These Are the 5 Craziest Conspiracy Theories About Syria's Chemical Attacks

With the Obama administration in an all-out blitz to gain congressional authorization for a strike On Syria, the debate over chemical weapons and a potential U.S. military retaliation has taken an inevitable turn: The conspiracy theories have arrived.

Perhaps President Obama planned the chemical weapons attack to create an excuse to intervene? Or maybe he just framed the Syrians? Or perhaps it was in fact a "false flag" attack carried out at Israel's behest? Or maybe the intelligence has just been wildly distorted? Or maybe the attack was in fact no attack at all but an accidental release of chemical weapons provided to the rebels by Saudi Arabian intelligence officials?

One theory is crazier than the next, but for these modern conspiracy theorists, no conjecture seems out of bounds. Here's your guide to the ugly turn the Syria debate has now taken.


The theory: In what is so far the most outlandish allegation surrounding the Syria debate, Yossef Bodansky, a defense analyst, argues that it was in fact Obama who planned the attacks. The allegation -- if it can even be called that -- was given wider circulation on Tuesday, when Rush Limbaugh talked up the story on air, and describes a shadowy network of intelligence agencies who are to have orchestrated the attack. The Bodansky article contends that just prior to the chemical weapons attack, the Syrian opposition was provided with a massive influx of weapons provided by Turkish and Qatari intelligence agents with the support of U.S. spies. Under the cover of U.S. airstrikes launched in retaliation for chemical weapons use, the Syrian opposition would launch a massive offensive and break the back of the Assad regime. The chemical weapons attack, Bodansky contends, thus plays into the strategic interests of the United States -- assuming for the moment that Washington is firmly on the side of the rebels -- and could serve as a decisive moment in the military conflict.

Why it's crazy: One immediate problem presents itself with this theory -- that is, beyond the prima facie craziness of the notion that a sitting U.S. president would plan a chemical weapons strike in a country where he has strenuously sought to avoid U.S. military entanglement. If the chemical weapons strike was a U.S. operation all along, then why did Obama bother to take the issue to Congress? Though he would have suffered politically in some quarters if he had taken immediate action, he would have been well within the law and precedent. Few things other than a desire to improve political support for the operation prevented Obama from launching strikes immediately, and if he had already decided that 1,400 Syrian dead were a price worth paying for some air cover, why would the president ever care what Congress thinks? Additionally, setting aside for a moment the evidence collected by U.S. intelligence officials -- which presumably can't be taken seriously in a discussion of this idea -- consider the following: France, Germany, and the Arab League have all backed Obama's conclusion that the Assad regime was behind the attack. Would Francois Hollande, Angela Merkel, and a slew of Arab governments really take part in an international cover-up of this proportion? Only in Bodansky's brain.


The theory: Lest you think that only lunatics on the far ends of the political spectrum propagate these conspiracy theories, let's begin with comments by none other than Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell. In an interview with Current TV, Wilkerson alleged that the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack on the suburbs east of Damascus was in fact a "false flag" operation -- an operation carried out, in this case by Israel, under a false identity to discredit one's opponents.

Why it's crazy: Well, there's the minor issue of Wilkerson having no evidence what so ever to back up the claim beyond what he describes as the stupidity of the Netanyahu government. "I think we've got a basically geostrategically, geopolitical inept regime in Tel Aviv right now," Wilkerson said in the interview. (And before you ask: no, Israel's use of white phosphorous is not at all the same as an attack utilizing a nerve agent.)


The theory: Dialing back the craziness, another line of thinking -- "thinking" loosely defined, anyway -- holds that Obama didn't actually plan the strikes himself, but that he is framing the Syrians after the fact. The video below lays out that argument and purports to prove the claim by citing documents obtained from a little-known British contractor.

Why it's crazy: As far as conspiracy theories go, this one is pretty bad. The evidence presented -- emails allegedly obtained from Britam Defense by a hacker -- purports to show how the Qatari government was in fact behind the attack with the support of the United States and that the evidence has been covered up to pin the blame on Assad:

We've got a new offer. It's about Syria again. Qataris propose an attractive deal and swear that the idea is approved by Washington.
We'll have to deliver a CW to Homs, a Soviet origin g-shell from Libya similar to those that Assad should have.
They want us to deploy our Ukrainian personnel that should speak Russian and make a video record.
Frankly, I don't think it's a good idea but the sums proposed are enormous. Your opinion?

What does this prove? Perhaps that the Qatari government has gone completely nuts and is hatching some wild schemes, but the links to the U.S. government are completely unfounded. Then again, that's what makes for the best conspiracy theory.


The theory: Next up is the allegation that the chemical weapons attack was in fact the result of an accident after Saudi Arabia provided Syrian rebels with nerve agent. According to an article in MintPress News, Saudi intelligence chief Bandar bin Sultan funneled chemical weapons to fighters in Ghouta, just outside of Damascus. Those weapons were allegedly stored in underground tunnels, and after rebels who were unfamiliar with handling the weapons set off an explosion, the nerve gas dispersed, resulting in the deaths of over a thousand people.

Why it's crazy: That story makes for a good yarn but bears little relation to all the other available evidence. The chemically-laden rockets were launched from government-controlled territory into rebel-held lands. Western intelligence agencies intercepted phone calls from within the Assad regime panicking over the chemical attack's massive spread. Then the regime launched a series of conventional rocket barrages in an apparent attempt to cover up the crime. To believe the rebels pulled this off, you'd have to convince yourself that the opposition did all of this to themselves. Oh, did we mention that the Syrian military has hundreds of metric tons of precursors for chemical weapons?  


The theory: Conspiratorial thinking about chemical weapons use in Syria can also take on a more benign form, as in Truthout's allegations that U.S. officials have wildly distorted intelligence on the Aug. 21 attack. Truthout points out that it remains unclear who in the Syrian government ordered the attack. But if this is to be cited as the principal failure of U.S. intelligence efforts, it's certainly odd that administration spokespersons are acknowledging it freely. From there, Truthout's allegations take a turn for the morbid by casting doubt on claims chemical weapons were used by arguing that certain symptoms consistent with a nerve agent -- specifically mass vomiting and diarrhea -- appeared not to be present with the victims.

Why it's crazy: Though there is obviously a debate to had on the lethality of the chemical weapons used in Ghouta, there appears to be little doubt that nerve agents were deployed. None other than Doctors Without Borders, the medical charity whose hospitals treated many of the victims, said that victims' symptoms matched exposure to a nerve agent, and that's an assessment most independent experts agree agree with. In casting doubt on reports of chemical weapons usage, Truthout relies on the voluminous video record of the immediate aftermath of the attacks, when social media activists sped to the scene to document the carnage. But if it wasn't a chemical weapons attack that Syria's video journalists observed that day, why then did all but one of the media activists at one local coordiantion committee die after spending time filming at the site of the attack? 

So what conspiracy theories did we miss? Leave your favorites in the comments.



French Spies Provide New Details on Assad's Chemical Weapons Program

As Congress debates whether to authorize a military strike on Syria, the French government has released its declassified intelligence report on the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in the eastern Damascus suburbs.

France, the United States' only remaining potential partner for military intervention in Syria, agrees in broad strokes with the White House's view of the attack. Both governments present evidence that the Syrian regime launched chemical weapons on rebel-held neighborhoods, likely killing over 1,000 people. But in terms of its level of detail, the French report puts the U.S. intelligence assessment to shame.

While the American report focuses solely on the most recent attack, the French provide a comprehensive look at the nature of the Syrian chemical weapons program. The report includes a breakdown of the toxic agents that President Bashar al-Assad's regime is believed to have obtained: hundreds of tons of mustard gas, tens of tons of VX gas, and several hundred tons of sarin gas.

Assad's sarin stockpiles, which the United States says were used in the Aug. 21 attack, reveal a "technological mastery" of chemical weapons, according to the French. The sarin is stored in binary form -- the two chemical precursors necessary to make the gas are kept separate and are only mixed immediately before use. This technological sophistication may be a key point when U.N. investigators release their report on the Damascus attack: If they find that the toxic agent used in the attack was an advanced form of sarin -- containing chemical stabilizers and dispersal agents -- the weapon will most likely have come from Syrian regime stockpiles.

While U.S. officials have conceded that they don't know if Assad himself ordered the use of chemical weapons, the French assessment rebuts claims that the Aug. 21 attack could have been the work of a rogue officer. France traces Syria's chemical weapons program to "Branch 450" of the innocuously named Center of Scientific Studies and Research, which Israel bombed in May. Only Assad and top members of his regime, the report says, have authority to order the branch to employ its deadly weapons. Nor does the report give credence to the idea of a rogue element within Branch 450 itself: The unit, it says, is "composed solely of Alawite military personnel … [and] distinguished by a high level of loyalty to the regime."

Like the United States, the French relied on YouTube videos of the Aug. 21 attack for clues as to what occurred -- and even published six of the videos used in its analysis. The French were only able to confirm 281 casualties from the attack using open-source videos, far less than the 1,429 deaths that the U.S. assessment claims. However, the French report says that its modeling efforts, which attempt to project the full impact of the strike, are consistent with the higher death toll.

One of the biggest mysteries of this episode is why Assad would risk the ire of the United States by using chemical weapons. While some analyses suggested the rebels were making gains in Damascus, the conventional wisdom was that Assad was making military progress without the use of chemical weapons. The French report, however, suggests that Assad's position in the capital was weaker than had been supposed: "Our information confirms that the regime feared a large-scale opposition attack in Damascus," the assessment reads. The attack, it says, was intended to "secure strategic sites" that would allow Assad to control the capital, such as the Mezze military airport.

The French claim that Assad embarked on a massive coverup to conceal the use of chemical weapons after the Aug. 21 attack. The Syrian military launched ground and air strikes on the eastern Damascus suburbs and denied investigators access to the area in the days following the assault, the report says. It also accuses Syrian soldiers of starting fires to "purify the atmosphere" of toxic agents. Such actions, the French assessment states, "confirm a clear intention of destroying evidence."

The French report may not change anyone's basic understanding of the Aug. 21 attack. But for those of us who try to understand the scope of the Syrian chemical weapons program, how it is operated, and the regime's assessment of its own strength, it contains clues that will be useful long after the current debate ends.

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