It is customary in my country, on Remembrance Day, to wear a red poppy to commemorate the fallen in war, with donations channeled to dependants and veterans. To observe remembrance is a mark of respect. For many, it is also an expression of gratitude.

Some people, however, decline to observe the tradition, on principle. They may believe that war should be lamented, not tacitly condoned. Some will stress that not only on active service are people killed or harmed in wars. Many children, women and men are innocent victims of the combatants commemorated with poppies. Celebrating the poppy could look like acquiescing in a deceptive idea of war as a noble activity allegedly in service of a free and democratic society.


As for poppy revenues to support the survivors, surely anyone who sacrifices life, limb, or family provider, for the sake of their country, is owed much more than a token donation once a year.

Although I choose not to wear a poppy for a cluster of reasons like those, I would not criticise others who do wear one, or try to persuade them not to. What does seem to me a fitting response to Remembrance Day is to seek to widen our horizons and to remember so much more.

Yet the scale and depth of the horrors of war being perpetrated around the world, and in so many places – relentlessly continuing even in the very moment you read and I write this – defy human imagination. Each and every one of the inumerable lives lost is of a person like you or me, or any of our loved ones.

In the moments of quiet reflection, as symbolised by our two minutes collective silence each year, each of us will be drawn into our own more personal remembrance.

My twentieth century forbears who suffered and died for the cause of war are remembered now as relatively distant victims of that evil racket.  I feel today more keenly the pain of those whose loved ones were so lately ripped from them.

For they shall grow not old as we that are left grow old.


Age shall not weary them.


Nor the years condemn…


And in remembering them, is there proud thanksgiving? Those of us whose regimes support the bringers of death – the firers of mortars, the assassins, the terrorists – we have no grounds for pride. The humanity in us would have us bow our heads before the families of those cruelly taken, as we honour their right to be proud and thankful for the loved ones they now must mourn.

Commemorated in the photographs

Noor and her baby boy Riad were sister and nephew of Ghoufran Derawan, a teacher and journalist living in Damascus. They were killed when a Damascus restaurant was struck by a terrorist mortar. On the morning that I contacted Ghoufran for permission to post the picture, a terrorist mortar exploded outside her house. Some streets away, another mortar had just struck yet another restaurant, with lethal effects. Why do killers that our nations support with money, arms and training target restaurants and residential areas?

Serena Shim, the journalist, reported for Press TV on the smuggling of Western arms from Turkey to Syrian terrorists. Shortly afterwards, she died in unexplained circumstances. Can any bearers of arms, even in legitimate forces, claim greater courage than is shown by those rare few who seek and expose the truth, even in the face of lethal threats?

Abdullah Issa, a twelve-year old boy, was beheaded by the men in the photograph moments after it was taken. Those men are supported by NATO and Gulf states as ‘moderate rebels’. How did we come to have people like this as our allies?

Remembering those who remain

The custom is to observe two minutes silence in remembrance of those lost to the world. Let us also remember those who survive. Here is a message that has lived in my heart ever since hearing this boy from Aleppo, speaking after its liberation from the control of the terrorists. He is telling the rest of the world what he would wish for us:


Thanks go to Ghoufran Derawan, Carla Ortiz and all those in Syria, and their friends beyond, who have held firm to the inestimable value of human life.


Posted in journalism, remembrance, Syria, UK Government, Uncategorized, war | 3 Comments

Syria’s Moderate Opposition: beyond the doublethink

Moderate political opposition does not involve or support taking up arms against the government, let alone against unarmed fellow citizens. This proposition would be treated as self-evident in our own country, so why are people seemingly ready to discard it when talking about Syria? Some who do so aim thereby to claim legitimacy for wishing ‘regime change’ upon that country, even if with little regard to the costs or actual benefits to citizens in Syria. Others who do so perhaps just don’t reflect carefully enough.

The fact is, the mainstream media narrative for more than six years now has involved what George Orwell called Doublethink.[1] The oxymoronic notion of moderate armed opposition actually came to be settled upon as the media’s euphemism of choice after earlier designations had failed to carry conviction. Initial suggestions of a ‘democratic uprising’ became hard to sustain as an armed minority of fighters, many foreign, were manifestly terrorising swathes of the population. In any case, the idea of an uprising has application to particular events rather than to a process of definite political change. Some people have spoken of a Syrian ‘revolution’. However, even aside from the point that a revolution is usually an alternative to moderate opposition, the most cursory comparison with actual popular revolutions – think of Cuba, for example – reveals this to be misleading. The revolutionary change most credibly attempted in Syria – and through violent, not moderate, means – would install some form of sectarian regime whereby the tolerant secular society of Syria would be transformed into something more like Saudi Arabia. The other popular locution ‘civil war’, even if inaccurate as a description,[2] at least has the merit of including a term that cannot be confused with moderation: war.

As a political philosopher I would sum up these points quite simply: moderate political opposition does not seek to overthrow the political constitution. It aims to achieve its goals by using constitutional means. In the event that specific constitutional changes become a political goal, any legitimate strategy for achieving this will have the approval of a clear democratic majority. I make these points because I cannot see how a cogent discussion of political opposition in the Syrian context can proceed without heeding them. I am not saying political opposition has to be moderate; I am simply saying we need to be clear in understanding when it is or is not.


It is not my purpose – any more than it is my place, or within my competence – to make substantive comment on particular political proposals that are, or could be, advanced by oppositional groups in Syria. These are matters for Syrians to decide. What I am commenting on here is the battle of ideas as it is being waged outside Syria, in our media, by politicians, by academics and amongst wider publics. Confused ideas can lead to poor political assessments. When political proposals demonstrably depend on doublethink, they can be criticised on that basis,[3] with the aim of reducing confusion, enhancing clarity, and promoting constructive and realistic dialogue. Public opinion might then be mobilised in support of more appropriate foreign policy objectives in relation to Syrian politics than would otherwise be the case.


Was there originally a popular demand or appetite for regime change as found expression in the protests of 2011?

Today we hear less talk of a ‘moderate’ demand for regime change in Syria than we once did, but is this simply a result of its being silenced through oppression and attrition these past six years and more? Could it be argued that the opposition’s turn to violence only eventuated because more moderate methods of seeking political change were crushed?

In the early years of the millennium, a sense that reform was possible encouraged increasing engagement in opposition politics. A high point was reached with the ‘Damascus Declaration’ of 2005. This cited principles of pluralism, non-violence, and opposition unity in a call for establishment of a democratic national regime by means that would be ‘peaceful, gradual, founded on accord and based on dialogue and recognition of the other.’  The aim was to create ‘a Constituent Assembly that draws up a new Constitution for the country that foils adventurers and extremists, and that guarantees the separation of powers, safeguards the independence of the judiciary, and achieves national integration by consolidating the principle of citizenship.’ However, the diverse groups involved were not able to maintain that spirit of unity, and it broke down fairly quickly, on what were perhaps predictable lines (see, for instance, Tim Anderson in Ch4 of The Dirty War on Syria). So there was a demonstrable will for political change, but there was not similarly clear agreement on what that should mean.

We know that there are commentators, critical of mainstream accounts, who argue that the story of a popular revolution were always a deceptive embellishment of a more moderate grain of truth;[4] we also know that there are independent voices that offer a similar view.[5] What is worth emphasising, though, is that even commentators who have come to be associated with a strongly ‘anti-regime’ position showed themselves at the time to be quite clear-sighted on the point.[6] For instance, Robin Yassin-Kassab wrote of the March 2011 protests that ‘motives for each of these events have been different and the groups themselves are disorganised and lack unity.’ He also observed that the ‘Muslim Brotherhood are scattered and with their base in London … are by and large a spent force. Domestically they hold little credibility and are not trusted.’[7] This is not to deny that a degree of political discontent was indeed at large in various Syrian communities, with many people fed up with a lack of basic freedoms, lack of opportunities, and corruption among those associated with the state. Yassin-Kassab did not foresee the makings of a significant confrontation, however, and he noted:

‘the regime is today too enmeshed with the people. There is an almost, dare I say, legitimacy, that the regime enjoys as far too many average people are interlinked with it through marriage, business, employment et al. There is a certain “we are all in it together” attitude that has survived from the 2005 crisis that Syria experienced with the West. The vestiges of this alliance exist still.’

The political reforms that were quite widely desired included abolishing the state of emergency and creating a fair and transparent judiciary so as to foster ‘an atmosphere that will allow a new generation of Syrian thinkers and politicians to emerge and to hopefully fulfill the role of a credible and legitimate opposition.’ The hopefulness Yassin-Kassab expresses was based on his appreciation of ‘a space in Syria’s political arena, and a historical precedent, for experienced political leaders that have shared the burden of rule to advise and criticise in Syrian politics.’ In keeping with such hopes in reform, as distinct from revolution, was the ‘deep unease that many Syrians today feel about the protests’. Yassin-Kassab quotes a friend from Deraa, the town whose protests are deemed to have sparked the wider Syrian uprising, saying ‘that few want revolution and many fear disorder and chaos.’[8] ‘Everyone wants change, but they want orderly change.’

This was a view widely accepted within academia too, where it was understood that the opposition lacked leadership or organized parties. Raymond Hinnebusch offered this assessment:

‘it is uncertain whether a viable opposition exists. Aside from their shared belief that the regime is the source of all problems, the interests of well-off external exiles and the deprived foot soldiers of the rebellion hardly seem congruent.’

Hinnebusch also stressed a fundamental point that is impossible to miss without deploying doublethink:

‘Any new government in Damascus will therefore be confronted with the same policy dilemmas and limited options that faced Asad’s, and will struggle to find better or even different answers to Syria’s intractable problems.’[9]

While hostile voices depict President Assad as the problem in Syria, the reality seems to have been – then, as now, and like it or not – that he is the person best placed to tackle the problems in Syria. Those problems, it has further to be recognized, have been severely added to and exacerbated by all the foreign interventions aimed at overthrowing him. How support for these could be regarded as being in the best interests of Syria and its people is a matter that takes doublethink to imagine.


What are the aims of moderate opposition today?

If it was already clear at the outset that there was not a viable alternative ‘regime’ waiting in the wings in Syria, how do matters stand today? Regarding the question of the present Syrian government’s legitimacy, an important reference point cannot be ignored. In 2014 the Syrian people had an opportunity to vote. Obviously conditions were not ideal, but the vote was meaningful in relation to our question. It produced a clear victory for Bashar Al-Assad. He won 10,319,723 votes – 88.7% of the vote – with a 73.42% turnout.[10] Western observers did not challenge those numbers or allege voting irregularities. It is true that voting could not take place in opposition-held areas, but participation overall was so great that even allowing the improbable assumption that the whole population under opposition control would have voted against him, they would still have had to accept Assad as legitimate winner. If that was the popular will in 2014, is there any reason to suppose it has shifted significantly since then? The available evidence, I would suggest, tends to reinforce the view that the Syrian people place greater importance on ridding terrorist violence from their land than seeking a different leadership.[11]

Even Western enemies of Assad have recently been acknowledging – with whatever degree of reluctance – that political change in Syria should not be thought to involve peremptorily ousting him from power. The idea that applying external pressures to internal divisions could force regime change in Syria[12] has been overtaken by recognition in US intelligence circles that there is no moderate secular alternative. The likely outcome of deposing the president, it is now understood, would be a radical regime. This could lead to protracted sectarian conflict and continued terror for the wider population without even necessarily furthering the US’s own interests.[13] So any credible non-sectarian opposition must now take a genuinely moderate approach. What this entails, in terms of detailed arrangements, is a matter for Syrians to work out.

Nevertheless, there are certain questions that the wider global public has a legitimate interest in. These concern allegations of serious human rights abuse on the part of the government against individuals or minorities amongst its people. What are we to make of them? Syrians are aware that political prisoners have been brutally treated by personnel within the state security forces.  If the government nevertheless retains a remarkable degree of support from citizens who have remained in Syria it may be because they share the sort of view that is articulated by this email correspondent:

‘does [Syria] have a notorious history in torturing in jails? Yes, arguments if they were few or many. Did some people lose their lives in Syrian jails under torturing acts? Yes. It happens in crisis times (like in the 80’s after the Muslim Brotherhood fighting era). Were some of these victims innocents? Yes, but not as exaggerated.’

I do not think this correspondent would make light of the horrors some of his or her fellow citizens have been subjected to. It is just that s/he also has some contextualised awareness of the scale of the horrors that the war for regime change has triggered. Nor does the correspondent think the problem should simply be attributed to ‘the Assad regime’:

‘Syrian governments pre the Assad family ruling were doing the same acts of torturing. I want to say that these horrible acts are not because of the Assad family…. We have enough examples of what Syrian terrorists (fighting opposition gangs) did to whoever they captured from Syrian soldiers in the last 5.5 years ago, they murdered people under torture and in front of cameras. … all the old atrocities in Syrian jails were like a piece of cake compared with what they practiced under Nusra, Da’esh, and the rest of the terrorists.’[14]

As I have shown elsewhere, accusations that the ‘Assad regime’ has been peculiarly prone to widespread abuses of human rights rest on questionable evidence. I came to be writing on these matters in the first place due to discovering the extent of a mismatch between the actual research carried out by Amnesty International, for instance, and the scale of extrapolation and sheer inventiveness involved in some of its most shocking reports relating to Syria. A comparable problem of credibility I found in reports of Human Rights Watch and of the various monitoring organisations that were created, it seems, specially for the purpose of producing damning claims about the Syrian government.

Clearly, when political leaders themselves are egregiously in violation of constitutional and political norms, it can hardly be ‘immoderate’ to press for their removal from office by means of due process. But due process necessarily involves a scrupulous and impartial approach to evidence.

Prior to 2011, credible reports – including those of Amnesty – suggested that while there was certainly a human rights problem in Syria, its scale was contained. The scholar Joshua Landis, writing in 2004, found that ‘Syria has a much better human rights record today than most countries of the Middle East, if not the best.’[15] He made the point that ‘there is no reason for Washington to vilify Syria while it holds up countries like Tunisia, Egypt, and Turkey as good allies and gives them a pass on human rights violations. They are all worse than Syria when it comes to detaining prisoners for political reasons and reasons of conscience. Some are a lot worse.’ He even suggested that ‘Bashar should be given credit for an important achievement in emptying Syria’s prisons of its long held political prisoners and for trying to heal the wounds of his country’s mini civil war. He has reached out to the banned Islamic groups, even as he has conceded very little political ground to them. Syria has managed the complex ethic and religious diversity of its population with surprising success.’

It is difficult to get objective information on developments since 2011, in a period during which the government has had to engage in warfare against multi-national insurgent forces of particularly ruthless kinds, but one thing we know is that the government has not been fighting against ‘moderate political opposition’. The more obviously oxymoronic euphemism, ‘moderate armed rebels’, requires doublethink to apply in any circumstances, and certainly in Syria – as Ricardo Vaz explains here.

Camille Alexander Otrakji, writing at the end of 2014, sets the question in perspective: ‘Before the events of 2011, serious torture existed, in small numbers, in Syrian prisons. Humiliation (often bordering on torture) was widespread.’ He adds that ‘one would expect that with all the violence Syria is experiencing after 2011, the number of those arrested and tortured has significantly increased.’ It is repulsive, he affirms, and has to stop. He does remind us that the US and many of its allies use torture and that Syrian opposition “rebels” frequently torture soldiers and civilians they capture. Nobody is justified doing it, but nobody can simply accuse one party while disregarding the others’ comparable guilt. He points out that the opposition activists feted in the West ‘rarely complained at their free army’s routine torture of those they captured. Their outrage at torture (or violence in general) is highly selective’.  ‘Most Americans believe torture was justified after 9/11 (where 3,000 Americans died). In Syria we have a savage war… 200,000 Syrians died. It wouldn’t be surprising that today many Syrians also believe torture (by their favorite side of the conflict) is legitimate. This corrupting of people’s values takes place during conflicts and the best way to confront it is to end those conflicts’.[16] In Otrakji’s view, ‘When the conflict ends, the two easiest starting points for those looking for positive momentum for a reforms process are 1) ending torture and 2) fighting corruption … I am confident that a large majority of Syrians will enthusiastically call for both.’

It appears, then, that the genuinely moderate political opposition in Syria, and in exile, is reconciled to accepting that the primary goal is to restore government order across the whole country rather than to support efforts to undermine or destabilise Syria’s government. This means accepting, for the duration, the legitimacy of the current president’s rule.


Why is doublethink so pervasive in the West?

What, then, of the small but vociferous groups of opposition supporters who engage in campaigning activities under the rebel flag in the West? A first observation I would make concerns that flag itself. To replace a national flag by another is ipso facto a radical statement of defiance, not allegiance, to the existing constitutional order. On the definitions I am assuming, this cannot be regarded as moderately oppositional. The moderate opponent wants to be the one rallying the people under the flag, not someone who tears it down. To fly the rebel flag is subversive and what insurgents do, not what citizens do in the course of normal politics. Thus, within Syria, we see that those who rally to that flag are closely aligned with the terrorist factions that are promoting a sectarian alternative to the Syrian secular state. idlib In the West, that affiliation may be obscured and obfuscated, but only because, away from the front line, there is no particular cost incurred by indulging in doublethink. But it is doublethink to cast the ‘regime’ as enemy of the people while siding with factions that treat people so brutally that nobody who is not clearly aligned with them even dares set foot in areas they control. This doublethink simply disregards how the great majority of the people in Syria look to the government as protector against those who gather under the opposition’s flag.[17] On the front line, you can’t fudge the issue. If you oppose the Syrian Arab Army, drawn from the body of Syria’s citizens, you are on the side of Salafists, Wahhabis, and terrorists of various stripes.[18]  For other possibilities to open up, the fighting must first stop; and it will not stop as long as external forces continue trying to impose ‘regime change’ on a resistant nation.

Doublethink permeates the external opposition supporters, who appear to embrace quite actively the Western media’s massive disinformation campaign in support of ‘regime change’. Doublethink is egregious in the proclaiming of such political ideals as freedom and democracy while expressing support for the ‘rebels’ who control areas like Idlib, particularly given the oppressive nature of their rule. Nowhere is doublethink more astounding than with regard to the position of women. In the west we find women alongside the men, waving green flags, protesting against the Syrian government and haranguing its supporters. It is hard to believe they actually want for Syrians freedom of the kind their allies in Syria are imposing in the places under their control, where the women are obliged in public to be covered and quiet, and where challenges to the warlords’ authority can be met with summary ‘justice’ of horrific kinds.


Clarissa Ward for CNN in rebel-held area. (The ironies appear unintended.)

What about those sections of the Western public that passively support the opposition, largely because of what they have uncritically absorbed from the media? What about those among them who might view the waving of the rebel flag as politically progressive? What about those sections of the commentariat that are implacably ‘anti-Assad’ and apparently not open to putting into discussion his alleged crimes against humanity? This group includes ostensibly critical thinkers like Owen Jones, Paul Mason, George Monbiot, and even the leaders of the UK Green Party. As far as I can tell, members of this section of opinion formers have not carried out independent research and they appear not only quite ready to accept the mainstream narrative but also to be rather open to persuasion by active opposition campaigners.[19]

That is why I am making the case for clarity at the level of basic conceptualisations. Once a tale has been repeated often enough, it acquires the status of an established truth for many of its hearers. This is something the seminal propagandist Goebbels knew well, and something the modern PR industry – which includes all the mainstream news media – has well learned. People in general, it seems, are persuaded more effectively by repetition than by evidence.

As long as no particular consequences follow from holding contradictory beliefs, then for people without any strong compulsion towards truth-seeking, it may be convenient just to allow their cognitive cohabitation.

That is why I feel an obligation to write on the subject. I write not as an expert on politics in Syria but simply as a human being who is concerned about how the world might become more peaceful and just. Part of that aspiration involves taking a more earnest and respectful attitude towards questions of truthfulness. This can never be achieved by allowing oneself to remain trapped in doublethink.


Thanks go to Tim Anderson, Andrew Ashdown, Bill Purkayastha, Piers Robinson, Jay Tharappel, and all the many friends of Syria who have helped me try to understand.


[1] Wikipedia sums it up: ‘Doublethink is the act of simultaneously accepting two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct, often in distinct social contexts. Doublethink is related to, but differs from, hypocrisy and neutrality. Also related is cognitive dissonance, in which contradictory beliefs cause conflict in one’s mind. Doublethink is notable due to a lack of cognitive dissonance—thus the person is completely unaware of any conflict or contradiction.’

[2] See, for instance:     [See also references in note (4) below.]

[3] In the background of the analysis here is the thought of a significant difference between double thinking and dialectical thinking. Both involve dealing with contradictions, and both allow the hypothesis that the two sides of the contradiction could both be true. Where they differ is in their way of dealing with that hypothesis. Double thinking means granting it without further examination. This can be illustrated by reference to the parable of the blind men and the elephant: having never encountered an elephant before, each blind man learns what one is by touching a part of it, but because each touches a different part, each forms a completely different idea of what the whole thing must be. A double thinker is likely to take this to illustrate why it is ok to maintain apparently contradictory propositions with regard to a particular dispute – it all just depends on your point of view at the time. A dialectical thinker will take it to show contradictions can sometimes arise from the basis of partial understandings and that there is more to discover before anyone can make any general inference on the subject. Until different points of view can be reconciled, we should not attempt to draw any general inferences. Thus, where the blind man’s elephant can serve as an alibi and refuge for the scoundrel, it acts as a stimulus for more probing investigation of the dialectician.

[Doublethink is the passive, indifferent and impotent acceptance of unresolved contradictions; dialectical thinking is the determination to settle or transcend contradictions. (Cognitive dissonance is the name given to the psychological condition experienced by people who cannot quite achieve either method of dealing with contradictory pieces of knowledge that they cannot simply disregard.)]

The idea that we cannot really choose between different perspectives is never very consistently maintained in practice, since people usually settle on a particular position; it is just that abstention from dwelling on opposing considerations is felt to absolve them of a need to justify their position very rigorously. It also allows them to say that, really, things are so very complicated. In fact, there are some who use complicatedness itself as an argumentative strategy against critical questioners, especially questioners who can be demonstrated to ‘know less’. That is why I emphasise throughout that I certainly know less, but it is not merely the quantity of knowledge that matters. To learn, in intimate detail, the road leading South, for instance, is to little avail if you have missed the more basic point that you were supposed to be heading North.

[4] See Stephen Gowans, Washington’s Long War on Syria (Baraka Books, 2017) and Tim Anderson, The Dirty War On Syria (Global Research, 2016). See also, for example:

[5] Camille Alexander Otrakji, interviewed in 2011, described the situation in these terms: ‘I believe that a clear majority of Syrians support many of the demands of the peaceful protesters. On the other hand, only a minority of Syrians are willing to risk destabilizing their country in order to try to achieve full regime change after a painful drawn-out conflict. You might disagree with me if your impression of the state of the protests movement is the product of Aljazeera and BBC Arabic endlessly looping some bloody clip of the day and creating an impression that victory is near for “the Syrian people” who are demonstrating against their despised tyrant. … Despite weekly calls from opposition figures for millions to demonstrate, based on the numbers of people we have seen in the streets of Syria thus far, it is clear that less than 1.0% of the country (about 150,000 Syrians) has joined the protests. … And yet western governments, the Syrian opposition, and the media covering Syria are all enthusiastically and casually using the term “the Syrian people” … which is a very serious distortion of the facts. … No one reported that for weeks Syrians were demonstrating each night in many cities supporting their President. … The only time millions demonstrated in Syria was the day Assad’s supporters went to the street in most of Syria’s large cities. …

In addition to distorting the true size of the protests movements, everyone seems to overlook the fact that unlike Egypt’s Tahrir Square, Syria’s protestors have mostly been men. “The Syrian people” include women too, as you can see from the pro-Assad demonstrations. Why didn’t any of those Western financed women rights organizations express any concern after seeing tens of all-male demonstrations so far?’

‘There are many groups who are trying to destabilize the regime. You have the regime change activists overseas, who are financed by various American programs that the Obama administration continued to finance despite seeking better relations with Syria. And you have American technologies that allow you to manipulate anything online. For example, you can help generate virtual members among some of the 150,000 that the Syrian revolution 2011 page on Facebook is proud of.

Then there are many Salafists around the country, guided by Syrian, Saudi, or Egyptian religious leaders. And it is possible that some of the four anti-regime billionaires might be trying to stir the pot for their own, different, reasons … most Syrians would much rather see some meaningful reforms undertaken in a peaceful fashion over the next five years under the current regime, instead of trying to sweep the regime away and dealing with the prospect of sectarian civil war. If Bashar were to sign several laws: (1) permitting the formation of political parties; (2) lifting the tight censorship in the press; (3) and modernizing and limiting the role of the mukhabarat (intelligence services), I believe that 80% of the Syrian people would be fully on board with that. They would say to the opposition: “Thank you very much for your courage. You did a valuable service by giving the regime a ‘cold shower’. But now we’ve had enough of the protests and we want to go back to work. We will give Bashar the benefit of the doubt, until the next presidential election.”’ He also emphasises the sheer complexity of Syria, and people’s awareness of its implications: ‘We have Sunnis, Alawites, Christians, Druzes, Kurds, Armenians, and various other ethnic and confessional groups. We have tribalism. We share borders and complex political ties ad history with Lebanon and Iraq, two of the most volatile countries in the region. We are in a state of war with Israel, and we are a central member of the Iranian-Hizbullah-Hamas axis that puts us in the crosshairs of Saudi Arabia and other Arab states. All Syrians are aware of their country’s vulnerability to instability, which is why the vast majority are genuinely supportive, or tolerant, of the current regime, even if they are restless waiting for more reforms.’

If you read the older posts on the Syrian Revolution Facebook page (before they got a facelift and professional PR help), you wouldn’t believe how much religious language you find, and also how much deception there is. They were trying to whip up sectarian hysteria, to radicalize Syria’s Sunnis so as to bring down the regime.’

[6] A collection of references are supplied here : ‘leaked and declassified US cables and emails have demonstrated that this proxy war for regime-change was in the planning from before the end of 2006, with the documents citing the use of false propaganda, incitement of sectarian division, and the use of terrorist proxy forces to achieve the toppling of the Syrian government for the benefit of Israel, among other reasons.’ The drafting of plans, however, goes back much further than 2006. Already in 1983 we find a CIA intelligence briefing in which the strategy for fomenting internal divisions for regime change was set out .

[7] Robin Yassin-Kassab, ‘Syria Shakes’, Pulse, 23 March 2011

[8] Robin Yassin-Kassab, ‘Now Syria’, Pulse 21 March 2011

[9] Raymond Hinnebusch, ‘Syria: from ‘authoritarian upgrading’ to revolution?’ International Affairs, 88(1) 2012: p.113

[10] I give details and references for these statements in my earlier blog post: From the result we can reasonably infer that the people of Syria saw in the current leadership their best hope for unifying the country around the goal of ending the bloodshed. As I suggested in the earlier blog, it is interesting to reflect on how the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen could be right in saying the election was no normal ‘act of politics’: for Bashar Al-Assad has always been clear in statements and interviews that his position is inextricably bound up with the Syrian constitution.  His remarkable steadfastness of purpose he presents as a commitment to defending his country’s constitution.

[11] I don’t think this is controversial, but some relevant discussions include these: A particularly poignant first person account of disillusion at the failure of revolution is that of ‘Edwin Dark’ writing in 2013 of ‘How We Lost the Syrian Revolution’:

[12] The crucial briefing of 14 September 1983, classified secret – ‘Bringing Real Muscle to Bear Against Syria’, by Graham E. Fuller – was released 2008 and can be downloaded from the CIA reading room. [See also note [6] above.]

[13] This article is forthright about the catastrophe that Syria has become and about US responsibility for it.

[14] The correspondence continues: ‘Many Syrians today blame Bashar al-Asad of being “Too Good” and “Naive” in dealing with the crisis. Hafiz was tough against the Muslim Brotherhoods (MB) terrorism in (1979-1982), and many innocent people died while crushing the MB movement, and many innocent people went to jails, but that toughness saved Syria for 3 decades and makes it one of the most secure countries around the globe. … Bashar is a very humble person. … he has his father’s stubborn’s genes for sure. That was so obvious in the current crisis, and he used that trait in defending Syria and Syrians, not in torturing them.’ [Reproduced in Vanessa Beeley, ‘An Honest Response to the Criminally Hypocritical Western Cries of “Torture”’, 21st Century Wire 25 Oct 2017 .]



[17] Merrit Kennedy ‘U.N.: More Than 600,000 Syrians Have Returned Home In 2017’, NPR 11 August 2017: ‘Aleppo governorate saw the highest number’.

[18] It is possible to engage in fine differentiations, doctrinal and behavioural, between the various radical oppositional groups involved – and there are scholars who do so – but what the various factions have in common is far more significant from the point of view of the generality of citizens in Syria. If those groups are lumped together as terrorists it is for the simple reason that this is how they conduct themselves. To complain that this disregard of differences between armed opponents lacks nuance, as certain scholars may do from the comfort of their distant studies, would strike people in practice as morally vacuous. From the point of view of ordinary Syrian civilians who do not want any form of Islamist alternative to the secular Syrian state it is also politically inconsequential. How far removed from the lives of ordinary Syrian citizens must an academic commentator be if he can say things like ‘Libya-style state collapse is preferable to Syria-style state survival’? ‘Preferable’ for someone with no skin in the game, perhaps, and an inexplicable value system. One thing for sure, it is not a sentiment that is consistent with supporting moderate opposition. And if such scholars discern that some Jihadi factions are ‘more moderate’ in certain specific senses than others are, this does not make any of them remotely moderate as political opposition. For they aim at the overthrow of the secular system of government that the majority of people want to keep.

[19] Philip Roddis has written an interesting discussion of Jones and Monbiot as representatives of this particular tendency: . I myself have engaged Monbiot in debate about Syria (here and here) as well as expressing concern to UK green leaders; Mason has not wanted to respond to questions and blocked me on Twitter when I tried to engage him. A particularly interesting case exhibiting the quality of research of this section of opinion formers is the decision by Jeremy Scahill and then Owen Jones to withdraw from a platform on which Mother Agnes was also due to appear. Scahill was persuaded to withdraw by tweets from well-known and vigilant anti-Assadist ‘narrative correctors’ as can be seen in a Twitter thread of 13 November 2013. Following Scahill’s withdrawal, Jones followed suit (for more on which, see also Roddis; while Jones’s own account is here).

Posted in disinformation, doublethink, political philosophy, propaganda, Syria, Syrian opposition, Uncategorized, war | 39 Comments

Bana and Censorship

Personally, I would wish for the child a life of normality out of the public glare. Bana’s parents and their associates, however, have wished instead to maximise her public exposure. In this, they have had the support of publishers, media, politicians and celebrities, notably J K Rowling.

As citizens, and as parents, people will all have their own views on this.  What citizens and parents will not necessarily be able to do, however, is express those views with complete freedom in public; nor will they be able to inform them as fully as a free society would permit.

Anybody who wants to think and say things that conform to the carefully managed narrative from the authorised channels remains free to do so. Anybody who seeks to question it in public is liable to be censored. All critical reviews of Bana’s book, for instance – and I personally saw scores of them when they were first submitted – have simply been deleted by Amazon. But that is the least of it.

Two previous blogs I wrote on Bana (here and here) provided introductions to video reports by Khaled Iskef. These featured visits to the apartment where the Alabed family had lived, and they demonstrated how this was at the heart of the terrorist quarters in the Eastern part of Aleppo. The journalist interviewed local residents who told of the appalling treatment meted out by those terrorists and described how nobody would dare even to take a photo in that part of town, let alone maintain a running conversation with all and sundry in the wider world. He presented evidence to suggest that the paternal side of Bana’s family was closely involved with the terrorists.

Those videos have been removed from Khaled’s Channel on Youtube. The grounds for the removal, apparently, are not that they are false nor that they are defamatory but that they contravene privacy.

As said at the outset, I would be entirely in favour of Bana having privacy.  For although all the other children who remain in Syria, or who have fled in more difficult circumstances, should perhaps command our greater sympathy, Bana is still, after all, just a child. However, given that an authorised version of her story is being given maximum publicity, the pre-emptive silencing of attempts to correct its omissions or falsehoods would be a blatant attack on freedom of expression.

If you can be prevented from seeing Iskef’s videos, or from critically reviewing Bana’s book, I dare say you may one day be prevented even from reading blogs like this. Certainly, bloggers and commentators with a higher profile than mine are already reporting dramatic falls in traffic due to filtering on search engines and social media. Increasingly, it seems, any unauthorised versions of current affairs are being flagged as fakenews or spam.

At present, those who know there is something to look for can still track down videos like those of Khaled Iskef. But how will people in the not too distant future even know they might be missing something?

For myself, I have to say, whenever I encounter PR featuring Bana smiling sweetly, I cannot help but feel worried.  Only a little because of her lack of privacy, but a very great deal because of the ruthless privation of free public space that this campaign participates in.

Khaled censored


Posted in disinformation, journalism, media, propaganda, Syria, Uncategorized, war | 1 Comment

Who’s Afraid of Conspiracy Theory?

‘Conspiracy theory’ is frequently used as a derogatory term, a term of disdain and implicit criticism. An effect of this is to discourage certain kinds of legitimate critical inquiry. But surely, in a world where conspiracies happen, we need good theories of what exactly is happening. The only people who really have anything to worry about from conspiracy theories are conspirators who stand to be exposed by them. For the rest of us, if someone proposes a far-fetched theory, we are instinctively sceptical; if they propose a theory that accounts for some otherwise unaccountable occurrences, they may be helping us learn something.


Of course, people can sometimes be misled by conspiracy theories, but people are misled by the beliefs that conspiracy theories challenge too. This betokens a need for careful scrutiny of controversial contentions quite generally. Obviously, a conspiracy theory is only a theory unless there is also proof. But it is one thing to demand the truth of a theory be proven; it is quite another to pronounce that such a theory can never be accepted as true. Unfortunately, even academic critics fail to observe that clear distinction, with some of them going so far as to condemn conspiracy theories in general, pre-emptively.[1]

Yet what are denigrated as ‘conspiracy theories’ are quite often legitimate lines of inquiry pursued in a spirit of critical citizenship, with the aim of holding to account those who exercise otherwise unaccountable power and influence over our lives, including in ways we are not all always aware of.

My argument, then, is that a kind of inquiry that can be intellectually respectable and socially necessary is far too readily sidelined with the categorisation of it as ‘conspiracy theory’. However, since the name has stuck, I propose we should embrace the designation and push back from the sideline to show how it is possible to engage in conspiracy theory using credible methods of research.

The problem that concerns critics, in fact, is a kind of extravagantly speculative activity that involves believing untested hypotheses. This can appropriately be called conspiracism.[2] Conspiracism designates a fallacious mode of reasoning that reduces questions of explanation to posited conspiracies, without properly investigating the evidence. Conspiracists are prone to see conspiracies everywhere, and to believe what they think they see, without giving sufficient consideration to alternative explanations. What is wrong with conspiracism, though, can be specified by reference to standards of inquiry set by good conspiracy theory. So the two things could hardly be more different.

a-conspiracy-theory-has-surfaced-positing-that-the-cia-assassinated-jfk-over-ufosIt is especially important to be aware of the difference, given how it has been effaced in public discussions. Early ideas about a ‘conspiracist mindset’, from Harold Lasswell and Franz Neumann, informed Richard Hofstadter’s influential study of the political pathologies of the ‘paranoid style’ in the 1960s. This association of conspiracy suspicions with irrationality and paranoia was then actively promoted in the United States, especially, and as Lance deHaven Smith notes, ‘the conspiracy-theory label was popularized as a pejorative term by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in a propaganda program initiated in 1967.’[3]  The program, created as a response to critical citizens’ questions about the assassination of J F Kennedy, ‘called on media corporations and journalists to criticize “conspiracy theorists” and raise questions about their motives and judgments.’ Its reach has extended greatly since.

Professor Peter Knight of Manchester University, who heads a major international interdisciplinary research network, funded by the European Union, to provide a comprehensive understanding of conspiracy theories, takes it to be a now generally accepted fact that ‘some of the labelling of particular views as “conspiracy theories” is a technique of governmentality.’[4]

So who’s afraid of conspiracy theorists? Is it possible that certain governments want us all to be?

It is interesting to note that Professor Knight thinks that if serious conspiracy theories can sometimes be on the right track, then perhaps what they are finding should not be thought of as conspiracies. For instance, he writes, ‘it is possible that different parts of the labyrinthine U.S. intelligence agencies were involved with some of the 9/11 attackers in contradictory and ambiguous ways that fall short of an actual conspiracy, but which nonetheless undermine the notion of complete American innocence.’ The point is, those contradictions and ambiguities merit study, whatever they are called. Knight’s tantalizing idea of an ‘involvement’ that ‘falls short of an actual conspiracy’ brings me in mind of analogous definitional questions that were raised about Bill Clinton’s descriptions of his  ‘involvement’ with a White House intern. Good sense suggests that what people are interested to know is what happened, not what someone calls it. Ultimately, the serious conspiracy theorist – or theorist of conspiracies, as Knight puts it – wants to know what is going on, and hypotheses about ‘involvements’ of all kinds can figure in the inquiry.[5]

We should bear in mind too, that the very name of this field was bestowed upon it by those who sought to pre-empt its development. Its actual practitioners might think their activities could be more aptly designated in one or more of a number of other, albeit less catchy, ways, such as, for instance, critical civic investigation, intellectual due diligence, investigative journalism, critical social epistemology, or critical social theory.

Which brings me to my main reason for speaking out in defence of the activity: as citizens we find ourselves increasingly struck by anomalies and inconsistencies in official and mainstream accounts of public affairs, not to mention in matters of foreign policy. But whenever we try to share our concerns in a public forum, there seem to be people there ready to harangue us with put-downs about being crazy conspiracy theorists. The reason why they do this is something I shall reflect on another time.[6] My point for now is that we have been drawn to conspiracy theory for reasons that are very far from crazy.



[1] There is a marked tendency in certain literatures to take this generalized approach to conspiracy theories. Several philosophers – including David Coady, Charles Pigden, Kurtis Hagen, and Lee Basham – have commented critically on it, with Matthew Dentith, in particular, criticizing the failure of such approaches to consider the possibility of finding merits in particular conspiracy theories. He provides examples of ‘generalist positions which take the beliefs or behaviours of some conspiracy theorists as being indicative of what belief in conspiracy theories generally entails.’ (Matthew Dentith,  ‘The Problem of Conspiracism’, Argumenta, [forthcoming in 2017]) An example is Douglas and Sutton who state that ‘in the main conspiracy theories are unproven, often rather fanciful alternatives to mainstream accounts’; they also argue that conspiracy theorists are likely to believe conspiracy theories because they are more likely to sympathise with conspirators. (Karen Douglas and Robbie M. Sutton, (2011) Does it take one to know one? Endorsement of conspiracy theories is influenced by personal willingness to conspire’, Psychology, 50(3), 2011: 544-552.)

[2] On this, I endorse the recent exposition offered by Matthew Dentith (ibid): ‘recent philosophical work has challenged the view that belief in conspiracy theories should be considered as typically irrational. By performing an intra-group analysis of those people we call “conspiracy theorists”, we find that the problematic traits commonly ascribed to the general group of conspiracy theorists turn out to be merely a set of stereotypical behaviours and thought patterns associated with a purported subset of that group. If we understand that the supposed problem of belief in conspiracy theories is centred on the beliefs of this purported subset – the conspiracists – then we can reconcile the recent philosophical contributions to the wider academic debate on the rationality of belief in conspiracy theories.’  He identifies the challenge I am arguing we need to take on: ‘Typically, when we think of conspiracy theorists we do not think of people who theorised about the existence of some particular conspiracy – and went on to support that theory with evidence – like John Dewey (who helped expose the conspiracy behind the Moscow Trials of the 1930s), or Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (who uncovered the conspiracy behind who broke in to the Democratic National Committee Headquarters at the Watergate office complex in the 1970s). Instead, we think of the advocates and proponents of weird and wacky conspiracy theories … .’

[3] Lance deHaven Smith, Conspiracy Theory in America, University of Texas Press, 2013: p.21; see also Chapter 4 passim.

[4] Peter Knight, ‘Plotting Future Directions in Conspiracy Theory Research’, in Michael Butter and Maurus Reinkowski, eds, Conspiracy Theories in the Middle East and the United States, Berlin: De Gruyter, 2014: p.347.

[5] ‘Involvements’ amongst people can include any of the typical elements of conspiracy such as collusion, collaboration, conniving, tacitly understanding, secretly agreeing, jointly planning, acquiescing, turning a blind eye, covering up for, bribing, intimidating, blackmailing, misdirecting or silencing, and many other more nuanced kinds of arrangement.

[6] In a third blog of this series I shall be asking ‘Do we face a conspiracy to curtail freedom of expression?’ Meanwhile, the second will be a discussion of ‘Conspiracy theory as civic responsibility’. A full academic paper comprising extended versions of each of these will be available shortly. (And yes, for afficionados who are wondering, there will be a full response to proposals of ‘cognitive infiltration’ to ‘cure’ us. I may even suspend my reputed politeness…)


Posted in bullshit, conspiracy, conspiracy theory, disinformation, inter-media, journalism, media, political philosophy, propaganda, Uncategorized, war | 15 Comments

Finance, War, and the Rule of Rogue Law

Something like a privatised global constitution governs financial relationships affecting the life prospects of everyone on the planet. Not only does this entrench the pursuit of interests that run counter to social justice, ecological sustainability, and even real economic productivity.[1] It is implicated in a further, fundamental and all-encompassing, problem. War.

I want to explore the connection, but, first, why speak of a privatised constitution? As Katharina Pistor shows, the very existence of finance has the form of a set of legal contracts underwritten by legal norms and institutionalized means of enforcing them.[2] A critical problem, for the vast majority of us, is that the people with most power over the financial system are the least bound by any socially or politically mandated norms. A global rule of law relating to finance is determined by a kind of supra-political order that itself has no constitutional oversight. An essentially private constitution, created and imposed by a global elite, circumvents and subverts the politics of states and the will of peoples. Gunther Teubner points out that this neoliberal world order has a stratum of constitutional norms that provide transnational corporations with unlimited latitude for action;[3] Turkuler Isiksel highlights how private corporations’ investors’ rights can even colonise human rights regimes.[4] With more than three thousand international investment agreements in effect around the world, private corporations can sue signatory states in order to protect their interests in those states’ own territories. These disputes are heard in legal venues above the jurisdictional authority of states, mostly under the auspices of the International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID). As the ‘investment’ dimension of ‘trade and investment’ agreements comes to involve ever more egregious shifts of power from democratically legitimate authorities to private corporate actors, private rights are even effectively able to trump human rights.[5] From the standpoint of public concern, this looks like the rule of law gone rogue.

The privatised global constitution has taken shape in a period of intense and protracted warfare in many places around the world. The international banking system demonstrated remarkable resilience even throughout World War 2 and has continued to do so during the many further conflicts since.[6] The fact that the banking system is compatible with intense and persistent warfare can be regarded, I think, as demonstrated. The privatised financial constitution has not only survived but seems possibly even to have flourished in these circumstances. This could suggest a lack of incentive on the part of the financial elite to support measures to prevent or contain wars. Once we acknowledge that concern, we face a possibility that is more disturbing still: it could be that those who control the financial system have an active interest in the perpetuation of warfare.

Finance and war are interrelated in three quite general respects: finance needs to be raised in order to fund war; war can be used for the pillage that replenishes finance; war can serve as an outlet for the capital on which finance can draw profits, in particular through arms manufacture and its associated businesses. Those functions can be mutually reinforcing.

Let us consider some more specific connections between the way the global financial architecture is governed and particular wars of the present epoch. Elite financial interests, we know, do not necessarily align with those of states: the Germans, British and Americans, for instance, maintained banking cooperation even throughout World War 2 under the auspices of the Bank for International Settlements (BIS). On the other hand, states that set themselves apart from the dominant system of global financial governance under the BIS do seem to find themselves embroiled in wars that are not typically of their choosing. This correlation applies to a number of states upon which war has been visited in recent years, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen; the correlation also holds for other countries that have been subject to economic sanctions by the United States – like Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, and Cuba. A further distinguishing feature of those named countries is resistance to accepting the continuance of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency.

Correlation is not causation, of course, but it is worth looking at a little more closely. Regarding the war on Iraq, for instance, we know this was not genuinely motivated by concerns about weapons of mass destruction.[7] Many critics have suggested it was motivated by corporate oil interests in the territory, but William Clark has added the more specific suggestion that it was as much, if not more, an oil currency war.[8] Support for this suggestion has also come from Karen Kwiatkowsky, formerly of the US Air Force, who was privy to military intelligence. Speaking in 2004, she noted the significance of the fact that in the year 2000, Saddam Hussein had switched Iraq’s oil sales from the dollar to the euro under the UN Food for Oil programme. Although the oil sales under that programme were relatively small, if sanctions were lifted, then ‘sales from the country with the second largest oil reserves on the planet would have been moving to the euro’, and ‘that could cause massive, almost glacial, shifts in confidence in trading on the dollar.’[9] Tyler Shipley similarly argues that at the crux of the Iraq war was the drive to maintain hegemony of the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency.[10]

As Rohini Hensman and Marinella Correggia explain, due the dollar’s status, currency that the rest of the world has to work and often even suffer to attain, the US has simply to print.[11] So the US can rack up debts to an extent that no other country could. The downside for the US is that doing so has permitted the productivity of its national economy to decline to an extent that has perhaps not been fully appreciated. If the dollar were to lose its world reserve status, the supply of dollars worldwide would then so exceed demand that the lack of collateral would be exposed, thereby prompting a devaluation whose consequences could be catastrophic. The multiple business advantages of maintaining high military spending thus include the direct curtailing of attempts by resistant nations to undermine the status of the dollar.

Not only with Iraq, but with Libya too, there are suggestions that control of the monetary system may have been a motivating factor for the war. Kwiatkowski tells how she had drafted intelligence reports on the success of Libya’s assiduous efforts in recent years to regain the respect of the international community. Her reports, however, were then edited to the point of falsification.[12] This was done, she said, in order that her masters ‘could present their case on Libya in a way that said it was still a threat to its neighbors and that Libya was still a belligerent, antagonistic force.’[13] Following the onset of hostilities, it so transpired that Libya became the site of a very remarkable event whose oddity is hardly explicable except in the light of the above line of analysis.

In early 2011, when the opposition forces in Libya appeared to be in a state of some desperation and disarray,[14] there came the somewhat incongruous report that these rebels were establishing a new central bank. Robert Wenzel, writing at the time in the Economic Policy Journal (28 March 2011), did not conceal his amazement: ‘Here’s one for the Guinness Book of Records. The Libyan rebels in Benghazi said they have created a new national oil company to replace the corporation controlled by leader Muammar Qaddafi whose assets were frozen by the United Nations Security Council and have formed a central bank!’ From this, Wenzel inferred that we were finding here ‘some pretty sophisticated influences’. It was unprecedented for a central bank to be created ‘in just a matter of weeks out of a popular uprising.’[15] As CNBC senior editor John Carney reflected, this was probably ‘the first time a revolutionary group has created a central bank while it is still in the midst of fighting the entrenched political power’ and it ‘certainly seems to indicate how extraordinarily powerful central bankers have become in our era.’[16]

The case of Libya not only suggests some international coordination and planning, but also provides an indication of what passes for legitimacy in this world of interventionism. The rebels had literally broken into the Benghazi bank in March 2011, and when interviewed about it, their U.S.-educated finance minister, Ali Tarhouni, said: ‘“Let me put it this way: We robbed our own bank”. He went on to explain that ‘the bank heist serves as an illustration of the rebels’ ingenuity, wherewithal and organizational skills. It’s proof, he said, that they are ready to run the nation.’[17] It appears, then, that, with the support of the US, favoured rebel leaders can treat entire nations as if existing in a state of nature with respect to the law. The justification offered in the case of Libya, as in so many others, was supposedly ‘humanitarian’; yet, as we have noted, this was based on a falsification of facts. Certainly, no genuine humanitarian motivation is manifest in bombing entire countries to destruction, or in supporting the overthrow of existing state institutions without having any clear plan for establishing either a better constitutional order or improved political leadership. And that criticism does not even touch on more basic questions about the criteria for any legitimate external intervention in a sovereign state’s affairs.

But why is it that certain ‘regimes’ become ripe for imperial subversion or overthrow? What was it, in particular, that linked together the list of countries that retired general Wesley Clark shared in his famous 2007 interview as being next in the sights of the United States’ bellicose intentions and most of which since have indeed been plunged into horrendous wars?[18] Clark professed himself, like his reported source, to be stumped as to the reason. If the strategic objective was not obvious even to senior military figures, then it seems to me that we cannot rule out the kind of motivation that we have seen circumstantial evidence for both in Iraq and Libya. It is quite possible that a number of economic and geopolitical interests converge in motivating the policy concerned, and quite possible that concerns about perceived threats to the dollar as global reserve currency are among them.

We have noted the congruence of motives regarding dollar hegemony and control of oil markets, but the case of Libya alerts us to a further possible dimension of financial interests in war. For it might be asked how allowing the rebels to get control of Libya’s oil and wealth benefits the global financial elite.  Was a larger purpose for their backers served? Although not mentioned much by western politicians or media, it could be a significant fact that the Central Bank of Libya was 100% state owned. An analysis that found resonance at the time was Eric Encina’s argument that the world’s ‘globalist financiers and market manipulators’ could not stand the Libyan monetary authority’s independence, for the government still created its own money, the Libyan Dinar, through its own central bank. ‘One major problem for globalist banking cartels is that in order to do business with Libya, they must go through the Libyan Central Bank and its national currency, a place where they have absolutely zero dominion or power-broking ability.’[19] As Ellen Brown observes, it is this monetary and financial independence that would explain, inter alia, ‘where Libya gets the money to provide free education and medical care and to issue each young couple $50,000 in interest-free state loans.’[20] Kwiatkowsky and others have also observed that whatever the faults of the former Libyan government, its deployment of finance in the public interest appears to have been impressive. That this arrangement should so eagerly be replaced by a US-backed band of rebels clearly presents a scenario of a kind that a global constitution for monetary governance might want to consider avoiding.

Nor is Libya an isolated case of this kind. Similar conflicts of interest appear to apply with regard to Iran, another part of what George W. Bush referred to as the ‘Axis of Evil’, a group of countries each of which had an independent central bank and a stance of resistance in the face of what they regarded as US imperialism.[21] Their resistance includes looking at ways of avoiding being bound in with the dollar. Iran has been actively exploring alternatives since at least 2002 and has taken various significant steps to that end, including establishing its own oil bourse that trades in non-dollar currencies. Meanwhile, it has remained firmly committed to the principle that the Central Bank of Iran should not fall under private control because this would not benefit the Iranian people over the long run. The United States has responded with sanctions, and commentators have suggested that their unstated aims specifically include ‘shutting down Iran’s central bank’.[22] At the time of writing, Iran has not become the subject of a war, although the threats and drumbeating are now quite intense.

And then there is Syria. Syria’s Central Bank is state-owned and state-controlled with a mission to serve the national economy and the Syrian people. It is not beholden to the international banking class,[23] and nor is it therefore subject, through having to deal with the IMF and World Bank, to the ‘usurious loans generating artificial debt crises by which [other] nations are in effect enslaved’ (‘Syrian Girl’ 2012).[24] It is certainly striking that, despite more than six years of warfare and economic sanctions, the country’s administration and army retain the practical cooperation of the wider population; and although the country’s finances and infrastructure are under massive strain, provision of public services is as far as possible maintained, including salaries in opposition-held areas. The practical message sent by the Syrian people through their astounding resilience is that whatever improvement needs to be made to their constitution, and whatever they may in due course decide is the best way to reform the political administration of the country, this will be their decision. To be noted, moreover, is that no part of the domestic political opposition – secular or jihadist – has been arguing for a more capitalist or globalist constitution; nor have they been ideologically committed to integrating Syria into the privatised constitutional arrangements of the foreign powers that have been pressing their regime change agenda.

It is not only in the Middle East and North Africa region that we find countries that are resistant to global finance and are also in the crosshairs of bellicose intentions. North Korea, for instance, in shifting towards the Euro for the pricing of its oil may not have the same material impact as Iraq and Iran, but it does have symbolic significance. Venezuela, with its vast oil reserves, presents both a symbolic and material challenge with its moves to detach its trade in them from the dollar. With Arab nations more generally starting to look at Euros to replace the dollar, and Russians and China doing so too, the threat to the dollar’s status as global reserve currency is evidently becoming increasingly serious. It could be argued that what the US has been doing in recent decades, with the continued printing of dollars without creating corresponding real assets, is inflating the mother of all bubbles. If the dollar were to lose its world reserve currency status, its price would collapse and that bubble would burst. The immediate results could be catastrophic for the US, we may assume, and very likely create a severe global crisis. So a determination of capitalist world leaders to stave it off by any means necessary would not be inexplicable.

The role of the central bank system under the BIS is inextricably linked with that system. Those countries whose central banks are within it are structurally beholden to it; and the preservation of the dollar’s hegemony is functional for it. The countries that stand outside these arrangements may or may not present serious material challenges to the dominant order of things, but their persistence could be a cause of concern for its leaders.

Yet if we look at this matter from the perspective of a public, and shared human, concern about the welfare of human beings around the planet, and about the condition of the biosphere itself – including our nonhuman cohabitors – one is bound to think that the countries of resistance may come closer to providing a model of a sustainable and just future than those that are bought into the idea of a ‘progressive’ liberal democracy taking over the world.

It seems to me, in fact, that some of us may have laboured too long under certain illusions about liberalism and liberal democracy. Why assume, for instance, that neo-liberalism is an aberration with respect to liberal business as usual, or that liberal interventionism is genuinely an ethical alternative to outright neo-conservative warmongering? Anybody who looks dispassionately at the cause of the wars of the past two decades and at the arguments used to perpetuate them – under administrations of both conservative and liberal politicians – will see an essential continuity of fundamental attachment to a capitalist world system that exploits resources and the majority of people for the benefit of a tiny number. I fear that ethically intended liberal thinkers may prove to have been tragically mistaken if they believe that the existing system of monetary governance can be adapted through reform so as to yield the possibility of global justice. I see no reason to believe that real justice for the world will readily be ceded by the powers that have created the global rule of rogue law.





[1] See the forthcoming book by Tim Hayward, Global Justice and Finance, from which this post is an edited extract.

[2] Katharina Pistor, ‘A Legal Theory of Finance’, Journal of Comparative Economics, 41(2) (2013): 315-330.

[3] Gunther Teubner, ‘Self-Constitutionalizing TNCs?: On the Linkage of” Private” and” Public” Corporate Codes of Conduct’, Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies, 18(2) (2011): 617-638

[4] Turkuler Isiksel, ‘The Rights of Man and the Rights of the Man-Made: Corporations and Human Rights’, Human Rights Quarterly, 38 (2016) 294–349.

[5] This happens, if only by default, because ‘while international human rights treaties provide sparse procedural remedies and enforcement mechanisms and tend to lack direct effect within domestic systems, the rights of investors can be invoked against states before international arbitral tribunals.’ (Isiksel 2016: 308) Thanks to investor-state arbitration, investors’ rights may be the most effectively protected ‘human’ right that there is, at the global level. ‘Thus, the expansion of the rights of corporations under international law is likely to weaken the ability of sovereign states to protect the public interest at the domestic level, without a federal authority to compensate for the pernicious regulatory race to the bottom among states.’ (Isiksel 2016: 310)

[6] During the 1930s, the Bank for International Settlements was the central meeting place for central bankers, and during the second world war it accepted looted Nazi gold and foreign exchange deals for Nazi Germany. Governments in Washington and London were well aware of this, and yet it was not something they had constitutional or legal means to prevent. Nor did the British Government even do anything when the gold handed over had been deposited with the Bank of England (see Henry Glazer, ‘A Functional Approach to the International Finance Corporation’, Columbia Law Review, 57(8) (1957): pp.1089-1112). ‘Nationalities were irrelevant. The overriding loyalty was to international finance.’ (Adam Lebor, Tower of Basel: the shadowy history of the secret bank that runs the world, Public Affairs, New York, 2014 p.xix )

[7] Piers Robinson, Learning from the Chilcot report: Propaganda, deception and the ‘War on Terror’, International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studies, Vol 11 (2017) 47-73.

[8] William Clark, ‘The Real Reasons for the Upcoming War With Iraq: A Macroeconomic and Geostrategic Analysis of the Unspoken Truth’ (2003)

[9] Karen Kwiatkowsky, Quoted by Marc Cooper, ‘Soldier for the Truth’, Alternet, 24 February 2004

[10] Tyler Shipley, ‘Currency Wars: Oil, Iraq and the Future of U.S. Hegemony’, Studies in Political Economy 79 (2007): 7-33.

[11] Rohini Hensman and Marinella Correggia, ‘US Dollar Hegemony: The Soft Underbelly of Empire’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 40, No. 12, Money, Banking and Finance (Mar. 19-25, 2005), p.1093.

[12] Karen Kwiatkowsky, Quoted by Marc Cooper, ‘Soldier for the Truth’, Alternet, 24 February 2004 See also Ellen Brown, ‘Libya all about oil, or central banking?’, Asia Times 14 April 2011

[13] Karen Kwiatkowsky

[14] Some indicative reports around this time:


[16] ‘Libyan Rebels Form Their Own Central Bank’ CNBC 28 March 2011

[17] Washington Post 24 May 2011 :

[18] Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Libya, Sudan, Iran and Yemen. See also Ellen Brown, 14 April 2011 ( ).

[19] ‘Globalists Target 100% State Owned Central Bank of Libya’ by Eric Encina

[20] This is from a 2002 article in Asia Times titled “The BIS vs National Banks,” by Henry Liu.

[21] ‘When we look at the IMF-labeled ‘MENA’ region (Middle East/North Africa), which includes the US geostrategic targets of Libya, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Yemen, we find that this is the region least integrated into the IMF/World Bank debt regime.’ (Daniel Robicheau,‘The ‘MENA’ region and the International Monetary Fund’,London Progressive Journal, 23 April 2013 Robicheau continues: ‘Finance capitalism seeks to disintegrate and isolate states, but maybe regional state-to-state cooperation will re-emerge. Maybe internal struggles between different factions of society can be peacefully negotiated to avoid war. Only one thing is certain: The IMF, like a machine, serves the needs of the speculators and oil multinationals who seek out profits from any situation round the world. It will sink regions and countries into its debt regime to serve that purpose.’

[22] ‘The latest round of American sanctions are aimed at shutting down Iran’s central bank, a senior US official said Thursday, spelling out that intention directly for the first time’ (National Post 2012) ‘“We do need to close down the Central Bank of Iran (CBI),” the official told reporters on condition of anonymity’. (The measures were in a bill signed by President Obama on 31.12.2011.) And why is that? The official reason appears to be to put pressure on Iran regarding its nuclear programme. See also the call of US senator for ‘crippling’ sanctions on Central Bank of Iran   See also

‘Why is the U.S. targeting Iran’s central bank? Well, multi-billionaire Hugo Salinas Price told King World News: What happened to Mr. Gaddafi, many speculate the real reason he was ousted was that he was planning an all-African currency for conducting trade. The same thing happened to him that happened to Saddam because the US doesn’t want any solid competing currency out there vs the dollar. You know Gaddafi was talking about a gold dinar.’ (Washingtonsblog 13 Jan 2012:

[23] The Central Bank of Syria pursues monetary policy that is committed ‘to maintain the of priority of public utility’ with a view to ensuring the financial sector serves to support ‘quality, soundness and sustainability in the national economy as a whole.’ The Syrian Central Bank website

[24] ‘Syria, like Iran and Libya, is not beholden to the IMF/World Bank for any loans, which would seem to be an unusual phenomenon in our present era of ‘globalization’.’ (Daniel Robicheau 2013)

Posted in constitutional politics, disinformation, environment, global justice, political philosophy, propaganda, Syria, Uncategorized, war | 18 Comments

Who is Responsible for Chemical Attacks in Syria? Guest Blog by Professor Paul McKeigue (Part 2)

Paul McKeigue now applies the method described in Part 1 of his guest blog to the events in Ghouta (2013) and Khan Sheikhoun (2017). Based on extensive research, a false flag hypothesis for each event is spelled out in some detail. Photographic evidence referred to is not included in this blog but is available in the public domain. Readers are advised that these hypotheses involve harrowing and disturbing considerations.

United Nations Security Council Holds Emergency Meeting On Syria

Paul McKeigue

Fake news, false flags and the weight of evidence favouring alternative explanations of alleged chemical attacks in Syria

In the last post I outlined the development of the mathematical and philosophical basis for using probability calculus to evaluate evidence.

The framework of probability calculus implies that:-

  • you cannot evaluate the evidence for or against a single hypothesis, only the weight of evidence favouring one hypothesis over an alternative
  • the weight of evidence favouring one hypothesis over another is based on comparing how well each of the two hypotheses would have predicted the observations
  • your assessment of how well a hypothesis would have predicted the observations does not in general depend on your prior degree of belief that this hypothesis is true

That’s as far as we can go without using numbers. As the objective of these posts is to show you how to evaluate evidence for yourself using simple back-of-the envelope calculations, I’ll recapitulate how to do this.

  • How well a hypothesis would have predicted the observations is quantified by a number called the likelihood. This is calculated as the probability of the observations given that hypothesis. When the observations are fixed and we are comparing different hypotheses, we reverse this dependency and describe this number as “the likelihood of the hypothesis given the observations”. If you find this confusing, you’re not the only one. Likelihoods are not probabilities when they are used to compare hypotheses. “Support” would be a better word than “likelihood” (which in ordinary English is synonymous with probability).
  • The weight of evidence favouring one hypothesis over another is the logarithm of the ratio of the likelihoods. Weights of evidence can be added over independent observations. It’s convenient to use logarithms to base 2, so that the weights are expressed in bits.
  • If you make an assertion about the strength of evidence favouring one hypothesis over another, you are making an assertion about the conditional probabilities from which the ratio of likelihoods is calculated. These conditional probabilities (“expectations” would be a better word than “probabilities”) are based on subjective judgements. You can’t evaluate evidence without making these subjective judgements.

If you have learned to think of probabilities as objective properties of physical systems, the modern subjectivist interpretation of probability as quantifying degree of belief may be hard to accept. Classical probability theory was based on situations like coin-tossing and throwing dice, where probabilities are imposed by physical symmetries. However the rules for updating subjective probabilities in the light of evidence apply even when there are no such symmetries. One way to elicit your subjective probability of an event is as the price you would offer or accept for a ticket that will pay out £1 if the event occurs, and nothing if the event does not occur. If the prices you specify over various combinations of events are not consistent with probability theory, someone else can construct a “Dutch book” against you – a set of bets that guarantees that they will gain and you will lose.

Although probabilities are subjective, they are not plucked out of nowhere: they have to be consistent with what you already know, and with what you do not know. Usually there is some information that can be used to set conditional probabilities. For instance, in the examples discussed later, where some victims were injured after they were supposedly rescued, information on the frequencies of accidental injuries of these types in different settings can help us to specify the conditional probability of this observation given a hypothesis under which such injuries could only be explained as accidental. Where people differ in their assessment of the strength of evidence contributed by the same observations, eliciting these conditional probabilities will establish where their judgements differ.

We don’t need to get too hung up on the subjectivity of assessing how well a hypothesis would have predicted the observations. In the examples discussed in these posts, serious errors have arisen not because people’s assessments of these conditional probabilities were inconsistent with the available information, but because:-

  • relevant observations have been widely ignored (as we shall see in this section)
  • observations consistent with a hypothesis have been accepted as evidence supporting that hypothesis, without considering alternative hypotheses. An example is how the observation of Volcano rockets in the Ghouta incident was accepted as supporting the hypothesis of a regime attack, though the hypothesis of a “false flag” attack would have predicted this observation at least as well.
  • the evaluation of evidence favouring one hypothesis over another has been been confused with assertions of prior belief about the plausibility of one of those hypotheses.

In the context of the Syrian conflict, it is difficult for independent-minded journalists and academics to propose explanations that differ from the official line without being heavily criticized for “speculating” or “conspiracy theorizing”. However you cannot evaluate evidence for a hypothesis without specifying alternative hypotheses and computing the likelihoods of these hypotheses given the observations: this inevitably requires you to “speculate”.

In the discussion below I have linked to the sources of the observations used, but I have not embedded any images as the horrifying nature of some of these images would distract from the formalism of the argument. I am not appealing to your emotions but to your ability to use logic to evaluate evidence for yourself.

Weight of evidence for alternative hypotheses about the alleged chemical attack in Ghouta in 2013

At the end of the last post I listed four alternative hypotheses about the Ghouta event:-

  • H1: a chemical attack was carried out by the Syrian military, authorized by the government
  • H2: a false-flag chemical attack was carried out by the Syrian opposition to implicate the government
  • H3: an unauthorized chemical attack was carried out by a rogue element in the Syrian military
  • H4: there was no chemical attack but a managed massacre of captives, with rockets and sarin used to create a trail of forensic evidence that would implicate the Syrian government in a chemical attack.

The problem is to compute the likelihoods of these four hypotheses given the “dog did not bark” observation that no images of search and rescue operations were released:-

Under H1, H2 or H3, it is unlikely that no such images would have been made available. But how unlikely? To assess this, we have to envisage the scenario under H1. Procedures for urban search and rescue are well established. After each home has been searched, it is marked to record how many live victims were rescued and how many dead victims were found. If in eastern Ghouta the area affected covered only one square kilometre of housing, with 50 homes per hectare, there would have been 5000 homes to search. With at least 400 fatalities, we expect at least as many living but incapacitated individuals to have needed rescuing. The immediate priority would have been to rescue the living, leaving bodies to be removed later. Even if the operation began in the middle of the night soon after the alleged attack, we would expect it to have continued after daybreak.

Of at least 150 videos uploaded , badged as coming from 18 different media outlets, not one shows this search and rescue operation. Most show victims at morgues, hospitals or improvised medical stations: dead and living victims appear to have arrived at these medical stations in the middle of the night. Most people will agree that the probability of this observation given H1 is low: I’ll assign a value of 0.05. It is possible to calculate a number for this conditional probability based on some assumptions about the probability that the output of a single media outlet will include a search and rescue image, but I don’t claim that this is more than a (rather conservative) subjective judgement.

Under H4, the conditional probability of this observation is high – it would have been difficult to stage such operations without the cooperation of large numbers of civilians. We can set a value of 0.8 for the probability that no search and rescue operations would be uploaded. This gives a likelihood ratio of about 20: a weight of evidence of 4.3 bits favouring H4 over H1. There are other related observations that should be taken into account: for instance:

  • the observation that all victims were in day clothes though the alleged attack occurred at about 2 am
  • the obviously fraudulent videos of the “Zamalka Ghost House” in which videos of a group of adults and children apparently executed several days before the alleged chemical attack and placed in an unfinished building were presented as a family of victims found in situ.

Each of these observations would add one or two bits to the weight of evidence favouring H4 over H1, giving a total weight of evidence of about 7 bits given the related observations of no images of search and rescue, that the only such images uploaded were fraudulent, that bodies of victims apparently arrived without delay, and that these victims were fully clothed. Even if your prior odds favouring H1 over H4 were 1000 to 1, this weight of evidence would reduce the odds to about 3 to 1. There are other “dog did not bark” observations of non-occurrence of expected events related to the Ghouta incident that support H4 over H1: for instance under H1 we would expect to see interviews with bereaved survivors who would be able to document, with family photos, that they were relatives of victims seen dead in morgues.

We could proceed to evaluate the weights of evidence for other independent observations that have been made on the Ghouta event, and add them up. However there is one single observation for which I assess the weight of evidence favouring H4 over H1 to be so large as to overwhelm anything else.

The Kafr Batna morgue images

Some of the most harrowing images from the Ghouta incident were from a building identified as an old tuberculosis hospital in the suburb of Kafr Batna, in which living and dead victims were shown in a basement room, and and at least 80 dead victims were laid out in a sunlit ground floor room (the “Sun Morgue”). A detailed study of the videos and still images from this site has been released online. This includes a detailed reconstruction of the fate of one victim in the Sun Morgue (pages 184-201). A short video summarizing this reconstruction has been released. The sequence of the videos and still images can be reconstructed from sun angles and from the order in which bodies are laid out and removed. The reconstruction shows that a heavily built male (given the code M-015 in this study) was brought into the morgue and laid on the floor apparently dead with no sign of bleeding. In later images M-015 had clenched his fists to grip his shirt, was bleeding from the neck, and a folded blanket had been been placed under his head. In subsequent images the flow of bright red blood had continued, eventually saturating the blanket and spilling on the floor. At the end, when most of the bodies had been removed, the blood-soaked blanket remained. These images show that M-015 was not dead when brought into the morgue (dead people do not clench fists or bleed profusely). The only plausible interpretation of this image sequence is that M-015’s throat was cut when the morgue workers realized he was still alive.

I’ll now try to compute the likelihoods of H4 and H1 given this observation. Under H1 it is possible that a victim would be mistakenly declared dead and begin stirring in the morgue, but it’s almost impossible to explain why subsequent videos showed the victim bleeding bright red blood from the neck, or why the reaction of the emergency workers to someone who was obviously alive and bleeding profusely was to place a blanket under his neck and leave him to die.

The least implausible explanation I can come up with under H1 is that M-015 began stirring in the morgue, that somehow this led to an accident in which he was stabbed in the neck, and that the morgue staff, having no idea how to deal with this and afraid to report the accident, simply placed a blanket under his neck and left him to die. The probability of a patient being accidentally stabbed in the neck in a hospital setting, even in a chaotic response to a major incident, is extremely low. On the basis that I found no reports of such accidents in a brief search, I’ll put the risk of at least one such accident in Ghouta at less than 10-5. A botched medical procedure, such as an attempted insertion of a central venous catheter via the neck, is not a plausible explanation for the bleeding as there would have been no indication for such a procedure as the first response to someone apparently recovering consciousness, and no space around the patient was cleared to facilitate medical intervention. Based on a probability of 10-5 that a victim waking up in the morgue would be accidentally stabbed in the neck and a probability of 0.01 (given that under hypothesis H1 the morgue staff are genuine emergency workers) that the reaction of the staff to this accident would be to leave him to die, I compute the likelihood of H1 given this observation as 10-7. Maybe readers can come up with an better explanation of how this sequence of images could have occurred given hypothesis H1.

Under H4, which postulates that the Ghouta victims were massacred captives most likely killed in gas chambers and that the morgue staff were playing an active part in this operation, such an observation is not unexpected. The probability that in a massacre of more than 400 people at least one victim would survive the gas chamber and that those removing the bodies would fail to detect this is high (0.5). It is to be expected that they would kill such an individual as soon as he began stirring, and it is probable that the method chosen would be throat cutting rather than shooting or strangling (0.5). It’s also probable (0.4) that such an incriminating sequence of images would not be detected by those responsible for editing and uploading the videos and stills. Multiplying these conditional probabilities together gives a likelihood of 0.1. As we’ll see it won’t make much difference to the weight of evidence if these numbers vary by a factor of 2 or so. The weight of evidence is dominated by the very low likelihood of H1.

On this basis I evaluate the likelihood ratio favouring H4 over H1,given the observation of what appears to be a murder in the Kafr Batna morgue, as a million to one: a weight of evidence of 20 bits.

Evidence for alternative explanations of Khan Sheikhoun

We now turn to evaluating the evidence for alternative explanations of the alleged chemical attack on 4 April 2017 in Khan Sheikhoun. With Ghouta as a precedent, we can begin by defining just two alternative hypotheses:

  • H1: the Khan Sheikhoun incident was a chemical attack by the Syrian air force using sarin. The leading proponents of this hypothesis are the US, UK and French governments.
  • H2: the Khan Sheikhoun incident was a planned deception operation intended to bring about US military intervention, in which captives were killed in gas chambers, small quantities of sarin were used to generate a forensic trail and a large-scale media operation was undertaken to support the story of a chemical attack by the Syrian air force. The earliest proponents of this hypothesis were a group of contributors to the wiki A Closer Look on Syria. Under this hypothesis, Khan Sheikhoun is Ghouta version 2, and it is to be expected that a similar trail of evidence will be laid: purported eyewitnesses will describe the attack, videos will show victims purportedly being treated and bodies laid out in morgues, at least one alleged impact site will be shown with the remains of a munition, and both environmental and physiological samples will test positive for sarin.

As before, your prior beliefs about which of these two alternative hypotheses is correct need not prevent you from evaluating the weight of evidence favouring one hypothesis over the other. You may believe that H1 is highly implausible on the basis that the Syrian government had no motive to carry out such an attack, or you may believe that H2 is highly implausible on the basis that such an elaborate deception operation is beyond the capability of the Syrian opposition and their foreign allies. To evaluate the evidence favouring H1 over H2, you have to assess, for each hypothesis in turn, what you would expect to observe if that hypothesis were true. This means that you have to put yourself first in the shoes of a Syrian general planning a chemical attack on the town, and then in the shoes of an opposition commander planning a massacre that would implicate the Syrian government.

For hypothesis H2 we have to envisage how a clever and ruthless al-Qaeda commander, perhaps working with foreign help, would plan such an operation. Although it is disturbing to have to work through this, I’ll now state, as neutrally as I can, how I would expect such an operation to be planned.

  • Captives (most likely religious minorities or families of government supporters) would be held in readiness. Improvised explosive devices and possibly smoke generators could be placed at key locations in the town to panic the civilian population into believing they were under chemical attack. Low doses of sarin could be administered to volunteers so that they would test positive for exposure to sarin (the doses required to generate a positive test are far below those required to cause symptoms). Medical facilities controlled by jihadis would be ready to play their part by showing casualties, real or fake, being “treated”. A few actors could be prepared to play the part of bereaved parents, and provided with photos of children who were to be killed. Captives would be killed in improvised gas chambers, but the preferred agent would be an easily-available gas that leaves no residue, rather than sarin which would endanger those removing the bodies. A well-staffed video editing operation would be ready to edit the raw footage into clips and stills badged with the logos of various opposition media organizations. To make the video images so horrific that those viewing them would be shocked into supporting immediate retaliation against the Syrian government, the planners might choose that some children would not be killed outright by the gas but instead filmed struggling to breathe, before they were finished off by other methods.

In this framework, we can begin by evaluating the “mountain” of evidence – eyewitness reports, footage, crater, positive tests for sarin – that Monbiot invoked. Most of these observations were similar to that from Ghouta: purported eyewitnesses of the attack were made available for interview, images showing victims in morgues or improvised treatment facilities were uploaded, and samples tested positive for sarin. The likelihood of H1 given these observations is close to 1. Under H2, which specifies that Khan Sheikhoun was a repeat of Ghouta, we expect such observations so the likelihood of H2 also is close to 1. The weight of evidence favouring H1 over H2 given these observations is therefore close to zero. You may have a strong prior belief that H2 is implausible, but that does not influence the likelihood ratio favouring H1 over H2.

How does hypothesis H2 account for this mountain of evidence so easily? A key requirement for a successful deception operation is to create what look like many independent sources of evidence, even though they are all in fact generated by the operation. This principle was brilliantly applied by the legendary Naval Intelligence Division in the deception operations that led German commanders to expect Allied landings in 1943 in Greece rather than Sicily, and in 1944 in Calais rather than Normandy. Thus under H2, if the planners are competent, we expect to see videos badged with the logos of different opposition media agencies and uploaded separately, even though they may all originate from a central video editing operation.

At this point you may reasonably ask: if H2 can so easily account for this mountain of evidence, what possible observations could give a likelihood ratio strongly favouring H1 over H2? Such observations are those that would be expected under H1, but very difficult to generate under H2. For instance if H1 were true, any of the following observations might be expected to contribute evidence favouring H1 over H2:-

  1. if we were presented with convincing and hard-to-fake evidence that the victims seen dead in the images had lived in the locality from which they were supposedly rescued
  2. if interviews with bereaved survivors included convincing and hard-to-fake evidence that the dead victims were their relatives, including family photos showing them with these victims. These family photos should include adult victims, who unlike young children cannot easily be induced to pose in a familiar setting with their captors.
  3. if videos showed the search and rescue operations in which these victims’ bodies were recovered: these operations would be hard to stage on a large scale without the cooperation of civilians.
  4. if a chemical signature match between the environmental sarin samples and Syrian military stocks were reported by scientists prepared to put their names on a report that was detailed enough to be subjected to independent peer review.
  5. if blood tests on purported survivors of the chemical attack showed exposure to sarin at levels high enough to have caused severe and life-threatening poisoning. Modern tests for sarin exposure can detect exposure at levels far lower than those required to cause symptoms. It would be easy for actors to expose themselves to low doses of sarin, but not so easy for them to expose themselves at levels high enough to cause severe symptoms.

It’s also useful to list, before going further, what possible observations might be expected to contribute evidence favouring H2 over H1 if H2 were true:-

  1. if the locations of victims and alleged air strikes were not consistent with records of flight tracks or with wind directions. Under H2, locations of improvised explosive devices would have to be planned in advance, without knowing where a jet would fly or which way the wind would be blowing.
  2. if the uploaded videos contained evidence that scenes were staged or that the victims were captives. Under H2, a weak point in the operation is that dozens of video clips and still images that are meant to show rescue workers dealing with large numbers of victims have to be recorded, edited and uploaded in a few hours, and the editing may fail to remove incriminating material. When all available images are arranged in temporal sequence, using sun angles and other clues to time the images, and the identities of victims are matched in different clips a different story may be revealed, as in Kafr Batna.

With this in mind, we can evaluate the weight of evidence contributed by five observations that have been summarized here

Weights of evidence contributed by observations

Observation Prob (obs given H1) Prob (obs given H2) Likelihood ratio H2 / H1 Weight of evidence (bits) favouring H2 over H1
An individual claiming to be a bereaved survivor was made available for interview, with photos showing him with two children later seen as victims. The lack of photos of his wife was attributed to loss of the family photo album in an airstrike on the family home. 0.002 0.04 20 4.3
There are no videos of victims being rescued in their homes, or bodies being recovered 0.05 0.8 16 4
The flight track of the Syrian jet shown by the Pentagon (single east-west pass just south of the town) is incompatible with the track of the three explosions (north-south axis over the northern part of town) and the alleged impact site of the chemical munition 0.01 0.8 80 6.3
The alleged impact site of the chemical munition is upwind of where the casualties were reported (by the rebels) to have occurred. 0.02 0.5 25 4.6
In the images released by the rebels, several of the children who are seen dead have head and neck injuries. Reconstruction of sequences and matching of identities shows that in two of these children the head injuries were received after they had been supposedly rescued by the White Helmets 0.01 0.2 20 4.3
Total 23.5

Notes on assignment of likelihoods

  1. In Khan Sheikhoun at least two individuals claiming to be bereaved survivors were interviewed. Most of the interviews were given by Abdelhamid al-Yousef (AHY), who appears to have been serving in the opposition forces as a sniper. AHY reported that his wife and nine-month old twins had been killed in the chemical attack, and produced photos showing him with two children about this age who were among the dead victims. No photos showing AHY with the mother of these children were produced: an interviewer reported that “he does not even have any photos of his beloved wife of two years left to console him, as they were all destroyed in the attack that ripped through his hometown.” and quoted him as saying “In my house all the photos I had of my wife and everything I owned was burnt.”Under H1, it is expected that at least one bereaved survivor would be available for interview. However the probability is rather low that the witness’s home would have been destroyed in an air strike at the same time as the alleged chemical attack, given that only three explosions were documented as occurring in Khan Sheikhoun at this time. These explosions were geolocated by smoke plumes, satellite images and ground-based images. The explosions appear to have been relatively small, each destroying only a single house. If, as alleged, these explosions were caused by bombs dropped by an aircraft in a single pass over the northern half of town, we can estimate the area at risk as about 30 hectares, and that about 1500 homes were at risk (based on a typical urban density of 50 homes/hectare). The probability that the witness’s home would have been one of the buildings destroyed by these three explosions is therefore about 1 in 500.Under hypothesis H2 that Khan Sheikhoun was version two of Ghouta, there is a moderate probability that at least one actor would have been prepared to play the part of a bereaved survivor, and would have posed for photographs with captive children. I’ll assign a probability of 0.2 to this. The problem for such an actor would be to explain the lack of photographs showing him with the adult victims from the same family, It is much easier to get young children to play happily with an adult who befriends them than it is to induce adults to pose for a family photograph with their captors. Of the possible explanations that such an actor might choose to give, one of the most likely (to emphasize the brutality of the regime) is that the family home was destroyed in an airstrike. I’ll assign a probability of 0.2 that this explanation would be produced. Multiplying the conditional probability under H2 that an actor with photos showing him with the children would be made available for interview by the probability that this actor would invoke destruction of the family photo album in an airstrike to explain the lack of photos showing him with the mother, we get a likelihood of 0.04.The likelihood ratio favouring H2 over H1 is 20. Note that this assessment of likelihoods does not make any assessment of whether AHY is telling the truth or lying. We have shown that under H1, it is a rather improbable coincidence that one of the few homes destroyed by three apparently untargeted bombs dropped on a town of at least 20,000 people would be that of the sole survivor of a large extended family killed in a chemical attack at the same time. We also assess that under H2, it is quite probable that an actor playing the part of a bereaved survivor would report the destruction of his home in an airstrike as an explanation for why no family photos showing him with adult victims were available. Computing the ratio of these two likelihoods allows us to make a statement about the strength of the evidence contributed by this observation.
  2. In all the videos and images released by the White Helmets and other opposition media organizations from Khan Sheikhoun, there are no images of urban search and rescue operations. Under H1, we’d expect to see videos of the White Helmets carrying out a search and rescue operation covering the neighbourhood allegedly affected by the chemical attack. The White Helmets are trained in urban search and rescue procedures and are famous for documenting their operations on video. The absence of such videos has low probability (conservatively assessed at 0.05) under H1, but high probability (0.8) under H2 as it would be difficult to stage such scenes without involving large numbers of civilians.
  3. The flight track of the Syrian jet shown at the Pentagon’s press conference shows only a single east-west pass just south of the town, passing no closer than 2 km from the crater that was the alleged impact site of the chemical munition. The three high explosive detonations, mapped by OPCW based on witness reports, and by others based on geolocation of smoke plumes and images (satellite and ground-based) of explosive damage, are in the northern half of town in a north-south line. From the scatter of the points that were plotted on the Pentagon’s map, we can estimate the accuracy of the flight track (presumably based on airborne radar). By inspection of other east-west passes on this map, I estimate that the standard deviation of the errors in a north-south direction is less than 1 km. For the jet to have passed over the alleged impact site, at least two data points would have had to have been plotted too far south by at least two standard deviations: the probability of this is about 1 in 1000. Even more unexpected under H1 is that the flight track does not show the north-south pass that would have been required to drop three bombs corresponding to the three documented high-explosive detonations.As the Pentagon’s map appears to include at least one false-positive data point (an outlying data point southwest of Homs city that does not appear to be part of a flight track), it is reasonable to allocate a small but nonzero probability to false-negative results: specifically a failure to detect a north-south pass. To be conservative, I’ll assign a value of 0.01 to the probability under H1 that the Pentagon’s map of the track of the Syrian jet would match neither the position nor the alignment of the reported impact sites.Under H2, the explosions were generated by IEDs, and the arrival of the jet was the cue to set off these explosions. The probability that the pre-planned line-up of IEDS would not match the flight path of the jet is high – I assign a probability of 0.8 to this.
  4. The videos of the smoke plumes from the three high explosive detonations, recorded by opposition cameramen and said to have occurred just before the alleged chemical attack, show that the wind was blowing steadily from southwest to northweast. The OPCW’s map of the area in which casualties allegedly occurred, based on reports from eyewitnesses, shows that this area is southwest – i.e. upwind – of the alleged impact crater. Under H1, this is difficult to explain: we have to postulate some unusual local reversal of wind direction at ground level. I assign a probability of 0.02 to this. Under H2, in which the locations from which casualties were to be reported and the location of the impact crater were planned in advance, the probabilities that the specified casualty location would be upwind or downwind of the impact crater are about equal, so the probability of an upwind location is about 0.5.
  5. The images of the victims are so horrific that most of us find it difficult to look at them further. Detailed frame-by-frame analyses of the many videos clips and still images can take many months. A few citizen journalists in different countries, sharing their work for peer review, have made some progress with this Careful examination of the videos and still images, using sun angles to time them, has allowed them to be ordered in temporal sequence and the identities of the same individuals to be matched in different videos. Several of the children seen dead in in improvised morgues have obvious and recent head injuries. In at least two of these children, it is possible to establish that these head injuries were received after they had been “rescued” by the White Helmets. Under H1, the probability that at least two victims would receive traumatic injuries after they had been rescued is very low. The most plausible explanation under H1 is a traffic accident while they were being transported in an ambulance or a pickup truck. A rough estimate for the rate of serious injuries from road traffic accidents in a low-income country like Syria in wartime is 1 per million vehicle-kilometres. Allowing for a tenfold higher rate per vehicle-km in vehicles used as emergency ambulances, and a total distance of 200 vehicle-km travelled by vehicles transporting casualties in the Khan Sheikhoun incident, the probability of an accident causing injuries to some of these casualties is about 0.002. Note that this is the risk of a single accident that is assumed to account for all injuries received after rescue; if the injured children did not travel in the same ambulance, we have to postulate multiple accidents, for which the probability is far lower. Again to be conservative I’ll assign a conditional probability of 0.01 to these injuries occurring by accident under H1.Under H2, it is probable that some victims would survive the gas, either by accident or by design (if the plan was to film some children while still alive for maximal emotional impact). These victims would have to be finished off with physical violence, and the probability is high that this would include blows to the head or neck.
    The probablity that editing of the videos would fail to remove the incriminating sequence of images is also moderately high, given the large number of videos that had to be edited and uploaded over a few hours. I assign a probability of 0.2 to this observation given H2.

From this evaluation, I assess the total weight of evidence favouring H2 over H1 as about 23 bits, giving a likelihood ratio of about 8 million to 1. This might be described as a mountain of evidence.

Although these assignments of the conditional probablities of the observations given H1 and H2 entail subjective judgements on my part, it should be possible for people with different prior odds to reach consensus on these conditional probabilities, and thus on the likelihood ratios. You may be able to improve on and correct my judgements of the conditional probabilities, using additional information. For instance:-

  • By fitting smoothed curves to the points shown on the Pentagon’s map of the flight track, it should be possible to make a better estimate of the probability distribution of the errors in the data points that make up the flight track.
  • Someone with meteorological expertise may be able to assign a more realistic probability of a local reversal of wind direction at ground level.
  • Further analysis of the videos may establish whether a single traffic accident to an ambulance can account for all children who were injured after they had been rescued.


From this evaluation of the likelihoods of alternative explanations of the alleged chemical attacks in Ghouta in 2013 and Khan Sheikhoun in 2017 given some key observations, I assess that the evidence favouring the hypothesis of a managed massacre of captives over the hypothesis of a regime chemical attack is overwhelming (at least 20 bits) both for the Ghouta attack and for Khan Sheikhoun. The calculations and subjective judgements on which these assessments are based are set out above. The evaluation of weights of evidence does not depend on prior beliefs about which hypotheses are plausible. To modify this conclusion about the weight of evidence, you have either to identify additional observations which would have been predicted better by the regime chemical attack hypothesis than by the managed massacre hypothesis, or to criticize and revise my assessments of the conditional probabilities of the observations listed above given each of these two hypotheses. I’ve suggested above some ways in which additional information could be used to revise these conditional probabilities. If you believe that either the managed massacre hypothesis or the regime attack hypothesis is implausible, I am not disagreeing with you: priors are subjective. However for your beliefs to be logically consistent, your priors must be updated by the weight of evidence according to Bayes’ theorem.

The strength of the evidence favouring the managed massacre hypothesis over the regime chemical attack hypothesis has quite radical implications for the credibility of western media, western governments and international agencies such as OPCW; you may reasonably ask “how could they have got it so wrong?”.



Posted in chemical weapons, disinformation, guest blog, journalism, propaganda, Syria, UK Government, Uncategorized, war, White Helmets | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

How to Weigh a Mountain of Evidence: Guest Blog by Professor Paul McKeigue (Part 1)

In this first of a two part special guest blog, my colleague Paul McKeigue will explain how the formal logic of probability theory can be used to evaluate the evidence for alternative explanations of an event like the Khan Sheikhoun chemical incident in April this year. As an epidemiologist and genetic statistician, Paul is expert in this approach.

Paul picks up on the recent debate between George Monbiot and myself (here and here) observing how we were somewhat at cross-purposes. George was insisting that I offer a competing explanation to the ‘Assad did it’ story, but I declined to speculate, having no independent way of knowing. Because George believed a “mountain” of evidence supported his belief, he found it vexing that I should question it without venturing a specific alternative explanation.

Paul points the way forward by arguing that the logic of probability theory implies that you cannot evaluate the evidence for or against a single hypothesis, but only the evidence favouring one hypothesis over another. He shows, with simple examples, how an observation that is consistent with a hypothesis does not necessarily support that hypothesis against an alternative; in fact, an observation that is highly unlikely under one hypothesis may still support that hypothesis if it is even more unlikely under an alternative.

In this framework, then, evidence for a claim that the Syrian government carried out a chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun cannot be evaluated except by comparison with an alternative explanation. The problem for anyone who formulates such an alternative explanation is that, in the current climate, they are likely to be denounced as a “conspiracy theorist”. Paul shows, however, that you cannot evaluate evidence without envisaging what you would expect to observe if each of the alternative hypotheses were true. This inevitably requires you to ‘speculate’: it doesn’t mean that you endorse any of the alternative hypotheses.

In Part 1 posted here below, Paul explains the approach and demonstrates how it can be applied to evaluate the evidence for alternative explanations of the alleged chemical attack in Ghouta in 2013. We welcome discussions of the approach in the comments. In Part 2, he will examine the evidence for alternative explanations of the Khan Sheikhoun incident.

Bayes & Turing 2

Paul McKeigue    

Using probability calculus to evaluate evidence for alternative hypotheses, including deception operations

In this post I will try to show how the formal framework of hypothesis testing based on probability theory is able to separate subjective beliefs about the plausibility of alternative explanations, on which we can agree to differ, from the evaluation of the weight of evidence supporting each of these alternative explanations, on which it should be easier to reach a consensus. We can then begin to apply this to the Syrian conflict.

Although the mathematical basis for using evidence from observations to update the probability of a hypothesis was first set out by the 18th century clergyman Thomas Bayes, the first practical use of this framework was for cryptanalysis by Alan Turing at Bletchley Park. This was later elaborated by his assistant Jack Good as a general approach to evaluating evidence and testing hypotheses. This approach to testing hypotheses has been standard practice in genetics since the 1950s, and has spread into many other fields of scientific research, especially astronomy. It underlies the revolution in machine learning and artificial intelligence that is beginning to transform our lives. Although the practical usefulness of the Bayes-Turing framework is not in question, this does not prove that it is the only logical way to evaluate evidence. The basis for this was provided by the physicist Richard Cox, who showed that degrees of belief must obey the mathematical rules of probability theory if they satisfy simple rules of logical consistency. Another physicist, Edwin Jaynes, drew together the approach developed by Turing and Good with Cox’s proof to develop a philosophical framework for using Bayesian inference to evaluate uncertain propositions. In this framework, Bayesian inference is just an extension of the ordinary rules of logic to manipulating uncertain propositions; any other way of evaluating evidence would violate rules of logical consistency. There are too many names – not limited to Bayes, Turing, Good, Cox and Jaynes – attached to the development of this framework to name it after all of them, so I’ll follow Jaynes and just call it probability calculus.

The objective of this post and the one that follows is to show you, the reader, how to evaluate evidence for yourself using simple back-of-the-envelope calculations based on probability calculus.

Some fundamental principles of probability calculus can be expressed without using mathematical language:-

  • For two alternative hypotheses, H1 and H2, the evidence favouring H1 over H2 is evaluated by comparing how well H1 would have predicted the observations with how well H2 would have predicted the observations.
  • We cannot evaluate the evidence for or against a single hypothesis, only the evidence favouring one hypothesis over another.
  • The evidence favouring one hypothesis over another can be calculated without having to specify your prior degree of belief in which of these two hypotheses is correct. Two people may have different priors, but their calculations of the strength of evidence favouring one hypothesis over another should agree if they agree on what they would expect to observe if each of these hypotheses were true.

For a light-hearted tutorial in how to apply these principles in everyday life, try this exercise.

To take the argument further, I need to explain some simple maths. If you already have a basic grounding in Bayesian inference, you can skip to the next section. Otherwise, you can work through the brief tutorial below, or try an online tutorial like this one .

Before you have seen the evidence, your degree of belief in which of these alternatives is correct can be represented as your prior odds. For instance if you believe H1 and H2 are equally probable, your prior odds are 1 to 1, or even odds in everyday language. After you have seen the evidence, your prior odds are updated to become your posterior odds.

Bayes’ theorem specifies how evidence updates prior odds to posterior odds. The theorem can be stated in the form:-

\displaystyle \left(\textrm{prior odds of H}_1 \textrm{ to H}_2 \right) \times \frac{\textrm{likelihood of H}_1} {\textrm{likelihood of H}_2} = \left(\textrm{posterior odds of H}_1 \textrm{ to H}_2 \right)

  • Your prior odds encode your degree of belief favouring H1 over H2, before you have seen the observations. Priors are subjective: one person may assign prior odds of 100 to 1 favouring H1 over H2, while another may believe that both hypotheses are equally probable.
  • The likelihood of a hypothesis is the conditional probability of the observations given that hypothesis. To evaluate it, we have to envisage what would be expected to happen if the hypothesis were true. We can think of the likelihood as measuring how well the hypothesis can predict the observation.
  • Likelihoods of hypotheses measure the relative support for those hypotheses; they are not the probabilities of those hypotheses.
  • The ratio of the likelihood of H1 to the likelihood of H2 is called the Bayes factor or simply the likelihood ratio. In recognition of his mentor, Good called it the “Bayes-Turing factor”.
  • It is only through the likelihood ratio that your prior odds are modified by evidence to posterior odds. All the evidence on whether the observations support H1 or H2 is contained in the likelihood ratio: this is the likelihood principle.


  1. You have two alternative hypotheses about a coin that is to be tossed: H1 that the coin is fair, and H2 that the coin is two-headed. In most situations your prior belief would be that H1 is far more probable than H2. Given the observation that the coin comes up heads when tossed once, the likelihood of a fair coin is 0.5 and the likelihood of a two-headed coin is 1. The likelihood ratio favouring a two-headed coin over a fair coin is 2. This won’t change your prior odds much. If, after the first ten tosses, the coin has come up heads every time, the likelihood ratio is 210=1024, perhaps enough for you to suspect that someone has got hold of a two-headed coin.
  2.  Hypothesis H1 is that all crows are black (as in eastern Scotland), and hypothesis H2 is that only 1 in 8 crows are black (as in Ireland where most crows are grey). The first crow you observe is black. Given this single observation, the likelihood of H1 is 1, and the likelihood of H2 is 1/8. The likelihood ratio favouring H1 over H2 is 8. So if your prior odds were 2 to 1 in favour of H1, your posterior odds, after this first observation, will be 16 to 1. This posterior will be your prior when you next observe a crow. If this next crow is also black, the likelihood ratio contributed by this observation is again 8, and your posterior odds favouring H1 over H2 will be updated to (16×8=128) to 1.

Bayes’ theorem can be expressed in an alternative form by taking logarithms. If your maths course didn’t cover logarithms, don’t be put off. To keep things simple, we’ll work in logarithms to base 2. The logarithm of a number is defined as the power of 2 that equals the number. So for instance the logarithm of 8 is 3 (2 to the power of 3 equals 8). The logarithm of 1/8 is minus 3, and the logarithm of 1 is zero. Taking logarithms replaces multiplication and division by addition and subtraction, which is why if you went through secondary school before the arrival of cheap electronic calculators you were taught to use logarithms for calculations. However logarithms are not just for calculations but fundamental to using maths to solve problems in the real world, especially those that have to do with information. I was dismayed to find that here in Scotland, where logarithms were invented, they have disappeared from the national curriculum for maths up to year 5 of secondary school.

The logarithm of the likelihood ratio is called the weight of evidence favouring H1 over H2. As taking logarithms replaces multiplying by adding, we can rewrite Bayes’ theorem as

prior weight + weight of evidence = posterior weight

where the prior weight and posterior weight are respectively the logarithms of the prior odds and posterior odds. If we use logarithms to base 2, the units of measurement of weight are called bits (binary digits).

So we can rewrite the crow example (prior odds 2 to 1, likelihood ratio 8, posterior odds 2×8=16) as

prior weight = 1 bit (21=2)

likelihood ratio = 3 bits (23=8)

posterior weight = 1 + 3 = 4 bits

One advantage of working with logarithms is that it gives us an intuitive feel for the accumulation of evidence: weights of evidence from independent observations can be added, just like physical weights. Thus in the coin-tossing example above, after one toss of the coin has come up heads the weight of evidence is one bit. After the first ten coin tosses have come up heads, the weight of evidence favouring a two-headed coin is 10 bits. As a rule of thumb, 1 bit of evidence can be interpreted as a hint, 2 to 3 bits as weak evidence, 5 to 6 bits as modest evidence, and anything more than that as strong evidence.

Hempel’s paradox

Within the framework of probability calculus we can resolve a problem first stated by the German philosopher Carl Gustav Hempel. What he called a paradox can be stated in the following form:

An observation that is consistent with a hypothesis is not necessarily evidence in favour of that hypothesis.

Good showed that this is not a paradox, but a corollary of Bayes’ theorem. To explain this, he constructed a simple example (I have changed the numbers to make it easier to work in logarithms to base 2). Suppose there are two Scottish islands denoted A and B. On island A, there are 215 birds of which 26 are crows and all these crows are black. On island B, there are 215 birds of which 212 are crows and 29 of these crows (that is, one eighth of all crows) are black. You wake up on one of these islands and the first bird that you observe is a black crow. Is this evidence that you are on island A, where all crows are black?

You can’t do inference without making assumptions. I’ll assume that on each island all birds, whatever their species or colour, have equal chance of being seen first. The likelihood of island A, given this observation, is 2-9. The likelihood of island B is 2-3. The weight of evidence favouring island B over island A is [3(9)]=6 bits. So the observation of a black crow is moderately strong evidence against the hypothesis that you are on island A where all crows are black. So, when two hypotheses are compared, an observation that is consistent with a hypothesis can nevertheless be evidence against that hypothesis.

The converse applies: an observation that is highly improbable given a hypothesis is not necessarily evidence against that hypothesis. As an example, we can evaluate the evidence for a hypothesis that most readers will consider an implausible conspiracy theory: that the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were brought down not by the hijacked planes that crashed into them but by demolition charges placed in advance, with the objective of bringing about a “new Pearl Harbour” in the form of a catastrophic event that would provoke the US into asserting military dominance. We’ll call the two alternative hypotheses for the cause of the collapses – plane crashes, planned demolitions – H1 and H2 respectively. The proponents of this hypothesis attach great importance to the observation that a nearby smaller tower (Building 7), collapsed several hours after the Twin Towers for reasons that are not obvious to non-experts. I have no expertise in structural engineering, but I’m prepared to go along with their assessment that the collapse of a nearby smaller tower has low probability given H1. However I also assess that the probability of this observation given H2 is equally low. If the planners’ objective in destroying the Twin Towers was to create a catastrophic event, why would they have planned to demolish a nearby smaller tower several hours later, with the risk of giving away the whole operation? For the sake of argument, I’ll put a value of 0.05 on both these likelihoods. Note that it doesn’t matter whether the observation is stated as “collapse of a nearby tower” for which the likelihoods of H1 and H2 are both 0.05, or as “collapse of Building 7” for which (if there were five such buildings all equally unlikely to collapse) the likelihoods of H1 and H2 would both be 0.01. For inference, all that matters is the ratio of the likelihoods of H1 and H2 given this observation. If this ratio is 1, the weight of evidence favouring H1 over H2 is zero.

The conditional probabilities in this example are my subjective judgements. I make no apology for this; the logic of probability calculus says that you can’t evaluate evidence without making these subjective judgements, that these subjective judgements must obey the rules of probability theory, and that any other way of evaluating evidence violates axioms of logical consistency. If your assessment of these conditional probabilities differs from mine, that’s not a problem as long as you can explain your assessments of these probabilities in a way that makes sense to others. The general point on which I think most readers will agree is that although the collapse of a nearby smaller tower would not have been predicted from H1, it would not have been predicted from H2 either. The likelihood of a hypothesis given an observation measures how well the hypothesis would have predicted that observation.

We can see from this example that to evaluate the evidence favouring H1 over H2, you have to assess, for each hypothesis in turn, what you would expect to observe if that hypothesis were true. Like a detective solving a murder, you have to “speculate”, for each possible suspect, how the crime would have been carried out if that individual were the perpetrator. This requirement is imposed by the logic of probability calculus: complying with it does not imply that you are a “conspiracy theorist”. The principle of evaluating how the data could have been generated under alternative hypotheses applies in many other fields: for instance, medical diagnosis, historical investigation, and intelligence analysis. A CIA manual on intelligence analysis sets out a procedure for ‘analysis of competing hypotheses’ which ‘demands that analysts explicitly identify all the reasonable alternative hypotheses, then array the evidence against each hypothesis – rather than evaluate the plausibility of each hypothesis one at a time.’ I am not trying to tell people who are expert in these professions that they don’t know how to evaluate evidence. However it can still be useful to work through the formal framework of probability calculus to identify when intuition is misleading. For instance, where two analysts evaluating the same observations disagree on the weight of evidence, working through the calculation will identify where their assumptions differ, and how the evaluation of evidence depends on these assumptions.

An interesting argument about the use of Bayesian evidence in court can be found in this judgement of the Appeal Court in 2010. In a murder trial, the forensic expert had given evidence that there was “moderate scientific support” for a match of the defendant’s shoes to the shoe marks at the crime scene, but had not disclosed that this opinion was based on calculating a likelihood ratio. The judges held that where likelihood ratios would have to be calculated from statistical data that were uncertain and incomplete, such calculations should not be used by experts to form the opinions that they presented to the court. However the logic of probability calculus imply that you cannot evaluate the strength of evidence except as a likelihood ratio. Calculating this ratio makes explicit the assumptions that are used to assess the strength of evidence. In this case, the expert had used national data on shoe sales to assign the likelihood that the foot marks were made by someone else, given that the foot marks were made by size 11 trainers. The conditional probability of size 11 trainers, given that they were made by someone else, should have been based on the frequency of size 11 trainers among people present at similar crime scenes. It was because the calculations were made available at the appeal that the judges were able to criticize the assumptions on which they were based and to overturn the conviction.

We next consider an example of Hempel’s paradox from the Syrian conflict.

Rockets used in the alleged chemical attack in Ghouta in 2013: evidence for or against Syrian government responsibility?

To explain the alleged chemical attack in Ghouta in 2013, two alternative hypotheses have been proposed, which we’ll denote H1 and H2

  • H1 states that a chemical attack was carried out by the Syrian military, under orders from President Assad. The proponents of this hypothesis include the US, UK and French governments.
  • H2 states that a false-flag chemical attack was carried out by the Syrian opposition, with the objective of bringing about a US-led attack on the Syrian armed forces. A leading proponent of this hypothesis was the blogger “sasa wawa”, who set up a crowd-sourced investigation of the Ghouta incident. The evidence generated during this investigation was later set out in the framework of probability calculus by the Rootclaim project, founded by Saar Wilf, an Israeli entrepreneur (and noted international poker player) with a background in the signals intelligence agency Unit 8200. I think we can tentatively identify “sasa wawa”, who seemed “to have unlimited time and energy and to be some sort of polymath”, as Wilf.

Other hypotheses are possible: for instance we can define hypothesis H3 that an unauthorized chemical attack was carried out by a rogue element in the Syrian military, and hypothesis H4 that there was no chemical attack but a massacre of captives, in which rockets and sarin were used to create a false trail of evidence for a chemical attack. But for now we’ll just consider H1 and H2.

You may have strong prior beliefs about the plausibility of these two hypotheses: for instance you may believe that H1 is highly implausible because the Syrian government had no motive to carry out such an attack when OPCW inspectors had just arrived, or you may take the view that H2 is an absurd conspiracy theory requiring us to believe that the opposition carried out a large-scale chemical attack on themselves. Whatever your prior beliefs, to evaluate the evidence you must be prepared to envisage for each of these hypotheses what would be expected to happen if that hypothesis were correct, in order to compute the likelihood of that hypothesis. This requires for H1 that you put yourself in the shoes of a Syrian general ordered to carry out a chemical attack, or for H2 that you put yourself in the shoes of an opposition commander planning a false-flag chemical attack that will implicate the regime.

A key observation is credited to Eliot Higgins, who showed that the rockets examined by the OPCW inspectors at the impact sites were a close match to a type of rocket that the Syrian army had been using as an improvised short-range siege weapon. This “Volcano” rocket consisted of a standard artillery rocket with a 60-litre tank welded over the nose, giving it a heavier payload but a very short range (about 2 km).

In Higgins’s interpretation, which has been widely disseminated, this observation is evidence for hypothesis H1. Let’s apply the framework of probability calculus to compute the weight of evidence favouring H1 over H2 given this observation.

First, we compute the likelihood of H1. The Syrian military had large stocks of munitions specifically designed to deliver nerve agent at medium to long range, including missiles and air-delivered bombs together with equipment for safely filling them with sarin. Given that they had been ordered to carry out a chemical attack, I assess the probability that they would have used these purpose-designed munitions as at least 0.9. The probability that they would have used an improvised short-range siege weapon, which to reach the target would have had to be fired from the front line or from within opposition-controlled territory, is rather low: I assess this as about 0.05. This is the likelihood of H1 given the observation.

Second, we compute the likelihood of H2. Given that under this hypothesis the objective of the attack was to implicate the Syrian government, the opposition had to be able to show munitions at the sites of sarin release that could plausibly be attributed to the Syrian military. They had two possible ways to do this: (1) to fake an air strike, with fragments of air-delivered munitions matching something in the Syrian arsenal; or (2) to use rockets or artillery shells matching something in the Syrian military arsenal. Volcano rockets, either captured from Syrian army stocks or copied, would have been ideal for this. With no other reason to choose between options (1) and (2), we assign equal probabilities to them under H2. The likelihood of H2 given the observation is therefore 0.5.

The likelihood ratio favouring H2 over H1 is 10, corresponding to a weight of evidence of 3.3 bits. Your assessment of the conditional probabilities may vary from mine, but I think the general point is clear: from hypothesis H1 we would not have predicted that the Syrian military would have chosen to use an improvised chemical munition rather than their stocks of purpose-designed chemical munitions, but from hypothesis H2 we would have expected the opposition to use any munition available to them that would implicate the Syrian army. So this is a classic example of Hempel’s paradox: an observation consistent with hypothesis H1 does not necessarily support H1, but instead contributes (under a plausible specification of the conditional probabilities) weak evidence favouring the alternative hypothesis H2.

This also shows how, by using the framework of probability calculus we are able to separate prior beliefs from evaluation of the weight of evidence. Your evaluation of the weight of evidence depends only on the ratios of the conditional probabilities that you specify for the observation given H1 or given H2; it does not depend on your prior odds.

Comparison with Rootclaim’s evaluation of the weight of evidence contributed by the rockets

As discussed above, where two analysts disagree on evaluating the weight of evidence contributed by the same observations, using probability calculus allows us to identify exactly where their assumptions differ. For the weight of evidence favouring H2 over H1 given the observation of Volcano rockets, I assigned a value of 3.3 bits. I had not looked at Rootclaim’s assessment which assigns a value of minus 0.5 bits for the weight of evidence favouring H2 over H1.

Let’s see how Rootclaim’s assumptions differ from mine. For the probability of observing Volcano rockets given H1, Rootclaim assigns the same value (0.05) as I have. However Rootclaim assigns a value of only 0.036 to the probability of observing Volcano rockets under H2. Rootclaim obtains this value by multiplying together a probability of 0.4 that an opposition group would capture Volcano rockets, a probability of 0.3 that another opposition group with access to sarin would find this group, and a probability of 0.3 that these two groups would figure out how to fill the munition with sarin.

I think Rootclaim’s assignment of the conditional probability of observing Volcano rockets given H2 does not correctly condition on what is implied by H2. Under hypothesis H2, the purpose of the operation is to implicate the Syrian government. The conditional probability of observing Volcano rockets given H2 is the probability that these rockets would be found given that the opposition plans to release sarin and to leave a false trail of evidence implicating the Syrian military. To release sarin the opposition has to figure out some way to fill munitions (rockets or improvised devices) with it. To implicate the Syrian military, the opposition has to use a munition (captured or copied) that matches something in the Syrian military’s arsenal. The only choice for the opposition, given hypothesis H2, is whether to use a munition fired from the ground, like the Volcano rocket, or to use remnants of an air-dropped bomb with an improvised chemical-releasing device. With nothing to choose between these two options given H2, I have assigned them equal probabilities.

Without these calculations being stated explicitly, there would have been no way for you, the reader, to evaluate the difference between my assessment that the rockets contribute weak evidence in favour of hypothesis H2 and Rootclaim’s assessment that the rockets contribute practically no evidence favouring either hypothesis. By working through the formal framework of probability calculus, you can see that this difference arises because my assignment of the likelihood of H2 is based on assumptions about the purpose of the deception operation that is implied by hypothesis H2.

This example illustrates a more general principle: to evaluate the likelihood of a hypothesis that implies a deception operation, we must condition on what that deception would entail.

Evidence contributed by the non-occurrence of an expected event

To evaluate all relevant evidence, we must include the non-occurrence of events that would have been expected under at least one of the alternative hypotheses. This is the principle set out in the case of “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time“: Holmes noted that the observation that the dog did not bark had low probability given the hypothesis of an unrecognized intruder, but high probability given the hypothesis that the horse was taken by someone that the dog knew.

From the alleged chemical attack in Ghouta, a “dog did not bark” observation is that despite the mass of stills and video clips uploaded that showed victims in hospitals or morgues, no images have appeared that showed victims being rescued in their homes or bodies being recovered from affected homes. The only images from Ghouta purporting to show victims being found where they had collapsed were obviously fraudulent, showing nine alleged victims of chemical attack dead in the stairwell of an unfinished building named the “Zamalka Ghost House” by researchers.

As an exercise, you can assess the likelihoods of each of the following hypotheses, given the observation that no images showing rescue of victims in their homes, or recovery of bodies of people who had died in their homes were made available. To put this observation in context, this page lists more than 150 original videos uploaded, most showing victims in hospitals or morgues, attributed to 18 different opposition media operations.

  • H1: a chemical attack was carried out by the Syrian military, authorized by the government
  • H2: a false-flag chemical attack was carried out by the Syrian opposition to implicate the government
  • H3: an unauthorized chemical attack was carried out by a rogue element in the Syrian military
  • H4: there was no chemical attack but a managed massacre of captives, with rockets and sarin used to create a trail of forensic evidence that would implicate the Syrian government in a chemical attack.

Given each of these hypotheses in turn, what do you assess to be the conditional probability that none of the uploaded videos would show the rescue of victims in their homes or the recovery of bodies of people who had died in their homes?

In the next post we shall explore how to apply the formal framework of probability calculus to evaluate the weight of evidence for alternative explanations of the alleged chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun.


Posted in disinformation, global justice, guest blog, journalism, media, propaganda, Syria, Uncategorized, war | Tagged , , , , , , , | 33 Comments