Doubts about “Novichoks”

The following briefing note is developed from ongoing research and investigation into the use of chemical and biological weapons during the 2011-present war in Syria conducted by members of the Working Group on Syria, Media and Propaganda. The note reflects work in progress. However, the substantive questions raised need answering, especially given the seriousness of the political crisis that is now developing. We welcome comments and corrections.

Authors Professor Paul Mckeigue and Professor Piers Robinson +447764763350 .  (


(1) Notes on Novichoks and the Salisbury poisonings

In the House of Commons on 12 March the Prime Minister stated that:

It is now clear that Mr Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia. It is part of a group of nerve agents known as Novichok. Based on the positive identification of this chemical agent by world-leading experts at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down, our knowledge that Russia has previously produced this agent and would still be capable of doing so, Russia’s record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations and our assessment that Russia views some defectors as legitimate targets for assassinations, the Government have concluded that it is highly likely that Russia was responsible for the act against Sergei and Yulia Skripal.

The Prime Minister said if there is no “credible response” by the end of Tuesday 12 March, the UK would conclude there has been an “unlawful use of force” by Moscow.

Summary of the Key Issues that Need to be Addressed

1) There are reasons to doubt that these compounds are military grade nerve agents or that a Russian “Novichok” programme ever existed. If they were potentially usable as chemical weapons, people on the OPCW Scientific Advisory Board who were in a position to know the properties of these compounds would have recommended that they be added to the list of Scheduled Chemicals. They have never been added.

2) Synthesis at bench scale of organic chemicals such as the purported “Novichoks” is within the capability of a modern chemistry laboratory. Porton Down itself must have been able to synthesize these compounds in order to develop tests for them.  The detection of such a compound does not establish Russian origin.


(1) Doubts about the history of the “Novichok” Programme

The history of the alleged “Novichok” programme remains unclear. The original source for the story that a new class of organophosphate compounds was developed as chemical weapons under the name Novichok in the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s is from Vil Mirzayanov, a defector in the 1990s. Mirzayanov described the chemical structures of these compounds and stated that the toxicity of an agent named Novichuk-5 “under optimal conditions exceeds the effectiveness of VX by five to eight times”. Mirzayanov alleged that Russian testing and production had continued after signing the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993.

However, a review by Dr Robin Black, who was until recently head of the detection laboratory at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Porton Down), emphasizes that there is no independent confirmation of Mirzayanov’s claims about the chemical properties of these compounds:

In recent years, there has been much speculation that a fourth generation of nerve agents, ‘Novichoks’ (newcomer), was developed in Russia, beginning in the 1970s as part of the ‘Foliant’ programme, with the aim of finding agents that would compromise defensive countermeasures. Information on these compounds has been sparse in the public domain, mostly originating from a dissident Russian military chemist, Vil Mirzayanov. No independent confirmation of the structures or the properties of such compounds has been published. (Black, 2016)

The OPCW’s Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) appeared to doubt the existence of “Novichoks”, and did not advise that the compounds described by Mirzayanov, or their precursors, should be designated as Scheduled Chemicals that should be controlled under the Chemical Weapons Convention:-

[The SAB] emphasised that the definition of toxic chemicals in the Convention would cover all potential candidate chemicals that might be utilised as chemical weapons. Regarding new toxic chemicals not listed in the Annex on Chemicals but which may nevertheless pose a risk to the Convention, the SAB makes reference to “Novichoks”. The name “Novichok” is used in a publication of a former Soviet scientist who reported investigating a new class of nerve agents suitable for use as binary chemical weapons. The SAB states that it has insufficient information to comment on the existence or properties of “Novichoks”. (OPCW, 2013)

The Scientific Advisory Board included Dr Black, and several other heads of national chemical defence laboratories in western countries. These labs would have presumably made their own evaluation of Mirzayanov’s claims and specifically would have done their own experiments to determine if compounds with the structures that he described were of military grade toxicity. Such studies can be done quickly and efficiently in vitro using methods developed for drug discovery (combinatorial chemistry and high-throughput screening). It is reasonable to assume that if these labs had found that these compounds were potentially usable as chemical weapons, the Scientific Advisory Board would have recommended adding them to the list of Scheduled Chemicals as the Chemical Weapons Convention requires.

Until independent confirmation of Mirzayanov’s claims about the toxicity of these compounds is available, and there is an adequate explanation of why the OPCW Scientific Advisory Board did not recommend that the compounds purported to be “Novichoks” and their precursors be designated as scheduled chemicals, it is reasonable to question whether these compounds are military grade nerve agents, or that a Russian “Novichok” programme ever actually existed.


(2) Who Could Have Synthesized the ‘Novichok’ Compounds?

 The Prime Minister stated that:

There are, therefore, only two plausible explanations for what happened in Salisbury on 4 March: either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country; or the Russian Government lost control of their potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.

However, Mirzayanov originally claimed that the Novichok agents were easy to synthesize:-

One should be mindful that the chemical components or precursors of A-232 or its binary version novichok-5 are ordinary organophosphates that can be made at commercial chemical companies that manufacture such products as fertilizers and pesticides. (Mirzayanov, 1995).

Soviet scientists had published many papers in the open literature on the chemistry of such compounds for possible use as insecticides. Mirzayanov claimed that “this research program was premised on the ability to hide the production of precursor chemicals under the guise of legitimate commercial chemical production of agricultural chemicals”.

As the structures of these compounds have been described, any organic chemist with a modern lab would be able to synthesize bench scale quantities of such a compound. Indeed, Porton Down must have been able to synthesize these compounds in order to develop tests for them. It is therefore misleading to assert that only Russia could have produced such compounds.




Vil S. Mirzayanov, “Dismantling the Soviet/Russian Chemical Weapons Complex: An Insider’s View,” in Amy E. Smithson, Dr. Vil S. Mirzayanov, Gen Roland Lajoie, and Michael Krepon, Chemical Weapons Disarmament in Russia: Problems and Prospects, Stimson Report No. 17, October 1995, p. 21.

OPCW: Report of the Scientific Advisory Board on developments in science and technology for the Third Review Conference 27 March 2013

Robin Black. (2016) Development, Historical Use and Properties of Chemical Warfare Agents. Royal Society of Chemistry



Posted in chemical weapons, journalism, propaganda, UK Government, Uncategorized, war | 27 Comments

The Guardian, White Helmets, and Silenced Comment

The Guardian recently published an article claiming that critical discussion of the White Helmets in Syria has been ‘propagated online by a network of anti-imperialist activists, conspiracy theorists and trolls with the support of the Russian government’. Many readers were dismayed at this crude defence of a – presumably – pro-imperialist perspective, and at the unwarranted smearing of reasoned questioning based on evidence from independent journalists.

What The Guardian did next:

  • quickly closed its comments section;
  • did not allow a right of reply to those journalists singled out for denigration in the piece;
  • did not allow publication of the considered response from a group of concerned academics (posted in full below);
  • did not respond to the group’s subsequent Letter,[1] or a follow up email to it;
  • prevaricated in response to telephone inquiries as to whether a decision against publishing either communication from the group had or had not been taken;
  • failed to respond to a message to its Readers’ Editor from Vanessa Beeley, one of the journalists criticised in the article.

Meanwhile, the article’s author, Olivia Solon, tweeting from California, allowed herself to promote her piece while simply blocking critical voices.

Conduct hardly more becoming was that of The Guardian’s George Monbiot who joined in, tweeting smears against critics and suggesting they read up about ‘the Russian-backed disinformation campaign against Syria’s heroic rescue workers’. Judging by the tenor of responses to this, the journalist misjudged his surprising intervention. It seems that people who follow these matters are able to decide for themselves who and what they find credible.

As for allowing a fair hearing to independent researchers like Vanessa Beeley, it is poignant to observe that while The Guardian’s journalists were tweeting away, she was actually on the ground in Syria, again putting herself at personal risk of bombs and mortars despatched by the fighters that the White Helmets provide support to; she was there meeting – and filming – Syrian people who provide grave witness statements concerning those that The Guardian uncritically commends as ‘heroic rescue workers’.

A growing number of us believe that it is high time the critical questions raised by independent investigators be treated with the seriousness and scrupulousness they warrant. That is why the academic Working Group on Syria, Propaganda, and the Media offered the following response to The Guardian under its ‘Comment is Free’ rubric. Since it was not published there, I post it on behalf of the group here.


From the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media:

Seeking Truth About White Helmets In Syria

The recent Guardian article by Olivia Solon attacks those investigating and questioning the role of the White Helmets in Syria and attributes all such questioning to Russian propaganda, conspiracy theorizing and deliberate disinformation. The article does little, however, to address the legitimate questions which have been raised about the nature of the White Helmets and their role in the Syrian conflict. In addition, academics such as Professors Tim Hayward and Piers Robinson have been subjected to intemperate attacks from mainstream media columnists such as George Monbiot through social media for questioning official narratives. More broadly, as Louis Allday described in 2016 with regard to the war in Syria, to express ‘even a mildly dissenting opinion … has seen many people ridiculed and attacked … These attacks are rarely, if ever, reasoned critiques of opposing views: instead they frequently descend into personal, often hysterical, insults and baseless, vitriolic allegations’. These are indeed difficult times in which to ask serious and probing questions. It should be possible for public debate to proceed without resort to ad hominem attacks and smears.

It is possible to evaluate the White Helmets through analysis of verifiable government and corporate documents which describe their funding and purpose. So, what do we know about the White Helmets? First, the ‘Syria Civil Defence’, the ‘official title’ given to the White Helmets, is supported by US and UK funding. Here it is important to note that the real Syria Civil Defence already exists and is the only such agency recognised by the International Civil Defence Organisation (ICDO). The White Helmets receive funding from the UK government’s Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF) and the US government’s USAID, Office of Transition Initiatives programme – the Syria Regional Program II. The UK and US governments do not provide direct training and support to the White Helmets. Instead, private contractors bid for the funding from the CSSF and USAID. Mayday Rescue won the CSSF contract, and Chemonics won the USAID contract. As such, Chemonics and Mayday Rescue train and support the White Helmets on behalf of the US and UK governments.

Second, the CSSF is directly controlled by the UK National Security Council, which is chaired by the Prime Minister, while USAID is controlled by the US National Security Council, the Secretary of State and the President. The CSSF is guided by the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) which incorporates UK National Security Objectives. Specifically, the White Helmets funding from the CSSF falls under National Security Objective “2d: Tackling conflict and building stability overseas”. This is a constituent part of the broader “National Security Objective 2: Project our Global Influence”.

The funding background of the White Helmets raises important questions regarding their purpose. A summary document published online indicates that the CSSF funding for the White Helmets is currently coordinated by the Syria Resilience Programme. This document highlights that the core objective of the programme is to support “the moderate opposition to provide services for their communities and to contest new space”, as to empower “legitimate local governance structures to deliver services gives credibility to the moderate opposition”. The document goes on to state that the White Helmets (‘Syria Civil Defence’) “provide an invaluable reporting and advocacy role”, which “has provided confidence to statements made by UK and other international leaders made in condemnation of Russian actions”. The ‘Syria Resilience CSSF Programme Summary’ is a draft document and not official government policy. However, the summary indicates the potential dual use of the White Helmets by the UK government: first, as a means of supporting and lending credibility to opposition structures within Syria; second, as an apparently impartial organisation that can corroborate UK accusations against the Russian state.

In a context in which both the US and UK governments have been actively supporting attempts to overthrow the Syrian government for many years, this material casts doubt on the status of the White Helmets as an impartial humanitarian organization. It is therefore essential that investigators such as Vanessa Beeley, who raise substantive questions about the White Helmets, are engaged with in a serious and intellectually honest fashion. The White Helmets do not appear to be the independent agency that some have claimed them to be. Rather, their funding background, and the strategic objectives of those funders, provide strong prima facie grounds for considering the White Helmets as part of a US/UK information operation designed to underpin regime change in Syria as other independent journalists have argued. It is time for the smears and personal attacks to stop, allowing full and open investigation by academics and journalists into UK policy toward Syria, including the role of the White Helmets, leading to a better-informed public debate.


Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media

Steering Committee

Professor Tim Hayward, Professor of Environmental Political Theory, University of Edinburgh

Professor Paul McKeigue, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology and Statistical Genetics, University of Edinburgh

Professor Piers Robinson, Chair in Politics, Society and Political Journalism University of Sheffield


Jake Mason (PhD candidate, University of Sheffield)

Divya Jha (PhD candidate, University of Sheffield)



[1] Having sent the article reproduced here to ‘Comment is Free’ at The Guardian on 23 December, but receiving no definite response, despite a follow up email, on 5 January, we sent the following letter to The Guardian’s Readers’ Editor. (This also received no response.)

Dear Mr Chadwick

We are writing in relation to an article by Olivia Solon “How Syria’s White Helmets became victims of an online propaganda machine” published on 18 December.  This article asserted that those who have questioned the ostensible role of the White Helmets as an impartial humanitarian organization, including the experienced journalists Vanessa Beeley and Eva Bartlett, are part of “a network of anti-imperialist activists, conspiracy theorists and trolls with the support of the Russian government “.  

We sent on 23 December a request (reproduced below) to Comment is Free requesting that they consider for publication a brief (800-word) response to Solon’s article.  This article set out the grounds for a more serious engagement with the questions that arise from UK and US government support for media-related operations in Syria.  The text of this article is reproduced below.  The original is attached as a Word document, in case the embedded links do not work in the unformatted text.

Despite a second message on 28 December specifically requesting a written response to the original message on 23 December (and copied to you), we have not had any response from the Guardian other than automated acknowledgements.   Before we proceed to publish this material elsewhere, it is important to document that this article has been seen by an editor and rejected (if that was the decision).   I understand that Comment is Free editors are not able to reply to every pitch, but this one concerns an article that has serious implications for the Guardian’s reputation.

We request therefore that you ask your editorial colleagues to respond in writing with a confirmation that our article has been seen and rejected.  A one-sentence email message from an editor would be enough – we shall not bother you again.


Prof. Tim Hayward, Professor of Environmental Political Theory, University of Edinburgh

Prof. Paul McKeigue, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology and Statistical Genetics, University of Edinburgh

Prof. Piers Robinson, Chair in Politics, Society and Political Journalism, University of Sheffield










Posted in disinformation, Guardian, guest blog, journalism, media, propaganda, Syria, Syrian opposition, Uncategorized, war, White Helmets | 28 Comments

Good Lorde! Enough With The Cry-Bullying

A full-page advert carried in the Washington Post criticises the singer Lorde for cancelling a gig in Tel Aviv. While always ready to sympathise with disappointed fans – anywhere – this seems a bit of an overreaction.

Of course, the ad was not in fact sponsored by an overwrought fanclub. Nor is it just about the singer. Its headline announces ‘Lord and New Zealand Ignore Syria to Attack Israel’.

An act of national aggression against a state is alleged!

Advertisements, we know, are always full of silly propositions, but calling out an entire national government in this way takes idiocy to a whole new level.

Yet I fear it is symptomatic of a tendency that is becoming increasingly familiar across a variety of communications platforms.

And while New Zealand is criticised for its aggression, Lorde herself is criticised for succumbing to pressure.

The pressure, as it appears to me, is that of reasoned moral persuasion. The singer will have made a pecuniary loss and incurred a lot of grief, in virtue of her decision. So it does not show some sort of weakness or venality on her part.

Personally, I wish more of us would succumb more of the time to reasoned moral persuasion.

Happily, as this is my first post of 2018, it is pleasing to find that even in the advertisement we find some words in conclusion that are good to share:

‘It’s time that we send a clear message that there will be no tolerance for intolerance.’ Hatred or descrimination against any people on the basis of their ethnicity, race or religion should never be accepted.

I’ll settle for that as a New Year’s Resolution.


Posted in bullying, global justice, inter-media, journalism, media, propaganda, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Khan Sheikhoun Chemical Attack: Guest Blog Featuring Paul McKeigue’s Reassessment

In this post, Professor Paul McKeigue analyses the recent report of the UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism into the chemical incident in Khan Sheikhoun, Syria, in April 2017. In the light of its findings, he compares the likelihood of two scenarios: (1) the official US-UK hypothesis of a chemical attack by the Syrian air force using sarin; (2) the ‘false flag’ hypothesis that small quantities of sarin were used to generate a forensic trail to disguise a managed massacre of the victims.

He discusses several anomalies and puzzles in the report. A critical piece of evidence he finds is its detail on the alleged airstrike: this is revealed to be incompatible with the Pentagon’s own flight track map. Since nobody has suggested that the Pentagon’s flight track was wrong, he concludes, ‘the hypothesis of a chemical attack by the Syrian air force can be excluded as having zero likelihood.’

Clearly, this raises very serious questions indeed.

Meanwhile, a basic question for the reporting panel itself is how it came to express ‘confidence’ in a hypothesis that appears to have zero likelihood. ‘Confidence’, I suppose one might reflect, is a subjective state of mind, and it may be natural for people to feel more confident saying something they know their most important audience wants to hear than saying something more challenging. Feeling confident about something, however, should not be confused with being right.

As ever, though, I leave readers to see what they think of Paul’s analysis.


Paul McKeigue

Alternative explanations of the alleged chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun: a reassessment in the light of the report of the Joint Investigative Mechanism

The report of the UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism has now been officially released. On the principle that people should take responsibility for what they allow to be published under their names, I’ll refer to the report by the initials of its three named authors as MCM (Mulet, Cheng-Hopkins and Mogl). I have not been able to identify any mainstream journalist who has read the report or commented on it, other than the independent-minded Peter Hitchens. Other incisive commentaries can be found at these links: (1, 2, 3, 4). A detailed technical assessment has been released by the Russian mission to the UN.

In an earlier post I examined, in the framework of Bayesian probability calculus the evidence favouring two alternative explanations of the alleged chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun on 4 April 2017:

  • H1: a chemical attack by the Syrian air force using sarin.
  • H2: a managed massacre of captives intended to bring about US military intervention, using small quantities of sarin to generate a forensic trail

From this passage it appears that MCM excluded hypothesis H2 from consideration.

On the basis of the information obtained, the following two scenarios were further investigated: (a) sarin had been released through an aerial bomb; or (b) sarin had been released through the explosion of an improvised explosive device placed on the ground. A third scenario with two alternatives was also investigated, neither of which was found to be linked to the release of sarin.

As I emphasized in earlier posts, you can’t exclude the hypothesis you haven’t considered, and you can’t evaluate the evidence for a hypothesis without evaluating the weight of evidence favouring that hypothesis over alternatives. For a given observation, this weight of evidence is based on comparing how probable that observation was, given each of the hypotheses under consideration.

I listed five observations, for each of which I assessed the conditional probability of the observation to be very low under H1, but high under H2. These were:

  1. The key witness was unable to produce a family photograph showing him with his wife; his explanation was that his family home had been coincidentally destroyed in an airstrike at the same time as the chemical attack.
  2. There were no images of a search and rescue operation
  3. The flight track of the Syrian jet showed only a single east-west pass to the south of the town, passing no closer than 2 km from the alleged impact site of the chemical munition.
  4. The area where casualties were alleged to have occurred was upwind of the alleged impact site.
  5. Several of the children seen laid out in morgues had head injuries: in at least two cases these head injuries were received after they had been “rescued” from the alleged chemical attack.

I assessed that each of these five observations contributed a likelihood ratio of about 20, equivalent to a weight of evidence of 4 to 5 bits favouring H2 over H1. This gives a total weight of evidence of about 20 bits: a likelihood ratio of 1 million to one.

Of these five observations, the only one considered by MCM was the flight track of the Syrian jet.

The flight track, reassessed

MCM had access to the Pentagon’s map and to “another aerial map” which “indicated that the closest to Khan Shaykhun that the aircraft had flown had been approximately 5 km away”. This is even less compatible with H1 than my lower bound of 2 km on the distance from the alleged impact site, based on a low-resolution image of the Pentagon’s map obtained from a news story. MCM did not question the accuracy of this flight track, or introduce any alternative explanation such as another jet undetected by radar. An interview with the pilot, and the flight log at the airbase were consistent with the flight track. However MCM found an expert who was prepared to state that

depending on a number of variables such as altitude, speed and the flight path taken, it would be possible for such an aerial bomb to be dropped on the town from the aforementioned distances.

The heavily qualified wording of this sentence suggests that the expert did not state that the alleged impact sites were compatible with the recorded flight track. As the Russian Ministry of Defence briefing pointed out, while it might just be possible for an Su-22 travelling at maximum speed and altitude for bomb release to toss a bomb 5 km ahead of the release point, the jet would still have to turn after releasing the bomb, and this would take it within 2 km of the impact point. However the flight track is even more unequivocally incompatible with the alleged airstrikes than this argument implies. The flight track shows only a single east-west pass to the south of the town. Under H1 this flight track has to account not only for the crater that was the alleged impact site of a chemical munition, but also for the high explosive bombs that allegedly caused the three explosions documented by plumes on videos and images of damaged buildings, and for whatever device caused the cloud of white fog also mentioned by MCM (discussed below under “other relevant observations”).

Other material on the five key lines of evidence

Of the four other observations listed above, the only one on which MCM comment even briefly is the wind direction. They ignore the videos showing the wind to have been blowing from southwest to northeast (away from the alleged location of victims southwest of the crater), and decide instead that the “prevailing air movements” must have been in the direction implied by hypothesis H1.

The Mechanism also noted that the location of victims, as described in the report of the Fact-Finding Mission, serves as an indicator of prevailing air movements west to south-west of the location of the crater during the early morning on 4 April 2017

Analyses of the crater and the alleged munition

MCM and the Russian experts who disputed their conclusions discussed in some detail whether the images of the crater were compatible with an air-dropped bomb containing only a small bursting charge or with a ground-based improvised explosive device. Under either H1 or H2 we would expect the crater to look as if it had been struck by a munition dropped from the air. Under H2 we would expect this appearance to be created deliberately, perhaps using one of the short-range siege engines known as “Hell Cannons” to drop a heavy projectile. We would also expect the remnants of such a munition to be removed before taking photographs, so their absence from the images is not evidence against the use of such a munition.

MCM examined images of “two objects of interest” in the crater: a “deformed piece of metal” and “a circular metal object that appeared to be a munition filler cap”.

According to information obtained by the Mechanism, the filler cap, with two closure plugs, is uniquely consistent with Syrian chemical aerial bombs. The Mechanism was provided with an assessment of the filler cap and with chemical analysis showing sarin and a reaction product of sarin with hexamine that can be formed only under very high heat.”

The assertion that the filler cap “is uniquely consistent with Syrian chemical aerial bombs”. has been disputed, but in any case this is not evidence favouring one hypothesis over another; under either H1 or H2 we’d expect to find remnants of something resembling a chemical munition.

So neither the images of the crater, nor the images of the munition remnants allegedly found in them, contribute compelling evidence favouring either H1 or H2.

Chemical profile of the sarin, and matching to Syrian military stocks of sarin precursor

In my last post, I noted that if H1 were true, one of the observations that might be expected to contribute evidence favouring H1 over H2 would be if a chemical signature match between the environmental sarin samples and Syrian military stocks were reported by scientists prepared to put their names on a report that was detailed enough to be subjected to peer review.

MCM’s report doesn’t meet this criterion, but it contains some interesting new information about the analysis of the Syrian military stocks of methylphosphonyl difluoride (DF) that were destroyed by US Army engineers under OPCW supervision on board the MV Cape Ray in 2014. It was reported in 2014 that gas chromatography / mass spectrometry profiling was carried out on board. A formal chemical signature attribution study to determine whether samples of sarin could be matched to these samples of DF would be based on using the profiles of hundreds of impurities that are detected by mass spectrometry, with control specimens including samples of sarin synthesized independently, and multivariate statistical analysis as described in this paper. We are told only that the Syrian military stocks of DF contained “phosphorus hexafluoride” (presumably this means the hexafluorophosphate anion PF6) and phosphorus oxytrichloride (POCl3). As phosphorus oxytrichloride and hexafluorophosphate were also reported in the environmental samples allegedly taken from Khan Sheikhoun, MCM concluded that “the presence of marker chemicals that are believed to be unique” was “a strong indication” that the sarin from KS was produced using DF from Syrian military stocks.

I am not expert in chemistry, but fortunately on this blog we have been provided with a detailed briefing on the impurities likely to be present in sarin in comments here and here by an experienced organic chemist who writes as DDTea. Step 4 of the synthesis of sarin uses a chlorinating agent: either thionyl chloride or phosphorus pentachloride. DDTea explains that if phosphorus pentachloride is used as the chlorinating agent, phosphorus oxytrichloride is produced, and this is likely to produce hexafluorophosphate in step 5. On this basis, the presence of phosphorus oxytrichloride and hexafluorophosphate in the Syrian military stocks of DF indicates only that phosphorus pentachloride was used as the chlorinating agent. This process is not “unique” as MCM assert: for instance the Aum Shinrikyo terrorist group also used phosphorus pentachloride in step 4, and phosphorus oxychloride was detected in their lab.

MCM assert that the presence of hexafluorophosphate indicates that hydrogen fluoride (rather than sodium fluoride or potassium fluoride) was used in step 5. Russian experts dispute this, stating that “It is well known that phosphorus hexafluoride is produced by fluorination of phosphorus chloroanhydrides also using fluorides of alkali metals [sodium fluoride or potassium fluoride] and compounds of hydrogen fluoride with tertiary amines”. The JIM’s argument is that use of hydrogen fluoride (a highly dangerous gas) “indicates a high degree of competence and sophistication in the production of DF and points to a chemical-plant-type production method.” Even if the JIM is correct in asserting that hydrogen fluoride was used, this is not compelling evidence favouring H1 over H2. Under H2, only bench-scale quantities of sarin need be produced to lay a trail of forensic evidence. Under H2, the objective of producing sarin is to implicate the regime, so we would expect opposition chemists to add to their sarin any chemicals that would help to implicate the regime: certainly they would have added hexamine which had been widely publicized as an alleged hallmark of the process used by the Syrian military to produce sarin from binary precursors.

The confirmation that OPCW had access to samples of Syrian military DF since 2014 raises again the question of why the Joint Investigative Mechanism has not investigated whether the sarin recovered from alleged chemical attacks in 2013 matches Syrian military stocks. We can reasonably assume that if it had been possible to declare such a match, based on a formal chemical signature attribution study rather than one or two impurities, this finding would have been widely publicized. The French “national evaluation” asserted that sarin from Khan Sheikhoun matched samples recovered from an alleged chemical attack in Saraqeb on 29 April 2013, but this was based on the presence of hexamine (allegedly used in the final step of sarin synthesis), rather than on the full chemical profile. Phosphorus oxychloride was not reported in samples obtained from alleged chemical attacks in Syria in 2013. This suggests that the synthetic pathway for the sarin used in alleged chemical attacks in Syria may have changed between 2013 and 2017 from using thionyl chloride (which was on the shopping list of the Nusra procurement team arrested in Turkey) to using phosphorus pentachloride, thus matching the synthetic pathway implied by the impurities in Syrian military stocks.

In this context it is difficult not to feel some unease about Martin Chulov’s report on 5 April that

“Samples taken from the scene in Khan Sheikhun, as well as biological specimens taken from survivors and casualties, will be compared with samples taken by intelligence officials from the Syrian military stockpile when it was withdrawn from the country in late 2013. Syria’s stores of sarin are known to have particular properties, which experts say can be forensically matched to samples taken in the field.”

After western governments had shown no interest in comparing sarin from the alleged chemical attacks in 2013 with the Syrian military stocks of DF that were destroyed in 2014, it is remarkable that Chulov’s source was anticipating, the day after the alleged chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun, that samples taken from it would be matched to these stocks. If “intelligence officials” were able to take samples from the Syrian military stocks destroyed on the MV Cape Ray, we cannot exclude the possibility that these samples could have been used to lay a false trail of forensic evidence, or that an outline of the chemical profile of these stocks could have been provided to opposition chemists. The Russian assessment states that the Syrian government had given information on the methods of synthesis of their military stocks of sarin to the OPCW, and warns that “a real possibility exists that the DF (methylphosphonic acid difluoroanhydride) and sarin were deliberately synthesized using the allegedly Syrian formulas which are well-known both to the OPCW and beyond that international structure to be utilised as a means of a provocation designed to compromise the Syrian government”.

Other relevant observations

White fog

MCM briefly comment on images that showed a cloud of white fog appearing in the centre of the town:

The cause of the plume that was shorter and whiter in appearance than the other three could not be conclusively identified by munitions experts engaged by the Mechanism. Two experts noted that the plume had probably consisted of aerosolized droplets of liquid. One explained that the plume’s appearance might indicate the use of a vacuum bomb that had possibly failed to explode, with the plume being a cloud of explosive liquid that had disseminated from the munition.

Adam Larson has made a detailed study of the white fog, which originated at two sites, one in the centre of town just north of the tel (mound) as noted by MCM, and one at a farmhouse just southwest of the town. The fog originating near the tel is seen in the video to be expanding steadily over at least 17 seconds, and is seen 20 minutes later to have spread northeast on the prevailing wind, eventually blanketing most of the town. This sustained emission of white fog is typical of military smoke generators that emit aerosolized oil droplets, rather than a fuel-air explosive device (“vacuum bomb”). The Syrian opposition is known to possess such smoke generators, and it is possible that they were used to create the impression that the town was under chemical attack. Although there were purported eyewitness reports of fog spreading through the town, there was no report of what happened at the sites where it originated.

It is possible that satellite images of the smoke pouring from one of these sites were initially misinterpreted by US military analysts as indicating that an airstrike had caused a fire releasing toxic smoke from stored chemicals. A story to this effect was relayed on 6-7 April by at least two retired officials known to have sources in the US military or intelligence agencies: Phil Giraldi and Lawrence Wilkerson. Unfortunately this story, pursued separately by Seymour Hersh and Gareth Porter, led these two distinguished investigative journalists astray. Combustion of stored pesticides could not produce chemicals that test positive for sarin. Proponents of the regime attack hypothesis have focused on debunking this story, while ignoring the compelling evidence favouring a managed massacre.

Evidence of staging in the videos

Staging a hazmat investigation for cameras is not, in itself, compelling evidence that the entire incident was staged.

The Mechanism observed several methods and procedures that appeared to be either unusual or inappropriate in the circumstances. In particular, the Mechanism noted that fully equipped hazmat teams had appeared at the scene later that afternoon and reported early detection of the presence of sarin, apparently using a Dräger X-am 7000 ambient air monitor, which was not known to be able to detect sarin.

Evidence that purported first responders are not helping victims is stronger evidence favouring a managed massacre over a chemical attack.

“The Mechanism also noted scenes recorded just after the incident at the medical site to the east of Khan Shaykhun, where rescue and decontamination activities filmed shortly after 0700 hours showed rescue personnel indiscriminately hosing down patients with water for extended periods of time. That video footage also showed a number of patients not being attended to, as well as paramedical interventions that did not seem to make medical sense, such as performing cardiac compression on a patient who was lying face down.”

As MCM noted, the videos show that “rescue personnel” were hosing victims for up to 40 minutes, in temperatures only a few degrees above freezing. Other videos show that children were piled in pickup trucks, with the living and the dead apparently mixed together to be photographed. Some of these children were taken on rides to hospitals for staged attempts at resuscitation hours after they had died. Others were seen laid out in morgues with head injuries that in at least two cases can be established to have occurred after they were “rescued”.

Timing of hospital admissions – “possible staging scenario”

This passage is worth quoting in full.

Certain irregularities were observed in elements of the information analysed. For example, several hospitals appeared to have begun admitting casualties of the attack between 0640 and 0645 hours. The Mechanism received the medical records of 247 patients from Khan Shaykhun who had been admitted to various health-care facilities, including survivors and a number of victims who eventually died from exposure to a chemical agent. The admission times noted in the records range from 0600 to 1600 hours. Analysis of the records revealed that in 57 cases, patients had been admitted to five hospitals before the incident (at 0600, 0620 and 0640 hours). In 10 of those cases, patients appear to have been admitted to a hospital 125 km away from Khan Shaykhun at 0700 hours, while another 42 patients appear to have been admitted to a hospital 30 km away at 0700 hours. The Mechanism did not investigate those discrepancies and cannot determine whether they are linked to any possible staging scenario or are the result of poor record-keeping in chaotic conditions.”

The mention of a “possible staging scenario” suggests that MCM considered something like a managed massacre as one possible explanation. It’s not possible to evaluate this as evidence without more information – we’re not told for instance whether the admission times were handwritten or computer-generated. It’s possible that this could be explained by some confusion over time zones, or the switch to daylight saving time a few days before. However MCM’s failure to investigate this further suggests that they were not too concerned by whether or not the discrepancies could be explained.


The most important new evidence in MCM’s report is the additional detail of the flight tracking. Clearly the story of air strikes is incompatible with the flight track map shown at the Pentagon’s press conference (with a misleading caption stating that “An aircraft originating from Shayrat airfield was over Khan Sheikhoun”), and with the other map described by MCM. Unless this flight track was wrong, which MCM do not suggest, the hypothesis of a chemical attack by the Syrian air force can be excluded as having zero likelihood. This raises questions about the role of the Pentagon in misleading not just the media, but also the President. The weight of evidence favouring the hypothesis of a managed massacre over a chemical attack has obvious implications also for the role of the White Helmets in this incident.



Report Authors: JIM head Edmond Mulet speaks to the press after briefing the UN Security Council, flanked by fellow JIM leaders Judy Cheng-Hopkins and Stefan Mogl.


Posted in chemical weapons, conspiracy, guest blog, OPCW, Syria, Syrian opposition, UK Government, Uncategorized, war, White Helmets | 6 Comments

White Helmets in Syria: some questions for our government

What should we – members of Western publics – think about the White Helmets? There is currently great controversy between journalists who present them unproblematically as heroes[1] and others who view them as problematically associated with terrorists.[2] There is evidently at least something ambiguous about them. Given the positive publicity and generous funding provided by Western governments, there is a case for expecting some due diligence on the part of the latter. This applies with regard both to the truth of the publicity and the use made of our money.

Ambiguities appear from the very inception of the White Helmets. The heroic story has it that groups of ordinary Syrian men – carpenters, bakers, etc – decided to band together to help their fellow citizens deal with the consequences of air raids. Yet it was an Englishman based in Turkey who established the White Helmets organisation. James Le Mesurier is a former British Army Officer who went into the business of delivering ‘stabilisation’ programmes in conflict zones.[3] He relates – in an address delivered at The Performance Theatre in 2015, and viewable here – how the White Helmets came into being. We learn how, in March 2013, at his base in Turkey, he trained the first team of 20 White Helmets. He doesn’t indicate how he made contact with those men, but he must have had a quite effective recruitment method because by June 2015 he is in a position to state that “there are 105 volunteer rescue teams in Syria, made up of 2,600 volunteers.[4] They are nicknamed the White Helmets”.

(Incidentally, the words White Helmets, in English, and sometimes preceded by a hashtag, are emblazoned on their uniforms with the effect (presumably intended) of reinforcing brand recognition in the Anglophone world.[5] This of course tends to suggest that achieving a high profile in Western media has been among the strategic objectives of establishing the organisation.[6])

Questions may be asked about Le Mesurier’s claims that the White Helmets are neutral and impartial. These claims merit probing given that White Helmets operate exclusively in opposition-held areas of Syria. Thus, when the government retook control of Eastern Aleppo in 2016, the White Helmets decamped from there and made their way to other opposition-held areas, particularly in Idlib. This suggests a loyalty to some cause, or some incentive, other than concern about their own immediate community, since the latter, we might assume, still had some use for firemen and ambulance services, or, indeed, for the skills of the men’s former occupations as these were characterized. In fact, civilians at that time chose whether to stay in their home town under government control and protection or to leave with the fighters. This suggests some political and ideological alignment between the militias, the White Helmets, and those civilians who departed with them. Would this group of people be neutral and impartial with respect to government supporters, or to Christians, Shia, Alawis, and Druze, in the areas under the control of Al Nusra and associated fighting groups? Can we even be certain that the White Helmets would be neutral as between civilians on the one hand and those with military and political power on the other?[7]

Le Mesurier does seek to offer reassurance on such concerns. The White Helmets organisation in Syria, he says, “is resilient to co-option by armed actors and by political actors because they have the support of the civilian population, and this really is civilian agency, giving the power to communities on the ground.”

This statement warrants closer attention. For while it tacitly recognizes the problem of co-option by armed actors and political actors, it claims that the organisation is resilient to the problem. By ‘resilient’, I presume, we are to understand that the White Helmets could resist being coerced by those with military or local political power on the ground into doing things that are against their mission. Yet it is not obvious how a group of former bakers and carpenters are going to resist commands from armed units that are demonstrably capable of imposing their will, including by means of credible threats of summary execution.

So perhaps when Le Mesurier speaks of the organisation being resilient he means that the larger infrastructure of White Helmets, including Mayday Rescue and its Governmental funders, have countervailing influence over the armed actors? That could lend some credibility to the claim of resilience to co-option, but it would of course open up some significant questions about the relationship between governments, including the UK’s, and the controlling units on the ground – notably Al Nusra, but also other violent terrorist groups. If White Helmets are in a position to resist Al Nusra commands thanks to US-UK support this would suggest that the terrorist organisations are in practice prepared to do the bidding of those governments.

If that is the case, I think those of us who elect those governments and pay the taxes they disburse have a right to know. If it is not the case, then Le Mesurier’s explanation will have to be interpreted differently.

In fact, an alternative reading of his meaning is suggested by his comment that the resilience to co-option is due to ‘the support of the civilian population’. He here seems to be saying that the civilian population – which is presumably unarmed – is able to dictate terms to the armed terrorists who have military and political control in the areas concerned. Yet I cannot imagine how we are supposed to give credence to this suggestion. In fact, it is not entirely clear what he means by saying that “this really is civilian agency, giving the power to communities on the ground.” The idea he seems to want to convey here is that the White Helmets directly express what the ordinary Syrian people really want. Yet he says this power is being given to communities on the ground. Does this mean his organisation has empowered the people not only to cut through collapsed concrete structures and to communicate with satphones but also to treat with terrorist masters on equal terms rather than as simply subject to their will?

It is possible that his organisation has indeed so empowered the White Helmets on the ground. After all, we know that White Helmets enjoy certain protections and immunities. We know this simply from watching all the publicity we see – including the documentaries supplied by Netflix and other outlets – if we assume it is shot where we are told it is.  For it shows them roaming freely in opposition-held areas, filming in peace and unencumbered, never challenged or even approached by anybody bearing arms.

Due diligence, then, would surely bid us ask how is it that the White Helmets enjoy such freedom in militant strongholds? Could it be because Le Mesurier has found a way to tap into the compassionate and humanitarian impulses of Al Qaeda and its affiliates, just as he appears to have got in touch with his own, in turning from private military contractor into humanitarian facilitator? That is theoretically possible. Perhaps someone who knows could be explicit on the point.

Meanwhile, an empirical fact is that he brings to opposition-held areas a large amount of money. We may not be able to know exactly how much, but the UK Foreign Secretary has affirmed at least one donation of £32 million, and the US government has confirmed assistance of at least $23 million. We do not know exactly what the money has been used for. If the recent BBC research into the use of funds sent to the “Free Syrian Police” (FSP) is anything to go by, we should expect that some of the money has found its way into the hands of terrorist organisations. If that is not the case, Le Mesurier would do a public service by explaining how his organisation has prevented it happening. For then the UK government could use the knowledge to stop allowing our taxes to subsidise terrorism through related routes, like the FSP funding. In any event, I think it would be good for our representatives in government to be given a reasonably full account of how it is being used. They should be eager to ask such questions, and journalists who are really committed to the values of free inquiry ought to be pressing them to do so.

Nothing said here refutes the possibility that among the White Helmets are genuinely brave and altruistic individuals; yet nor can we suppose that they all fit such a description.  Controversy continues as to whether there are just a “few bad apples” or whether there are more systemic problems with the organisation. Meanwhile, something anyone familiar with the films and articles praising them will be clear about is the prominent message that “Assad and the Russians are bombing us”. Whatever else the White Helmets may achieve, for civilians or fighters, it is their tangible support for this approved Western message – “we must do something about Assad and the Russians” – that seems particularly to motivate the support for them of our governments.

Now that Assad’s departure appears to be less imminent than was hoped or anticipated by the governments seeking regime change in Syria, the defences of the White Helmets – which are disappointingly often counter-criticisms of the critics more than substantial defences – have become more resolutely anti-Russian in focus. I believe the focus should be brought back onto our own governments: it is they who have some responsibility for what the White Helmets are doing in Syria. They should be held more carefully to account.


[1] The latest of this genre is by Julia Solon, writing from California for the Guardian: For a critical response see this by John Schoneboom: .

[2] Independent journalists who make this case include Vanessa Beeley, Eva Bartlett, and Khaled Iskef. They have interviewed Syrians about their experience of the White Helmets, as has documentary film maker Carla Ortiz. (These links are indicative only, and their research outputs are much more extensive.)

[3] For more on his background see, for instance, this by Scott Ritter:

[4] I think he may be using the term volunteers, as is the practice in the British Army, to distinguish them from conscripts, rather than to mean ‘unpaid’, for I understand that they are paid.

[5] The significance of public perceptions is clearly not lost on Le Mesurier. Later in the talk he mentions how a GfK global assessment of public trust in professions revealed that, in fragile states, while the least trusted actors are security actors and military actors, the professions with highest levels of trust are firefighters, rescue workers and paramedics. So there is certainly an incentive for someone whose career is centred on deploying the least trusted actors to undergo a rebranding as a facilitator of the most trusted professionals.

[6] It is therefore not surprising that there have been accusations that the White Helmets are more concerned with getting film footage appearing to show heroism than with actually saving ordinary people. I have not investigated them myself, but the accusations appear to have sufficient corroboration to warrant following up, and hence the mention.

[7] Rather a lot of witness testimony gleaned from Aleppo during 2017 suggests that the White Helmets prioritized saving fighters, and this has not been countered by comparable testimony from grateful civilian witnesses. Still, I think we must each judge for ourselves whether we find interviews like these, these or these convincing.

Posted in BBC, disinformation, Guardian, journalism, media, propaganda, Syria, Syrian opposition, UK Government, Uncategorized, war, White Helmets | 4 Comments

White Helmets: who do they answer to?

The BBC Panorama programme, Jihadis You Pay For, revealed that the ‘Free Syrian Police’ (FSP) could not operate except by the leave of the terrorist brigades that together have a de facto monopoly of force within the areas they occupy. The BBC’s inquiry found that UK Government funding for the FSP has been making its way to the terrorists too. There is obviously a public interest in knowing why the UK Government has been allowing funds to go to terrorists. Kate Osamor MP has sent ten urgent questions in this matter to Boris Johnson, Secretary of State at the Foreign Office.

Informed observers meanwhile point out that the Panorama programme may have revealed only part of a bigger problem. One obvious and important question is, given that the Free Syrian Police are in practice answerable to the terrorists, what about the White Helmets? They work in the same environment and have no evident means of resisting demands for whatever tribute or service those with the weapons choose to exact from them. There is a direct public interest in this question given that the UK Government, along with others, provides substantial funding to them. (This has been confirmed by Boris Johnson himself.) If some of the funding to the FSP goes to the terrorists, why should we imagine that none is taken from the White Helmets?

To date, the mainstream narrative has maintained that the White Helmets are fiercely independent. If with respect to funding this is simply untrue, with respect to operational autonomy it seems implausible. What reason could there be to think that they have greater independence from terrorist command than the FSP does? Not only is it all but impossible to think how that could be the case, there is also evidence to suggest that the White Helmets in fact operate closely with the terrorists. According to the research carried out by independent journalists, and notably Vanessa Beeley, it even appears that some of the White Helmets themselves are and/or have been members of the terrorist brigades.

This is a question that seems to be quite scrupulously avoided by the mainstream media. But it is not lost on the members of the public who are paying attention. Our number is growing.

The public interest has a greater human concern than whether some funds are syphoned off.  The role of the White Helmets is not only to provide services on the ground in Syria; it is also to provide information to the rest of the world about what is happening in opposition-held areas in Syria.  If almost everything we think we know about the reality there is transmitted via the White Helmet’s organisation, and if that organisation itself is not autonomous of the terrorists, then what we can know may only be what the terrorists want us to know. That would mean our government is not only providing terrorists with support, it is effectively putting us at their service. As citizens and tax payers we should demand to know more from our government about such possible complicity in the terror inflicted on the people of Syria.



Posted in BBC, journalism, media, propaganda, Syria, Syrian opposition, UK Government, Uncategorized, war, White Helmets | 6 Comments

UK Government Funds Terrorists In Syria?

On Saturday 2 December, Vanessa Beeley published an exposé, based on research in Syria, of how the UK government appears to have been financing terrorists. On Sunday 3rd December, The Guardian ran a story saying that reports of UK money reaching terrorists in Syria are exaggerated. The Guardian tells us that allegations of funds going via the Foreign Office to Al Nusra ‘have been described as “entirely inaccurate and misleading” by Adam Smith International (ASI)‘.  That company is a key source cited in this regard by the Guardian, and the company is certainly in a position to know, given its role in disbursing such funds.

In March this year, the Guardian reported that the same company, having ‘been entrusted with £450m in development cash since 2011, had tried to profiteer by exploiting leaked department documents. It was also heavily criticised for trying to “unduly influence” a parliamentary inquiry by engineering “letters of appreciation” from beneficiaries of its projects.’ The Guardian further noted that the Commons international development committee ‘said ASI’s actions were “deplorable”, “entirely inappropriate” and showed a “serious lack of judgment”.’ While the company took certain steps in response, the UK’s Department for International Development ‘said ASI’s problems were “fundamental and will not be solved with quick fixes”.

Serious questions therefore have to be asked about the funding sent by this route to Syria, and also about its purpose.  Such questions are due to be aired today, Monday 4 December, on BBC’s Panorama programme Jihadis You Pay For. The programme promises to reveal, from ‘hundreds of leaked documents … the shocking truth about one of the government’s flagship foreign aid projects’. It will reveal how ‘cash has ended up in the hands of extremists and how an organisation we are funding supports a brutal justice system.’

Meanwhile, Andrew Mitchell MP, the former international development secretary, ‘warned against the BBC jumping on an “anti-aid bandwagon” and not taking into account the risks and difficulties faced’ by those trying to maintain order in areas held by opposition forces.

The innocent reader could be forgiven for wondering how the provision of funds to terrorists could come under the umbrella of ‘aid’ or ‘development’ in the first place. The Foreign Office tells us that this sort of scheme is “intended to make communities in Syria safer by providing basic civilian policing services”.  Without entering into detailed consideration of the character of law and justice as administered by the ‘Free Syrian Police’ (FSP), it suffices to note Mitchell’s own admission that ‘it was inevitable the FSP would come into contact with extremist groups’, and yet he maintains ‘that complexity should not deter the UK from involvement.’

‘Complexity’, of course, is quite a euphemism, judging by the findings from Syria that have been relayed by Beeley.  But the admission of the former minister is itself telling enough as, in effect, he seems to be saying: don’t expect the recipients of UK funding not to be connected with terrorists.

Meanwhile, another question that might be asked is whether ‘aid’ is really even the ostensible objective.  For the Foreign Office (quoted by the Guardian) seems to offer a different rationale: “We believe that such work in Syria is important to protect our national security interest”. Exactly how funding a police force allied with terrorists in a foreign land protects UK security interests is a mystery. One might anticipate that the contrary could be the case, as a number of us suggested earlier this year.

It rather seems that those defending the UK government’s policy here are in damage limitation mode in the face of the growing exposure of what is really happening on the ground in ‘rebel-held’ areas of Syria.

If only efforts could instead be deployed in avoiding and remedying the severe damage that the UK has been complicit in inflicting on the people of Syria. Perhaps as the inconsistencies in official narratives become increasingly apparent to an ever wider public, we can hope that the taxes we pay may yet be redirected to more constructive ends.



Posted in BBC, disinformation, Guardian, journalism, media, Syria, Syrian opposition, UK Government, Uncategorized, war | 4 Comments