Theresa May vows to keep funding White Helmets despite alleged Al-Qaeda links (VIDEO)

The Syria Civil Defence, also better known as the White Helmets, Volunteers in the Syria Civil Defence help victims in a a suspected chemical attack. © Syria Civil Defence / Global Look Press

Theresa May has confirmed that the UK will continue to fund the White Helmets, after the US withdrew £200 million ($271 million) in Syrian aid – including money that would go to the controversial group.

During PMQs Labour’s Matthew Pennycook, the Greenwich and Woolwich MP pushed the PM on whether or not she would continue to fund the The White Helmets, officially known as the Syria Civil Defence, a volunteer group that operates in areas controlled by jihadist and Al-Qaeda-linked groups in Syria.

“Despite the ever-present threat of death… the rescue workers of the White Helmets have never stopped saving the lives of their fellow Syrians,” Pennycook said. “Last week the Trump administration froze their US funding.

“With thousands of civilian lives at risk will the prime minister step up, pledge the government to plug the funding shortfall that now exists, and ensure these heroic rescue workers can continue their work?”

READ MORE: US ‘freezes funding’ for White Helmets as group’s Douma chem attack claim falls apart

May did not hesitate in her response, praising the efforts of the non-governmental search-and-rescue organization.

“We recognise the very important and valuable work that the White Helmets are doing,” she said. “They are, as he says, doing this in horrendously difficult conditions. They are incredibly brave to be continuing with that work.”

The UK PM then pledged to review the current financial package for the White Helmets, hinting at further funding down the track. “We do support them, we will continue to support them, and my right honourable friend, the international development secretary will be looking at the level of that support in the future,” May said.

Although the White Helmets say they act solely as a makeshift emergency response team in a time of crisis, claiming to have heroically saved more than 70,000 lives in war-torn Syria, others question its motives. Footage from Syria has repeatedly appeared to show members of the White Helmets assisting jihadist groups, while multiple accounts from civilians suggested they only helped “their own” and use civilians caught up in conflict only for publicity.

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ISIS & Africa terrorist groups stirring new, bigger migrant crisis for Europe – UN food chief

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau speaking in a video message. January 2, 2018 / AFP

Islamic State leaders who fled Syria are now conspiring with terrorist groups in Africa to use food as a recruitment tool and weapon to trigger another migrant crisis in Europe, the head of the UN World Food Program has warned.

David Beasley said that Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) was partnering with terrorist groups like Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram and Al-Qaeda to spark a wave of African migration into Europe – and infiltrate the ranks of migrants in the process.

Many IS militants are fleeing from the wannabe caliphate that failed to appear in Syria and Iraq. But now they have reportedly found refuge in Africa’s Sahel region, a belt of semi-arid land spanning east-west across Africa south of the Sahara Desert. According to Beasley, the terrorist coalition is now using food as a weapon to destabilize the region, which is home to 500 million people, and force a new wave of mass migration into Europe.

“You are going to face a similar pattern of what took place years ago, except you are going to have more ISIS and extremist groups infiltrating migration,” Beasley told the Guardian during a visit to Brussels for a two-day Syria summit.

The size of the crisis will also be far worse this time around, Beasley warned. “My comment to the Europeans is that if you think you had a problem resulting from a nation of 20 million people like Syria because of destabilization and conflict resulting in migration, wait until the greater Sahel region of 500 million people is further destabilized. And this is where the European community and international community have got to wake up.”

Referring to the threat of an African migration wave into Europe, Beasley told the Associated Press last month the migration crisis created by the war in Syria “could be like a drop in the bucket compared to what’s coming your way.”

Beasley warned that the international community needed to take immediate action to prevent a food crisis in the Sahel region, noting that the UN’s food program was already over-extended and under-funded due to “19 or 20 countries in protracted conflict.”

More than 2.5 million migrants poured into the European Union in 2015-16, leading to political, social and economic friction that the bloc is still struggling with today.

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Twitter bots are bad…unless they’re pushing the ‘right’ narrative?

See the source image

In what should be a source of embarrassment to the British government and the journalists who parroted it, a number of prominent Twitter users have recently been accused of being automated Russian bots rather than real humans.

Two of these government-identified “bots” are the accounts @Ian56789 and @Partisangirl — and they are in fact definitely not bots, but real live people. In the case of @Partisangirl, whose real name is Maram Susli, any three-year old could have figured out that she is a real person simply by viewing the multiple videos and interviews she has posted online in recent years.

But Guardian journalist Heather Stewart didn’t do that. Instead she unquestioningly reported the ‘news’ that Susli is a bot.

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Challenged on Twitter, all Stewart could say in her defense was that it was the government’s analysis, not her own. Given that the government’s ‘analysis’ is very clearly completely wrong, one would think that Stewart might want to correct her story to reflect that fact, but she has not bothered to do so.

READ MORE: ‘I’ve seen the censorship’: Syrian blogger tells RT how she was labeled a ‘Russian bot’ (VIDEO)

The other user accused of being a bot by the British government, @Ian56789, whose real name is Ian Shilling, has given an interview to Sky News, which also makes abundantly clear that he is a human, not a Russian bot. Stewart has not updated her story to include that information either — and both Susli and Shilling are still identified only as “bots” in her story.

Attacks on @Partisangirl are not new. For years, she has fought off allegations from prominent Western analysts that she is not real, or that if she is, she has had plastic surgery. In 2014, Susli tried to prove she had not had cosmetic surgery by posting a photograph of herself as a child. Responding to the photo of the very young Susli, senior editor at the Daily Beast and CNN analyst Michael Weiss said it looked like her parents raised her as a “streetwalker”.

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In 2013, Phillip Smyth, who is a ‘Soref Fellow’ at the Washington Institute —   a D.C.-based think tank which focuses on foreign policy analysis — attacked Susli for her looks, twice accusing her of having plastic surgery. In one tweet, Smyth said the “plastic surgery guy” who “fixed her up” didn’t do a good jo b. Ironically, some time after Smyth posted an article about how men who abuse women online are “literally losers”.

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This wouldn’t be the first time Western news outlets and analysts have falsely accused Twitter users of being bots in the employ of the Russian government, either. Last year, the crowdfunded website Byline published “analysis” suggesting that the account @didgery77332nd, which used the nickname “Smoo” was a “foreign-based troll pushing Russian messaging.”

That Russian “troll” turned out to be a security guard from Glasgow. “Smoo has been my nickname since I was six years old. It’s not difficult to track me down. People might not agree with my opinions, but that doesn’t make me a Russian troll,” he told The Scotsman newspaper.

Another Twitter user in the firing line for her “pro-Russia” views is @sahouraxo which uses the name Sarah Abdallah. It is true that little is known about Abdallah outside of her very popular Twitter account, but that does not necessarily mean she is a bot. Although without more information to go on, it’s impossible to say she is who she says she is, either. The BBC has questioned Abdallah’s authenticity and highlighted her as one of the most influential Twitter accounts on the Syrian war.

Former Middle East editor of the Guardian Brian Whitaker has recently attempted to expose Abdallah and her possible “connections” to Hezbollah. But perhaps he is just trying to make up for past mistakes.

In 2011, Whitaker was quick to promote the ‘Gay Girl in Damascus’ blog.

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The blog was ostensibly run by a Syrian girl named Amina Arraf who documented her struggles as a gay person in Syria. At one point, ‘Amina’ was even kidnaped by Syrian security forces, worrying gay rights activists everywhere. Whitaker and many others were tricked into believing Amina was a real person. In reality, it turned out that she was an entirely fakepersona and ‘her’ blog was run by a 40 year-old straight man from Edinburgh named Tom MacMaster.

When McMaster was found out, the Guardian wrote that the hoax “exposes the power and the unreliability of the internet” — and yet seven years later, the mainstream media spends more of its time attacking real bloggers than it does trying to expose the real “unreliability” of the internet.

For instance, mainstream outlets are happy to parrot blogger Eliot Higgins who publishes ‘analysis’ on chemical weapons attacks in Syria from the comfort of his home in England. Higgins produces “evidence” of war crimes from his couch and is held up as a hero by Western pundits and activists.

Similarly, activists from the pro-regime change White Helmets ‘rescue organization’ are always just around the corner when they need to film the aftermath of a chemical attack and lobby for regime change in front of Western audiences. The group, which is the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary and proclaims itself to be “neutral” and impartial, has been exposed by investigative journalists for its links to Jabhat al-Nusra — Al Qaeda’s Syria affiliate.

Members of the White Helmets have been filmed assisting in public executions, helping militants discard the bodies of Syrian soldiers in dumpsters, posing while standing on top of piles of dead bodies and waving Jabhat al-Nusra’s flag while brandishing weapons.

But Susli, an Australia-based Syrian girl with a large Twitter following is the real threat?

Famed War Reporter Robert Fisk Reaches Syrian ‘Chemical Attack’ Site, Concludes “They Were Not Gassed”

The Independent: “Middle East Correspondent Robert Fisk in one of the miles of tunnels hacked beneath Douma by prisoners of Syrian rebels.” (source: Yara Ismail via the Independent)

By Tyler Durden

Robert Fisk‘s bombshell first-hand account for the UK Independent runs contrary to nearly every claim circulating in major international press concerning what happened just over week ago on April 7th in an embattled suburb outside Damascus: not only has the veteran British journalist found no evidence of a mass chemical attack, but he’s encountered multiple local eyewitnesses who experienced the chaos of that night, but who say the gas attack never happened.

Fisk is the first Western journalist to reach and report from the site of the alleged chemical weapons attack widely blamed on Assad’s forces. Writing from Douma in eastern Ghouta, Fisk has interviewed a Syrian doctor who works at the hospital shown in one of the well-known videos which purports to depict victims of a chemical attack.

Importantly, the report, published late in the day Monday, is causing a stir among mainstream journalists whominutes after the Saudi-sponsored jihadist group Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) accused the Syrian Army of gassing civiliansbegan uncritically promoting the “Assad gassed his own people” narrative as an already cemented and “proven” fact based on the mere word a notoriously brutal armed group who itself has admitted to using chemical weapons on the Syrian battlefield in prior years. Also notable is that no journalist or international observer was anywhere near Douma when the purported chemical attack took place. 

Controversy ensued immediately after Fisk’s report, especially as he is among the most recognizable names in the past four decades of Middle East war reporting, having twice won the British Press Awards’ Journalist of the Year prize and as seven time winner of the British Press Awards’ Foreign Correspondent of the Year (the NY Times has referred to him as “probably the most famous foreign correspondent in Britain” while The Guardian has called him “one of the most famous journalists in the world”). An Arabic speaker, Fisk became famous for being among the few reporters in history to conduct face-to-face interviews with Osama bin Laden, which he did on three occasions between 1993 and 1997.

Fisk says he was able to walk around and investigate newly liberated Douma without Syrian government or Russian minders (in part this is likely because he has reported from inside Syria going back decades, in war-torn 1982 Hama, for example), and he begins his account as follows:

This is the story of a town called Douma, a ravaged, stinking place of smashed apartment blocks–and of an underground clinic whose images of suffering allowed three of the Western world’s most powerful nations to bomb Syria last week. There’s even a friendly doctor in a green coat who, when I track him down in the very same clinic, cheerfully tells me that the “gas” videotape which horrified the world– despite all the doubters–is perfectly genuine.

War stories, however, have a habit of growing darker. For the same 58-year old senior Syrian doctor then adds something profoundly uncomfortable: the patients, he says, were overcome not by gas but by oxygen starvation in the rubbish-filled tunnels and basements in which they lived, on a night of wind and heavy shelling that stirred up a dust storm.

Fisk goes on to identify the doctor by name – Dr. Assim Rahaibani – which is notable given the fact that all early reporting from Douma typically relied on “unnamed doctors” and anonymous opposition sources for early claims of a chlorine gas attack (lately morphed into an unverified “mixed” chlorine-and-sarin attack).

The doctor’s testimony is consistent with that of the well-known Syrian opposition group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), which initially reported based on its own pro-rebel sourcing that heavy government bombardment of Douma city resulted in the collapse of homes and underground shelters, causing civilians in hiding to suffocate.

According to SOHR, which has long been a key go-to source for mainstream media over the course of the war, “70 of them [women and children] have suffered suffocation as a result of the demolition of home basements over them due to the heavy and intense shelling.”

Though outlets from The Guardian to The Washington Post to The New York Times have quoted SOHR on a near daily basis throughout the past six years of war, the anti-Assad opposition outlet’s reporting of mass asphyxiation due to collapse of shelters has been notably absent from the same publications.

Fisk to Spirit Radio: “The video is real, but they are not suffering from gas poisoning…”

Fisk details the Syrian doctor’s testimony, who is adamant in his emphasis that civilians were suffocating en masse, and were not gassed:

It was a short walk to Dr Rahaibani. From the door of his subterranean clinic–“Point 200”, it is called, in the weird geology of this partly-underground city–is a corridor leading downhill where he showed me his lowly hospital and the few beds where a small girl was crying as nurses treated a cut above her eye.

“I was with my family in the basement of my home three hundred metres from here on the night but all the doctors know what happened. There was a lot of shelling [by government forces] and aircraft were always over Douma at night–but on this night, there was wind and huge dust clouds began to come into the basements and cellars where people lived. People began to arrive here suffering from hypoxia, oxygen loss. Then someone at the door, a “White Helmet”, shouted “Gas!”, and a panic began. People started throwing water over each other. Yes, the video was filmed here, it is genuine, but what you see are people suffering from hypoxia–not gas poisoning.”

In addition to interviewing a doctor while standing in the very hospital featured in White Helmets footage of the events, Fisk cites the testimonies of multiple locals in the following:

Before we go any further, readers should be aware that this is not the only story in Douma. There are the many people I talked to amid the ruins of the town who said they had “never believed in” gas stories–which were usually put about, they claimed, by the armed Islamist groups. 

These particular jihadis survived under a blizzard of shellfire by living in other’s people’s homes and in vast, wide tunnels with underground roads carved through the living rock by prisoners with pick-axes on three levels beneath the town. I walked through three of them yesterday, vast corridors of living rock which still contained Russian–yes, Russian–rockets and burned-out cars.

And further fascinating is that the veteran British war correspondent comes upon local Douma residents who have so long been trapped in an isolated ‘fog of war’ battlefield environment, that they are not even aware of the international importance that the town has played in the US coalition decision to bomb Syria:

So the story of Douma is thus not just a story of gas–or no gas, as the case may be. It’s about thousands of people who did not opt for evacuation from Douma on buses that left last week, alongside the gunmen with whom they had to live like troglodytes for months in order to survive.

I walked across this town quite freely yesterday without soldier, policeman or minder to haunt my footsteps, just two Syrian friends, a camera and a notebook. I sometimes had to clamber across 20-foot-high ramparts, up and down almost sheer walls of earth. Happy to see foreigners among them, happier still that the siege is finally over, they are mostly smiling; those whose faces you can see, of course, because a surprising number of Douma’s women wear full-length black hijab.

…Oddly, after chatting to more than 20 people, I couldn’t find one who showed the slightest interest in Douma’s role in bringing about the Western air attacks. Two actually told me they didn’t know about the connection.

But it was a strange world I walked into. Two men, Hussam and Nazir Abu Aishe, said they were unaware how many people had been killed in Douma, although the latter admitted he had a cousin “executed by Jaish el-Islam [the Army of Islam] for allegedly being “close to the regime”. They shrugged when I asked about the 43 people said to have died in the infamous Douma attack.

Evidence? …A video montage of the Pentagon and State Department’s awkward attempts to dodge the question of evidence. 

Concerning the White Helmets, who have played a dubious role throughout the war while presenting themselves as “impartial” and “neutral” rescue workers and film-makers, though known to operate exclusively in al-Qaeda and other jihadist-controlled areas of Syria, Fisk reports the following:

The White Helmets–the medical first responders already legendary in the West but with some interesting corners to their own story–played a familiar role during the battles. They are partly funded by the [British] Foreign Office and most of the local offices were staffed by Douma men. 

I found their wrecked offices not far from Dr Rahaibani’s clinic. A gas mask had been left outside a food container with one eye-piece pierced and a pile of dirty military camouflage uniforms lay inside one room. Planted, I asked myself? I doubt it. The place was heaped with capsules, broken medical equipment and files, bedding and mattresses.

Of course we must hear their side of the story, but it will not happen here: a woman told us that every member of the White Helmets in Douma abandoned their main headquarters and chose to take the government-organised and Russian-protected buses to the rebel province of Idlib with the armed groups when the final truce was agreed.

And Fisk further narrates the strangeness of some of the reporting now happening far outside of Douma which flatly contradicts the testimonies of civilians still inside Douma that he encounters:

How could it be that Douma refugees who had reached camps in Turkey were already describing a gas attack which no-one in Douma today seemed to recall? It did occur to me, once I was walking for more than a mile through these wretched prisoner-groined tunnels, that the citizens of Douma lived so isolated from each other for so long that “news” in our sense of the word simply had no meaning to them. 

Syria doesn’t cut it as Jeffersonian democracy–as I cynically like to tell my Arab colleagues–and it is indeed a ruthless dictatorship, but that couldn’t cow these people, happy to see foreigners among them, from reacting with a few words of truth. So what were they telling me?

They talked about the Islamists under whom they had lived. They talked about how the armed groups had stolen civilian homes to avoid the Syrian government and Russian bombing. The Jaish el-Islam had burned their offices before they left, but the massive buildings inside the security zones they created had almost all been sandwiched to the ground by air strikes. A Syrian colonel I came across behind one of these buildings asked if I wanted to see how deep the tunnels were. I stopped after well over a mile when he cryptically observed that “this tunnel might reach as far as Britain”. Ah yes, Ms May, I remembered, whose air strikes had been so intimately connected to this place of tunnels and dust. And gas?

For a prime example of what Fisk references as refugees in Turkey “already describing a gas attack which no-one in Douma seemed to recall…” CNN aired a segment from one such refugee camp which is absolutely bizarre and stunning in its claims. 

During the segment which aired “hours after” the US-led airstrikes on DamascusCNN’s Arwa Damon began sniffing a 7-year-old Syrian girl’s backpack while concluding, “I mean there’s definitely something that stings…” – with the implication that empirical proof had been found of government chemical weapons use against the little girl and her family.

And in the full segment, Damon attempts to subtly introduce the idea of a nerve agent used against the family (though initial claims were widely reported to be chlorine) by awkwardly including the account of the girl’s escape from Douma: “She could barely breath… she felt as if her entire nerves basically released.” 

Though it’s unclear what the strange phrasing of “her entire nerves basically released” actually means, CNN’s Arwa Damon is ultimately claiming to be able to safely and comfortably handle and sniff a backpack which contains residual sarin and chlorine agents, while simultaneously presenting the backpack as “proof” of a chemical attack which happened a week prior (to say nothing the clearly unscientific and bogus nature all of the above).

Notably, in addition to Fisk’s bombshell report filed from ground zero of the claimed chemical attack in Douma, cable network One America News has also issued a report from on the ground in the newly liberated town, finding “no evidence” – in its words – that a chemical attack took place there. 

Robert Fisk’s report for The Independent and the One America News segment constitute the first major international media reports from the location of the alleged chemical attack. But it will be interesting to see the extent to which international chemical and weapons experts either validate or refute their conclusions once the site is inspected.

Meanwhile, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) team arrived in Damascus on Saturday, April 14th – after the US-led overnight strikes which primarily hit government buildings in the capital.

Is Britain about to join US military action over reports of Syria chemical attack?

The UK is coming under increased pressure to join the US in its expected military action against Assad. Britain has a history of backing American foreign intervention without UN approval, a trend that could be set to continue.

Theresa May confirmed that she will speak with US President Donald Trump about the alleged chemical attack in Syria. She added that the UK is working urgently with its allies to assess what happened, and said that those behind the attack will be held to account.

The UK PM will chair a meeting of Britain’s Security Council later today, speaking to reporters on Tuesday.

May has condemned Syrian leader Bashar Assad and his Russian allies over an alleged deadly chemical attack in Syria. Now, the pressure is on the PM to follow through with a military response against the Syrian government.

Calls to strike Syria come after reports of an attack in the formerly rebel-held city of Douma. On Sunday the White Helmets, a volunteer organization which operates in areas under the control of Syrian rebels, including groups linked to Al-Qaeda, published a statement that said a chlorine gas attack had taken place in the area on Saturday. The alleged attack was said to have killed dozens, including children.

During a trip to Denmark, UK leader May condemned the Assad government for its “barbaric” targeting of civilians. “If they are found to be responsible, the regime and its backers, including Russia, must be held to account,” May said.

Later, in Stockholm, where May was meeting with Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, the UK PM added that: “We are working urgently with our allies to assess what has happened. But, we are also working with our allies on any action that is necessary.”

Although May did not elaborate on the options available to the UK government, she did not rule out joining international military intervention against Assad.

A No. 10 spokesman said that Britain would consider “a range of options” if it was confirmed that there was evidence of chemical weapons being used.

The call was echoed by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who said that “a full range of options should be on the table” in response to the attack. Options are understood to include airstrikes against military targets.

William Hague, who served in the Foreign Office when the Commons blocked action against Assad in 2013, put pressure on May to take action in Syria – or risk “legitimizing” chemical weapons.

“Once we accept that it is just another aspect of war, that is what it will become in the conflicts of coming decades with an arms race in chemical agents steadily expanded and legitimized,” the former Tory leader said.

Hague also urged Britain and France to follow the US in taking a “more extensive” military approach. Last year, Trump launched airstrikes on a Syrian airbase following similar reports of an attack on Khan Shaykhun.

Hague also rejected the idea that any military action needs the backing of the UN – a notion pushed by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Hague said that Russia would just “obstruct, deny and prevaricate.”

Corbyn condemned the use of chemical weapons, but did not mention Assad in his statements – a move that has seen the Labour leader cop widespread criticism for a “weak” approach.

“I condemn it absolutely, I condemn the use of chemical or biological weapons in any scenario anywhere in the world,” Corbyn said, adding: “The tragedy and the terror of people’s lives in Syria can only end by a political solution.

“I call on all parties to cooperate urgently with the UN in conducting an inquiry into this so we can find out exactly who delivered that chemical weapon. The evidence is important and the use of international law is crucial to bring about a more peaceful and stable world in the future.”

Some Labour MPs were left “disappointed” by Corbyn’s comments, with MPs anonymously telling the Daily Telegraph that his stance was “unsurprisingly and depressingly weak” and “out of step with the general public [and]… out of step with Labour voters.”

On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Russia welcomes an “honest investigation” into the alleged chemical attacks – and is against pointing the finger at anyone without definitive proof.

“We are in total support of a fair and immediate investigation, when they ask for it,” Lavrov said. “However, when the investigation is intended to come at a predetermined point – that is, it was done by Assad with Putin’s support – there are no grounds for a serious discussion.”

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(THE GLOBALIST NEED A WAR) – Biased media coverage of ‘chemical attack’ in Syria could provoke a dangerous new war

A man is washed following alleged chemical weapons attack, in what is said to be Douma, Syria in this still image from video obtained by Reuters on April 8, 2018 © White Helmets / Reuters

By jumping to conclusions about the alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria, Donald Trump’s war cabinet and their media cheerleaders are recklessly pushing us closer to a military confrontation between Russia and the US.

With his new national security adviser John Bolton standing behind him, US President Trump announced on Monday that “everybody” – apparently meaning Syria and Russia – “will pay a price” for the alleged chemical attack in Douma, a suburb of Damascus under the control of Jaysh al Islam insurgents, and that his generals were devising a military response. Trump has also said that he holds Russia responsible for the still unverified attack, signaling an escalation between Russia and the US, a dangerous prospect that seems to be lost on an unquestioning US media that is captivated by anti-Russia hysteria.

But as Trump rushes to punish Syria, the media is ignoring and depriving the public of some crucial details leading up to the alleged attack, details that raise serious questions about who’s responsible.

Suspicious timing

The Syrian government is in a stronger position than it has been since the war began and has absolutely nothing to gain from launching a chemical weapons attack. This alone should cause some serious skepticism, especially considering the chronology of events leading up to the alleged attack.

Douma is a city in Eastern Ghouta that is under the control of Jaysh al Islam, a Saudi-backed jihadist group that seeks to replace the Syrian government with an Islamic state.

Jaysh al Islam is extremely sectarian and just as nasty in its rhetoric, tactics and goals as the notorious terrorist group Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL). Jaysh al Islam’s founder, the late Zahran Alloush, had openly called for the ethnic cleansing of religious minorities from Damascus. The group also engages in public executions and has  publicly bragged about parading caged civilian women from the minority Alawite sect in the streets as human shields. Those caged minorities were among hundreds of Syrian civilians and soldiers held hostage by the group for years in Douma. As many have pointed out, by using chemical weapons the government would be risking the safety of those hostages, which makes no strategic sense, considering the intense negotiations between the government and Jaysh al Islam over their release.

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The recent round of arduous negotiations between Jaysh al Islam and the Syrian government coincided with a months-long battle to rout the militants from Eastern Ghouta. The Syrian government is well on its way to victory, with the remaining militants surrounded by the Syrian army, which has retaken 90 percent of Eastern Ghouta.

Provoking intervention

Most recently, Jaysh al Islam was offered a deal by the Russians to give up their fight and, in exchange, those of the militants who wished to stay could become a local security force in Douma. While the Syrian government has allowed other militant groups to evacuate to northern Syria, the same scenario is difficult to implement for Jaysh al Islam, according to sources involved in the negotiations, because the Turks and the Al-Qaeda militant groups that dominate Idlib do not get along with Jaysh al Islam. Their presence in northern Syria would almost certainly start a war between the various sides. Furthermore, the Syrian government’s shelters in Damascus for the internally displaced are overflowing. They cannot handle the pressure of having to care for more internally displaced civilians, so the government prefers to keep civilians in Douma rather than to evacuate them, which has been a part of the negotiations.

However, the negotiations fell apart after Jaysh al Islam rejected the deal, partly because they wanted to hold on to their heavy weapons. The standoff escalated as militants launched missiles at Damascus, including projectiles that, according to an internal UN advisory to staff in the area, contained explosive fragments that resemble cluster bombs.

That led to the Syrian government’s intense bombardment of Douma over the weekend, an attempt to force the group to surrender. In the midst of the offensive, the authorities in Douma claimed the government had attacked the area with chemical weapons. This has become a pattern among insurgents in Syria: whenever they are about to be defeated, claims of chemical attacks resurface. It is possible that such claims are meant to provoke intervention from the international community, as intervention is the only thing that can save them. They also have a history of provoking harsh reactions from the government to justify making concessions.

Another crucial fact that has been left out of the western media coverage of this alleged attack is that the Syrian army discovered a chemical weapons facility that was under insurgent control in an area of Eastern Ghouta recently recaptured by the government. This means that the insurgents are capable of producing chemical weapons and, therefore, should not be ruled out as potential culprits, should the chemical weapons attack be verified.

The Russian government also warned in recent weeks that the militants were planning to stage a chemical weapons attack to spur outside intervention. This was dismissed by the western press at the time as unserious and is now being ignored for the most part, though some have gone so far as to suggest, with zero evidence, that the Russian warning was all a conspiracy to later blame the militants for the attack.

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Who benefits? The war hawks!

The other beneficiaries of the alleged chemical attack are US war hawks and their media cheerleaders who had a meltdown last week after Trump announced his desire to pull some 2,000 US troops out of Syria.

Aside from the fact that these US forces are illegally occupying Syrian territory and have failed to receive authorization from congress to do so, the usual chorus of warmongers has capitalized on the alleged chemical weapons attack to insist that the US stay in Syria indefinitely.

For example, Republican Senator John McCain, who has long advocated overthrowing the Syrian government and has rubbed elbows with US-backed jihadist proxies that wreaked havoc across the country, claimed that Trump’s announcement about pulling out US troops emboldened Syrian president Bashar Assad to launch the chemical weapons attack.

American hypocrisy

Furthermore, it’s important to remember that the chemical attack has only been alleged. There has yet to be a proper and independent investigation to determine whether chemical weapons were used and, if they were, by whom.

The US has demanded the United Nations probe the alleged chemical weapons attack, though, given Trump’s stance on a possible military strike, American officials are clearly uninterested in waiting for the results of such a probe. Ironically, just days earlier the US blocked a call at the UN Security Council for the second week in a row to launch an independent probe into Israel’s massacre of unarmed protesters in Gaza.

Israel, meanwhile, bombed Syria’s T4 airbase, which has been controlled by the Russian military since 2015. The Israelis claim that they targeted the base to attack Iranians stationed there and that Iranians were among the more than a dozen killed at the base. This was likely an effort by Israel to retaliate for the downing of its fighter jet earlier this year by the Syrian army. It may have also been partially an attempt to capitalize on the attention around the chemical attack and distract from the last two weeks of Israeli army massacres of Palestinian demonstrators at the Gaza border. It’s also plausible that the Israelis attacked Syria on behalf of the US, as Trump’s new national security adviser John Bolton has in the past advocated for Israel to attack American adversaries such as Iran. Whatever the case may be, when it comes to Syria and Palestine, US hypocrisy is on full display.

Sketchy sources

Despite the absence of an independent investigation to confirm a chemical attack, the western press has pushed forward with the narrative that the Syrian government and their Russian allies are 100 percent responsible, so it’s important to interrogate their sources.

The western media’s primary source on the chemical attack is the White Helmets, a rescue group heavily funded by the US and UK governments. Marketed by a top PR firm, the White Helmets openly advocate for regime change while working alongside Salafi Jihadi rebels, including groups linked to al Qaeda, in opposition areas. Some of its members have participated in atrocities on video, a fact almost entirely ignored by western media, which is enamored with the group.

Footage from the White Helmets has almost always portrayed insurgent-held areas in Syria as populated only by children and rescue workers. But the conflict isn’t a war between the Syrian government and civilians. It is a war between the Syrian government and a collection of foreign-backed Salafi-Jihadist groups, who seem to be deliberately hidden from view by the White Helmets and other affiliated organizations.

The thousands of militants that control the area are never anywhere to be seen in the footage, which demonstrates a clear agenda at play. That doesn’t mean the footage or images are necessarily fake, just that they are meant to convey a propagandistic narrative that erases the two-sided nature of the war in Syria.

Western media has unquestioningly circulated footage and images from the alleged attack in Douma that was fed to them by the White Helmets. Last year, following the chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhoun, Trump was inspired to bomb Syria by the White Helmets footage that was replayed over and over by the US cable news outlets. Trump is surely basing his current decision on the White Helmets footage airing 24/7 on outlets like CNN as we speak, and these outlets know this. By relying on biased sources once again, the Western press has completely erased the atrocities of the insurgents, many of them backed by the US, while leading us dangerously closer to escalation in Syria that could result, either accidentally or intentionally in a hot war with Russia. How very convenient for the war hawks!

How Obama manipulated sensitive secret intelligence for political gain

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President Obama’s White House had a troublesome tendency to mishandle some of the nation’s most delicate intelligence — especially regarding the Middle East — by leaking classified information in an attempt to sway public opinion on sensitive matters. (Associated Press/File)

By Guy Taylor and Dan Boylan

They wanted him dead.

For years, a clandestine U.S. intelligence team had tracked a man they knew was high in the leadership of al Qaeda— an operative some believed had a hand in plotting the gruesome 2009 suicide attack in Afghanistan that killed seven CIA officers.

Their pursuit was personal, and by early 2014, according to a source directly involved in the operation, the agency had the target under tight drone surveillance. “We literally had a bead on this guy’s head and just needed authorization from Washington to pull the trigger,” said the source.

Then something unexpected happened. While agents waited for the green light, the al Qaeda operative’s name, as well as information about the CIA’s classified surveillance and plan to kill him in Pakistan, suddenly appeared in the U.S. press.

Abdullah al-Shami, it turned out, was an American citizen, and President Obama and his national security advisers were torn over whether the benefits of killing him would outweigh the political and civil liberties backlash that was sure to follow.

In interviews with several current and former officials, the al-Shami case was cited as an example of what critics say was the Obama White House’s troublesome tendency to mishandle some of the nation’s most delicate intelligence — especially regarding the Middle East — by leaking classified information in an attempt to sway public opinion on sensitive matters.

By the end of Mr. Obama’s second term, according to sources who spoke anonymously with The Washington Times, the practices of leaking, ignoring and twisting intelligence for political gain were ingrained in how the administration conducted national security policy.

Those criticisms have resurfaced in the debate over whether overall intelligence fumbling by the Obama White House in its final months may have amplified the damage wrought by suspected Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election last year.

On repeated occasions during the Obama era, high-level sources and some lawmakers told The Washington Times, the president’s inner circle ignored classified briefings and twisted intelligence to fit political goals. Long before Donald Trump appeared on the White House campaign scene, many pointed to an incident during the 2012 election cycle as the most dramatic evidence of how that approach affected the handling of national security threats.

‘Understating the threat’

On the campaign trail in 2012, Mr. Obama declared that al Qaeda was “on the run,” despite a flow of intelligence showing that the terrorist group was metastasizing — a circumstance that led to the rise of the Islamic State.

Many Americans believed the president was justifiably touting a major success of his first term with the U.S. Special Forces killing of al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden in 2011. But the gulf between Mr. Obama’s campaign pronouncements and classified briefings provided to Congress touched off a heated debate in intelligence circles over whether the president was twisting the facts for political gain.

“Candidate Obama was understating the threat,” said Mike Rogers, who at the time was chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. After the 2012 election, he said, “To say the core [was] decimated and therefore we [had] al Qaeda on the run was not consistent with the overall intelligence assessment at the time.”

Reflecting back this month, Mr. Rogers suggested that Mr. Obama — like many presidents before him — had a propensity for pushing certain politically advantageous narratives even if they contradicted classified intelligence.

Indeed, controversy has long swirled around politicized intelligence and leaks. The George W. Bush administration was accused of “stovepiping” intelligence it needed for its case to invade Iraq in 2003 while ignoring bits that may have undercut the rationale for war.

That case blossomed into a major scandal known as the “Plame affair.” White House staffer Scooter Libby was convicted of lying to investigators about the leak of the name of covert CIA officer Valerie Plame, whose husband had challenged the administration’s claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. President Bush later commuted Mr. Libby’s sentence.

With regard to the Obama White House, Mr. Rogers told The Times, the circumstances were different but no less disturbing. “Over the course of their time in office, the Obama administration’s world got smaller and smaller,” said the Michigan Republican, who retired from Congress in 2015. “They listened to fewer and fewer different opinions. When you do that, that is how you miss things.”

‘Heart was never in it’

Chaos and instability in the Middle East factored into one Obama-era intelligence leak that officials now say badly undermined national security.

The CIA’s covert “Train and Equip” program was crafted to aid forces seeking to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad after the 2011 Arab Spring protests exploded into a civil war in Syria.

Train and Equip began with a flow of “nonlethal aid” to certain Syrian rebel groups, but as its budget ballooned to some $1 billion, the program morphed into an unwieldy and ineffective effort to assist an unconventional military campaign.

One former senior intelligence official said the program was badly undermined because the White House was constantly leaking details of efforts to build a Free Syrian Army with cash, weapons and intelligence.

“Obama had drawn a red line on Syria over chemical weapons, but then he didn’t do [expletive],” the former official told The Times. “The White House was facing a lot of political pressure to show they had policy for Syria, so they leaked the CIA’s covert action plan. They leaked it for purely political reasons, so they could say, ‘Look, look, we have a Syria strategy.’”

Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA analyst now with the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank in Washington, said other factors also undermined any chance for the program to succeed. Mr. Obama and his top aides were openly wary of being dragged deeper into the Syrian fight while the administration was trying to execute a strategic “pivot to Asia” — away from the heavy U.S. foreign policy focus on the Middle East.

“Obama’s heart was never in it, and the administration wanted nothing to do with it,” Mr. Pollack told The Times. “He mostly did it to avoid domestic political blowback. We could have done so much more, but the way it was run, it killed itself.”

Mr. Pollack, who once worked in the Clinton White House, said the program’s recruitment vetting was ridiculous. “The [Obama] administration more or less insisted, ‘We will only accept applicants … who had never met a jihadist.’ The vetting standards were absurd and excluded almost everyone who had any contact with the opposition in Syria,” Mr. Pollack said.

“It was like they thought we were going to wage a civil war against the Assad government with members of the social pages of The New York Times,” he said. “The Harvard crew team was not going to show up.”

In the long run, the policy’s failure provided a clear window for Iran and Russia to expand their military presence and political influence into the power vacuum created by Syria’s war.

‘Unmasking’

And then there was unmasking.

Controversy has swirled for the past year around the Obama administration’s use of a process that allowed high-level White House officials to learn the redacted identities of Americans swept up in classified surveillance against suspected foreign operatives during the months surrounding the presidential election.

For decades, national security officials at the highest level have used their security clearances to engage in the process known as “unmasking” while reading raw intercepts from around the world for better understanding of relationships that might impact America’s safety.

President Carter’s hawkish national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was known by America’s spies as one who “loved raw intelligence,” according to Bob Woodward’s book “Veil, The Secret Wars of the CIA, 1981-1987.”

“Unmasking itself is not nefarious or conspiratorial; it’s done all the time around the world by ambassadors and CIAstation chiefs,” said one former CIA clandestine service officer who spoke with The Times. “It’s a standard procedure and involves a rigorous and bureaucratic process … to ensure whoever’s seeking the unmasking of names has a legitimate reason.”

But Republicans believe the process — and the safeguards against abuse — went terribly awry in the final months of the bitter campaign between Mr. Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton and through the transition period between Mr. Trump’s unexpected victory and inauguration.

Remarks by former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, as well as Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and former top White House strategist Steve Bannon, were all captured in surveillance of a Trump Tower meeting in December 2016. Susan E. Rice, Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, has since acknowledged she asked that the identities of the Americans in the surveillance be revealed, citing what she said were legitimate concerns about the purpose of the group’s meeting with foreigners.

Although the unmasking itself may have been justified, the former CIA clandestine service officer said, what came next was dangerous.

“The issue is when any names that have been unmasked end up getting leaked to the press,” the former officer said. “And that is certainly what looks like happened vis-a-vis the Obama administration’s unmasking of Trump officials who were in meetings with Russians or Turks that were under American intelligence surveillance.”

Rep. Devin Nunes, California Republican and chairman of the House intelligence committee, has gone further, suggesting that Obama administration officials strategically leaked the names to smear Mr. Trump and fuel a narrative that the Trump campaign was secretly working with foreign forces.

‘Come on, Mr. President’

Suspicion that the Obama White House intentionally leaked the unmasked names has been fueled by what intelligence sources say was the administration track record of other sensitive leaks — which stretched back to the Abdullah al-Shami case in Afghanistan.

CIA agents were shocked when their classified drone surveillance against al-Shami suddenly appeared in 2014 reports by The Associated Press and The New York Times, one source told The Times. “There’s no question this guy got wind of the reports,” said the source. “The leak gave him a heads-up, and he suddenly disappeared. We lost our bead on him.”

Some at the CIA were outraged. Agents had been tracking the al Qaeda operative since early 2009, believing he had been directly involved in a bomb attack that injured several officials at U.S. Forward Operating Base Chapman in AfghanistanAl-Shami’s fingerprints turned up on packing tape around a second bomb that didn’t explode.

Roughly a year later, there was another attack on Chapman, a key clandestine operations center in Afghanistan, in which seven CIA officers were killed. Some suspected al-Shami played a role in that attack as well.

But as badly as the CIA wanted al-Shami dead, the case carried controversial legal questions.

Abdullah al-Shami — Arabic for “Abdullah the Syrian” — was the nom de guerre of a young man named Muhanad Mahmoud al-Farekh. Although raised in Dubai, al-Farekh was an American citizen because he was born in Texas.

By the time the CIA had him in its crosshairs in 2014, Mr. Obama was reeling from the furor sparked by his authorization of a drone strike in 2011 that killed another American citizen: al Qaeda propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen.

The American Civil Liberties Union condemned the al-Awlaki strike as a violation of U.S. law because al-Awlaki had “never been charged with any crime” in an American court.

Fearful of a similar reaction, the Obama administration decided the best course of action would be to leak information about the al-Shami case to stir up public awareness of the conundrum facing the president, the former intelligence officials said.

“Look,” said the source, “I actually appreciate that Obama didn’t like the idea of killing another American without due process. But was leaking this stuff really the right way to handle this?

“I mean, come on Mr. President, it’s your finger on the trigger. You’re the one who decides. All we do is aim the gun,” said the source, who said it was fortunate that al-Shami was later captured alive and secretly flown to the United States for trial.

The al Qaeda operative was convicted in September in U.S. federal court in New York on terrorism charges under his birth name, Muhanad Mahmoud al-Farekh.

The 31-year-old is slated to be sentenced next month.