Syria Special: Dissecting Hersh’s “Insurgents Did Chemical Weapons Attacks” — A Sequel


On Monday, Democracy Now! gave journalist Seymour Hersh nine minutes to defend his theory that insurgents, supported by Turkey, carried out the August 21 chemical weapons attacks near Damascus.

See Syria Special: Identifying the Sources for Hersh’s “Insurgents’ Chemical Weapons Attacks”
Syria Special: There is No Chemical Weapons Conspiracy — Dissecting Hersh’s “Exclusive” on Insurgents Once More

Set up by the questions, Hersh’s answers are an extension of the claimed Defense Intelligence Agency document — provided by his shadowy “former senior intelligence official” — innuendo, speculation, and exaggeration in his London Review of Books article.

But near the end of the interview, Amy Goodman finally put a challenge to Hersh:

AMY GOODMAN: Sy, on Sunday, the website EA WorldView published a piece headlined “There is No Chemical Weapons Conspiracy — Dissecting Hersh’s ‘Exclusive’ on Insurgents Once More.” The author, Scott Lucas, questioned the claim that rebels could have been responsible for the chemical weapons attack last August, given the range and scale of the operation. He wrote, quote, “Reports on the day and subsequently indicated that 7-12 sites were attacked with chemical agents at the same time. In other words, whoever was responsible for the attacks launched multiple surface-to-surface rockets with chemical payloads against opposition-held towns in East Ghouta and one town in West Ghouta, near Damascus. [The chemical] attacks were…followed by…heavy conventional attacks.” The author, Scott Lucas, says that you fail to ask questions about whether anyone, apart from the regime, would have the ability to carry out such an extensive operation. Sy?

SEYMOUR HERSH: [inaudible] first article on—we’re past that. We now know. Actually, The New York Times even ran a retraction, of sorts. You had a—it was like reading Pravda. But if you read the article carefully, The New York Times had run a series of articles after the event saying that the warheads in question that did the damage came from a Syrian army base, something like nine kilometers, six miles, away. And at that time, there were a number of analysts, a group from MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], led by Ted Postol, who used to be a science adviser to the CNO, the chief of naval operations, clearly somebody with a great deal of background and no bias. He did a series of studies with his team that concluded that the warheads probably didn’t go more than one or two, at most, kilometers—two kilometers, 1.2 miles. And we now know from the U.N. report — a man named Ake Sellstrom, who ran the U.N. investigation, he’s concluded the same thing: These missiles that were fired were fired no more than a mile.

They were—one looks—just from the footage one saw, they were homemade. They didn’t fit any of the nomenclature of the known weapons. And don’t think we don’t have a very good picture of what the Syrians have in terms of warheads. They have a series of warheads that can deliver chemical weapons, and we know the dimensions of all of them. And none of these weapons fit that. And so, you have a U.N. report. You have this independent report saying they were—went no more than one or two kilometers. And so, I don’t know why we’re talking about multiple-launch rockets. These are homemade weapons. And it seems very clear to most observers—as I say, even to the U.N. team that did the final report—the U.N., because of whatever rules they have, wasn’t able to say that—who fired what. They could just say—they just could describe the weapons and never make a judgment. But I can tell you, I quote somebody from inside that investigation unit who was very clear that the weapons fired were homemade and were not Syrian army. This is asked and answered; these are arguments that go on. This is—I assume it’s a blog. I don’t know the—I don’t know the blog.

Let’s break this down:


Hersh’s conspiracy theory depends on the assertion that only the insurgents were close enough to the impact sites to have fired several rockets on multiple sites.

So he sets up the argument that The New York Times greatly overestimated the distances of the rockets — “nine kilometers, six miles, away”, while the reality is “no more than one or two, at most kilometers — 1.2 miles”.

It is true that The New York Times report — which drew from a Human Rights Watch summary of rockets with “a minimum range of 3.8 kilometers and a maximum range of 9.8 kilometers” — has been challenged through further examination of the munitions.

But Hersh is wrong that the revised, lower estimate is 2 kilometers at most. Richard Lloyd, whose work was significant in revising the original estimates, puts the range at 2-2.5 kilometers.

Why does that matter? Because it means that the rockets which struck Zamalka and Ein Tarma in East Ghouta could have come from regime positions taken in previous weeks in the area of Qaboun.

But what about the statement of United Nations inspector Ake Sellstrom that the range is “no more than a mile (1.2 kilometers)”?

Sellstrom said no such thing.

In the December 13 press conference on the findings of the UN mission, Sellstrom said only that “2 kilometers could be a fair guees” without specifying a maximum — much shorter than the initial estimates, but within range of the revised figure of up to 2.5 kilometers.

Just to be clear that Sellstrom never pointed his finger at the insurgents, here is an extract from an interview in January:

Several times I asked the government: can you explain — if this was the opposition –– how did they get hold of the chemical weapons? They have quite poor theories: they talk about smuggling through Turkey, labs in Iraq and I asked them, pointedly, what about your own stores, have your own stores being stripped of anything, have you dropped a bomb that has been claimed, bombs that can be recovered by the opposition? They denied that.

To me it is strange. If they really want to blame the opposition they should have a good story as to how they got hold of the munitions, and they didn’t take the chance to deliver that story.


The second prop for Hersh’s argument is that the rockets are “homemade”, implying that crude munitions could only have been used by insurgents.

But, as easily could have been ascertained from the United Nations reports and analysis of specialists, the rockets were not knocked up in someone’s backyard. Eliot Higgins has put together the textual and visual documentation of a 122-mm “Volcano” rocket introduced by the Syrian military into the conflict more than a year ago — indeed, Higgins summarized the evidence in a critique of Hersh’s initial article in December.

Apparently, the journalist never bothered to check the information but has simply continued to repeat his “homemade” formula for months.


Hersh’s conspiracy theory turns upon the claim that it must be insurgents who hit sites in East Ghouta.

But these were not the only targets on August 21. Moadamiya in West Ghouta — 16 kilometers from Zamalka and Ein Tarma — was also struck. And in that case, there were definitely regime forces within 2.5 kilometers of a town which has been besieged since November 2012.

So this was not a case of a single rocket fired on a single site, but multiple rockets fired on multiple sites with multiple supplies of chemical toxins.

Who had the capacity to fuel multiple rockets, to find multiple launch points, and to strike multiple targets? The insurgents or the Syrian military?

Hersh has never come close to addressing the question in two articles, let alone this answer.


Hersh’s final ploy in the interview is to imply that even the United Nations believes insurgents carried out the attacks.

He carries out this sleight-of-argument in two steps. First, he says the UN “wasn’t able to say that — who fired what”, ignoring the repeatedly-stated reason why: under its mandate from the UN Security Council, inspectors were not allowed to assess and conclude who fired the rockets, only that they were fired and carried chemical weapons.

This elision allows Hersh to bring in his supposedly conclusive source: “somebody from inside that investigation unit who was very clear that the weapons fired were homemade and were not Syrian army”.

“Somebody” proves Hersh’s case — alongside the “former senior intelligence consultant” who could well be the discredited former US Department of Defense employee F. Michael Maloof.


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  1. “to me it was strange, if they wanted to blame the opposition, they would have had a story.”

    You think?

    First off, it is quite obvious you know nothing about military planning. This is what drove me crazy about the whole ‘WMD’ care in Iraq. To use chem/bio weapons you have to have LOTS of training and logistics. You can’t just put some Sarin into the top of a bombie thing and send it off and make it go boom. The weapon has to be made specifically with heat in mind to launch it, with heat in mind when it disperses, what the weather is like, what the spray pattern is. Especially in close in combat. Questions we never bothered to ask in Iraq which led us down the whole false claim for a war.

    You claim that Hersh doesn’t take into account that troops were close. I say the opposite. You don’t. The homemade Volcano was not designed for chemical weapons. Yes, the Syrians were planning a large scale assault. Why would they lob chemicals all over the place right before the assault? And can you show me one picture of one soldier in chem gear? Of course not. Thousands of soldiers supposedly part of an attack led by chemical weapons and not a single gas mask. Like Iraq, we are to believe the Syrian army magically has the ability to use chemical weapons perfectly in an assault. Without training. Without safeguards. And the chemical magically disappears when Syrian troops arrive.

    I have not seen a reliable report on what actually happened. The bodies were buried before anyone could actually look at them. The area was trashed. You are under the assumption that everything was done by rockets. Why? Do you have proof?

    What the President quoted about 1500 chemical deaths was wrong. Why did he jump out with such a high number before he had facts? Do you care?

    The original report of the rockets coming Jabal Qasiyun was wrong. Do you attack those sources? Why not?

    • The more pressing question is regarding the motive and timing of the incident. Did Assad stand to gain from poisoning an area his forces were and are still trying to capture, thus exposing them as well? Was he really so desperate to defeat the rebels? And why would he do this just 4 days after the U.N chemical weapons team had been admitted and just a few kms from their hotel? What benefit was there in inviting the inevitable tough response from the West? The rebels, however, stood much to gain from the incident. Indeed, their strategy for winning the conflict depended and still depends in getting the U.S to intervene on their behalf.

        • But in August 2013, Assad was on a high after taking Otabia and Al-Qusayr. And why would gassing civilians in Ghouta be militarily advantageous – no advance by the Syrian military was made. And why would they do this with a weapons team recently arrived in Damascus – that was invited to find evidence of insurgent chemical attacks near Aleppo – and a year to the day when Obama said his red line was the use of chemical weapons? The idea that the world would ignore hundreds of children being gassed is not viable. It would, at the very least, have been a PR disaster if not a casus belli. The undeniable fact is that the rebels stood to gain ,and nearly did gain massively, from the attack. Assad had little if not anything at all to gain. Communications intercepts also seem to show Assad’s inner circle was shocked and even panicked by news of the incident realizing they would be blamed for it.

          • Razmjoo,

            That’s a selective and misleading recollection of August. With Hezbollah’s help, the regime had checked the insurgents in the south by taking Qusayr. However, the opposition fighters were tightening their hold on the ring of suburbs around Damascus and escalating attacks on the capital. They also had consolidated their hold on most of northern and eastern Syria and were threatening the regime in Aleppo.

            Yes, those intercepts showed some Assad officials were unsettled by the attacks. But — if you accept the intercepts as genuine — they also show others ordering the military operations, including preparations for the chemical attacks.


            • You can’t beat them, this is the same kind of people that believe 9/11 was a false flag attack, the same kind of propaganda Maduro is selling on Venezuela, they tell that CIA and mossad agents are targeting people in Maidan square to trigger sionist intervention and at the same time they say that it´s a Nazi coup, yeah they have propaganda for the left and for the right. A sionist/american complot to invade Syria because of Assad´s revolutionary politics that are a menace to capitalist order -Hugo Chávez sold the same crap along with 100 billion dollar of oil to USA-, Gaddafi the great socialist or Castro living in Xanadu. They are selling the same crap again and again to people that need to believe that opression and disgrace on their lives are because of “The West”. The point is that their whole support to the Assad regime will boil down to a cognitive dissonance case if they recognize he was gassing civilians.

  2. “Who had the capacity to fuel multiple rockets, to find multiple launch points, and to strike multiple targets? The insurgents or the Syrian military?” Talk about innuendo and speculation! Is this even close to being a positive case that one side or the other perpetrated the attack? If so, why?

    In your previous hatchet job on Hersh, you imply that his sourcing is sloppy by saying, “It is unclear whether or not Hersh actually saw the (DIA) briefing.” On DN yesterday, Hersh says explicitly: “Meanwhile, the White House’s position, again, with this article, once again, even though we—this document they claim no longer existed, we ran a big chunk of it. Clearly, I have access to it. They are still insisting, “We know of no such document.”

    Are you also still insisting he didn’t see it, or that his only source is the Michael Maloof? And will you now issue a retraction/clarification on this point?

    • Matt,

      Hersh has done nothing to alter the fact that his two articles are largely based on a single unnamed source — who could be Michael Maloof — who either provided the document to the reporter or did a long read-out of it to him.


  3. A report was published in January by a former UN weapons inspector and a scientific expert that corroborates well with Hersh’s account:

    *Possible Implications of Faulty US Technical Intelligence”

    The main points are the following:

    1. The range of the rockets was just 2kms.
    2. The rockets could not have been fired from Government-controlled areas.
    3. Rocket trajectory data was incorrect.

    • Razmjoo,

      This is a version of the report by Theodor Postol and Richard Lloyd, whom I cite in the analysis. It criticizes the original projection of a range of 3.5-9.5 kilometers for the rockets with the chemical weapons, NOT the updated 2-2.5 kilometer projection set out by Lloyd.

      In other words, it does not undermine the case that the regime carried out attacks both in East Ghouta and West Ghouta.


        • Razmjoo,

          What I said — at the early stage after the attacks — is that a report from Turkish intelligence, passed to the French, said M-600s and Frogs were used. I never said this was definitive.

          Other reports did say that Grads were used. You will note that those reports said the Grads were fired from the regime-controlled Qaboun area, about 2.5 kilometers from the impact sites in East Ghouta.


          • I think this fact reinforces Hersh’s argument that the Turks were providing misinformation to assign blame to Assad. There are those who dispute the claim that Qaboun was ever under firm regime control which it would have needed to be in order to launch such an attack:

            Low quality sarin – evidenced by the fact there were so many survivors of its inhalation – placed in an improvised chemical warhead within a standard Grad rocket does not look like the work of a professional military. It does, however, fit better with armed rebels.

            • No reinforcement – Hersh is providing misinformation

              What do we know about the used Sarin at Ghouta as a sure information published by UN?

              1… In its report, the United Nations Mission to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic confirmed that chemical weapons, specifically sarin, had been used in multiple incidents during the conflict. The commission independently collected information, confirming this finding in the case of Al-Ghouta (21 August), Khan Al-Assal (19 March) and Saraqib (29 April).

              2… In Al-Ghouta, significant quantities of sarin were used in a well-planned indiscriminate attack targeting civilian-inhabited areas, causing mass casualties. The evidence available concerning the nature, quality and quantity of the agents used on 21 August indicated that the perpetrators likely had access to the chemical weapons stockpile of the Syrian military, as well as the expertise and equipment necessary to manipulate safely large amount of chemical agents. Concerning the incident in Khan Al-Assal on 19 March, the chemical agents used in that attack bore the same unique hallmarks as those used in Al-Ghouta.

              source: United Nations A/HRC/25/65
              General Assembly Distr.: General
              12 February 2014

              Original: English
              Human Rights Council
              Twenty-fifth session
              Agenda item 4

              Beyond that (scott published this story) the leader of the anti – poison gas commision (UN) Ake Sellström talked with Assad officials during the investigation. Assads officers didn`t gave any notes that any poison gas stock was incomplete or brocken.
              Meanwhile, the stocks specified by Assad were visited by the UN and has been partially cleared. There isn`t the smallest suspicion
              that someone different as Assad Officers were dealing with the poison gas.

              By the way – Hersh is arguing against the foundings of the UN commision.

  4. Assad operates the war against parts of the Syrian population by the military tactic of scorched earth.
    Assad is destroying residential areas with busting bombs. So far I have found nobody who would deny that.

    The difference between busting bombs and poison gas is that the probability is lower of being able to leave the house alive.

    Busting bombs are destroying the homes and poison gas kills everything which is alive.

    Both effects were desired, we know from the 21. August: both high-explosive bombs and poison gas grenades were fired in the same direction.

    Otherwise it will be interesting how Hersh will explain how Jabbat el Nusra had come to the poison gas.
    (Beyond that Jabbat el Nusra wasn`t fighting at Damascus at the 21. August).

    Also it would be interesting to know how rebels bombard itself with conventional weapons and poison gas from a site which on 21. August were occupied by Assad troops.

    At the end of the day it comes to the point that Hersh do not not want to admit that he favors a bloody poison gas killer as a president of syria.
    Sad story that deserved a journalist runs against the wall at the end of his days with a loud crack.

    But yet it isn`t so far. Hersh must only explain why the rebels kills themselves instead fighting against Assad.

  5. Catherin, couldn `t resist to unpack this tweet


    Since Seymour Hersh clearly has a new formula for Sarin, hitherto unseen, I await his nomination for Nobel Prize in chemistry.


    El Khaida always rings twice .. they will visit Hersh to learn how it can conjure up out of nowhere hundreds of liters of sarin in the middle of the enemies………………………………….

  6. […] – On Monday, Democracy Now! gave journalist Seymour Hersh nine minutes to defend his theory that insurgents, supported by Turkey, carried out the August 21 chemical weapons attacks near Damascus. Set up by the questions, Hersh’s answers are an extension of the claimed Defense Intelligence Agency document — provided by his shadowy “former senior intelligence official” — innuendo, speculation, and exaggeration in his London Review of Books article. […]

  7. […] chemical weapons: the proof that Assad regime launching chlorine attacks on children – Telegraph Syria Special: Dissecting Hersh’s “Insurgents Did Chemical Weapons Attacks” &#8212… and there are videos of people embracing ISIS in the exact same way. If a new power conquers you […]

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