On April 7, 2018, horrifying images of an alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria flooded the internet. Appalled, the media jumped on the story and resolutely pointed the finger at the regime of Assad. One week later, yesterday exactly two years ago, the United States, Britain and France launched rocket attacks in retaliation, and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in subsequent months concluded that a gas attack had indeed taken place. In the meantime, however, four OPCW employees have blown the whistle on the manipulation of the investigation. Moreover, internal documents published by WikiLeaks indicate that many investigators of the OPCW’s team on site leaned towards the conclusion that the rebels fabricated the incident but were sidelined.”
The media, however, all but ignored the leaks. Yet, last week they were quick to report on a new OPCW investigation that for the first time directly accuses the Syrian air force of three different chemical weapons attacks in 2017. The European Union welcomed the new report and said it was considering new sanctions – and this in a time that the coronavirus especially puts war-ravaged populations like that of Syria at tremendous risk. But how credible is the organization after the leaks? I was in Syria when the alleged assault happened. In this article, I reflect on both my journey and the media’s coverage of the incident.
"What was I doing here?"
Friday evening, April 6, 2018. I get out of a cab in Bāb Tūmā, a neighborhood in the Old City of Damascus. Unfortunately, the taxi driver cannot take me any further, since we are stuck in front of a military check point. That’s okay, though, because an employee of my hotel was already waiting for me and walks me through gorgeous, picturesque alleys to my first destination since I had crossed the border into Syria earlier in the day, the beautiful Beit al-Wali.
There are not a lot of people in the hotel. A Lebanese-Syrian couple tell me about their love story and recent engagement while the waiters ask me every five minutes if I desire something. Young and adventurous as I am, I feel a bit uncomfortable sitting in a five-star hotel – even disregarding the absurdity of the context. Suddenly I notice in the corner of my eyes a European woman. It’s Vanessa Beeley, a British journalist who has consistently attacked her government and its allies for their complicity in the war but in the Western press is mostly churned as "Assad apologist."
Naturally, we started to talk when suddenly the overwhelming noise of a bomb impact throws our conversation into disarray. The Syrian army had started a large-scale advance to retake Eastern Ghouta, the last enclave around the capital under the control of the rebels. Gradually, it had succeeded with a carrot and stick approach of heavy bombardments on the one hand and capitulation offers to fighters in which they and their families would be bussed to Idlib in the northwest of the country on the other. However fragile, I was so naïve to convince myself that the cease-fire would hold, and that the final takeover would occur peacefully. Apparently not. Still, Vanessa took me by the arm in order to attend the celebrations of Coptic Good Friday. To my astonishment, the great many Christians of Damascus reacted with apathy to the resumption of mutual bombing and attended the celebrations en masse. Just like Doubting Thomas, after whom largely Christian Bāb Tūmā is named, I could not believe my eyes.
The following morning, I nervously took a taxi to the Orwellian-named Ministry of Information, where I had to go and explain how I pretended to be a journalist and student at the same time. On my way I tried in vain to kick of a light conversation in Arabic with my cab driver when we were approaching Umayyad Square. Smoke was rising up out of the gigantic roundabout and soldiers hysterically waved their hands ordering us to halt. Terrified, I jumped out of the taxi and saw a heavily wounded young man on the ground holding onto his phone, screaming and trying to contact his relatives. Two destroyed cars on the roundabout looked like they were riddled through with bullets – in fact this was the result of the rebel’s indiscriminate mortar bombs, I suddenly realized. Before I could get my head around what was happening, though, the soldiers had already lifted the young man in the taxi and my driver was racing off to the nearest hospital. Under the sound of incoming mortar bombs, I continued my journey on foot and in panic. Later that day I visited the al-Muwassat hospital, where 38 wounded citizens, among them a critically-injured seventeen-year-old girl, were being treated. Six died. Whether the young man was one of them is an agonizing mystery to me to this very day.
What was I doing here? I was a Belgian student History and Arabic Studies at the University of Ghent and it was Spring Break. I could have just stayed home, enjoyed my time off and celebrated my dad’s birthday. The last couple of years, however, I had become obsessed with the conflict in Syria. The reporting of journalists like Vanessa, who almost exclusively found an ear in the alternative media sphere, made me ever more disgusted about the Western role in the conflict – so disgusted that I had to see it for myself. More and more convincingly, I believed that Western propaganda falsely accused the Assad regime, ruthless and brutal as it was, for some much-hyped atrocities that were in actuality carried out by the so-called "moderate rebels" in order to persuade public opinion in Europe and the United States to intervene more directly in the conflict, an effort which had become increasingly difficult since the disastrous wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.
And so, I ended up on that fateful April 7, 2018 in a rain of bombs in Damascus. By night fall, things started to quiet down, but then suddenly the news started flowing in that the Syrian air force, apparently to secure its near victory, had carried out a chemical weapons attack in Douma, the rebels’ last stronghold. Tens of innocent civilians were said to be killed.
Could I have been wrong after all? Had I become, a little like the European Muslim youths who signed up for jihad in Syria and Iraq, radicalized by a one-sided view on the conflict?
Heartbreaking videos in the turbulent aftermath filmed by the White Helmets, the foremost personification of the alleged brave and humanitarian character of the rebels, flooded the media the following day. American President Donald Trump called his Syrian counterpart "Animal Assad" and called out Russia and Iran for their support to the regime. The outrage was so huge that the United States, Britain and France felt compelled not to stand idly by as they decided, following Israel’s precedent, to bomb Syrian government facilities on 14 April. At the time, I was in Tartūs, on the coast, and was awakened by alarming messages of friends and family. While the great powers were getting closer to the edge of a global conflict, Syrians appeared to react with apathy, as I mentioned in my brief appearance on the Belgian radio news at the time. They even made jokes about the situation. To them, it was business as usual.
US Secretary of Defense James Mattis claimed that the bomb raids attempted to "destroy the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons research, development and production capabilities," despite the fact that the destruction of the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal was destroyed under the auspices of the OPCW in 2014. Thus, Syrian state television, from its side, maintained that the prime target was in fact a research facility specialized in cancer medicine. Even though the attack brought the United States and Russia to the brink of military escalation for a moment, geopolitical tensions luckily returned quickly into its normal routine of mere rhetorical clashes.
Meanwhile the army had taken control of Douma and my visa – and thus also my stay in the country – had come to an end. Journalists and researchers of the OPCW now gained access to the site of the alleged chemical attack. That Syrian government reporters and Russian and Iranian journalists claimed that the assault was staged by the rebels was a surprise to no one. That some Western reporters that visited the site leaned to the same conclusion, however, was more of a surprise. Veteran British journalist Robert Fisk was on site, and so was Pearson Sharp of the rather obscure but, not unimportant, pro-Trump TV channel One American News. Both emphasized that, despite arriving on a government bus, they enjoyed total freedom without any supervision the moment they started their work. This was very similar to my own experience during my visits to Eastern Ghouta and the al-Harjallah refugee camp a couple of days earlier, where I heard horrifying witnesses of life under the seven-year-long regime of the rebels, many of them supposedly moderates, on an at random basis.
Taken together, Sharp and Fisk interviewed dozens of Douma residents, and not a single one mentioned to have noticed anything resembling a chemical attack. What’s more, some of them spontaneously claimed that the rebels, on the verge of defeat, probably staged the whole thing in a desperate attempt to halt the government offensive. Both moreover on separate occasions interviewed doctors in the makeshift underground hospital where the White Helmets made their video. They consistently stated that only victims with hypoxia were treated on 7 April, but that the White Helmets suddenly stormed into the hospital with their camera’s and started screaming about a gas attack, only to leave after the filming was done. Thereafter, they all decided to be bussed together with the rebels to Idlib. Both the spokesperson of and presidential envoy to the US-led anti-ISIS coalition have claimed that Idlib province is "a magnet for terrorist groups" and "the largest al-Qaeda safe haven since 9/11."
These reports were however buried in the media storm, which had long made its conclusions. It did not matter that the alleged gas attack had no strategic value whatsoever for the regime. Nor was it necessary to contemplate why Assad, on the verge of a long-fought and highly symbolic victory, would commit political suicide by employing that one useless weapon that would invite international opprobrium and Western military intervention. The alleged use of the internationally prohibited weapons reminded people of its savage employment by the Germans during World War I or by Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War and proved once more the brutal, butcher-like character of the Syrian dictator. And thus, when Russia flew a total of 17 residents and medical personnel of the makeshift hospital to the Netherlands a couple of weeks later in order to back up the version of the events as reported by Fisk and Pearson at the headquarters of the OPCW in The Hague, Western media and government representatives simply discarded the move as "theater" and "an obscene masquerade." End of story.
When I questioned the official version myself in a lecture I gave about my travel experience in May, the same destiny befell me as I was now also called an "Assad apologist" by some. And maybe correctly so, cause the OPCW gradually confirmed the mainstream reading of the events in the coming year. At first, it stated in its interim report in July that, even though the organization had found no nerve agents, it did discover traces of chlorinated chemicals on site. The official tone of condemnation followed in September, when the organization confirmed that "a vast body of evidence" suggested that on 7 April a chlorine gas cylinder was dropped from the sky by a helicopter – thus clearly pointing the finger at the Syrian army as the perpetrator. In the final report, published in March 2019, no mentioned was made of the helicopter, but the OPCW concluded that it had "reasonable grounds" that a toxic substance was used and that two gas cylinders found in Douma were potentially the weapons employed.
The findings of the internationally-renowned organization appeared to be the final nail in the coffin. Until two months later the first whistleblower stepped forward.
"Conspiracy theory or international scandal?"
In the middle of May, the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media, a group of academics critical of Western coverage of the conflict, obtained a report (accessible here) of Ian Henderson, a South African ballistic expert who had done work for the OPCW from 1998 onwards and served as a liaison officer of its Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) in Damascus in 2018. In his capacity as head of the engineering sub-team, Henderson delivered a report that was excluded from the OPCW’s final analysis because, at least according to a late press statement, it was in contradiction with the findings of three other, external experts whose analyses were consistent with the hypothesis that the gas cylinders had been dropped from the sky.
A potential explanation for this consensus lies with the OPCW itself, because the organization asked the external experts to examine the trajectories of the two cylinders without taking into consideration alternative hypotheses. Henderson, on the other hand, who by all appearances was an internal expert who contrary to the other experts had been on site in Douma and spoke for multiple FFM members, did take in mind the possibility that the cylinders had been placed on the crime scene from the onset and compared this scenario with the other explanation. His conclusion? The hypothesis that the cylinders were delivered from aircraft is inconsistent with the ballistic analyses of the FFM, which proves that in both cases the manual placement of the cylinders is "the only plausible explanation for observations at the scene."
In other words, as the expression goes, the leaked report was a bombshell that shattered the OPCW’s final report to pieces and suggested that the yearlong research should have concluded that the alleged chemical attack was staged. So, how did the media respond? Silence. Utter and total silence. Instead, Reuters, the New York Times and other American media reported on a State Department statement which claimed, without any shred of evidence, that "we continue to see signs that the Assad regime may be renewing its use of chemical weapons." Following Robert Fisk’s lonely voice in Britain, Belgian state media did feel compelled to cover the story. In its examination, the Flemish Radio and Television Broadcasting Agency (VRT), claimed it conducted "a journey to uncover the truth" in its bizarrely titled report "Conspiracy theory or international scandal?" And indeed, as the title indicated, the VRT threw itself behind the findings of the final report, which it compounded with months-old "independent" open-source analyses of the New York Times and Bellingcat.
In other words, the taxpayer-funded outlet chose to believe, respectively, a paper which, on its own account, lied the American public into the Iraq War and an "investigative" platform that receives funds from the infamous front organization National Endowment for (Meddling in) Democracy. Moreover, since these analyses were months old, the VRT shunned a relevant debate and failed to engage directly with the revelations. Needless to say, the coverage of Fisk and One American News, as well as the Syrian witnesses brought to The Hague, were simply ignored.
The report, however, did question the reliability of the OPCW veteran, simply because Henderson’s analysis "fitted completely in the image of Russian and Syrian coverage." Therefore, it did not really matter that a possibly staged event brought us a step closer to World War III. No, the reader concludes that, since the leakage alleges that the Russians might have been right all along, it must be untrue, and the bombshell report can therefore be discarded as a conspiracy theory. This was the last story ever in the Flemish media concerning the alleged Douma chemical event.
"The picture is certainly clearer now, although very disturbing"
But this was far from the last bullet hole in the official OPCW-supported version of the events. No, the most overwhelming revelations were still forthcoming. The Courage Foundation, an NGO that fights for the defense of whistleblowers, convened a panel in October in order to discuss the OPCW report at a conference in Brussels. Frustrated by its "flawed" conclusions, a joint statement criticized the chemical analysis, toxicology, ballistics and witness testimonies of the final report because upon closer examination they "bear little relation to the facts."
The people undersigning the statement, however, did not represent lonely voices nor could they be called out as Russian propagandists. To the panel belonged, among others, WikiLeaks’ head editor, a professor of international law, a former British general, a retired American intelligence officer and, perhaps most importantly, José Bustani, the OPCW’s founding director-general. Bustani was in service at the time of the run-up to the Iraq War in 2002 and lobbied Iraq to become an OPCW member in order to avoid war. In reaction, John Bolton literally threatened his kids if Bustani did not resign. "You have 24 hours to leave the building," Bolton told him, "we know where your kids live." When Bustani did not give in, he was eventually fired. Insane as this bold American pressure on a UN-linked organization sounds, we now know that it was not an isolated incident, since the Courage Foundation gave a platform to a second whistleblower with a story that was at least as appalling. This time, however, it did compromise the organization’s management.
Like Henderson, this whistleblower was a member of the FFM who was investigating the assault on side in Douma and is known under the pseudonym "Alex." Jonathan Steele, a British veteran journalist with a long career at the Guardian, was present at the conference and listened to what Alex had to say about OPCW corruption. Contrary to what the organization tried to communicate to the outside world, Alex related that the opinion that both the interim and final reports were "scientifically impoverished, irregularly produced and potentially fraudulent" was in fact shared by the majority of the Douma inspection team. Where from Henderson’s leaked assessment questions arose over the OPCW’s ballistic conclusions concerning the two gas cylinders, Alex demolished the claim, at the very heart of the final report, that the discovery of traces of chlorine on scene gave the OPCW "reasonable grounds" to conclude that a chemical attack had taken place.
After the organization found no traces of nerve gas in the biological samples of alleged victims in Turkey, it admitted this fact in the interim report but immediately added that traces of chlorine were discovered by the FFM on site. This gave the international media enough munition at the time to briefly confirm its long-made verdict because this probably meant that a chemical attack took place, and the fact that the OPCW was analyzing cylinders found in Douma must mean that Assad had dropped these from his aircraft or helicopters. Remarkably, however, the OPCW never mentioned the amount of chlorinated chemicals it found, which for Alex was incredible given that this observation is only relevant when a significantly higher amount than naturally occurs in the environment is discovered. When the results came in, however, the collected samples were lower than you would expect to find naturally, so much lower that "they were comparable to and even lower than those given in the World Health Organization’s guidelines on recommended permitted levels of trichlorophenol and other chlorinated organic chemicals in drinking water."
How could this mind-boggling fact have been omitted? If true, this clearly is deception that makes WMDs in Iraq look like child play, with the notable difference that the cherry picking this time occurred at the heart of a 193-country strong organization which works in close cooperation with the UN. Alex explains that the laboratory results were first kept behind from the chief author of the interim report. When the latter eventually found out, he was furious and wrote an angry e-mail to Bob Fairweather, a British diplomat who was in charge of daily operations. Subsequently, the chief author concluded that "a non chemical-related event" had taken place on 7 April, 2018. Management was not happy with that conclusion, however, and ordered Sami Barrek, the Tunisian who had been responsible for keeping secret the laboratory results of the chlorine levels in the first place, to rewrite the report. Still, the former chief author convinced Barrek to mention the incriminating results. Make no mistake, if this version had been published, the conclusion that no chemical assault had taken place would have been inevitable. Instead, however, on 5 July, the day before publication, management again removed any mention of the chlorine levels.
This had probably something to do with what had transpired the day before. Alex testified to Steele that "on 4 July there was another intervention. Fairweather, the chef de cabinet, invited several members of the drafting team to his office. There they found three US officials who were cursorily introduced without making clear which US agencies they represented. The Americans told them emphatically that the Syrian regime had conducted a gas attack, and that the two cylinders found on the roof and upper floor of the building contained 170 kilograms of chlorine. The inspectors left Fairweather’s office, feeling that the invitation to the Americans to address them was unacceptable pressure and a violation of the OPCW’s declared principles of independence and impartiality."
Mind-blowing and unbelievable as these claims of shenanigans appear, they are nonetheless consistent and backed up by all sorts of extra internal documents and e-mails that have since been published by WikiLeaks. There is no room here for a thorough analysis. Suffice it to say that an internal memorandum supported by 20 inspectors of the FFM Douma team expressed their dissatisfaction with the final report, to which only one single member of the original team was allowed to contribute. Because they felt that the final report "did not reflect the views of all the team members that deployed to Douma," the OPCW on-site inspectors now stand in the ever-growing line of residents, medical personnel and journalists who are in the best position to know what happened on that fateful day but are not allowed to tell the truth.
Does it need to be said that the Western mass media literally ignored these explosive revelations? Or that when some outlets finally did report on them after OPCW Director-General Gernando Arias berated Henderson and Alex as "individuals who could not accept that their views were not backed by evidence" and were "not whistleblowers," they took these claims at face value, with the Guardian going as far as saying that it was all somehow nothing more than "a Russia-led campaign?" Or that they simply ignored the internal documents published by WikiLeaks, which are completely at odds with Arias’ statements that Henderson and Alex represented a mere disgruntled minority viewpoint? Or, finally, that likewise the fact that now a third (former) and fourth (current) OPCW employee have come forward to express their shame and anxiety has been shoved down the memory hole, too?
I was professionally and mentally unprepared for my journey to government-controlled Syria two years ago. I made loads of mistakes and I hope to learn from them. I am willing to critically reflect about my trip, but I can only hope that one day the media will reflect on its role in covering up WMDs 2.0. Indeed, as founding OPCW Director-General Bustani put it, "the picture is certainly clearer now, although very disturbing."
Bas Spliet is a master student History and Arabic Studies at the University of Ghent, Belgium, where he researches the anti-nuclear weapons movement in Europe of the early 1980s. He is proficient in Arabic, travelled to Syria in 2018 and lived in Cairo in 2019. He aspires to become an investigative journalist after graduation.