Scott Ritter has completely lost it on Syria

Scott Ritter has completely lost it on Syria
Comment: Once a voice of reason on WMDs in Iraq, Ritter has been taken in by conspiracy theories and propaganda to draw fundamentally flawed conclusions on Syria, writes Stanley Heller.
11 min read
21 May, 2018
Ritter criticised Bush for rushing into war with Iraq without substantiating WMDs claims [Getty]
Scott Ritter is a former UN weapons inspector and as such you'd expect him to apply a certain level of professionalism in his analysis of events in Syria.

You'd be wrong.

On 27 April he was interviewed by Dennis J Bernstein, and despite all of his experience, appears instead to now be relying on conspiracy theories and debunked propaganda to draw fundamentally flawed conclusions.

Bernstein introduces his interview as follows: "According to Ritter, in the following Flashpoints Radio interview with Dennis Bernstein conducted on 23 April, US, British and French claims that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against civilians last month appear to be totally bogus."

I quote excerpts from the interview and comment.

Scott Ritter:
"There are a lot of similarities between the Syrian case and the Iraqi case. Both countries possess weapons of mass destruction. Syria had a very large chemical weapons programme. In 2013 there was an incident in a suburb of Damascus called Ghouta."

My comment: 'Incident'? There were more than 1,000 dead civilians. His dismissive and deliberately sanitised language here is a warning sign of what is to come.

Ritter explains that in 2013 the Syrian government agreed to declare all its chemicals weapons and let them be destroyed.

Ritter: "The bottom line is that Syria had the weapons but was verified by 2016 as being in 100 percent compliance. The totality of Syria's chemical weapons programme was eliminated."

My comment: This is not true. The OPCW said that it destroyed all the chemicals weapons that Assad forces declared it possessed. Here's the link to its report. The link titled 'All category 1 chemicals declared by Syria now destroyed' gives you the gist of it.

His dismissive and deliberately sanitised language here is a warning sign of what is to come

The OPCW verified that what Assad said he had was destroyed. That's all it said. Certainly, Assad did not give the OPCW freedom to go wherever it wanted in Assad-controlled territory to look for more weapons.  

"Some of these Islamic factions have been in the vicinity of Ghouta since 2012. Earlier this year, the Syrian government initiated an offensive to liberate that area of these factions."

My comment: 'Liberate'? This is literally the language of Assad - his Syrian Army 'liberated' them from the very siege it had imposed.

Read more: UN: Syria must respond to chemical weapons questions

Ritter: "By 6 April [2018] it looked as if the militants were preparing to surrender. Suddenly the allegations come out that there was this chemical weapons attack. There are a lot of problems with this scenario. Again, why would the Syrian government, at the moment of victory, use a pinprick chemical attack with zero military value?"

My comment: Nonsense. The chemical attack on Douma had enormous military value. Douma was the last area in eastern Ghouta still holding out. People had been living in basements and tunnels for years. Taking the area by infantry would probably have resulted in thousands of casualties to Assad's forces - the remainder of the Syrian army and its Shia extremist allies. Much easier to choke and terrify the families of the fighters and to force a surrender. ​ Ritter: "Many, including the Russian government, believe that this was a staged event. There has been no hard evidence put forward by anyone that an attack took place."

My comment: No 'hard' evidence - except all the videos and still photos of the gasping and the dying… and the corpses. Of course (sarcasm) there are Hollywood studios all over Ghouta for people to use to make these kinds of videos. To see what actually would have to have happened to fake the 7 April 2018 attack see this tweet and its thread by Eliot Higgins who leads and writes about Syria and Yemen and elsewhere.  

Using thorough analysis of open source material he clearly demonstrates the multiple contradictory narratives needed to stand up the Russian version of events.

Ritter mentions that a team of experts was sent to Douma: "They arrived in Damascus the day after the missile strikes occurred, but they still haven't been out to the sites."

My comment:
He doesn't mention that it was Assad and Russian authorities who kept the inspectors out for unexplained reasons of 'security'.

Interviewer Bernstein asks about 'allegations' that chemical weapons were used in 2013 and 2015 and coverage by The New York Times and says the Times had to retract an article about the 2013 story.

"They put out a story about thousands of people dying, claiming that it was definitely done by the Syrian government. It turned out later that the number of deaths was far lower and that the weapons systems used were probably in the possession of the rebels. It was a case of the rebels staging a chemical attack in order to get the world to intervene on their behalf."

'Liberate'? This is literally the language of Assad - his Syrian Army 'liberated' them from the very siege it had imposed

My comment: I don't believe Ritter has ever publicly signed on to this ultra-Assadist claim before. He flatly says the deaths by chemicals in Douma and Moadamiyeh in 2013 were staged by the rebels. He casually tosses this off as if it were well-known that accounts of the murder of a thousand people had been debunked.

Rather than gathering the evidence to refute Ritter, read what Scott Ritter himself wrote in a July 2017 article in Truthdig. The piece was an effort to denigrate an OPCW report on a suspected chemical weapons attack in northern Syria that April.

Ritter says the OPCW botched the job. In the piece he compares what he says is this flawed report to the "gold standard for the conduct" of investigation of alleged use of chemical weapons, a joint report of the UN-OPCW and World Health Organization in Ghouta, Syria. He links to the report on which he lavishes praise saying it's "virtually unassailable in terms of its scientific and technical findings".

Now what is this report about and what did it conclude?

Here's the link as given by Ritter. The report examines the August 2013 'incident', the very one Ritter now dismisses as a 'staged' chemical attack. Yet the 'gold standard' team didn't find any fraud. In its report the team notified the UN Secretary-General that they concluded there had been a chemical attack, that targets included civilians "on a relatively large scale" and that "surface to surface" rockets containing sarin had been used.

So what is Ritter saying, that the rebels had surface to surface missiles and sarin gas and they murdered their wives and children all in a clever plan to get Obama to fight Assad?

Amazing. And we're to believe they used these weapons against their own children, but never used them against Assad. Extraordinary. Rather than dignify this contemptible 'argument', consider the words of Razan Zeitouneh, a Syrian journalist and activist who was trapped in Ghouta in 2013 and who had been interviewed via Skype by Democracy Now.

Host Amy Goodman asked her who was responsible for the chemical attack. Zeitouneh replied: "First of all, if you believe that we are a crazy people who would kill themselves and their children, then you can ask such a question." Zeitouneh and three colleagues were "disappeared" four months later in Douma, probably by the "Army of Islam".

Why even assume the 'rebels' wanted the US to attack?

Professor of Sociology Yasser Munif (Emerson), a Syrian himself, pointed out in an interview with me in 2015 that jihadi forces like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group completely opposed asking for help from the US. In fact, they warned that anyone who called for US airstrikes would be beheaded. Why? The extremist groups rationally feared they would be targeted as much or more than Assad's forces in any US bombing.

"A similar scenario unfolded last year [2017] when the Syrian government dropped two or three bombs on a village and suddenly there were reports that there was sarin nerve agent and chlorine gas wafting through the village, killing scores of people. Videotapes were taken of dead and dying and suffering people which prompted Trump to intervene. Inspectors never went to the site. Instead they relied upon evidence collected by the rebels."

My comment: It's true that the inspectors did not go to Khan Sheikhoun. Their cited concerns were that travel to the area would be a 'high security risk' and that the town was listed as being under control of a 'listed terrorist organisation', the Nusra Front.   

However, the 'evidence' was not just samples of biological material or pieces of material taken at the site by oppositionists. There were video, photos, testimony, documents, satellite imagery and biological material taken from three deceased victims whose bodies were taken and examined in Turkey.  

The OPCW Fact-Finding Mission also used samples given them by the Syrian government. Page 47 of the 'Note by the Technical Secretariat' explains an "unnamed volunteer from Khan Shaykhun" provided these samples.

The Fact-Finding Mission says these samples were examined because the Syrian government was "confident of their authenticity". The FFM concludes "there is no disagreement that Sarin was used in Khan Shaykhun".

The job of the Fact-Finding Mission was to see if chemicals had been used. Once that was established, the OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism was charged to find out who was responsible. Its report was sent to the UN Security Council in October 2017. The report concluded that it is "confident that the Syrian Arab Republic is responsible for the release of sarin at Khan Shaykhun on 4 April 2017".

"Like almost everything having to do with these rebels, this was a staged event, an act of theatre."

Theatre? Talk about theatre to Abdulhamid al-Youseff who cradled his two babies in Khan Sheikhoun, dead from sarin as he took them to their burial

My comment: Theatre? Talk about theatre to Abdulhamid al-Youseff who cradled his two babies in Khan Sheikhoun, dead from sarin as he took them to their burial.

A year ago Ritter had a different take on this. He wrote, "There is little debate that something horrible happened in and around Khan Sheikhun the morning of 4 April 4.' A year ago Ritter speculated that a conventional bomb had by chance blown up a store of 'rebel' chemicals.

Look at this piece from Reuters from January 2018. It says labs working for the OPCW connected the sarin used in 2013 to the sarin used in 2017 to the sarin surrendered by Assad in 2014 and destroyed by the OPCW. And in this article, Eliot Higgins explains all the fantastic measures that would have to have been taken to fake the Khan Sheikhoun attack.

Asked about the fighters in Douma, Ritter says they are the "Army of Islam". He claims: "Embedded within the fighters are a variety of western-trained and western-funded NGOs such as the White Helmets and the Syrian-American Medical Society. But their primary focus isn't rescue, in the case of the White Helmets, or medical care in the case of the Syrian-American Medical Society, but rather anti-regime propaganda. Many of the reports that came out of Douma originated with these two NGOs."

These groups are not 'embedded'. They're citizens trying to dig out the wounded from Assad bombs

My comment:  No, these groups are not 'embedded'. They're citizens trying to dig out the wounded from Assad bombs or to treat people in underground medical centres.

The White Helmets (formally known as the Syrian Civil Defence Force) were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by 130 persons. They didn't win but they were given the (leftist) Right Livelihood Award in 2016.

Sadly, it's not enough for Ritter to slander the White Helmets. He has to demonise doctors affiliated with the Syrian-American Medical Society who heroically work in underground rooms while Putin and Assad rain death from above.

A question for Scott Ritter: The regime has conquered East Aleppo and Douma. Where are these elaborate studios where the 'fake' videos were supposedly concocted?

"If I had been a member of that inspections team, I would have been able to tell you with 100 percent certainty what took place at that site. It wasn't that long ago that the allegations took place, there are very good forensic techniques that can be applied. We would be able to reverse engineer that site and tell you exactly what happened when."  

My comment: Jeremy Corbyn and many others demanded that there be no rush to judgement, that an impartial body 'investigate', and that no measures (violent or non-violent) be taken until the investigation was done.

Considering that the Khan Sheikhoun atrocity took place in an active war zone, the OPCW JIM did excellent work. However, it took six months for the OPCW to establish the guilt of Assad forces for the attack. By that time the world had moved on to other horrors and neither Corbyn nor the others called for any action to help Syrians.

When asked if he was worried about Trump's missile strikes possible setting off a 'shooting war' with Russia, Ritter said "A week ago I was very worried." He credits Defense Secretary Mattis who "was able to water that down into putting on a show for the American people. We warned the Russians in advance, there were no casualties, we blew up three empty buildings."

My comment:
I can fully agree with those sentences. Indeed, Trump's missile attack was a 'show', a performance for Americans, or the Iranian government or North Korea. This was the real 'theatre' in Syria.

To be clear I'm not defending Trump's missile attacks of this year or last year, nor am I calling for the US to actually make war on Assad forces. On the contrary, Syria needs a ceasefire and an end to foreign military action. Areas not conquered by Assad/Russia/Iran need to be plentifully supplied overland or by airdrops, so they can continue to resist. BDS should be used against Russia and Iran to pressure them to stop their abominations.

I used to admire Scott Ritter. I interviewed him twice, video recorded several speeches he made in Connecticut and found his statements about Iraq and Iran convincing. But he has gone completely off the rails on Syria. He's joined the strange chorus of ex-intelligence and military people who see only the crimes and lies of the US government and who can't imagine that there are other powers out there willing to lie, cheat and murder for the interests of their own elite.

Stanley Heller is Administrator of Promoting Enduring Peace, host of 'The Struggle', a weekly TV programme, and author of 'The Uprising We Need'.   

Follow him on Twitter: @zatarstan  @strugglevideo 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.