Saudi Arabia’s shadowy role in the Ghouta chemical attack

William Van Wagenen, The Cradle, October 6, 2023 —

There is now substantial evidence that Saudi intelligence conducted false flag chemical attacks in Syria, with the goal of triggering a US military intervention that would lead to regime change.

On 13 September, acclaimed US investigative journalist Seymour Hersh revealed a crucial five-page memo prepared for the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) on 20 June, 2013. This document contained details about the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front’s plan to manufacture sarin nerve gas with the aim of executing a chemical attack within Syria.

The memo adds to the mounting evidence pointing toward Saudi intelligence’s involvement in orchestrating a false flag chemical attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta two months later, on 21 August 2013.

The attack resulted in the tragic deaths of hundreds of civilians and nearly triggered a western military intervention in support of Islamist militant factions aiming to overthrow the Syrian government.

Nusra’s sarin procurement

The DIA memo, which provides details obtained by US National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance, states that in April and May that year, “several Turkey and Saudi-based chemical facilitators” working for the Nusra Front “were attempting to obtain sarin precursors in bulk, tens of kilograms, likely for the anticipated large-scale production effort in Syria.”

Notably, the memo identifies three Nusra operatives — Abd al-Ghani, Kifah Ibrahim, and Adil Mahmud — who planned to perfect “a process for making sarin, then go to Syria to train others to begin large scale production at an unidentified lab in Syria.” Ibrahim and Mahmud were both captured in Iraq in May 2013, according to the memo.

The revelation that the NSA had identified Nusra operatives seeking sarin precursors in Saudi Arabia suggests that Saudi intelligence, then under the leadership of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, would also have been aware of these activities.

This implies that Riyadh might have either actively facilitated Nusra in obtaining sarin precursors or chose not to interfere, allowing these plans to progress unimpeded.

The memo further states that:

“The Syria-based part of this effort [to produce sarin] may have begun as early as late 2012. Abu Muhammad al-Hamawi, the [Nusra Front] emir for Hamah, was attempting to obtain phosphorous trichloride, a key sarin precursor, in December 2012. We cannot definitively connect this to the sarin cell, but it could very well be linked.”

Saudi’s ‘southern strategy’

According to US-based, regime-change advocate Charles Lister and Swedish journalist Aron Lund, Abu Muhammad al-Hamawi is also known as Sheikh Saleh al-Hamawi, a Syrian from the town of Halfaya in Hama. He was one of six founders of the Nusra Front and a recipient of Saudi support.

The timeframe in December 2012, when Hamawi was purportedly seeking sarin precursors, coincides with the period when Prince Bandar bin Sultan — the well-connected former Saudi ambassador to Washington — oversaw the implementation of Saudi intelligence’s “southern strategy” to shift the focus of the conflict towards Damascus.

Bandar had assumed the position of director of Saudi intelligence in mid-2012 and established an operations center in Jordan to covertly direct efforts against the Syrian government. He came into his role with guns blazing: on July 18, armed elements turned their sights to the capital city, beginning with the Damascus bombing of Syria’s National Security headquarters, which killed key officials in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle.

The New York Times reported that in November 2012, a “cataract of weapons” procured by Saudi intelligence began flowing from Jordan into Syria. While the weapons were publicly presented as going to so-called “moderates” in the Free Syrian Army (FSA), US officials acknowledged that many of them ended up in the hands of “hard-line Islamic Jihadists.”

In February 2013, the Washington Post interviewed Hamawi, identifying him as an FSA rather than a Nusra commander (the FSA and Nusra collaborated closely and, in many cases, were indistinguishable).

Hamawi suggested his units had received weapons shipments in previous weeks from Saudi Arabia as part of Bandar’s southern strategy while stating that “Deraa and Damascus are the key fronts on the revolution, and Damascus is where it is going to end.”

According to a leaked NSA document, Prince Bandar’s subordinate, National Security Council deputy chief Prince Salman bin Sultan, provided 120 tons of explosives and other weaponry to opposition forces, giving them direct instructions to “light up Damascus” and “flatten” the airport in March 2013.

Regiment 111

In December 2012, several jihadist groups spearheaded by the Nusra Front captured a Syrian army base in the Aleppo countryside known as Regiment 111. The base contained stocks of mustard gas, chlorine, and sarin, which Nusra seized. Katibat al-Muhajireen, an Islamist armed group of foreign fighters supported by British intelligence, also participated in the capture of Regiment 111.

It is highly probable that US intelligence was aware of Nusra’s acquisition of these chemical weapons. On 7 December, 2012, just two days before the base’s fall, Syria Deeply, a media outlet funded by the US government, reported that, according to an Arab diplomat, US contractors were operating on the ground in Syria with the mission of monitoring the status of the country’s chemical weapons stockpiles.

The diplomat said there “are 24-hour Skype links connecting the US with rebel brigades to enhance monitoring of chemical weapons sites on the ground.”

Just as jihadists backed by Saudi and western intelligence were about to acquire sarin (or the components to create sarin) from Regiment 111, US officials began floating accusations that the Syrian government was preparing to use chemical weapons. US officials also cited these claims as a justification for possible western military intervention.

Predictably, the Syrian opposition soon asserted that the Syrian government had employed chemical weapons. On 25 December 2012, a Syrian army defector claimed to Al-Jazeera that the Syrian government had used a nerve gas resembling sarin in an attack on Homs. However, the evidence supporting these allegations was so weak that even US officials promptly dismissed them.

Nonetheless, Prince Bandar saw an opportunity in this incident. In February 2013, he tried to persuade the White House that Syria’s Assad had crossed US President Barack Obama’s “red line” by employing chemical weapons.

US response and arming opposition

Several months later, evidence began to emerge suggesting that the Nusra Front had managed to obtain or produce some low-grade sarin. On 19 March, 2013, a rocket containing chemical agents was launched at the town of Khan al-Assal in Aleppo province, killing 25.

Notably, among the casualties, 16 were Syrian soldiers, a detail that raised doubts about Assad’s culpability in the attack.

On 5 May that year, UN investigator Carla del Ponte said she had gathered testimony indicating that sarin had been used by “the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities.”

Bolstering del Ponte’s claim, Reuters reported on 30 May that Turkish authorities detained 12 Nusra Front militants in possession of 4.5lb of sarin gas, while a Nusra fighter who helped capture the Regiment 111 base later speculated that Nusra had carried out the Khan al-Assal attack with the sarin captured at the base.

When the Syrian army and allied-Hezbollah forces captured the strategic town of Qusair on the Lebanon border in June, officials in Washington began to panic, believing that drastic measures were needed “to stem the tide of Assad victories.”

Amid calls for a no fly zone in Syria from prominent US lawmakers and the media, the Pentagon announced it was sending F-16s and Patriot missile batteries to Jordan. Although Obama refused direct military intervention, his administration issued a special assessment claiming the Syrian government had used chemical weapons and announcing that the US would now arm extremist opposition groups directly.

But for Prince Bandar, this was not enough. Reuters reported that Saudi officials, including the late King Abdullah and Prince Bandar, “want more US involvement … They are really worried about the attitude in Washington.”

Foreign support for Syrian ‘rebels’

On 20 June, the DIA memo revealed by Seymour Hersh was written and distributed, confirming that the Nusra Front was seeking to produce sarin. But this information was ignored, and western officials continued to make new fabricated claims that Damascus had carried out chemical attacks, including in Saraqeb, Sheikh Maqsoud, and Jobar.

It is in this context that Prince Bandar, with the help of his counterparts in US and Israeli intelligence, prepared to launch a massive “rebel” assault on Damascus.

The French newspaper La Figaro reported that according to its sources, the “first Syrian contingents trained in guerrilla warfare by the Americans in Jordan have been in action since mid-August in southern Syria, in the Deraa region. A first group of 300 men, probably supported by Israeli and Jordanian commandos, as well as by men from the CIA, would have crossed the border on August 17. A second would have joined them on the 19th.”

A group of former US intelligence officials similarly reported that “on August 13-14, 2013, Western-sponsored opposition forces in Turkey started advance preparations for a major, irregular military surge,” and that “A weapons distribution operation unprecedented in scope began in all opposition camps,” which was supervised by US, Turkish, and Qatari intelligence.

The stage was now set for a US air campaign to aid Bandar’s jihadist groups amassing near Damascus. However, a trigger was still needed to force Obama to authorize it.

The Ghouta attack

On the morning of 21 August 2013, a flurry of videos appeared on social media allegedly showing the aftermath of a mass chemical attack carried out by the Syrian army in Ghouta, killing 1,429 civilians, including 456 children.

The New York Times reported that “Within hours, [Obama] administration officials began signaling that they were preparing for an immediate military strike to punish the Syrian government,” reversing Obama’s previous reluctance.

The following day, 22 August, La Figaro published its report about the jihadist offensive on Damascus, stating “the anti-Assad operation has begun.”

However, the US president soon reversed his decision to authorize military intervention after Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warned that the evidence linking Assad to the deadly attack was “not a slam dunk.”

In the absence of a wide-scale US bombing campaign, the armed offensive on Damascus failed after 15 days of brutal fighting.

In their interim report released in September 2013, UN investigators later confirmed sarin had been used in Ghouta.

The UN team did not have a mandate to attribute responsibility for the Ghouta attack, however, a detailed analysis published in 2021 by Rootclaim showed that the Saudi-backed Liwa al-Islam fired the sarin-filled rockets in Ghouta – not the Syrian army.

Furthermore, the final UN report released in December 2013 corroborated that jihadist groups had indeed used small quantities of sarin in attacks against Syrian soldiers in the Damascus suburb of Jobar on 24 August and in Ashrafiah Sahnaya in the capital’s countryside on 25 August.

Continued false flag attacks

Jordanian journalist Yahya Ababneh visited Ghouta days after the attack and interviewed several opposition fighters, their families, local doctors, and civilians. According to his sources, local armed groups received chemical weapons via Saudi Prince Bandar and were responsible for carrying out the Ghouta attack.

Ababneh reported that fighters he spoke with “reported that their salaries came from the Saudi government” and that “Prince Bandar is referred to as ‘al-Habib’ or ‘the lover’ by al-Qaeda militants fighting in Syria.”

One month later, a senior UN official who dealt directly with Syrian affairs claimed that according to fighters in Ghouta, “Saudi intelligence was behind the attacks, and unfortunately nobody will dare say that.”

Syria Deeply reported in December 2012 that as part of a special task force sent to Jordan, the “US and its allies have hired contractors to train some Syrian rebel brigades in chemical weapons security.”

After Ghouta, jihadist groups supported by the CIA, Saudi intelligence, and Mossad continued to stage false flag chemical attacks blamed on Assad, most notably in Khan Sheikhoun in April 2017, and Douma in April 2018.

Saudi-funded sedition

The Saudi role in such false flags was further illustrated in March 2018 when the Syrian army liberated some Eastern Ghouta farmlands and discovered a well-equipped chemical laboratory run by Saudi-backed Liwa al-Islam (by then known as Jaish al-Islam).

The Cradle columnist Sharmine Narwani visited the lab that year and reported that it was packed with equipment, chemical substances, and munitions. The equipment included a US-manufactured gas compressor for which Saudi Arabia put out tenders in 2015.

In the nine months leading up to the Ghouta false-flag incident, Nusra operatives were actively seeking sarin precursors in Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, a Nusra commander in Syria, identified by the DIA as being involved in seeking sarin precursors, had received Saudi military support.

Saudi intelligence was not only arming and financing jihadist groups but was also issuing direct orders for attacks in Damascus. Liwa al-Islam fired the sarin-filled rockets at Ghouta at a critical juncture when a major offensive on Damascus, planned by Saudi intelligence in cooperation with the CIA and Mossad, was about to commence.

The broader pattern of false flag chemical attacks blamed on the Syrian government, such as those in Khan Sheikhoun and Douma, further underscores the potential Saudi role in such operations.

Considering the documented evidence, it becomes increasingly implausible to suggest that Liwa al-Islam acted alone in the Ghouta false-flag attack. The incident resulted in the deaths of numerous Syrian civilians, including women and children, and nearly led to western military intervention, aligning with the objectives of US, Saudi, and allied intelligence agencies seeking to overthrow the Syrian government.

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