seems out of bounds. Here’s your guide to the ugly turn the Syria debate has now taken.
OBAMA DID IT!
The theory: In what is so far the most outlandish allegation surrounding the Syria debate, Yossef Bodansky, a defense analyst, argues that it was in fact Obama who planned the attacks. The allegation — if it can even be called that — was given wider circulation on Tuesday, when Rush Limbaugh talked up the story on air, and describes a shadowy network of intelligence agencies who are to have orchestrated the attack. The Bodansky article contends that just prior to the chemical weapons attack, the Syrian opposition was provided with a massive influx of weapons provided by Turkish and Qatari intelligence agents with the support of U.S. spies. Under the cover of U.S. airstrikes launched in retaliation for chemical weapons use, the Syrian opposition would launch a massive offensive and break the back of the Assad regime. The chemical weapons attack, Bodansky contends, thus plays into the strategic interests of the United States — assuming for the moment that Washington is firmly on the side of the rebels — and could serve as a decisive moment in the military conflict.
Why it’s crazy: One immediate problem presents itself with this theory — that is, beyond the prima facie craziness of the notion that a sitting U.S. president would plan a chemical weapons strike in a country where he has strenuously sought to avoid U.S. military entanglement. If the chemical weapons strike was a U.S. operation all along, then why did Obama bother to take the issue to Congress? Though he would have suffered politically in some quarters if he had taken immediate action, he would have been well within the law and precedent. Few things other than a desire to improve political support for the operation prevented Obama from launching strikes immediately, and if he had already decided that 1,400 Syrian dead were a price worth paying for some air cover, why would the president ever care what Congress thinks? Additionally, setting aside for a moment the evidence collected by U.S. intelligence officials — which presumably can’t be taken seriously in a discussion of this idea — consider the following: France, Germany, and the Arab League have all backed Obama’s conclusion that the Assad regime was behind the attack. Would Francois Hollande, Angela Merkel, and a slew of Arab governments really take part in an international cover-up of this proportion? Only in Bodansky’s brain.
THE ISRAELIS DID IT!
The theory: Lest you think that only lunatics on the far ends of the political spectrum propagate these conspiracy theories, let’s begin with comments by none other than Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell. In an interview with Current TV, Wilkerson alleged that the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack on the suburbs east of Damascus was in fact a "false flag" operation — an operation carried out, in this case by Israel, under a false identity to discredit one’s opponents.
Why it’s crazy: Well, there’s the minor issue of Wilkerson having no evidence what so ever to back up the claim beyond what he describes as the stupidity of the Netanyahu government. "I think we’ve got a basically geostrategically, geopolitical inept regime in Tel Aviv right now," Wilkerson said in the interview. (And before you ask: no, Israel’s use of white phosphorous is not at all the same as an attack utilizing a nerve agent.)
THE SYRIANS WERE FRAMED!
The theory: Dialing back the craziness, another line of thinking — "thinking" loosely defined, anyway — holds that Obama didn’t actually plan the strikes himself, but that he is framing the Syrians after the fact. The video below lays out that argument and purports to prove the claim by citing documents obtained from a little-known British contractor.
Why it’s crazy: As far as conspiracy theories go, this one is pretty bad. The evidence presented — emails allegedly obtained from Britam Defense by a hacker — purports to show how the Qatari government was in fact behind the attack with the support of the United States and that the evidence has been covered up to pin the blame on Assad:
We’ve got a new offer. It’s about Syria again. Qataris propose an attractive deal and swear that the idea is approved by Washington.
We’ll have to deliver a CW to Homs, a Soviet origin g-shell from Libya similar to those that Assad should have.
They want us to deploy our Ukrainian personnel that should speak Russian and make a video record.
Frankly, I don’t think it’s a good idea but the sums proposed are enormous. Your opinion?
What does this prove? Perhaps that the Qatari government has gone completely nuts and is hatching some wild schemes, but the links to the U.S. government are completely unfounded. Then again, that’s what makes for the best conspiracy theory.
THE REBELS DID IT!
The theory: Next up is the allegation that the chemical weapons attack was in fact the result of an accident after Saudi Arabia provided Syrian rebels with nerve agent. According to an article in MintPress News, Saudi intelligence chief Bandar bin Sultan funneled chemical weapons to fighters in Ghouta, just outside of Damascus. Those weapons were allegedly stored in underground tunnels, and after rebels who were unfamiliar with handling the weapons set off an explosion, the nerve gas dispersed, resulting in the deaths of over a thousand people.
Why it’s crazy: That story makes for a good yarn but bears little relation to all the other available evidence. The chemically-laden rockets were launched from government-controlled territory into rebel-held lands. Western intelligence agencies intercepted phone calls from within the Assad regime panicking over the chemical attack’s massive spread. Then the regime launched a series of conventional rocket barrages in an apparent attempt to cover up the crime. To believe the rebels pulled this off, you’d have to convince yourself that the opposition did all of this to themselves. Oh, did we mention that the Syrian military has hundreds of metric tons of precursors for chemical weapons?
IT WASN’T REALLY NERVE GAS!
The theory: Conspiratorial thinking about chemical weapons use in Syria can also take on a more benign form, as in Truthout’s allegations that U.S. officials have wildly distorted intelligence on the Aug. 21 attack. Truthout points out that it remains unclear who in the Syrian government ordered the attack. But if this is to be cited as the principal failure of U.S. intelligence efforts, it’s certainly odd that administration spokespersons are acknowledging it freely. From there, Truthout‘s allegations take a turn for the morbid by casting doubt on claims chemical weapons were used by arguing that certain symptoms consistent with a nerve agent — specifically mass vomiting and diarrhea — appeared not to be present with the victims.
Why it’s crazy: Though there is obviously a debate to had on the lethality of the chemical weapons used in Ghouta, there appears to be little doubt that nerve agents were deployed. None other than Doctors Without Borders, the medical charity whose hospitals treated many of the victims, said that victims’ symptoms matched exposure to a nerve agent, and that’s an assessment most independent experts agree agree with. In casting doubt on reports of chemical weapons usage, Truthout relies on the voluminous video record of the immediate aftermath of the attacks, when social media activists sped to the scene to document the carnage. But if it wasn’t a chemical weapons attack that Syria’s video journalists observed that day, why then did all but one of the media activists at one local coordiantion committee die after spending time filming at the site of the attack?
So what conspiracy theories did we miss? Leave your favorites in the comments.
Yochi Dreazen is a Managing Editor for News at Foreign Policy. He is also writer-in-residence at the Center for a New American Security. His book about military suicide was published by Random House's Crown division in 2014.
Prior to joining Foreign Policy, Dreazen was a contributing editor at the Atlantic and the senior national security correspondent for National Journal. He began his career at the Wall Street Journal and spent 11 years at the newspaper, most recently as its military correspondent. He was born in Chicago, and later attended the University of Pennsylvania. At Penn, he edited the award-winning daily campus newspaper and graduated Magna Cum Laude in 1999 with degrees in History and English. He was hired by the Wall Street Journal immediately after graduation. Dreazen arrived in Iraq in April 2003 with the Fourth Infantry Division, and spent the next two years living in Baghdad as the Wall Street Journal's main Iraq correspondent.
Dreazen has made more than 12 lengthy trips to Iraq and Afghanistan and has spent a total of nearly four years on the ground in the two countries, mostly doing front-line combat embeds. He has reported from more than 20 countries, including Pakistan, Russia, China, Israel, Japan, Turkey, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia.
In 2010, Dreazen received the Military Reporters & Editors association’s top award for domestic military reporting in a large publication for a series of articles about military suicide and the psychological traumas impacting veterans of the two long wars. His writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Smithsonian, Tablet and the New Republic and he appears regularly on TV and radio programs such as NPR's Diane Rehm Show and PBS' Washington Week with Gwen Ifill. Dreazen gives frequent lectures about journalism, the wars and current events to both civilian and military audiences.
Dreazen lives in Washington with his wife, Annie Rosenzweig Dreazen, and their beloved Golden Retriever, Charlie.| The Cable |
Noah Shachtman is Foreign Policy's executive editor of news, directing the magazine's coverage of breaking events in international security, intelligence, and global affairs. A Non-Resident Fellow at the Brookings Institution's Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, he's reported from Afghanistan, Israel, Iraq, and Russia. He's written about technology and defense for the New York Times Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Slate, Salon, and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, among others.
Previously, Shachtman was a contributing editor at Wired magazine, where he co-founded and edited its national security blog, Danger Room. The site took home the Online Journalism Award for best beat reporting in 2007, and a 2012 National Magazine Award for reporting in digital media.
Shachtman has spoken before audiences at West Point, the Army Command and General Staff College, the Aspen Security Forum, the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference, Harvard Law School, and National Defense University. The offices of the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, and the Director of National Intelligence have all asked him to contribute to discussions on cyber security and emerging threats. The Associated Press, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, PBS, ABC News, and NPR have looked to him to provide insight on military developments.
In 2003, Shachtman founded DefenseTech.org, which quickly emerged as one of the web's leading resources on military hardware. The site was later sold to Military.com. During his tenure at Wired, he patrolled with Marines in the heart of Afghanistan's opium country, embedded with a Baghdad bomb squad, pored over the biggest investigation in FBI history, exposed technical glitches in the U.S. drone program, snuck into the Los Alamos nuclear lab, profiled Silicon Valley gurus and Russian cybersecurity savants, and underwent experiments by Pentagon-funded scientists at Stanford.
Before turning to journalism, Shachtman worked as a professional bass player, book editor, and campaign staffer on Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign. A graduate of Georgetown University and a former student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Shachtman lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Elizabeth, and their sons, Leo and Giovanni.| The Cable |