A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in which I said that it was unlikely that anyone other than the Russians could have done it. There simply wasn’t a plausible motive for anyone else to have committed the act. Using the same criteria now as I did then, I am thinking the opposite. There are plenty of plausible alternative suspects for the gas attack in Syria.
Using the tried and tested police criteria of ‘means, motive and opportunity’ I’ll try to explain why I’m thinking this way. This isn’t in any way proof that it was someone else, but I think it is ‘reasonable doubt’, which is enough to get a ‘not guilty’ verdict in a British criminal court.
It was supposed to be chlorine gas, but looking at the TV footage I would say that the most likely agent used was CS gas, of which I and most British military and former military personnel have first had experience. In learning to use our nuclear, biological and chemical protection clothing and respirators, we were exposed to this substance to prove that the kit worked. It was often part of our drill to be given a whiff of the gas as we left the test facility, just to prove it was present. Believe me when I say I know the symptoms.
CS gas is a riot control agent used by many police forces around the world. It is made in many countries which makes it relatively easy to get hold of. It causes breathing difficulties, runny noses and streaming eyes – just what it looked like the victims in Syria were suffering. But it also has very short-term effects. Fatalities are rare, almost exclusively the elderly and those suffering from respiratory illnesses. Victims are back to normal after just a few hours providing they are treated at once. Washing of the eyes and skin is the normal treatment – does that sound familiar? One of the alleged victims, a little girl, was shown a week later apparently no longer suffering any ill effects. That doesn’t sound like the use of a military grade chemical weapon to me.
Military chemical weapons are designed to incapacitate, to keep soldiers away from the battle field and force the enemy to invest huge amounts of time and effort into the care of victims. Therefore a chemical agent that allows people to return to full fitness within days doesn’t meet the specification for a chemical weapons agent – but it does for a riot control agent.
We saw how long it took Sergei Skripal and his daughter to recover from their exposure – that is typical of a chemical weapon. Survivors of chlorine gas attacks in the First World War had to be invalided out of the army because they were no longer fit to fight. Their symptoms lasted for the rest of their lives.
Opportunity. Well, there are plenty of groups that would have that. First in line, apart from Assad’s forces, would be any insurgent groups inside Douma at the time. As I have suggested, CS gas isn’t very difficult to get hold of if you have the right contacts.
Which brings us to motive. These are many and varied, but for an insurgent group it’s quite obvious – to discredit Assad and rally world opinion against him.
Insurgents, on the other hand, might well commit this act as their parting shot. I’m not suggesting, however, that an insurgent group did it by themselves. It has been suggested (by Russia) that it was the work of a ‘foreign’ intelligence service. This is plausible if you think in terms of a foreign agency working in conjunction with an insurgent group.
So which foreign intelligence service has the best motive?
I don’t know enough about French foreign policy to find a motive for the French intelligence services to be behind this. I’m not ruling them out, I just don’t have a motive for them.
So how about Theresa May’s government? The only reason I can think of for why she might ask MI6 to commit this act would be to embarrass Putin on the back of the Skripal affair, but I don’t think that motive holds water. The boost in the polls she got after the Salisbury attack is likely to be damaged by her ordering the retaliation strike, so that actually counts against it being her government behind this. “Look what your friend Assad is doing” isn’t going to do much harm to Putin’s already damaged government, either in the eyes of his own people or in the world at large. OK, the Russian defence of this disgusting tyrant doesn’t help Russia’s image very much, but it doesn’t provide sufficient motive for Britain to be behind this attack.
In fact it is unlikely that the CIA would want to involve themselves in an operation like this just to make Trump look good. The only other motive I can think of is that Trump wants to provoke Putin, but I don’t think even The Donald is that stupid.
In that case, how about Putin? Well, the same motive applies to him as applies to Trump – let’s make it look like we’re not friends. Putin would probably have more of a chance of selling the plan to the FSB than Trump would to the CIA, but it’s stretching things a lot to believe it’s true.
Israel uses CS gas against Palestinian protestors on a regular basis.
It would be easy for Israeli intelligence services to mount a ‘false flag’ operation, posing as an ally in the war against Assad. Finally, anything that drives a wedge between Trump and Putin in the Middle East is liable to benefit Israel. It would also benefit Israel to get rid of Assad if that could be achieved.
All of which is why I think that Theresa May was far too hasty to throw her hand in with Donald Trump on this. I know that she didn’t set the timetable, which is all the more reason to be cautious. If someone wants you to do something quickly, then there is a good reason to suggest they slow down a tad and take time for some calm reflection. There were grounds to suggest that our government wait for the weapons inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to get on the ground and do their job.
On the other hand, the OPCW are now on the ground and Syria and Russia are obstructing their work. Which brings us full circle to the possibility that Syria might, after all, be behind the attack.
But a British jury in a criminal trial is always told the same thing: If there is ‘reasonable doubt’ then you have to return a 'not guilty' verdict. From where I'm sitting there is more than a little bit of 'reasonable doubt'.