This article is a collaboration between Dale Gavlak
reporting for Mint Press News (also of the Associated Press) and Yahya
Ghouta, Syria — As the machinery for a U.S.-led military
intervention in Syria gathers pace following last week’s chemical
weapons attack, the U.S. and its allies may be targeting the wrong
Interviews with people in Damascus and Ghouta, a suburb of
the Syrian capital, where the humanitarian agency Doctors Without
Borders said at least 355 people had died last week from what it
believed to be a neurotoxic agent, appear to indicate as much.
The U.S., Britain, and France as well as the Arab League
have accused the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for carrying
out the chemical weapons attack, which mainly targeted civilians. U.S.
warships are stationed in the Mediterranean Sea to launch military
strikes against Syria in punishment for carrying out a massive chemical
weapons attack. The U.S. and others are not interested in examining any
contrary evidence, with U.S Secretary of State John Kerry saying Monday that Assad’s guilt was “a judgment … already clear to the world.”
However, from numerous interviews with doctors, Ghouta
residents, rebel fighters and their families, a different picture
emerges. Many believe that certain rebels received chemical weapons via
the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, and were
responsible for carrying out the dealing gas attack.
“My son came to me two weeks ago asking what I thought the
weapons were that he had been asked to carry,” said Abu Abdel-Moneim,
the father of a rebel fighting to unseat Assad, who lives in Ghouta.
Abdel-Moneim said his son and 12 other rebels were killed
inside of a tunnel used to store weapons provided by a Saudi militant,
known as Abu Ayesha, who was leading a fighting battalion. The father
described the weapons as having a “tube-like structure” while others
were like a “huge gas bottle.”
Ghouta townspeople said the rebels were using mosques and private houses to sleep while storing their weapons in tunnels.
Abdel-Moneim said his son and the others died during the
chemical weapons attack. That same day, the militant group Jabhat
al-Nusra, which is linked to al-Qaida, announced that it would similarly attack civilians in the Assad regime’s heartland of Latakia on Syria’s western coast, in purported retaliation.
“They didn’t tell us what these arms were or how to use
them,” complained a female fighter named ‘K.’ “We didn’t know they were
chemical weapons. We never imagined they were chemical weapons.”
“When Saudi Prince Bandar gives such weapons to people, he
must give them to those who know how to handle and use them,” she
warned. She, like other Syrians, do not want to use their full names for
fear of retribution.
A well-known rebel leader in Ghouta named ‘J’ agreed.
“Jabhat al-Nusra militants do not cooperate with other rebels, except
with fighting on the ground. They do not share secret information. They
merely used some ordinary rebels to carry and operate this material,” he
“We were very curious about these arms. And unfortunately,
some of the fighters handled the weapons improperly and set off the
explosions,” ‘J’ said.
Doctors who treated the chemical weapons attack victims
cautioned interviewers to be careful about asking questions regarding
who, exactly, was responsible for the deadly assault.
The humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders added that
health workers aiding 3,600 patients also reported experiencing similar
symptoms, including frothing at the mouth, respiratory distress,
convulsions and blurry vision. The group has not been able to
independently verify the information.
More than a dozen rebels interviewed reported that their salaries came from the Saudi government.
In a recent article for Business Insider, reporter Geoffrey Ingersoll highlightedSaudi
Prince Bandar’s role in the two-and-a-half year Syrian civil war. Many
observers believe Bandar, with his close ties to Washington, has been at
the very heart of the push for war by the U.S. against Assad.
Ingersoll referred to an article in the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph about secret Russian-Saudi talks alleging that Bandar offered Russian President Vladimir Putin cheap oil in exchange for dumping Assad.
“Prince Bandar pledged to safeguard Russia’s naval base in
Syria if the Assad regime is toppled, but he also hinted at Chechen
terrorist attacks on Russia’s Winter Olympics in Sochi if there is no
accord,” Ingersoll wrote.
“I can give you a guarantee to protect the Winter Olympics
next year. The Chechen groups that threaten the security of the games
are controlled by us,” Bandar allegedly told the Russians.
“Along with Saudi officials, the U.S. allegedly gave the
Saudi intelligence chief the thumbs up to conduct these talks with
Russia, which comes as no surprise,” Ingersoll wrote.
“Bandar is American-educated, both military and collegiate,
served as a highly influential Saudi Ambassador to the U.S., and the
CIA totally loves this guy,” he added.
According to U.K.’s Independent newspaper, it was Prince Bandar’s intelligence agency that first brought allegations of the use of sarin gas by the regime to the attention of Western allies in February.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the CIA realized Saudi Arabia was “serious” about toppling Assad when the Saudi king named Prince Bandar to lead the effort.
“They believed that Prince Bandar, a veteran of the
diplomatic intrigues of Washington and the Arab world, could deliver
what the CIA couldn’t: planeloads of money and arms, and, as one U.S.
diplomat put it, wasta, Arabic for under-the-table clout,” it said.
Bandar has been advancing Saudi Arabia’s top foreign policy
goal, WSJ reported, of defeating Assad and his Iranian and Hezbollah
To that aim, Bandar worked Washington to back a program to arm and train rebels out of a planned military base in Jordan.
The newspaper reports that he met with the “uneasy Jordanians about such a base”:
His meetings in Amman with Jordan’s King Abdullah sometimes
ran to eight hours in a single sitting. “The king would joke: ‘Oh,
Bandar’s coming again? Let’s clear two days for the meeting,’ ” said a
person familiar with the meetings.
Jordan’s financial dependence on Saudi Arabia may have
given the Saudis strong leverage. An operations center in Jordan started
going online in the summer of 2012, including an airstrip and
warehouses for arms. Saudi-procured AK-47s and ammunition arrived, WSJ
reported, citing Arab officials.
Although Saudi Arabia has officially maintained that it
supported more moderate rebels, the newspaper reported that “funds and
arms were being funneled to radicals on the side, simply to counter the
influence of rival Islamists backed by Qatar.”
But rebels interviewed said Prince Bandar is referred to as “al-Habib” or ‘the lover’ by al-Qaida militants fighting in Syria.
Peter Oborne, writing
in the Daily Telegraph on Thursday, has issued a word of caution about
Washington’s rush to punish the Assad regime with so-called ‘limited’
strikes not meant to overthrow the Syrian leader but diminish his
capacity to use chemical weapons:
Consider this: the only beneficiaries from the atrocity
were the rebels, previously losing the war, who now have Britain and
America ready to intervene on their side. While there seems to be little
doubt that chemical weapons were used, there is doubt about who
It is important to remember that Assad has been accused of
using poison gas against civilians before. But on that occasion, Carla
del Ponte, a U.N. commissioner on Syria, concluded that the rebels, not
Assad, were probably responsible.
Some information in this article could not be independently
verified. Mint Press News will continue to provide further information
and updates .
Dale Gavlak is a Middle East correspondent for
Mint Press News and the Associated Press. Gavlak has been stationed in
Amman, Jordan for the Associated Press for over two decades. An expert
in Middle Eastern Affairs, Gavlak currently covers the Levant region of
the Middle East for AP, National Public Radio and Mint Press News,
writing on topics including politics, social issues and economic trends.
Dale holds a M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of
Chicago. Contact Dale at firstname.lastname@example.org
Yahya Ababneh is a Jordanian freelance
journalist and is currently working on a master’s degree in journalism,
He has covered events in Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Russia and
Libya. His stories have appeared on Amman Net, Saraya News, Gerasa News