A “background briefing” is one in which the reporters can use the information but not attribute it by name to the individuals providing it. (There’s often a generic “source” specified, like this report’s “NSC Officials.” For those interested in the mechanics, there are several variations of source/reporter interaction, explained from the j-school point of view here). In the instant case, Johnson reports..
An American View
NEWS: National Security Council officials just held a background briefing with reporters on the declassified intel assessment of last week’s chemical attack on Khan Shaykhun, Syria. Full story coming soon, but a few takeaways:
- Sarin confirmed as the nerve agent used via testing on victims as well as symptoms. Secondary responders also suffered exposure symptoms.
- Su-22s from Shayrat airfield dropped the sarin on Khan Shaykhun; conventional weapons were dropped about six hours later on hospital treating sarin victims – “no comment” from officials on if Russia did latter.
- No ISIS or other terrorists in area have sarin (just mustard gas) – attack was “not a terrorist holding of sarin or a terrorist use of sarin”
- WH official on if Russia, present at airfield, knew of sarin attack: “We don’t have information on that per se… still looking into that.” Adding: “We do think that it is a question worth asking” Russians how they were with Syrian forces at airfield “and did not have knowledge” of the attack in planning/prep stages.
- “Leakage inconsistent” with Russians saying sarin came from opposition stocks on ground – “we don’t see a building with that chemical residue”
- On Syria hoax conspiracy theories: Body of evidence “too massive” for anyone to fabricate. Official added that videos released of attack did correspond with that date, time, location.
A Russian View
So that’s the American spin. Opposed to that, we have the Russian propaganda outlet Anna News getting the Syrian spin on things, on the target airfield. Much of what reporter Sergei Bayduk has to say is bullshit, but the images are interesting. He identifies the same two a/c hulks we have seen as a MiG-23 (presumably the “monkey model” the Soviets furnished to allies) and an Su-22. Swing-wing jets of the 60s and 70s.
Bayduk makes the valid point that the attack did not close the airfield for long. The attack kicked off at oh-dark-thirty, lasted about a half an hour, and after the all clear they quickly repaired the airfield and were flying by daybreak. (Here, the rugged design of Soviet / Russian landing gear pays big dividends, as the planes are designed to land on completely unimproved surfaces, so there’s no problem landing and taking off on a runway that’s only had hasty repairs).
You have to wonder what the old Soviet authorities were thinking (back in the Brezhnev days) to transfer biological and chemical weapons to guys like Khadafy, Saddam Hussein and Assad père. They do realize that if these guys used these weapons on their enemy, Israel, the Israelis would most probably respond with their only WMD: nukes. But then again, in Brezhnev’s day they built the reactor at Chernobyl (he was dead and gone when it went FOOM).
We spent some time at a base in Uzbekistan that was, we discovered, contaminated with just about everything imaginable, including chemical weapons, biological toxins and spores, and ionizing radiation from two HASes in which aircraft had been blown up about like the ones you see here. There was a story the Uzbek AF officers told, but we didn’t know whether to credit it or not. There were also Soviet era crash sites all over the field… the first years of jet fighters look like they were just as unsafe in the Soviet Air Force as in its American counterpart.
Of course, Uzbekistan is a different matter, perhaps, as it was one of 15 Republics of the USSR, sovereign Soviet territory, when the A-VMF stockpiled WMDs there.
While the USSR sponsored some real bastards, the US in turn sponsored plenty of bastards of our own. Some of the places that were once dictatorships aren’t, now.
Returning to Syria, it sounds as if President Trump does not want to engage against Assad or make regime change his objective — the purpose of the strike was to send a message: chemical weapons are not OK.
We have our qualms about using the military for message-sending.
An Australian View
Every major nation has its own defense intellectuals, if not its own think tanks, and they often come at problems from new directions. For example, the Lowy Institute for International Policy (Sydney, Australia) has an interesting and deep analysis of the Khan Shaykhoun attack, which it calls out as very different from the attacks which have gone before. Here’s a taste:
Although chemical attacks against the Syrian population have continued over the past four years the Khan Sheikhoun attack is significantly different. After the August 2013 sarin attacks, Syria was compelled to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, declare all its chemical weapons and disarm. Chlorine barrel bombs were used after that, but their manufacture seemed makeshift and they were clearly not part of Syria’s former military chemical arsenal. Chlorine barrel bombs are a violation of the CWC but their possession does not indicate that Syria’s 2013 declaration of its chemical weapons was incorrect. Chlorine, if used for industrial reasons, is excluded.
Over the past few years CWC member states have expressed concern that Syria’s chemical declaration is inaccurate and incomplete. Indeed over the past two years the OPCW has held continuing discussions with Syria to resolve discrepancies, so far without success. Although the nature of these discussions is confidential, statements made by various delegates to the OPCW suggest that although the majority of Syria’s chemical holdings were disclosed, details are missing on a broad range of issues, including on munitions and manufacture.
The Khan Sheikhoun attack now appears to be demonstrable proof that Syria’s CWC declaration, the basis for its chemical disarmament, is inaccurate. At the very least, Syria has retained undeclared stocks of a nerve agent, possibly sarin in binary form, and the munitions to deliver it. What other chemical weapons may be undeclared can only be speculated on, but given the recent event it is reasonable to assume that some exist.
We strongly recommend anyone interested Read The Whole Thing™. We can’t disagree with author Rod Barton’s conclusions:
[I]t is difficult to envisage what measures, political or military, the US could realistically take to bring Syria to account. In all probability, the abhorrent Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack is likely to be lost in the wider Syrian crisis, with its almost 5 million external refugees, its growing internal humanitarian needs and its political complexity.
As depressing and alarming as it is, the world may therefore expect that Syria will continue to use its remaining chemical weapons against its populace, whenever it chooses and with relative impunity.
Kevin was a former Special Forces weapons man (MOS 18B, before the 18 series, 11B with Skill Qualification Indicator of S). His focus was on weapons: their history, effects and employment. He started WeaponsMan.com in 2011 and operated it until he passed away in 2017. His work is being preserved here at the request of his family.