Khan Sheikhoun: why it is sensible to be sceptical still

The OPCW fact finding mission (FFM) has now reported on the chemical incident in Khan Sheikhoun, Syria, in April 2017. Although heavily trailed in previews, by Bellingcat and others, as presenting virtually a smoking gun implicating the Syrian government, the report itself is so hedged with caveats that one could perhaps say there is so much smoke that we can’t even see a gun.

Certainly, the report cannot specifically verify any weapon involved, as the FFM ‘was unable to retrieve any items from the site which would indicate the means of dispersal of a chemical. After analysing photographs and video supplied by witnesses, the FFM could not establish with a great degree of confidence the means of deployment and dispersal of the chemical.’ (6.19)[1]

I know nothing about chemical weapons but I know a little about how reports get written. A number of people collaborate in piecing together the evidence and analysis that goes into the long document. One voice then has to come clearly through the summary that goes out to press, even though different glosses are possible. Since a certain gloss, given some extra spin, has been making the rounds in the media, I think it worth pointing out how one could interpret it quite differently.

The OPCW tell us they could not visit the site of the reported incident (since it is in the control of very dangerous men) and could not therefore get high value evidence (3.11).[2] The evidence they examined included samples that were sent (via those dangerous men) to Turkey without the FFM being able to document a verifiable chain of custody (3.46).[3] So how the samples came to be contaminated or by exactly what (since it apparently could have been a ‘Sarin-like substance’ or Sarin) is a matter of surmise. They tried to piece together a narrative on the basis of witness statements from people on the ground who were among, if not of, the dangerous men. ‘It was not possible to corroborate’ the narrative that was inferred from those testimonies (5.10); and the narrative was in fact contradicted by statements taken by the Syrian authorities (5.10).

Commentators who had sight of the report during its embargo period, like Bellingcat, worked very quickly to bring out publications aimed at convincing us the report provided a refutation of those of us who are sceptical about the narrative of Syrian Government responsibility for the Khan Sheikhoun incident.

It seems to me, though, that the caveats are extremely significant.  Especially given that in order to feel safe in disregarding those caveats one has to put a good deal of faith in the honesty and integrity of the people in control of the area of the incident. I find this hard to do, given that everyone considers them not even safe to visit.

[Readers will notice that in this brief comment I have not referred to the victims of the incident.  The cause of death of all those people should presumably be a matter for criminal investigation, which was not the purpose of the OPCW mission. It is a matter of very grave concern indeed.]



[1] All references are to paragraphs in the Report Of The Opcw Fact-Finding Mission In Syria Regarding An Alleged Incident
In Khan Shaykhun, Syrian Arab Republic April 2017.

[2] ‘During an investigation, complete, direct, and immediate access to the alleged initiation site provides the greatest opportunity to collect high value evidence.’ (3.11)

[3] ‘Typically, samples from an incident would be collected by the investigating team immediately after the incident, using approved procedures and equipment, including full documentation of the chain of custody of the samples. As noted earlier, the team 
was constrained due to the inability to access the site of the alleged incident and the amount of time that had passed between the alleged incident and receipt of samples by the team (depending on the source, between 1 week and 2 months after the incident). As a result, the team was unable to:

(a) assess the geography and conditions of the location of the alleged incident; (b) directly select sampling points and items;
(c) conduct on-site collection of samples; and
(d) implement a complete chain of custody, by the team, for samples from source.’ (3.46)

This entry was posted in journalism, media, propaganda, Syria, Uncategorized, war, White Helmets. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to Khan Sheikhoun: why it is sensible to be sceptical still

  1. Jan Pietrasik says:

    Good work Tim.

    This is a farce and must break every rule in the book and every procedural protocol for conducting such a ‘fact-finding’ investigation. You don’t have to be a professional to know this breaks the law of natural justice and just isn’t right.

    No protection of the scene.

    No examination of the scene by investigators.

    All the evidence, photographs, witness statements, samples etc. provided by one of the suspect parties who couldn’t/wouldn’t guarantee the safety of investigators so they could properly examine the scene themselves.

    No way of knowing where or how samples/evidence were collected, and no guarantee samples were protected from contamination during collection and transit, except the word of one of the possible suspect parties

    So dangerous was the area controlled by the terrorists, the investigators didn’t feel confident that the Syrian government (who wanted investigators to examine the scene), could provide them with sufficient protection.

    I think the report of an investigation under these conditions seriously calls into question the impartiality and professionalism and the OPCW.

    I think you are right to be sceptical Tim, I can’t understand why some people are accepting this report unless perhaps they have a political reason for doing so.

    They wouldn’t get away with this if it was shown on an episode of ‘Silent Witness’ or any other tv crime drama worth its salt, the audience would laugh, it wouldn’t be taken seriously, it’s simply not credible!

  2. Adrian D. says:

    Quote so Tim – on my first read through I can’t see anything to take us beyond ‘sarin or sarin like’ substances at the mo (although I stand to be corrected on that).

    To your list I’d add the following issues:

    3.9. The FFN did not conduct any forensic analysis of the metadata associated with the other information they received – they are therefore taking the videos, photos and recordings at face-value – possibly relying on ‘time of uploading’. So their ‘digital chain of custody’ is suspect too.

    5.6. They took their weather and wind conditions from estimates from online sources. Strange given that they’ve got videos of dirty great big smoke plumes to directly inform them of the local conditions.

    5.15. Their solitary witness to the initial ‘chemical bomb’ is almost certainly Ismail Raslan, a White Helmet, who provided confused testimony to HRW (which I’m about to blog about – at last – having gone through the ‘Death By Chemicals’ report paragraph by paragraph – it’s seriously flawed bollocks). In the HRW report he states the first thing he saw was a lot of white dust in the air, in the OPCW he says it was a boy who collapsed (which he mentions in HRW report too, but apparently later on).

    This latter issue is the rub as far as I can see with the ‘mountain of evidence’ dismissal we’ve been accused of by Monbiot, Bellendcat et al. As far as witnesses of the KS scene goes – there simply isn’t anything like a wealth or mountain – we’re talking about half a dozen people at the most – mostly White Helmets or ‘local activists’.

    More on this later, when I’ve had the chance to set up my blog and decide on how sweary it’s going to be. I want it to be taken seriously, but when you actually bother to read the bullshit, it’s hard to stop myself.

    • timhayward says:

      Thanks once again, Adrian. And so glad that you’re going to do your own blog! My suggestion, as you would guess, is not sweary. Swearing is cathartic but not necessarily persuasive, on the whole, I think…

    • Adam Larson says:

      Great point about how they neglect the video record when it come to the wind direction. I’ve already shown how that’s fatal to the opposition story, and so I suspect that’s why they decided there was “no discernible wind.” All that disagrees (my analysis, and that of 5 others on both sides of the guilt debate) is collected here:

      And next I’ll check how they handled the radar track issue (the US proof flight track shows the jets arcing AROUND KS at a distance, not passing above any impacts to drop bombs as alleged)

  3. timhayward says:

    Thanks, will look at the link!

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  9. Frank Parker says:

    5.109 is also noteworthy.

  10. Aside from mainly egotistical politicians and media talking heads, the average individual’s attention span is not even present to heed the truth here.
    Good work none the less….

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  12. timhayward says:

    Peter Hitchens has made careful study of the report and strongly reinforces the case for concern about what can really be learned from it

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  14. Mark Erickson says:

    Tim, I’ve enjoyed reading your posts on this, thanks.

    Clarification, the narrative that couldn’t be corroborated in 5.10 is that of the two interviews of witnesses provided by the Syrian government in Damascus on June 21 and 22. And it isn’t too surprising that their narrative differs from that of the other witnesses interviewed.

    I agree that their are quite a few problems with the evidence in the report if it is intended to be used to prove what happened beyond a reasonable doubt. But the fact that the OPCW didn’t go to Khan Skaykhun and that the environmental samples had no secure chain of evidence does not make it less likely that Syria dropped a chemical bomb. And it is not an argument for either the conventional strike on a depot or a false flag. Those potential scenarios have just as much (and I think many more) issues with a lack of strong evidence.

    Another relatively minor point, the biomedical samples did have a better chain of custody. The OPCW collected samples from the three autopsies on April 5 and took blood and urine samples from victims on April 8. Yes, in Turkey. Along with the testimony of those victims, it is more secure evidence than the environmental samples. Again, not for a court of law, or as a justification for retaliation, but it is evidence of what happened.

  15. timhayward says:

    Thanks for your observations. As you indicate, we can distinguish the concept of evidence in the sense of what might be presented from the concept of evidence that is accepted as admissible, and these both from evidence that is taken as reliable proof of the merits of some case. It is possible to speak about the first kind (and only that, I would say).
    Don’t you agree that to speak of a “better” chain of custody is to overlook a rather basic point about a chain: either its links are connected or they are not! This is not a matter of degree.
    It seems we do agree on the main point, i.e. that the evidence is inconclusive.

    • Mark says:

      Yes, the links are not connected. What I meant is that it is less likely that the evidence was tampered with or substituted in the broken link.

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  19. syta says:

    Hi Tim,
    It’s been almost a year since this incident, and I was wondering if it is worth revisiting this issue. I have read both this analysis and the Peter Hitchens article here (, as well as the Bellingcat article. Also, some of the same issues are live now, for instance the “chain of custody” issue. In the following, I’ll try to look at the OCPW report, as I understand it. I have very limited knowledge of the whole matter — these are

    First, as Mark Erickson points out above, you have misread one statement in the OCPW report: the “narrative” which couldn’t be corroborated was the one given by the two witnesses in Damascus (by the Syrian govt.), not the rest of the witnesses — the latter group’s testimony was indeed corroborated.

    Second, it is true that the “chain of custody” was not established beyond doubt for environmental samples — like soil and tissue samples. But one has to ask: what is the point at issue here? Is the question “was a toxic chemical (“sarin or sarin-like material”) actually used”? The worry is that an SCD (White Helmets) volunteer might have tampered with the sample — or Turkey might have.

    Ok, but consider a striking piece of evidence here: The Syrian govt. itself got access to several samples by an “unnamed volunteer from Khan Sheikhoun”, and analyzed them independently in their own labs. Look at Table 8: in each of the cases, the Syrian findings matched the OCPW finding (the latter was more extensive, so the former was a subset of the latter). The Syrian govt. itself found Sarin in at least two samples. There were zero inconsistencies. This seems to me strong evidence.

    Third, of course, just because a chemical attack happened, we don’t know from the above who carried it out. I will look at this point later: this post is already too long.

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