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