Initial Thoughts on the OPCW Interim Investigation into the Alleged Gas Attack in Douma, Syria

By Peter Hitchens - 7 July 2018

Now we have the first interim report of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) on the alleged gas attack at Douma, outside Damascus, on 7th April 2018. You may read it in full here

I’d like to check its conclusions against some of the things which were said at the time, when the NATO allies very quickly concluded that the, allegations (for which there was no independent evidence) were true, and that the Assad state was to blame.

Here is the Guardian, on 9th April 2018: ‘Aid workers and medics described apocalyptic scenes in the besieged city of Douma, where at least 42 people have died from what appears to be a chemical attack, as they scrambled to save the survivors of the latest atrocity in Syria.

The Guardian - 9 April 2018

‘Doctors, nurses and rescue personnel said that, without medical equipment or supplies, they battled to save people who had started arriving at hospitals from 7.45pm on Saturday and were frothing at the mouth and suffocating. Many of those who made it to the hospitals did not live long. People who could not be pulled out needed to stay in their homes for hours waiting for the gas to dissipate before they could be retrieved. Some rescue workers also required treatment for exposure to the alleged chemicals.

‘Doctors said the symptoms had been consistent with exposure to an organophosphorus substance.’

Which doctors? Note the absence of named, checkable sources in a story written some distance from Damascus. This was typical of almost all western media reports of the episode at the time.

Now, the OPCW preliminary report, 6th July 2018, paragraph 2.5, specifically says there is no evidence of any such organophosphorus substance at the site. The quoted ‘doctors’, being unidentified, cannot now be approached to ask for their response to this.

The OPCW says : ‘The results of the analysis of the prioritised samples submitted to OPCW designated laboratories were received by the FFM team on 22 May 2018. No organophosphorus nerve agents or their degradation products were detected, either in the environmental samples or in plasma samples from the alleged casualties. Various chlorinated organic chemicals were found in samples from Locations 2 and 4, along with residues of explosive. These results are reported in Annex 3. Work by the team to establish the significance of these results is ongoing.’

The Times , 9th April 2018, declared in a leading article:

‘It was business as usual yesterday in the propaganda bunkers of President Assad. A horrific chemical weapons attack on the sheltering Syrian civilians of Douma township was brushed aside by the Damascus regime as a fabrication or a "false flag" operation by insurgents. Moscow rushed to support its client dictator, branding the assault "bogus".

‘At least 70 people, including women and children, were killed after a Syrian army helicopter rolled a barrel bomb stuffed with chlorine or a nerve agent on to a heavily populated neighbourhood at the weekend. Douma is the only city in the eastern Ghouta enclave that is still in rebel hands and the Assad regime had plainly become impatient to mop up resistance. The relentless airstrikes since February indicate that the regime is willing to breach international rules to conquer terrain it considers strategically vital.

‘Russia cannot be allowed to block investigations into yet another breach of the chemical weapons convention. In 2013, when the US readied itself for a strike on Assad's bases to punish the regime for a chemical assault on eastern Ghouta, Russia offered to help to destroy Syria's stockpiles of gas and nerve agents. Moscow's aim was to head off US military involvement rather than restrain Assad. Again and again, new attacks have been documented by non-governmental organisations. It is obvious that the regime retains at least part of its chemical arsenal and manufacturing facilities.

‘The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) should be authorised to send investigators to the scene. The UN Security Council should demand the surrender of all flight logs for the period of the attack. These are the basic requirements for establishing that a war crime has been committed. Yet the past behaviour of the Russian authorities, and their reflex response of denying everything, suggests that little progress will be made at the UN.’

What reason did ‘The Times’ (which above imputes cynical motives to Russia without evidence) have to suspect that Russia would block an OPCW investigation? Russia has not in fact blocked any investigation, though it has objected to the creation of a body, which it regarded as biased, which drew conclusions from the Khan Sheikhoun events without having actually visited the site or seen any independent evidence gathered there, since there wasn’t any.


For the full story of Khan Sheikhoun.

The OPCW report shows that the Syrian and Russian governments both supported the mission of the OPCW to the site. By contrast the OPCW was unable to visit the scene of a previous alleged chemical attack at Khan Sheikhoun, in an area controlled by the Islamist factions supported by the West, as their safety could not be guaranteed. I do not recall ‘The Times’ condemning the rrbels over this.

Paragraph 3.3 : ‘On 10 April 2018, the Secretariat sent note verbale No. NV/ODG/214589/18 to the Syrian Arab Republic expressing its intention to deploy a team to Damascus. This correspondence coincided with note verbale No. 38 from the Permanent Representation of the Syrian Arab Republic to the OPCW requesting that an FFM team be dispatched urgently to visit the town of Douma to verify the information surrounding the alleged use of toxic chemicals on 7 April 2018. On the same day, the Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the OPCW submitted a letter to the Secretariat in which he welcomed the request from the Syrian Arab Republic and pledged to facilitate the work of the FFM.’

It also shows that delays to the OPCW team’s arrival were not caused by Russian or Syrian government action:

Paragraphs 6.1 to 6.8 (my emphases) explain wat happened:

‘Given the recent military activities and the volatile situation in Douma at the time of the FFM deployment, security and safety considerations were of paramount importance. Considerable time and effort were invested in discussions and planning to mitigate the inherent security risks to the FFM team and others deploying into Douma. According to Syrian Arab Republic and Russian Military Police representatives, there were a number of unacceptable risks to the team, including mines and explosives that still needed to be cleared, a risk of explosions, and sleeper cells still suspected of being active in Douma. This assessment was shared by the representative of the United Nations Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS). Moreover, the operation to evacuate residents who had accepted an offer to leave Douma was ongoing, using the same road the team would have to take.

6.2 At the outset, the formal position of the FFM team, as instructed by the Director-General, was that security of the mission should be the responsibility of the Syrian Arab Republic. During the initial meetings in Damascus, the FFM team was informed by Syrian and Russian representatives that the Syrian Arab Republic could guarantee the safety of the FFM team only if the security was provided jointly with the Russian Military Police. S/1645/2018 page 6 6.3 Following consultations with OPCW Headquarters it was agreed between the Secretariat, the Syrian Arab Republic, the Russian Military Police, the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS), and UNDSS representatives that security within Douma could be provided by the Russian Military Police. This was formalised on 16 April 2018. Consequently, it was agreed that the Syrian Arab Republic would provide security from the hotel where the inspectors were staying to the final checkpoint at El Wafadin before entering Douma. From that point on, the Syrian Arab Republic would relinquish responsibility for security to the Russian Military Police. It was also agreed that the FFM team would be accompanied by Syrian Arab Republic representatives during the on-site activities, with Russian personnel limited to providing security.

6.4 During the reconnaissance visit by UNDSS on 18 April 2018 to assess the first two locations planned to be visited the following day, the security detail was confronted by a hostile crowd and came under fire from small arms and a hand grenade that exploded at Location 2 (see Figure 2 in section 8 below). The incident reportedly resulted in two fatalities and an injury to a Russian soldier. (PH Notes: This seems to me to suggest that the crowd were hostile to the Syrian government and the Russians, not to the defeated Jaish al Islam rebels. But I am speculating here)

6.5 Following the incident, the planned deployment of the FFM team was postponed until the security situation could be reassessed. Additional measures to mitigate the high security risks were proposed by the UNDSS representative, which included: (a) clearing the areas to be visited by the FFM team; (b) securing the areas during the 24-hour period before deployment; (c) increasing the number of escorts and having advance teams from the UNDSS and the Russian Military Police monitor the area prior to the arrival of the team at the sites; (d) using the police force for crowd control; (e) minimising the movement of civilians near the areas of interest given the possibility of suicide bombers getting within close proximity of the inspection team; and (f) deploying snipers on rooftops around the sites of interest. 6.6 New routes of access to the locations of interest were identified and modifications to the initial FFM deployment plans were formulated. These included reducing the size of the FFM teams deploying to the field to facilitate better security control and limiting the number of sites to be visited during each deployment. All parties agreed that media reports and public pronouncements on operational aspects of the FFM were compounding the security risk for the team and efforts were made to mitigate this risk element. 6.7 Once the security reassessment had been concluded and the proposed additional mitigation measures implemented, the FFM team deployed to the sites of investigation in accordance with the updated priorities and proposed schedule. S/1645/2018 page 7 6.8 For the remainder of the mission, the deployment by the FFM team proceeded without any security incidents. Access was granted to locations identified by the team as soon as adequate security conditions could be assured by the Syrian Arab Republic, the Russian Military Police, and the UNDSS. The Russian Military Police ensured that the team was fully isolated from local crowds and media personnel during the on-site visits, thereby allowing it to conduct its activities without interference.’

The Times stated in its 9th April leading article, as fact, that ‘At least 70 people, including women and children, were killed after a Syrian army helicopter rolled a barrel bomb stuffed with chlorine or a nerve agent on to a heavily populated neighbourhood at the weekend.’

The interim report says nothing about casualties. The reports we have of these come, like so much of what we think we know, from un-named sources, presumably so-called ‘NGOs’, not necessarily neutral in this matter, operating in the areas controlled by the Islamists.

We have so far no names of the dead, and no post-mortems to show cause of death (though the OPCW report reveals that there have been discussions about opening mass graves). So it is not yet possible to say whether these allegations are well-founded. The OPCW seems to have dismissed the suggestion that a nerve agent was involved. But the Times was cautious about this, saying it might have been chlorine.

So, was chlorine used? This issue is dealt with in paragraphs 8.7 to 8.14

‘Various chlorinated organic chemicals were found in samples from Locations 2 and 4, along with residues of explosive. These results are reported in Annex 3. Work by the team to establish the significance of these results is ongoing. Physical data collection

8.8 Aside from sampling, a large volume of information was gathered by the FFM team and included photographs, video recordings, detection measurements, dimensions of the cylinders and attached metallic structure, and the spatial arrangement in the environment of the cylinders. Location 2 (cylinder on the roof)

8.9 The team deployed to Location 2 (N 330 34’ 25.6”, E 360 24’ 17.3”) on 21 April 2018.

8.10 During the visit to Location 2, Syrian Arab Republic representatives did not provide the access requested by the FFM team to some apartments within the building, which were closed at the time. The Syrian Arab Republic representatives stated that they did not have the authority to force entry into the locked apartments. This situation was relayed to OPCW Headquarters during the post-deployment debrief that same evening. S/1645/2018 page 11

8.11 The FFM had full access to other areas of interest within the same building, namely the balcony where the cylinder had allegedly impacted, the apartment directly below this, and the basement of the same apartment block.

8.12 Work is in progress regarding the location of the cylinder, its provenance, and the damage to both the reinforced concrete balcony and the cylinder. A comprehensive analysis by experts in the relevant fields will be required to provide a competent assessment of the relative damage. Location 4 (cylinder on the bed)

8.13 The team deployed to Location 4 (N 33° 34’ 24”, E 36° 23’ 41.1”) on 25 April 2018. The team gathered a broad selection of sample types, took videos, photos, detection measurements, and relevant dimensions of the location and the cylinder.

8.14 Work is in progress regarding the location of the cylinder, its provenance, and the damage to the reinforced concrete roof terrace and the cylinder. It is planned that a comprehensive analysis will be conducted by suitable experts, possibly in metallurgy and structural or mechanical engineering, to provide an assessment of how the cylinders arrived at its location, in addition to the observed damage to the bed and other furniture of the room, the roof, and the cylinder itself.

The report is not definitive. It seems to me that quite careful investigations are still taking place into how the cylinders got there. I don’t expect this is very easy to establish. The assertion that they were dropped form a helicopter by the Syrian army, widely made at the time, remains unproven. As to the chlorine traces, I’d be interested to hear from a chemist about these. They are listed in Annex 3, which is, alas, printed sideways.

Shortly after this event I had a few broadcasting engagements in which I urged caution, and was pretty much told not to be so silly, amongst other unpleasant suggestions.

This, from the once-staid and cautious Daily Telegraph, gives an idea of the quality and speed of the rush to judgement, in media and government

Trump's warning to Putin over Syrian gas atrocity

'Gravest consequences' for intervention, says Moscow
By: Ben Riley-Smith, Josie Ensor, Steven Swinford

DONALD TRUMP last night warned Russia's Vladimir Putin that there would be a "big price to pay" for a suspected Syrian chemical weapons attack that killed up to 70 people, including children.

In his harshest criticism of the Russian leader since taking office, the US president said Mr Putin was partly "responsible" for the assault on rebels in Douma, Eastern Ghouta.

He also criticised Barack Obama's failure to police a "red line" over chemical weapons, while a senior White House official said no form of response was "off the table".

The comments raise the possibility of a US air strike against Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president. Mr Trump approved the same response a year ago after a similar chemical attack.

The UN security council is expected to meet today after the UK, France, the US and six other countries called for an emergency session.

Theresa May was under pressure to join any US military intervention against the Assad regime, although MPs are not expected to be recalled to Parliament to discuss policy change.

Russia, Iran and Syria all denied chemical weapons had been used, with the Kremlin warning that any military response from the West would be "absolutely unacceptable".

A residential area of Douma, one of the last remaining rebel-held pockets in Syria, was struck around 8.45pm on Saturday.

Footage showed the dead bodies of children and adults with foaming mouths and glazed eyes.

Mr Trump tweeted: "Many dead, including women and children, in mindless CHEMICAL attack in Syria. Area of atrocity is in lockdown and encircled by Syrian Army, making it completely inaccessible to outside world.

"President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price to pay.

"Open area immediately for medical help and verification. Another humanitarian disaster for no reason whatsoever. SICK!" The president highlighted Mr Obama's failure to launch air strikes after past chemical weapons use, tweeting: "If President Obama had crossed his stated Red Line In The Sand, the Syrian disaster would have ended long ago! Animal Assad would have been history!" US media reported that Mr Trump would meet military leaders today, while Republican congressmen demanded action should follow up his uncompromising rhetoric.’

Well, we know that soon afterwards what seems to me to have been an illegal armed attack on Syria was made by the USA, Britain and France. Was this justified? We are some of the way towards knowing, but I still do not know what would have been lost by waiting to know, instead of assuming we knew.


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