August 21, 2019

Doubts about chemical attack Syria

In the picture H.E. Mr. Alexander Shulgin, Ambassador of the Russian Federation to The Netherlands with the team Russian experts at a press conference of the Russian embassy in The Hague on July 12th.

By Eric van de Beek.

The alleged poison gas attack in the Syrian city of Douma in April 2018 may have been staged, an engineering sub-team of OPCW’s fact finding mission in Syria concludes in an unpublished, leaked report. 

On April 14, 2018, the US, France, and Great Britain launched a missile attack on Syria, in retribution for an alleged poison gas attack on the terrorist stronghold Douma for which they held the Syrian government responsible. Just before the attack, the Russian ambassador in Lebanon and the chief of Russia’s general staff warned Russia would respond to a US strike on Syria if the lives of Russian servicemen were threatened, targeting any missiles and launchers involved. 

What could have ended in World War III eventually ended with a hiss. No Russian targets were hit and for Syria the damage from the attack was limited, partly because Syria’s Soviet-era air defence systems intercepted many incoming missiles.

Uncertainty has settled

However, it is still unclear what exactly happened on April 7th, 2018 in Douma. Until recently it was widely believed a helicopter from the Syrian army had dropped two cylinders of chlorine on the city, at that time occupied by Army of Islam aka Jaysh al-Islam. The cylinders were found by inspectors of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) on a roof terrace and on a bed under a hole in a roof.

Environmental samples from the scene contained chlorinated organic compounds, consistent with release of chlorine. The final report of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission concluded that there are “reasonable grounds that the use of a toxic chemical as a weapon took place”, and that the cylinders had been dropped from the sky. Although OPCW did not identify any culprit in the report, this would implicate the Syrian military. 

In May of this year an internal document was leaked from OPCW. The author, Ian Henderson, concluded that there was a “higher probability that both cylinders were manually placed at those two locations rather than being delivered from aircraft”. From the damage to the two cylinders and from other data, Henderson’s engineering assessment concludes that the cylinders must have been placed manually. For example, the hole in the roof turned out to be smaller than the cylinder found in the bedroom below.

Not included in final report

The findings of Henderson and his engineering sub-team were not included in the final report issued by the OPCW on March 1st, 2019. The findings of the sub-team were published on May 13th on the website of the “Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media” (WGSPM). This group consists of mainly British academics, including David Miller, Piers Robinson and Paul McKeigue, who claim to be in contact with whistleblowers from OPCW and state that the engineering assessment was suppressed. The OPCW Director-General has confirmed that the document is genuine, that it was part of the investigation, and that he has ordered an investigation into how it was leaked. 

Chemical attack staged?

The British WGSPM that published the leaked OPCW report argues that it is now established “beyond reasonable doubt” that the supposed poison gas attack in Douma was staged, not only because of the findings of the OPCW engineering assessment, but also because of the images of children in a hospital, presented to the world by representatives of the White Helmets as evidence of a poison gas attack. According to WGSPM it is no longer seriously disputed that this hospital scene was staged. 

Clouds of dust

British Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk interviewed a doctor from the hospital on April 16th 2018. He stated that although the video of the White Helmets was real, and that the filmed patients were struggling with breathing problems, these breathing problems were not the result of a poison gas attack, but of dust clouds caused by bombardments that had occurred earlier in the day. While the patients were being brought in, there was a member of the White Helmets calling out “gas!” – which caused people throwing water over each other in panic.


Witnesses who told their story in The Hague on April 28th, 2018 at a press conference of the Russian delegation to the OPCW roughly confirmed the statement of the doctor interviewed by Fisk. None of the witnesses, including several people who were seen in the video of the White Helmets, say they have noticed anything of a poison gas attack.

Real deaths

Nevertheless, several photos and videos report deaths in the building where one of the cylinders was found. These images were posted on social media on April 8th and 9th, 2018. A total of 35 bodies can be seen. The OPCW did not perform an autopsy. The dead were already buried before the inspectors arrived in Douma. Although the researchers at WGSPM assume that these people are the victims of poison gas, they do not think the cylinder on the roof terrace of the apartment building poisoned them.

“In a real chemical attack with chlorine or any other irritant gas, most victims would try to escape and non-fatal cases requiring prolonged hospital treatment would far outnumber fatal cases,” WGSPM argues.     “The images of the victims seen at Location 2 show that they were evidently exposed to an irritant gas but were unable to escape.” The WGSPM argues that these images also show that the victims must have been hung upside down during the exposure to poison gas, with their eyes apparently protected by something like swimming goggles.

At a press conference of the Russian embassy in The Hague on July 12th, interviews were shown of people living in the building where the 35 bodies were found. None of them recognized the deaths from the videos and photos, apart from one man who recognized his brother, who had died, he said, from artillery shelling elsewhere. Some interviewees declared they had seen fighters bringing dead bodies into the apartment building. 

In May this year the author of this article invited OPCW to comment on the unpublished report of the engineering sub-team, but received no answer.

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This article was previously published in Dutch by Novini.nl. Photography by Eric van de Beek.

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