Tag Archives: Douma

Chemical watchdog confirms suppressed report but justifies the suppression

Director-General of OPCW Fernando Arias Gonzales admits Douma engineers report was legit and he was part of the FFM – but attempts to justify suppression of the report.

France 24 reports that the head of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) “has ordered a probe into the leak of an internal paper which queried the body’s findings into a 2018 attack in the Syrian town of Douma” (see Chemical weapons body probes leaked document on Syrian attack). This is yet another confirmation of the authenticity of the leaked document I discussed in Does international chemical watchdog cherry-pick evidence to confirm a bias? Recent documents form the OPCW also confirm that Ian Henderson, the head of the engineering subteam that prepared the suppressed document, was employed by the OPCW (see Remarks of the Director-General at the Briefing for States Parties on Syrian Arab Republic: Update on IIT-FFM-SSRC-DAT).

This should put to rest claims made by some corporate media journalists that the leaked document was fake and manufactured to discredit OPCW findings. Even so, these same journalists are not exactly rushing to repor the issue.

I guess no one who has worked for a large organisation, whether corporate or state owned, can be surprised at the way the OPCW is reacting to the leaked document. Or surprised that an important analysis was supressed leading to questions about the reliability of the final reports.

But the fact this is an international organisation bearing responsibility for monitory and eliminating a whole class of dangerous weapons makes the behaviour very serious. Even worse, the apparent bias in the final report about an incident which supposedly lead to the deaths of so many civilians raises questions about the ethical behaviour of the OPCW. It is very likely a war crime was committed and the OPCW has not only failed in its role to objectively elucidate the evidence of this crime but actively worked to prevent attributing blame to the likely instigators of the crime. Instead the OPCW appears to have succumbed to political pressure from NATO-aligned countries to blame an innocent party.

Alleged victims of chemcial attack in Douma, Syria. Who was responsible for these deaths? Image credit: New York Times – Most Chemical Attacks in Syria Get Little Attention. Here Are 34 Confirmed Cases.

Given the seriousness of this matter, it is pleasing to see that the media is starting to provide some coverage of the document suppression – although very belatedly and in a very limited matter in the case of the corporate mainstream media. I hope the truth comes out and I hope, as a result, steps are taken to reform OPCW procedures to limit this sort of political interference.

However, in this post, I will just deal with an attitude expressed by the OPCW which displays a very unscientific attitude to their work. The idea that evidence should be selected to support a conclusion – rather than the conclusion be based on all the evidence.

Director-General of OPCW admits the legitimacy of engineers’ report

The video above shows Fernando Arias Gonzales, the Director-General of OPCW, admitting to the legitimacy of the engineers’ report and attempting to justify the fact its findings were excluded from the final report. I described the findings of the suppressed report in Does international chemical watchdog cherry-pick evidence to confirm a bias?

Briefly, whereas the final OPCW report provided evidence for the finding that the chlorine cylinders had been dropped from the air, the suppressed engineers’ report found it far more probable that the cylinders had been placed manually.  Considerations of the sizes of the ceiling holes, the possible velocities of the cylinders and damage to them, and surrounding damage were considered in the suppressed report.

Whereas other external engineers were later consulted by the OPCW and provided arguments justifying air-delivery I would expect an objective report would include all the analyses and information available. On those grounds alone the Director-General’s arguments for suppression are very suspect and do nothing to alleviate the subsequent loss of credibility of his organisation.

But to me it is worse – his comments are scientifically unethical.

“But sometimes it does not fit to the conclusion”

How can a report be considered credible if evidence contradicting its conclusion is omitted? Fernando Arias Gonzales does nothing to preserve the integrity of his organisation when he says of evidence – “But sometimes it does not fit to the conclusion.”

His statement implies that in this case the writers of the report started with a conclusion and then selected only that evidence which could support their pet conclusion.

That is scientifically unethical and displays probable political pressure.

Hiding behind possible attribution

In a formal statement from the OPCW the Director-General provides yet another justification for the report’s suppression:

“The document produced by this staff member pointed at possible attribution, which is outside of the mandate of the FFM with regard to the formulation of its findings. Therefore, I instructed that, beyond the copy that would exclusively be kept by the FFM, the staff member be advised to submit his assessment to the IIT*, which he did, so that this document could later be used by the IIT.”

But this is just incredulous. The final report presented only the evidence supporting air delivery of the two chlorine cylinders. The suppressed report presented evidence which did not support air delivery but was consistent with the cylinders being placed manually.

Neither the engineer’s report nor the final report mentioned any attribution – although of course attribution could be inferred. By arguing for air-delivery the final report can be seen as possible laying the blame on the Syrian state forces which used helicopters in the area.  Manual placement provides for possible attribution to the jihadist forces and a staged event. But neither of these are stated directly and it is disingenuous for the Director-General to claim, the suppressed report “pointed at possible attribution” but the final report didn’t.

Really, the Director-General’s statement has only dug a deeper hole and further reduced the credibility of the origination and its past and future reports.

*IIT –Investigation and Identification Team. This has been set up by the OPCW Secretariat to identify “the perpetrators of the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic.” However, it does not have full support from OPCW members and its establishment is controversial.

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Does international chemical watchdog cherry-pick evidence to confirm a bias?

Organisation for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons headquarters in The Hague. Image credit: Prensa Latina Ready Syria to Cooperate with Organization Against Chemical Weapons

Multinational bodies, like the Organisation for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) usually have authority and appearance of objectivity because of their international and representative nature. But I have been disappointed with some of the OPCW reports because they relied on hearsay and appeared to suffer bias. They also usually lack transparency and suffer from lack of data. I have discussed some of this in my articles Another shonky OPCW chemical incident report on Syria and OPCW on Salisbury poisoning – one step forward, two back?

It is probably inevitable that a theoretically objective  or non-partisan organisation will, in practice, be influenced by political and geopolitical interests. Even so, I am shocked to discover that The OPCW may have resorted to cherry-picking evidence for their Final Report of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on the alleged chemical attack in Douma on 7 April 2018, released on 1 March 2019.

Paul McKeigue, David Miller and Piers Robinson who are members of Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media, revealed the cherry picking in their report Assessment by the engineering sub-team of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission investigating the alleged chemical attack in Douma in April 2018.

OPCW sidelines its own fact-finding engineers

Specifically the Final OPCW report ignored the findings of their own Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) Engineering Subteam that was part of the original investigation on the ground. Instead, the OPCW later contracted unidentified experts who provided the engineering analyses included in the final report.

These unidentified experts produced a different conclusion to that reached by the FFM engineering subteam as described in a leaked dcouyment from the subgroup (Engineering-assessment-of-two-cylinders-observed-at-the-Douma-incident-27-February-2019-1). That, in itself, is not surprising – consider how in criminal cases prosecutors and defence can produce their own experts to make completely opposite arguments.  But the OPCW should have at the very least acknowledged the two different conclusions from the two different groups. They should also have given more weight to the conclusions of the own subteam who were involved in the initial investigations rather than the contracted experts who relied only on second-hand data (and were possibly given a more limited mandate).

I wrote about the interim report on this alleged chemical attack and its misrepresentation by corporate media in my article Blatant misreporting of latest OPCW report on chemical weapons in Syria. The interim report considered the allegation that a chemical weapon had been used and concluded:

“No organophosphorus nerve agents or their degradation products were detected, either in the environmental samples or in plasma samples from the alleged casualties.”

The notorious chlorine gas cylinders

However, it left open the possibility that chlorine gas had been used and this was considered in the final report which considered the two chlorine gas cylinders found at the site of the alleged chemical attack.

The two engineering reports relate to these chlorine gas cylinders. Whereas the original Fact-Finding Mission engineering subteam concluded that the chlorine gas cylinders had most probably been manually placed at the scene the anonymous experts later contracted by the OPCW appear to favour an explanation involving delivery by an aircraft.

From the report of the engineering subteam of the fact-finding mission – (Engineering-assessment-of-two-cylinders-observed-at-the-Douma-incident-27-February-2019-1)

The arguments and conclusions of the anonyous contracted enegineering experts are contained in the final report – Report of the Fact-Finding Mission Regarding the Incident of Alleged use of Toxic Chemicals as a Weapon in Douma, Syrian Arab Republic, on 7 April 2018.

LOCATION 2

The above propaganda video from the White Helmets (allied with the jihadists in Douma) illustrates the position of this gas cylinder on a roof adjacent to a crater.

The anonymous contracted experts concluded the cylinder had been dropped onto the roof with sufficent kinetic energy to create the crater but not penetrate the roof. However the OPCW FFM subteam concluded from their modelling:

“that the alleged impact event or events leading to observed vessel deformation and concrete damage were not compatible.

A criss-cross pattern on the paintwork of the cylinder body, that had been attributed by some observers to the cylinder falling through the wire mesh, was inconsistent with the near-vertical angle of incidence that would have been required to create the crater.

Experts consulted to assess the appearance of the crater took the view that it was more consistent with a blast (from a mortar round or rocket artillery) than with an impact from the falling object. Similar craters were present in concrete slabs on top of nearby buildings.”

They concluded that the cylinder had more probably been manually placed in the location rather than dropped from an aircraft.

LOCATION 4

This cylinder has always appeared strange, lying on a bed in a room that was relatively undamaged.

The anonymous contracted experts concluded (or maybe assumed) the cylinder had been dropped from the air and come through the ceiling to land on the floor where it subsequently bounced onto the bed (see image below from the OPCW final report).

However the FFM engineering subteam concluded from their analyses and modelling:

“that the cylinder with intact valve and fins attached could not have fitted through the hole in the roof:

it was not possible to establish a set of circumstances where the post-deformation cylinder could fit through the crater with the valve still intact (whether or not an end-cap was assumed to have been fitted at the front end of the cylinder), and the fins deformed in the manner observed.”

Conclusions

I can understand how different assessment teams can come to different conclusions and it could well be that the anonymous contracted experts were asked to assume that the cylinders had been dropped and to model possible trajectories and dmagge. In contrast the intial FFM engineering team considered alternative hypotheses as well as air-dropped cylinders and specifically proposed the alternatives in their report.

Such modelling and conlcusions can’t help but involve a degree of speculation so it does not concern me that different conclusions were drawn. But I am very concerned that the OPCW final report ignored the findings of their own FFM engineering subteam. This indicates a degree of bias which should be unacceptable for such an international body.

The authors from the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media go as far as describing the issue as the hijacking of OPCW concluding:

“The new information we have removes all doubt that the organization has been hijacked at the top by France, UK and the US. We have no doubt that most OPCW staff continue to do their jobs professionally, and that some who are uneasy about the direction that the organization has taken nevertheless wish to protect its reputation. However what is at stake here is more than the reputation of the organization: the staged incident in Douma provoked a missile attack by the US, UK and France on 14 April 2018 that could have led to all-out war.

The cover-up of evidence that the Douma incident was staged is not merely misconduct. As the staging of the Douma incident entailed mass murder of civilians, those in OPCW who have suppressed the evidence of staging are, unwittingly or otherwise, colluding with mass murder.”

Other commentary on the OPCW FFM Engineering subteam report:

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Blatant misreporting of latest OPCW report on chemical weapons in Syria

BBC caught out promoting fake news about OPCW report

The Organisation for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) reports no evidence of banned chemical weapons use by the Syrian government in Douma last April. This conflicts with the strong claims of NATO states and most of the mainstream media at the time. It also shows that the illegal missile attacks by France, UK and USA (FUKUS) on Syria at the time (see The “heart of the Syrian chemical weapons programme” destroyed?) were completely unjustified.

While the NATO governments involved have yet to respond to the OPCW report (let alone make apologies for their actions) many mainstream media outlets seem determined to continue promoting fake news when it comes to Syria. Some major news outlets have completely misrepresented the OPCW findings.

OPCW has problems but got this one right

I have commented on some earlier OPCW reports on Syria and have found them unconvincing, biased or relying only on terrorist sources (see Another shonky OPCW chemical incident report on Syria and Chemical weapons use in Syria UN report flawed by political bias).

However, this one is a bit different. It is an interim report on the alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma, Syria, last April. This incident got a lot of publicity with France, UK and USA declaring they had evidence which proved there had been an attack using sarin. This alliance (FUKUS) was sufficiently confident with their “intelligence” to order an illegal missile attack on several sites in Syria. (see The “heart of the Syrian chemical weapons programme” destroyed?)

This interim report is also different because the area of alleged attack was soon liberated by Syria and Syria, together with Russian Military Police and the UN Office for Project Services, was able to stabilise the area and enable inspectors from the OPCW to take samples and interview people in the buildings which had allegedly been attacked. A big difference to earlier reports which had relied only on “open sources,” and the testimony and samples provided by the White Helmets – a group affiliated with the jihadists and which actively campaigns against the Syrian states and has a history of false reporting.

While this is only an interim report some conclusions are clear (paragraph 2.5 in Summary):

“No organophosphorus nerve agents or their degradation products were detected, either in the environmental samples or in plasma samples from the alleged casualties.”

Media coverage

I have yet to see any response from NATO governments, particularly those comprising the FUKUS attack group. A sharp contrast to their vociferous accusations at the time of the alleged incident.

However, it appears that much of the mainstream media, and some of the sources it relies on, will draw unwarranted conclusions from this interim report to support their narrative.  For example, Al Jazeera claims Interim OPCW report finds proof of chlorine used in Syria’s Douma.

That is an outright lie. It did not give any such proof or even make that claim.

There is also this from the BBC:

Again an outright lie – the report found nothing of the sort.

Reuters are going with Chemical weapons agency finds ‘chlorinated’ chemicals in Syria’s Douma. Mind you this headline is a “correction” – “(Corrects to “various chlorinated organic chemicals” instead of chlorine).” Technically correct but misleading.

Sky news is claiming Chemical attack confirmed in deadly Douma strikes, but OPCW finds no evidence of sarin. Again wrong. No evidence of sarin but also no evidence presented of any chemical attack at all.

ABC also misrepresented the OPCW report claiming Chlorine used in Syria’s Douma, no trace of nerve agent, Interim OPCW report finds.

The NZ Herald was more neutral in their report Watchdog reports on alleged Syria attack behind airstrikes.

On the other hand the Xinhua Chinese news agency correctly reported Various chlorinated organic chemicals found in samples from Douma attack sites: OPCW, and RT correctly reported Nerve agents not found in samples from Syria’s Douma – interim OPCW report saying (in its second sentence ““Various chlorinated organic chemicals were found in samples” from two locations in the Damascus suburb of Douma.”

And I get the impression most of the “alternative” media sources I see on social media are reporting the OPCW findings correctly. So what was that about “Fake News” and the strong recommendations we get to wear blinkers so that we do not see alternative news sources?

Bellingcat also misrepresents findings

Eliot Higgins, who runs the Bellingcat organisation which provides “open source” information often used by western governments and media, also misrepresents the OPCW report. His organisation is responsible for initiating the story that the MH17 flight was shot down in eastern Ukraine by a Russian BUK unit especially imported for the occasion (and exported immediately afterwards).  Bellingcat is also responsible for many of the claims of chemical weapons used by the Syrian government.

Higgins tweeted:

What is the basis for misleading reports of chlorine use

The OPCW report mentions chlorine only twice – in this paragraph describing the original open source and media reporting of the alleged incident (paragraph 3.1 in Background):

So, no evidence of chlorine use found by the OPCW team. Those making this claim will point, in justification, to the fact that “chlorinated organic chemicals” were found at a few of the examined sites (paragraph 2.5 in Summary):

“Various chlorinated organic chemicals were found in samples from Locations 2 and 4, along with residues of explosive.”

Many of the commenters I have seen on social media who resort to this to prove their claims of chlorine use seem not to understand the chemical differences involved or to argue that traces of any chlorinated organic chemicals must mean chlorine had been present.

Surprisingly, the OPCW did not draw any conclusions from the presence of these chemicals and are still attempting to establish their significance. I would have thought their job was to show if the trace levels found were at all unusual for environmental samples.

As a chemist I do not find the OPCW detection of traces of these chemicals at all surprising. For example, the report mentions the presence of “dichloroacetic acid, trichloroacetic acid” in samples of concrete debris, wood fragments, a water tank wood support, and some clothing.  But these chemicals are common in drinking water and even groundwater (see the Background document for development of WHO Guidelines for Drinking-water Quality, Dichloroacetic Acid in Drinking-water ). Some of the chemicals found are common chlorinated compounds in treated wood (e.g. bornyl chloride and 2,4,6-trichlorophenol as mentioned in a footnote to Annex 3 of the OPCW interim report).

So, in fact, the identified chlorinated organic chemicals are what one may expect from such samples or especially samples taken from areas where explosives have been used.

This OPCW report is still of dubious scientific quality

I find a lot wrong with this OPCW report – but first the positive.

It followed (mostly) the OPCW guidelines for on-site inspection and sampling. This is a sharp contrast with the earlier OPCW reports on Syria where investigators relied on samples and testimony from jihadi affiliated groups like the White Helmets and their associates. This was possible because Douma had just been liberated and the Syrian Government and Russian Armed Forces made an immediate request for the OPCW to send their own observers to check media claims. (Although, given their willingness to trust jihadi-linked groups based in a terrorist-controlled area it does seem strange that the OPCW was unwilling to send their investigators to those areas and rely on terrorist guarantees for security in past investigations. Although, I am being sarcastic. Even in the case of Douma the OPCW team, was concerned about attacks from suicide bombers which seem to operate freely in the terrorist-held areas).

But have they learned?

In paragraph 5.1 describing their activities and timeline the OPCW say:

“Following reports in the media of the alleged incident on 7 April 2018, the Information Cell of the Secretariat immediately informed the FFM team and initiated a search of open-source information to assess the credibility of the allegation. The major sources comprised news media, blogs, and the websites of various non-governmental organisations. The assessment by the Information Cell was that the credibility of the allegation was high. Based on this information, the Director-General initiated an on-site investigation.”

Will the OPCW learn from this specific incident. In  previous reports they stopped at “The assessment by the Information Cell was that the credibility of the allegation was high” – and they would have this time of the Syrian, Russian and UN military had not provided them the security they required for onsite inspections.

The OPCW assessment was that the credibility of the jihadi-connected groups was “high.” Their own inspections showed they were mistaken. Will they be more careful with such claims in the future?

This question is important as NATO countries at the UN Security Council earlier this year effectively prevented adoption of mandatory on site inspections for UN-related chemical weapons investigations. At the OPCW the NATO countries have also pushed through a policy enabling the OPCW to go beyond its investigatory role and carry out a political role of apportioning blame.

The science is shonky

I find it incredible that the report should simply list identification of traces of chlorinated organic chemicals without either providing some sort of indication of the concentrations involved or comparing levels with measurements from  control samples – taken from areas outside the alleged attack area. This is a basic scientific mistake.

Those who wish to claim that the presence of chlorinated organics “proves” chlorine was used in this area could well be right. But only if the concentrations of these chemicals was much higher than normal for environmental samples.

I really can’t help thinking that this shoddy reporting of the science is a political trick enabling the report to be misrepresented. The OPCW is, after all, an international body and subject to the same sort of political manoeuvring we have come to expect from all such international bodies.

Interviews in country X!

The report states (paragraph 8.17:

“The FFM team interviewed a total of 34 individuals; 13 of these interviews were
conducted in Damascus and the remainder in Country X. Analysis of the testimonies is ongoing.”

Two issues for me here:

1: 13 interviews in Damascus – where most witness could have been found and 21 interviews in “Country x?” What this means is that more people from the defeated jihadi groups and their families were interviewed than those remaining in Douma who may have been less motivated to lie.

2: Country X! really? This is meant to be an intelligent report – not a spy thriller. There is absolutely no reason to be so coy about the location of the people interviewed. This is just childish.

I should note that the defeated “rebels”/terrorists and their families were given the opportunity to be transported to Idlib (still in terrorist hands). This has been a common feature of settlement agreements as areas are liberated. Of course, many choose to stay – even those who had been actively fighting with the militants. There is usually a provision for fighters to formalise their citizenship and even join the Syrian Army.

Many of the “rebel” fighters and members of affiliated organisations travel from Idlib into neighbouring Turkey – and further on. Why is the OPCW afraid to reveal the location of their interviewees in Turkey or other countries? Are they concerned this might reflect on the reliability of their testimony?

The warehouse and chemical production facility.

The Syrian government also asked the OPCW to investigate a chemical production facility and warehouse they had found deign liberation of East Ghouta and Douma. They believe these had been sued by terrorists to manufacture chemical contain weapons. (Similar facilities had been found in East Aleppo where terorists appeared to be adding chemicals to projectiles used in their “hell cannons.”

Only one paragraph was devoted to this inspection – paragraph 8.16: Warehouse and facility suspected of producing chemical weapons:

“At the warehouse and the facility suspected by the authorities of the Syrian Arab Republic of producing chemical weapons in Douma, information was gathered to assess whether these facilities were associated with the production of chemical weapons or toxic chemicals that could be used as weapons. From the information gathered during the two on-site visits to these locations, there was no indication of either facility being involved in the production of chemical warfare agents or toxic chemicals for use as weapons.”

That is all – no details. No inventory of chemicals held at the sites. No sign of what the warehouse and production facility was actually used for.

Now, I can accost the Syrians may have been completely wrong in their suspicions about these sites – after all that assessment was made by military officers on the ground in the heat of battle, not chemical weapons experts. But I find the lack of information frustrating, even suspicious.

Were any cylinders of chlorine present at these sites. After all, if politically motivated commenters and media wish to misinterpret the presence of normal traces of chlorinated organic chemicals in collected samples why should they not also be forced to consider stocks of chlorine held in terrorist controlled areas -even if their declared use was innocent.

Conclusions

At last, and OPCW report on Syria actually based on factual evidence, the samples and interviews collected by the OPCW on site. A great advance over earlier reports based on “evidence” from terrorist-connected sources and social media or “open sources.”

But I wish the OPCW was more serious in reporting their scientific findings. Reporting traces of chlorinated organic chemicals without any indication of concentrations and comparison with normal environmental samples is shoddy work laying their information wide open for misrepresentation and distortion. Given the current geopolitical struggles and the way international organisations can be manipulated, I can’t help feeling this shoddy reporting was possibly intentional.

Despite these weaknesses, I think this report shows what is possible. It does show that the military action taken by FUKUS last April was not only illegal it was either based on poor intelligence and, more likely, based on claims these governments knew to be false. It is always good to see such blatant political and military hypocrisy exposed.

However, the weaknesses in the report show that more must be done to improve the scientific quality of OPCW work and reduce political influence on that work. This aspect is important because the recent changes giving OPCW a role in apportioning blame for alleged attacks open up that organisation to being so politicised it will lose all credibility.

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