The Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media has published a response to the recent attack on the group by Sir Alan Duncan.
This page is open for comments on that response. (A copy of the response follows.)
The Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media has published a response to the recent attack on the group by Sir Alan Duncan.
This page is open for comments on that response. (A copy of the response follows.)
This post provides links to discussions of the Institute for Statecraft’s “Integrity Initiative”. As of April 2019 the links number 185. Continue reading
In April last year Syrian opposition groups claimed that the Syrian government had launched a chemical attack in the last opposition stronghold near Damascus. The US, France and Britain responded with a shower of cruise missiles against Syria. Now a leaked report by engineers from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons who investigated the incident says that the alleged chemical attack was staged: the “only plausible explanation” for the gas cylinders found in two apartment buildings was that they were placed there, not dropped from helicopters.
On 8 April last year the world woke up to horrifying images of the bodies of more than 30 dead civilians lying in an apartment building in the Damascus suburb of Douma. The opposition had held out against the Syrian Army till then, but agreed to be evacuated the next day. A week later, the US, France and Britain attacked Syria with more than 100 cruise missiles in retaliation. Theresa May told the House of Commons that:
A significant body of information, including intelligence, indicates that the Syrian regime is responsible for this latest attack. … No other group could have carried out this attack. The opposition do not operate helicopters or use barrel bombs.
A team of investigators from OPCW arrived in Damascus on a Fact-Finding Mission the day after the US-led missile attack, and began inspecting the sites of the alleged attack. In March this year, the Final Report of the Fact-Finding Mission was published. This reported that outside experts in ballistics, structural engineering and metallurgy had been asked to give opinions on “the trajectory and damage to the cylinders”, and concluded that there were “reasonable grounds that the use of a toxic chemical as a weapon took place.“
There was no mention in the Final Report that the Fact-Finding Mission had conducted its own engineering study, led by one of OPCW’s most senior inspectors, Ian Henderson. Now a copy of the suppressed Engineering Assessment has been leaked from inside OPCW – and OPCW has reluctantly confirmed that the document is genuine. Although OPCW has refused to comment further, several UK commentators have reported that their contacts in OPCW briefed them off the record that this was “a minority opinion”, that the author was “on the sidelines”, or a “disgruntled employee”.
The Engineering Assessment says that the cylinder found lying over a hole in the roof (at what they designate location 2) would have punched straight through the roof if it had been dropped from 500M – much lower than a helicopter would actually fly – and could not have been stopped by the steel reinforcing bars without leaving marks on the cylinder. The cylinder with fins found lying on a bed (at location 4) could not have fitted through the hole in the roof if it had been dropped from the sky.
In each case the alternative hypothesis [that the cylinders were placed in position rather than dropped from the air] produced the only plausible explanation for observations at the scene.
Piers Robinson, convenor of the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media  that published the leaked document, says:
“It’s hard to see how the opinions of outside experts who had not been to the sites could override the opinions of OPCW’s own engineering team who had made their own inspection on site. The best way for OPCW to clear this up would be to make all the documents that were used to prepare the Final Report of the Fact-Finding Mission, including the full reports provided by outside experts, publicly available for review.”
David Miller, a member of the working group, stated that:
“this leak shows that there is significant dissent inside the OPCW. We hope that others will come forward with further elements of the story on how the OPCW has performed its role in this and other alleged chemical attacks. It is essential to note that any such disclosures can be done in confidence.”
Dr Piers Robinson: +44 7764763350, email@example.com
David Miller, Professor of Political Sociology, University of Bristol, +44 7786 927551, firstname.lastname@example.org
A military expert who has read the report (but is not associated with the Working Group):
Jonathan Shaw (former head of UK Special Forces)
The Public Affairs Office is unlikely to respond (see below). The Chief of Cabinet (equivalent to CEO) is a French diplomat named Sébastien Braha:
 In response to enquiries about this story from journalists, the OPCW Public Affairs office issued a statement on 16 May. The final paragraph was:
Pursuant to its established policies and practices, the OPCW Technical Secretariat is conducting an internal investigation about the unauthorised release of the document in question. At this time, there is no further public information on this matter and the OPCW is unable to accommodate requests for interviews
 Dr Piers Robinson is convenor of the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media, and co-author of the group’s previously published briefing notes on the Douma incident and other alleged chemical attacks in Syria. The group was attacked by The Times in April 2018 as ‘Assad apologists” for questioning the evidence on these alleged chemical attacks and the role of the White Helmets. The Working Group has never expressed any opinion in favour of or against the Syrian government.
 Professor Miller is a member of the working group and co-author of the group’s previously published briefing notes on the Douma incident and other alleged chemical attacks in Syria.
“A huge international news story broke last week,” writes Peter Hitchens, in the Mail on Sunday today, “but I doubt you will hear about it anywhere else.”
In fact, while the story resounds around sections of the alternative media and Twitter, attracting also the concern of some well known people including Susan Sarandon and Roger Waters, mainstream journalists have ignored it.
This silence is a chilling testimony to the state of news reporting – and thus of democracy itself – today. For the significance of the story is hard to overstate. As Hitchens continues:
“It seems very likely that the decision we, France and the USA made in April 2018 to bomb Syria was based on a mistake as big as the fictional weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the international body which examines alleged incidents of the use of poison gas, has just confirmed to me that a devastating leaked document from its Dutch HQ is genuine.
The document, written by one of the OPCW’s most experienced investigators, shows that it is highly unlikely that gas canisters found at the scene of an alleged poison gas attack in Douma, Syria, were actually dropped from helicopters – as has been widely believed and claimed. The claim is crucial to the case for bombing Syria.”
As Hitchens continues, the OPCW is “a valuable organisation, containing many fine people, with a noble purpose”, but he, like Working Group members, is troubled by the question whether it has been “placed under pressure, or even hijacked, by political forces which seek a justification for military intervention in Syria?”
“Given that a decision between war or peace, affecting the whole planet, could one day hang on its judgments, I think the world is entitled to an inquiry into what is happening behind its closed doors.”
The alleged chemical attack on Douma in April 2018 was the pretext for airstrikes on Syria by France, UK and US. The final report on the alleged attack published by the OPCW left unexplained why its Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) had made no engineering assessments during its visit to Douma in April 2018, when experts could have inspected the sites with cylinders in position, rather than six months later when inspection was no longer possible and assessments had to rely on images and measurements obtained by others. A Briefing Note by the Working Group on Syria Propaganda & Media highlighted this as an obvious anomaly.
OPCW staff members have communicated with the Working Group.
We have learned that an investigation was undertaken by an engineering sub-team of the FFM, beginning with on-site inspections in April-May 2018, followed by a detailed engineering analysis including collaboration on computer modelling studies with two European universities. The report of this investigation was excluded from the published Final Report of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission, which referred only to assessments sought from unidentified “engineering experts” commissioned in October 2018 and obtained in December 2018.
A copy of a 15-page Executive Summary of the report entitled “Engineering Assessment of two cylinders observed at the Douma incident” is posted here. (Anyone who wishes to post their own link to the document is kindly requested to download the document and link from their own server, so as not to overload the Working Group’s.)
The Working Group has provided a commentary on the document: see ‘Assessment by the engineering sub-team of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission investigating the alleged chemical attack in Douma in April 2018‘, by Paul McKeigue, David Miller and Piers Robinson.
Some of the commentary’s key points:
Furthermore, we note that the Douma incident was the first alleged chemical attack in Syria where OPCW investigators were able to carry out an unimpeded on-site inspection. Since previous OPCW Fact-Finding Missions did not include on-site inspections, the finding that the Douma incident was staged may cast doubt on the findings of those earlier FFMs.
Money doesn’t grow on trees, and although people can make money out of trees, they cannot make trees out of money. This much may seem platitudinous, but it is worth keeping in mind.
What is true of trees is true of the natural world as a whole, including the human beings that are part of it. Nature is real; money is an abstraction. If money seems real that is because our institutions and practices are so deeply premised on beliefs in it. There is an important sense in which those institutionalized beliefs – in crediting it with a certain value – make money real; but it is not real in the way the natural world is real. If a bank goes bust, if a whole economy crashes, the social upheaval that follows may be immense, but life goes on – people will pick themselves up and start again (and some people, meanwhile, will likely have found a way to profit from it!). By contrast, if a species goes extinct, if an ecosystem collapses, then there is no prospect – certainly not on human timescales – of a recovery. The threat of extinction to our own species is the ultimate threat.
Extinction Rebellion has given publicity to critically important concerns of our time – the ecological crises as exemplified by dangerous climate change and biodiversity loss. But it also gives rise to some perplexity.
A circumstantial puzzle is how an apparently spontaneous social movement of protest comes to have the energetic backing of big business interests and even to receive notable support from influential sections of the corporate media.
On deeper reflection, what does it even mean to stage a rebellion against extinction? Rebellions usually involve a group of people rising up to protest or overthrow another group that wields unjust or illegitimate power over them. How can you ‘rebel’ against extinction? It is not as if you can choose to disobey the laws of nature.
Two key demands are: “halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025.”
These may sound like goals that any ethically rational person could wholeheartedly endorse, and yet, as a recent critical study by Cory Morningstar has demonstrated, what their pursuit entails does not necessarily correspond to what people might imagine.
First, reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero does not mean eliminating emissions, or even necessarily reducing them at all. It refers to the possibility of engaging in other activities to offset them. The offsetting may be accomplished by various means of technological fixes and/or accounting innovations, but what these means have in common is that they will be profitable to engage in. As was made explicit some years ago in the influential Stern Review of climate economics, a policy approach allowing emissions offsetting creates great opportunities for businesses and the financial sector.
‘Capital markets, banks and other financial institutions will have a vital role in raising and allocating the trillions of dollars needed to finance investment in low-carbon technology and the companies producing the new technologies.’ (Stern 2006: 270)
‘The development of carbon trading markets also presents an important opportunity to the financial sector. Trading on global carbon markets is now worth over $10bn annually’. (Stern 2006: 270)
By attaching a price to carbon, a whole new commodity is created over which the distribution of rights represents a new income stream. So it’s good for shareholder profits, but what about nature? How confident can we be when its protection relies on a new multi-billion dollar market involving the same people responsible for the global financial crisis?
The other key goal, to halt biodiversity loss, sounds like one that should not allow wriggle room for profiteers to game it. And yet, consider for a moment how one might propose – even with the best and purest of intentions – to bring biodiversity loss to a halt. The sheer extent of activities around the world that are undermining habitats and ecological systems is so great and complex, it is hard to conceive what exactly could and should be done, even given determined political will to do it. The proposed policy in reality, therefore, is not literally to stop doing everything we are currently doing that compromises biodiversity. Instead, it once again centres on putting a price on the aspects of nature that market actors attach value to. The premise is that if we accept it is not possible to halt the destruction of biodiversity in some places, it is still possible to protect and even re-create biodiversity in others. Thus, just as with carbon emissions, the ideas of substitution and compensation play a pivotal role: biodiversity loss may not be literally halted, but it can be offset.
And how is biodiversity loss to be offset? Here comes the familiar move: in order to weigh the loss in one place against a putative gain in another they must be subjected to a common scheme of measurement. Biodiversity being something of value, the way to record how much value any instance of it has is taken to be by reference to monetary price. Hence we learn that ‘biodiversity conservation and the related concept of “natural capital” are becoming mainstream. For instance, the Natural Capital Coalition is developing the economic case for valuing natural ecosystems and includes buy-in from some of the biggest players in business, accountancy and consulting. And the financial industry is moving toward more responsible investing.’
Yet this unidimensional quantification of value completely disregards the point that biodiversity is a complex and quintessentially qualitative phenomenon. It is of the essence of biodiversity that its biotic components and their environments are diverse. Being diverse means being different in ways that cannot be reduced to the measure of a single common denominator. Hence the essence of biodiversity is an irreducible plurality of incommensurables. The idea of ‘compensating’ for loss of biodiversity of one kind by the protection or enhancement of biodiversity of another kind elsewhere means disregarding the very meaning of biodiversity.
The idea of biodiversity offsets, then, does not have its rational basis in ecological concern but in the expansionary logic of capitalist profit seeking.
A rebellion that really has any prospect of fending off disaster for our biosphere and ourselves needs to be based on a proper understanding of who and what needs to be rebelled against.
Extinction Rebellion publicity material says that it is apolitical. Yet there is nothing apolitical about the real struggle that is required for people to seize the power currently concentrated in the hands of plutocrats. And to those who say – rightly – that ecological issues are greater than mere politics, it may be responded that this is why we cannot let it be “dealt with” by those who currently so misuse their political power.
Asking governments to enact policies that corporate and financial backers are lining up to draw massive profits from is not what the people protesting against impending ecological disaster have in mind. It needs therefore to be clear that you can’t actually protest against disaster. You need to take on those who are driving us towards it. So you need to know who they are and how they are doing it. It’s a good idea to look carefully at who is shaping the demands you are being enlisted to make, and what exactly they entail.
 For other, less discussed but no less significant problems, see Rockström et al. (2009).
 Why they are directed at government without reference to the central role of powerful corporations is not completely obvious, and nor is the reason why the site also says the protest is ‘apolitical’, a question to be returned to.
 We humans, especially the worst off – and not even to mention members of other species we share the planet with – certainly have powerful reasons for concern at the ecological crises being provoked by our collective global exploitation of the biosphere. But what “we” can do about that is nothing like as clear.
In fact, there is no “we” that can act as a collective. There are multifarious different people, groups, tribes, classes, and nations that have competing interests. “We” are not organized to respond in a concerted, ethical and rational manner.
On the other hand, a very small group of people – who alone command as much of the world’s aggregate resources as half the rest of the world’s population put together – is very well coordinated. At the highest levels of corporations and financial institutions they hold great power. With their immense wealth comes control over those – including politicians, journalists and various “thought leaders” – who exercise greatest influence over publics. Their power to manipulate public perceptions vastly exceeds most people’s awareness of it.
So we – ordinary members of the public, whether old or young – can protest and engage in symbolic actions and go green in aspects of our lifestyle, yet to real little effect. In our heart of hearts we may know this, and yet we may still believe it important to try and to act as we think all should. So when the makings of a real social movement appear, we energetically embrace the opportunity it appears to present for making some more noticeable impact. Hence the enthusiastic welcome of Extinction Rebellion, in which school kids and pensioners have united around the moral and existential cause.
But what sort of ‘rebellion’ is it that is conjured into action by a consortium of corporate-backed organizations and given extensive positive coverage in the corporate media? The commitments and beliefs of the multifarious individuals and groups on the ground are various and sincerely held, and they do tend to converge around something like the headline goals stated in the publicity material ©Extinction Rebellion. But the exact goals being endorsed focus on two very specific demands: “halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025.” And in this post I am arguing that it is very easy to be misled into thinking these capture what we really want to achieve, whereas in reality they may in fact capture our acquiescence in the further extension of corporate power over the natural world and our own lives.
 Morningstar’s set of six articles makes for somewhat demanding reading, and her purposes have sometimes been misunderstood or misrepresented on the basis of apparently rather casual perusal. Certainly, this has been noticeable in comments on Twitter, so I tried to distil some of her key points, without her detail or her critics’ distractions, in a Twitter thread: https://twitter.com/Tim_Hayward_/status/1120748645069021185
 Some useful introductory sources are World Rainforest Movement: http://www.wrongkindofgreen.org/tag/green-economy/; Clive Spash 25 minute talk: https://vimeo.com/33921592; and the collection of material here: http://naturenotforsale.org/author/berberv/
 Richard Pearson, ‘We have 15 years to halt biodiversity loss, can it be done?’, The Conversation, 26 Oct 2015 https://theconversation.com/we-have-15-years-to-halt-biodiversity-loss-can-it-be-done-49330.
Rockström, Johan et al. (2009), ‘A Safe Operating Space for Humanity’, Nature 461: 472–75.
Stern, Nicholas et al. (2006), Stern Review: The Economics of Climate Change, London: HM Treasury.
Conspiracy Theories have become an object of considerable academic research lately. Yet they present a particular conundrum for scholars. At present, there is a significant rift within the field of studies relating to conspiracy theories. Much of the most prominent and highly funded work is being done by social scientists, especially social psychologists, who aim to diagnose the cognitive error and psychological predispositions involved in creating and believing conspiracist ideas. On the other hand, a smaller band of scholars based in philosophy – a discipline especially dedicated to epistemological questions – take a more dispassionate view of theories of conspiracy. Done right, these could represent an intellectually respectable and potentially enlightening activity in a world where conspiracies happen and where the public has an interest in understanding what is happening.
What both sides of that scholarly divide would agree is that knowledge needs to have a credible basis, and that dealing with disinformation requires some epistemic resilience and epistemic fluency. A need for resilience against falsehoods, fallacies, distractions, distortions and so on is well enough understood on all sides. The need for epistemic fluency, however, is perhaps less overtly acknowledged; and what it means – either in general or in relation to the problem of conspiracy theories – is perhaps less clearly worked out, on either side. Continue reading
The Syria, Propaganda and Media Working Group has undertaken a detailed examination of the final report from the OPCW’s Fact-Finding Mission on the alleged chemical attack in Douma on 7 April 2018. The resultant Briefing Note – by Paul McKeigue, David Miller, and Piers Robinson – exposes deep flaws in the anonymously authored report. These discredit OPCW as a source of impartial investigation and undermine it as an international institution fit to be entrusted with maintaining the prohibition of chemical weapons.
Comments on the Briefing Note can be made below the Summary of it that follows.
The photos brought to public attention in January 2014 by the anonymous witness codenamed ‘Caesar’ show corpses, thousands in number, deceased from violent causes, some bearing signs of torture and many having suffered starvation and neglect. The dead are said to be victims of Syrian state detention facilities, but it is now known that many were not, and it is still not known for sure how many of them were. If the atrocity of the crimes to which the photos attest is in no doubt, the question of who perpetrated them is less clear-cut. Yet Western reports have unequivocally blamed the ‘Assad regime’. A counter-hypothesis, hardly considered in public discussions, is that many of the bodies were of civilians captured by Jaish al-Islam (JAI) after taking control of Douma in December 2012. JAI are known to have starved their captives while using them as slave labourers, which they did on a scale monumental enough to create the extraordinary network of deep and impressively engineered tunnels that we now see had been built across the area under their control. Nevertheless, a Qatari-sponsored prosecution team vouched for the Caesar evidence as being ‘capable of being believed’ – in a court of law – to show ‘systematic torture and killing of detained persons by the agents of the Syrian government.’ The Western media’s subsequent dissemination of the prosecutors’ interpretation of the images – unchallenged – caused it to be widely believed in the ‘court of public opinion’. Despite significant unsettled and unsettling questions, then, a particular account of what the images show has exercised considerable influence over people’s default assumptions about accountability for atrocities in Syria.
It is the influence of this specific interpretation of evidence that will be reflected on here, and without prejudice as to what may be established about occurrences in Syrian detention on other bases. Questions about the Caesar evidence point up concerns about the extent to which the dissemination of inaccurate information might have distorted the written historical record of our times and how it may have practically influenced real decisions and events. It matters to get at the truth about the photos for those reasons, as well as for the sake of families whose loved ones have disappeared, but there is also a further reason. This concerns a use made of Caesar’s testimony that may affect the future course of history too. It is the promotion by Western prosecutors of judicial innovation in the pursuit of accountability for atrocity crimes. The purpose of this article is to set out how and why that is a concern, and fundamentally one about justice. Continue reading