Seymour Hersh’s recent piece on the chemical attacks in Ghouta, Syria last August, has again sparked debates regarding his story and the problems with it. After a similar piece was harshly criticized in December 2013, instead of responding to questions and criticisms about his previous article, Hersh ignored the critics and this time goes one step forward and blames the Turkish government for supplying chemical weapons and helping radical groups use chemical weapons in Syria. Just like in his previous piece, Hersh, this time, ignores the findings of independent reports regarding the sarin attack. He again prefers to focus on some anonymous sources and an intelligence report, of which he cannot confirm the existence. Since the publication of his article in the London Review of Books, Hersh’s piece has been criticized and challenged by different analysts and experts familiar with the case and the conflict in Syria.
Moreover, a lab in London, and the Turkish and U.S. administrations have denied claims made by him this past week.
However, despite these official statements and independent red flags regarding the accuracy of his claims and fallacies in his arguments, since its publication, Hersh’s piece has been debated and discussed among attentive observers of Syria. It in one way or another, this has temporarily shifted the debate regarding the issues in Syria. This situation raises questions about the possible impact of Hersh’s article on several different issues.
Although there are several different arguments in the article, it looks like the main target is the Turkish government and its policies in regard to the conflict in Syria. Several stories have been written on Turkey in recent months referring to the information acquired from some former U.S. intelligence officials.
These stories blame Turkey for supporting radical groups in Syria, training them and providing ammunition for these groups. The role of Turkey in Syria is framed in a way that makes the Turkish government almost solely responsible for the conflict in Syria. Hersh’s piece is the latest in this chorus of articles that blames Turkey for such problems and now for the chemical attacks in Syria. Although Turkey has consistently denied these accusations and although it was reported in recent weeks that intelligence agencies of several countries, including the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Turkey met to coordinate aid shipments for opposition groups in Syria, there is a consistent and constant attack being launched against Turkey and its activities in Syria. The scapegoating of Turkey in Syria raises questions about the real sources or actors behind these former intelligence sources and why they are aiming to create this policy perception regarding Turkey in the region. Furthermore, the main claim of the article aims to defame Turkish policy in Syria on the one hand, but on the other hand also puts the U.S. in a terrible position, as a country that can turn blind eye to a chemical attack by al-Qaida affiliates in Syria that killed more than 1,500 people. So the article with this argument not only attacks Turkey but also U.S. foreign and security policy as well (no wonder why Syrian pro-regime news agencies liked the claims a lot).
Secondly another negative impact of these articles concerns Turkey-U.S. relations. Due to the fact that these stories target Turkish policy in Syria, the sources have been different (or similar) personalities in U.S. intelligence and this can create a serious problem of mutual trust in bilateral relations. It is not a secret that Turkey and the U.S. have not been in 100 percent agreement over the Syrian crisis.
However despite a difference of opinions, the two countries managed to cooperate in many instances in regard to Syria. However, while the foreign ministers of two countries meet regularly and while intelligence agencies work to coordinate their policies, the articles make it seem like some people in the U.S. administration are providing information (accurate or not) to journalists accusing Turkey of wrongdoings.
In addition to these “intelligence sources” there was another point which was picked up by the Turkish public immediately after its publication, which can be more damaging to bilateral relations. Hersh’s unnamed sources from the U.S. intelligence refer to some interceptions of communication of Turkish officials after the chemical attacks as an evidence of Turkish complicity in the attack. This statement was framed in a way that it actually fits nicely with the recent revelations of widespread wiretapping by NSA but it also definitely struck a chord among the Turkish readers due to recent incidents of the wiretappings in Turkey. It seems obvious here that the goal is not to try to prove Turkish complicity but to create a public opinion crisis over the issue. Hersh’s intelligence sources are either not intelligent enough to reveal information about the NSA wiretapping of another American ally or intelligent enough to know how to manipulate public opinion in Turkey against the U.S. in a period of high sensitivity regarding wiretappings in Turkey. In either case it is the responsibility of the U.S. administration to clarify the situation.
The debates that this section of the article may create in Turkey can be detrimental to bilateral relations.
Maybe even more concerning was the anecdote about the dinner at the White House.
Whether accurate or not, such a leak can put mutual trust between the political leaders in both countries to an all-time low. At this point, it is important for U.S. officials to find out who these “sources” are that want to play journalism and prepare the ground for a serious crisis between two NATO allies in a period when there are serious developments taking place in the region, including a major crisis in Ukraine. If it is not stopped, these allegations and the tone of the “intelligence sources” can jeopardize strategic relations between the two countries.
Finally, one other victim of the Hersh piece and the debates in its aftermath is the Syrian opposition and civilians. In recent months, the Syrian opposition has begun to be identified by some as al-Qaeda (sometimes with al-Nusra and sometimes with ISIL). The plight of Syrian civilians and the massacre and torture of tens of thousands are being ignored as they started to be considered a part of Islamic radicalism. The regime is rescuing itself from criticisms nowadays as it has begun to be considered as the better evil by some. In the initial phases of the crisis, the main concern of Western observers was the emergence of radical groups in Syria but their inaction was in part responsible for creating a breeding ground for these groups in the center of the country. And now after tolerating a regime that has killed almost 200,000 civilians and allowed a fertile ground for radicals, and of course put civilians and moderate opposition between the fires of these two sides, the “Hersh’s sources” are blaming rebels for becoming radical and Turkey for supporting them. Quite logical indeed. For a second it sounds like there are no other external actors and their proxies on the ground who provide weapons, finance and men for the regime in Damascus. For a bit it even makes al-Assad become invisible.
This article was originally published in Daily Sabah on April 14, 2014.