further reasons to doubt Assad regime was behind Ghouta attack

The GCHQ listening post on Mount Troodos in Cyprus is arguably the most valued asset which the UK contributes to UK/US intelligence cooperation. The communications intercept agencies, GCHQ in the UK and NSA in the US, share all their intelligence reports (as do the CIA and MI6). Troodos is valued enormously by the NSA. It monitors all radio, satellite and microwave traffic across the Middle East, ranging from Egypt and Eastern Libya right through to the Caucasus. Even almost all landline telephone communication in this region is routed through microwave links at some stage, picked up on Troodos.

Troodos is highly effective – the jewel in the crown of British intelligence. Its capacity and efficiency, as well as its reach, is staggering. The US do not have their own comparable facility for the Middle East. I should state that I have actually been inside all of this facility and been fully briefed on its operations and capabilities, while I was head of the FCO Cyprus Section in the early 1990s. This is fact, not speculation.

writes former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan and human rights activist, Craig Murray, in an article he posted on Saturday [August 31st].

Why is this important? Well, as Murray goes on to explain:

It is therefore very strange, to say the least, that John Kerry claims to have access to communications intercepts of Syrian military and officials organising chemical weapons attacks, which intercepts were not available to the British Joint Intelligence Committee.

On one level the explanation is simple. The intercept evidence was provided to the USA by Mossad, according to my own well placed source in the Washington intelligence community. Intelligence provided by a third party is not automatically shared with the UK, and indeed Israel specifies it should not be.

But the inescapable question is this. Mossad have nothing comparable to the Troodos operation. The reported content of the conversations fits exactly with key tasking for Troodos, and would have tripped all the triggers. How can Troodos have missed this if Mossad got it? The only remote possibility is that all the conversations went on a purely landline route, on which Mossad have a physical wire tap, but that is very unlikely in a number of ways – not least nowadays the purely landline route.

His own conclusion?

The answer to the Troodos Conundrum is simple. Troodos did not pick up the intercepts because they do not exist. Mossad fabricated them. John Kerry’s “evidence” is the shabbiest of tricks.

Click here to read Craig Murray’s full article.

There is also more direct evidence in the form of an eyewitness report from Yahya Ababneh (who was on the ground in Ghouta) and who published an article in collaboration with Dale Gavlak, herself a Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press for two decades and someone has also worked for National Public Radio (NPR) and written articles for BBC News.

They wrote on Thursday [August 29th]:

Interviews with people in Damascus and Ghouta, a suburb of the Syrian capital, where the humanitarian agency Doctors Without Borders said at least 355 people had died last week from what it believed to be a neurotoxic agent, appear to indicate as much.

The U.S., Britain, and France as well as the Arab League have accused the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for carrying out the chemical weapons attack, which mainly targeted civilians. U.S. warships are stationed in the Mediterranean Sea to launch military strikes against Syria in punishment for carrying out a massive chemical weapons attack. The U.S. and others are not interested in examining any contrary evidence, with U.S Secretary of State John Kerry saying Monday that Assad’s guilt was “a judgment … already clear to the world.”

However, from numerous interviews with doctors, Ghouta residents, rebel fighters and their families, a different picture emerges. Many believe that certain rebels received chemical weapons via the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, and were responsible for carrying out the dealing gas attack.

I recommend reading the full article but in short, Ababneh says that he was told that release of chemical agents was the result of an accident after at least 13 rebels “were killed inside of a tunnel used to store weapons provided by a Saudi militant, known as Abu Ayesha, who was leading a fighting battalion”:

“They didn’t tell us what these arms were or how to use them,” complained a female fighter named ‘K.’ “We didn’t know they were chemical weapons. We never imagined they were chemical weapons.”

“When Saudi Prince Bandar gives such weapons to people, he must give them to those who know how to handle and use them,” she warned. She, like other Syrians, do not want to use their full names for fear of retribution.1

It should be noted that the website on which the story originally appeared, Mint Press, is a legitimate media organization based in Minnesota. Indeed, the Minnesota Post did a profile on them last year.

Click here to read the full article.

Incidentally, Bandar bin Sultan, or Prince Bandar if you insist, is a member of the ruling House of Saud and former Saudi ambassador to the United States, who has had extremely close ties to a number of American presidents, but most notably the two George Bushs – and apparently it was George W who gave him the creepy nickname “Bandar Bush”.

As current head of Saudi intelligence he has also made it into the news more recently for other reasons:

Leaked transcripts of a closed-door meeting between Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan shed an extraordinary light on the hard-nosed Realpolitik of the two sides.

Prince Bandar, head of Saudi intelligence, allegedly confronted the Kremlin with a mix of inducements and threats in a bid to break the deadlock over Syria. “Let us examine how to put together a unified Russian-Saudi strategy on the subject of oil. The aim is to agree on the price of oil and production quantities that keep the price stable in global oil markets,” he said at the four-hour meeting with Mr Putin. They met at Mr Putin’s dacha outside Moscow three weeks ago.

The extract taken from an article published by The Telegraph on Tuesday [August 27th] then goes on to outline a little more detail on the sort of “deal” Bandar was proposing:

The details of the talks were first leaked to the Russian press. A more detailed version has since appeared in the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir, which has Hezbollah links and is hostile to the Saudis.

As-Safir said Prince Bandar pledged to safeguard Russia’s naval base in Syria if the Assad regime is toppled, but he also hinted at Chechen terrorist attacks on Russia’s Winter Olympics in Sochi if there is no accord. “I can give you a guarantee to protect the Winter Olympics next year. The Chechen groups that threaten the security of the games are controlled by us,” he allegedly said.

Prince Bandar went on to say that Chechens operating in Syria were a pressure tool that could be switched on an off. “These groups do not scare us. We use them in the face of the Syrian regime but they will have no role in Syria’s political future.”2

Click here to read the full article published in The Telegraph.

Revelations that certainly lend further credibility to the version of events reported on by Gavlak and Ababneh. So might it have been Saudi Arabia then who actually armed rebels with the chemical weapons that killed so many at Ghouta?

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Additional:

Here is Dale Gavlak being interviewed by Henry Peirse for GRNlive from June 2012. She shares her thoughts particularly with regards to the developing situation in Jordan where she has worked as a foreign correspondent for many years:

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Update:

On Monday [Sept 2nd], the news group McClatchy released a detailed article entitled “To some, US case for Syrian gas attack strike has too many holes”.

It begins:

The Obama administration’s public case for attacking Syria is riddled with inconsistencies and hinges mainly on circumstantial evidence, undermining U.S. efforts this week to build support at home and abroad for a punitive strike against Bashar Assad’s regime.

The case Secretary of State John Kerry laid out last Friday contained claims that were disputed by the United Nations, inconsistent in some details with British and French intelligence reports or lacking sufficient transparency for international chemical weapons experts to accept at face value.

Click here to read the full article.

One of the joint authors of the piece, Mark Seibel, was also interviewed on Wednesday’s Democracy Now! which you can listen below. I have also included parts of the transcript to offer just a flavour of what Seibel had to say:

The holes that we identified in the piece really have to do with contradictions between what Secretary of State Kerry has said in his public announcements and what other partners, if you use that phrase, in the Syrian issue have also reported. And, basically, what we identified is that when it came to questions of the efficacy of a U.N. investigation or the number of people killed in the conflict, or even the U.S. rendition of what happened in what order, there are contradictions. Do they completely undercut the case? I don’t know. If you believe that conclusions are based on facts, then the question becomes, do we have the facts? And that’s—you know, that’s an issue.

Well, you know, we’ve been told that a chemical attack took place, and the evidence seems to be that some sort of attack took place. We don’t actually know what the chemical was. The U.S. has said that it was sarin. There’s every reason to think that might be true, but we don’t know what the chemical test was that led them to conclude that it was sarin. We don’t know how the evidence was obtained. We don’t know what lab it was worked in. We actually don’t know how they arrived at that conclusion so quickly. You know, they announced it Sunday. But, you know, according to—again, to the secretary of state, it will take the U.N. two, three, maybe four weeks to reach that same determination in very modern labs in Europe. So there’s an awful lot we don’t know about that. And because we don’t know it—because we don’t know the details, at least in the public case—and again, you know, we’re not sitting in the classified briefings, but we don’t really know. We are being asked to—excuse me—to trust the assertion that it was sarin and that we know that, but, here again, it’s—we’re asked to make a leap of faith.

Well, you know, the problem we see for our correspondents going in is that it’s not as safe to be there in areas that we used to think were safe, and it’s largely because of the presence of al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which are two al-Qaeda-affiliated organizations that we’ve seen their influence grow from closer to the border with Iraq, across the northeast and northern Syria, where they’re now very, very active in Idlib province and were responsible for fighting in Latakia, which is on the Mediterranean coast, though the fighting was not on the coast. And so, we’ve actually seen Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq—we’ve seen their influence grow in the last few months, and it’s one of the reasons that news organizations now are not sending correspondents into Syria in the way they used to, because it is not safe to be there.

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Further update:

McClatchy also reported on Monday 9th, citing information first released by the major German newspaper Bild am Sonntag, that “Intercepts caught Assad rejecting requests to use chemical weapons…”:

The report in Bild am Sonntag, which is a widely read and influential national Sunday newspaper, reported that the head of the German Foreign Intelligence agency, Gerhard Schindler, last week told a select group of German lawmakers that intercepted communications had convinced German intelligence officials that Assad did not order or approve what is believed to be a sarin gas attack on Aug. 21 that killed hundreds of people in Damascus’ eastern suburbs. […]

The newspaper’s article said that on numerous occasions in recent months, the German intelligence ship named Oker, which is off the Syrian coast, has intercepted communications indicating that field officers have contacted the Syrian presidential palace seeking permission to use chemical weapons and have been turned down.

The article added that German intelligence does not believe Assad sanctioned the alleged attack on August 21.

Click here to read the full article.

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And more evidence…

Furthermore, a Belgian journalist, Pierre Piccinin da Prata, who was held hostage with Italian reporter, Domenico Quirico, for five months says that he overheard his rebel captors admit that President Bashar al-Assad was not responsible for the Ghouta massacre. The two reporters had been kidnapped while working in the war torn country back in April and were released over the weekend.

Following his release, Piccinin gave the following interview on Belgian RTL:

And here is a more extended interview Piccinin has also since given:

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1 From an exclusive report entitled “Syrians In Ghouta Claim Saudi-Supplied Rebels Behind Chemical Attack”, written by Dale Gavlak and Yahya Ababneh published by Mint Press on August 29, 2013. http://www.mintpressnews.com/witnesses-of-gas-attack-say-saudis-supplied-rebels-with-chemical-weapons/168135/

2 From an article entitled “Saudi’s offer Russia secret oil deal if it drops Syria” written by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, published in The Telegraph on August 27, 2013. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/energy/oilandgas/10266957/Saudis-offer-Russia-secret-oil-deal-if-it-drops-Syria.html

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Filed under Britain, Craig Murray, Cyprus, Israel, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, USA

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