Chemical Weapons In Syria? BBC Panorama Relies On Questionable Research

This is a press release issued by the Global Network for Syria (Corresponding author Baroness Cox <carolinecox1@outlook.com>)

A joint investigation by BBC Panorama and BBC Arabic claimed to show how chemical weapons have been used by the Syrian Government as part of a deliberate military strategy. Yet there are serious concerns over the investigation’s reliance on ‘broadly impartial’ sources — who are not named — and consequently the reliability of the report’s findings.

The Panorama programme is called ‘Syria’s Chemical War’ and was first broadcast on Monday 15 October on BBC One at 20:30.

Members of the Global Network for Syria have issued the following response:

“Yesterday’s BBC Panorama programme was notable for its omissions. It was not clear, for example, whether evidence backing the claims of 106 uses of chemical weapons came from Syrian rebel sources. Given that sources are not named, the BBC may be relying on evidence from groups that are widely regarded as favourable to the opposition, such as the White Helmets, the Syrian American Medical Society, or the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations.

“The investigation ignored the interim findings of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) on the Douma incident, which contradict the BBC’s conclusions. The OPCW found no evidence of the use of prohibited weapons in Douma and did not rule out that chlorine cylinders found at the site may have been planted.

“The programme showed former OPCW staff saying that not all of Asad’s stocks destroyed under OPCW supervision were necessarily accounted for. It neglected to point out, however, that the OPCW reported in 2014 that it had been unable to visit two sites where chemical weapons were stored and that both these sites were in rebel-held territory deemed unsafe for inspectors to visit.

“The programme also claimed to detect a pattern of Asad using chemical weapons in the final stages of sieges. But the report did not address questions raised by numerous military experts who ask why Syrian Government Forces, which were already winning the war, would deploy chemical weapons of limited usefulness, risking severe reprisals by the US-led Coalition.

“There are further concerns regarding the lack of reference to Islamist fighters, who have used chlorine canisters as part of their “resistance”, and who have butchered not just Christians and Alawites but also hundreds of the civilians living under their control, as documented by the UN.

“The war in Syria is complex, with many different layers to the conflict. It is crucial that any future investigation includes historical and geopolitical context, objective analysis, transparency about sources, and, at the very least, an acknowledgement that there are different points of view.”

Peter Ford, former British Ambassador to Syria
Dr Tim Anderson, University of Sydney
Lord Carey of Clifton
Baroness Cox
Lord Gordon of Strathblane
Dr Michael Langrish, former Bishop of Exeter
Lord Stoddart of Swindon

Contact: carolinecox1@outlook.com

GNS

This entry was posted in BBC, chemical weapons, disinformation, guest blog, journalism, media, OPCW, Syria, Syrian opposition, Uncategorized, war, White Helmets. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Chemical Weapons In Syria? BBC Panorama Relies On Questionable Research

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  4. Adrian Kent says:

    Having long since been enjoying the lower blood-pressure benefits of a #BBCSwitchOff, I watched this episode on iPlayer yesterday. I know it’s battering my head on a brick-wall, but I rattled off this complaint this morning – I could have gone on, but their word limit precludes this.

    This episode of Panorama was packed full of bias by omission, falsehood and poor reporting. The conclusions of the programme are completely unsubstantiated – it was nothing short of propaganda.

    Here are just a few of my concerns. Please reply to ALL of them individually.

    1. What steps did you take to contact the many sources (including many UK academics & politicians) who have challenged claims of Assad’s guilt?
    2. If you contacted any at all who were they?
    3. Why were none included?
    4. What steps did you take to verify the assertions of Mr. Al Yousef regarding this Khan Sheikhoun claims? Are you aware that he has previously given at least SIX different versions of his actions during the alleged attack – NONE of which correspond to those he gave you for this programme.
    5. Why did you make no mention of his status as an armed militant extremist?
    6. What steps have you taken to confirm that chlorine gas is capable of causing the casualties claimed in Douma & elsewhere (it is not).
    7. Why did you conceal the findings of the OPCW interim report into the 2018 Douma incident that confirmed NO EVIDENCE WHATSOEVER of any organophosphate nerve agent?
    8. Why did you not explain that the ‘chlorinated compounds’ reported there are present in lots of household products & as such are NOT evidence of chlorine gas release?
    9. Who specifically were the ‘independent analysts’ you consulted to verify your procedures and finings for this programme?
    10. Why did you not mention that a major reason that OPCW could not verify that ALL Syria’s CWs had been destroyed was because some had been captured by extremist’s groups & it was too dangerous for them to travel to those sites?
    11. Who were the sources for each of your 106 cases for which you have concluded ‘credible evidence’?
    12. How did you verify their impartiality & reliability?
    13. How could you conclude that the Assad government was responsible ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ when not one of the UN investigations have made such a categorical assertion?

  5. Adrian Kent says:

    I don‘t want to put anyone off, but for those not congnaissant with the BBC complaints process it goes like this:

    1. You make your complaint using their annoying, crash-prone, website.
    2. Sometime towards the end of the two-week window that the BBC say they intend to reply to all complaints you receive a message telling you that your complaint is complicated and that it will take them an unspecified extra length of time to respond to you properly.
    3. Some weeks later you will receive a response that ignores many of your substantive points and rejects the rest (this stage is, I think, outsourced to Capita).
    4. You then have the option to follow this up with a second complaint using their annoying, crash-prone, website.
    5. Sometime towards the end of the two-week window that the BBC say they intend to reply to all complaints you receive a message telling you that your complaint is complicated and that it will take them an unspecified extra length of time to respond to you properly.
    6. The response will again fail to address some of your significant claims and may reject others on a basis different from the one that they used to reject them in their first response.
    7. You then have the option to take your complaint to the BBC Executive.
    8. After an unspecified number of weeks (remember your complaint is complicated) they will respond in a manner that is more thorough, but also heavily prone to accept the BBC’s line.

    I went through all these stages with a complaint re the Today programme who introduced a PAID Lobbyist for the Syrian opposition as ‘independent’ and then had John Humphreys treat us to an interview addressed from a stand-point even more hawkish/belligerent towards the Assad Government than that displayed by the shill for the opposition.

    They first rejected my first complaint because they said they did not have the information about him being paid and that Humphreys interview was good as he was ‘challenging’.

    In my second complaint I pointed out that the interviewee had confirmed to me on twitter that he had told them he was paid – and that Humphreys was challenging from an extreme position.

    They rejected my second complaint on the basis that there wasn’t enough time to include the information about who paid him and that it didn’t matter what side Humphreys challenged him from, as long as he was challenging.

    I took my complaint to the executive who finally upheld my complaint about the relevance of the clear non-independence of the interviewee and apologised for the ‘misunderstanding’ that led to the first (bullshit) rejection.

    The Exec representative, however, failed to accept my further arguments that challenging a pro-opposition interviewee from an even-more-anti-Assad standpoint might be rather biased. Challenging it seems is enough.

    I did the same for an interview with “independent” Carolin Von Hippel (whose job immediately prior to her taking up her post at Chatham House was as an employee of a US Army General in charge of their operations in – you’ve guessed it – Syria. Again Humphreys ‘challenged’ her from an anti-Assad standpoint – I received much the same response – but this time her not-quite-independence wasn’t an issue because prior employment doesn’t matter – can you imagine though, anyone who had ever worked for the Russians, Syrians and Iranians at any time anywhere not having that brought up by the BBC?

    I also complained about an episode of the Today programme on the Thursday after the Douma incident in which pro-intervention/bombing voices outnumbered anti-interventionists by SEVEN to one, but had this rejected as the BBC’s complaint Ts&Cs rule out complaints regarding multiple segments of a single news programme.

    So, as I said, I don’t want to put anyone off complaining about the execrable BBC, but realise what you’re getting into and prepare to be fobbed off. I’ll just head back to my #BBCSwitchOff bliss if that’s alright with you.

  6. Pingback: Chemical weapons in Syria? BBC Panorama relies on questionable evidence | Worldtruth

  7. Adrian Kent. says:

    I have just (Thursday 8th November) received a response to my complaint (written above). Here it is in full – as predicted they manage to misconstrue a couple of my questions & their evasion regarding the Douma incident is pretty laughable. I hope the formatting is okay.

    Thank you for contacting us about ‘Syria’s Chemical War: Panorama’ broadcast on BBC One on 15 October.

    I understand you have some concerns about the accuracy of, and investigation into, the programme.

    We raised your questions with the programme team, who respond here in detail:

    “1. What steps did you take to contact the many sources (including many UK academics & politicians) who have challenged claims of Assad’s guilt?

    In developing this programme we spoke to many individuals and representatives of many UK, US and international organisations about chemical attacks in Syria. We approached them because they had expertise or direct experience in the area of Syria and chemical weapons.

    Overwhelmingly, the people and organisations we spoke to considered there was evidence that President Assad’s government had carried out chemical attacks in Syria. We also went to considerable lengths to get the perspective of President Assad’s government. We applied for visas to travel to Damascus and to interview senior figures in the government and military, this request was rejected. We requested an interview that we could do remotely, down the line from London and that was rejected too. We also requested an interview with Syria’s ambassador to the UN, and received no response. We then sent a letter to the Syrian government offering an opportunity to give a written response to points made in our film. They didn’t reply.

    We also approached the Russian Government for an interview with the foreign ministry or a spokesperson for President Putin and our request was not granted.

    We included an interview with Russian political analyst Sergey Markov in our programme who strongly put forward the argument that President Assad and Syria are not responsible for chemical attacks in Syria.

    2. If you contacted any at all who were they?

    Please see the response above: the Syrian government, Bashar Aljafari, Alexei Pushkov, Maria Zakharova, Margarita Simonyan, Sergey Markov. We also included archive clips from the Syrian government commenting on allegations of chemical weapons attacks.

    3. Why were none included?

    Requests for government interviews were not granted – we did include extracts from the interview with Sergey Markov.

    4. What steps did you take to verify the assertions of Mr. Al Yousef regarding this Khan Sheikhoun claims? Are you aware that he has previously given at least SIX different versions of his actions during the alleged attack – NONE of which correspond to those he gave you for this programme.

    We are aware of previous interviews which reflect the key facts Mr Al-Yousef told us on camera – that his twin babies and wife died in the attack, as well as many other members of his extended family. We accurately reflected the story that he told us. Journalists on the ground who the BBC has worked with previously know Mr Al-Yousef, and have met with him before at the time of the chemical attack in Khan Shaykhun. They confirmed that nothing in his interview contradicted events they had witnessed on the ground that day, or heard about from other eye witnesses. Mr Al-Yousef’s descriptions of people dying and in hospital are corroborated by footage we have seen that was filmed at Khan Shaykhun.

    5. Why did you make no mention of his status as an armed militant extremist?

    We have not heard or seen any evidence that Mr Al- Youself is ‘an armed militant extremist’.

    6. What steps have you taken to confirm that chlorine gas is capable of causing the casualties claimed in Douma & elsewhere (it is not).

    We did state in our documentary that ‘not all the attacks in our research have been lethal.’ We did not make any claim in the film about the number of casualties caused by chlorine gas in Douma or elsewhere. In introducing Douma, we described it as ‘one of Syria’s most disputed and controversial chemical attacks’ and went on to reflect the arguments and evidence of those who believe and those who deny there was a chlorine attack in Douma.

    7. Why did you conceal the findings of the OPCW interim report into the 2018 Douma incident that confirmed NO EVIDENCE WHATSOEVER of any organophosphate nerve agent?

    We did not conceal this. We did not reflect any claims that an organophosphate nerve agent was used, and therefore there was no reason to say that the OPCW did not find evidence of an organophosphate nerve agent being used.

    8. Why did you not explain that the ‘chlorinated compounds’ reported there are present in lots of household products & as such are NOT evidence of chlorine gas release?

    We did explain that chlorine has “many everyday uses” and therefore “can’t be banned.” We didn’t claim that the OPCW report provided evidence of chlorine gas being released. Our commentary was as follows:

    ‘International weapons inspectors visited the site. Their initial report says that chlorinated chemicals were found…work is continuing to establish their significance. In a war zone it’s very hard to categorically prove that the Syrian Government carried out a chemical attack in Douma.’

    9. Who specifically were the ‘independent analysts’ you consulted to verify your procedures and finings for this programme?
    Lina Khatib, Chatham House
    Elliot Higgins, Bellingcat
    Tobias Schneider GPPI

    There were other advisers from international bodies who choose to remain anonymous.

    10. Why did you not mention that a major reason that OPCW could not verify that ALL Syria’s CWs had been destroyed was because some had been captured by extremist’s groups & it was too dangerous for them to travel to those sites?

    The removal of declared chemical weapons from Syria was a complex process – it was taking place in a war zone. During this process the OPCW-UN joint mission stated that ‘On-going efforts to remove chemical weapons from Syria to locations elsewhere continues to pose challenges due to the security situation on the ground.The security situation is volatile. On-going conflict, closed roads limit access and may significantly constrain planned operations.’

    The mission did not attribute responsibility for these challenges and said that it had met with both the Government and opposition representative who supported safe transportation of convoys containing chemical material.

    Despite these challenges, on January 4, 2016, the OPCW confirmed destruction of ‘all chemical weapons declared by the Syrian Arab Republic’.

    11. Who were the sources for each of your 106 cases for which you have concluded ‘credible evidence’?

    OPCW – Organisation for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons
    JIM 1 – first joint mechanism under Virginia Gamba
    JIM 2 – second joint mechanism under Stefan Mogl
    Fact Finding Mission, number related to report
    Human Rights Watch
    Syrian Archive
    Union of Medical Care Relief Organisations
    UN Human Rights Council
    Bellingcat
    Conflict Armament Research
    Medicins Sans Frontiere
    Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic
    French Foreign Ministry
    Syrian Human Rights Network
    Syrian American Medical Authority
    Siege Watch
    Global Public Policy Institute
    Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
    Amnesty International

    12. How did you verify their impartiality & reliability?

    We assessed their track record and their own processes for validating reports.

    We only included incidents where at least two of these sources had reported the incident. And even then, we ruled out a number of alleged attacks where we felt that there was insufficient or questionable evidence.

    13. How could you conclude that the Assad government was responsible ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ when none of the OPCW reports have?”

    None of the reports released by the OPCW have had the mandate to attribute responsibility. The organisation that did have this mandate, the OPCW-UN JIM, has attributed responsibility for some chemical attacks to the Assad Government. We have used this evidence, together with a wealth of reports of other chemical attacks, to present a case that Assad’s Government has carried out chemical attacks in Syria. Other elements of evidence in this case are that almost half the attacks in our research came from the air, and the majority of casualties were civilians and opposition fighters.

    We’ve also spoken to many eye witnesses to chemical attacks. We presented all of this evidence in our film, to come to the conclusion you quote above.”

    We hope this quells any concerns you may have had.

    Once again, thank you for taking the time to contact us.

  8. Adrian Kent says:

    I finally got around to writing a full response to the BBC regarding my complaint (see comments above) – the full response can be read at the link below. I’ts quite long, but even then I’ve not managed to include all the bullshit:

    View at Medium.com

    • Adrian Kent says:

      Hi Tim,

      Just to update you on the progress of my complaint. The BBC have not formally responded to my second complaint (most of which I included in my medium.com piece linked above), but they have responded to my formal request regarding the full list of the 186 cases they reviewed.

      I asked specifically for the identity of each case, the identity of each case that they found met their credibility criteria and a list of who provided the information for each case. You know, the kind of stuff that a reliable investigator might keep a record of as a matter of course and that an open a transparent organisation, confident in their sources and judgement would be happy to provide. it can’t have been hard for them to produce as the fancy graphics that the presenter pointlessly mucked about with in the programme gave the impression that they’d definitely collated them somehow.

      The BBC have refused my application on the grounds that they are exempt from this kind of request as the information relates to their journalism. I am not at all surprised, but I will plod on.

      Happy New Year!

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