Chemical Weapons in Douma, Syria: a dangerous game with the truth – by Hans-C von Sponeck

Hans von Sponeck, former UN Assistant Secretary General and UN Humanitarian Co-ordinator (Iraq).

[Originally published in German by Die Informationsstelle Militarisierung (IMI) e.V. This translation is based on the Google Translate version.]

On February 5, 2003, US Secretary of State Colin Powell presented CIA images from Iraq to the United Nations Security Council to testify that the Iraqi government continued to possess weapons of mass destruction. Statements by UNMOVIC, the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, that there was no evidence of this, were ignored. Six weeks later, Operation Iraqi Freedom, the illegal war waged by the United States and United Kingdom, began.

There are similar reports about Syria, with the difference that it is not a government providing the alleged evidence, but the OPCW, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, an international body based in The Hague.

On April 7, 2018, Douma, a city of 100,000 people not far from Damascus, was allegedly attacked with chemical weapons. The OPCW responded by dispatching a team of scientists who concluded in their investigative report that 43 people reportedly killed in the attack were unlikely to have died from chemical weapons. Experts from the OPCW Douma team discovered that instead of this report, the OPCW management intended to publish a falsified report stating that chemical weapons had been used. This deception was prevented by OPCW scientists. Eventually, however, the final report contained manipulated accounts of the attack and unscientific conclusions regarding the chemical substances found, the demonstrated toxicology and the ballistics.

Furthermore, the OPCW relied on the statements of only one of the two groups of contemporary witnesses who had been identified. This was a group of Syrian refugees who had been interviewed in Turkey with the help of the White Helmets.[1] The second group of witnesses were mostly medical workers in Damascus who said they were working at the hospital at the time victims of the alleged chemical weapons attack were seeking medical help. The testimonies of this group of witnesses indicated that dust and fume inhalation, but not chemical poisoning, was the cause of the patients’ discomfort. These important statements were not referred to in the OPCW report. However, the account of the witnesses interviewed by the White Helmets is highlighted in the OPCW report. These reported testimonies were accepted without the possibility of examination, even though the testimonies were often contradictory, especially with regard to the question of chemical poisoning.

Irregularities and blockages

Because of these various serious irregularities, several OPCW experts wrote to the OPCW Director General (DG) Fernando Arias, requesting that the official Douma report be urgently discussed with the original OPCW Douma team. The public was aware of this serious contradiction thanks to published internal OPCW documents[2] and testimonies from OPCW scientists who belonged to the OPCW investigative team.[3]

Voices calling for transparent disclosure multiplied. It was demanded that all OPCW scientists involved in the Douma investigation should be invited by the OPCW Director General to eliminate any suspicion of report falsification in a joint examination. That didn’t happen – quite the contrary. Whether in the UN Security Council, in the EU Parliament or in talks with politicians – wherever he could – the DG emphasized that he fully supports the conclusions of the (manipulated) Douma report.[4] Western governments, especially those of the United States, United Kingdom and France, which carried out the air strikes against Syria on April 18, 2018, asserted in the UN Security Council and in public statements that they were fully convinced of the professional credibility of the OPCW and its Director-General. They had declared these attacks to be punishment for the alleged use of chemical weapons by Syria in Douma. However, the fact that the airstrikes had taken place before the OPCW investigation was not mentioned! Every attempt by scientists and experts on the Middle East to discuss the findings about possible manipulation or falsification of the OPCW reports within the OPCW was boycotted by the OPCW management and by Western governments. It was also not possible to discuss this during the regular Syria debates in the UN Security Council. That was not surprising, after all, the aim was to prevent the justification of the airstrikes on Douma from being openly questioned. The fact that such airstrikes violated international law hardly played a role anyway.

Even the participation of the former DG of the OPCW, Ambassador José Bustani, in a meeting of the UN Security Council, was prevented under pressure from Western Security Council members, even though he had been invited to comment. The refusal was justified on the basis that ‘Bustani had left the organization ten years before Douma and could therefore not contribute to the discussion’. In his statement, which was finally presented by the Ambassador of the Russian Federation, Vassily Nebenzia, Bustani spoke, amongst other things, about the independence, impartiality and professionalism of the OPCW and the pressure exerted on the organization by ‘some’ member states.[5]

The BerlinGroup21 becomes active

Due to the described events surrounding Duma, the ‘BerlinGroup21’ (BG21) was formed at the end of 2020. This is a small group of people who aim to further inform the public about the controversy surrounding the alleged use of chemical weapons in Douma.[6] BG21 issued a ‘Statement of Concern‘ in March 2021, signed and published by 28 internationally respected individuals. The signatories include four senior OPCW staff, as well as former OPCW Director-General Ambassador Bustani, Lord West, First Sea Lord and former Chief of Staff of the British Navy, and others with many years of legal, military, intelligence and diplomatic experience.[7]

This statement draws attention to the serious scientific irregularities and substantive omissions in the published OPCW Douma report; it calls for transparency, a hearing of OPCW inspectors, and accountability of all parties involved. A warning is given that the organization will be discredited if no hearing takes place. It was also pointed out that the OPCW’s handling of the Douma investigation could call into question the reliability of other OPCW reports on Syria. For example, the investigation into the 2017 attack in Khan Shaykhun.

The declaration was sent by BG21 to all 193 UN and OPCW member states, the Presidents of the UN General Assembly, the UN Security Council and the Human Rights Council. Secretary-General António Guterres, High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet and Chair of the UN Commission on Syria Paolo Sergio Pinheiro were also briefed and all were invited to comment. OPCW-DG Arias was informed by letter.

UN and OPCW are silent

The reaction of the multilateral institutions contacted can only be described as shocking. All the ‘political’ parts of the UN, i.e. the General Assembly and the Security Council in New York and the Human Rights Council in Geneva, did not react at all. Officials representing the ‘operational’ UN, i.e. the Secretary-General, the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs, also did not respond. Only the head of the UN-Syria Commission of Inquiry acknowledged receipt with a brief note that Douma was not among the sites investigated by the Commission. The General Director of the OPCW testified that he had received the declaration by sending the letter back to BG21 unopened!

Taking a stand in a dispute over whether the OPCW’s mandate to investigate the possible use of chemical weapons in Douma may have been violated is undoubtedly a difficult task for the organization’s board of directors. But it is also a challenge for the United Nations, especially for UN leaders such as Guterres, Bachelet, Pinheiro and Nakamitsu, especially since it is one of their basic responsibilities to work for peace and security. This also includes the topic of weapons of mass destruction and thus also what is happening in Douma. The public expects such leaders to be willing to uncover injustice and to contribute to scientific knowledge being depoliticized. United Nations agencies involved in disarmament, mediation and civil protection lose their raison d’être if they do not take these basic obligations seriously.

The importance of falsified OPCW Duma reports designed to legitimize Western military attacks in Syria is even more significant when the Douma information is assessed in a larger historical context. In the context of this article, the example of the neighbouring country of Iraq should suffice to make it clear what dangers arise for people, organizations and also for international law if the ‘great game’ is systematically played with false cards.

Memories of Iraq

In the late 1990s, there was intense debate in the UN Security Council as to whether or not Saddam Hussein’s government had met its disarmament conditions. Some thought that Iraq had been disarmed; others, including Scott Ritter – at the time one of the leading UN disarmament experts – said that Iraq had been disarmed, if not quantitatively, then qualitatively and could therefore no longer pose a threat . After the entire UN disarmament team was evacuated from Baghdad on December 16, 1998 and the UNSCOM office with its chemical and biological laboratories was closed, ‘Operation Desert Fox’ began, with a four-night illegal bombing of Baghdad by the US Air Force. Washington had previously informed the then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan about this military operation at short notice. At the same time, he made the politically proper decision to evacuate UN staff to Jordan while leaving a team of 28 international UN staff on the humanitarian oil-for-food program in Iraq.

This information is relevant because, in the months that followed, UN staff in Baghdad became increasingly concerned about whether the substances stored in the closed UN disarmament laboratories could pose a risk. This was particularly true of the Iraqi UN staff, who knew more than their foreign colleagues, as they were undoubtedly in contact with Iraq’s secret service, the Muhaberat.[8] After protracted arguments between different United Nations departments in New York In June 1999, Kofi Annan decided to instruct the OPCW to send an investigative commission to Baghdad. It was tasked with destroying the toxic substances in the chemical and biological disarmament laboratories. The commission of inquiry was to examine all rooms of the UN disarmament agency in Baghdad, with the exception of rooms 252 and 253A, “since things belonging to a foreign government were stored in these rooms”!

It was no secret that the American government was meant. This restriction meant that UN staff of American nationality enjoyed special privileged status at the UN building in Baghdad. And this despite the fact that the disarmament studies were to be carried out impartially and with the utmost scientific care in the very UN building. What abuse of an international body!

One also has to ask why did the United Nations provide the OPCW with such a narrow frame of reference for its Iraq mission whose sole mandate was to destroy substances? Had this framework been chosen thoughtlessly or consciously? Why wasn’t the UN interested in finding out the origin of the substances stored in the laboratories? Dr Amer al-Sa’adi, a veteran Iraqi scholar who was not a member of the government’s Ba’ath party, wanted the OPCW commission to do just that. Representing the Iraqi Defence Ministry, Al-Sa’adi met the four OPCW scientists, three chemical experts and one biology expert, at the UN building in Baghdad. When he heard that the experts had only come to destroy the substances found, he said: “By doing so, you deprive Iraq of the last opportunity to prove that the VX was not Iraqi-owned but imported from outside!”[9] To this day the question has not been resolved. This important event fits like a brick into the Iraq building that the US government of the time was attempting to build with repeated misinformation and destabilization. The primary goal was a regime change in order to liberate the country from its dictator.[10] The fake ‘evidence’ that Secretary of State Colin Powell presented to the UN Security Council on February 5, 2003 is known worldwide. He insisted that Iraq still possessed weapons of mass destruction, which did not exist. Less well known is an American air raid north of Mosul in April 1999, during which, according to a press release, Iraqi ‘radar and artillery installations’ had allegedly been destroyed. In fact, six shepherds and their flock of 101 sheep lost their lives in this attack.[11]

BG21 calls for education instead of intimidation

What does all this have to do with OPCW and Douma? First of all, it has nothing to do with defending the current Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad or the then Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein. The efforts of the BerlinGroup21 are exclusively concerned with protecting the truth, the scientific work, international law and the integrity of the OPCW and the United Nations. It is only for these reasons that BG21 has expended time and energy to point out the strategy of Western, especially American, politics with regard to the dictatorships in Syria and formerly in Iraq. This included in Iraq and in Syria, in addition to the manipulation of facts, other ‘ingredients’ such as the following:

• Individual experts and groups are prevented from speaking in international and national forums and correcting misinformation;

• Bodies such as the OPCW and the UN are threatened with cuts in contributions;[12]

• Computers are hacked to prevent the exchange of critical information;

• Sabotage and operations under false flags are carried out;

• National minorities and opposition groups are covertly funded;

• Officials of the OPCW and the UN are threatened.[13]

BG21 is fully aware that these assertions are rejected in some quarters with harsh words and disdain. All those who work to bring the truth about what happened in Douma to light are accused of incompetence, naivety and bribery and of being henchmen. However, that will not stop the internationally respected figures who signed the “Declaration of Concern” from insisting on their legitimate demands.[14] Members of a parliament in Europe have requested a report on the Duma. The draft of this was completed by BG21 and will shortly be submitted to this Parliament. This comprehensive and analytical report, based on authentic documents held by the public, details how evidence was suppressed, and scientific fraud and irregularity took place.

It is to be hoped that the OPCW management will seriously consider the BerlinGroup21 report by agreeing to a transparent and inclusive participation of all inspectors who participated in the Douma investigation, in order that the published OPCW report can be reassessed.

Notes


[1] The so-called ‘White Helmets’ operated mainly in areas of the Syrian opposition. As can be seen from Wikileaks contributions, the ‘White Helmets’ have an extremely questionable reputation.

[2] Brian Whitaker, former Middle East Editor, The Guardian, “OPCW and the leaked Douma Documents: What we Know so far.” (21.5.2019).

[3] e.g. in his conversation with UN Secretary General Guterres on November 6, 2019 in New York.

[4] Journal of Foreign Public Law and International Law (GPIL).

[5] UN/S/Pv.8764 (5.10.2020).

[6] founding members of BG21 are Ambassador José

Bustani, former General Director of the OPCW; dr h.c. Hans C. von Sponeck, former Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations and Professor Richard Falk, Professor Emeritus of International Law, Princeton University.

[7] see: http://www.BerlinGroup.org

[8]

[9] Iraqi UN employees had to report to the Iraqi secret service about their work at the UN at regular intervals.

The author attended this meeting. See also: H.C. by Sponeck “A Different Kind of War – The UN Sanctions Regime in Iraq”, p.230.

[10] The Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 states: “It should be

the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq.” The law was signed into law by US President Bill Clinton on October 31, 1998.

[11] see: US European Command (USEUCOM) press release of April 30, 1999.

[12] The US government pays 20% of the OPCW’s annual budget.

[13] US Ambassador John Bolton told DG Bustani during a visit to the OPCW in The Hague: “We know where your children live!”.

[14] On May 12, 2021, the German Ambassador to the OPCW, Gudrun Lingner, explained in an international webinar with reference to the “Statement of Concern” and the statements of the 28 personalities, including four German people, including the Co-founder of the German section of IPPNW, Professor U. Gottstein: ‘They are throwing mud again and again, even when clear answers have been given,….throwing mud hoping that something might stick…’.

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

1 Response to Chemical Weapons in Douma, Syria: a dangerous game with the truth – by Hans-C von Sponeck

  1. Andrew says:

    Hopefully there will be some justice for the victims and inspectors who actually wanted to investigate.

    For the record, this April 9 video shown by AJ-

    25:06 to 25:10 and 3:52 to 3:54 show the cylinder on the balcony in the same position as it was in the White Helmet’s April 8 video (as shared / deleted by Higgins)

    3:47 to 3:52 shows the cylinder pushed into the hole and that it was this activist who moved it (i.e. no proof of Bellingcat involvement and this was before Russia arrived)

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