On 7 April 2018 an alleged chemical attack took place in the city of Douma in the Syrian Arab Republic. Dramatic footage of the “victims” was widely broadcast throughout the western mainstream media. Particularly prominent were images of children foaming at the mouth and being hosed down. The footage for these dramatic depictions was almost entirely sourced from a group known as the White Helmets. They are invariably depicted in the western media as a form of civil defence organisation. They are in fact an arm of Britain’s MI6, trained by the British and financed by the UK and in the United States.
The alleged “chemical attack” was used by the US, UK and French governments to make a bombing attack upon Syrian targets. The bombing destroyed buildings and caused civilian casualties.
Speaking to a press conference on the Sunday following the air attacks, the then Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull made a series of unqualified assertions. He gave his government’s “strong support” for the military action and urged Russia to exercise its authority to ensure that the chemical weapons were destroyed. He further called on Russia to use its influence to ensure the “most recent chemical weapons attack is thoroughly investigated”. He blamed the Assad government for the incident and described the military action by the US, UK and France as “targeted, proportionate and responsible”.
He even attempted to link the Douma incident with the Skripal events in Salisbury, England, using both as a stick with which to beat the Russians over the head. Both the timing of and the linking of the two incidents were not a coincidence. They were clearly part of a campaign to discredit Russia, whose intervention in the Syrian war proved a decisive turning point, to the chagrin of the “regime changers” in Washington and London.
As is now almost invariably the case there is a marked distinction between the political rhetoric and the actual situation, both in terms of the relevant international law and the facts on the ground. That has become glaringly obvious in the Skripal case, as has been well documented elsewhere.
Dealing briefly with the legal situation in the Syrian bombing, there is no such thing as a “targeted, proportionate and responsible” bombing of a sovereign state unless two pre-conditions are met. It must either be in self-defence, if the countries taking the action have themselves been attacked, and that was manifestly not the case; and secondly, in the alternative, it must be an action authorised by the United Nations Security Council. That didn’t happen either.
As in so many of Australia’s military forays around the world, the legal basis for the Syria involvement is notably absent, although in this particular case their role was limited to being cheerleaders on the sidelines. Australia’s participation in the so-called coalition of forces allied to the United States, a serial offender against international law, has no legal foundation whatsoever. The Australian government has had legal advice on the matter, and has had such advice since 2014. If it was confident of its legal position, why then does it continue to refuse to release that advice?
The facts on the ground do not support the Turnbull position either. Turnbull criticized Russia for using its Security Council veto to block motions to investigate chemical weapons crimes. In fact, both Russia and Syria asked the Organisation for the Prevention of Criminal Weapons (OPCW) to investigate the Douma incident.
The OPCW fact-finding mission began their investigation on 21 April 2018, two weeks after the alleged attack. Jihadist groups blocked their initial investigation and they were only able to enter the relevant areas with protection provided by the Syrian army and the Russian military police.
The OPCW Report of the investigation was released on 1 March 2019 although one will hunt in vain for an account of that report in the western mainstream media. The reason for the media silence is not difficult to discern. The OPCW Report effectively destroys the arguments advanced by US President Trump, UK Prime Minister May and Turnbull.
The OPCW’s investigation was hampered in significant ways. The White Helmets and their jihadist allies had either cremated or buried all the deceased “victims” of the alleged chemical attack. Those burial locations were not disclosed to the investigators. No autopsy material was therefore available.
The evidence of the medical staff in attendance at the Douma hospitals at the time began receiving “victims” prior to the timing of the alleged chemical attack. None had symptoms of chemical or nerve agent attack.
The OPCW investigation team carried out a number of analyses from areas said to have been affected by the chemical attack. Again, they found no traces of any banned chemical substances.
They were shown two yellow cylinders claimed to have been responsible for the casualties. Even that “evidence” was compromised as the two cylinders had been moved by the jihadists and were located in two places and in such a manner that they had no probative value.
The OPCW team was unable to say how the cylinders might have been used to release any toxins. Given that no toxic traces could be found anywhere, the likely inference is that the two cylinders were simply stage props.
What the OPCW team did find were traces of chlorine. Chlorine, however, is a common household substance and for that reason it is not on the list of banned chemical weapons. Chlorine would not in any case be likely to cause death, much less the significant casualty figures claimed.
The evidence of the medical professionals interviewed by the OPCW team was that the victims they treated at the hospital were suffering from the effects of dust and smoke inhalation. None had life threatening injuries and none died in hospital.
There was accordingly no basis in fact for the bombing by the US, UK and France (quite apart from its illegality) and therefore no justification for Turnbull’s unequivocal assertions of Syrian culpability and Russian complicity.
Perhaps the final word should go to a senior BBC TV producer, Riam Dilati. On 13 February 2019 he tweeted: “after almost 6 months of investigations I can prove without a doubt that the Douma hospital scene was staged”.
If our own media and politicians could show a similar degree of honesty and integrity, they would be offering Syria and Russia the long overdue apologies to which they are entitled.
That may however, be a long wait.
James O’Neill is a barrister at law and geopolitical analyst. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org