This week has seen the release of interviews with doctors and children (here and here) who appeared in the video, widely circulated in the Western media, that showed a distressing scene in a clinic in Douma. In that scene, doctors were allegedly treating victims of a chemical attack. However, their own witness testimony now points to a staging of the scene.
But should we trust that testimony?
An article published yesterday in The Intercept (Robert Mackey, ‘Russia sows doubts over chemical attack in Syria, aided by pro-Trump cable channel’) states a meaningful challenge:
There was no way of knowing if any of the medical personnel who spoke to the reporters in the presence of government minders had been coerced into making those statements by threats from Assad’s secret police, the mukhabarat, to harm their families — as the head of the largest medical relief agency in Syria told The Guardian they were.
Certainly, the bona fides of the witnesses and their statements are quite properly a matter for rigorous evaluation. (In the case of young children, I am somewhat unsure exactly what tests of veracity are needed or ethically appropriate, but I entirely accept the general principle of treating witness statements with due caution.)
The rest of Mackey’s article, however, pursues quite other themes. And since the loose construction of the article could allow a hasty reader an impression that its other material somehow challenges the witness evidence of staging at the clinic, I shall just point out that it does not.
In particular, what could be misleading to the unwary is the significance of this separate point made in The Intercept:
Two enterprising reporters, Seth Doane of CBS News and Stefan Borg of TV4 Sweden, slipped away from their government minders and managed to find the building where the attack took place and interview a man who said he had survived the attack but lost his wife, mother, and brothers to gas.
We need to be clear that this refers to a different question, namely, what happened at a place where deaths occurred. It has no necessary connection to anything that living witnesses at the clinic have said. In fact, I believe, the onus would be on someone who wants to claim the two sets of evidence are linked to establish the link. (Incidentally, in assuming the veracity of the testimony from the man interviewed at the house, Mackey rather relaxes his earlier standards of rigorous scepticism, since he does not ask whether this witness may have had some inducement, whether what he says is entirely reliable, or whether he is even exactly who he is presented as being. However I shall set aside these questions too, and with all due respect to the bereaved.)
There is a simple point to make. The question of what caused the deaths of people found at a house, and the question of what caused the children to be inside the clinic at the time of filming, are two distinct questions. The truth of any statement related to one has no necessary bearing on the truth of any statement related to the other. The evidence from doctors and patients at the clinic does not eliminate the possibility of the use of chemicals elsewhere, by some as yet to be established party. It does, however, tend to weigh in favour of the hypothesis that the scene at the clinic was staged.
 The article also suggests there could be reasons for questioning the veracity of the boy’s testimony. I make no objection to rigorously testing the veracity of the statement on the video, within ethical bounds. I do think there could be ethical objections to the suggestion, attributed by The Intercept to Maria Zakharova, the Russian foreign ministry’s spokesperson, ‘that the boy should be brought to the United Nations to testify.’ [Update: Having checked the attribution, I think Zakharova was simply making a rhetorical point about whose testimony would be worth hearing.]
 While not wishing to be rude, I do feel that much of the article is presented in rather prejudicial terms. When it comes to assessing credibility of evidence it makes reference, for instance, to ‘[u]nfounded conspiracy theories about the White Helmets, concocted by Syrian and Russian state media’, where the link to ‘conspiracy theories’ takes you to Bellingcat, itself a Western funded ‘think tank’ with a very clear information mission.
The article also mentions, darkly, ‘Sharp has not explained how he managed to convince the Syrian government to give him a visa to report in the country’. I don’t claim to know the answer, and don’t normally expect such information to be part of a report! But presumably Sharp got it in much the way that the other journalists, whose work the article cites, did. (In fact, I could name half a dozen friends there at the same time who had also managed it, including Alison Banfield and Mike Raddie from BSNews.)
‘The AP visited a two-room underground shelter where Khaled Mahmoud Nuseir said 47 people were killed, including his pregnant wife and two daughters, 18-month-old Qamar and 2 1/2-year-old Nour. A strange smell lingered, nine days after the attack.
Nuseir, 25, said he ran from the shelter to a nearby clinic and fainted. After he was revived, he returned to the shelter and found his wife and daughters dead, with foam coming from their mouths.
He and two other residents accused the rebel Army of Islam of carrying out the attack. As they spoke, government troops were not far away but out of earshot. Nuseir said a gas cylinder was found leaking the poison gas, adding that he didn’t think it was dropped from the air because it still looked intact.
Separately, the AP spoke to a medic who was among those who later were evacuated to northern Syria. Ahmed Abed al-Nafaa said helicopters were flying before the attack and when he reached the site, people were screaming “chlorine.” He said he tried to enter the shelter but was overcome by a strong smell of chlorine and his comrades pulled him out.
The accounts contradict what the Syrian government and Russia have reported: that there was no gas attack in Douma.’