Seymour Hersh, Eliot Higgins and Assad’s Nun Spin a Story


 Over the weekend, Seymour Hersh published an article in the London Review of Books claiming that the Obama administration got it wrong regarding the August 21 chemical weapons attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. It wasn’t Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s forces that launched the attack. Rather, it was the Syrian rebels who did it, in particular an al Qaeda affiliated group, Jabhat al-Nusra.

Assad_BasharII_small Seymour Hersh, Eliot Higgins and Assad’s Nun Spin a Story

Eliot Higgins, writing in, dismantled Hersh’s piece, using video evidence to show that the chemical weapons attack was almost certainly conducted by Assad forces. Higgins, author of the Brown Moses blog that covers the ongoing Syrian conflict, quotes a chemical weapons specialist who applies “a simple logic test” to Hersh’s thesis. “Who is more likely to have done the deed? The regime, which has confessed to CW [chemical weapon] production facilities and has declared a stockpile of precursors that match the Aug. 21 chemistry very well? Or persons unknown, with their alleged mystery factory, with no actual location, no trace of either supply chain or waste stream, no known employees, and far better things to do with the required amount of money?”

Higgins’s meticulous reporting merits praise, but the fact is that the thrust of Hersh’s article is absurd on the face of it. According to the New Yorker’s Pulitzer-winning reporter, the White House was cooking intelligence because Obama wanted a war with Syria. That is, a president who repeatedly ignored the red line he’d drawn over Assad’s use of chemical weapons, who after deciding to strike Syria sought a congressional authorization for the use of force that he knew he was almost surely not going to get, who was saved from embarrassment, and from striking Syria, with the Russian initiative to rid Assad of his unconventional arsenal, and who was in secret negotiations with Syria’s ally Iran, actually wanted nothing more than a pretext to bomb Assad. It’s a story only the Assad regime could love.

It’s hardly news that Hersh has served as a reliable sounding board for the Syrian regime and Assad for more than a decade. One of his regular sources on Syria and Lebanon, Assad ally and former Lebanese minister of information Michel Samaha was listed last December by the State Department as a specially designated global terrorist. At the time, Samaha was under arrest in Lebanon where he was charged with plotting terrorist attacks on Syrian orders, including a planned assassination attempt against a Christian cleric that was to be blamed on Sunni jihadis. It’s noteworthy that at least since America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Assad regime’s public messaging campaign has been consistent—we’re not the problem, it has told both the Bush and Obama administrations, al Qaeda and other Sunni extremist groups are the problem, for both you and for us, an Alawite regime.

Hersh’s London Review article comports with the regime’s propaganda campaign and is consistent with his reporting on Syria and Lebanon, which is regularly informed by Assad allies at the expense of parties, especially from the Sunni community, opposed to Assad, Hezbollah and Iran.

Hersh’s most infamous effort in this vein was his March 2007 New Yorker article, “The Redirection,” in which he accused the Bush administration, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanese Sunni figures of backing al Qaeda as a countermeasure to Iranian influence. As Lebanese journalist Michael Young explained at the time, Hersh lacked a basic grasp of facts. The Islamist group, Fatah al-Islam, that Hersh claimed Dick Cheney, Elliott Abrams, Prince Bandar bin Sultan and Saad Hariri funded and armed was in fact a function of Syrian intelligence services. Fatah al-Islam was created not to push back against Hezbollah, as Hersh’s source claimed, but to destabilize Lebanon, led at the time by an anti-Assad government.

And indeed, just two months after publication of Hersh’s article, Fatah al-Islam was in open rebellion against the Beirut government. The Lebanese Armed Forces were dispatched to a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon, Nahr al-Bared, to put down Fatah al-Islam in a conflict that lasted nearly four months and cost the lives of 168 Lebanese soldiers.

Hersh’s article, as Tony Badran wrote at the time, was part of the Syrian regime’s disinformation campaign. Hersh’s piece, explained Badran, a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, “foreshadowed Syria’s plan to destabilize Lebanon through Fateh al-Islam months before the fighting broke out.”

Moreover, Badran wrote in another post, Syria’s and Hezbollah’s propaganda not only fed Hersh the fake story obscuring their role and blaming Fatah al-Islam on their opponents, but also recycled it in their own media during the course of the fighting at Nahr al-Bared. That is, the Assad regime and its allies used Hersh to launder their own propaganda.

Hersh, Badran wrote me in an email, “has a history of winding up in the middle of Assad regime information operations. These campaigns have various functions. For instance, they can set up regime-supported kinetic operations, as was the case with the Nahr al-Bared conflict. Alternately,” says Badran, “these campaigns may serve to support regime public relations efforts. Thus, they often coincide with Assad’s attempts to open channels with Washington, positioning himself as an indispensable partner against Sunni Islamism, which he stresses is America’s ‘true’ enemy.”

And it’s in this context that Hersh’s most recent article should be read.

As BuzzFeed reports, a Catholic nun allied with the Assad regime is in Washington. Mother Superior Agnes Mariam de la Croix, a 61-year-old Lebanese-born nun, is here to visit with Republican lawmakers, like Louis Gohmert and Frank Wolf (Ted Cruz canceled on account of Nelson Mandela’s funeral), to convince them that the real problem is not the Assad regime, but Sunni jihadists, who threaten Syria’s Christian community. Michael Weiss at NOW Lebanon has done an excellent job documenting the evil that Assad’s nun has done in Syria, from her involvement in the death of French journalist Gilles Jacquier to her role in the arrests of opposition members she was ostensibly helping to evacuate from regime-besieged areas.

Not surprisingly, Mother Agnes is among those skeptical it was Assad forces that used chemical weapons against its own citizens. In September she told the New York Times that, “she refused to say who she thought had made the videos she called fakes, or who she thought had carried out the attacks.” But she’s glad Seymour Hersh is naming names.

“I praise, I thank Mr. Hersh to be courageous,” Mother Agnes told BuzzFeed’s Rosie Gray, “to be audacious, to be full of honesty, to be able because he is free and he is powerful, he is a reference so he can speak without fear what maybe others cannot. He confirms our doubts,” she continued. “He does not answer all our doubts but he lifts the omerta that was imposed by all the mainstream media that since the beginning of the conflict are always aligned with the politically correct, and not really making a breakthrough to inform the people and at least stay neutral and stay really like the echo of the reality and not the echo of what the politicians want to impose.”

It’s unclear whether Hersh understands the part his most recent article is playing in the Assad regime’s propaganda campaign and Mother Agnes’s six-week speaking tour. Nor is it clear he has ever known that Assad and his allies have used him to advance their story-line. The fact that Hersh believed a story about an Obama gung-ho to bomb Assad would appear credible to anyone who does not sport a tin-foil hat suggests that the political instincts of this investigative reporter are limited. Still, regardless of whether or not he is aware of the dangerous and vicious role he’s played, a decade’s worth of reporting from the Levant is evidence that Hersh is more than simply a dupe for terrorists and their allies—he’s a willing participant in their narrative.