In a suburb of Damascus called Douma, that had been occupied by the militant group Jaysh al-Islam, the 2018 Syrian chemical attack that made headlines all over the world allegedly took place on April 7—right as Syrian forces were moving in to retake the area. The western media unequivocally accused the Syrian government of dropping gas cylinders on “moderate rebels” (thus anointing members of Jaysh al-Islam as “moderates”) and killing at least 43 people. Prompting US, France and Britain to launch a barrage of cruise missiles a week later against the Syrian government.
Such use of force according to the UN Charter, can only be legally justified as an act of self-defence against a prior armed attack, which it wasn’t, as none of the countries in question were ever attacked by Syria, or with the formal authorisation of the UN Security Council, of which there was none—making it illegal under international law, and a blatant act of aggression against a sovereign state. Moreover, the attack was carried out without any international investigation confirming at the time that the Syrian government had indeed used chemical weapons in Douma.
Both these facts got drowned out by the international outrage, fuelled on by western governments and the media in particular. A year later, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the international chemical weapons watchdog, concluded in its final report released in March, that the cylinders in Douma were likely dropped from the air, all but pointing the finger at the Syrian government, the only one with aircrafts—thus providing a veneer of legitimacy to the western attack on Syria.
Once the demonization of the Syrian government was complete, the incident was conveniently forgotten. But the story did not end there.
In May this year, a leaked engineering assessment given to a group of UK-based academics known as the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media, revealed that an expert with the OPCW Fact Finding Mission (FFM) had in fact challenged the conclusion of the OPCW’s final report to the UN Security Council on March 1, 2019. According to the leaked document, the “dimensions, characteristics and appearance of the cylinders and the surrounding scene of the incidents were inconsistent with what would have been expected in the case of either cylinder having been delivered from an aircraft.” This finding suggests there is “a higher probability that both cylinders were manually placed at those two locations rather than being delivered from aircraft.”
According to award-winning physicist and MIT professor emeritus Theodore Postol, a leading expert in missile technology, “The leaked document provided unambiguous contradictory data from the UN Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) and supporting technical analysis that explicitly showed that the attacks were instead staged.” Postol said that the documents provide enough evidence to suggest that “someone had placed the chlorine cylinders at the alleged locations in the hope of making it appear like the cylinders had been dropped from an aircraft.” And Postol wasn’t the only one challenging the OPCW’s conclusion.
Robert Fisk, a veteran correspondent for The Independent (UK), said a doctor who treated the victims in Douma told him they had suffered “from dust and dirt inhalation, not toxic gas exposure”. Similarly, Riam Dalati, a BBC producer who has covered Syria extensively, also claimed in February that the attack was “staged”. After conducting an on-ground investigation for six-months, Dalati said: “I can tell you that Jaysh al-Islam ruled Douma with an iron fist. They coopted activists, doctors and humanitarians with fear and intimidation. In fact, one of the 3 or 4 people filming the scene was Dr Abu Bakr Hanan, a ‘brute and shifty’ doctor affiliated with Jaysh Al-Islam.”
And now, a second whistleblower has come forward challenging the OPCW’s final report.
On October 15, an independent British civil society organisation, Courage Foundation, convened a panel of experts from the fields of disarmament, international law, journalism, military operations, medicine and intelligence in Brussels, to meet a member of the OPCW’s team that investigated the Douma incident. Based on the whistleblower’s “extensive presentation, including internal emails, text messages and draft reports”, the panel “unanimously” expressed its “alarm over unacceptable practices in the investigation of the alleged chemical attack in Douma”.
The panel, consisting of Nobel Peace Prize nominee Jose Bustani, Brazilian diplomat and the first Director General of the OPCW; Richard Falk, professor emeritus of International Law, Princeton University; Kristinn Hrafnsson, editor in chief of WikiLeaks; Dr Helmut Lohrer, MD, Board member of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and others, concluded that: “A critical analysis of the final report of the Douma investigation left the panel in little doubt that conclusions drawn from each of the key evidentiary pillars of the investigation (chemical analysis, toxicology, ballistics and witness testimonies) are flawed and bear little relation to the facts.”
The panel stated that is was “particularly troubled by organisational efforts [by OPCW] to obfuscate and prevent inspectors from raising legitimate concerns about possible malpractices surrounding the Douma investigation.” Professor Richard Falk, one of the panel members, wrote that: “Not only did the panel find that OPCW tampered with the evidence to produce an outcome desired by the geopolitical actors involved in this instance, it tried to silence its own senior civil servants to such an extent as to produce what I would call ‘a reluctant but extremely credible whistleblower,’ a senior inspector with 17 years of experience with OPCW, and a member of the team that carried out the on-site investigations of the Douma allegations.”
On October 27, in an interview on the BBC World Service programme, Weekend, Jonathan Steele, former Senior Middle East Correspondent for the Guardian, who was in Brussels to attend the briefing, said that evidence provided by the OPCW whistleblower “suggested there was no chemical gas attack [in Douma]”. And a lot of the commotion of there being one “was propaganda…led by the rebel side to try and bring in American planes, which in fact did happen.”
So what does it all boil down to? About a month before the chemical attack in Douma is alleged to have happened, US President Donald Trump publicly said that the US military would soon be withdrawing troops from Syria—which the powerful US military-industrial-complex is strongly against. The Trump administration had similarly said back in 2017 that the US was leaving Syria, and within days, the highly dubious Khan Shaykhun chemical attack took place in Syria, forcing Trump to reverse his stance.
Scepticism surrounding that occurrence was also very high, similar to the Douma incident, because acclaimed journalists like Seymour Hersh have been highlighting various plot holes in the official story about chemical weapons in Syria since 2013. And as Australian journalist Caitlin Johnstone explains, “[Syrian president] Assad would stand nothing to gain and everything to lose” by using chemical weapons that are “highly ineffective” in a “battle he’d already essentially won”. Whereas groups such as the “Al Qaeda-linked” Jaysh-al Islam, who were “controlling things on the ground in Douma”, would definitely have “everything to gain by staging a chemical attack in the desperate hope that it would draw NATO powers into attacking the Syrian government and perhaps saving their necks.”
Hence, if this was a court case where the jury would look at the motives of different parties to determine a verdict, it is more likely that it would be the militants on the ground who would be found guilty. And those who had tried to pin the blame on Assad’s government for their own geopolitical interests, despite the risks of starting World War III, as the Russians too were present on the ground in Syria during the west’s retaliatory strike, would most likely also be found guilty of being accomplices to the attempted frame-up job, aimed at escalating violence in Syria.
Interestingly, on October 6, Trump had again announced that American troops would withdraw from northernmost Syria. What awaits this announcement? Will it be followed by another incident that raises or attempts to raise tensions in Syria? Will American troops continue to occupy parts of Syria in violation of international law, despite the announcement, as has previously happened? Or will Trump keep his word and withdraw US troops from a region where they have no business being in, in the first place?
Eresh Omar Jamal is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.
His Twitter handle is: @EreshOmarJamal