THE terrorist atrocity in St Petersburg was pushed from the top of the news agenda yesterday by reports of a chemical weapons attack on Khan Sheikhoun early in the morning.

The Syrian town is held by opponents of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus. The BBC and Sky reported that scores of people have died following air strikes by government or Russian jets. Different claims initially put the number of fatalities at 58, 67 and 100. Some reports identified the deadly gas as chlorine, others as sarin. The reported time of the attack varied from 6.45am local time to 7am.

While the main source of the story is the Syrian Observatory on Human Rights (SOHR), others cited include the Edlib Media Centre, the Step news agency and a charity ambulance service in Idlib some 35 miles away.

SOHR is a one-man operation run from a private house in Coventry by longtime Syrian dissident Rami Abdul Rahman. His information or misinformation comes mostly from anti-government rebels in and around Syria and it receives extensive coverage from Reuters, CNN and Voice of America as well as the BBC and Sky.

SOHR may have links with the Edlib Media Centre and Step and all three agencies are opposed to the Assad regime. Their reports from the war in Syria focus mostly on real or alleged civilian deaths inflicted by the regime and its allies, particularly Russia.

These reports often paint events in the most lurid colours. Thus, for example, it was also being claimed yesterday that Russian or Syrian aircraft had later targeted the local clinics and hospitals treating the wounded of Khan Sheikhoun.

Although the BBC and other media outlets were careful to say at the outset that the reports were “unconfirmed,” everything was done immediately to lend them credibility. This included interviews with representatives from such worthy bodies as Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) and the International Red Cross, although from their vantage points in Turkey and Geneva they, too, were unable to confirm what had happened in Khan Sheikhoun.

Even so, the French government rushed to demand that an emergency meeting of the UN security council be held to investigate matters. There is no such enthusiasm when it comes to the mass killing of civilians by US and other Nato forces in Aleppo and other parts of Iraq, say, or in Afghanistan.

Of course, it’s possible that an atrocity has occurred. Events may be clearer by today, supported by evidence on the ground.

Neither the Syrian nor Russian military are best known for wearing “kid gloves.” They are engaged in a desperate struggle to stop the murderous depredations of Isis, al-Qaida and other fundamentalist barbarians.

Although both governments have always denied any use of chemical weapons or the targeting of civilians and medical facilities, widely respected bodies such as MSF insist otherwise. At the very least, there appears to have been a history of recklessness born of desperation in some of their military actions.

The use of chemical weapons and deliberate attacks on civilians and medical facilities by any country’s forces are war crimes that should be investigated and the perpetrators punished, without fear or favour.

One problem, however, is that honest and reliable reporting from the theatres of war is rare. Western news agencies are far too quick to report negatively about those governments and forces regarded as hostile to Western capitalist and geopolitical interests, however thin or non-existent the prima facie evidence.

This breeds scepticism and cynicism among many who believe that international humanitarian law should be upheld and enforced.

 

This article appeared in The Morning Star, Wednesday 5th April 2017