All Smoke and No Gun at the OPCW

By Jeremy Salt | American Herald tribune | April 16, 2020

Over the past decade, the London Guardian has never reported the war on Syria in any way commensurate with the principles of true journalism. It is had been running a line, consistently slanted to do as much damage to the Syrian government as possible. As such, it has been a central conduit in the propaganda war. It closed down ‘comment is free’ on its Syria articles long ago because well-informed readers could see what it was up to and were writing embarrassing correctives.

Throughout, its language has been the language of propaganda – ‘the regime,’ ‘Assad loyalists,’ ‘the dictator,’ ‘the rebels’, ‘the armed opposition,’ ‘the uprising,’ ‘the çivil war,’ so on and on, endlessly.  Its ‘coverage’ has always been calibrated to the damage it thinks it can do to the Syrian government. In fact, by supporting its ‘rebels’ and by implication the  governments arming and financing them, it has only aggravated the damage being done to Syria and its people who, all the evidence suggests, overwhelmingly support their president and their army, not these ‘rebels.’

Silent when its ‘rebels’ are taking a beating, the Guardian springs to life the moment there’s a fresh opportunity to abuse Syria’s president. Accordingly, when the OPCW (Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) issued its latest report on chemical weapon usage in Syria, its sibling Sunday paper, the Observer, was quick off the mark, running  a headline on April 12 reading “Assad to face justice.” It went on: “For the first time the world’s chemical weapons watchdog has directly accused Syria’s leadership of ordering illegal attacks on its own people.” Stating accusations from concealed sources as fact, it concludes that “the tyrant in Damascus has not yet won.”

As it turns out, the OPCW report is all smoke but no gun. Unsurprisingly, given their Syria coverage, the Guardian and the Observer are not even interested in distinguishing between the two. For their purposes, the smoke is as good as the gun. What they call “the world’s chemical weapons watchdog” is actually a watchdog protecting the interests of the governments attacking Syria through armed proxies. The Guardian and the Observer are watchdogs protecting the same interests, which in this case means protecting a tainted report coming from a tainted source.

Last year whistleblowers revealed that the OPCW executive had suppressed the interim report by the Fact Finding Mission (FFM) on the alleged chemical weapons attack on Douma in April 2018, and had issued a doctored final report, reversing the on-the-spot findings of its own experts.

The final report concluded that the cylinder said to have crashed through a roof had probably been dropped from the air when its own engineers had arrived at the “higher probability” that it had been placed there manually. As for the heavy amounts of chlorine it suggested had been released from this cylinder, killing 43 people, according to anonymous “witnesses”, what its own chemists said they found in the air were microparticles no different from what would have been in the air normally. On January 20 this year, the OPCW’s inspection team leader at Douma, Ian Henderson, told a specially convened session of the UN Security Council that the evidence indicated there had been no chemical weapons attack at all at Douma.

Its fraudulent behavior exposed, the OPCW secretariat tried to dismiss the evidence of its whistleblower engineers and scientists as “subjective” but the damage to its credibility was terminal, and in seeking to uphold a tainted report from a tainted organization,  the Guardian and the Observer only underscore the tainted nature of their own ‘reporting’ and editorials on Syria.

Wisely, in this latest report, dated April 8, “The First Report by the OPCW Investigation and Identification Team” (IIT), a body established in 2018, the OPCW does not return to what happened at Douma in 2018. The subject matter this time is chlorine and sarin attacks said to have been carried out in and around the “village” of Ltameneh on March 24, 25 and 30, 2017.

In fact, Al Lataminah (“Llatameneh”) is not a “village” as described in the IIT report but a town with a population of more than 16,000, according to the census of 2004.  This has probably shifted upwards or downwards since then. Close to Hama and only a few kilometers from the strategically important M5 highway, the town is located within territory in the Hama governorate that was under the control of Hayat Tahrir al Sham and other terrorist factions when the chemical weapons attacks were said to have taken place in 2017. Al Lataminah itself was the headquarters of Jaysh al ‘Izza (Army of Glory).

According to the IIT, there were three attacks, one of chlorine and two of sarin, on March 24, 25 and 30, each in cylinders or bombs dropped from the air by Syrian air force SU (Sukhoi) 22 fighter aircraft or helicopters. The format of the report is identical to the format of all its reports, and indeed all the reports put out by the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic. Lots of acronyms, weighty officious language implying authority, lots of imputations but virtually nothing in the form of evidence that would stand up in a court.

The sources, individual, institutional and governmental (“state parties”) are all concealed. The OPCW says it sought entry into Syria, but was ignored by the Syrian government, which is hardly surprising given the fakery of its report on Douma. It talks of witnesses, who, as its investigators were not on the spot inside Syria, have to be regarded as alleged witnesses. It does not say who they were or where they were when interviewed, but Turkey would be most likely. Neither is there any mention of possible affiliations, perhaps to the White Helmets or one of the armed groups.

The report ties the alleged attacks to the close proximity of Syrian airbases and the daily activity of Syrian aircraft as they take off and return. Syria is fighting a war against terrorist groups that have infiltrated and taken over large parts of the Hama and Idlib governorates, so of course military planes and helicopters are frequently in the air. The ITT imputations that they might have been or could have been involved in chemical weapons attacks are devoid of substance.

The IIT report talks confidently of its chain of custody, including shell remnants said to have been taken from craters to one of its (unidentified) designated laboratories. It does not say who allegedly carried this material out of Syria but as Jaysh al ‘Izza was then in control of the town, one of its members or its sympathizers, committed to the destruction of the Syrian government and out to blacken its name whenever possible, is the most likely.

Included in the IIT evidential chain is information “obtained” during interviews, information “previously” provided by “witnesses,” interviews with “persons of interest” along with the evidence of other unidentified “witnesses” to the attacks and people affected by them. Again, these are alleged witnesses to an alleged attack and people allegedly affected by these alleged attacks. They were NOT interviewed in Syria and the IIT report provides no proof of their authenticity.

The IIT’s further sources include unidentified videos and “documents,” as well as “relevant material” from “various sources,” briefings and advice from unidentified “experts” and “specialists,” information from unidentified “open sources” and “forensic institutes,” and unspecified input from unidentified “state parties.”

Noting the use of tunnels at Al Lataminah by Jaish al ‘Izza, a “military expert” advising the IIT “noted [that] the use of chemical weapons in this area would not be inconsistent [my italics] with a strategy aimed at inflicting terror on both civilians and combatants.” Neither, of course, on the basis of past compelling evidence, would it be inconsistent with the proven attempts by terrorist groups to lure outside governments into launching an air war on Syria by staging faked chemical weapons attacks. The IIT refers to the possibility of a staged attack, but does not take it seriously.

It claims to have received information “from multiple sources”, unidentified of course, that senior Syrian Republican Guard officers (names redacted) sent orders to “former members” of the “previously-designated branch 450, a component of the Syrian Arab Republic’s chemical weapons programme responsible for the storage, mixing and filling of chemical weapons, including sarin, to prepare items for use in the defense of Hama.” By imputation, these “items” were chemical weapons. The IIT also claimed to have “obtained information” that in March 2017, sarin precursors were being stored at a facility at Him Shinshar, in the Homs governorate.

The ITT notes that branch 450 was “officially” dissolved in 2013, insinuating, again, that it wasn’t really, while providing no evidence at all to back up the “information” received from some unnamed source that the Syrian government still had a stock of sarin precursors. It does not say where the “former members” are now, or what they are doing, and provides no hard evidence at all to back up the claim by hidden “multiple sources” that in 2017 they were still involved in the preparation of chemical weapons

The report refers to satellite imaging of the Shayrat airbase (provided by whom?) showing, “according to a specialist” (in what?) “structures” that “could have been used [my italics] to store chemical weapons.”  Perhaps they also could have been used to store engine parts, garden tools, food for the base canteen or cleaning material for the toilet blocks but the unknown contents of these “structures” are all part of the buildup to the IIT report’s conclusion that it was “very likely” Syrian air force planes did drop chemical weapons on Al Lataminah.

The same imagery indicated that part of the Hama airbase was a “possible barrel bomb storage depot” with a number of items visible as “possible barrel bombs.” No doubt there is a vast range of other possibilities for what these “items” might have been, so why pick just this one? The ITT also claimed to have “obtained information” that chlorine barrel bombs had been prepared at nearby Masyaf, the 12th century center of the Ismaili fidais (sacrificers) who have passed into history as the Order of the Assassins. According to the IIT’s source, they were taken to Hama, but without there being any inkling of who provided this “information,” such a claim cannot possibly be taken at face value.

The IIT claimed to have “received information” that 176 people were admitted to hospital after the (alleged) sarin attack on March 24 but admitted that it had been unable to locate the medical records. Clearly they would have been of paramount importance in confirming what had taken place, and medical staff in a hospital in a town controlled by Jaysh al ‘Izza could surely have been easily persuaded to provide them. There is no attempt by the ITT, however, to explain why its sources could not come up with photocopies of at least one or two of these records, if indeed there was an attack, if there were indeed casualties and if there were indeed medical records to photocopy.

The IIT further claims to have interviewed casualties and medical staff who described symptoms toxicologists found “plausible” as being consistent with the effects of nerve gas. In fact, sarin is so deadly that it can kill within one to ten minutes, with those who survive often suffering permanent brain damage, raising further questions about its alleged use at Al Lataminah. There is no indication in the IIT report that any of these alleged victims were subjected to a medical examination either in Syria or wherever it was that they were later interviewed.  For a team of investigators determined to get to the truth, one would have thought this also should have been a priority.

The IIT claimed to have interviewed individuals “with direct knowledge” of the attacks. It does not say where they were interviewed and how it knew they had “direct knowledge” of the alleged attacks. It further claims that munitions remnants (allegedly) taken from a crater “could be linked” to “potential chemical weapons use.” “Could be” and “potential” are hardly persuasive.

Samples were (allegedly) taken from one crater on March 26, 2017, but not delivered to the FFM until August 12. There is no indication of who in this Jaysh al ‘Izza-controlled town dug up the samples and gave them to the FFM nearly five months later. One would have to conclude that it was most likely someone from Jaysh al ‘Izza, if in fact there was a crater and the samples were taken from it and not somewhere else. Speculating further, the report says that 2000 bombs designed to carry chemical weapons had been converted into conventional bombs after 2013 and supposedly used but the secretariat had been unable to confirm that this had actually happened, conveniently leaving an avenue open to support the IIT’s claims.

The report claims that helicopters dropped four “barrel bombs” on March 25, one falling through the roof of a building, just as a cylinder full of chlorine was said to have done in the discredited report the OPCW issued on Douma. Three “witnesses” were said to have seen the event and reported that three people died as a result and 32 were injured. There is not a scintilla of confirmation for any of this. There is no indication of how the IIT was able to confirm that the individuals it interviewed in another country, apparently long after the event, really were witnesses.

Completely sweeping away the creaking foundations of all of this is the OPCW’s own earlier findings on the destruction of all the Syrian government’s stocks of chemical weapons material, following the staged attack in the Ghouta disrict, near Damascus, in August 2013, designed to draw Barack Obama over his self-declared “red line” so that he would launch an air attack.

Warned by his own intelligence agencies that the attack could be a setup, Obama pulled back at the last minute, but subsequently, the Syrian government offered to have all its stocks of chemical weapons destroyed under international supervision anyway. The process began in September 2013, the Syrian government simultaneously signing on to the International Convention on the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction (1997).

By June 2014, the OPCW, the supervising body, reported that all production capacity had been destroyed. The remaining chemicals were removed from Syria and by August 2014,  all had been destroyed. In January 2016, the OPCW affirmed that the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons material in the previous three years had been completed. Now, however, the ITT is reproducing an unsubstantiated claim that they weren’t, in order to lend spurious plausibility to its accusations that the Syrian air force dropped chemical weapons and nerve gas on and around Al Lataminah.

The appropriate resting place for this report is not the filing cabinet but the wastepaper basket. With these reports, the OPCW has completely destroyed its credibility. It needs cleaning out, beginning with the sacking of the director-general and the entire secretariat. Otherwise, it should be replaced with a new body, if the world is to have a credible independent chemical weapons watchdog and not one that appears to dance to the foreign policy interests of the US and its global satraps.

Aletho News

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