In the Los Angeles Review of Books, sociologist Muhammad Idrees Ahmad takes Seymour Hersh to task for his article The Red Line and the Rat Line in April London Review of Books. Generating even more controversy than he usually does, Hersh, revered and reviled in equal measures, fleshes out the premise that, aided by Turkey, the al-Nusra Front — not the Assad regime — was responsible for the August 2013 sarin attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. (Can you imagine something like that happening in — if you live in one — your suburb?)
Ahmad accuses Hersh of relaying “a cock-and-bull story invented by an interested party and forego[ing] corroboration.” He states that, when the attack occurred,
… employing a weapon that the [Assad] regime was known to possess, using a delivery mechanism peculiar to its arsenal, in a place the regime was known to target, and against people the regime was known to loathe, it was not unreasonable to assume regime responsibility. This conclusion was corroborated by first responders, UN investigators, human rights organizations, and independent analysts.
But Hersh had written about President Obama’s stand-down of an attack against Syria:
Obama’s change of mind had its origins at Porton Down, the defence laboratory in Wiltshire. British intelligence had obtained a sample of the sarin used in the 21 August attack and analysis demonstrated that the gas used didn’t match the batches known to exist in the Syrian army’s chemical weapons arsenal. The message that the case against Syria wouldn’t hold up was quickly relayed to the US joint chiefs of staff.
But Ahmad makes some sound points, such as:
… If Assad’s opponents are in possession of sarin and ballistic missiles, why have they never used them for battlefield advantage? … If the United States were determined to intervene, as Hersh insists it was, would it confine itself to a doubtful chemical pretext when there were so many indubitable humanitarian ones to avail? If the regime was innocent, why did it deny UN investigators access to the site for four days and subject the area to unrelenting artillery fire?[i] Why would Turkey … risk its membership in NATO — and, potentially, future membership of the EU — by manufacturing sarin, and do so specifically for a clumsy false flag operation?
Also, regarding Porton Down, the British defense laboratory, Ahmad writes:
According to Hersh’s source, the British confirmed that the sarin didn’t come from the regime’s arsenal. Hersh does not corroborate the claim. [Nor does he] say why he believes the lab would consider valid any sample supplied by Russia, a state determined to absolve its client by any means.
Samples were also recovered from the site by the UN. Hersh makes no mention of these. Whatever discoveries Porton Down might have made, they were superseded by what the UN inspectors extracted and studied firsthand.
But what Hersh had written only sounds outrageous if you’re utterly skeptical of this battle-tested reporter’s ability to unearth trustworthy sources. Regarding the samples, he writes:
Within a few days of the 21 August attack, the former intelligence official told me, Russian military intelligence operatives had recovered samples of the chemical agent from Ghouta. They analysed it and passed it on to British military intelligence; this was the material sent to Porton Down.
… The former intelligence official said the Russian who delivered the sample to the UK was ‘a good source – someone with access, knowledge and a record of being trustworthy’.
… The UK defence staff who relayed the Porton Down findings to the joint chiefs were sending the Americans a message, the former intelligence official said: ‘We’re being set up here.’
Ahmad lights into Hersh, but good.
In a time of ongoing slaughter, to obfuscate the regime’s well-documented responsibility for a war crime does not just aid the regime today, it aids it tomorrow. As long as doubts remain about previous atrocities, there will be hesitancy to assign new blame.
Obviously, Hersh can’t pretend the war crime was well documented when he believes otherwise, no matter what the effect on future war crimes by the Assad regime. Ahmad doesn’t let up (emphasis added).
When a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and a respectable literary publication undertake to challenge this consensus, one reasonably expects due diligence.
… But the editors didn’t do that. They gave precedence to storytelling over truth-telling. … in using Hersh as click bait, they provided a smokescreen for new violations.
Ahmad then resorts to outright slander.
This is not the reporting of a journalist; it is the distortion of a propagandist.
As if accusing Hersh of aiding and abetting future Assad war crimes weren’t enough, Ahmad writes:
Hersh may be credulous, but some of his statements leave one wondering if something less benign is at play. He does not just exonerate the regime and saddle its opponents with its crimes; he actually makes a dog-whistle case for Assad keeping his arsenal. “The Syrian regime continues the process of eliminating its chemical arsenal,” but, Hersh warns, “after Assad’s stockpile of precursor agents is destroyed, al-Nusra and its Islamist allies could end up as the only faction inside Syria with access to the ingredients that can create sarin, a strategic weapon that would be unlike any other in the war zone.” The LRB editors let this pass!
Perhaps they let that pass because what Ahmad alleges is a stretch. More:
By now even the most dogmatic among Hersh’s publishers must have realized that they were hoaxed. Their ideological proclivities and eagerness for clicks made the deception easier. They got played — they relayed what is in effect pro-fascist propaganda.
That’s got to be the first time that Hersh was accused of not only being the perpetrator of a hoax, but pro-fascist. While it may be true that Hersh has an agenda — derailing another American rush to war — it doesn’t automatically follow that he’s lying to achieve this end. Besides, nothing Hersh writes suggests he has any illusions about Assad.