Picking Cherries With George Monbiot.

George Monbiot continues to be wrong about the alleged Khan Sheikhoun sarin attack in April, but now he’s also telling us that some arguments can just be dismissed because the may be taken up by nasty people.

George Monbiot and the JIM cherry-pick which ‘competing’ narratives to consider, although they’re much heavier handed with it that in this picture from Wiki Commons (thanks).

If there’s one UK journalist that most of us thought could be relied upon to be able to read a report and identify any bullshit that the writers were trying to slip past you, it was George Monbiot. His steadfast and apparently disciplined responses to all sorts of climate-change denying dunderheads earned the respect of all of us. Some of us, however, have recently had to reassess our opinions in light of his response to what he sees as the atrocity denial of those who question the mainstream narrative of the events in and around Khan Sheikhoun, Syria, in April of this year.

I won’t repeat too much about this at the moment as I really want to cut to the chase, but for a bit more back ground I will simply point you to Professor Tim Hayward’s pair or blogs on the subject.


I’m writing this piece now though as Monbiot has returned to the fray with a piece sochoc-full of misleading cak and petty smears that I really couldn’t help myself. You can find the piece here:


I’ll run you through his arguments (such as they are) in full. As I’m doing this relelatively quickly you’ll have to refer to his original piece for his links.

So George, take it away…

What do we believe? This is the crucial democratic question. Without informed choice, democracy is meaningless. This is why dictators and billionaires invest so heavily in fake news. Our only defence is constant vigilance, rigour and scepticism. But when some of the world’s most famous crusaders against propaganda appear to give credence to conspiracy theories, you wonder where to turn.”

Quite so George — it’s just the teeny-tiny question of whose conspiracy you’re skepticising about. Let’s see…

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) last month published its investigation into the chemical weapons attack on the Syrian town of Khan Shaykhun, which killed almost 100 people on 4 April and injured around 200. After examining the competing theories and conducting wide-ranging interviews, laboratory tests and forensic analysis of videos and photos, it concluded that the atrocity was caused by a bomb filled with sarin, dropped by the government of Syria.”

All true, kind of. Strictly speaking the report was published by the ‘Joint Investigative Mechanism’ (JIM) rather than the OPCW per-se, but let’s not dwell on that at the moment. What the JIM conclude is “On the basis of the foregoing, the Leadership Panel is confident that the Syrian Arab Republic is responsible for the release of sarin at Khan Shaykhun on 4 April 2017.” [p10 of the JIM report] Please note you’ll see a number of different spellings of Khan Sheikhoun/Shaykun here — from now on I’ll refer to it as KS.

That they are confident is nice for them, but that statement falls a long way short of what a reasonable reader my consider to be certainty.

Monbiot’s statements are also missing quite a lot of important context. The JIM “examined eight possible scenarios regarding how the incident had occurred.”, but “On the basis of the information obtained,” two scenarios were further investigated: (a) sarin had been released through an aerial bomb; or (b) sarin had been released through the explosion of an improvised explosive device placed on the ground.” Confusingly though the JIM state in the very next sentence “A third scenario with two alternatives was also investigated, neither of which was found to be linked to the release of sarin.” [p9, 38]. As we’ll see, linguistic precision or clarity doesn’t appear to have been much of a concern for the JIM.

So we’ve no idea what were the other five scenarios that were ‘examined’ and ruled out without the benefit of any ‘investigation’ — as we’ll see Monbiot chooses only to rule out certain explanations too…

He continues…

There is nothing surprising about this. The Syrian government has a long history of chemical weapons use, and the OPCW’s conclusions concur with a wealth of witness testimony. But a major propaganda effort has sought to discredit such testimony, and characterise the atrocity as a “false-flag attack”.”

This is contentious. Monbiot links to a report from ‘Arms Control Association” (about whom I’m going to have to educate myself) so I won’t dwell on it here. His ‘wealth of interview testimony’ is supported by a link to a piece by a Guardian journalist, Kareen Shaheen, who attended the (let’s not forget terrorist-held and too-dangerous-for-the-OPCW) scene two days after the alleged attack. As far as I’m aware (and am happy to be corrected on this), the Guardian have offered no explanation as to how one of their journalists could have safely accessed the scene so quickly when the whole area was under the control of, and let’s not beat about the bush here, a bunch of murderous tossers.

Whatever arrangements, bribes or assurances were made to guarantee his safety, it’s worth taking a little time to look at this piece as it highlights one or two little problems with the ‘wealth’ of witness testimony upon which Monbiot’s and the JIM’s arguments heavily rely.

In the Guardian piece we read that “There was no evidence of any building being hit in recent days or weeks near where so many people were killed and wounded by a nerve agent. “, which is rather astonishing, given the dirty great big plumes of smoke seen in the videos that the JIM say that have forensically proven to have been taken on the morning of April 4th.

We read of “four bombings around the town” (when the JIM talk of two), we hear a White Helmet say “We could smell it from 500 metres away.” when sarin is odourless. We read of a local who rushed to the scene from ‘nearby’ to see people dying in large numbers, but who remained unaffected,

Most notably, for the first time we’re introduced to Abdulhamid al-Yousef, a prominent victim who tells us he lost many members of his family (including his twins and beloved wife) and who went on to be covered by media outlets across the globe (and who has, it seems, given a different account of events to each of them).

Shaheen could perhaps be forgiven at the time for not knowing that Al-Yousef was a member of an armed militia, or that he would subsequently be completely unable to provide any photographic evidence at all of him with his beloved wife.

Seee here for a few of his stories:


Oh, and we find that none of Shaheen’s witnesses, not a single one, thought it might be worth taking a photo of any of this apparent chaos. Not one of the White Helmets, with all their western funded media know-how thought to pick up a camera when they picked up their masks.

Anyway, if you’re after more evidence on the contradictory nature of the ‘wealth of witness’ evidence elsewhere take a look at my piece on HRW’s preposterous ‘Death By Chemicals’ report that I wrote a while ago, partly in response to some of Monbiot’s commentary on the KS incident and which I have been asking Monbiot to read ever since.


And for a summary of the obvious codswallop HRW thought they could get away with read this one:


Monbiot gives us a little context, albeit some which is strangely missing certain facts:

This effort began with an article published on the website Al-Masdar news, run by the Syrian government loyalist Leith Abou Fadel. It suggested that either the attack had been staged by “terrorist forces”, or chemicals stored in a missile factory had inadvertently been released when the Syrian government bombed it.”

This is true, as far as it goes, the piece was reporting on the facts as they were known at the time and the rush to assign blame from various sources (including the Israeli PM and Amnesty International).

Monbiot then tosses in a little more guilt-by-association into the mix and distorts the facts while doing so…

The story was then embellished on Infowars — the notorious far-right conspiracy forum. The Infowars article claimed that the attack was staged by the Syrian first responder group, the White Helmets. This is a reiteration of a repeatedly discredited conspiracy theory, casting these rescuers in the role of perpetrators. It suggested that the victims were people who had been kidnapped by al-Qaida from a nearby city, brought to Khan Shaykhun and murdered, perhaps with the help of the UK and French governments, “to lay blame on the Syrian government”.

As a matter of fact, it was not, as Monbiot states, the dastardly InfoWars who introduced the kidnapping of local civilians by way of ‘embellishment’ — this fact was already present in the piece he linked to in the previous paragraph.

That erroneously informing us that the matter was an embelishment of Infowars is convenient for Monbiot’s argument here, as he can simply bin it as a right-wing conspiracy theory and his Guardian readership will likely do so too. However, it was not only uber-loons like Jones who were interested in this theory and to suggest otherwise is self-serving bullshit. I’ll return to this matter later.

Monbiot does not offer any other evidence against the accusations here, other than they were from a “far-right conspiracy forum”. He does say that critical views of the White Helmets have been repeatedly discredited, but as he offers no supporting links to any of these, it’s hard to counter them directly. In the absence of any such evidence at this point, I’ll just say that that’s bollocks and get on with his piece which he continues with a little more guilt by association smeariness, which I’ll include here now in full, before commenting:

The author of this article was Mimi Al-Laham, also known as Maram Susli, PartisanGirl, Syrian Girl and Syrian Sister. She is a loyalist of the Assad government who has appeared on podcasts hosted by David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. She has another role: as an “expert” used by a retired professor from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology called Theodore Postol. He has produced a wide range of claims casting doubt on the Syrian government’s complicity in chemical weapons attacks.

“In correspondence with the chemical weapons expert Dan Kaszeta, Postol revealed that the “solid scientific source” he used to support his theory about the origin of sarin used in Syria was “Syrian Sister”. When Postol and Susli both appeared on a podcast run by the Holocaust “revisionist” Ryan Dawson, Postol explained why he had chosen to work with her: “I was watching her on Twitter. I could see from her voice … that she was a trained chemist.” First, Postol claimed that the crater from which the sarin in Khan Shaykhun had emanated was most probably caused not by a bomb dropped from the air but by an explosive device laid on the ground (a hypothesis examined and thoroughly debunked by the OPCW report). Then he claimed that there was “no evidence to support” the notion that sarin had been released from the air, and proposed there was strong evidence to suggest that the mass poisoning had been caused by a bomb that hit a rebel weapons depot.”

“He further claimed that a French intelligence report contradicted the story that sarin had been dropped from a plane, as it suggested that sarin had been dropped by helicopters in a different place. (In reality, he had confused the attack in April 2017 with one in April 2013). Each of these contradictory hypotheses was patiently explored and demolished at the time by bloggers and analysts.”

I don’t want to get into Postol’s work here other than to state that in my opinion neither of the pieces Monbiot links to as discreditying Postol do a very good job of it (they tend to follow the Bellingcational line of hammering away at one or two aspects where they can question his knowledge, but ignore points he makes where his expertise really lies). FWIW I think Postol initially got a bit ahead of himself in his reactions to what was apparent to him was (and indeed to many of us still is) a ludicrously transparent yarn being spun.

What I do want to address is Monbiot’s assertion that his (and the Syrian government’s view) of a ground based-explosion rather than air-dropped bomb, had been “thoroughly debunked” by the JIM. Bear with me here — it’s a little complicated and i urge you all to read the relevant section in the JIM report (the final one, not the draft) — you can find it from page 27. You can even download these things on your phones these days.

A close reading of the JIM report shows it’s actually rather equivocal on this matter and, I’d argue, more than a little slippery.

The JIM report states grandly “The Mechanism obtained expert analysis of the characteristics of the crater from three independent, internationally recognized institutes with specialization in the areas of forensics, defence and security, as well as by two individual independent experts in energetic materials.” [p27, para 48]

The JIM note that one of this institutions “noted that the site appeared to have been disturbed after impact.”, but it had found “indications that the ground had been hit by a substantially heavy object that had travelled at high velocity.” These ‘indications’ were not conclusive however, as the institution “could not rule out the idea that the crater had been caused by other means, it stated that indications of the detonation of a high explosive on the ground were not visible.” (p2 7, 49]

A second institution stated “the damage was consistent with that of an impact from an unguided aerial bomb, possibly containing a small bursting charge.” They based their conclusion on the lack of evidence of a blast around the crater. This institution also said that a ground launched munition was not responsible as no remnants of such a device were found in or around the crater. [p27, 50]

The JIM then apparently forgot that they asked three research institutions and simply move on to their evidence from their anonymous experts.

The JIM offer more space to evidence from one expert in particular, who was much more specific [p27, 51 to p28, 53]. S/he concluded “the munition most likely to have caused the crater was a relatively large bomb with a mass of 300 to 450 kg. The shape of the crater, which was relatively circular, indicated that the bomb had been dropped from a medium or high altitude, of between approximately 4,000 and 10,000 m.”

The JIM conclude their evidence by noting “The experts agreed that the crater was unlikely to have been caused by high explosives, as there were too few visible signs of damage caused by fragmentation…The expert analysis found that the characteristics of the crater were consistent with the impact of a heavy object travelling at high velocity, probably with a liquid fill.” Note how here they switch from ‘experts’ to ‘the expert analysis’ — which could mean that they are simply referring again to the evidence of just one of their two anonymous experts. The views of the second expert are also not mentioned in their own right.

The JIM conclude “on the basis of the foregoing, the characteristics of the crater are more likely to have been caused by an aerial bomb with a small explosive charge, and that it probably contained liquid.”

Later in the report, following a short ‘hand-wavey’ discussion of the munitions the JIM return to this topic by asking the ask all three institution s whether the crater could have been caused by an IED placed “on the ground”. [p29, 61] In a piece of linguistic slipperyness that will be familiar to anyone who has read HRW’s ‘Death By Chemicals’ Report, they immediately follow this with a statement assuring us that all the institution and experts agree that it was not caused by a device placed (my emphasis) “UNDERground” [p.28, 60].

In the next paragraph, when they actually consider a device placed on the surface we are told “The experts generally ruled out that possibility, because such an explosion would have caused much more damage to the surroundings than what had been observed.” This is all rather equivocal — did ALL the institution and experts rule this out? One reading suggests that it is only one of the experts (no institutions) who has done so. Why are they choosing to be so imprecise here? Don’t they know how important all this shit is? Perhaps they do.

There also appears to have been some collaboration here — at least between the experts. We’re told that ‘One expert’ noticed the lack of damage to a metal box {p27, 51] and later that “The experts agreed” that this was indicative of something. [p28, 51]. This may not be best practice if one is looking for independent assessments.

So let’s be clear as to exactly what evidence the JIM have provided:

1. That one unnamed institute suggests the site has been tampered with.

2. That that institution reported ‘indications’ of one possible causation, but could not rule out that others may have caused the crater.

3. That a second institution said that the crater was ‘consistent’ with an air-dropped bomb, but do not specifically address the possibility of a ground-detonated device.

4. The evidence from the third research establishment is not mentioned at all — what did they conclude I wonder?

5. Just one of the experts offers anything like a comprehensive rebuttal of the Syrian government’s or Postol’s position.

6. The ‘experts’ only “generally rule out “the possibility of a surface based device.

Which doesn’t come anywhere a consistent story and so certainly does not amount to a ‘thorough debunking ‘at all. Once again, I urge you all to read the JIM documents yourselves (especially Annex |I) and ask youself why they can’t just provide the answers each institution and expert gave to some simple questions. There really is no reason for it to be so vague and imprecise in its language.

Back to Monbiot then, who now proudly reminds us of his colleagues favoured access to Al Nuzra held areas, noting in doing so that Shaheen’s reports are necessarily never going to be corroborated…

The Guardian visited Khan Shaykhun(also known as Khan Sheikhun) in the aftermath of the attack — the only news organisation in the world to do so. It established that there had been no weapons depot near the scene of the contamination. Surrounding warehouses were abandoned. Birdseed and a volleyball net were all that existed inside. None had been attacked in recent months. The contamination came from a hole in the road from where the remains of a projectile protruded.”

Which again begs the question what was or wasn’t blown-up by the bombs that allegedly caused the huge plumes of smoke shown in the JIM’s videos. He’s also rather putting the cart before the horse here — how does he, or Shaheen know the area of contamination or for that matter, whether the area was contaminated at all? The JIM and the OPCW fact finding mission certainly don’t make any such assertions about such an area. Untroubled by this Monbiot continues, by introducing another possible Assad stooge…

But eight days after the Khan Shaykhun attack John Pilger, famous for exposing propaganda and lies, was interviewed on the website Consortium News. He praised Postol as “the distinguished MIT professor”, suggested that the Syrian government could not have carried out the attack — as he claimed it had destroyed its chemical arsenal in 2014 — and maintained that jihadists in Khan Shaykhun “have been playing with nerve gases and sarin … for some years now. There’s no doubt about that.” Despite many claims to the contrary, I have found no credible evidence that Syrian jihadists have access to sarin.”

Pilger can anser for himself, but I would add that there is also no evidence whatsoever that this alleged attack was caused by any of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile. The evidence produced by the JIM is that the samples taken were likely made with precursors from government sources.

As an aside, I’m sure it was only space requirements that stopped Monbiot mentioning how well respected Consortium News is, and it’s editor Robert Parry in particular. No ‘far-right’ conspiracists there.

Still Monbiot goes on…

“On 26 April Noam Chomsky, interviewed on Democracy Now, claimed that Postol, whom Chomsky called “a highly regarded strategic analyst and intelligence analyst”, had produced a “pretty devastating critique” of a White House report that maintained the Syrian government was responsible. Although Chomsky accepted that a chemical attack had taken place and said it was plausible that the Syrian government could have carried it out, this interview helped trigger a frenzy of online commentary endorsing Postol’s hypotheses and dismissing the possibility that the Assad government could have been responsible. The atmosphere became toxic: when I challenged Postol’s claims, people accused me of being an Isis sympathiser, a paedophile being blackmailed by the government, and a Mossad agent. But the madness had only just begun.”

I’m sorry to hear that people called George nasty names, but I’m not entirely sure what that’s got to do with Chomsky’s noting of Postols criticism of what was a rather pisspoor post-hoc justification from the White House. I’d also note that Monbiot has been happy to fling around accusations of being akin to climate change deniers and 9/11 truethers at plenty of people questioning his judgment on this mattern Granted it’s not quite a toxic as being called a paedophile, but it certainly doesn’t raise the tone.

Monbiot then moves on to tell us what the madness was that had just begun. It turns out to be another problematic criticism of the mainstream narrative:

In June the investigative journalist Seymour Hersh published an article in the German paper Die Welt, based on information from a “senior adviser to the US intelligence community” who maintained that there had been no sarin strike on Khan Shaykhun. Instead, a meeting of jihadist leaders in “a two-storey cinder-block building” had been bombed by the Syrian air force with the support of the Russians and with Washington’s full knowledge. Fertilisers and disinfectants in the basement, Hersh claimed, could have caused the mass poisoning. (Again, this possibility was examined and discredited by the OPCW).”

“So which building was he talking about? I asked Hersh to give me its coordinates: the most basic evidence you would expect to support a claim of this nature. The Terraserver website provides satellite imagery that makes it possible to check for any changes to the buildings in Khan Shaykhun, from one day to the next. But when I challenged him to provide them, first he sent me links to claims made by Postol, then he told me that the images are not sufficiently “precise and reliable”. As every building is clearly visible, I find this claim is hard to understand.”

Again, I’m not here to support Hersh or his story — for what it’s worth, I think it’s false for all the reasons Monbiot states. Who knows what the motives were of Hersh’s anonymous source with his story? It could have been to discredit Hersh and, by extension, his very much better substantiated criticisms of the 2013 Ghoutta ‘red-line’ incident). But it’s another alternate theory dealt with to Monbiot’s satisfaction.

Monbiot then starts his conclusion with a paragraph whose conclusions can be either correct or bogus depending on the interpretation of just one short phrase. Can you spot which one?

Scepticism of all official claims is essential, especially when they involve weapons of mass destruction, and especially when they are used as a pretext for military action — in this case Tomahawk missiles fired on the orders of Donald Trump from a US destroyer on 7 April. We know from Iraq not to take any such claims on trust. But I also believe there is a difference between scepticism and denial. While in the fog of war, there will always be some doubt, as the OPCW’s report acknowledges, there is no evidence to support the competing theories of what happened at Khan Shaykhun. Propaganda by one side does not justify propaganda by another.”

In case you missed it, the phrase I’m talking about is “there is no evidence to support the competing theories of what happened at Khan Shaykhun.” By Monbiot’s reasoning the ‘competing theories’ are only those that challenge the mainstream view. To say that there is no evidence for any of these, let’s call them ‘alternative’ theories, is simply false (I will return to this in an upcoming blog).

However, if you take the statement to include the air-dropped bomb theory to be one in the competing bunch then the statement is actually a much fairer reflection of the facts as they stand — even by the standards of those that the JIM deign to include in their very partial report.

[For further reading on how to choose between ‘competing theores’ I strongly urge you all to read Professor Paul McKeigue’s magnificent blogs, the first of which can be found here. (George Monbiot should have been aware of them by now):

https://timhayward.wordpress.com/2017/08/11/how-to-weigh-a-mountain-of-theirevidence-guest-blog-by-professor-paul-mckeigue-part-1/ ]

Monbiot finishes, by telling us all how important all this is, and what we can expect if we don’t tow the company line in this case..…

“In Vox earlier this month, the writer David Roberts suggested that America is facing “an epistemic crisis” caused by the conservative rejection of all forms of expertise and knowledge. Politics in the US and elsewhere is now dominated by wild conspiracy theories and paranoia — the narrative platform from which fascism arises. This, as Roberts proposes, presents an urgent threat to democracy. If the scourges of establishment propaganda promote, even unwittingly, groundless stories developed by the “alt right”, we are in deeper trouble than he suggests.

This, for all sorts of reasons, is bollocks.

As we’ve seen Monbiot, just like the JIM and Bellingcat before him, have NOT tested the competing theories — they have selectively chosen just a (suspiciously overlapping) few and called an end to it. They have decided that any accounts which have at any stage been taken-up by right-wing bellends can be dismissed for that reason alone. This is monstrously insulting to the many decent people who have spent much time and effort properly researching this matter. I’ll be blogging about them shortly, but in the meantime, on their behalf, I’d like to tell George Monbiot that he can take his truther, conspiracy-theorist and useful idiot smears and shove them up his arse.