How We Were Misled About Syria: George Monbiot of The Guardian

George Monbiot is an influential journalist, and his words on Syria over the past seven years will have carried weight in shaping public opinion. Some critical readers, however, have been concerned. For while Monbiot has declared himself morally opposed to military intervention, and is demonstrably aware of how the media can manipulate news reports, he has repeatedly published statements – in his weekly Guardian column and on Twitter – that lend significant support to key interventionist arguments. His position is premised on acceptance of the mainstream narrative about the war in Syria. Not only does he defend this, in the face of serious questions about it, he even criticises – at times with some hostility – its questioners.

I have sought to understand the reasoning that has brought Monbiot to the position he holds with such apparent moral certainty and factual assurance. This inquiry falls into three parts: in the first I trace his public thinking about Syria and the war until the end of 2016; in the second I discuss some of his responses to critics concerning the verifiability of knowledge claims about certain events of 2017; in the third I analyse more closely the moral stance that Monbiot has adopted. In each part I show how the public could have been misled about the basis and morality of foreign policy on Syria.



Before 2011, Monbiot had not written about Syria, but he had demonstrated awareness of United States involvement in regime change interventions elsewhere. In 2001 he had written about a training camp in the United States that had for 55 years been turning out regime change operatives, the number of whose victims dwarfed those of officially designated terrorist organisations (‘Backyard Terrorism’). In 2002 he wrote deploring how the officially independent Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was in reality vulnerable to manipulation by the US State Department (‘Chemical Coup d’Etat’).[1] In 2003 he foresaw that the USA looked like invading other countries after Iraq, and Syria was potentially high on the list. He feared there might be ‘No Way Out’ of instability and conflict in the Middle East ‘until the oil runs out.’ Nor was he under any illusion that the choice of US presidents would ever be other than between ‘The Bad or the Terrible’. For none was very likely to ‘take on the corporations which have bought the elections, and challenge the newspapers and television stations which set the limits of political debate.’[2]

In sum, Monbiot’s writings prior to 2011 indicate a clear awareness of the US having the means, the opportunity, and a motive to stimulate a regime change war in Syria. One would expect this awareness to provide some critical perspective on events as reported by those media organisations that, as he says, ‘set the limits of political debate’. One would also expect his intimate acquaintance with the British establishment to leave him under no illusions about the depth of transatlantic synergies in matters of war.

Monbiot’s first Guardian article on Syria appeared in September 2011. It comes on the heels of several articles in the Guardian during August 2011 bearing titles like ‘Bashar Al-Assad’s Fall Is Inevitable’ and ‘the end of Assad is near’. The Guardian was evidently supportive of intensifying efforts to hasten ‘the inevitable’. Monbiot, however, was not an overt advocate of military intervention, and his article discusses economic sanctions. On the face of it, he offers morally serious, and sombre, reflection:

‘I would rather not be writing this column. To argue against the course of action I’m discussing is to tolerate collusion with a murderous regime. To argue in favour is to risk promoting wider human suffering. The moral lines are tangled and the progressive response is confused…’

He suggests that the ‘obvious means of resolving this question is to ask the Syrian people what they want’. He follows this suggestion by reporting that ‘there is no clear consensus’: ‘Of the three opponents of the Assad regime I’ve consulted,’ he tells us, ‘two are in favour of wide-ranging sanctions, one is against.’ He had consulted Ghassan Ibrahim, a business advisor living in London since 2002, Samir Seifan, a business economist and consultant who left Syria around 2011, and Chris Doyle, a British opposition sympathizer writing for the Guardian in London. So two expat businessmen and a British man were relied on as proxies for the Syrian people. 

On that basis, Monbiot concludes, in a posture of apparent humility, that he finds himself in an ‘unusual place for a polemicist. There is no right answer.’

In fact, he has not shown there is no right answer, for given that nobody did ask the Syrian people, it cannot be ruled out that they could have been overwhelmingly against sanctions. What Monbiot has done – intentionally or otherwise – is prevent this option even being considered. His very construction of the question – ‘should sanctions be supported, given that they will do some harm to the population’ – tacitly begs the more fundamental question, ‘are sanctions in principle justified at all?’ The possibility that they are not is constructively excluded from discussion. By taking that question as settled in advance, Monbiot treats concerns about Syrian people’s welfare as a matter for moral trade-offs. A strong counter-argument would accord them instead a priority of commitment as a matter of human rights.

Nor is it the only question begged in his article, as Monbiot will have been aware. He will have been aware because, prior to writing the article, he had taken the unusual step of appealing to his readers to send in their views. Between them, their comments in response offered a wealth of very valuable thoughts. For instance: ‘surely the first issue is “what is to be achieved?” Without knowing what you want, it is hard to tell whether sanctions would achieve it.’ Given the risk that ‘Syria will collapse into a violent sectarian civil-war’, Monbiot is cautioned, ‘before proposing a solution surely one should outline what one wishes to prevent first?’ Furthermore, someone suggests, ‘we don’t have a clear idea of who is involved in the protests.’ Another notes that ‘there are no great calls for sanctions or outside interference from the protestors’, and more emphatic is the reader who claims the Syrian people have ‘made it abundantly clear that they do not want the west’s help or involvement as they consider it an internal matter.’ In any case, a crucial question about objectives ‘is whether or not the democratic forces inside the country are in a position to replace the existing regime and whether or not those forces are asking for sanctions to be imposed.’ Readers also caution about taking a one-sided view: ‘I’m no fan of Assad, but as with Libya, the reporting in the west about the violence in Syria has been blatantly lopsided. There have been many brutal killings by the anti-government forces as well.’ Not least, there is the question why it is even Syria we are so concerned about: ‘why not start with the countries we aid the most? … Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are as bad, if not worse, and we actively aid them. Which should be our first concern?’

In short, already in 2011, members of the public were setting out concerns that have continued to animate critics of the West’s approach to Syria to this day. Yet Monbiot’s article disregarded them. It presented as a simple fact that the country was in the grip of a ‘murderous regime’, because, Monbiot claims, it ‘has killed some 2,600 Syrian people since March.’ In fact, the source he cites for this claim alleges that 88 people had died in detention in Syria since March, while reporting also a UN estimate of a total of 2,200 deaths on all sides in the widespread violence at large. So the cited article’s content does not actually support Monbiot’s gloss of it. The level of deaths in custody is certainly not something to make light of, but a responsible journalist would be careful to avoid conflating that specific concern with a quite distinct concern about the far greater numbers dying on all sides at a time of armed insurgency in civilian areas. Still, perhaps Monbiot feels justified in aggregating the various numbers cited because his point is that all the deaths are in some way the fault of ‘Assad’s murderous regime’. The question then is how had he come to form such a definite and damning view by September 2011.

It is evident, from all his writings and tweets relating to Syria, that Monbiot takes information from his Guardian colleagues. Yet by September 2011 it was public knowledge that not all of them were entirely reliable. In the critical period of the initial protests in Syria, at a time when public opinion was first being formed, the Guardian’s correspondent there, said to be in Damascus, wrote under the pseudonym Katherine Marsh. She authored 36 Guardian articles on Syria between 21 March and 9 May 2011. One was entitled ‘A Gay Girl in Damascus becomes a heroine of the Syrian revolt’. This introduced to the public one Amina Abdallah Araf al Omari, and Marsh gives a wealth of factual information about this heroic blogger said to be writing from the same town as Marsh herself, Damascus. As later came to light, however, ‘Amina’ was in fact a fictional character generated from an IP address accessed by an American couple then based 3000 miles away in my town, Edinburgh! The husband was a literature student and the wife was doing postgraduate research on the Syrian economy. Obviously a lot more could be said about that story, but what is noteworthy here is the doubt it raises about Marsh’s journalistic standards – and those of the Guardian too, given that three other Guardian writers had also meanwhile written purportedly factual reports about the Gay Girl.[3] Worse, though, is that the pseudonymous ‘Marsh’ had produced much more serious disinformation during her short but historically critical time at The Guardian. Near the very start of trouble in Syria, on 12 April, she had posted a sensational and inflammatory story alleging ‘Syrian soldiers shot for refusing to fire on protesters’. This story exercised a lot of influence on public opinion, being amplified also on social media via 812 tweets and 4457 FB direct links.[4] Yet it was revealed to be false.[5]

Monbiot can have been in no doubt, then, that the Guardian was capable of publishing unreliable accounts of Syria and of retaining unreliable journalists. He would certainly know to be discerning regarding which colleagues to rely on. While some – like the dubious Marsh – were pushing a strongly anti-Assad message, others, like the Senior Foreign Correspondent Jonathan Steele, were still engaging in more dispassionate reporting, with articles like that of 17 January 2012 pointing out that ‘Most Syrians back President Assad, but you’d never know from western media’.[6] Has Monbiot ever cited or recommended articles on Syria by Jonathan Steele?[7] If not, it would be interesting to know why not.

In February 2012 Monbiot was to tweet about grim reports of a genocide in Homs. These are from an article, ‘Syrian siege of Homs is genocidal, say trapped residents’, filed in the name of three Guardian colleagues who based most of it on a skype call with activist Karam Abu Rabea. This informant, we could read in The Independent, was an organiser of the Local Coordinating Committee, ‘an activist group whose purpose is to publicise the uprising’. Given that the source is not an independent observer, a conscientious journalist would ask how his testimony could be verified. In fact, there were major open questions at the time, and they have been more fully fleshed out since, about who exactly was responsible for what.[8] Furthermore, it is in no way to diminish the suffering of people in Homs at that time to question the characterization of events there as genocide.

A rather uncritical attitude to reports from Homs is further shown in Monbiot’s next two mentions. One is his commendation of a piece by Martin Chulov on 16 February 2012: ‘‘They are pushing Syria into a religious war that they will certainly get‘, reports Chulov, thereby depicting committed sectarian fighters as being ‘pushed’ into a sectarian conflict that they give some appearance of seeking out.[9] On 22 February, when the reporter Marie Colvin was killed in Homs, Monbiot tweeted about ‘Assad’s forces murdering anyone who moves’. While sympathy for the death of a fellow journalist is understandable, this accusation goes beyond what had been ascertained, either in relation to the specific case or as a more general proposition. Colvin’s clandestine entry into the country to embed with insurgent fighters on active operations had put her at definite risk; the suggestion that she was targeted answers to no clear rationale, and no evidence is offered to support it.[10] Nonetheless, Monbiot tweets: ‘Colvin’s murder yet more evidence of total war fought by Assad in Homs. Dumbfounded that anyone can deny it.’ The questions to have dumbfounded Monbiot, it appears, came from the independent press monitors at MediaLens concerning casualty figures released by the opposition. Monbiot cites an article by Rupert Read by way of response. Read’s article actually confirms that the estimates of deaths due to bombing are likely exaggerated, while also admitting a more general uncertainty about casualty counts. It nevertheless offers this extraordinary non sequitur in condemnation of MediaLens: ‘human beings killed by enemies of the western imperium don’t matter as much to MediaLens as human beings killed by the western imperium.’[11] Does Monbiot really think this good journalism?

The next significant incident Monbiot comments on publicly coincides – as did the previous one – with a major international vote due to be taken on action relating to Syria. This was the incident involving chemicals in Ghouta in August 2013. The allegations were the subject of debate in the UK parliament, where significant doubts about them were aired (as I discussed in an earlier blog post) and they have since been analysed with great scrupulousness in a guest post by Paul McKeigue who estimated the likelihood Syrian government responsibility as disappearingly small. Yet Monbiot responds to sceptical interlocutors on Twitter in a manner to which I have since become personally accustomed: ‘Depressing to see fellow opponents of bombing getting grassy knoll about @hrw, due to its report fingering Assad govt for chemical weapons’ (1:45 AM – 13 Sep 2013). The ‘grassy knoll’ trope would be a metonymic suggestion of conspiracism on the part of critical questioners. Sadly, however, the reliability of reporting by HRW (Human Rights Watch) on Syria is deservedly, like that of Amnesty International too, the subject of criticism.[12]

A particularly unexpected dimension of Monbiot’s moral world came into view in February 2014 with an article comparing Al Nusra with the International Brigades that went to Spain to fight Franco. Monbiot writes:

‘Last week a British man who called himself Abu Suleiman al-Britani drove a truck full of explosives into the gate of Halab prison in Aleppo. The explosion, in which he died, allowed rebel fighters to swarm into the jail and release 300 prisoners. Was it terrorism or was it heroism? Terrorism, according to many commentators.’

And, according to Monbiot, which was it?

‘It’s true that he carried out this act in the name of the al-Nusra Front,’ he admits, ‘which the British government treats as synonymous with al-Qaida.’

So terrorism then?

Monbiot says this: ‘should we not be celebrating this act of extraordinary courage? Had David Cameron not lost the intervention vote, and had al-Britani been fighting for the British army, he might have been awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.’

So Monbiot thinks that Al Qaeda affiliates engaging in demonstrable acts of terrorism (and if the released prisoners were themselves terrorists, likely increasing its scale) are heroes worthy of British honours?

I literally have nothing to say in response to this.

Monbiot himself fell silent about Syria for a prolonged period.[13]

Towards the end of 2016, the final weeks of the siege of Aleppo saw him tweeting in this vein: ‘Assad and Putin’s destruction of #Aleppo and its people is a crime beyond reckoning’ (30 Nov 2016). Despite the assuredness of his hyperbolic opinion, though, once the siege of Aleppo ended in December, Monbiot fell silent about Syria.

Did Monbiot notice that there was no massacre in Aleppo, that fighters were allowed to leave with families and weapons, and that for the remaining civilian population their departure was a cause of relief and celebration?



Monbiot did not publicly comment on Syria again until Spring 2017. By then, I had learned of my colleague Paul McKeigue’s studies of the earlier chemical attacks in Syria, which suggested powerful reasons for scepticism about the government’s responsibility for them. So I was taken aback to find Monbiot – who I had presumed well aware of the need for a critical perspective on such matters – was aggressively attacking people who voiced scepticism about this new alleged chemical attack at Khan Sheikhoun. In my innocence, I wrote him an open letter on the subject, which I posted on my blog. That letter, readers’ comments, and a rejoinder to Monbiot’s own tweeted response, are here and here.

It hadn’t occurred to me to doubt Monbiot’s good faith or question his motivations, and I was quite convinced that engaging in serious debate could bring together some meeting of minds. That never happened. I regretted this, but left the matter lie.

Then on 15 November 2017 Monbiot produced a column for the Guardian with the title ‘A lesson from Syria: it’s crucial not to fuel far-right conspiracy theories’. He was attacking sceptics about chemical weapons allegations. His readiness to apply the ‘conspiracy theory’ slur is something I had already called out in an earlier post and a presentation at a Media On Trial event. Others were as concerned as me about his persistence on this tack. Philip Roddis wrote of his bemusement at how Monbiot ‘repeatedly shows himself prepared to suspend his critical faculties – while projecting that very sin on his opponents’. Jean Shaoul was frank in deploring this ‘thoroughly lazy and dishonest’ propaganda presented as a defence of democracy and free choice. The award-winning former Guardian journalist Jonathan Cook, writing on ‘Syria, “experts” and George Monbiot’, expressed his dismay at ‘what has become an ugly habit with Monbiot’, namely, of adopting ‘the role of Witchfinder General’: for Monbiot, it seems, listening to ‘a ballistics expert like Ted Postol of MIT, or an experienced international arms expert like Scott Ritter, or a famous investigative journalist like Seymour Hersh, or a former CIA analyst like Ray McGovern, is apparently proof that one is an atrocity denier or worse.’

Meanwhile, public debate was somewhat intensifying around the White Helmets, an organisation funded by UK, US and other governments and embedded in opposition-held areas of Syria. The White Helmets organisation is the primary source of information that the Western media shares about events on the ground in Syria. While the organisation’s personnel are lauded as heroes in the Western mainstream, based on the evidence of its own video production operation, many ordinary members of the public find its outputs unconvincing and too conspicuously propagandistic.[14] In December, Reporters Without Borders – an organisation that is supposed to defend press freedom – took the extraordinary step of lobbying the Swiss Press Club to dis-invite a speaker with known critical views about the White Helmets. To the Club’s credit, this was rejected, and the presentation by Vanessa Beeley can be viewed here.

As if in response to the rising profile of critical perspectives on the White Helmets, The Guardian commissioned a piece called ‘How Syria’s White Helmets became victims of an online propaganda machine’, from a lifestyle journalist called Olivia Solon, in California. This was widely perceived as an attempt to discredit the critics – notably Eva Bartlett and Vanessa Beeley – and to explain away their influence as a product of Russian propaganda! A number of us sought to reply to that piece, but the Guardian declined to publish any of our responses, or even allow comments on its own site. (Bartlett was to put out her own reply here, and Beeley responds here. I highlighted my own concerns in a post on ‘The Guardian, White Helmets, and Silenced Comment’. John Schoneboom criticises Solon’s hitpiece as ‘astonishingly shabby’, and Mike Raddie emphasises the importance of resisting such attacks. UK Column News closely analyses the attack on independent critical journalism. From America Philip Roddis considers it ‘a fact-lite hatchet job’, and Brandon Turbeville calls it ‘perhaps one of the most ridiculous propaganda pieces of the year’, while James Corbett in Japan is decisive in declaring Solon’s article the fakest fake news story of 2017!)

Monbiot, however, was apparently determined to press the charge against critics that they are instruments of a Russian disinformation machine: out of the blue, he tweeted a hostile message to myself and colleague Professor Piers Robinson. Here is what he said, and alongside it you can see what I tweeted in response.

Hayward vs Monbiot (December 2017)

It is interesting to compare the reception of these tweets (particular as my Twitter following was less than 1% of Monbiot’s in size). The numerous comments under Monbiot’s tweet were predominantly critical of it, with the two exceptions being from Eliot Higgins and Oz Katerji. (Higgins has featured in my posts before, as here; and Katerji I shall have something to say about shortly.)

In the wake of Monbiot’s smears, several critical responses followed, including in articles by Caitlin Johnstone and Philip Roddis. MediaLens criticised Monbiot’s ‘disreputable behaviour’. Jonathan Cook was forthright: ‘Monbiot is not only a hypocrite, but a bully too’. OffGuardian’s Catte wrote ‘George, if you’re reading this, it’s you, not Hayward and Robinson, who has disgraced himself here.’

In short, among former Guardian readers, and even its own former journalists, the frustration at Monbiot’s stance was palpable. This reflects a widespread concern that is shared by the section of the public that has been taking a close interest in the media’s coverage of Syria.

The unreliability of the media is a concern also for academics. Some of us have become very troubled that the historical record of events relating to the war in Syria may be subject to serious distortion as a result of misleading media accounts; we are concerned that political analyses and humanitarian strategies may meanwhile be misdirected by misleading information. Quite generally, we believe, there is a need for impartial and independent monitoring of reports of the kind that peer-reviewed academic research is supposed to provide. For that reason we created the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media.[15]

The creation of the working group seems to have ruffled feathers in some quarters. The erstwhile Guardian journalist Brian Whitaker was quick to publish an article with the apparent intention of discrediting it, as his title indicates: ‘The Syrian conflict’s anti-propaganda propagandists’. When the group added members to its International Advisory Board, Whitaker evidently saw it as his further public duty to warn the public that the ‘Russia-friendly “Syria propaganda” group names more supporters’.[16] For his efforts, Whitaker earned the admonishment of Jonathan Cook, with a swingeing reply about ‘The authoritarians who silence Syria questions’. He criticised his old colleague for ‘using every ploy in the misdirection and circular logic playbook to discredit those who commit thought crimes on Syria, by raising questions both about what is really happening there and about whether we can trust the corporate media consensus banging the regime-change drum.’ He detects at work ‘transparently authoritarian instincts of a political and media elite – and of supposedly “liberal” journalists like Whitaker and Monbiot – to silence all debate, all doubt, all counter-evidence.’

Meanwhile Monbiot (on 10 February) had tweeted to our attention a piece by an anonymous blogger demanding answers from “the professors” to five questions that were, in my opinion, rather specious. My response to Monbiot was that if he wanted a debate with us, then let us have it properly, not via tweets or using anonymous proxies. Instead of accepting an invitation to serious debate, however, Monbiot continued to goad us on Twitter – conduct I still find frankly surprising. When, two days on, he put out a link to Channel 4’s 2016 supposed ‘factcheck’ of Eva Bartlett’s critique of the media coverage of Aleppo, I pointed out Eva had been vindicated on her most important claims.

At this point, Oz Katerji entered the conversation. Although I’d had no prior dealings with this journalist, he launched into some astonishing invective:

“you egregious, shameless liar … you’re a war crimes denier who busies himself slandering victims of war crimes. Others may choose to treat you with respect, I will treat you the way you deserve to be treated, the same as any neo-Nazi or Holocaust denier.”

What stunned me all the more was that Monbiot, instead of being embarrassed by this rowdy ally of his, actually commended that I should ‘[g]et past his rough language and listen to him. He’s telling you things you need to hear, for your own sake.’

Now it makes me uncomfortable when people tell me what I need to do for my own sake, but I can take advice, so I decided to listen to Katerji. I quickly discovered that he has caught the attention of quite a few influential people. He moves in circles that get him seen in photos shaking hands with the head of the White Helmets (who in turn has been photographed with leading USUK politicians), and he has been photographed in a friendly encounter with convicted ISIS recruiter Anjem Choudary. He has spoken at the invitation of Baroness Janet Royall at the House of Lords, and chatted on Twitter afterwards with Hamish de Bretton-Gordon about how they are getting MPs onside with their view on Syria. Apparently he may have been a ghostwriter for the 15 year-old Muhammad Najem who has lately been broadcasting from Ghouta; and we see him posing too with Bana Alabed (which found me idly wondering if he could have been involved in supplying the colloquial English language competence that is so evident in the tweets from the Bana Twitter account).


Where I recalled actually seeing Katerji before, though, was in this video from a Stop the War meeting where he is aggressively heckling Jeremy Corbyn – because, he later explained, Corbyn was ‘ignoring war crimes in Syria’ and ‘refused to call for Assad to step down’. This was October 2016, when Aleppo, according to Katerji, was at risk of being ‘wiped off the map’. So the Labour party was morally complicit in ‘ethnically cleansing East Aleppo’. In Katerji’s view what was happening in Aleppo was genocide. He criticises Corbyn for wanting a negotiated political settlement; he criticises Stop the War for opposing a No Fly Zone[17] and for being against American intervention. In another interview, Katerji reaffirms his advocacy of ‘enforcement of a no-fly-zone in Aleppo, as well air and naval strikes on military installations being used by the Assad regime’.

So what is it that Monbiot would have me learn from Katerji? Is it about the morality of foreign policy? Or is it about the facts on the ground in Syria? Thinking about these questions helped pull into focus some serious concerns I have about Monbiot’s own position.

(1) Is Monbiot’s moral posture on Syria coherent? Regarding Katerji’s take on moral questions, a striking thing is that he fervently advocates military intervention for regime change. Given that Monbiot has always pronounced himself opposed to military intervention, why would he think to have me schooled by such a vociferous and implacable advocate of it? In fact, the content of Monbiot’s writings does lend fulsome support to the arguments of interventionists, including, recently, by going out on a very precarious limb to defend the Western narrative about the White Helmets. The effect of Monbiot’s approach is to give his readers the impression that one can in principle be morally opposed to war on Syria, and yet have no strong moral argument to dissuade those who are in favour of it.[18] Monbiot does not offer principled objections to intervention in general. On the contrary, in this 2004 article he defends military intervention as a matter of humanitarian principle. So it remains to be clarified what exact reason of principle would support his posture of opposition to it in the specific case of Syria. The practical import of his writings on Syria, in fact, has been very much to bolster the case for intervention that others overtly press. This is why I engaged with him over his rush to judgment about Syrian government responsibility for the chemical incident at Khan Sheikhoun in 2017. He cannot credibly deny that this attribution was questionable, if only because so many people no less intelligent or informed than himself formulated very clear questions. Instead of addressing these, however, he criticised sceptics for ‘denying a mountain of evidence’, appealing to Higgins as an authority in the matter.[19] When Paul McKeigue offered a critical assessment of the available evidence, Monbiot dismissed it out of hand. His posture thus rests on his confidence in his own understanding of facts.[20]

(2) Are Monbiot’s factual assumptions credible? Was it then about facts, rather than morality, that Monbiot would have me learn from Katerji? Monbiot did mention that listening to him would help me be less cut off from reality. Given that my purely vicarious experience of realities in Syria comes only from testimony of people from government-held areas, I was eager to learn what Katerji could relay from civilians in opposition-held areas. It turned out to be rather less than hoped, but I did track down some short video clips of a trip he made across the Turkish border to a refugee camp. He shows several seconds of a car journey in Idlib province where, he tells us, ‘life goes on normally’, although he does not show us that happening or interview anybody. Back at the refugee camp, he interviews an Ahrar al-Sham fighter who tells us that although they have lost the battle for Aleppo, they have not lost the war. Katerji does not mention that his interlocutor is from a salafist faction close to Al Qaeda which, were it ever to have won the war, would not have ushered in the progressive new constitutional order that the peaceful Syrian activists had hoped for in 2011. Fighters like these had turned the schools in opposition areas into headquarters for operations that included shelling residents of government-held Western Aleppo and imprisoning, torturing and killing residents caught in the Eastern enclave with them. So when Katerji rightly mourns how the kids in refugee camps have no access to education and are a ‘lost generation’ his moral outrage could, I think, be misdirected. The reality of the refugee camps and of the suffering in them is undeniable. What Katerji makes of it, however, is quite another thing. He interviews some men and boys who say their greatest goal in life is to remove Assad. He wants us to think they ‘speak for Syria’. But this is a misleading proposition on demographic, journalistic, political, moral, and ideological grounds. If there is a section of the population that would prefer an Islamist state in Syria over the current secular constitution, it is not a majority; and to suggest that ‘getting rid of Assad’ is a priority for the mass of people living in Syria now is to be in denial about how they have become obliged to look upon him as their protector, regardless of whether they had otherwise wanted him to remain president. To suggest to an audience in the West that what the Islamist fighters want is freedom or democracy or dignity, as it would understand these terms, would not be honest. Honesty would also commend being clear that the very fact of these interviews refutes the premise of Katerji’s earlier attack on Corbyn: the civilians and even the armed opposition in East Aleppo were not ‘wiped out’ by government forces: they were escorted out in green buses (and even allowed to take their arms with them). There was no ‘genocide’.

So I remain unclear what exactly Monbiot would have me learn from Katerji about either the moral or material dimensions of the reality in Syria. That would lead me to suggest, once again, that it is best for people to make their own arguments for themselves.


In this final part I shall attempt to analyse the arguments that Monbiot has himself set out in the course of his writings and comments.

Monbiot adopts a moral posture of opposition to military intervention in Syria. He does not, however, endorse arguments of principle against military intervention in general. In fact, he rejects them, and he would not criticise an intervention provided it was appropriately triggered. It follows that he is not opposed to military intervention in Syria as a matter of principle. It is just that the conditions would have to be right.[21] The conditions would be those set out according to principles of Just War Theory. Already in 2002, ahead of the Iraq invasion,[22] Monbiot had explained his view that military intervention for the purpose of regime change is permissible if the criteria of Just War are met.

Monbiot has generally been doubtful whether all of those conditions are met in the case of Syria: avoidance of harm to civilians, for instance, or a sufficiently clear chance of success, could be hard to ensure; and he also thinks the question of legitimate authority for enforcing regime change requires some clarification in international law. But those are conditions that could potentially be met if would-be interveners had sufficient political will. For the likelihood of success can be improved through enhanced military commitment, avoidance of harm to civilians can be met by concentrating lethal force against combatants, and legal treaties can be amended.

There is a crucial condition, however, that does not depend on anything would-be interveners do, and it either holds ex ante or it just does not hold. This is the requirement of a just cause.

Because just cause is an essential requirement of a just war, any argument that appears to establish it has great significance. It is not like the other requirements that can potentially be met with a practical work around. A just cause for military intervention is exactly what a great many of Monbiot’s statements relating to Syria have tended in substance to assert. He has inveighed repeatedly and forcefully against Assad’s ‘murderous regime’, deeming it impervious to political dissuasion from a strategy of violent oppression of the Syrian people.[23] By comparison, his contingent opposition to intervention could appear little more than a moral scruple to be politely acknowledged. Certainly, Jonathan Cook thinks the net effect of Monbiot’s half-hearted opposition to military intervention has served to minimise the public sense of any real objection to war.[24]

So it becomes clear why people who oppose war have reason to feel dissatisfied with Monbiot’s position, even though he can truthfully declare himself opposed to war, in the qualified terms he does.

It is time to analyse the grounds of that dissatisfaction and bring this discussion to some conclusions. In Part 1 we saw how Monbiot repeatedly asserts claims in relation to ‘Assad’s regime’ that substantially affirm a just cause for military intervention; in Part 2 we saw that Monbiot is prepared to go to great lengths to defend that affirmation. Some people will be convinced by his arguments; others of us are not. There are two arguments I want to advance on behalf the sceptical position. The first is a strong one, I believe, whereas the second is unanswerable.

My first argument has to do with the burden of proof. Any appeal to just war principles proceeds in recognition that the burden of proof rests on the party that is contemplating recourse to war. For such a momentous course of action there must be great seriousness of deliberation. It should not be informed by simplistic, frivolous, partial or slippery arguments; it should certainly not be an occasion for jeering or sneering at people who differ in their views. This is why those of us who have recently been in disputes with Monbiot on Twitter have tried to urge him to come with us to a more appropriate forum for a more suitable sort of debate. The fact that he has declined our invitation does not necessarily imply that he thinks a serious debate would not go well for him, but it very directly serves to show that we are right to say there are unanswered questions. For we are putting questions and he is offering no answer to them. Monbiot is not obliged to respond, but he cannot claim that certain putative facts are established beyond dispute simply by denying the dispute. That is just not how disputes are settled!

So my first argument is that the burden of proof rests with him and, since he has not discharged it, he cannot claim to be right in the view he holds. But to show he cannot claim it has been proven is not to show that it cannot be proved. This is where the second argument comes in.

My second argument does not rest on showing Monbiot has failed to rebut some reasonable objections. The argument is that a Just Cause for foreign military intervention in Syria has not been proven for the reason that it cannot be proven. It cannot be proven because the principle of just cause cannot be applied to the situation in Syria.

The criteria of a just war apply in a situation where a people can legitimately take up arms against the forces of an aggressor. In the context of intervention, the taking up of arms is vicarious, but it is still done for the protection, and on behalf, of the people under threat. The point, then, is that before we can apply just war criteria, we have to have a situation that they can apply to: there has to be a threatened people and a threatening force.

In the case of Syria, a very elementary question concerns the identities of the two parties. Monbiot invariably insists that Bashar Al Assad is the aggressor, and on this basis Monbiot supposes that, if and when the Just War conditions are met, intervening against Assad is permissible. Yet an elementary fact is that Assad is not and could not conceivably be an aggressor single-handedly. Assad and his government have an army; that army is drawn from the Syrian people; and that body of Syrian men and women has remained loyal for seven hard years of fighting. So the very first question any would-be interventionist must ask is this: under what conceivable conditions could that body of loyal Syrian men and women be regarded as an aggressor against the Syrian people?

The only thought that prevents the question being a purely rhetorical one is that there are armed sectarians who would answer it by asserting a right to speak for the Syrian people even without their assent – as we saw Katerji’s Ahrar al-Sham fighter does. I assume Monbiot would not endorse this answer.

I don’t know what Monbiot thinks about the Syrian army. I am not aware of his ever having explained where the Syrian army stands in his framing of the situation in Syria. I have not been able to track down any mention by him of it.

My argument is that sufficient reason for opposing military intervention against “Assad” is that he is literally not an aggressor against the Syrian people, and nor could his government or ‘regime’ be. For the possibility of even arguing there is a just cause of intervention in Syria, it would have to be claimed that the Syrian Arab Army is an aggressor against the Syrian people.

I cannot conceive how anyone could decently make such a claim.

The Syrian government and the people living under that government in Syria take the view that foreign military intervention in the Syrian Arab Republic would be illegitimate under any circumstances whatsoever. Syria has the rule of law under a constitution, and, imperfect as it may be, its imperfections are for Syrians to deal with. Both international law and human morality are on their side.

To suggest there is any justification for foreign powers to intervene for the purpose of ‘regime change’ in Syria is to mislead the public. Because I believe Monbiot has suggested just that, I have felt an obligation to engage in this extended critical analysis of his contribution to public opinion formation about Syria.


[1] In his 2002 article, ‘Chemical Coup d’Etat’, Monbiot lauds the impressive achievements of OPCW under Jose Bustani and laments that the US state department worked hard to have him removed. ‘”What the Americans are doing,” Bustani says, “is a coup d’etat. They are using brute force to amend the convention and unseat the director-general.” As the chemical weapons convention has no provisions permitting these measures, the US is simply ripping up the rules. If it wins, then the OPCW, like Unscom, will be fatally compromised. Success for the United States on Sunday would threaten the independence of every multilateral body.’ Shortly afterwards he also noted, in ‘Diplomacy US Style’, that ‘The US justification for war with Iraq is that Saddam Hussein may possess weapons of mass destruction. So the two foremost obstacles to war were Mr Blix and Mr Bustani’ If OPCW does not do what State Dept wants, it will get rid of ‘wrong’ people at the top. Next day a Guardian Leader adds ‘The US denies a conspiracy to unseat Mr Bustani. But some OPCW members, such as close ally Mexico, say it ignored the organisation’s rules. One account reports a senior US envoy telling American OPCW staff that the US will “screw” the organisation if it does not get its way. It is widely believed that the US warned other countries, including Britain, that failure to support Mr Bustani’s sacking could destroy the Chemical Weapons Convention.’ (‘Toxic Diplomacy’)

[2] In 2004 Monbiot was arguing for Ralph Nader’s presidential candidacy over John Kerry: ‘Only when the Americans choose a man or woman who is prepared to turn the system upside down and reintroduce democracy to the greatest democracy on earth will these exceptional circumstances come to an end. In choosing the bad rather than the terrible in 2004, in other words, Americans will be voting for a similar choice in 2008. Whereupon they will again be told that they’d better vote for the bad, in case the terrible gets in. Any president who seeks to change this system requires tremendous political courage. He needs to take on the corporations which have bought the elections, and challenge the newspapers and television stations which set the limits of political debate. Kerry, who demonstrated plenty of courage in Vietnam, has shown none whatsoever on the presidential stump.’ (‘The Bad or the Terrible?’)   (His opinion was hardly altered in the later Obama presidency. Later, even when attacking Assad, Monbiot could still be critical of ‘Obama’s Rogue State’ and, in relation to Somalia, of ‘The careless, astonishing cruelty of Barack Obama’s government’.) In an article from 2006, meanwhile, it is also interesting to note that Monbiot criticises Israel from a perspective that takes account of the perspectives of Hizbollah and Syria.

[3] Other of the paper’s journalists who had also written factual reports about the fictitious woman included Esther Addley, Nesrine Malik, and even one said to have been based in Damascus, whose byline, Nidaa Hassan, appears on 31 Guardian articles between 12 May and 10 July 2011. Esther Addley and Nidaa Hassan Tue 7 Jun 2011 ‘Gay Girl in Damascus blogger joins ranks of Syria’s detained’ reported the story that ‘Amina Abdallah Araf al Omari is the among the best known of many thousands of Syrians detained since mid-March’.

As late as 8 June, when others are now doubting the blogger’s existence, Nesrine Malik writes about the influence of Amina as if she were a real person and one to be counted among ‘The ‘fallen’ heroines of the Arab spring’. Even later, on 9 June, Esther Addley is pondering the question ‘A gay girl in Damascus – or a cynical hoax?’ and offers the surprising thought ‘concrete evidence that it is all a fiction remains absent’. (Yet the day before she herself had stated that nobody knew Amina and that the IP address was in Scotland.)

[4] The best discussion of the case that I am aware of is provided by Sophia

[5] In fact, whether anything ‘Katherine Marsh’ wrote was reliable, and even whether the unidentified journalist was ever really in Syria, we may never know for sure.

[6] Steele quotes a piece by Philip Giraldi from 19 December 2011 ‘NATO vs. Syria’ in which he says: ‘NATO is already clandestinely engaged in the Syrian conflict, with Turkey taking the lead as U.S. proxy.’ However, ‘CIA analysts are skeptical regarding the march to war. The frequently cited United Nations report that more than 3,500 civilians have been killed by Assad’s soldiers is based largely on rebel sources and is uncorroborated. The Agency has refused to sign off on the claims. Likewise, accounts of mass defections from the Syrian Army and pitched battles between deserters and loyal soldiers appear to be a fabrication, with few defections being confirmed independently. Syrian government claims that it is being assaulted by rebels who are armed, trained, and financed by foreign governments are more true than false. … The best organized and funded opposition political movement in Syria is the Muslim Brotherhood.’

[7] I stand to be corrected on this, hence it is phrased as a question, but I my own search turned up nothing. Given the experience, first hand knowledge, and evident integrity of this senior correspondent on his own newspaper, I find it remarkable that Steele’s reports appear to have been disregarded by Monbiot.

[8] At the time, genuinely independent observers knew there were questions to be asked about the opposition activists and their reports, and with hindsight we also have very unsettling answers to those questions (for a comprehensive digest of information and discussion see the relevant sections of the website A Closer Look On Syria).

[9] Questions about how Chulov assures impartiality in his reporting have been examined recently by Vanessa Beeley in ‘The Guardian Journalist who takes ‘Afternoon Tea’ with ISIS and Survives’.

[10] That said, a lawsuit for wrongful death was filed in 2016, as reported in The Washington Post. Recently, The Guardian has reported (9 April 2018) that in a civil action, ongoing in the United States, ‘testimony has been given by a Syrian intelligence defector, codenamed Ulysses.’ For a strongly critical perspective on the case, it is interesting to note these observations of Declan Hayes.

[11] Read’s article offers an example of smear by chain of association: ‘I drew attention in my previous article to their positive citation in relation to what is happening in Syria of Chossudovsky: a 9/11 conspiracy theorist who also believes that 7/7 was an “inside job” by MI6, and whose fantasies about a global Muslim threat (of which, naturally, the heroic Slobodan Milosevic was a noble opponent, hence his murder by the New World Order) vastly outstrip the jeremiads of Mark Steyn & Melanie Phillips…’

As for MediaLens, I have to say that in the course of research for this article I have discovered far more than I had previously known about the depth and seriousness of their work, including their engagement with Monbiot on a number of occasions over the years. They are doing a remarkable job in trying to maintain the highest standards of journalistic inquiry. It is perhaps telling that the same people who are tempted to smear them are also prepared to smear the likes of Noam Chomsky and John Pilger.

[12] For some examples of critical discussions see: ; ; ; ; ; .

[13] Interestingly, the one piece he tweeted a recommendation to during the next two years was an critical article by Seamus Milne (3 June 2015):

Now the truth emerges: how the US fuelled the rise of Isis in Syria and Iraq

This may well be the only critical perspective on the war in Syria that he has cited, and may be the only time he has referred to Milne. I would note, incidentally, that Oz Katerji, an associate of Monbiot’s that I shall be introducing later, has latterly been a relentlessly aggressive critic of Milne for his stance in relation to Syria.

[14] I came to be writing about Syria in the first place myself as a result of misgivings initially stirred by the Netflix film’s utter silence about the activities – or even existence – of militants in the streets plied by the rescuers. When the elephant in the room is so well armed as to keep a national army at bay I didn’t see how anyone could pretend it wasn’t there.

[15] Its aim is to coordinate ‘rigorous academic analysis of media reporting of this war, the role that propaganda has played in terms of shaping perceptions of the conflict and how these relate to broader geo-strategic process within the ME region and beyond.’ We want ‘to encourage networking amongst academics to provide a source of reliable, informed and timely analysis for journalists, publics and policymakers.’

[16] I probably don’t need to explain to readers that, in the media bubble of the Monbiots and the Whitakers, to be ‘Russia-friendly’ is a Bad Thing. Speaking for myself, and I do so from the location that hosted the Edinburgh Conversations in the 1980s – and, in fact, I do so as a former departmental colleague of their initiator, the late Professor John Erickson – I see friendly and grown-up relations between opposing parties as a highly constructive and humanly necessary thing. Very much to be regretted, in my opinion, is the readiness of our so-called thought leaders today to indulge the neo-McCarthyite knee jerking towards escalated belligerence.

[17] He makes the claim that you cannot compare Russia with US in Syria, surprisingly, not because of how US just destroyed e.g. Raqqa, but because he says Russia is deliberately targeting schools. We have in fact seen that schools in Aleppo were commandeered as HQs by terrorists:; as were hospitals , ); while children were kept from receiving education:  Katerji says the idea that Russia is defending Syria is ‘bonkers’. He talks as if what he advocates is in the interests of the ‘freedom of the Syrian people’. He does not produce evidence for these strident assertions.

[18] This, in fact, is something Cook noticed before I did: ‘Monbiot has repeatedly denied that he wants a military attack on Syria. But if he then weakly accepts whatever narratives are crafted by those who do – and refuses to subject them to any meaningful scrutiny – he is decisively helping to promote such an attack.’ Not only that, those who do insist on closer scrutiny are attributed nefarious motives. This, Cook concludes, ‘is the behaviour of a propagandist, not a free thinker.’ I only discovered this particular piece by Cook when the present article was nearly completed, and so it is interesting to note the similarity of the assessments independently arrived at by an experienced journalist and a curious academic: ‘he has posed not as a cheerleader for intervention but as a weary onlooker, reluctantly conceding that whatever US, British and other western intelligence agencies say – and the largely uncritical reports of these statements by liberal media like his own newspaper the Guardian – should be given the benefit of the doubt. The fact that these official assurances have so often turned to mush on closer inspection, whether in Iraq, Libya or now Syria, never strengthens his resolve to maintain more critical distance next time. Nor does it seem to raise any concern that, by failing to adopt a posture of rigorous scepticism, he is inadvertently conspiring in the promotion by the west and its allies, like Saudi Arabia, of their right to meddle in and attack official “enemy” states.’

[19] For example, in this tweet:

[20] The justification Monbiot has offered for criticising people like myself is that we ‘do not seem to realise what a mountain of evidence we are denying’. However, as my colleague Paul McKeigue has shown, there is not merely reasonable doubt in the matter but the balance of probabilities can be seen to be very greatly against Monbiot’s conclusion when the facts are looked at dispassionately.

[21] He confirms this in a tweet of 11 Oct 2015 where he says: ‘If I could be persuaded that UK military action in #Syria would improve people’s plight, not exacerbate it, I’d support it. But hard to see.’

[22] This is recorded in an exchange with MediaLens from the time: .

[23] Given that Monbiot’s thinking on these matters diverges from that of MediaLens in ways that tend to leave him siding with Rupert Read against them, it is instructive to read this 2011 piece by Read taking MediaLens to task for failing to see the clear just cause for invading both Libya and Syria: . Read here exemplifies the confident view of the interventionist Western ‘progressives’ of his time that Monbiot helped fuel. The accusations against MediaLens of ‘dogmatism’ look bitterly ironic in hindsight.

[24] Cook writes: ‘‘Monbiot has repeatedly denied that he wants a military attack on Syria. But if he then weakly accepts whatever narratives are crafted by those who do – and refuses to subject them to any meaningful scrutiny – he is decisively helping to promote such an attack.’


Guardian collage

Posted in Uncategorized | 23 Comments

Chemical Attack in Douma: a false pretext for escalating war against Syria?

Update 28 April – the appearance of 17 witnesses at the OPCW meeting at The Hague  all testifying to a complete absence of chemical weapons or victims at the clinic has been accepted by non-Western observers as close to definitive proof. Western media have offered some half-hearted thoughts about why one might be cautious about accepting the witness statements at face value, but given how dramatically this belated caution contrasts with their own initial rush to judgement on the basis of entirely untested evidence, the main response has been radio silence. While a cessation of disinformation is welcome, there remains a very important question. While everyone should be very happy to learn there were no chemical weapons deaths at the clinic and to know that the kids appearing in the video scene there are in good health, we also saw images of other kids and some adults, elsewhere in Douma, that genuinely appeared to be dead. Their deaths look to be appropriately subject to criminal investigation. This should not be forgotten. Both justice for these apparent victims of some kind of unlawful killing, and a need to establish still what exactly occurred in similar alleged chemical incidents, require continued attention. So while most of the links below can now be regarded as elements of the historical record of how the investigation has appeared to different observers, the section on ‘current work in progess’ remains very much a record of live inquiry.

Update 22 April – regarding the clinic scene, by now, it seems that the onus is on anyone who thinks chemicals figured there at all to provide some evidence. Attention can focus on whether chemicals were involved elsewhere, and, if so, what they were, what damage they caused to whom, and who was responsible for their use. The announcement today of a discovery of large quantities of hexamine, a sarin precursor, at a lab of Jaish al Islam, could be significant.

Update 20 April – now we have heard testimony not only from residents and medics, but also from one of the children featured in the video. Further update: German TV News from ZDF carries report of numerous witness statements from Douma refugees who all say the chemical attack was staged (from minute 7:30), which does reduce the likelihood that witnesses could have been ‘planted’ or coerced. (I have added a separate note on this latter matter, 21 April.)

Update 16 April – further to doubts expressed by prominent journalists and senior British military figures over recent days, today renowned journalist Robert Fisk visited the actual scene of the clinic and reports doctor’s confirmation of what two medical workers had previously said (April 13), namely, that smoke/dust inhalation following an explosion had caused the breathing difficulties patients presented with. What then happened was that a man came in shouting that there’d been a gas/chemical attack, causing panic, and starting getting people hosed down for the camera. This same story was also reported by Pearson Sharp for OAN who additionally interviewed dozens of local residents, randomly chosen from queues for relief supplies, none of whom had seen any sign of any chemical attack.

Original post 8 April 2018 Allegations of a chemical attack in Douma by Syria on 7 April were met by threats from President Trump to attack Syria. These were followed by Israeli missile strikes on an airfield in Homs early on 9 April. Given the pace of events and their significance for potential escalation in tensions between the Western powers and Russia, it is helpful to have timely information about questions that are under investigation by independent researchers. This post will be updated as and when insightful contributions are published, including as work in progress. Comments are open to allow for readers’ further recommendations and observations.


In the media

Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former Chief of Staff to Colin Powell, to NewsVoice, ‘Unbelievable that Assad would use chemical weapons in Syria’ (20 April) 3 minute video

German TV news from ZDF reports that numerous refugees from Douma all say alleged chemical attack was staged (20 April) video report, in German, from minute 07:30

Peter Hitchens, on BBC, insists on need for more scrupulous approach to evidence relating to allegations (19 April)

Pearson Sharp interviews doctors, who say: no signs of chemical attack and no deaths recorded at clinic that day (19 April)

Peter Oborne, in The Spectator, ‘We have a moral duty to mistrust the government on Syria’ (19 April)

‘OAN’S Pearson Sharp refutes MSM reports of alleged Syrian chemical attack’ (18 April) – 7 minutes of interviews with witnesses in the street by the site of alleged attack

Tucker Carlson agreeing with Peter Ford that alleged chemical attack has been “intelligence fiasco” (18 April)

US Senator Rand Paul, on CNN, suggests there is as yet no evidence of Syrian government responsibility for alleged chemical attack (17 April)

Chris Williamson, UK Labour parliamentarian, insists on need for proper evidence rather than the hearsay relied on by government (17 April)

Virginia State Senator, Richard Black: Syria Chemical Weapons attack was a rigged “false flag” (17 April)

Dirk Emmerich, RTL Deutschland (16 April) [in German, shows citizens saying they were used as human shields, knew of no gas attack, and are very glad for the food they can now get.] [now with English subtitles, thanks to @walid970721]

Robert Fisk, in The Independent, writes a fuller report of his encounters with doctors and locals in Douma (16 April)

Pearson Sharp, for OAN, investigates on the ground in Douma, finding no evidence or witnesses of alleged chemical attack (16 April) 10 mins video.

Robert Fisk, from the clinic in Douma, reports that there was no chemical/gas attack (16 April) – short podcast, expect more…

Patrick Lawrence, writing in Salon, ‘Trump and allies approach World War III in Syria, on literally no evidence’ (15 April)

Peter Hitchens, Mail on Sunday, points out that Jaish al Islam are known to have used chemical weapons (15 April)

Major-General Jonathan David Shaw CBE is interrupted by Sky News interviewer as he begins to articulate scepticism (13 April)

Former First Sea Lord of the Royal Navy, Lord Alan West, articulates deep scepticism about allegations (13 April) – see interview from minute 06:40

US Defense Secretary Mattis admits US has no evidence of who was responsible or even that a chemical attack occurred (12 April)

‘Stunning evidence from BBC journalist exposing White Helmets staging chemical attacks in Douma’ (11 April)

Tucker Carlson defends questioning US narrative against accusations that doing so is spreading propaganda (11 April)

Scott Ritter on ‘Trump’s Rush to Judgment on Syria Chemical Attack’ (11 April)

‘Experts warn Assad is not to blame for latest chemical attack’ from One America News Network (10 April)

Peter Ford, Former British Ambassador to Syria, articulates reasons for scepticism (10 April)

Tucker Carlson on Fox News speaks out forcefully for scepticism about allegations (10 April)

 Åke Sellström ‘Until proven, I’m skeptical’ (8 April)


Testimony from on the ground in Douma

Syrian boy featured in gas attack video interviewed. Denies chemical weapons were used (20 April)

Two men working in hospital ER, seen in the “chemical attack” video, testify that there were no chemical attack victims but that a panic was caused by a man with camera who came in and said it was a chemical attack (13 April)


Current work in progress

Douma Videos and Photos Steve McIntyre (24 April 2018)

On the alleged chemical attack of 7 April 2018 in Douma, running updates (with analysis of graphic images)  Adam Larson

On anomalies concerning position and condition of the chlorine cylinder Michael Kobs (twitter thread)

‘Syria – Manipulated Videos Fail to Launch World War III’ Moon of Alabama (13 April)


Research on previous chemical incidents in Syria:

On previous incidents in Ghouta (2013) and Khan Sheikhoun (2017) Paul McKeigue

Updated assessment of Khan Sheikhoun incident Paul McKeigue

Analysis of video footage from Khan Sheikhoun incident @qoppa999 (twitter thread)

Research on 2013 Kafr Batna incident ACLOS collective


Selected interviews about wider context of the current crisis

Lord Green of Deddington, former UK ambassador to Syria (22 April)

Jeffrey Sachs (12 April)

Maria Zacharova (12 April)


Summary of key questions

1. Was there a gas attack?

[ If no, how can deaths alleged caused by it be explained?]

2. If yes, was Syrian government responsible?

[If no, who was?

3. If yes, were the airstrikes justified under principles of international law?

The answer to (3), even assuming affirmative answers to (1) and (2) = NO, according to Professor Mary Ellen O’Connell, Robert and Marion Short Professor of Law and Research Professor of International Dispute Resolution—Kroc Institute, University of Notre Dame. (Unlawful Reprisals to the Rescue against Chemical Attacks? – 12 April 2018)


Further discussion of legitimacy and legality of Western action

Richard Falk, ‘Attacking Syria’, in The Transnational (18 April 2018)

Jack Goldsmith and Oona Hathaway, ‘Bad Legal Arguments for the Syria Airstrikes’, Lawfare (14 April)








Posted in chemical weapons, disinformation, OPCW, propaganda, Russia, Syria, UK Government, Uncategorized, war, White Helmets | 24 Comments

Update to briefing note ‘Doubts about Novichoks’

The following is an update to the briefing note of 14 March 2018 from the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and media. (Readers’ comments on this update can be made here.)

Authors: Paul McKeigue, Jake Mason and Piers Robinson


In view of the seriousness of the rapidly worsening relations between the West and Russia, and the quickly evolving military events in the Middle East, especially Syria, we have taken the step to publish relevant evidence-based analysis with respect to the Skripal incident of 4 March 2018. This update to our earlier briefing note covers new material that has become available. We welcome comments and corrections which can be sent to or provided in the Comments section below.

Key Points

  • There is no corroboration of Mirzayanov’s story of a secret Russian “Novichoks” programme to develop a new class of nerve agents, although the compounds described in his book in 2008 are real structures.

  • There is evidence that the US government has concealed what it knows about these compounds: specifically

    • A record in a public database showing that one of these compounds had been synthesized around 1998 by the US Army’s chemical defence lab (Edgewood) has been deleted

    • When the structures of these compounds were published in 2008 the US government sought to discourage discussions of the matter at OPCW and another international forum for chemical weapons prohibition.

  • The UK government has asserted that “No country bar Russia has combined capability, intent and motive” to carry out the Salisbury poisonings. Published studies show that these compounds can be synthesized at bench scale (sufficient for an assassination) in other countries. The UK government’s declared case therefore rests only on subjective judgements of “intent and motive”, which are open to question.


Official statements from the UK government claim that the “military grade nerve agent” detected in Salisbury was “part of a group of nerve agents known as Novichoks” that the Russian chemist Vil Mirzayanov alleged had been developed in the Soviet Union in a secret programme. The structures of these compounds, labelled A-230, A-232, A-234, A-242 and A-262, were published by Mirzayanov in a book in 2008, twelve years after he emigrated to the US.

Other than Mirzayanov’s story, there is no evidence that these compounds were ever synthesized in either the Soviet Union or Russia, or that the “Novichok” programme ever existed. The use of the term “Novichoks” to describe this A-230 series of compounds, which are real chemical structures, is therefore tendentious. An account by another Russian chemist Vladimir Uglev, often cited as corroboration of Mirzayanov’s story, appears on close examination to be about the development of a class of nerve agents denoted GV which have been studied in several countries including Czechoslovakia and the US.

The UK government has not revealed the identity of the compound detected in Salisbury, but the Russian ambassador has stated that the Foreign Secretary told him that the compound detected was A-234. Russian experts have revealed that the mass spectrometry profile of this compound was submitted to a public database by a researcher in the US Army’s Edgewood Chemical and Biological Center around 1998, indicating that Edgewood has synthesized and studied this compound.

There is also evidence that the US government has concealed what it knows about the A-230 series of compounds. Edgewood’s entry for compound A-234 in the public database has been deleted. Furthermore, US diplomatic cables from 2009 show that the US and UK governments sought to discourage discussion of Mirzayanov’s story at the OPCW and the Australia Group (an informal grouping of US-allied countries set up in 1985 to control the export of precursors for chemical weapons).

It has been suggested that the A-230 series of compounds have a different mode of action to that of classic organophosphates. To ensure that all relevant information is available to the doctors caring for the victims of the Salisbury poisoning, the UK government should without further delay reveal the identity of the compound detected, and should request urgently that all labs that have undertaken toxicity studies on such compounds make their results publicly available.

Detailed Discussion

Did a “Novichok” programme ever exist?

The word “Novichok” comes from a Russian chemist named Vil Mirzayanov, who emigrated in 1995 after alleging that a secret programme to develop a new class of nerve agents had existed in the Soviet Union and had continued in Russia. In 2008, Mirzayanov published a book containing structures of five compounds that he alleged had been developed in this programme: they were labelled A-230, A-232, A-234, A-242 and A-262. We shall refer to these as the A-230 series of compounds, without taking any position as to whether they were developed in Russia as “Novichoks”.

The UK government has added to this story with this statement from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office:-

The Foreign Secretary revealed this morning that we have information indicating that within the last decade, Russia has investigated ways of delivering nerve agents likely for assassination. And part of this programme has involved producing and stockpiling quantities of Novichok.

The wording “we have information indicating” suggests that this is raw human intelligence rather than the “finished” evaluation for use by policy makers, for which wording of the form “we have assessed” would be used.

The Russian government denies that a Novichok programme ever existed. The Russian envoy to the UN, Vasily Nebenzya stated on 15 March that:

No research, development or manufacturing of projects codenamed Novichok has ever been carried out in Russia, all CW programmes were stopped back in 1991-92_

In a television interview the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova gave a comprehensive denial:-

Never on the territory of the USSR in Soviet times or in the times of the Russian Federation on its territory have there been studies conducted under the code name Novichok. It was neither patented, nor used as a symbol or a code. Once more, as this is the key thing: the word Novichok has never been used in the USSR or in Russia as something related to chemical weapons research. This word was introduced and used for poisonous materials in the West.

A recent interview with Vladimir Uglev has been often cited as corroborating Mirzayanov’s account. Uglev describes how he helped to develop a “new class of organophosphorus chemical agents”, but states that the name “Novichok” was not used for these compounds. Uglev states that one of these compounds, obtained from a military laboratory, was used to murder the banker Ivan Kivelidi and his secretary Zara Ismailova in 1995. A report in the pro-Western magazine Novaya Gazeta includes an image of a page from a document purported to be from the investigation of this murder. This document shows a reconstruction of the molecular structure of the compound from the fragments detected by mass spectrometry.   However the reconstructed structure shown is identical to that of a nerve agent known as GV (see Appendix), with what may be the mistaken substitution of an ethoxy group for a fluorine atom. If Uglev’s account is accurate and this document is genuine, this establishes that the new class of nerve agents that he helped to develop was the GV class of agents, which Russia has never denied studying. Because the A-230 series of compounds have structures that are very different from GV-like compounds, Uglev’s story does not corroborate that of Mirzayanov.   Mirzayanov’s account in 1995, in which he labels “Substance 33” (the Russian isomer of VX), as a “precursor” (possibly “forerunner” is the intended meaning as Russian VX is not a chemical precursor) of what he called “novichoks” is also consistent with these being GV-type agents. At a briefing by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 21 March, Viktor Kholstov, Director of the Centre for Analytical Research on Chemical and Biological Weapon Conventions under the Russian Ministry of Industry and Trade, stated that “Vil Mirzayanov did not have these formulas [the structures given in his 2008 book for the A-230 series of compounds] in the early 2000s”.

In summary, there is ample evidence that the Soviet Union and other countries were developing GV-type agents up to the 1990s. However Mirzayanov’s story that the chemical structures labelled as A-230 to A-262 in his 2008 book were developed in the Soviet Union or Russia remains open to serious doubt.

Was one of the A-230 series of compounds used in the Salisbury poisoning?

The Prime Minister stated to the House of Commons on 12 March that

It is now clear that Mr Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia. It is part of a group of nerve agents known as Novichok.

On 22 March, the Russian Ambassador to the UK gave a briefing:-

On 12 March, 8 days after the day of poisoning, I was summoned by Foreign Secretary Johnson, who put forward a 24-hour ultimatum to explain the Russian Government’s position by the end of the next day. The question was put like following: either the incident in Salisbury was a direct act of the Russian Government against the UK or the Russian Government had lost control of a nerve agent that the Foreign Secretary identified as A-234, and allowed it to get into the hands of others.

The UK government has not confirmed that the nerve agent was identified as A-234, or that this information was conveyed to the Ambassador by the Foreign Secretary. It is expected that the OPCW investigation will reveal the identity of the agent detected in Salisbury within the next few weeks. For now, it is reasonable to assume that the agent found was one of the A-230 series of compounds.

Scientific studies of the A-230 series of compounds

In 2016, Iranian scientists reported bench scale synthesis of a few compounds closely related to those labelled by Mirzayanov as “Novichoks”. They added the mass spectrometry signatures of these compounds studied to the OPCW’s Central Analytical Database. The structure denoted “compound 3” in their paper is similar to A-234 except that it has methyl instead of ethyl groups.

A similar study of the compound later published as A-234 had been undertaken by Dr Dennis Rohrbaugh at the US Army Chemical and Biological Defense Command’s Edgewood Research Development and Engineering Center around 1998. He added the mass spectrometry profile to the 1998-2001 version (NIST 98) of the National Institute of Standards and Technology Mass Spectral Library. This was revealed in a television interview by Professor Igor Rybalchenko, formerly the head of the Russian chemical weapon detection lab (the Laboratory of Chemical and Analytical Control of the Ministry of Defence) . Rybalchenko is a highly-respected scientist who has worked closely with western colleagues on the OPCW Scientific Advisory Board and with international agencies supervising the destruction of the former Soviet chemical weapons stockpiles.   Rybalchenko showed a slide (at 1:11:53 in the recording) and explained:-

As far back as 1998, we looked though a regular edition of the spectral database released by the US National Bureau of Standards [now the National Institute of Standards and Technology], which has spectral data on about 300,000 compounds and is regularly updated, to find an agent that caught our attention as it was an organophosphate chemical. We understood that it must have a lethal effect. Now it has turned out that, judging by the name of that agent, it was “Novichok” A-234.

The image shows a faded printout of a record from NIST 98 for a chemical with formula C8H18FN2O2P named as N-(O-ethyl-fluorophosphoryl)-N’-N’-diethyl-acetamidine, with NIST number 226889. As Rybalchenko notes, this molecular structure corresponds to A-234

Evidence that the US and UK governments are concealing what they know about the A-230 series of compounds

The record submitted by Edgewood for a compound with formula C8H18FN2O2P no longer exists in the current version of the NIST Mass Spectral Library.   As such research is entirely legitimate, it is puzzling that this record should have been deleted.

A secret cable dated 26 March 2009 from a US delegate to OPCW reported that at a meeting of the OPCW Data Validation Group in The Hague a few weeks earlier, “representatives of several countries (Finland, Netherlands, UK) had begun discussing the Mirzayanov book on the margins of the meeting”.   The US delegate noted that

U.S. Del understands from OSD that the UK Ministry of Defense has spoken to its counterparts in the Netherlands and Finland, apprised them of the conversation, and asked each country to provide guidance to its del members not/not to raise this issue in the future

The Canadian delegate was also curious, but the US and UK delegates expressed lack of familiarity with and interest in the matter.

On March 25, in a private conversation, Canadian delegate asked U.S. and UK Delreps whether they had heard of the Mirzayanov book “State Secrets: An Insider’s View of the Russian Chemical Weapons Program.” Canadian Rep added that Mirzayanov now appeared on YouTube. UK Rep acknowledged she had heard of it, but said this was the first time she had heard of “novichoks” and thought the entire discussion was best left to experts in capital. U.S. Delrep indicated a lack of familiarity with the subject matter and indicated no interest in pursuing the discussion further.

The cable requested further “guidance as to how this issue is to be handled if raised by others” for US members of OPCW technical advisory bodies such as the Scientific Advisory Board. The cable was addressed to the CIA, the National Security Council, the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of State, suggesting that this issue was being discussed at high levels of the US government.

A subsequent cable on 3 April 2009 from the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton instructed the US delegation to the Informal Inter-Sessional Meeting of the Australia Group (a group of US-allied countries set up in 1985 to control the export of precursors of chemical weapons) that one of five US objectives for the meeting was to:-

— Avoid any substantive discussion of the Mirazayanov book “State Secrets: An Insider’s View of the Russian Chemical Weapons Program” or so-called ‘Fourth Generation Agents.’

More detailed guidance was provided for the US delegates, echoing the description of how US and UK delegates had responded to the Canadian delegate a week earlier:-

If AG participants raise the issue of Vils Mirazayonov’s book “State Secrets: An Insider’s View of the Russian Chemical Weapons Program,” the Del should:

— Report any instances in which the book is raised.

— Not/not start or provoke conversations about the book or engage substantively if it comes up in conversation.

— Express a lack of familiarity with the issue.

— Quietly discourage substantive discussions by suggesting that the issue is ‘best left to experts in capitals.’

These cables establish that the US and UK governments sought to discourage discussion of Mirzayanov’s book in 2009. Taken together with the deletion of the record for A-234 submitted by Edgewood to the NIST Mass Spectral library, this suggests that the US and UK governments are concealing what they know about the A-230 series of compounds, for reasons that are not clear.

These cables suggest a reinterpretation of our earlier briefing in which we noted that the OPCW Scientific Advisory Board in 2013 had stated that it “has insufficient information to comment on the existence or properties of “Novichoks”. We had interpreted this as scepticism, on the part of experts who were in a position to know, about whether these compounds were really military-grade nerve agents.   From the cables cited above, however, it appears that these experts may have been following the guidance issued earlier that they should “discourage substantive discussions” of the matter.

What is known of the toxicity of the A-230 series of compounds?

Rybalchenko stated that “All that we know is that all substances of this class are very difficult to overcome in case of injuries, and the antidote therapy will hardly bring about the desired effect”. One review has stated (without citing a source) that inhibition of an enzyme known as neuropathy target esterase, which can cause delayed nerve damage, “is of primary concern for the Novichok agent”. The consultant treating the victims of the Salisbury poisoning reported on 22 March that they were “heavily sedated following injury by a nerve agent” and unable to communicate. This prolonged paralysis is not typical of acute poisoning by standard organophosphate agents. To ensure that all available toxicological and medical expertise can be mobilized to help the Salisbury doctors manage the victims, the identity of the agent should be made public without delay. Edgewood and any other laboratories that have studied this compound should reveal the results of any toxicity studies they have done.

Appendix – technical points

This appendix explains some technical points on which there has been confusion.

Why is it necessary to synthesize a new compound before it can be detected by mass spectrometry?

Mass spectrometry identifies compounds by the mass-charge ratio of the ions produced by fragmentation of the compound. These mass-charge ratios, combined with separation by another method such as gas chromatography, are a unique “signature” for the compound. To determine this signature for a new compound, it has to be synthesized and analysed by mass spectrometry to measure the mass-charge ratios, which are then added to databases so that the compound can be detected in future by matching the observed mass-charge ratios with the records in the database.

Is it feasible to synthesize these compounds at bench scale?

The Iranian paper confirms that compounds similar to A-234 can be synthesized at bench scale in any modern university lab. Synthesis at industrial scale for military use would be a different matter, but an assassination would require only bench scale quantities.

Did Porton Down make a definite identification of the agent?

In Mr Justice Williams’s court judgement on 22 March, the statement from witness CC, described as “Porton Down chemical and biological analyst” was summarized as follows:-

Blood samples from Sergei Skripal and Yulia Skripal were analysed and the findings indicated exposure to a nerve agent or related compound. The samples tested positive for the presence of a Novichok class nerve agent or closely related agent.

This is similar to the form of words that OPCW has used to report positive blood tests for sarin exposure: “sarin, or a sarin-like substance”. This wording is used because blood tests for nerve agent detect only what is left of the molecule after it has bound to the receptor. The “leaving group” (the rest of the molecule) cannot be identified. For sarin (and presumably for A-234) the leaving group is a fluorine atom, and for VX the leaving group is a thiol.

Although it is possible that the blood test would not be able to identify definitively a molecular structure such as A-234. this inability to determine the leaving group applies only to physiological samples. If environmental samples have tested positive, Porton Down should have been able to identify the original molecule precisely.   As noted above, to use the word “Novichoks” for the A-230 series of compounds is tendentious.

The GV agents studied in several countries are not the “Novichoks” described by Mirzayanov

In his authoritative review, Dr Robin Black, former head of the detection laboratory at Porton Down, makes clear that the development of a class of “intermediate volatility agents” (IVAs), designated “GV agents” by the Czechoslovak chemists Ivan Masek and Jiri Matousek is distinct from Mirzayanov’s unconfirmed story about “Novichoks”:-

Two additional series of nerve agents are worthy of mention. Research on IVAs in several countries led to the analogue known as GV, O-(2-dimethylaminoethyl) N,N-dimethyl phosphoramidofluoridate (Scheme 1.7). The name GV was coined by Czech chemists to indicate properties of both G and V agents65 The US military designator was GP. GV is a hybrid structure incorporating structural features of tabun, sarin and V agent. GV had true intermediate volatility properties (bp 226 °C, volatility 527 mg m−3 at 25 °C),66 producing sufficient vapour to cause an inhalation hazard, and possessing percutaneous toxicity approaching that of the V agents. GV might have become an important threat agent had it not had very poor storage stability. It has been suggested that a binary version might be feasible.

In recent years, there has been much speculation that a fourth generation of nerve agents, ‘Novichoks’ (newcomer), was developed in Russia, beginning in the 1970s as part of the ‘Foliant’ programme, with the aim of finding agents that would compromise defensive countermeasures.67,68 Information on these compounds has been sparse in the public domain,30,68–70 mostly originating from a dissident Russian military chemist, Vil Mirzayanov.69 No independent confirmation of the structures or the properties of such compounds has been published.

A-264 image NIST

Posted in chemical weapons, guest blog, OPCW, Russia, UK Government, Uncategorized | 78 Comments

Edinburgh Conversations With Russians

As Edinburgh University today hosts the annual Erickson Lecture, it is a good moment to reflect on the remarkable contribution of Professor John Erickson (1929-2002) to easing tensions between Russia and the West during the original Cold War.[1]

Erickson was the initiator of a nine-year series of meetings through the 1980s that came to be known as the Edinburgh Conversations. With the wholehearted support of the University’s principal, Erickson created a ‘back channel’, away from politicking and press, which allowed Western and Soviet admirals and generals to engage face-to-face for open and mutually respectful dialogue in a neutral setting. According to parliamentarian Tam Dalyell, this initiative ‘singlehandedly kept open contact with the Soviet high command and the Soviet military when times were at their most edgy.’ Erickson himself ensured that the meetings – typically lasting about three days – were conducted strictly under ‘academic rules’. (In Erickson’s view, ‘good scholarship is good morality.’) This allowed them to proceed in good spirit, despite the tensions of the time. The series of Conversations continued for nine years, with the venue for annual meetings alternating between Edinburgh and Moscow.

Erickson’s first encounter with the Russian army had been in Yugoslavia. He was serving there after the war had officially ended, and before his move into Intelligence, as a sergeant with the King’s Own Scottish Borderers. One day the patrol he was commanding met a column of Soviet tanks, at which point the Russian commander stopped and challenged him. That challenge, so the story goes, was to a chess match, over tea. The anecdote has survived, I think, because it captures the enduring spirit of Erickson’s engagement with the Russians, including at the highest levels.

As one of very few academics to have the trust of both Americans and Soviets, he was able to mediate and contribute authoritatively, at the top table of military commanders. He was the West’s leading authority on the Soviet military during and after the Second World War, as well as an expert on contemporary nuclear warfare defence grand strategy. He was an open consultant to NATO, the British Defence Ministry and the United Nations while his expertise on Soviet military history was admired by the Soviet leaders too. His two-volume work on Stalin’s War with Germany was described by the historian Norman Stone as being ‘as close to being the definitive work on Soviet strategy, and military history, as it is possible to imagine.’  It ‘was acclaimed not just in the West but also by Soviet generals (several of whom asked Erickson to autograph their copies)’. Tam Dalyell considered Erickson’s ‘supreme achievement was to make the Russians feel that their war effort and sacrifice was appreciated in the West.’ He had ‘shown to the full the achievement and heroism of the men and women who endured the fighting and who suffered on a scale almost inconceivable in the West.’

The Edinburgh Conversations ranged over complex discussions on arms control, related security issues and the environment. They afforded each side a valuable insight into each other’s views, helped to thaw attitudes and influence official and academic thinking on both sides of the Cold War divide. The meetings continued from 1981 to 1989, at which point the two sides decided that relations between them had become good enough for state-to-state meetings to takeover from the academic ones.

In recognition of Erickson’s achievement, Sir Michael Eliot Howard declared that ‘Nobody deserves more credit for the ultimate dissolution of the misunderstandings that brought the Cold War to an end and enabled the peoples of Russia and their western neighbours to live in peace.’

It was above all about the peoples, and our prospects of living in peace, that Erickson ultimately most cared. Even as he attended to the details of both grand strategy and logistical specifics, he always retained clear awareness of the human dimension of decisions and their impacts. His approach to military history also had a strongly social dimension. His major work he described as ‘an attempt to probe how the Soviet system functioned under conditions of maximum stress,’ and he regarded it as ‘a form of social history.’ He reflected more generally, too, on the nature of the covenant between service people and the civil population of a country, finding significance in the extent of a citizenry’s endorsement of military necessities.

I never really knew him personally. By the time I joined the Politics Department at Edinburgh he had already retired, and he would just come into his office from time to time while it still housed a part of his legendary library. (So substantial were his holdings, it turned out, that their weight had done structural damage to the building!) Those who knew him emphasised his strength of character and his humanity. The person who knew him best of all said that he had “tried desperately to keep peace between both sides. That was his mission in life.”

Ljubica Petrovic met Erickson at Oxford. She was from Yugoslavia, a Serb, who, before being liberated by Russians, had witnessed the activities of the Croat extreme-right Ustashe. Her father, Dr Branko Petrovic, had fought in the Yugoslav Resistance, being captured and executed by the Germans in 1943. John and Ljubica married.

John Erickson’s later years were marked by the bitter experience of witnessing the horror of NATO bombing Ljubica’s country and relatives in the name of ‘humanity’. In response, he did what he could – alongside the likes of Tam Dalyell, Tony Benn, John Pilger and Jeremy Corbyn – to bring to public attention the truth of what was happening in the Balkans, calling for more critical reporting of NATO’s bombing and more coverage of the anti-war case in the media.

The break up of Yugloslavia happened at a time before social media made possible even the modest degree of critical awareness now being achieved about media manipulations in relation to NATO activities. Even now, that briefly flourishing opportunity for critical understanding appears to be at risk of closing again as increasing restrictions are imposed on what can be heard in both mainstream media and social media. Meanwhile, a relentless propaganda message about ‘evil Russians’ is attaining acquiescence amongst a significant part of Western populations, even including some academics. So as belligerence is again being stoked between the West and Russia, we should really be looking to create the opportunities we can to resist this slide towards war.

My closing thought is that although Erickson’s extraordinary combination of talents was of course unique, as was the historic opportunity into which he transformed the momentous challenge of his day, we can all learn something from the principles he applied in promoting real mutual understanding between Russia and the West. If there is one thing we can emulate it is his determination to participate in seeking ways to achieve peace. We can even try to seek out ways that others might not have thought of. A crucial requirement is not to be fooled by those who have an interest in promoting war. Among the key factors in Erickson’s success at bringing together the great Cold War enemies was, I believe, his steadfast refusal to take nonsense from anyone. That was why he was trusted on both sides. Nor would he engage in any kind of subterfuge – notwithstanding the enticements that undoubtedly came his way.  If the rest of us are not in a position get the top brass around a table as Erickson could, we can still engage in respectful and honest conversations with counterparts elsewhere in the world. We can build shared understandings, across contrived divides, of the simple truth that it is never we, the ordinary people, who seek war.



[1] What follows is excerpted from memories of friends and colleagues to be found in the following sources:

C.Raab et al, Fifty Years and More: The Department of Politics at the University of Edinburgh, University of Edinburgh 2012.

John Erickson: life and work (University of Edinburgh)

Tam Dalyell, The Importance of Being Awkward, Edinburgh: Berlinn Ltd, 2012

Malcolm Mackintosh, ‘John Erickson, 1929-2002’, in P.J.Marshall (ed) Proceedings of the British Academy, Vol.124 (2005)


Posted in remembrance, Uncategorized, war | 6 Comments

Doubts about “Novichoks”

The following briefing note is developed from ongoing research and investigation into the use of chemical and biological weapons during the 2011-present war in Syria conducted by members of the Working Group on Syria, Media and Propaganda. The note reflects work in progress. However, the substantive questions raised need answering, especially given the seriousness of the political crisis that is now developing. We welcome comments and corrections.

Authors Professor Paul Mckeigue and Professor Piers Robinson +447764763350 .  (


(1) Notes on Novichoks and the Salisbury poisonings

In the House of Commons on 12 March the Prime Minister stated that:

It is now clear that Mr Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia. It is part of a group of nerve agents known as Novichok. Based on the positive identification of this chemical agent by world-leading experts at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down, our knowledge that Russia has previously produced this agent and would still be capable of doing so, Russia’s record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations and our assessment that Russia views some defectors as legitimate targets for assassinations, the Government have concluded that it is highly likely that Russia was responsible for the act against Sergei and Yulia Skripal.

The Prime Minister said if there is no “credible response” by the end of Tuesday 12 March, the UK would conclude there has been an “unlawful use of force” by Moscow.

Summary of the Key Issues that Need to be Addressed

1) There are reasons to doubt that these compounds are military grade nerve agents or that a Russian “Novichok” programme ever existed. If they were potentially usable as chemical weapons, people on the OPCW Scientific Advisory Board who were in a position to know the properties of these compounds would have recommended that they be added to the list of Scheduled Chemicals. They have never been added.

2) Synthesis at bench scale of organic chemicals such as the purported “Novichoks” is within the capability of a modern chemistry laboratory. Porton Down itself must have been able to synthesize these compounds in order to develop tests for them.  The detection of such a compound does not establish Russian origin.


(1) Doubts about the history of the “Novichok” Programme

The history of the alleged “Novichok” programme remains unclear. The original source for the story that a new class of organophosphate compounds was developed as chemical weapons under the name Novichok in the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s is from Vil Mirzayanov, a defector in the 1990s. Mirzayanov described the chemical structures of these compounds and stated that the toxicity of an agent named Novichuk-5 “under optimal conditions exceeds the effectiveness of VX by five to eight times”. Mirzayanov alleged that Russian testing and production had continued after signing the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993.

However, a review by Dr Robin Black, who was until recently head of the detection laboratory at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Porton Down), emphasizes that there is no independent confirmation of Mirzayanov’s claims about the chemical properties of these compounds:

In recent years, there has been much speculation that a fourth generation of nerve agents, ‘Novichoks’ (newcomer), was developed in Russia, beginning in the 1970s as part of the ‘Foliant’ programme, with the aim of finding agents that would compromise defensive countermeasures. Information on these compounds has been sparse in the public domain, mostly originating from a dissident Russian military chemist, Vil Mirzayanov. No independent confirmation of the structures or the properties of such compounds has been published. (Black, 2016)

The OPCW’s Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) appeared to doubt the existence of “Novichoks”, and did not advise that the compounds described by Mirzayanov, or their precursors, should be designated as Scheduled Chemicals that should be controlled under the Chemical Weapons Convention:-

[The SAB] emphasised that the definition of toxic chemicals in the Convention would cover all potential candidate chemicals that might be utilised as chemical weapons. Regarding new toxic chemicals not listed in the Annex on Chemicals but which may nevertheless pose a risk to the Convention, the SAB makes reference to “Novichoks”. The name “Novichok” is used in a publication of a former Soviet scientist who reported investigating a new class of nerve agents suitable for use as binary chemical weapons. The SAB states that it has insufficient information to comment on the existence or properties of “Novichoks”. (OPCW, 2013)

The Scientific Advisory Board included Dr Black, and several other heads of national chemical defence laboratories in western countries. These labs would have presumably made their own evaluation of Mirzayanov’s claims and specifically would have done their own experiments to determine if compounds with the structures that he described were of military grade toxicity. Such studies can be done quickly and efficiently in vitro using methods developed for drug discovery (combinatorial chemistry and high-throughput screening). It is reasonable to assume that if these labs had found that these compounds were potentially usable as chemical weapons, the Scientific Advisory Board would have recommended adding them to the list of Scheduled Chemicals as the Chemical Weapons Convention requires.

Until independent confirmation of Mirzayanov’s claims about the toxicity of these compounds is available, and there is an adequate explanation of why the OPCW Scientific Advisory Board did not recommend that the compounds purported to be “Novichoks” and their precursors be designated as scheduled chemicals, it is reasonable to question whether these compounds are military grade nerve agents, or that a Russian “Novichok” programme ever actually existed.


(2) Who Could Have Synthesized the ‘Novichok’ Compounds?

 The Prime Minister stated that:

There are, therefore, only two plausible explanations for what happened in Salisbury on 4 March: either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country; or the Russian Government lost control of their potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.

However, Mirzayanov originally claimed that the Novichok agents were easy to synthesize:-

One should be mindful that the chemical components or precursors of A-232 or its binary version novichok-5 are ordinary organophosphates that can be made at commercial chemical companies that manufacture such products as fertilizers and pesticides. (Mirzayanov, 1995).

Soviet scientists had published many papers in the open literature on the chemistry of such compounds for possible use as insecticides. Mirzayanov claimed that “this research program was premised on the ability to hide the production of precursor chemicals under the guise of legitimate commercial chemical production of agricultural chemicals”.

As the structures of these compounds have been described, any organic chemist with a modern lab would be able to synthesize bench scale quantities of such a compound. Indeed, Porton Down must have been able to synthesize these compounds in order to develop tests for them. It is therefore misleading to assert that only Russia could have produced such compounds.




Vil S. Mirzayanov, “Dismantling the Soviet/Russian Chemical Weapons Complex: An Insider’s View,” in Amy E. Smithson, Dr. Vil S. Mirzayanov, Gen Roland Lajoie, and Michael Krepon, Chemical Weapons Disarmament in Russia: Problems and Prospects, Stimson Report No. 17, October 1995, p. 21.

OPCW: Report of the Scientific Advisory Board on developments in science and technology for the Third Review Conference 27 March 2013

Robin Black. (2016) Development, Historical Use and Properties of Chemical Warfare Agents. Royal Society of Chemistry



Posted in chemical weapons, journalism, propaganda, UK Government, Uncategorized, war | 43 Comments

Why Do We Write Numbers Backwards?

Some readers will know the answer to this question. Others may be puzzled by its premise. Until very recently I’d have been numbered amongst these others. But you’re never too old to shift perspective, as I was lately reminded by stumbling on a realisation: something we all probably do numerous times everyday is in fact rather odd.

The puzzle started as one that was not about ‘us’ but about ‘them’. I’m sure most people will know that whereas in English and other European languages we write from left to right across the page, in some other languages, like Arabic, the writing goes in the opposite direction – from right to left.

So a passage of Arabic looks like this:

الطائرات #التركية تستهدف وتدمر #معبد عين دارة الشهير في #عفرين. يعد المعبد نموذجاً لعمارة المعابد في عصر الحديد وقد بني على ثلاثة مراحل بين 1300ق.م-740 ق.م. خسارة كبيرة تضاف للخسائر المادية والبشرية التي شهدتها سوريا خلال السنوات السبع الماضية. وخسارة لنا كآثاريين.

If you’re not a reader of Arabic, you won’t understand a word of that – except the dates. And when you think about how they are written, you may find it odd: the Arabic text definitely flows in the ‘wrong’ direction but the years are written the ‘right’ way round.

How come? Is that because the passage happens to be quoting a date from the Gregorian calendar? No, the Islamic date, and all other numbers, are written in that same direction. Speaking of calendars, though, the passage cited appears to be giving a date range that would appear to go ‘our way’ – but that is just because the dates here are BC!

So the Arabic word order is consistent, but, within it, they write their numbers backwards? Is that because they have adopted the Western convention, perhaps for some historical or convenience reason?

At this point, those of us who write words with a Roman script should remind ourselves where our written numbers come from. In the West we abandoned the effort of calculating sums like DCXLII + XVIII some time ago, in favour a more elegant system.

In fact, our numerical system is, as everyone is at least dimly aware, of Arabic origin. That means not just the symbols, 1,2,3 … but also the longer numbers involving a succession of symbols. And how do we in the West do calculations involving several numbers, as in totting up the bill for even the simplest transactions?

Imagine getting a bill like this to pay:



1000 +



If we were adding up like we write, see how drastically we could get over-charged!

It turns out, then, that when we want to work out what the amount really is we have to ‘think in Arabic’:







And that’s all I wanted to say in this post. Except, it is perhaps worth noting that the numerical system we have taken over from mathematicians in Baghdad (a city that was home to flourishing civilisation centuries before North America was discovered by Europeans) can be traced further back still. It was mathematicians on the Indian subcontinent who first developed it, apparently, some 500 years before the year dot in the Gregorian calendar.

It feels to me like there could be a moral or two in this story.



The Arabic passage quoted above was a caption to this image. Translation: ‘Horrible news! Turkish warplanes targeted & destroyed the famous Temple of AinDara in Afrin. The Iron Age Syro-Hittite temple was built in 3 phases over more than five centuries (1300-740 B.C).It’s a huge loss to history, to archaeology, and to Syria.’ [Via]

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Guardian, White Helmets, and Silenced Comment

The Guardian recently published an article claiming that critical discussion of the White Helmets in Syria has been ‘propagated online by a network of anti-imperialist activists, conspiracy theorists and trolls with the support of the Russian government’. Many readers were dismayed at this crude defence of a – presumably – pro-imperialist perspective, and at the unwarranted smearing of reasoned questioning based on evidence from independent journalists.

What The Guardian did next:

  • quickly closed its comments section;
  • did not allow a right of reply to those journalists singled out for denigration in the piece;
  • did not allow publication of the considered response from a group of concerned academics (posted in full below);
  • did not respond to the group’s subsequent Letter,[1] or a follow up email to it;
  • prevaricated in response to telephone inquiries as to whether a decision against publishing either communication from the group had or had not been taken;
  • failed to respond to a message to its Readers’ Editor from Vanessa Beeley, one of the journalists criticised in the article.

Meanwhile, the article’s author, Olivia Solon, tweeting from California, allowed herself to promote her piece while simply blocking critical voices.

Conduct hardly more becoming was that of The Guardian’s George Monbiot who joined in, tweeting smears against critics and suggesting they read up about ‘the Russian-backed disinformation campaign against Syria’s heroic rescue workers’. Judging by the tenor of responses to this, the journalist misjudged his surprising intervention. It seems that people who follow these matters are able to decide for themselves who and what they find credible.

As for allowing a fair hearing to independent researchers like Vanessa Beeley, it is poignant to observe that while The Guardian’s journalists were tweeting away, she was actually on the ground in Syria, again putting herself at personal risk of bombs and mortars despatched by the fighters that the White Helmets provide support to; she was there meeting – and filming – Syrian people who provide grave witness statements concerning those that The Guardian uncritically commends as ‘heroic rescue workers’.

A growing number of us believe that it is high time the critical questions raised by independent investigators be treated with the seriousness and scrupulousness they warrant. That is why the academic Working Group on Syria, Propaganda, and the Media offered the following response to The Guardian under its ‘Comment is Free’ rubric. Since it was not published there, I post it on behalf of the group here.


From the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media:

Seeking Truth About White Helmets In Syria

The recent Guardian article by Olivia Solon attacks those investigating and questioning the role of the White Helmets in Syria and attributes all such questioning to Russian propaganda, conspiracy theorizing and deliberate disinformation. The article does little, however, to address the legitimate questions which have been raised about the nature of the White Helmets and their role in the Syrian conflict. In addition, academics such as Professors Tim Hayward and Piers Robinson have been subjected to intemperate attacks from mainstream media columnists such as George Monbiot through social media for questioning official narratives. More broadly, as Louis Allday described in 2016 with regard to the war in Syria, to express ‘even a mildly dissenting opinion … has seen many people ridiculed and attacked … These attacks are rarely, if ever, reasoned critiques of opposing views: instead they frequently descend into personal, often hysterical, insults and baseless, vitriolic allegations’. These are indeed difficult times in which to ask serious and probing questions. It should be possible for public debate to proceed without resort to ad hominem attacks and smears.

It is possible to evaluate the White Helmets through analysis of verifiable government and corporate documents which describe their funding and purpose. So, what do we know about the White Helmets? First, the ‘Syria Civil Defence’, the ‘official title’ given to the White Helmets, is supported by US and UK funding. Here it is important to note that the real Syria Civil Defence already exists and is the only such agency recognised by the International Civil Defence Organisation (ICDO). The White Helmets receive funding from the UK government’s Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF) and the US government’s USAID, Office of Transition Initiatives programme – the Syria Regional Program II. The UK and US governments do not provide direct training and support to the White Helmets. Instead, private contractors bid for the funding from the CSSF and USAID. Mayday Rescue won the CSSF contract, and Chemonics won the USAID contract. As such, Chemonics and Mayday Rescue train and support the White Helmets on behalf of the US and UK governments.

Second, the CSSF is directly controlled by the UK National Security Council, which is chaired by the Prime Minister, while USAID is controlled by the US National Security Council, the Secretary of State and the President. The CSSF is guided by the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) which incorporates UK National Security Objectives. Specifically, the White Helmets funding from the CSSF falls under National Security Objective “2d: Tackling conflict and building stability overseas”. This is a constituent part of the broader “National Security Objective 2: Project our Global Influence”.

The funding background of the White Helmets raises important questions regarding their purpose. A summary document published online indicates that the CSSF funding for the White Helmets is currently coordinated by the Syria Resilience Programme. This document highlights that the core objective of the programme is to support “the moderate opposition to provide services for their communities and to contest new space”, as to empower “legitimate local governance structures to deliver services gives credibility to the moderate opposition”. The document goes on to state that the White Helmets (‘Syria Civil Defence’) “provide an invaluable reporting and advocacy role”, which “has provided confidence to statements made by UK and other international leaders made in condemnation of Russian actions”. The ‘Syria Resilience CSSF Programme Summary’ is a draft document and not official government policy. However, the summary indicates the potential dual use of the White Helmets by the UK government: first, as a means of supporting and lending credibility to opposition structures within Syria; second, as an apparently impartial organisation that can corroborate UK accusations against the Russian state.

In a context in which both the US and UK governments have been actively supporting attempts to overthrow the Syrian government for many years, this material casts doubt on the status of the White Helmets as an impartial humanitarian organization. It is therefore essential that investigators such as Vanessa Beeley, who raise substantive questions about the White Helmets, are engaged with in a serious and intellectually honest fashion. The White Helmets do not appear to be the independent agency that some have claimed them to be. Rather, their funding background, and the strategic objectives of those funders, provide strong prima facie grounds for considering the White Helmets as part of a US/UK information operation designed to underpin regime change in Syria as other independent journalists have argued. It is time for the smears and personal attacks to stop, allowing full and open investigation by academics and journalists into UK policy toward Syria, including the role of the White Helmets, leading to a better-informed public debate.


Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media

Steering Committee

Professor Tim Hayward, Professor of Environmental Political Theory, University of Edinburgh

Professor Paul McKeigue, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology and Statistical Genetics, University of Edinburgh

Professor Piers Robinson, Chair in Politics, Society and Political Journalism University of Sheffield


Jake Mason (PhD candidate, University of Sheffield)

Divya Jha (PhD candidate, University of Sheffield)



[1] Having sent the article reproduced here to ‘Comment is Free’ at The Guardian on 23 December, but receiving no definite response, despite a follow up email, on 5 January, we sent the following letter to The Guardian’s Readers’ Editor. (This also received no response.)

Dear Mr Chadwick

We are writing in relation to an article by Olivia Solon “How Syria’s White Helmets became victims of an online propaganda machine” published on 18 December.  This article asserted that those who have questioned the ostensible role of the White Helmets as an impartial humanitarian organization, including the experienced journalists Vanessa Beeley and Eva Bartlett, are part of “a network of anti-imperialist activists, conspiracy theorists and trolls with the support of the Russian government “.  

We sent on 23 December a request (reproduced below) to Comment is Free requesting that they consider for publication a brief (800-word) response to Solon’s article.  This article set out the grounds for a more serious engagement with the questions that arise from UK and US government support for media-related operations in Syria.  The text of this article is reproduced below.  The original is attached as a Word document, in case the embedded links do not work in the unformatted text.

Despite a second message on 28 December specifically requesting a written response to the original message on 23 December (and copied to you), we have not had any response from the Guardian other than automated acknowledgements.   Before we proceed to publish this material elsewhere, it is important to document that this article has been seen by an editor and rejected (if that was the decision).   I understand that Comment is Free editors are not able to reply to every pitch, but this one concerns an article that has serious implications for the Guardian’s reputation.

We request therefore that you ask your editorial colleagues to respond in writing with a confirmation that our article has been seen and rejected.  A one-sentence email message from an editor would be enough – we shall not bother you again.


Prof. Tim Hayward, Professor of Environmental Political Theory, University of Edinburgh

Prof. Paul McKeigue, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology and Statistical Genetics, University of Edinburgh

Prof. Piers Robinson, Chair in Politics, Society and Political Journalism, University of Sheffield










Posted in disinformation, Guardian, guest blog, journalism, media, propaganda, Syria, Syrian opposition, Uncategorized, war, White Helmets | 33 Comments