Hamish de Bretton Gordon is currently Chief Operating Officer of SecureBio Ltd.
According to his blurb on the website MilitarySpeakers.co.uk, he was previously ‘Commanding Officer of the UK CBRN Regiment and NATO’s Rapid Reaction CBRN Battalion’, whose ‘operational deployments have included 1st Gulf War, Cyprus, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan’.
The Guardian have today published an article of his calling for a ‘limited no-fly zone’ over northern Syria, in response to alleged chemical weapon attacks being carried out by the Syrian regime.
I just want to take a quick look at some of the specific claims made by de Bretton Gordon, and the conclusion he draws from them. So here goes.
De Bretton Gordon opens by saying that:
Chemical weapons first appeared in the Syrian conflict at Sheikh Maqsoud in March 2013
Here, de Bretton Gordon links to a BBC article from September 2013. The article states that ‘UN chemical weapons inspectors are expected to return to Syria on Wednesday’, and that they would ‘investigate alleged chemical weapons attacks at Khan al-Assal, Sheikh Maqsoud and Saraqeb’.
But nowhere does the article actually say that chemical weapons were deployed in Sheik Maqsoud – the word ‘alleged’ is clearly used – let alone specify who was responsible for their use. So the article simply doesn’t back up the claim that de Bretton Gordon is making.
And indeed, the final report of the U.N. team who investigated the alleged attack in Sheik Maqsoud, released in December 2013, concluded that:
In the absence of any further information and with no prospect of finding further information, the United Nations Mission was, therefore, unable to finalize the investigation of this allegation and to draw any conclusions pertaining to this alleged incident.
https://unoda-web.s3.amazonaws.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/report.pdf – p.79
So their conclusion was that they couldn’t draw any firm conclusions, and the ‘incident’ remained merely ‘alleged’.
In the next paragraph, de Bretton Gordon then claims that:
Samples from Sheikh Maqsoud and Saraqeb in May 2013 did eventually find their way to French and UK government laboratories and tested positive for the nerve agent sarin, with David Cameron saying as much in the summer of 2013.
Again he links to an article from the BBC, published in September 2013, to back his claim up. But nowhere in the article is ‘Sheik Maqsoud’, or any variation thereof, even mentioned.
Indeed, it’s clear from the opening sentence – ‘The UK has fresh evidence of the use of chemical weapons in Damascus‘ – that the article is talking about the attack in Ghouta on August 21st, and not the ‘alleged’ attack in Sheik Maqsoud.
Nor does David Cameron speak about the alleged attack in Sheik Maqsoud in the video interview that is embedded in the article, let alone say that samples from the town had tested positive for Sarin. He doesn’t even say anything that could be interpreted as suggesting that. It simply isn’t a subject that comes up in the interview.
So de Bretton’s use of sources here is sloppy at best, and downright dishonest at worst. None of the material he links to even comes close to establishing that there was a chemical weapon attack in Sheik Maqsoud in March 2013, and the U.N. themselves later said they were unable to come to any firm conclusions about it.
Perhaps de Bretton Gordon was simply assuming that people wouldn’t check the articles he has linked to, but anyone who does will see for themselves that they don’t support his assertion.
de Bretton Gordon then moves onto the attacks in Ghouta themselves, and states that:
A major chemical attack occurred at Ghouta in Damascus on 21 August 2013, when 1,000kg of sarin were dropped, killing up to 1,500 people, mainly women and children. Many believe that Assad was on the point of defeat after fighting the rebels there for 18 months, and that he used chemical weapons as a last-ditch measure.
It’s true that ‘many believe’ the Assad regime was responsible for this attack. But it’s also true that many believe elements of it remain contested.
The Pulitzer prize winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, for example, has written a couple of articles alleging that some people within the U.S. Intelligence community believe that the attack was a rebel provocation, designed to elicit an international military response against the Assad regime.
Hersh’s claims are backed up by other credible reports. On August 29th 2013, the Associated Press published an article reporting, among others things, that:
U.S. intelligence officials are not so certain that the suspected chemical attack was carried out on Assad’s orders. Some have even talked about the possibility that rebels could have carried out the attack in a callous and calculated attempt to draw the West into the war.
A report by the Office of the Director for National Intelligence outlining that evidence against Syria includes a few key caveats – including acknowledging that the U.S. intelligence community no longer has the certainty it did six months ago of where the regime’s chemical weapons are stored, nor does it have proof Assad ordered chemical weapons use, according to two intelligence officials and two more U.S. officials.
To be clear, neither Hersh nor the Associated Press report are saying that a rebel faction or factions carried out the attack.
Just that this was being considered as a possibility by U.S. Intelligence, at a time when – publically at least – the Obama administration and its closest allies were saying that the attacks could only have been the work of the Assad regime. Essentially, and as with the run up to the invasion of Iraq, they misrepresented the raw intelligence to try and create a casus belli for war.
Senior U.N. Officials like Carla De Ponte and Lakhdar Brahimi have also suggested rebel culpability for at least some of the chemical weapon attacks in Syria.
Nowhere does de Bretton Gordon even acknowledge any of this.
He does, however, go on to lament the fact that the U.S. et al didn’t go through with their plans to bomb Syria in September 2013, apparently believing that such a bombing campaign might’ve facilitated the fall of the Assad regime, and stopped ISIS in their tracks.
Although how that would’ve worked, he doesn’t explain. And it sounds like magical thinking to me, quite frankly, with the strategy being along the lines of:
1. Bomb Syria.
3. Assad falls and ISIS are defeated.
And it’s the kind of magical thinking – that Western bombs are some kind of panacea – that has left Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan in varying states of civil war and disintegration.
De Bretton Gordon then writes that:
After Ghouta and the removal of the regime’s declared stockpile by the OPCW, it used chemical weapons again in Talmenes and Kafr Zita in April 2014.
Once again, the article de Bretton Gordon links to to back his claim up doesn’t say what he suggests it does. The article, published in April 2014, reports that the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is to ‘investigate fresh claims that a less dangerous – but still lethal – chlorine gas has been used in recent attacks on opposition areas’.
It doesn’t actually say they have been used, let alone who by. And once again, neither Talmenes nor Kafr Zita are even mentioned in the main body of the article.
To be fair to de Bretton Gordon, a later report by the OPCW, released in December 2014, did conclude ‘with a high degree of confidence that chlorine has been used as a weapon’ in Talmenes and Kafr Zita (why he didn’t just link to the *actual OPCW report*, I don’t know).
But in the very next sentence, the report then states:
The work of the Mission has remained consistent with its mandate, which did not include the question of attributing responsibility for the alleged use.
So the report, unlike de Bretton Gordon, doesn’t blame the regime (or anyone else for that matter) for these attacks.
Those who do allege regime responsibility are arguing that, because these chlorine bombs were reported to have been dropped from helicopters, and only the regime has access to helicopters, then only the regime could have been responsible. And it’s a plausible and credible theory, on the surface of it (although are helicopters really that difficult to come by?).
But that’s all it is at the moment: a theory, and not the cast iron certainty that de Bretton Gordon presents it as.
The article then moves onto de Bretton Gordon’s solution for stopping the ‘alleged use’ (the OPCW’s phrase, rather than mine) of chlorine bombs in Syria:
A limited no-fly zone over Idlib province, just for helicopters, which deliver the barrel bombs, would be of great help. There is no IS activity in this area, so the regime could not claim it would affect the battle against them, a fact which could convince Russians to abstain rather than veto the proposal. And in military terms, with the coalition command and control structure in place over Syria and Iraq to prosecute the air campaign against IS, this limited no-fly zone should be achievable.
First at all, while ISIS themselves may not have much of a presence in Idlib province, Jabhat al-Nusra – which is the official ‘Al Qaeda’ franchise in Syria – most certainly do.
It was Jabhat-al Nusra, working with U.S. armed ‘moderate’ rebel groups, who recently captured the city of Jisr al Shugur, according to a report from McClatchy.
My main bone of contention with de Bretton Gordon’s proposal isn’t that it could ‘inadvertently’ benefit ‘Al Qaeda’, though.
Even if we take it as a given that the regime is indeed launching these chlorine attacks, the attacks are only responsible for a very small number of the deaths occurring in Syria. I mean, don’t get me wrong. One is still far too many, but a ‘no-fly zone’ limited to helicopters flying over Idlib isn’t going to make a great deal of difference in terms of saving lives.
What it may well do though – and what it may well be designed to do – is set a precedent for the enforcement of a ‘no-fly zone’ within Syria. It starts with helicopters in Idlib province, and then there are calls for it to be broadened to all aircraft over all of northern Syria. And then beyond. Perhaps to be accompanied by a ‘buffer zone/safe zone’ on the ground.
This is the plan that Turkey inparticular have long been pushing hard for, and it’s one that the U.S. State Department is said to have ‘largely endorsed’.
And far from it being a measure designed to protect civilians from the depredations of the regime, it is actually a measure designed – as Turkish officials admit in private – to create ‘a place where moderate rebels would be trained to fight Mr. Assad’s government; in other words, a fledgling rebel state’.
That would likely entail an escalation of the war, the further fracturing of Syria as a coherent political entity, and by extension a deepening of the humanitarian crisis.
It would also entail the potential take over of large parts of Syria by groups who have been armed and trained by – are in hoc to, basically – some of the most vicious, reactionary and anti-democratic states in the region. Which, if the ultimate objective in Syria is political freedom, justice and self-determination, doesn’t bode well at all.
So, based on a series of real or alleged chemical weapon attacks, for none of which culpability has been determined conclusively, de Bretton Gordon is proposing a measure whose major utility – in my opinion – would be as a trojan horse via which certain reactionary regional and global powers can make their formal entry into northern Syria, and perhaps beyond.
And I don’t think anyone should be naive about their intentions, nor the ramifications if they get their way.