Exclusive: The U.N. withdrew its claim that an airstrike hit its Syrian relief convoy but Secretary of State Kerry relied on the outdated claim in lashing out at Russia in a repeat of his earlier rushes to judgment, writes Robert Parry.
By Robert Parry
Secretary of State John Kerry has engaged in another rush to judgment blaming the Russians for an attack on a United Nations relief convoy in Syria before any thorough investigation could be conducted and thus prejudicing whatever might follow, as he did with the Syrian sarin case in 2013 and the shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in 2014.
Eager to go on the propaganda offensive – especially after a U.S. military airstrike last Saturday killed scores of Syrian soldiers who were battling the Islamic State in eastern Syria – Kerry pounced on an initial report that the attack on the convoy on Monday was an airstrike and then insisted that the Russians must have been responsible because one of their jets was supposedly in the area.
But the United Nations – and I’m told CIA analysts – have not ruled out the possibility that the convoy was instead hit by a surface-to-surface missile. On Friday, a source briefed by U.S. intelligence said one fear is that the jihadist group, Ahrar al-Sham, which has fought alongside Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front but is deemed to be part of the “moderate” opposition, may have used a U.S.-supplied TOW missile in the attack.
Ahrar al-Sham, like some other jihadist groups seeking to overthrow the Syrian government, has objected to limited cease-fires arranged by the Russians and the Americans, which still allowed attacks on its ally, the recently rebranded Nusra Front. Ahrar al-Sham thus had a motive for destroying the aid convoy, an act which indeed has upended efforts to negotiate an end to the five-year-old conflict and led to bloody new attacks inside the embattled city of Aleppo on Friday.
Another possibility was that a Syrian government warplane was targeting a rebel artillery piece traveling alongside the convoy and struck the convoy by accident. But the assignment of blame required additional investigation, as other international officials acknowledged.
On Tuesday, a day before Kerry’s outburst, the U.N. revised its initial statement citing an airstrike, with Jens Laerke, a humanitarian affairs representative for the U.N., saying: “We are not in a position to determine whether these were in fact airstrikes. We are in a position to say that the convoy was attacked.” He called the earlier reference to an airstrike a drafting error.
Nevertheless, on Wednesday, Kerry made his high-profile denunciation of the Russians at the U.N. Security Council, the same venue where Secretary of State Colin Powell in 2003 presented a false case against Iraq for possessing hidden stockpiles of WMD. In fiery comments, Kerry accused Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov of living “in a parallel universe” in denying Russian responsibility.
“The eyewitnesses will tell you what happened,” Kerry said. “The place turned into hell and fighter jets were in the sky.”
Yet, the two points don’t necessarily connect. Just because there are jets in the sky doesn’t mean they fired the rocket that struck the convoy. They might have, but to determine that – and if so, who was flying the jet that fired the missile – requires more thorough study.
Kerry also sought to excuse the U.S. airstrike near Deir ez-Zor last Saturday that killed some 62 Syrian soldiers, saying: “We did it, a terrible accident. And within moments of it happening, we acknowledged it. … But I got to tell you, people running around with guns on the ground, from the air, is a very different thing from trucks in a convoy with big U.N. markings all over them.”
But what Kerry ignored was the fact that the United States has no legal authority to be conducting military operations inside Syria, attacks supposedly targeting the terrorist Islamic State but lacking the approval of the Syrian government. In other words, under international law, any such U.S. attacks are acts of aggression and thus war crimes.
The mainstream U.S. news media, however, has little regard for international law, at least when the U.S. government is violating it, nor particular care for factual details. Despite the U.N.’s uncertainty about what struck the convoy, The New York Times continued to report the airstrike as a flat fact.
On Thursday, the Times wrote, “a convoy of trucks taking aid to the besieged of Aleppo was destroyed in a deadly airstrike.” Strangely, later in the article, the Times does note that “the United Nations has not confirmed what struck its trucks.”
A History of Prejudgment
Kerry also has a history of jumping ahead of a story and then going silent when further information is developed.
On Aug. 30, 2013, Kerry gave a thunderous speech virtually declaring war on Syria for supposedly launching a sarin gas attack outside Damascus on Aug. 21, 2013, that killed hundreds of people. On Aug. 31, however, President Obama pulled the rug out from under Kerry by shelving plans for a retaliatory bombing campaign, in part, because U.S. and British intelligence analysts expressed doubts that the Syrian government was responsible.
Later, evidence built up supporting a counter thesis that the sarin attack was launched by Syrian rebels trying to draw the U.S. military into the conflict on their side. In other words, Kerry almost put the U.S. government in position of aiding Al Qaeda or the Islamic State overrunning Damascus under dubious if not false pretenses. [See Consortiunews.com’s “The Collapsing Syria Sarin Case.”]
But U.N. investigators have remained under intense pressure to give the U.S. government something so it can keep alive the theme of Syria’s government using chemical weapons, even after Syria agreed to surrender all its chemical weapons in 2013. The U.N. did so in late August in blaming the Syrian government for two thinly evidenced cases of jerry-rigged chlorine bombs, after brushing aside witness testimony that rebels were staging such attacks for propaganda purposes.
Regarding the sarin case, the U.S. government never formally recanted Kerry’s rush to judgment allowing the conventional wisdom inside Official Washington (and its compliant mainstream media) to remain that Obama failed to enforce his “red line” against use of chemical weapons.
Kerry was at it again just three days after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014, insisting that the U.S. government had radar and other conclusive evidence showing exactly where the missile was fired and making clear that Russian-backed rebels were responsible with the Russians also at fault for giving the rebels the anti-aircraft weapon.
However, after CIA and other Western intelligence analysts had more time to review what actually happened – and found that only Ukrainian government forces had anti-aircraft missiles in the area capable of shooting down a plane at 33,000 feet – the U.S. government went silent, refusing to make public its evidence but keeping alive the impression that the Russians were at fault.
With the U.S. government keeping its key evidence secret, the Dutch-led investigations into the crash have floundered. Last October, the Dutch Safety Board could only put the likely missile firing position within a 320-square-kilometer area including land held by both the rebels and the government. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Ever Curiouser MH-17 Case.”]
On Sept. 28, a Dutch-led-but-Ukrainian-dominated Joint Investigation Committee (JIT) is scheduled to release a report that is supposed to finally say where the missile was fired, more than two years after the tragedy. Given the influence of Ukraine’s SBU intelligence service over JIT, the likelihood is that the report will try to keep alive the impression that the ethnic Russian rebels were responsible.
A source who’s been following the investigation said the Dutch have resisted the outright falsification of the findings because many of the 298 victims were Dutch citizens and the victims’ families have been pressing for all sides – the United States, Ukraine and Russia – to supply whatever evidence they can. But the Western demands for propaganda to support the New Cold War with Russia are strong.
Syria has become another battlefield in that information war with tragic events being used as propaganda clubs by the various sides to beat one another, rather than moments for careful review of the evidence and assessment of accountability.
Part of this propaganda overload results from the U.S. government and various Western non-governmental organizations funding and training activists in the art of using social media for propaganda purposes. While these activists report on some real events, they also slant their coverage to advance their agenda of “regime change” in Syria.
The problem is compounded because the Western mainstream media has taken up Syrian “regime change” as a beloved cause rather than a topic for objective reporting. The New York Times and other major news outlets rely credulously on anti-government activists, such as the White Helmets and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, for information about what’s happening on the ground with statements from the Syrian or Russian governments treated with open disdain.
The larger tragedy of exploiting these human tragedies for propaganda purposes – whether the sarin attack, the MH-17 shoot-down or now the convoy bombing – is that these deaths of innocents become just excuses to inflict more deaths and ultimately to push the world closer to a new world war.
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s