The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW): critical questions

The Syria, Propaganda and Media Working Group has undertaken a detailed examination of the final report from the OPCW’s Fact-Finding Mission on the alleged chemical attack in Douma on 7 April 2018. The resultant Briefing Note – by Paul McKeigue, David Miller, and Piers Robinson – exposes deep flaws in the anonymously authored report. These discredit OPCW as a source of impartial investigation and undermine it as an international institution fit to be entrusted with maintaining the prohibition of chemical weapons.

Comments on the Briefing Note can be made below the Summary of it that follows.


Briefing note on the final report of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission on the alleged chemical attack in Douma in April 2018

Paul McKeigue, David Miller, Piers Robinson

Members of Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media


This briefing note reviews the Final Report of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission on the alleged chemical attack in Douma on 7 April 2018, released on 1 March 2019. We focus on the methods and the conduct of the investigation.

  • The FFM report attributes all relevant observations to a chemical attack, without considering any competing explanation. The report’s handling of evidence raises several concerns:
    • The report states that new interviews were undertaken with witnesses in October 2018, six months after the initial interviews had been completed. No explanation is given for how the witnesses were identified or why these new interviews were undertaken. The report merges all witness testimony into a single account, without any analysis of gaps and discrepancies.
    • The FFM sought assessments in October 2018 from unidentified experts on the “trajectories” of the gas cylinders assuming they had been dropped from the sky, without considering alternative routes of delivery such as stairs. No explanation is given for why, if these assessments were necessary, they were not obtained in April 2018 when the experts could have inspected the sites.
    • The report excludes media files without timestamp metadata, but includes files with timestamps that are incorrect. A serious analysis of this material would have combined all available evidence to infer the timing and sequence of images with or without metadata.
    • The FFM declined to proceed with exhumations which might have allowed victims to be identified.
  • Key observations that favour a managed massacre over a chemical attack are ignored, or evaluated without considering any alternative explanation to a chemical attack:
    • The report is written to make it appear as if the witnesses who reported that the hospital dousing scene had been staged were never formally interviewed by the FFM, downgrading their testimony to “other open-source video material”.
    • The report ignores the visual evidence that the fire in the room below the cylinder at Location 2 had been lit before the cylinder had discharged its contents.
    • The report attributes the visual evidence that the victims at Location 2 had made no attempt to escape to “an agent capable of quickly killing or immobilising”, without considering the possibility that the victims had been killed elsewhere.
  • The report records, without explanation, that the Team Leader was “redeployed for information-gathering activities from all other available sources” three days after arriving in Damascus. This decision could have been taken only by the Director-General.
  • OPCW’s conduct of the investigation of this alleged chemical attack violates rules laid down in the Chemical Weapons Convention, which do not empower the Director-General to interfere with the investigation once the inspectors have been dispatched, and stipulate that the final report must be produced within 30 days of the inspection team’s return to base.
  • From the contrast between the shortcomings of this anonymous report, and the professionalism of a report on another investigation by the Fact-Finding Mission that was signed by the Team Leader Kalman Kallo and released in July 2018, it is reasonable to infer that Kallo did not write this Final Report. A proposal that all members of the FFM team should give a briefing on the Final Report was voted down by the OPCW Executive Council on 14 March 2019.
  • The apparent removal of the Team Leader, the exclusion of evidence that the hospital dousing scene was staged, the delay in producing this anonymous report and the refusal to allow a briefing by the FFM team raise concerns that criminal activities – the staging of a chemical attack using the bodies of civilians – have been covered up. In most jurisdictions, the duty to disclose such a cover-up would override the confidentiality agreements that OPCW employees are required to sign.
  • This report discredits OPCW as a source of impartial investigation and undermines it as an international institution that is fit to be entrusted with maintaining the prohibition of chemical weapons, let alone with the remit to “identify the perpetrators of the use of chemical weapons” assigned by a resolution of the Conference of States Parties in June 2018.

Read the full briefing note



This entry was posted in chemical weapons, disinformation, guest blog, OPCW, Syria, Uncategorized, war. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW): critical questions

  1. Pingback: The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW): critical questions | sdbast

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  4. Dave Barker says:

    I cannot help but notice that we keep seeing the same standard Industrial service chlorine gas cylinder in different locations with the same transportation stand .The steel straps of the assembly appear to be contorted in exactly the same manner in each case.. It is obviously the same prop in different photographs and locations I wish I had saved the other net and video images.This is so obviously fake .

  5. A says:

    Had the exact same FFM report been written by Russia, detractors would miraculously recognise there are in fact many valid questions here. The main question still being ‘how did those people die?’ not ‘can we find an anonymous expert who will argue a cylinder can bounce into a bed’. The 14 pages of meaningless jpeg names are not much substitute for actual explanatory details.

    Keep up the good work

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  7. Tuyzentfloot says:

    I see no mention of it here but in response to item 4.2 and 4.3 of the working group document, it’s worth mentioning that Ted Postol
    did consider it very plausible that while there was a lot of deception in Douma from the rebel side, a chlorine bomb from the Syrian killed many people in the building.
    He pointed out that as a chemical weapon chlorine is ineffective for killing people but it has battlefield value as a terror weapon to evacuate an area.
    For the Syrian government technically this falls in the category of CW but functionally the weapon is in a different category as other chemical weapons and it would take a separate decision whether to use it or reject it.
    Only because of an unlikely combination of circumstances it emptied its content inside the building and became lethal.
    At the same time people were admonished to stay inside and go upstairs in case of gas attack.
    The article mentioning Postol:
    Interview with Postol on the subject:
    I can’t judge whether he’s right and whether his analysis was extensive enough , since he worked on what he got from the Intercept.
    For instance he says nothing about the possibility that more dead people were piled on and arranged after the fact.

    • A says:

      In the interview Postol admits he doesn’t know the details of Douma (his thoughts are similar to the expert presented by Bellingcat). But running into a high concentration and immediately falling unconscious is apparently not what happened here:

      Abu Mohammad, 35, said shells landed on the apartment around 7 p.m. and then “yellow smoke filled the cellar.”

      “It had a very strong smell like a mixture of detergent and bleach,”


      Hanan and his neighbors said that after the gas entered, the residents tried to get out of the cellar and then escaped to other rooms in the apartment building.

      The victims supposedly see and smell the chlorine cloud, run out of the basement into the building (where the chlorine is coming from), spread out over different floors and rooms, wash their faces and hair ( 1:19 )… and then die.

      The ‘terror weapon to evacuate an area’ theory doesn’t really make sense either when Douma had been bombarded for hours before the alleged event.

      Plus the low helicopter height needed to match the figures shown in the FFM report, the FFM’s ‘similar crater’ appearing on 2017 satellite photos possibly with the roof damage above the balcony too – the FFM don’t seem to have verified the damage relied on to make air drop consistent (Annex 6 #7) was actually created on that day, the White Helmets stating “Civil defense teams were unable to evacuate the bodies due to the intensity of the odor and the lack of PPE” but Fadi Abdullah revealing to Harkin that the White Helmets in fact could and had gone in first.. and so on.

      • Tuyzentfloot says:

        I don’t intend to resolve the conflicting lines of reason but I take Postol seriously (which does not go as far as thinking he is right). He doesn’t have all the information but he is able to analyze the scene of the gas cylinder. This constrains the range of storylines from a fake chemical assault to an assault intent on terror and evacuation, inadvertently killing some people. How many died this way is uncertain because it is likely that not all the bodies died from chlorine.
        Postol’s arguments should be addressed in depth. The argument hat people were trying to stay inside while things quickly got worse is compelling. I think there is a margin for how fast things got worse depending on where in the building you moved to.
        I am convinced there has been a lot of tampering with evidence, also in the house. Steve McIntyre shows this ( ). So you cant really trust anything there.
        I’m also confused by conflicting explanations of the blackening of the cylinder. Either it is soot or some chemical reaction of the chlorine(as I read on the NYTimes), it should be possible to clear that out.

      • A says:

        Personally, I think the NYT tried to make every little thing ‘evidence of a Syrian government chlorine attack’.

        Apologies if you have already studied it all, but for what it’s worth the FFM report has no mention by witnesses or experts of ‘black compound’ or ‘frost’ but do mention a fire in Annex 6 #9. Would the FFM really exclude this if the NYT ‘evidence’ existed and was compelling?

        This is the room below

        Any ‘frost’ would have to be in the context of the temperature in Damascus that night and the times provided by NYT (FFM state 26°C, event ~19:30 but video they refer to as showing ‘frost’ is 22:06)

        Forensic Architecture (who worked with NYT and made the modelling shown to Postol) actually tried to explain everything as frosting:

        The FFM describe this as, in fact, a “layer of a white powder” (Annex 7 page 63) with the top left photo in Figure 14 showing that the underside of the cylinder still had the dust when turned over by the FFM team. Other errors in the FA modelling really show the limitations of trying to create the scene via videos

        As well as the information presented to Postol being questionable, the ‘former OPCW official’ quoted in Harkin’s article concludes the cylinder locations “unlikely” because “a lot of stars would have to align”.

        Postol agrees that “a lot of stars would have had to align” and the cylinder would have landed “in an entirely unexpected way”, yet “immediately certain that both had been launched from the sky by the Syrian military”: unlikely and unexpected but immediately certain seems illogical and a contradiction?

      • Tuyzentfloot says:

        I took the time to refresh my mind on this and even now that it’s clear that Postol’s view is wrong (I was going to post here when I saw the new article)I am going to give it a legitimate place. I think his argument is reasonable. Postol does address item 4.3 with a decent argument that it is plausible for a chlorine bomb to make many victims in that building even though that is not the main purpose of such bombs. That is his central argument and within that limited scope it is valid.
        But he goes beyond that and he considers the complete scenario of a Syrian chlorine attack plausible. I don’t see he did much research there. It could be a general plausibility argument: there is only one party which drops things from the air. Chlorine is technically a chemical weapon but the threshold for using it in this war is relatively low because it’s military use is terror and evacuation. So the claim is not that exceptional and no exceptional proof is needed.
        It resembles the claims of Syrian barrel bombs somewhat: a warring party would not see much reason not to use them and they are not exceptionally nasty weapons so there is little reason to doubt the claims. I see little reason to doubt the claims of barrel bombs.

        Things change when a weapon starts to become ‘an issue’. When someone decides to put up a big fuss about them and build up hysteria.
        Then public use of the weapon becomes an issue and there are extra reasons to avoid use, extra reasons to stage fake flag attacks, and extra reasons to require thorough proof. So ‘reasonable’ explanation is not good enough.

    • A says:

      The other evidence from NYT/FA was the ‘mesh’ pattern on the side of the cylinder which they explained by speculating that the lattice was intact and along the wall next to the roof damage at the time. Though the FFM appear to agree with the mesh pattern part, the mesh doesn’t seem to be included in their models and Annex 6 #4 admits they don’t actually know if it “would have been present at the time”.

      Aside from the helicopter needing to hover only ~150m above to match the 50 m/s in A.6.6, I think FA have put the lattice in the wrong place:

      It would be good to have a second opinion from someone outside Integrity Initiative or their friends on these incidents, a lot of the information about Syrian CW incidents seems to come from the same small circle.

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