Within hours of the White House announcing that the Trump administration is considering yet more military action against Damascus, defence and intelligence officials were scratching their heads in surprise. Five of these "US defence, military and intelligence officials" told NBC News exactly that. "I don't know what the [White House] statement is," said one.
It was another sign that Donald Trump is determined not to listen to experts. He views war as a game played out between rounds of golf at the Mar-Alago resort in Florida. A newly-installed crystal ball manned by Mystic Meg swirling tea leaves furiously had prophesised that Assad is about to use chemical weapons. Nikki Haley, Trump's surrogate at the UN, repeated the prediction. Are we gearing up for more war in Syria?
We have been here before. Seymour Hersh has just published an incendiary piece in Germany detailing the scepticism amongst advisers about whether Bashar Al-Assad was behind the Khan Sheikhun chemical attacks in April; at the time, Trump launched air strikes against the Syrian regime with great haste. "None of this makes any sense," said one officer interviewed by Hersh; that is what he is supposed to have "told colleagues upon learning of the decision to bomb." The veteran investigative journalist reports the conversation thus: "We KNOW that there was no chemical attack… the Russians are furious. Claiming we have the real intel and know the truth… I guess it didn't matter whether we elected Clinton or Trump."
Whether the rebels or Assad were behind the Khan Sheikhun attacks, or indeed the Ghouta chemical attacks in 2013, will be a matter for debate after the war. My gut feeling is that a lot of well-meaning journalists will have egg on their faces. They will have underestimated the will of the rebels and their conniving allies, notably Turkey, to use chemical weapons and then blame the regime.
They may have done this using carefully arranged evidence appealing to "open-source journalism" — particularly geared towards "the home of online investigations", Bellingcat — where distant aerial footage and rebel-supplied YouTube evidence is considered superior to on-the-ground reporting using non-biased sources.
Bellingcat, incidentally, is the epitome of a well-meaning media organisation, and has valiantly attempted to debunk Hersh's report already, largely citing government sources of its own, all of whom have an interest in removing Assad. I respect the organisation's enterprising and engaging founder, Eliot Higgins, particularly for his work on exposing Russia's shooting down of flight MH17 over Ukraine. He has documented war crimes by the rebels, and also conducted a recent investigation into American-caused civilian deaths.
I just doubt that, when faced with a foe as ferocious as Assad, and with such powerful and well-resourced forces at work to dislodge him, the hard-line Syrian rebels are not ultra-incentivised to fake the evidence and always point the finger at the Syrian president. It would perhaps be a strategic "failing" on their part if they didn't.
These rebels have even more of an incentive now that Trump is in power. A perfect storm is in place. Trump remains very nervous about possible impeachment. The Khan Sheikhun attack was an evil Assad war crime and a useful coincidence; a Putinist set-up distracting from impeachment; or a hideous and complicated rebel war crime. In any case, Trump was quick to capitalise on it.
Many of his liberal enemies in Washington swooned when the US president began ordering air strikes. They suddenly believed him to be the tough-on-Assad, tough-on-Putin enforcer that they had believed Hillary Clinton to be. All of the Putin trouble was temporarily forgiven. Now, however, impeachment is back in the news, hence the prediction of a chemical weapons attack. If Trump didn't even know for certain after the attack at Khan Sheikhun, he now apparently knows before these attacks actually happen.
There is a long history of US presidents using military action for political ends. Bill Clinton was accused of doing precisely that when, in 1998, he bombed a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan just when he was facing his own impeachment proceedings over the Monica Lewinsky affair. The situation was eerily similar to the Trump scenario today. According to the New York Times at the time, "[o]fficials throughout the Government raised doubts up to the eve of the attack about whether the United States had sufficient information linking the factory to either chemical weapons or to bin Laden." Even after it was discovered that the Americans had hit a civilian factory, the White House claimed that it was "actually a disguised chemical weapons factory." Officials said that "soil samples taken outside the plant had shown the presence of a substance known as Empta, whose only function was to make the nerve gas VX."
Chemical weapons, as I have argued here previously, have a peculiar way of exciting Western war-makers, just as they have a horrific way of killing people. Whether it was the rebels or Assad, or perhaps even a combination of the two, we may never know. What we do know, though, is that Trump didn't know after Khan Sheikhun, nor did journalists; they didn't know for certain, that is. Now, Trump claims that he can see into the future; to know what Assad is going to do even before he does it, even though he didn't even know Assad had done it before. Confused? You're supposed to be. Trump wants you confused, distracted and misdirected, and a few more bombs over Syria is the price to pay.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.