Were Saudis and careless rebels responsible for the East Ghouta deaths?

Louis Proyect

Louis Proyect, the author of this piece, is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list, where his various articles first appear. For information on how to subscribe to the list, go here. Active in socialist politics since 1967, he has given workshops on the Internet to community and union groups, as well as moderating a Marxist mailing list on the Internet that can be linked to above. He has also created a small archive of the writings of James M. Blaut, an outstanding scholar and revolutionary. Proyect’s articles, many of which appeared originally as postings to the Marxism list, have appeared in Sozialismus (Germany), Science and Society, New Politics, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Organization and Environment, Cultural Logic, Dark Night Field Notes, Revolutionary History (Great Britain), New Interventions (Great Britain), Canadian Dimension, Revolution Magazine (New Zealand), Swans and Green Left Weekly (Australia). He is also a proud member of the NY Film Critics Online. He also run a blog. He can be reached at lnp3[at]panix.com.

bashar-al-assad-body-count-in-syriaBack in May 25, 2012, the village of Houla in Syria suffered a massacre in which 108 people were killed, including 34 women and 49 children. The initial reaction was to condemn the Shabiha, an Alawite militia fanatically committed to the Baathist cause. But three days later Rainer Hermann, the Middle East correspondent for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, wrote an article blaming the rebels. Within hours it seems, every “anti-imperialist” website began crossposting his article or citing it as proof that a false flag operation had been mounted to discredit the progressive and secular government under siege by jihadists.

Eventually Hermann’s article proved false, but not a single website issued a correction. All this was swept under the rug.

History seems to be repeating itself with the publication of Dale Gavlak and Yahya Ababneh’s article in Mint Press News on August 29, 2013 that alleges something almost akin to involuntary manslaughter. It clears the Baathists of using chemical weapons against the rebel-controlled East Ghouta suburb of Damascus but does not quite amount to a finger-pointing false flag piece like Hermann’s. They claim instead that some rebels were mucking about in a tunnel that was stockpiled with chemical weapons and accidentally knocked one (or more) over. I guess the best analogy would be drunk driving or firing a rifle into the sky on New Year’s Eve and hitting someone leaning out the window of a high-rise.

Despite letting off the rebels with a light sentence, Gavlak and Ababneh do share one thing in common with Hermann. The entire report is based on what eyewitnesses told them. There might be future revelations that contradict what they have reported (leaving aside John Kerry’s obviously vested interest account) but until that happens the least we can do is take a very close look at the article.

Brown Moses has already taken a shot at that, drawing upon military experts who could look at the incident from the standpoint of his blog, namely to identify weapons being used by the rebels and the Baathists. The emphasis is obviously technical. I don’t want to repeat any of the points made there and will be looking at the article from the angle of plausibility, even though some of what I will say will inevitably overlap with the analysis there.

I want to start off by saying a word or two about the authors. Dale Gavlak is not an investigative reporter. Instead, he appears to be a well-traveled journeyman with no particular political agenda. He has written for the ultraright Washington Times but the articles betray no bias that one might expect given the venue. Mint Press describes Yahya Ababneh as a “Jordanian freelance journalist…currently working on a master’s degree in journalism.” Mint Press issued a clarification some time after the article appeared, identifying Ababneh as being the sole on-site interviewer in East Ghouta.

The first interviewee was the father of one of the rebels who died in the accident:

“My son came to me two weeks ago asking what I thought the weapons were that he had been asked to carry,” said Abu Abdel-Moneim, the father of a rebel fighting to unseat Assad, who lives in Ghouta.

Abdel-Moneim said his son and 12 other rebels were killed inside of a tunnel used to store weapons provided by a Saudi militant, known as Abu Ayesha, who was leading a fighting battalion. The father described the weapons as having a “tube-like structure” while others were like a “huge gas bottle.”

Now I would have expected a disclaimer at the end of the article stating that names had been changed to protect the innocent, as the old TV show “Dragnet” would put it. But there is none. In a town infested with the sort of people who have by all accounts killed a 14 year old boy for saying that he wouldn’t even give Muhammad a free cup of coffee, what is the likelihood that Abdel-Moneim would identify himself as a “snitch” on the Saudi-backed jihadists? Hmmm.

Now, it is evident that the authors do cloak the identity of another interviewee:

A well-known rebel leader in Ghouta named ‘J’ agreed. “Jabhat al-Nusra militants do not cooperate with other rebels, except with fighting on the ground. They do not share secret information. They merely used some ordinary rebels to carry and operate this material,” he said.

“We were very curious about these arms. And unfortunately, some of the fighters handled the weapons improperly and set off the explosions,” ‘J’ said.

Now I hate to ask impertinent questions but since everybody died in the accident, how does J know that they handled the weapons improperly?  I try to imagine the “ordinary” FSA rebels down in the tunnel getting into a sort of giddy state after drinking one too many strong cups of tea and then began playing catch with the missiles, like the Three Stooges. “Hey, Hassan, go out for a slant pass…Hut Hut.” Is this an accurate portrait of people fighting for their lives?

Gavlak and Ababneh write: “Doctors who treated the chemical weapons attack victims cautioned interviewers to be careful about asking questions regarding who, exactly, was responsible for the deadly assault.” Is that so? Which doctors? What is the likelihood that doctors taking their lives into their hands by working in East Ghouta, particularly in a situation where they could fall ill from exposure to sarin in the clothing of the people they were treating, would warn against identifying the source of the attacks? It does not make any sense.

Except for the four paragraphs cited above, there is nothing in the article that can be described as on-the-spot investigative reporting. In fact, the second half of the article is boilerplate reporting cobbled together from other sources about the Saudis riling up an otherwise serene population, making it worth their while to go fight the government for pay. As the authors put it: “More than a dozen rebels interviewed reported that their salaries came from the Saudi government.” Much of it reads like a script for the next James Bond movie, with Prince Bandar the arch-villain.bashar-al-assad-chucky-child-play

They refer to a Daily Telegraph article about secret Russian-Saudi talks with Bandar offering Putin cheap oil in exchange for dumping Assad. If he didn’t play ball, he’d sic Chechen jihadists on the Sochi Olympics. The article was written by one Ambrose Evans-Pritchard (with a name like that, he’s gotta be British) who is best-known for writing conspiracy tales about Bill Clinton, including one that the Oklahoma City bombing was a secret government plot in which Timothy McVeigh was just a fall guy, like Lee Harvey Oswald. He claims that ATF agents were warned not to go to work that day. The fact that a reporter for the Daily Oklahoman interviewed two ATF agents as they emerged from the rubble does not enter the equation. Now I have no idea what the Mint Press reporters consider leading edge investigative reporting but I wouldn’t go near Evans-Pritchard with a ten-foot pole, something I consider more risky than playing catch with a sarin-laden missile.

Of course, our intrepid reporters give a nod to Carla del Ponte, who I have already identified as about as trustworthy as Donald Rumsfeld. That they can end their article with a reference to her allegation that the rebels are using chemical weapons rather than the Baathists tells me that they don’t really give a hoot about journalistic integrity. Why they wrote such a load of crap is something for other people to figure out.

I just want to conclude with some comments on the role of FAIR, the liberal media watchdog I once supported strongly, donating hundreds of dollars in years past. On their blog, Jim Naureckas recommends a look at the Mint Press article. And immediately after the Houla massacre, FAIR staffer Steve Rendall took the FAZ false flag article seriously. Now they do issue pretty useful articles from time to time, but my recommendation to these comrades is to leave their Islamophobia at home unless they want to tarnish the reputation of a nonprofit that relies on the good will of its donors.

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