It’s just as well that someone appears to have tipped off the Russians about the targets! Thankfully, it’s kept the death toll low. Last night’s US/British/French attacks on Syria were based on a false and unlikely premise. It is wildly improbable that the Syrian regime was responsible for the chemical weapons attack in Douma last Saturday (April 7th).
The Allied response was conveniently timed for Theresa May – as I predicted last week someone seems to have kidnapped Yulia Skripal. At any rate she has disappeared (Yulia Skripal that is, not Theresa May). No one has heard from her, other than a dubious and unverifiable statement issued on her behalf by the Metropolitan Police. May of course is desperate to hang onto power and to stop conservatives taking over the Conservative Party, although I have no doubt she was out of the loop on the kidnap decision.
The attacks on Syria were the usual pinprick affair. As with those following the last false flag incident, at Khan Shaykhun, in April 2017, they have done little damage. There has long been a standing joke at the Bar about the bench of lay magistrates which fined a thief. The chairman of the Bench told him that he was lucky – if they’d really thought he was guilty they would have jailed him!
The Pentagon obviously had their doubts, so they’ve gone along with limited strikes, provided they could tell the Russians first! If they’d really thought Assad had done it they might have whacked his palace. The reality is that the air strikes were ordered for political, not operational reasons. It can hardly be a coincidence that inspectors from the OPCW were due to arrive in Douma today.
What happened at Douma?
There were two reported chemical weapons attacks on Douma, effectively a suburb of Damascus, on 7th April, at 1300 and 1630 Zulu (GMT). According to the Administration “witnesses” reported helicopters overhead at the time of the attacks. Civilians in the Douma area were reported to be suffering symptoms consistent with the use of chlorine gas, a banned chemical weapon first used by our community partner the Hun during World War I.
Military operations to retake Douma from Jaysh al-Islam terrorists had resumed the previous day, after a hiatus for ceasefire negotiations. Douma is one of the few remaining areas of Syria under terrorist control.
There are real problems in attributing blame to the Assad regime. Firstly there is the complete absence of motive. Bashir al-Assad may be a Bad Guy and the last of the Arab fascist dictators, but he’s no fool. Unlike Theresa May, with respect, he’s a rational actor.
The Assad regime are winning the Syrian Civil War, hands down. They know full well that further CW attacks would bring swift retribution. They even get cruise missiles fired at them when Turkey uses CW on their soil, as she did last year at Khan Shaykhun, never mind when they use them themselves!
CW are of limited tactical value at the best of times. Nobody’s ever won a war using them – in practice they are far more trouble than they’re worth. No rational actor in power in Damascus would have used them last Saturday in the manner alleged.
On the other hand Jaysh al-Islam had every motive to kill a few locals, with the support of the White Helmets (who have form for this). It would hold up the Syrian government’s assault on Douma and bring Western retribution down upon them.
There is considerable room for debate about both the number of casualties and the symptoms they suffered. Chlorine is fairly readily available and I have no difficulty with the White Helmets or Jaysh al-Islam using it at Douma. All reporting from the White Helmets has to be viewed with suspicion, but there are other witnesses.
There is no reliable evidence for the use of sarin at all. As at Khan Shaykhun it is noticeable that none of the medical staff or paramedics were wearing Hazmat suits or for that matter taking any precautions for dealing with nerve gases.
Where the ‘it was Assad wot dun it’ narrative really breaks down however is over the delivery system. This is supposed to have been helicopters, but they are not identified and there are no videos of them. There’s lots of footage of the aftermath, so there were plenty of video cameras around, not to mention cell-phones with cameras. How is it that nobody thought to video a fairly dramatic incident like an air raid involving helos dropping barrels containing chemical weapons?
The White House has not identified the witnesses. No doubt the White Helmets and others are claiming to have seen these mystery helicopters, but where is the radar or satellite imagery? There seems to have been at least one Arleigh Burke class DDG within radar range of Damascus at the material time. You will not be surprised to learn that since the outbreak of the civil war Syria has come in for a fair amount of attention from satellites. There must be more NRO birds over Damascus than pigeons.
I think the Russian Ministry of Defence are right, with respect: they were no helos, or aircraft for that matter, overhead the target areas at the times of the alleged attacks. The Pentagon seem to be on the same wavelength.
This was a false-flag attack, period.
Major-General Konashenkov’s Statement
In a surprise development, Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Major-General Igor Konashenkov blamed Britain. This has led to him being dubbed a conspiracy theorist by the British media, which is unfair for several reasons. Firstly, General Konashenkov is a serious, decorated military figure with a solid background in engineering. He knows far about the subject that any British journalist.
Secondly, the White Helmets, who really ought to be called the ‘Black Helmets’ (it all gets very confusing when black hats go around wearing white hats), are partly bankrolled by Britain’s notorious Department for International Development (DFID), currently mired in a pedophile and sex for aid scandal. Since the White Helmets are in this fraud up to their necks, blaming London is not so wide of the mark.
Thirdly, the Russians appear to have monitored communications from London to the White Helmets, pressing for the attack. Given the collapse of the bad faith allegation against Russia over the Skripals and GO2’s desperate need to prevent a Tory leadership battle the urgency in London is not to be wondered at. Gassing a few Syrians and blaming Assad and President Putin was an obvious way for GO2 to lift the pressure on Theresa May.
General Konashenkov is not an intelligence officer, however. Where I part company from him, respectfully, is over blaming Britain. The pressure was almost certainly coming from Germany’s GO2, which carried out the attack on the poor Skripals. There is no way that Theresa May was in the loop on the decision to mount a CW attack in Douma. This was intelligence work and with every respect she just isn’t smart enough for it. If she worked in an intel agency she’d be doing the photocopying and that’s about it, no offense intended.
Gassing women and kiddies is also not terribly British. We’re no keener on using poison gas than the Russians. The problem is that no-one in London will go public on GO2. London therefore can’t be heard to complain too loudly if it gets the blame for GO2’s shenanigans.
On this particular occasion the British government is going to look very silly indeed. It turns out that the very crime it accused the Syrian government of committing was planned in London, partly in order to lift the pressure off Theresa May, even if she didn’t know about it. Boomps-a-daisy.
Theresa May’s position
As with the fake allegation against Russia over Salisbury it really doesn’t matter what Theresa May knew or what she didn’t. I repeat that I really don’t think she would sanction a murderous attack using banned chemical weapons on innocent women and children. She may be a Remainer, but she’s not a war criminal, at least she wasn’t till this morning.
Sanctioning a bombing raid on a sovereign country with whom we are not at war, based on a false premise, won’t do her any favors if the matter comes before the International Criminal Court, however. Her defense team could fairly point out that she only committed the actus reus of a war crime last night and that there was no mens rea. I’m sure that’s right, but if you’re a Prime Minister you really don’t want to be committing the actus reus of a war crime. You ought to be getting it right, frankly.
If they wanted to whack the guilty party the RAF really should have been bombing Vauxhall Cross (strictly speaking I think the boys used Brimstone 2 stand-off missiles, a poor man’s version of the Tomohawk, costing no more than £175,000 apiece, rather than bombs). The trouble is that MI6, who are white hats, share the building with GO2, who are black hats, and would probably send a memo to MOD Main Building if a few Brimstones came through the windows.
Theresa May has to go, and the sooner the better. Rational voices like those of Major-General Jonathan Shaw, whose interview with Sky News about Douma was rudely interrupted when he suddenly started talking sense, cannot be silenced forever.
The new government has to shut down GO2. If anyone in the Tory Party doubts the wisdom of that, they should have another look at the distressing videos of poor little gassed kiddies in Douma. Their gassing was ordered from a building on the south bank of the Thames, and I don’t mean the Royal Festival Hall.
I suggested last week that GO2 might need to kidnap Yulia Skripal. Now they’ve gone ahead and done it. You can forget the statement from the Met. They would have been told to trot out that nonsense by the Cabinet Office, to whom they report.
There’s no video, no recording, nothing signed by Yulia Skripal and no statement from solicitors instructed by her. Why do signed statements and recordings matter? Because experts can identify signs of stress, that’s why.
Here again we are buying ourselves a whole bunch of trouble by not outing GO2. We have German agents running around Britain kidnapping Russian nationals in order to cover up an apparent assassination attempt against a Russian intelligence officer working for MI6 and in the process drive a wedge between Britain and Russia. Having the West go to war with Russia, or vice versa, has been a German geopolitical aim since they came up with the plan for the Crimean War, which was a very silly war indeed. (At least the Charge of the Light Brigade only involved tactical, not strategic, stupidity!)
I’m not sure if anyone in the government has yet worked out the consequences of GO2 bumping off poor Yulia Skripal, who is a complete innocent in this affair, having committed no crime in either Russia or the UK. President Putin is unhappy enough with London as it is, and understandably so, having been accused of a crime he didn’t commit (been there, done that!).
How’s the poor man going to feel if a couple of goons working for Germany murder Yulia on British soil, in Britain’s name? How is the UK going to be judged in the court of international opinion if Russia demands Yulia’s production and we can’t produce her? (You can forget your Witness Protection Program – I understand that the US Marshals Service draws the line at kidnap.) I fear this crisis is going to get worse before it gets better.
As I keep repeating, intelligence analysis is an ongoing business. It’s not like Toys’R’Us.
As my distinguished VT colleague Ian Greenhalgh has commented elsewhere on this site today (no wonder Facebook have banned us!), it turns out that the agent used at Salisbury wasn’t Novichok at all, but BZ (3-Quinuclidinyl Benzilate). I had thought that the fact that the Skripals survived was down to incorrect mixing of the precursors. BZ, as Ian explains, is an incapacitating agent, rather than a fatal nerve agent.
BZ would not only explain the Skripals’ survival, but also their reported symptoms. Assuming that the Spiez Laboratory in the Swiss Federation have got it right (and they usually do) then GO2’s intent all along may have been to kidnap the Skripals and quietly murder them in one of their safe houses. That would embarrass the British government even more.
I am inclined to agree with Ian and Spiez – it wasn’t Novichok after all. There’s no point anyone commenting that Ian and I have had our differences. He’s not as big a fan of President Trump as I am, for example. If I find myself in agreement with Ian or any of my other valued colleagues here at VT I will say so, and give them full credit. Intelligence analysis is about getting it right, not about personalities.
It would seem that Porton Down and Boris Johnson have got even more explaining to do. Jeremy Corbyn’s going to love reading Ian’s column! (And he is going to read it, because I’m sending him a copy.)
Well done the Pres! I and others have been urging him since the election to pardon Scooter Libby, whose conduct I defended in Spyhunter, and he’s gone and done it! Scooter and I have never met, although we have mutual friends, but I’ve been on his side since he was first accused. His attorney may recall getting a call from me, warning him that Valerie Plame’s identity was not protected under the IIPA. She was just an analyst at Langley at the material time.
Justice needed a good smack over the Libby case and they’ve just had it. The next question is, should the prosecutors be prosecuted for misleading the court and getting an innocent man thrown into jail? With every respect, I can see the argument.
That’s for the future. It is wonderful to see an innocent man’s name being cleared. I hope that Scooter throws a good party this weekend, and doesn’t drive himself home afterwards.
Vice-Admiral D.B.H. Wildish CB (1914 – 2017)
We never met, sadly, although we were both members of MCC and enjoyed our cricket, but I would like to mark the sad passing of this very distinguished naval officer. ‘Dick’ Wildish had a stellar naval career, which started as long ago as the 1920s. He eventually became Deputy Second Sea Lord.
He was also a fine fast bowler, who opened the bowling for the Royal Navy against the RAF at Lord’s in the inter-Service match in 1937. He also got one or two deliveries past our community partners the Kriegsmarine in World War II.
He reached his century in 2014 and I think that I am right in saying that he was the oldest former Flag Officer in the Royal Navy when he died. He was also, surely, one of the last survivors of the battleship HMS Prince of Wales, betrayed by the Cabinet Secretary Sir Edward Bridges and the German agent Rear-Admiral Palliser in 1941.
PoW wasn’t just betrayed by Bridges and Palliser, but by the Treasury, who refused to pay for armoring her outer prop shafts. Unarmored shafts were the Achilles Heel of the mighty King George V class battlewagons – once her port outer prop shaft was hit by a Jap torpedo the poor old Prince of Wales was done for.
Admiral Wildish was also on board Prince of Wales when in company with the battlecruiser HMS Hood she engaged the German battleship KMS Bismarck and the heavy cruiser KMS Prinz Eugen in the Battle of the Denmark Strait on May 24th 1941. I am greatly indebted to the Editor of MCC’s Annual Report for 2018, which dropped on my doormat yesterday, for his splendid obituary of Dick Wildish, which I have used as one of my sources.
Vice-Admiral Wildish was a fine naval officer, a gentleman of the old school and a man I wish I had known. We honor his generation by fighting for the things they fought for and doing our best to maintain the standards they set.