Some 20 months after the alleged Syrian government toxic chemical weapons attack on Douma in April 2018 the evidence to back the claims of a gas attack has been blown apart.
The supposed attack prompted the United States, British and French governments to mount 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 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 unequivocally rejected by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ (OPCW) Fact Finding Mission (FFM).
Sarin is an organophosophorous nerve agent. The Fact Finding Mission said bluntly that no organophosophorous nerve agents, or their degradation products, were detected.
But media, keen to find a chemical 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. Now a series of leaks from inside the OPCW have revealed the doctoring and spinning processes that took place to produce public reports to create this impression.
The publicly released fact finding mission final report said: “Based on the levels of chlorinated organic derivatives, detected in several environmental samples gathered at the sites of alleged use of toxic chemicals (Locations 2 and 4), which are not naturally present in the environment, the FFM concludes that the objects from which the samples were taken at both locations had been in contact with one or more substances containing reactive chlorine.”
Outlets such as The Guardian then reported: “The world’s chemical weapons watchdog has said that chlorine was used against the rebel-held Syrian town of Douma in 2018.”
But as a culprit, chlorine was always a second-best suspect. Chlorine is not a banned chemical weapon; it has every-day uses and can be found everywhere.
There were many sceptics who raised doubts about the claims of a gas attack. Foremost US investigative journalist Seymour Hersh challenged the chlorine claim saying that a chlorine bomb would be of little effect because chlorine spreads in the air too quickly.
The highly experienced British journalist Robert Fisk, who visited the Douma site shortly after the attack, concluded that there had not been a gas attack.
So what justified turning the fact finding mission’s statement that it had found “chlorinated organic derivatives” into evidence that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons?
What were the actual chlorine readings?
Initial news stories made no mention of the readings and for very good reason. They are nowhere to be found in the reports.
Now the leaks from within the OPCW — including the leak of the first report produced by the fact finding team that actually visited Douma — shed further light on the matter.
Two cylinders found at the site were said to provide the hard evidence of a chlorine attack.
But a leak in June this year of OPCW expert, Ian Henderson’s Engineering assessment of two cylinders found in the Douma incident, dated 27 February 2019 cast serious doubt on that claim. (See http://syriapropagandamedia.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Engineering-assessment-of-two-cylinders-observed-at-the-Douma-incident-27-February-2019-1.pdf )
South African ballistics expert Henderson considered two hypotheses: one that the cylinders had been dropped from aircraft; and the other that they had been manually placed at their locations.
He concluded: “Observations at the scene of the two locations, together with subsequent analysis suggest that there is a higher probability that both cylinders were manually placed at those two locations rather than being delivered from aircraft.”
His assessment was not included in the published OPCW reports. Even worse, Henderson who had worked for the OPCW for twelve years, was escorted out of his office.
His findings were however backed up by US ballistic missiles expert Theodore A. Postol, Emeritus Professor of Science and Technology at MIT, who examined the published data and concluded that the cylinder evidence was staged.
While ordering an investigation into the Henderson leak, the OPCW’s Spanish Director General, Fernando Arias, said the OPCW stood by its published findings.
Then last month (Nov 2019) another leak of an email called into question the way the OPCW presented the chlorine evidence.
The email https://wikileaks.org/opcw-douma/document/Internal-OPCW-E-Mail/ from OPCW member, Aamir Shouket to his OPCW superior Robert Fairweather, sent on 22 June 2018, took issue with changes made to the initial FFM’s report by the Office of the Director General.
Shouket had 25 years-experience in Pakistan’s diplomatic service, working on security policies, arms control and disarmament, before joining the OPCW.
Fairweather, a British representative, was Chief of Cabinet in the OPCW.
At the time the Director General was Ahmet Üzümcü, a Turkish career diplomat, who previously was Turkish consul in Aleppo, Syria and Ambassador to Israel. As a Turkish diplomat, he would have maintained Turkey’s hostile attitude to the Syrian government. But at the OPCW he would have been expected to be a neutral.
As a member of the FFM team Shouket expressed grave concern at changes to the team’s report that he believed had been made at the behest of the Office of the Director General. After reading the modified report he said he was “struck by how much it misrepresents the facts.”
“Many of the facts and observations outlined in the full version are inextricably interconnected and by selectively omitting certain ones, an unintended bias has been introduced into the report, undermining its credibility.”
The statement in the report that the team had sufficient evidence that chlorine, or another reactive chlorine-containing chemical was likely released from cylinders was “highly misleading and not supported by the facts.”
The only evidence was that some samples collected were in contact with a reactive chlorine but this could come from a number of sources including household chlorine-based bleaches.
He said the report’s statement that “high levels of various chlorinated organic derivatives” had been detected overstated the extent of the levels.
“They were, in most cases, present only in parts per billion range, as low as 1-2 ppb, which is essentially trace quantities.”
Since the leak of Shouket’s email all sorts of allegations and counter claims have bounced around the social media on the Douma incident.
A correspondent on the website Bellingcat https://www.bellingcat.com/news/mena/2019/12/12/chlorines-unique-fingerprints-the-april-7-2018-douma-incident-through-a-chemistry-lens/ said the “misrepresentations” Shouket raised related to a redacted version of the FFM report that preceded the final FFM report by nine months. The language in the final report on the Douma did not contain such misrepresentations.
But the latest leaks reveal that a number of OPCW inspectors were concerned about the contents of the final report, dated 1 March 2019.
Two weeks later a memo to director general, Fernando Arias from a writer whose name has been redacted, but who had been on the Douma mission, stated that 20 inspectors were concerned about the situation.
The writer (probably Henderson) said that at the conclusion of the in-country activities in Syria the consensus within the Fact Finding Mission team was that there were serious inconsistencies in the findings. This conclusion “appears to have turned completely in the opposite direction [in the final published report]. The FFM team members find this confusing and are concerned to know how this occurred.”
In his email Shouket said the original draft discussed the inconsistency between the victims’ symptoms, as reported by witnesses, and the videos released by organisations such as the Syrian Civil Defence White Helmets.
Omitting this section — which included the epidemiology and called into question the identity of any choking agent — detracted from the quality of the report.
The leaked copy of this report (https://wikileaks.org/opcw-douma/document/FirstdraftInterimReport/FirstdraftInterimReport.pdf ) states: “The inconsistency between the presence of a putative chlorine-containing toxic choking or blood agent on the one hand and the testimonies of alleged witnesses and symptoms observed from video footage and photographs, on the other, cannot be rationalised.”
The 40 to 45 bodies seen in videos strewn on the floor of apartments within a few metres of an escape to un-poisoned or less toxic air “is at odds with intoxication by chlorine-based choking or blood agents, even at high concentrations.”
The fact finding team considered two possible explanations for the incongruity: A. The victims were exposed to another highly toxic chemical agent that gave rise to the symptoms observed and has so far gone undetected;
or B. The fatalities resulted from a non-chemical-related incident.
They stated “The team has insufficient evidence at this time to be able to formulate an authoritative conclusion in either regard.”
If chlorine had been used as alleged, a required piece of evidence would be the detected chlorine measurements.
One internal email from another unknown sender to the OPCW inspector, Sami Barrek, a Tunisian analytical chemist, sent on 5 July 2018 made the point that referring to chlorine/chloride, while leaving out concentrations, would lead readers to arrive at a “simplistic conclusion” that there had been an attack.
Reading the final publicly released OPCW reports, I could not find any actual measurements. Perhaps I’d missed them, or maybe they are up on some website.
I followed conventional journalistic practice and contacted OPCW public affairs directly.
Are the readings of chlorine found by your investigative team public?
If so, where are they to be found?
What specifically are the readings?
How much do they diverge from background readings?
After a few days I received a reply, but with no direct answer to my questions. Instead I got two links to OPCW statements. Neither of these show any chlorine measurements.
So it seems there is no publicly available data to back the claim that chlorine was found in concentrations that would confirm a chlorine gas attack.
There’s another oddity that struck me as I read the OPCW publicly released reports and looked at the photos. How were the two cylinders that were supposedly the “chlorine bombs” meant to work?
Both cylinders were found intact – dented but not shattered.
One was found by a “witness” at midnight on the day of the attack on a bed in a residential building “leaking” gas. The witness said the odour was said to be so strong that s/he could not stay in the room.
Could not stay in the room? Surely something more than that? These cylinders are said to be the source of a gas attack that killed many people.
And if the object was meant to gas people, would it not have been designed to burst or shatter on impact to release the toxic agent?
It now emerges that I was not alone in wondering about the cylinders. The members of the fact finding mission who actually visited Douma noted the “moderate damage to the cylinders allegedly dropped from an unknown height.”
They documented their doubts in their draft report. But these doubts were cut from the published reports.
Paul Malone is a journalist 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.