Media failure again on alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syria

Two new reports from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons challenge claims that chemical weapons were used in two alleged attacks in Syria.

You won’t read about it in the Australian media but two more reports from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons have called into question claims that chemical weapons were used in two attack in Syria – one said to have occurred in Aleppo in November 2018 and the other in Saraqib in the Idlib governorate in August 2016.

The two OPCW Fact Finding Mission (FFM) reports https://www.opcw.org/media-centre/news/2020/10/opcw-issues-two-fact-finding-mission-reports-chemical-weapons-use

were released on I October 2020. They add to the list of official and unofficial findings that destroy many of the claims of Syrian government chemical weapons attacks.

Nevertheless Australian media commentators unquestioningly trot out propaganda about Syrian government chemical weapons attacks as if the allegations were fact.

The OPCW analysis of the 24 November 2018 North-West Aleppo incident, which the Syrian Government suggested could have been a terrorist attack, concluded that the evidence “did not allow the FFM to establish whether or not chemicals were used as a weapon.”

The Saraqib incident allegedly took place on the night of 1 August 2016 in Idlib, an area at that at the time was held by Islamist forces. Initial reports claimed 30 people, mostly women and children, had been affected and developed symptoms, including breathing difficulties, coughing and lacrimation.

The allegations were spread by the Syrian Civil Defence or White Helmets. They claimed the Syrian army had mounted a helicopter attack. The Syrian Armed Forces said the claims were fabricated.

The OPCW concluded: “The results of the analysis of all available data obtained up until the issuance of this report did not allow the FFM to establish whether or not chemicals were used as a weapon in the incident that took place in Saraqib, in the Idlib Governorate, on 1 August 2016.”

Given the US government’s heavy influence within the OPCW, that’s about as strong a statement that no chemical weapons attack took place as you’re ever likely to get.

Other claims of Syrian government chemical weapons attacks are suspect. The most egregious is the claim that the Syrian government carried out a chemical weapons attack on Douma in April 2018 – a claim that was used to justify United States, British and French airstrikes on Syria on 14 April 2018.

When the US launched its airstrikes the State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said the US had “excellent intelligence” that sarin and chlorine gas had been used in the Douma attacks that killed between 40 to 45 people. The US Defence Secretary James Mattis also claimed sarin or chlorine had been used.

The sarin claim was later unequivocally rejected by the OPCW Fact Finding Mission.

But media, keen to find a culprit to justify the airstrikes and damn the Assad regime, quickly seized on another FFM finding that “reactive chlorine” had been found at the site. Chlorine is not a banned chemical weapon and there were many sceptics who raised doubts about the chlorine bombing claims.

The scepticism proved justified when in late 2019 and January 2020 a series of leaks https://johnmenadue.com/paul-malone-the-australian-media-and-the-alleged-douma-chemical-weapons-attack/

from inside the OPCW itself revealed the doctoring and spinning processes that took place to produce the public reports that created the impression that the OPCW had concluded that there had been a chlorine incident.

To top this, the inspector who led the OPCW Douma team — South African ballistics expert, Ian Henderson — went public saying that his team “had serious misgivings that a chemical attack had occurred.”

In their reports of chemical weapons attacks the media either forgets or ignores the history and the context. On 14 September 2013 an agreement was reached between the United States, Russia and Syria on a Framework for Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons. Thee OPCW then undertook a program of site inspections and destruction of chemical arms and precursor chemicals.

With the endorsement of the Syrian government, (but without the agreement of the Al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) destruction of chemical weapons began on 6 October 2013. On 22 January 2015 Ahmet Üzümcü, Director-General the OPCW, said all declared chemical weapons had been removed from Syrian territory, and 98% of them had been destroyed – including all sulphur, mustard and nerve agent precursors. https://www.opcw.org/sites/default/files/documents/ODG/uzumcu/DG_Speech_Complutense_University_Madrid.pdf

Two months later at the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize Forum, he said the action by the OPCW was the first time ever that a country’s arsenal of chemical weapons had been eliminated during an active conflict. https://www.opcw.org/sites/default/files/documents/ODG/uzumcu/DG_Nobel_Peace__Prize_Forum_Speech.pdf

After Russia joined the Syrian government war against Islamic extremists and mounted air strikes beginning in October 2015, new allegations of chemical weapons attacks emerged.

Most western media showed no scepticism about the claims which were promoted by the Syrian Civil Defence, or White Helmets, an organisation closely associated with the terrorists variously known as Tahrir al-Sham al-Hayat (the Levant Liberation Board) or the Al-Nusra Front, (Al Qaeda in Syria).

With the Russian-backed Syrian government winning the war, and possibly on the verge of reaching an anti-ISIS alliance with the US, chemical weapon allegations popped up. The timing of these claims and their source should have aroused suspicion. Regularly they occurred when the Syrian government was on the point of victory in a major battle. Why, at such a time, would the Syrian government mount an attack that would kill at most 100 people, be of no significant battlefield value and bring international condemnation? What was to be gained?

On the other hand, with their backs to the wall ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front, had everything to gain from videos apparently showing atrocities.

Leading old-hand journalists such as Robert Fisk, Seymour Hersh and Peter Hitchins https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7718627/Sexed-dossier-furore-alleged-poison-gas-attack-Assad.html have challenged the chemical weapons attack claims.

But in addition a number of OPCW Fact Finding Mission reports issued many months after the alleged incidents concluded either that there was insufficient evidence of a chemical weapons attack, or that there had been no such attack. Media which had prominently report the alleged incident, at times running television footage of injured civilians, gave no coverage whatsoever to the negative findings.

Take for example the alleged chemical weapon attack in Aleppo on 2nd August 2016 which was widely reported, including by the ABC, the BBC, Al Jazeera and CNN. The source of information was, as usual, Syrian Civil Defence or White Helmets.

What did the official investigation by the OPCW’s Fact Finding Mission conclude when it later investigated the Aleppo 2016 incident?

Answer: “…the FFM cannot confidently determine whether or not a specific chemical was used as a weapon in the investigated incident. From the results of the analyses of the samples, the FFM is of the opinion that none of the chemicals identified are likely to be the cause of death of the casualties in the reported incident.”

Did any of the media outlets go back and correct the “reports” that the Assad government had gassed people in Aleppo in August 2016?

No.

At the height of the war in Syria, when many chemical weapons attacks were reported, it was often impossible for the OPCW or any independent authority to visit the site of the alleged incident and conduct on the spot investigations. In addition, samples that might be collected were not held by independent bodies. Frequently they were passed to agencies in Turkey, a country with a government hostile to the Syrian government.

As a result, it is often impossible to say with certainty whether there was a chemical weapons attack at all and if it did indeed occur, even more difficult to determine, who carried it out.

Russian and Syrian sources claim that some attacks were carried out by ISIS and others were fake staged events carried out by ISIS.

OPCW and UN investigations have at times laid blame on both of the warring sides. https://news.un.org/en/story/2017/11/570192-both-isil-and-syrian-government-responsible-use-chemical-weapons-un-security

But in the minds of many media commentators – whether they be ABC broadcaster and former CNN reporter, Stan Grant or the ABC’s Media Watch – it’s a simply fact that the Syrian regime is solely responsible. At the very least, more scepticism is required.

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Paul Malone is a journalist and author with over 30 years of experience having worked for the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Australian Financial  Review and the Canberra Times, where he was Political Correspondent for five years and wrote a weekly column until late 2017. His latest book Kill the Major – The true story of the most successful Allied guerrilla war in Borneo will be released in July

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