An International Panel convened by the Courage Foundation in October 2019, whose members included OPCW’s first Director General, José Bustani, issued strong criticism of ‘unacceptable practices’ surrounding the OPCW report on an alleged chemical attack in Douma, Syria on 7 April 2018.
The panel’s criticisms, following a meeting with a member of the OPCW’s Douma investigation team, highlight a number of serious concerns. These include alarming irregularities in the handling of toxicology reports. A summary of points arising from the panel meeting follows.
A critical analysis of the final report of the Douma investigation left the panel in little doubt that conclusions drawn from each of the key evidentiary pillars of the investigation (chemical analysis, toxicology, ballistics and witness testimonies,) are flawed and bear little relation to the facts.
- Chemical Analysis
Although biomedical analyses supposedly contributed to the conclusions of the report (para 2.17), the same report is unequivocal in stating that “no relevant chemicals were found” in biological samples (Table A5.2).
The interpretation of the environmental analysis results is equally questionable. Many, if not all, of the so- called ‘smoking gun” chlorinated organic chemicals claimed to be “not naturally present in the environment” (para 2.6) are in fact ubiquitous in the background, either naturally or anthropogenically (wood preservatives, chlorinated water supplies etc). The report, in fact, acknowledges this in Annex 4 para 7, even stating the importance of gathering control samples to measure the background for such chlorinated organic derivatives. Yet, no analysis results for these same control samples (Annex 5), which inspectors on the ground would have gone to great lengths to gather, were reported.
Although the report stresses the ‘levels’ of the chlorinated organic chemicals as a basis for its conclusions (para 2.6), it never mentions what those levels were —high, low, trace, sub-trace? Without providing data on the levels of these so-called ‘smoking-gun’ chemicals either for background or test samples, it is impossible to know if they were not simply due to background presence. In this regard, the panel is disturbed to learn that quantitative results for the levels of ‘smoking gun’ chemicals in specific samples were available to the investigators but this decisive information was withheld from the report.
The final report also acknowledges that the tell-tale chemicals supposedly indicating chlorine use, can also be generated by contact of samples with sodium hypochlorite, the principal ingredient of household bleaching agent (para 8.15). This game-changing hypothesis is, however, dismissed (and as it transpires, incorrectly) by stating no bleaching was observed at the site of investigation. (“At both locations, there were no visible signs of a bleach agent or discoloration due to contact with a bleach agent”). The panel has been informed that no such observation was recorded during the on-site inspection and in any case dismissing the hypothesis simply by claiming the non-observation of discoloration in an already dusty and scorched environment seems tenuous and unscientific.
The toxicological studies also reveal inconsistencies, incoherence and possible scientific irregularities. Consultations with toxicologists are reported to have taken place in September and October 2018 (para 8.87 and Annex 3), but no mention is made of what those same experts opined or concluded. Whilst the final toxicological assessment of the authors states “it is not possible to precisely link the cause of the signs and symptoms to a specific chemical” (para 9.6) the report nonetheless concludes there were reasonable grounds to believe chlorine gas was the chemical (used as a weapon).
More worrying is the fact that the panel viewed documented evidence that showed other toxicologists had been consulted in June 2018 prior to the release of the interim report. Expert opinions on that occasion were that the signs and symptoms observed in videos and from witness accounts were not consistent with exposure to molecular chlorine or any reactive-chlorine-containing chemical. Why no mention of this critical assessment, which contradicts that implied in the final report, was made is unclear and of concern.
- Ballistic studies
The unauthorised disclosure of the Engineering Assessment in May 2019 of the two munitions found at Locations 2 and 4, and subsequently acknowledged by the Director General as bona-fide, revealed the diametrically opposing views of inspectors within the FFM team. Although the panel does not have the technical competence to judge the merits of the contradicting studies (i.e. the study described in the final report versus the leaked engineering report), it was surprised by how little consideration was given to alternative hypotheses in the final report.
One alternative ascribing the origin of the crater to an explosive device was considered briefly but, despite an almost identical crater (understood to have resulted from a mortar penetrating the roof) being observed on an adjacent rooftop, was dismissed because of “the absence of primary and secondary fragmentation characteristics”. In contrast, explosive fragmentation characteristics were noted in the leaked study.
The reporting of witness statements and the lack of any meaningful analysis highlights the partiality of this report. Whilst two clearly distinct and opposing narratives are described by witnesses, only the one supportive of the use of toxic weapons contributes to the conclusions. The imbalance between numbers of persons interviewed by the respective FFM teams in Damascus and in Country X is noteworthy, with twice as many of the latter being interviewed.
- Exclusion of inspectors and attempts to obfuscate
Contrary to what has been publicly stated by the Director General of the OPCW it was evident to the panel that many of the inspectors in the Douma investigation were not involved or consulted in the post-deployment phase or had any contribution to, or knowledge of the content of the final report until it was made public. The panel is particularly troubled by organisational efforts to obfuscate and prevent inspectors from raising legitimate concerns about possible malpractices surrounding the Douma investigation.