The White House and the Turkish government have both dismissed a report suggesting that the Turkish government was behind a sarin gas attack in Syria last summer in cooperation with the al-Qaeda-affiliated organization al-Nusra Front.
American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, a regular contributor to The New Yorker magazine on military and intelligence issues, reported the controversial story on Sunday. The story appeared in the British literary publication “The London Review of Books” with the title of “The red line and the rat line.”
“We have seen Mr. Hersh's latest story, which is based solely on information from unnamed sources and which reaches conclusions about the August 21 chemical weapons attack in Syria that are completely off-base,” said the White House press office in an e-mail statement on Sunday sent in response to questions about the accuracy of Hersh's story.
Turkish diplomatic sources speaking to Today's Zaman on the condition of anonymity said: “These claims are baseless. We do not take it seriously.” The same sources pointed out that the American administration had refuted the claims in the article.
Hersh suggested in the story that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan government was responsible for the sarin gas attack on Ghouta, near Damascus, in August of last year in hopes that it would force the US administration to honor its “red line” threat regarding the use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Hersh wrote that Obama was ready to launch an allied air strike on Syria after the chemical attack on Ghouta to punish Assad for allegedly crossing the “red line” he had set in 2012. But with less than two days to go before the planned strike, Obama cancelled the attack based on information obtained by British intelligence suggesting that the sarin used in the August attack didn't match the Syrian army's chemical arsenal.
In the article, Hersh claimed that Erdoğan was known to be supporting the al-Nusra Front in Syria. A former intelligence official apparently told Hersh, “We now know it was a covert action planned by Erdoğan's people to push Obama over the red line,” according to the article. The same source suggested that sarin was supplied through Turkey and that it could only have gotten there with Turkish support. The Turks also allegedly provided training in producing and handling the sarin.
Much of the support for that assessment came from the Turks themselves, via intercepted conversations in the immediate aftermath of the attack, said the article. It was stated that the principal evidence came from the Turkish “post-attack joy and back-slapping in numerous intercepts.”
Critics argue that Hersh ignored evidence indicating that the Syrian regime is responsible for the horrendous attack and criticize the veteran journalist for relying on just one unnamed source for his most serious claims in the article.
According to the White House statement, in response to a question about weapons moving from Libya and the suggestion that others could have been responsible for the August 21 chemical weapon attack, spokesman for Director of National Intelligence Shawn Turner said:
“We're not going to comment on every inaccurate aspect of this narrative, but to be clear: the Assad regime, and only the Assad regime, could have been responsible for the chemical weapons attack that took place on August 21. We have made that judgment based upon intelligence collected by the United States and by our partners and allies. It is a view that is shared overwhelmingly by the international community and has led to unprecedented cooperation in the dismantling of Assad's CW [chemical weapons] stockpiles. The suggestion that there was an effort to suppress or alter intelligence is simply false. Likewise, the idea that the United States was providing weapons from Libya to anyone is false.”
In his report, Hersh suggested that US President Barack Obama's administration had a role in creating what the CIA calls a “rat line,” a back channel highway into Syria. Authorized in early 2012, it was used to funnel weapons and ammunition from Libya via southern Turkey and across the Syrian border to the opposition, Hersh said.
According to the article, in January, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a report on the assault by a local militia in September 2012 on the American consulate and a nearby undercover CIA facility in Benghazi, Libya, which resulted in the death of US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others.
“A highly classified annex to the report, not made public, described a secret agreement reached in early 2012 between the Obama and Erdoğan administrations. It pertained to the rat line. By the terms of the agreement, funding came from Turkey, as well as Saudi Arabia and Qatar,” suggested the article.
Hersh wrote that by the end of 2012, American intelligence believed that the Syrian rebels were losing against Assad and Erdoğan was “pissed” and felt betrayed by the Obama administration.
In response to questions about a classified paper on the Syrian rebels' chemical-weapons capabilities, Turner said, “No such paper was ever requested or produced by intelligence community analysts.”
According to the White House statement, National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden said in answer to questions about military planning:
“We have long said that all options were on the table in Syria and that our military was doing the appropriate contingency planning, as you'd expect them to do. The President said publicly on August 31, 2013 that he had determined that it was in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike. He said that the purpose of this strike would be to deter Assad from using chemical weapons, to degrade his regime's ability to use them, and to make clear to the world that we will not tolerate their use.”
She continued: “But the notion that the President ordered our military to undertake action in Syria by a fixed deadline of September 2, 2013 is completely fabricated. As the President said when he addressed the nation on August 31, even though he possessed the authority to order military strikes, he believed it was right, in the absence of a direct or imminent threat to our security, to take the debate to Congress. That's what he did, and on September 10 asked the leaders of Congress to postpone a vote to authorize the use of force so we could pursue the diplomatic path we are now on and that is resulting in the removal of Syria's chemical weapons.”
The article also mentioned Erdoğan's meeting with Obama in the White House on May 16, 2013, saying that Erdoğan sought the meeting to demonstrate that Obama's red line has been crossed by Syria and that the Turkish prime minister gave National Intelligence Chief Hakan Fidan the opportunity to speak on the matter in the meeting. According to article, Obama cut off Fidan's explanations two times, at which point Erdoğan waved his finger angrily at the president and said, “But your red line has been crossed.” Hersh said that then Obama pointed at Fidan and said, “We know what you're doing with the radicals in Syria.”
"Today's Zaman," April 7, 2014