(Also published at UK Column and OffGuardian)
On 7 April 2018 reports emerged from a suburb of Damascus, Douma, claiming that a chemical weapons attack had occurred. Images of dead women and children inside an apartment building were circulated over the internet along with hospital scenes showing alleged victims being hosed down with water. Within days, images of two yellow cylinders purported to have been dropped by Syrian Arab Air Force air helicopters also appeared. Images of the deceased, which showed over 40 civilians appearing to have dropped dead on the spot, gathering in piles and with some showing profuse foaming at the mouth, suggested to many experts and officials that a fast acting nerve agent had been used. Within days a Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) was deployed by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in order to investigate the alleged incident, although not before the US, Britain and France had carried out military strikes against Syria having already concluded the attack had occurred as alleged.
This rush to judgement was far from warranted. Quite aside from the fact that the Syrian government denied having carried out any attack, reports from the ground suggested ample grounds for caution in drawing hasty conclusions. Interviews with civilians suggested no attack had occurred whilst the late Robert Fisk reported in the British newspaper the Independent similar doubts by a Syrian doctor. Experienced military commander Major General Jonathan Shaw questioned why the Syrian government would launch a chemical weapons attack when it had already enjoyed a clear military advantage. Perhaps most significantly, on 26 April the Russian Federation took witnesses to the OPCW headquarters in The Hague who testified to the hospital scenes as having been staged.
These doubts about the initial reporting were to be further cemented come July 2018 when the OPCW FFM issued an interim report on their investigation which relayed that no traces of any nerve agent had been found but left open the possibility that chlorine gas had been used. However, chlorine gas is not usually understood as fast acting and could not readily explain how over 40 civilians had apparently dropped dead on the spot. A UN Commission of Inquiry report issued at around the time as the interim report also noted this incongruity:
‘The Commission of Inquiry has been investigating this incident. The available evidence is largely consistent with the use of chlorine, but this in and of itself does not explain other reported symptoms, which are more consistent with the use of another chemical agent, most likely a nerve gas. The Commission’s investigations are on-going.’
In a remarkable tweet issued by BBC producer Riam Dalati in February 2019, it was claimed that, based on 6 months research and interviews with so-called White Helmets first responders and others, it could be proved the hospital scenes alleged to be associated with the chemical attack had been staged. Riam stated that ‘The ATTACK DID HAPPEN’, but without specifying whether or not he believed it was a chemical attack. He then wrote:
‘[a]fter almost 6 months of investigations, I can prove without a doubt that the Douma Hospital scene was staged. No fatalities occurred in the hospital. All the #WH [White Helmets], activists and people I spoke to are either in #Idlib or #EuphratesShield areas. Only one person was in Damascus’.
Several weeks later the OPCW FFM released its Final Report and concluded there were ‘reasonable grounds’ the attack had occurred as alleged. Within weeks, however, an engineering report was leaked to the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media which questioned whether the yellow cylinders had caused the damage observed on the roof. In the coming months an OPCW official gave testimony to the *Courage Foundation* panel detailing a series of procedural and scientific flaws regarding the Douma investigation. The panel concluded:
Based on the whistleblower’s extensive presentation, including internal emails, text exchanges and suppressed draft reports, we are unanimous in expressing our alarm over unacceptable practices in the investigation of the alleged chemical attack in Douma, near the Syrian capital of Damascus on 7 April 2018. We became convinced by the testimony that key information about chemical analyses, toxicology consultations, ballistics studies, and witness testimonies was suppressed, ostensibly to favor a preordained conclusion.
Within weeks, a batch of corroborating documents was published by Wikileaks.
The Revelations: Attempt to Publish a Manipulated Report and Suppression of Scientific Evidence
One of the most striking revelations was that the original interim report, which had noted a series of anomalies and inconsistencies with respect to the evidence for a chemical weapons attack, had been secretly altered by unknown officials and without the knowledge of the Douma team, to then present a misleading suggestion that chlorine gas had been released.
Screenshot from original interim report conclusion
Screenshot from secretly altered interim report conclusion
As reported by British journalist Peter Hitchens, this extraordinary act of attempted deception led to a formal protest from one of the FFM inspectors. Not only had demonstrably false claims been made in order to suggest chlorine gas release, a consultation with chemical warfare toxicologists had been erased from the report. These experts had advised that scenes shown in films and photographs, as well as witness claims, were inconsistent with chlorine gas. Specifically, the large number of dead civilians found gathered in piles and with no attempt to escape, coupled with some of them showing profuse foam discharge from the mouth, made little sense. When confronted with a cloud of chlorine gas, the victims would have instinctively retreated from the building in search of cleaner air rather than collapsing dead on the spot. Alternatively, if the concentration of chlorine gas had somehow been so high that the victims suffocated on the spot, there would not have been the time for the profuse foaming to develop (some images of the deceased and of the foaming can be seen here and here). The very clear and unequivocal conclusion was that chlorine gas could be ruled out as the cause of death.
Minutes of toxicology consultation; available here
Another set of questions that had been censored related to the remarkable lack of damage on the two cylinders. At the location where 43 civilians were found dead, a cylinder had apparently impacted a balcony roof, penetrating a metal bar reinforced ceiling, but leaving no significant impact damage on the cylinder head. These incongruities had been clearly set out in the original interim report only to then be obfuscated in the secretly redacted interim report.
Images showing the cylinder head and the damage alleged to have resulted from its impact with the balcony ceiling
Publication of the secretly altered interim report had been prevented by intervention of the FFM inspector and the team was asked to prepare a new report for publication and which was published in July, as noted earlier. Although senior management denied responsibility for redacting the report, it is not known if they initiated any investigation into who had done so. On 22 June an email from Chief of Cabinet Robert Fairweather stated that ‘[t]he report was not redacted at the behest of ODG [Office of the Director General]’ whilst another email from him that day requested the ‘recall’ of the inspector’s ‘Grave concern’ email, implying it could be in some way be unsent although it is unclear whether this was technically possible. The interim report published in July 2018 was stripped back to focus on the chemical results only, in expectation that the scientific issues identified in the censored original interim report would be resolved come the FFM final report.
None of the key scientific issues that had been clearly set out in the censored original interim report were, however, resolved when the final report was published. Indeed, the toxicology opinion ruling out chlorine gas continued to be censored whilst no clear answers were given to explain the remarkable lack of damage to the two cylinders. These, along with a raft of other significant issues raised by dissenting OPCW inspectors, were buried and left unresolved in the OPCW’s final FFM report.
Cover up, smears and a third report from the OPCW in 2023
During the ensuing years multiple calls were made for the OPCW to, at the very least, allow for all of the Douma inspectors to be properly heard. These included UNSC Arria Formula meetings arranged by the Russian Federation as well as a Statement of Concern issued by the Berlin Group 21 established by former UN Assistant Secretary General Hans von Sponeck, Ambassador José Bustani (first Director General of the OPCW) and Professor Richard Falk and with whom the author currently works. The Statement of Concern was signed by 28 internationally renowned experts and influencers as well as four former OPCW inspectors.
Statement of Concern issued in March 2021 (for full statement and list of signatories see here)
All of these attempts to address the scientific and procedural flaws identified by dissenting inspectors were met with point blank refusals to engage as well as smears. In what was to become one of the most brazen rebukes, Ambassador José Bustani was blocked by the US and its Security Council allies from addressing the United Nations. On another occasion, and at a UN Security Council meeting, the current Director General of the OPCW, Fernando Arias, issued factually untrue statements about the dissenting inspectors whilst simultaneously refusing a suggestion that the OPCW’s scientific advisory board at least examine the scientific issues being raised.
Along with blocking and smearing at high political levels, other actors sought to denigrate the inspectors. In November 2020 a draft letter, falsely alleged to have been sent by the Director General in response to an Inspector’s letter of complaint to the OPCW director general detailing the scientific and procedural issues, was leaked to the open-source investigation website Bellingcat, or so the site claimed. The leak and the associated article published by Bellingcat was used in order to attempt to discredit the inspector by presenting him as being dishonest by withholding this letter from the public, and giving the misleading impression that all the concerns raised by him had been addressed by the Director General. In fact, the inspector had never seen the letter published by Bellingcat. The Director General had sent him an entirely different letter in response to his letter of complaint which had not addressed any of the concerns raise in the Inspector’s letter. A subsequent fact emerged showing that Bellingcat had been co-ordinating with the online news media outlet Huffington Post to discredit the inspector over the fake letter.
Shortly after the Bellingcat publication, a BBC radio series aired an anonymous OPCW source, reportedly connected with the Douma investigation, who contributed to an attempt to discredit the OPCW inspectors and the first Director General José Bustani. In particular, the BBC documentary insinuated that the disclosures surrounding the OPCW Douma investigation had been motivated by a cash reward from Wikileaks. After a complaint was launched by British journalist Peter Hitchens an investigation by the BBC’s own complaints unit recognised that this insinuation ‘represented a failure to meet the standard of accuracy appropriate to a programme of this kind’. A clear and comprehensive rebuttal to the claim that Wikileaks had paid out any money was published in 2021 stating:
‘WikiLeaks has never paid, either in kind or in cash, the OPCW whistleblowers. Neither has an OPCW whistleblower ever sought to claim any reward. Any claim made to this effect is false and any insinuation or suggestion to that end is outright propaganda’.
The 2023 IIT Report
Against this backdrop of blocking and smearing, OPCW finally released in 2023 the Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) report into Douma which formally attributed responsibility to the Syrian government for the alleged attack in Douma. Rather than offering some kind of informed or rational response to the issues raised by the dissenting inspectors, the report simply doubled-down on the deception and cover-up.
Although its remit only extended to determining responsibility for the alleged attack that the FFM had concluded there were ‘reasonable grounds’ occurred, the IIT Report actually spends considerable time and energy attempting to shore up the original FFM report. However, as US investigative journalist Aaron Maté has shown, new arguments to support the claim that chlorine gas was released are demonstrably flawed and include a seemingly bizarre decision to replace a sample gathered by the OPCW with one delivered by an undisclosed third party. Just as with the secretly redacted interim report, there is a clear drive to exaggerate the evidence for chlorine gas release.
Even more significantly, the IIT report continues to censor the original toxicology consultation. No mention is made anywhere of it and instead a single new toxicologist is introduced who, the IIT claims, concluded that the ‘accounts of the victims and medical personnel are consistent with the rapid release of a high dosage of chlorine gas which led to the rapid and high fatality rate seen at Location 2’ (para. 6.108, p. 44). As, again, Aaron Maté has recently shown, the IIT report is actually highly deceptive in that it avoids entirely getting their toxicologist to directly address the rapid and profuse foaming seen on some of the victims.
Elsewhere, misleading scientific references are provided. For example, the IIT report does include a single statement apparently explaining foaming although not its rapid and profuse discharge alongside rapid death: The IIT Report states that it (not the toxicologist), ‘notes that as chlorine gas reacts with the cells and moisture in the gastrointestinal tract to produce acids, that reaction also leads to the oral and nasal secretion of a foam-like substance …’ (para 6.106; p. 43). The single academic source cited for this claim does not, however, make any such statement, referring only to acid production. Equally misleading is the IIT’s suggestion that the victims became trapped upstairs by a deadly concentration of chlorine gas blocking their exit. Elided in their analysis is the fact that most of the victims were found on the ground floor within a few steps of escape out the front door.
In short, the IIT creates the impression it has dealt with the troublesome original toxicology report when, in truth, it has evaded the issue entirely. As such, the IIT report provides no answer to the conclusion reached by the original toxicologists that the scenes inside the building were not compatible with chlorine gas poisoning: most of the victims could have readily escaped to cleaner air within seconds whilst, if they had been caused to drop dead on the spot due to asphyxiation, the rapid foaming at the mouth would not have occurred.
Finally, regarding the ballistics issues and the remarkably minimal damage to the cylinders, the IIT report spends 61 pages (nearly half the report) discussing various aspects related to the two yellow cylinders found at Locations 2 and 4. However, nowhere is there an attempt to demonstrate the supposed damage caused to the two cylinders as a result of their impacting metal bar reinforced ceilings. Instead, the compatibility is simply asserted: ‘The IIT notes that the damage observed on both cylinders is consistent with an impact following their drop from a considerable altitude’ (para 6.182; p. 70).
The bottom line in all of this is that if you cannot show that chlorine gas was released, how the cylinders could have created the damage they are supposed to have done in metal bar reinforced ceilings whilst receiving so little damage themselves, and why chlorine gas caused 43 civilians to apparently drop dead on the spot foaming at the mouth, then you do not have ‘reasonable grounds’, as the OPCW puts it, to claim the attack occurred as alleged. And if that attack did not occur, the question is left as to how and why 43 civilians, including women and children, were apparently found dead by White Helmet first responders in an area controlled by the militant extremist group Jaish al-Islam.
Deception is nothing new
Deception is ubiquitous to the realm of foreign policy. As John Mearsheimer described in Why Leaders Lie, democratic states frequently take recourse to deception in order to pursue foreign policy objectives that their publics would otherwise oppose. It is now well established that the Iraq invasion back in 2003 was rationalised by a deceptive and dishonest propaganda campaign that exaggerated the intelligence to suggest it was a serious WMD (weapons of mass destruction) threat. The 9/11 global war on terror itself is replete with controversy and deception. And just recently veteran US journalist Seymour Hersh has exposed the role of the US government in ordering and carrying out the attack on the Nord Stream pipeline.
It should not, therefore, come as any surprise that deception has played a part during the 2011-present Syrian war. The case of the OPCW-Douma controversy provides yet another well-evidenced example where Western governments have sought to mislead western publics and global audiences in pursuit of their foreign policy objectives. In this case, covering up the circumstances in which 40 civilians were killed, possibly murdered, has clearly been a central objective of the US, British and French governments along with their allies within the OPCW. One wonders what dark truth they are so desperate to hide.
- Dr Piers Robinson is convenor of the Working Group on Syria, media and propaganda and a member of the Berlin Group 21. He writes here in his personal capacity.
(Featured Image: “HQ of OPCW in The Hague (cropped)” by Szilas is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.)