by Dave DeCamp - December 30, 2019
On Friday, WikiLeaks released even more internal emails and documents from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) related to the alleged chemical attack in Douma, Syria, on April 7th 2018. The release is the fourth leak related to the alleged attack, an incident that was used as the pretext for an airstrike launched by the US, UK, and France against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The OPCW published their final report on the Douma attack in March 2019, they concluded that the evidence provided "reasonable grounds that the use of a toxic chemical as a weapon took place" and that chemical was "likely molecular chlorine." But since that report was published, multiple whistleblowers have come forward, and many documents have been leaked that suggest otherwise. The mounting evidence points to a cover up within the OPCW, a possible scandal that has gained virtually no attention from the mainstream media.
One of the new leaks is a series of emails between OPCW employees dated February 28th 2019, just two days before the final report was published. The emails show Sebastien Braha, the OPCW Chief of Cabinet, ordering the removal of a document from the OPCW’s secure registry. The email says, "Please get this document out of DRA (Documents Registry Archive) … And please remove all traces, if any, of its delivery/storage/whatever in DRA."
The document Braha ordered to be removed is an engineering assessment that studied two cylinders found in two separate locations in Douma. The allegation was that these cylinders were dropped out of a Syrian government aircraft and were the source of the chlorine gas. But this engineering assessment points to a different possibility.
The assessment was prepared by Ian Henderson, a longtime OPCW engineer. Henderson’s report concludes, "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." If the cylinders were manually placed where they were found, it would point to the theory that the attack was staged by Jaysh al-Islam, the opposition group that the Syrian government was driving out of Douma. But Henderson’s assessment was left out of the final report.
This new leak corroborates a story Peter Hitchens wrote for The Mail on Sunday earlier this month. According to Hitchens, after making every effort to have his assessment included in the final report, Henderson decided to upload it to the DRA. After the document was uploaded, a senior OPCW official nicknamed "Voldemort" ordered it be erased. Hitchens wrote, "when ‘Voldemort’ heard about it, he sent an email to subordinates saying: ‘Please get this document out of DRA … And please remove all traces, if any, of its delivery/storage/whatever in DRA.’"
Henderson leaked his engineering assessment to the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media, and it was published in May 2019. Since Henderson’s leak was published, his character has been smeared as a way to delegitimize his assessment. The common allegation is that Henderson was not part of the OPCW Fact Finding Mission (FFM) that went to Douma to investigate the alleged attack. The OPCW even told the Working Group in a statement that Henderson "has never been a member of the FFM."
After Braha orders the engineering assessment to be removed from the DRA, he sends another email questioning Henderson’s work. The email reads, "Under whose authority was this work conducted, outside FFM authority and dedicated highly secured network, by someone who was not part of the FFM?" This is the last email we can see in the exchange. Critics of Henderson are pointing to this email as proof that he was not part of the FFM.
But evidence from previous leaks show that Henderson was indeed a member of the FFM that went to Douma. An email from a set of documents released by WikiLeaks on December 14th, addressed to a senior OPCW official, calls the allegation that Henderson was not part of the FFM a "falsehood." The email dated May 20th 2019, reads, "Ian Henderson WAS part of the FFM and there is an abundance of official documentation, as well as other supporting proof that testifies to that."
Another document released on December 14th is a memo addressed to OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias dated March 14th 2019. In the memo, the author, who is likely Ian Henderson, explains that the final OPCW report was not prepared by the FFM that went to Douma. The memo says the report was prepared by a "FFM core team" that only operated in "Country X," with the exception of a paramedic that did go to Douma. "Country X" is likely Turkey since OPCW investigators went there to interview alleged witnesses.
This memo shows that there are two groups that can be called the "FFM." One that went to Douma and had no say in the final report, and a team that only operated in "Country X." Henderson was likely a member of the FFM that went to Douma, whose findings were ignored.
Another document released Friday was the minutes from an OPCW meeting with toxicologists that took place on June 6th 2018. According to the document, four OPCW employees met with "three Toxicologists/Clinical pharmacologists" and "one bioanalytical and toxicological chemist" who all specialize in chemical weapons. The meeting had two purposes. One was "to solicit expert advice on the value of exhuming suspected victims of the alleged chemical attack," and the other purpose was "to elicit expert opinions from the forensic toxicologists regarding the observed and reported symptoms of the alleged victims."
According to the minutes, the OPCW team was advised by the experts that there would be "little use" in exhuming the bodies and conducting autopsies, something the FFM never did.
With regards to the symptoms of the alleged victims, according to the minutes, "the chief expert summed up his conclusions by offering two possibilities that included on the one hand a real chemical attack and on the other, the possibility of the event being a propaganda exercise." As far as the symptoms being consistent with exposure to chlorine gas, "the experts were conclusive in their statements that there was no correlation between symptoms and chlorine exposure."
The document says the OPCW team that attended the meeting all agreed "that the key ‘take-away’ message from the meeting was that the symptoms observed were inconsistent with exposure to chlorine and no other obvious candidate chemical causing the symptoms could be identified." WikiLeaks also released a set of emails from OPCW employees discussing the meeting, affirming the content of the leaked minutes.
The conclusion of the toxicologists and the OPCW team members that attended the meeting are consistent with the original interim report that was never published by the OPCW and was only made public after WikiLeaks released it on December 14th. That interim report says, "Some of the signs and symptoms described by witnesses and noted in photos and video recordings taken by witnesses, of the alleged victims are not consistent with exposure to chlorine-containing choking or blood agents such as chlorine gas, phosgene or cyanogen chloride." This part of the report was completely removed from the highly altered version of the interim report that was published on July 6th 2018.
WikiLeaks published an email on November 23rd from a member of the FFM that went to Douma, expressing his concern over the altered interim report. That email’s author had many issues with the changes to the interim report, among them was the section addressing the victim’s symptoms. The email reads, "The original report discusses in detail the inconsistency between the victims’ symptoms, as reported by witnesses and seen in video recordings. Omitting this section of the report has a serious negative impact … The inconsistency was not only noted by the FFM team but strongly supported by three toxicologists with expertise in exposure to CW agents."
The final report mentions two consultations with toxicologists, one in September 2018, and one in October 2018, but no details from the consultations are given. The final report says the symptoms of the alleged victims as described by witnesses and observed in open-sourced videos "indicate exposure to an inhalational irritant or toxic substance." The report also says, "it is currently not possible to precisely link the cause of the signs and symptoms to a specific chemical."
If the FFM that prepared the final report had proof that the symptoms of the alleged victims were consistent with chlorine exposure, it would no doubt have been included in the report. The absence of such an allegation shows that despite further consultations with toxicologists, that conclusion was never reached. Instead, the reader is lead to believe that the victims were killed by a chlorine gas since the ultimate conclusion of the report is that an attack using a toxic chemical that contained chlorine likely occurred.
Since these OPCW leaks have been coming out, employees of the investigative research website Bellingcat have been trying to sweep them under the rug (it is worth noting that Bellingcat receives grants from the US-government funded National Endowment for Democracy). The "investigators" at Bellingcat are now accusing WikiLeaks of selectively releasing these documents to fit a narrative, and are claiming that each new leak discredits the previous ones. It is more likely that WikiLeaks’ sources expected their original leaks to make a bigger splash, and decided to release more since they gained so little attention. And, as demonstrated above, the new leaks clearly support earlier ones.
No honest journalist or investigator can look at all these leaks and say there is nothing here. The evidence shows that the OPCW ignored its investigator’s findings to prepare a report that fit a particular narrative. The OPCW needs to release all of its member’s findings and explain why they chose to ignore some. The fact is, the alleged Douma chemical attack led to a US airstrike. If that airstrike was carried out under false pretenses it needs to be revealed.
Dave DeCamp is assistant editor at Antiwar.com and a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn NY, focusing on US foreign policy and wars. He is on Twitter at @decampdave.