Tag Archives: OPCW

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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Another shonky OPCW chemical incident report on Syria

Collection of samples from the site of an alleged chemical attack in Saraqib, Syria, by a White Helmets “sample collection team” affiliated with “rebels”/terrorists in the area.  OPCW Report on Saraqib incident.

Last week the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) published a new report on a chemical incident in Syria (see OPCW Fact-Finding Mission Confirms Likely Use of Chlorine in Saraqib, Syria). It claims “that chlorine was likely used as a chemical weapon on 4 February 2018 in Saraqib, Idlib Governorate, Syrian Arab Republic.”

Yet again this very political word “likely.” Unfortunately, the report displays the same sloppiness and lack of adherence to the OPCW’s own procedures which caused earlier reports to be discredited (see for example Chemical weapons use in Syria UN report flawed by political bias). In particular, no on-site inspections, no authentication of interviews or samples, and reliance on “rebel”/terrorist affiliated groups for their information and samples.

No, this is not the report we are waiting on – one dealing with the highly publicised alleged “chemical incident” in Duoma more recently. I certainly hope that one will be better – and the chances are it will because the OPCW was forced to handle this situation in a more honest way.

Whereas the Syrian government and the Russian armed forces asked the OPCW to send a team to Duoma to make its own investigations, the OPCW investigation of the Saraqib incident did not involve any on site inspection or sampling. The Saraqib report bases its conclusions simply on “open source” material and on samples and testimony provided by the jihadi-affiliated “White Helmets” (which unethically calls itself “Syrian Civil Defence”). For example –  see this table extracted from the OPCW report.

Readers can download the OPCW report here – Report of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission in Syria Regarding an Alleged Incident in Saraqib, Syrian Arab Republic on 4 February 2018.

According to the Saraqib report (paragraph 4.3):

“The FFM (Fact-finding Mission) noted that during an investigation, complete, direct, and immediate access to the site of an allegation provides the greatest opportunity to collect information.”

Of course, this is the only way for such a FFM to produce a credible conclusion. This is particularly relevant to this specific case because instead of following its own recommended procedures for examination and establishing lines of custody the FFM relied on:

“examination of existing reports; assessment and corroboration of background information; conduct of interviews with relevant medical care providers, alleged casualties, and other individuals linked to the reported incident; review of documentation and records provided by interviewees; analysis of the signs and symptoms of victims as reported by interviewees; and receipt of environmental samples, for subsequent analysis.”

In practice the FFM report is simply based on testimony and samples provided by the “White Helmets/”Syrian Civil Defence” – a controversial organisation closely linked to the jihadis with a political policy of calling for NATO intervention in Syria and a record of falsifying video reports (see my previous articles on the “White Helmets”).

Paragraph 4.6 illustrates the complete reliance on such suspect sources:

“Through liaison with representatives of several NGOs, including Same Justice/Chemical Violations Documentation Center of Syria (CVDCS), the Syrian Civil Defence – also known as White Helmets – (SCD) and the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), the FFM contacted witnesses and confirmed their willingness to provide testimony and potential evidence. Furthermore, the FFM coordinated with the NGOs to organise movement of the witnesses. “

Why can’t  (or won’t) Syrian opposition provide security guarantees for OPCW?

Of course, they justified this by claiming “various constraints, mainly related to security, have not enabled immediate access to sites by the FFM.” But there is no sign that the OPCW attempted to get security guarantees or even contacted the military units in the area. Nor is there any sign that the NGOs they relied on (the White Helmets and associated groups who are linked with the military groups in the area) made any attempt on their behalf to arrange for a site visit.

Duoma was also in a military active area. Syrian and Russian armed forces, together with a UN security team, provided security guarantees for the OPCW investigation team. A similar situation could have been organised in Saraqib – after all the area was under the military control of the jihadi militants.

In Duoma, Russian chemical weapons specialists carried out their own investigation and sampling – but, correctly, considered that an OPCW investigation would be far more acceptable to world opinion. The same procedure was used in the OPCW investigation of the Salisbury alleged chemical incident. Although they took subsamples of material collected by the UK authorities the OPCW team also took their own samples. This means that their report, if we ever get to see it (see OPCW on Salisbury poisoning – one step forward, two back?) can be more authoritative than one relying simply on UK samples.

Why should the OPCW consider the jihadi affiliated groups in Saraqib any more respectable or acceptable than the Russian (or UK) experts? If they had produced a report on Duoma using only Russian-supplied samples and testimony they would have been laughed at. Why do they expect us to accept an even less reliable or objective report for Saraqib?

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OPCW on Salisbury poisoning – one step forward, two back?

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

Chemical weapons are a current hot topic. We are bombarded daily with media reports mentioning them. They seem to be driving an increase in international tensions. And all sorts of conspiracy theories are circulating.

In the midst of the fast-moving narratives and claims, sensible people are asking for evidence. That is where the international watchdog, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) should come in. So I welcome two bits of news which may help in the search for evidence;

  1. The completion of the OPCW work requested by the UK to provide independent confirmation of the UK findings on the toxic chemical behind the poisoning of three people (Sergei and Yulia Skripal, a father and daughter, and a local police officer Nicholas Bailey) in Salisbury, UK, and
  2. The beginning of the work of an OPCW investigation team, in the Syrian city of Douma where there are claims of a chemical weapons attack.

I will only discuss the OPCW report resulting from the UK request on the Salisbury poisonings – and then only the summary of the report. The UK agreed to declassify the summary but not the full report. We will have to wait until another member state releases the full report – if they ever do. I understand it is “voluminous.”

The summary can be downloaded from the OPCW –  SUMMARY OF THE REPORT ON ACTIVITIES CARRIED OUT IN SUPPORT OF A REQUEST FOR TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE BY THE UNITED KINGDOM OF GREAT BRITAIN AND NORTHERN IRELAND (TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE VISIT TAV/02/18)  These bureaucrats love long titles, don’t they?

It’s only two pages long and really only contains two important paragraphs worth discussing.

Confirmation of UK findings on “identity of the toxic chemical”

This was all the UK requested of the OPCW – that they provide an independent confirmation of the UK findings on the toxic chemical used. Unfortunately the OPCW was not given the mandate to make a full investigation of the incident (as they are now doing in Douma, Syria).

So their findings are (apparently) summarised in paragraph 10:

“The results of analysis by the OPCW designated laboratories of environmental and biomedical samples collected by the OPCW team confirm the findings of the United Kingdom relating to the identity of the toxic chemical that was used in Salisbury and severely injured three people. “

I have two comments on this paragraph.

1: It has been widely misreported. Ideologically driven news media have widely extended the “confirmation” to the UK narrative – the claim that a specific “novichock-type” chemical was used, that it originated in Russia – or even to claim that the OPCW is confirming the whole UK political story. The politicians have, of course, encouraged these misinterpretations. Boris Johnson, UK Foreign Secretary, has claimed a confirmation that the chemical “was a military grade nerve agent – a Novichok,”  (wrong) and that “there remains no alternative explanation about who was responsible – only Russia has the means, motive and record “(see Salisbury incident: Foreign Secretary statement on OPCW report).

Oh well, you know how to detect when politicians are lying, don’t you? Well, we should add “when they give a press release” to “their lips moving.”

An example of media misrepresentation is this from the Wall Stree Journal –  The report puts beyond doubt that it was highly likely Russia carried out the attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter, using a nerve agent “of high purity”

This is just another example of fake news – especially considering that the UK simply asked for confirmation of their findings on the identity of the chemical used.

2: This paragraph does not actually identify the toxic chemical. It simply confirms the UK findings, without saying what these were. And it goes on to say in paragraph 12:

“The name and structure of the identified toxic chemical are contained in the full classified report of the Secretariat, available to States Parties.”

That is not much use, is it? Apparently they do have specific information about the toxic chemical but they are going to keep it secret. or more specifically the UK is because they could have allowed declassification of the whole report – in the “interests of the transparency” that Boris Johnson claims to support.

Well, let’s look further into this summary to see if we can get an idea of what exactly the OPCW is confirming.

The toxic chemical “identified by the UK”

The most informative section of the summary for this is paragraph 7:

“The team was briefed on the identity of the toxic chemical identified by the United Kingdom and was able to review analytical results and data from chemical analysis of biomedical samples collected by the British authorities from the affected individuals, as well as from environmental samples collected on site.”

Seriously! We are told that the OPCW investigation confirmed the UK expert findings – but we are not told what those findings are – unless we have a security clearance!

I agree – we can vaguely infer what those findings are from the statements of politicians like Theresa May and Boris Johnson. But, as a chemist and not a politician, I would actually like to know what the expert findings of the scientists at Porton Down are.

Findings like these get massaged when they are transferred to politicians and then issued to the media.  Scientists are often put in the position of having their findings misrepresented, exaggerated or downplayed for political interests – and as the misrepresentation is carried out by their political masters they have no comeback. They are effectively silenced.

So, I would love to see the technical findings from the Porton Down scientists, and the technical findings of the OPCW team. Currently, I have no way of reading these unless at some stage another member state (not the UK which classified the report) releases the full document.* I sincerely hope this happens. In this respect, Sergei Lavrov, the Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation, has commented:

“We are currently engaged in a detailed study of this report, there are very interesting moments that arise from reading this document.We will in the very near future try to make them public when experts, both ours and the relevant departments, will deal with this rather voluminous document.”

At the moment all I have is a summary which is strangely very uninformative about the facts. I find its presentation circular – confirmation of the “findings” but the only revelation of the findings is to refer back to the unpublished UK “findings.” Mind you, such circular arguments are commonly used by bureaucrats involved in issues which have political consequences.

So, one step forward. The OPCW has independently confirmed the chemical and structural nature of the toxic chemical used in Salisbury. Good.

But, no specific or scientific information on the very subject the OPCW was asked to confirm – the nature of the toxic chemical used in the Salisbury poisonings.

That, in my view, is two steps back.

*Note: There is already alternative “confidential” information circulating in the media that the Swiss laboratory involved in the “confirmation” of the toxic chemical in the UK samples produced results not mentioned in the OPCW report. These sort of rumours will inevitably continue while the full report remains secret.

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