This is a guest post by Dr. Jamie Mayerfeld, Professor in the University of Washington Department of Political Science. Dr. Mayerfeld specializes in political theory and human rights. He is the author most recently of The Promise of Human Rights: Constitutional Government, Democratic Legitimacy, and International Law (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016). His other publications include Suffering and Moral Responsibility (Oxford University Press, 1999) and articles on various topics in political theory, moral philosophy, human rights, and international criminal law.
On April 4th 2017, the Syrian town of Khan Shaykhun was hit by a chemical attack killing over 80 people and injuring hundreds more. The U.S. government accused the Assad regime and launched retaliatory missiles three days later. Human Rights Watch, the UN-appointed Independent International Commission of Inquiry, and the Joint Investigative Mechanism of the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons each concluded that the Assad regime used sarin to attack Khan Shaykhun.
On April 11th 2017, the US National Security Council released a 4-page report which stated, “The United States is confident that the Syrian regime conducted a chemical weapons attack, using the nerve agent sarin, against its own people in the town of Khan Shaykhun in southern Idlib Proince on April 4, 2017.” The same day, Secretary of Defense James Mattis declared, “Last Tuesday on the 4th of April, the Syrian regime attacked its own people using chemical weapons. I have personally reviewed the intelligence, and there is no doubt the Syrian regime is responsible for the decision to attack and for the attack itself.”
Imagine if, after all that, Secretary Mattis stated that “we do not have evidence” that the Assad regime was responsible for the Khan Shaykhun attack. It would be a shocking admission, staggering in its implications.
Though Mattis never made such an admission, The Nation published an article on April 16th 2018 claiming that he did. Its claim is indisputably false – to say it’s false is not a judgment call but a plain statement of fact. The magazine seems to know something is wrong, because it has twice revised the relevant passage, the first time without acknowledgment. Both revisions vary the misinformation without eliminating it. The false claim has been read and shared by large numbers of people. The Nation is deceiving the public on a matter of the utmost gravity.
The Nation was not the first to claim that Secretary Mattis had made comments denying evidence of Syrian use of chemical weapons. On February 8th 2018 Ian Wilkie published an opinion piece in Newsweek stating that on February 2nd Mattis admitted that the U.S. had no evidence the Assad regime had used sarin against its own people. The claim was a clear misrepresentation of Mattis’s remarks, though that did not prevent Wilkie’s column from being widely circulated. Eliot Higgins thoroughly refuted Wilkie’s article in Bellingcat and Newsweek. Scott Lucas also provided a good discussion in EA WorldView.
James Carden’s April 16th article in The Nation originally stated, “As recently as February, Secretary Mattis admitted that the United States had ‘no evidence’ that Assad was behind the alleged chemical attack in April of last year.” This is false: Mattis made no such admission. So the next day, The Nation revised its article without acknowledgment, now claiming that Secretary Mattis said that “we do not have evidence” that the Assad regime had recently used chemical weapons. But Mattis didn’t say that either. On Friday, April 20, The Nation revised the article yet again, this time with a note acknowledging the article had been twice altered. The article now says that in February “Secretary Mattis asserted his belief that Assad used sarin during the Trump administration, but when pressed by reporters, he admitted that ‘we do not have evidence of it.’” (This is close to the claim made in the original article, since it is well established that the Assad regime attacked Khan Shaykhun using sarin.) But Mattis didn’t say this either.
The transcript of the February press conference is available for all to read. (I append the entirety of the relevant passages below, with comment). There are two exchanges about chemical weapons in Syria, and Mattis’s meaning is clear and consistent: The Assad regime was caught using sarin during the Obama administration (in Ghouta) and then, contrary to its promises, used it again during the Trump administration (in Khan Shaykhun): “Obviously they didn’t [carry out what they said they would do], cause they used it [sarin] again during our administration.” Mattis states his belief that the Assad regime has been using chlorine gas. Given the Assad regime’s past behavior, the Trump administration has “a lot of reason to suspect” that the Assad regime has been using sarin as well, but (Mattis adds) “we do not have evidence for it.” The “no evidence” comment does not refer to Mattis’s earlier claim that Assad regime used sarin “during our administration.” It follows and refers to Mattis’s remark “and now we have other reports from the battlefield from people who claim it’s been used,” a formulation that implies the recent past, that is, after Khan Shaykhun. Contrary to The Nation, the “no evidence” comment was not made in response to reporters’ challenges. Mattis states at the outset that “we are looking for the evidence” that the Assad regime has been using sarin.
It matters what happened in Khan Shaykhun. We have abundant evidence, certified by the UN, that the Assad regime launched a gas attack causing dozens of men, women, and children to suffer agonizing deaths. The Nation’s claim encourages readers to think otherwise, but the claim is a fabrication. Stephen Shalom (the author of a superb Jacobin article on the Khan Shaykhun attack) has made the following observation about those who propagate the James Mattis-no evidence assertion: “Sometimes, a claim is so clearly without merit, so obviously ludicrous, that those who promote it mark themselves, at best, as individuals wholly uninterested in examining evidence when a dubious claim conforms to their preconceived notions, or, at worst, as scoundrels.” The journalistic malpractice of The Nation insults victims and harms the truth.
Postscript: The disinformation campaign waged to cover up crimes by Syrian and Russian armed forces is unrelenting. Some good resources for combating the campaign can be found at Snopes, Bellingcat, and EA WorldView, as well as in articles by Olivia Solon and George Monbiot for The Guardian, Robert Mackey for The Intercept, Idrees Ahmad for The Progressive, the aforementioned Stephen Shalom for Jacobin, and many others.
Here is the entirety of James Mattis’s remarks on chemical weapons in Syria in his February 2nd 2018 press conference. (I insert two brief comments.)
Q: Can you talk a little bit about the chemical weapons that were — the State Department was talking about just a little bit yesterday, that mentioned chlorine gas? Is this something you’re seeing that’s been weaponized or – just give us a sense.
SEC. MATTIS: It has.
Q: It has. Okay.
SEC. MATTIS: It has. We are more — even more concerned about the possibility of sarin use, the likelihood of sarin use, and we’re looking for the evidence. And so that’s about all the more I can say about it right now, but we are on the record, and you all have seen how we reacted to that, so they’d be ill-advised to go back to violating the chemical convention.
Comment: The reporter asks about the current use of chlorine gas. Mattis states that Assad is using chlorine and says the Trump administration is concerned about possible use of sarin as well. It’s clear that these remarks refer to current practices. Note Mattis’s statement “we’re looking for the evidence.” This refers to the current use of sarin.
Q: Can I ask a quick follow up, just a clarification on what you’d said earlier about Syria and sarin gas?
SEC. MATTIS: Yeah.
Q: Just make sure I heard you correctly, you’re saying you think it’s likely they have used it and you’re looking for the evidence? Is that what you said?
SEC. MATTIS: That’s — we think that they did not carry out what they said they would do back when — in the previous administration, when they were caught using it. Obviously they didn’t, cause they used it again during our administration. And that gives us a lot of reason to suspect them. And now we have other reports from the battlefield from people who claim it’s been used. We do not have evidence of it. But we’re not refuting them; we’re looking for evidence of it. Since clearly we are using — we are dealing with the Assad regime that has used denial and deceit to hide their outlaw actions, okay?
Comment: The reporter directs Mattis’s attention to the earlier exchange about the current use of sarin. Mattis (with Khan Shaykhun in mind) states that the Assad regime used sarin during the Trump administration. Mattis’s words in this exchange and the reference to the earlier exchange make clear that the “no evidence” comment refers to the current use of sarin, that is, after Khan Shaykhun. Since there is no interjection from reporters, The Nation’s claim that Mattis offered his “no evidence” comment after being pressed by reporters is groundless.
Q: So the likelihood was not what your — you’re not characterizing it as a likelihood? I thought I used — you used that word; I guess I misunderstood you.
SEC. MATTIS: Well, there’s certainly groups that say they’ve used it. And so they think there’s a likelihood, so we’re looking for the evidence.
Q: Is there evidence of chlorine gas weapons used — evidence of chlorine gas weapons?
SEC. MATTIS: I think that’s, yes —
Q: No, I know, I heard you.
SEC. MATTIS: I think it’s been used repeatedly. And that’s, as you know, a somewhat separate category, which is why I broke out the sarin as another — yeah.
Q: So there’s credible evidence out there that both sarin and chlorine —
SEC. MATTIS: No, I have not got the evidence, not specifically. I don’t have the evidence. What I’m saying is that other — that groups on the ground, NGOs, fighters on the ground have said that sarin has been used. So we are looking for evidence. I don’t have evidence, credible or uncredible.