Alleged Chlorine Attacks in Syria 2014-18

1 Summary

  • Early statements by the US and French governments that a nerve agent had been used in the alleged chemical attack in Douma on 7 April 2018 were rebutted by the OPCW Fact-Finding mission which reported that neither environmental samples obtained on-site nor blood samples from purported victims contained any trace of nerve agent. This indicates that the US and French governments were poorly informed at the time of the US-led missile attack on Syria on 14 April.
  • The Prime Minister misled the House of Commons by stating on 16 April that the OPCW team had been prevented from visiting the Douma attack site by the Syrian authorities and the Russian military, and may also have misled the House by stating that the US-led missile attack was “specifically targeted at three sites” allegedly associated with chemical weapons (rather than targeted on Syrian military infrastructure as reported elsewhere).
  • The OPCW Fact-Finding Mission did not reach any conclusion as to whether a chemical attack had taken place. The detection of chlorinated organic compounds in environmental samples is consistent with release of chlorine from a gas cylinder at the two alleged attack sites, but this does not distinguish between a chemical attack and a staged incident.
  • Experts agreed that the images showing bodies of victims lying close together in an apartment building were not compatible with exposure only to chlorine, from which the victims would have been able to escape by moving to the windows or leaving the building. This is supported by experience of industrial accidents with chlorine in which those exposed are usually able to escape.
  • As no nerve agent degradation products were detected and the positions of the victims’ bodies are not compatible with death from chlorine exposure on the spot, the only remaining explanation is that the victims were killed by other means.
  • Other observations favour a managed massacre rather than a chemical attack as the explanation for the Douma incident:-
    • the positioning of the gas cylinders is more consistent with staging than with an air-dropped munition
    • at the site where most victims were shown, a fire was lit in the room underneath the gas cylinder.
  • For chlorine to be useful as a weapon, it would have to be released on an industrial scale as in 1915 rather than as a single cylinder or barrel dropped from the air.
  • Assessments by the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission that chlorine had been used as a weapon in Syria between 2014 and 2017 were based on secondary sources without on-site inspections. This violates a precept that OPCW had set for itself in 2013.
  • The conclusions of the Fact-Finding Mission that use of chlorine in alleged attacks in Syria between 2014 and 2018 was “likely” or supported “with a high degree of confidence” relied on witnesses and samples provided by purported non-governmental organizations with access to opposition-held areas of Syria. These organizations included:
    • a “CBRN Task Force” set up by an agent of the intelligence service of a state committed to one side in the Syrian conflict
    • Same Justice / CVDCS, a Brussels-based organization whose operations are not transparent
    • the White Helmets, who would themselves be implicated if these incidents were staged
  • In relation to one of the incidents from which the CBRN Task Force collected materials — the alleged chlorine barrel bomb attack in Talmenes on 21 April 2014 — the UN/OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism found clear evidence of staging at one of the two alleged locations.
  • In a widely-publicized incident in Sarmin on 16 March 2015, the deaths of a family of six were allegedly caused by a chlorine barrel bomb. For this incident the alleged munition is implausible, the alleged mode of delivery is improbable, and the images of the child victims in hospital are consistent with drug overdose rather than chlorine exposure as the cause of death. Despite evidence that the incident had been staged, the Leadership Panel of the UN/OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism — Gamba, Meritani and Schanze — relied on information obtained from unspecified “other sources” to conclude that a Syrian air force helicopter had dropped a chemical weapon.

2 Introduction

The alleged chemical attack in Douma on 7 April 2018 led to a missile attack on Syria by the US, France and UK. This briefing note summarizes the results of further investigations of the Douma incident and explains relevant scientific issues. This note also examines the processes by which OPCW Fact-Finding Missions and the UN/OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism reached their conclusions that chlorine had been used as a weapon in earlier alleged chemical attacks in Syria.

The primary sources for the alleged chemical attack were images from three locations:

  1. a hospital scene in which children purported to be victims have water thrown over them (FFM Location 1)
  2. a four-storey apartment building where images showed bodies of 35 victims and a gas cylinder lying over a hole in the roof (FFM Location 2).
  3. a room in an apartment that has a hole in the roof and a gas cylinder on a bed (FFM Location 4)

3 Suggestions that a nerve agent had been used in Douma

The speech of the French representative (Francois DeLattre) at the UN Security Council on 9 April 2018 was reported by the UN press office:

Noting that thousands of videos and photos had surfaced in the hours following the attacks — showing victims foaming at the mouth and convulsing, all symptoms of a potent nerve agent combined with chlorine gas — he said there was no doubt as to the perpetrators, as the Syrian Government and its allies alone had the capability of developing such substances.

On 13 April US officials briefed CNN:

Biological samples from the area of the alleged chemical attack in Syria have tested positive for chlorine and a sarin-like nerve agent, according to a US official familiar with the US analysis of the test results. A western official told CNN that it is not conclusive but officials suspect the substance used in the attack was a mixture of chlorine, sarin and possibly other chemicals.

An official press release mentioned symptoms that “suggest that the regime also used sarin” but did not mention tests on biological samples. By the following day, US officials briefing the media were more confident that nerve agents had been used:

“While the available information is much greater on the chlorine use, we do have significant information that also points to sarin use,” a senior administration official said on a call with reporters, citing reports from media, nongovernmental organizations and other open sources. “They do point to miosis — constricted pupils — convulsions and disruptions to central nervous systems. Those symptoms don’t come from chlorine. They come from nerve agents.”

On 11 April the former British Army officer Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, widely quoted as a chemical weapons expert, briefed the FT:

“There’s no doubt this was a major chemical weapons attack,” he said. “The big question is whether it was chlorine or sarin. I am favouring a mix of the two.”

and on 16 April briefed the Daily Mail

‘What they’re describing is chlorine and what we suspect is a nerve agent mixed with chlorine.’

A similar opinion was expressed on 16 April by Raphael Pitti, a former French Army officer who, like de Bretton-Gordon, has had a role in collecting samples from alleged chemical attacks in Syria since 2013:

The UOSSM also concluded that the symptoms of the casualties were consistent with exposure to a nerve agent, possibly one mixed with chlorine. Dr Raphael Pitti of UOSSM France said he thought “chlorine was used to conceal the use of Sarin”, a nerve agent

Other experts noted that the images showing victims’ bodies close together in the middle of the apartment building, having made no attempt to escape the gas by leaving the building or moving to the window, were more consistent with exposure to a nerve agent than with exposure to chlorine. Alastair Hay, a member of the OPCW Advisory Board on Education and Outreach noted that: “people have pretty much died where they were when they inhaled the agent. They’ve just dropped dead” and added that “Chlorine victims usually manage to get out to somewhere they can get treatment”. The Washington Post reported “outside experts” as commenting that “the speed with which the victims died suggested that a nerve agent was used. Chlorine usually takes longer to work.”

4 The Prime Minister’s statement on 16 April 2018

The Prime Minister made a statement on the Douma incident in the Commons on 16 April 2018, two days after a missile attack had been launched without parliamentary approval. She alleged that Syria and Russia were delaying the FFM’s access to the alleged attack sites:

Even if the OPCW team is able to visit Douma to gather information to make that assessment — and it is currently being prevented from doing so by the regime and the Russians — it cannot attribute responsibility.

This is contradicted by the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission Interim Report which explains that although preparations were made to deploy an advance team on 12 April, this was delayed by safety considerations and that the risk assessment was shared by the representative of the United Nations Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS).

Given the recent military activities and the volatile situation in Douma at the time of the FFM deployment, security and safety considerations were of paramount importance. Considerable time and effort were invested in discussions and planning to mitigate the inherent security risks to the FFM team and others deploying into Douma. According to Syrian Arab Republic and Russian Military Police representatives, there were a number of unacceptable risks to the team, including mines and explosives that still needed to be cleared, a risk of explosions, and sleeper cells still suspected of being active in Douma. This assessment was shared by the representative of the United Nations Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS).

Under the evacuation agreement reached on 8 April, Russian military police were to patrol Douma during a transitional period before handing control to the Syrian authorities. The FFM report explains that at the outset

the formal position of the FFM team, as instructed by the Director-General, was that security of the mission should be the responsibility of the Syrian Arab Republic. During the initial meetings in Damascus, the FFM team was informed by Syrian and Russian representatives that the Syrian Arab Republic could guarantee the safety of the FFM team only if the security was provided jointly with the Russian Military Police.

On 16 April 2018, following consultations with OPCW Headquarters, it was agreed that security within Douma could be provided by the Russian Military Police. A letter dated 18 April from the OPCW Director-General described what happened next:

The United Nations Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS) has made the necessary arrangements with the Syrian authorities to escort the team to a certain point and then for the escort to be taken over by the Russian Military Police. However, the UNDSS preferred to first conduct a reconnaissance visit to the sites, which took place yesterday. FFM team members did not participate in this visit. On arrival at Site 1, a large crowd gathered and the advice provided by the UNDSS was that the reconnaissance team should withdraw. At Site 2, the team came under small arms fire and an explosive was detonated. The reconnaissance team returned to Damascus.

This incident on 17 April led to a reassessment of the security situation, and the implementation of additional measures to mitigate the risks before the FFM site visits began on 21 April:

Once the security reassessment had been concluded and the proposed additional mitigation measures implemented, the FFM team deployed to the sites of investigation in accordance with the updated priorities and proposed schedule.

The Prime Minister repeated the Pentagon’s version of the targeting, stating that missiles were “specifically targeted at three sites” [Barzeh in northern Damascus, and two sites at Him Shinsar near Homs] allegedly associated with development or storage of chemical weapons, and that 88 missiles had hit these targets. The Russian Ministry of Defence however gave a different version of the targeting, stating that “The real targets of the attacks of the US, Britain and France on April 14 were not only Barzah and Jaramani research facilities, but also Syrian military infrastructure, including airfields,” and that of the 73 missiles fired against these six heavily-defended airfields all but eight were brought down by Syrian air defences.

Without access to the flight tracks of the missiles, we have no way of establishing which of these two versions of the targeting is correct. In the version given by the Pentagon and the Prime Minister, 76 missiles were used against the research centre at Barzeh: a surprisingly large number for a strike on a single unprotected target. We note that if the US and its allies had been concerned that these sites were being used for development or storage of chemical weapons, they could have requested that OPCW inspect them. After their most recent inspection of Barzeh in November 2017, OPCW had reported that

The analysis of samples taken during the inspections did not indicate the presence of scheduled chemicals in the samples, and the inspection team did not observe any activities inconsistent with obligations under the Convention during the second round of inspections at the Barzah and Jamrayah facilities.

5 Interim report of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission on the alleged chemical attack in Douma

The interim report of the Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) did not find any trace of a nerve agent in samples taken from the site and from alleged casualties

No organophosphorus nerve agents or their degradation products were detected, either in the environmental samples or in plasma samples from the alleged casualties.

The FFM did not reach a conclusion on whether a chemical attack had taken place, stating only that

The FFM team needs to continue its work to draw final conclusions regarding the alleged incident

The inability to detect sarin degradation products in environmental samples from the two alleged attack sites cannot be explained by delay in sampling as the main breakdown product of sarin — isopropylmethylphosphonic acid — is stable and persisted for more than 30 years in contaminated groundwaters at a sarin production site in Colorado.

Blood samples from witnesses allegedly exposed to toxic chemicals in this incident were obtained under FFM oversight in “Country X” (presumably Turkey), or received by the FFM.

The tests on these blood samples included tests for peptide adducts that are not affected by aging of the adduct. These tests should remain positive for several half-lives of the target protein in vivo: this half-life is about 12 days for butyrlcholinesterase and about 20 days for albumin. As the blood samples were obtained no more than 14 days after the alleged incident, delay in sampling cannot explain the negative results.

The environmental samples were reported to contain chlorinated organic molecules such as trichloroacetic acid and chloral hydrate. Such organic molecules in which one or more of the hydrogen atoms have been replaced by chlorine atoms are environmental markers of chlorine exposure, typically found in chlorinated drinking water and used to monitor water quality. As in previous OPCW reports, no quantitative results were given so we do not know whether these compounds were present in trace amounts, such as might be found in drinking water, or in high concentration as would be expected if chlorine had been released in the buildings.

6 Possible explanations for the Douma incident, and relevant evidence

As explained elsewhere, the formal logic of inference requires that alternative hypotheses are stated before evaluating the evidence, and that the weight of evidence favouring any of these hypothesis over the others is evaluated by comparing, for each relevant observation, how well each hypothesis would have predicted that observation. Evaluating the evidence favouring one hypothesis over another does not depend upon prior beliefs about which hypothesis is true.

The possible explanations for the Douma incident can be reduced to two alternative hypotheses:

  1. A chemical attack using gas cylinders dropped from the air.
  2. a managed massacre of captives, with a chemical attack staged by placing gas cylinders at the site and possibly opening them to release chlorine.

Other hypotheses are possible — for instance accidental asphyxiation of victims while sheltering elsewhere, followed by opportunistic staging of a chemical attack — but unless such hypotheses are proposed we shall consider only the two alternatives stated above.

Several witnesses to the hospital scene at FFM Location 1, including an 11-year old boy seen in the video having water thrown over him, have testified that this scene was staged. Staging of the hospital scene does not exclude a chemical attack, though it it is more probable under the managed massacre hypothesis than under the chemical attack hypothesis.

Laboratory evidence that chlorine was released is not evidence favouring one of these hypotheses over the other, as it is equally compatible with use of chlorine as a weapon as with use of chlorine to lay a forensic trail.

The most direct evidence favouring a managed massacre is the positions of victims’ bodies at FFM Location 2: of the 35 bodies seen, 18 were in a first-floor apartment and 10 in a second-floor apartment. As noted in Section 3, in the first few weeks after the Douma incident several experts commented that people exposed to chlorine would have attempted to escape. With exposure to a nerve agent subsequently ruled out by negative results on environmental and physiological samples, exposure to chlorine from a gas cylinder on the roof does not explain why the victims made no attempt to escape by moving to the windows. Under the managed massacre hypothesis, we would expect to find the bodies in positions that would be convenient for those who were carrying the bodies up the stairs.

Other lines of evidence that favour a managed massacre over a chemical attack include:

  • the position of the gas cylinder at FFM Location 2, on a balcony at with its valve end lying over a hole in the roof is improbable under the chemical attack hypothesis (the balcony is only about one-twentieth of the roof area), but highly probable under the managed massacre hypothesis (the balcony is the only part of the roof that is easily accessible from inside the building).
  • the visual evidence that a fire was lit in the room underneath the cylinder at FFM Location 2) on top of the rubble from the hole in the roof above (confirmed by the FFM’s inspectors who took wipes from the burnt wall) is inexplicable under a chemical attack hypothesis, but explicable on the managed massacre hypothesis as a method of releasing the contents of the cylinder.

Other evidence on the Douma incident has been reviewed by Larson

7 Alleged use of chlorine as a weapon in the Syrian conflict

Since 2014 it has been alleged that the Syrian armed forces were using chlorine bombs dropped from helicopters. For chlorine to be effective as a weapon, it has to be released on an industrial scale as at Ypres in April 1915 when the German army released 168 tons of chlorine from 5730 cylinders installed along their front line and at Bolimov in May 1915 when 12000 cylinders were used along a 12-kilometre front. This resort to chemical warfare was an act of desperation at a time when Germany was running out of imported nitrate for explosives as a result of the British blockade and had not yet managed to scale up the Haber-Bosch process to synthesize nitrate. Although there has been no experience with use of chlorine by a state as a weapon since 1915, there is ample experience with industrial accidents, in which fatalities have been rare unless the quantity of chlorine released exceeds one ton (creating a cloud too big to run out of) or the victims are in a confined space. This experience indicates that:

  • for the same weight of payload delivered, explosives would be more lethal than chlorine.
  • in a real chlorine incident, the number of casualties that were not immediately fatal would be much greater than the number of immediate fatalities. Some of these casualties would develop pulmonary oedema several hours after exposure, obvious on chest X-rays and requiring intensive medical care.

As noted by Hitchens, OPCW stated in April 2013 that they would provide a formal assessment of whether chemical weapons had been used only if their inspectors were able to visit the sites of alleged attacks:

Weapons inspectors will only determine whether banned chemical agents were used in the two-year-old conflict if they are able to access sites and take soil, blood, urine or tissue samples and examine them in certified laboratories, according to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which works with the United Nations on inspections. That type of evidence, needed to show definitively if banned chemicals were found, has not been presented by governments and intelligence agencies accusing Syria of using chemical weapons against insurgents. “That is the only basis on which the OPCW would provide a formal assessment of whether chemical weapons have been used,” said Michael Luhan, a spokesman for the Hague-based OPCW.

Luhan was quoted further as saying that even if samples were provided, OPCW would never get involved in testing something that its own inspectors did not “gather in the field” because of the need to “maintain a chain of custody of samples from the field to the lab to ensure their integrity”.

Following an incident on 27 May 2014 in which despite having reached an agreement with the opposition the FFM convoy came under fire while travelling behind opposition lines to Kafr Zita and members of the team were “detained for some time” by gunmen, further visits to opposition-held areas were ruled out. The decision to continue the Fact-Finding Mission, implying that OPCW would now disregard its own precepts that they would not test samples provided by others or make a formal assessment of an alleged chemical attack without being able to visit the site, was made by the Director-General and subsequently endorsed by the Executive Council of the OPCW. The FFM’s conclusions that chlorine was used as a weapon in incidents from 2014 onwards were based on interviews, images, documents and samples provided by witnesses and NGOs and conveyed to the FFM outside Syria.

The work of the FFM was criticized by the Russian Permanent Representative to the OPCW who complained on 14 April 2017 that

Under the mandate defined for [the Fact-Finding Mission], its membership should be approved by the Syrian government, and it should be balanced. For some time, these provisions were observed somewhat, but then the mission was split into two groups. One [Team Bravo], led by Steven Wallis from Britain, works in contact with the Syrian government, while the other one [Team Alpha], headed by his fellow countryman Leonard Phillips, deals with the claims filed by the Syrian armed opposition. This latter group is working completely non-transparently. Its membership is classified, and no one knows where it goes or how it operates. They are allegedly using the same methodology as Steven Wallis’ group, but they are clearly working mostly remotely, relying on the internet and the fabrications provided by Syrian opposition NGOs, and never go to Syria. At least, we are not aware of a single such trip.

The FFM also used open-source material as evidence. The 2018 reports mention that media monitoring to identify this material was undertaken by the OPCW Information Cell. This unit is headed by the Senior Communication and Information Officer Lt-Col Leo Buzzerio whose curriculum vitae includes three years as Deputy Division Chief in the US Defense Intelligence Agency. The FFM’s reports do not describe their methods for retrieval and analysis of open source material, although methodology for conducting interviews and collecting physical evidence is described in detail. Links are listed in the appendix to each report, but there is no indication that any systematic analysis of this material was undertaken. Serious analysis of open source material entails tracing reports and images back to primary sources, geolocation and timing of images, ordering them in temporal sequence, and matching the identities of individuals in different videos or still images. When this is done carefully, clues may emerge. A model for this type of investigation is the analysis of the Douma videos described by McIntyre, which reveals many troubling details: for instance that during the night some victims’ bodies were rearranged and gold jewellery was removed.

Without on-site inspections, the credibility of the FFM’s reports into alleged chlorine attacks depends critically on the organizations that identified purported witnesses and collected physical evidence. If OPCW inspectors as neutral observers could not safely travel in opposition-held areas, this calls into question the neutrality of those who could travel in such areas. Because this is critical to the credibility of the FFM’s reports, this briefing note examines in more detail the organizations on which FFM Team Alpha relied to collect evidence.

Based on the devices alleged to have been dropped, the alleged chlorine attacks can be grouped into three phases:-

7.1 April to May 2014: chlorine barrel bombs

Following Syria’s accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention in September 2013, no further alleged chemical attacks in Syria were reported in mainstream media until 2014. The Third Report of the OPCW Fact-Finding mission by Malik Ellahi dated 18 December 2014 covered alleged attacks using chlorine barrels during April and May 2014 in Talmenes, Al Tamanah and Kafr Zita. The data and material collected by the FFM included interviews, images and documents. The FFM concluded:

The Mission has presented its conclusions with a high degree of confidence that chlorine has been used as a weapon.

The Third Report of the FFM did not give any information on how the witnesses were identified, who arranged for them to travel outside Syria, or who provided the images and documents. In an earlier interim report on the same incidents, the FFM had stated:

Independently of the individuals from the three villages who were interviewed, the FFM interviewed and received information from members of the “CBRN Task Force”, who had performed a systematic collection of data in the field following reported attacks in Talmenes and Kafr Zita.

A biographical note on Hamish de Bretton-Gordon (HdBG) states that he helped set up this CBRN [Chemical/Biological/Radiological/Nuclear(/Explosive)] Task Force.

Since the Syrian conflict started, Hamish has been deployed to the conflict area a number of times, where on behalf of OPCW (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) he has helped set up a CBRNE task force.

In a presentation to the Innovate UK Small Business Research Initiative dated September 2014, HdBG (representing the now-liquidated company Secure Bio that he set up in 2011) indicated that this CBRN task force had been trained in Gaziantep in October 2013 and was based in Aleppo. He confirmed that it had provided evidence from alleged attacks in Talmenes and Kafr Zita to the FFM and also for a story in the Daily Telegraph published on 29 April 2014. He described his role further in a talk to the All-Party Parliamentary Group Friends of Syria in September 2016:

I have covertly been in Syria collecting evidence of chemical weapons attacks and have been giving it to the OPCW and the UN. They cannot get to the places the chemical weapons attacks have happened because they’re in rebel held areas. When I present evidence with our teams from UOSSM, we are not an international body etcetera etcetera. We provided the evidence of the chemical weapons attack in a town called Talmenes in April 2014, on the 29th of April 2014, three weeks after the attack; two weeks ago, two years later, the UN Security Council announced to the world that they had conclusive evidence that the regime had attacked Talmenes in April 2014 with chemical weapons.

More information on the CBRN Task Force and its role in collecting evidence from alleged chemical attacks in Talmenes and Kafr Zita was given in an article by Houssam Alnahhas, described as the Local Coordinator of the CBRN Task Force of the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM). The affiliation of the CBRN Task Force to UOSSM was not described before 2016. The coverage of UOSSM’s press releases appears to have changed abruptly in April 2016 from humanitarian work to allegations of airstrikes on hospitals and chemical attacks.

HdBG has described to the All-Party Parliamentary Group and elsewhere his covert role in collecting samples from alleged chemical attacks in Syria, and has stated that this role dates back to March 2013. Press reports at this time described the collection of samples from these alleged chemical attacks as a “covert operation involving MI6, the Secret Intelligence Service” and as an operation in which “MI6 played the leading role”. If these reports are correct, then it is reasonable to infer that unless there were two independent UK-led covert operations at the same time to collect environmental samples from the same incidents for analysis at Porton Down, HdBG’s covert activity and the MI6 operation were one and the same. However admirable HdBG’s activities (no doubt undertaken at considerable personal risk) may have been, neutral observers might consider it inappropriate for the FFM to have relied on evidence gathered by a network set up by an agent of the intelligence service of a state committed to one side in the Syrian conflict. For clarity, we emphasize that the term “agent” is used here to denote someone who undertakes covert activities on behalf of an intelligence service but is not a member of that service.

7.1.1 Alleged attack in Talmenes on 21 April 2014

By comparing information from the three reports — the interim report of the FFM, the Third Report of the FFM, and the Third Report of the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism (Gamba, Neritani and Schanze) — it is possible to reconstruct the role of the CBRN Task Force in providing evidence from this incident.

Annex 2 paragraph 3.5 of the Third Report of the FFM states that “The first interviewee provided his testimony and data to the Mission on 22 August 2014”. The first of three groups of interviewees from Talmenes, Al Tamanah and Kafr Zita reached the OPCW interview site on 25 August, so this first interviewee was evidently not a member of one of these groups. Table A in the Third Report of the FFM shows that the materials handed over by this interviewee on 22 August 2014 included sampling forms showing collection of materials including soil (from unspecified sites) on 12, 18, 21, 22 and 23 April 2014 and also “various videos [42 in number] taken by interviewee from the incident of 21 April 2014”. The Joint Investigative Mechanism reported that soil samples had been taken from this incident on 23 April 2014 and that the results had been published in a newspaper on 29 April 2014. From the quote given in the Mechanism’s report, this newspaper article can be identified as Ruth Sherlock’s story in the Daily Telegraph which described HdBG’s analysis of soil samples collected by the CBRN Task Force. From this we can infer that the person interviewed by the FFM on 22 August 2014, who provided the 42 videos from the incident in Talmenes together with documentation that soil and other samples had been collected, was representing the CBRN Task Force.

Although the environmental samples provided by the CBRN Task Force were not used by the FFM or the Joint Investigative Mechanism, the videos of the alleged impact sites in Talmenes were a key source of evidence for the reports. More details were given in the Joint Investigative Mechanism’s report. Two impact locations 75 metres apart near the main mosque in Talmenes were reported by witnesses to have been struck with chemical barrel bombs at around 10:30 to 10:45 h.

  • The videos of Location 1 (numbered v02 to v05) showed a crater in a courtyard with dead animals and remnants of a barrel bomb. Analysis of these videos showed what the Joint Investigative Mechanism’s report referred to as “inconsistencies”, leading the Mechanism to disregard Location 1 for further investigation:
    • A forensic examination of videos v02 and v03 concluded that the crater had probably been made by a small explosive charge (5-10 kg TNT-equivalent) buried in the ground. “A barrel bomb without a large explosive charge would not penetrate the hard soil to the extent seen.” Use of a barrel bomb with explosives could be excluded as there was no shrapnel damage to surrounding walls.
    • The Mechanism noted that “the bodies of the dead animals seen in v04 look clean and intact, making it highly unlikely that they were in the backyard or at close vicinity when the device causing the crater detonated.”
    • Metadata of video v04 included timestamps showing the creation date as 20 April 2014, one day before the alleged attack.
  • Videos v02 and v03 showed Location 2 also, with structural damage to a house and remnants of a barrel bomb. Gamba, Meritani and Schanze decided that “there is sufficient information for the Leadership Panel to conclude that the incident at impact location #2 was caused by a SAAF helicopter dropping a device causing damage to the structure of a concrete block building house and was followed by the release of a toxic substance which affected the population.”

As the Mechanism had identified evidence of staging at Location 1, we might have expected Gamba, Meritani and Schanze to be more suspicious of the story of a chemical barrel bomb strike at Location 2, especially since there was overlap of witnesses and videos from both alleged impact sites. As the “inconsistencies” identified by the Mechanism included the timestamp of video v04, this implicates whoever recorded these videos in the staging. As shown above, the source of these videos appears to have been the CBRN Task Force.

7.2 March to May 2015: permanganate barrel bombs

A new series of incidents allegedly involving chlorine began on 16 March 2015, ten days after the UN Security Council had adopted Resolution 2209 condemning “in the strongest terms any use of a toxic chemical, such as chlorine, as a weapon in the Syrian Arab Republic” and resolving “in the event of future non-compliance with resolution 2118 to impose measures under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter”.

Images from the sites of these alleged attacks showed refrigerant canisters and half-litre plastic bottles containing a purple substance that stained the surroundings pink. This substance was identified as potassium permanganate by the FFM, which suggested that it might have been used to produce chlorine by reaction with a “chlorine-containing compound”. The Report of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission in Syria regarding alleged incidents in the Idlib Governorate of the Syrian Arab Republic between 16 March and 20 May 2015 by Leonard Phillips dated 29 October 2015 covered six alleged attacks, concluding that

several incidents that occurred in the Idlib Governorate of the Syrian Arab Republic between 16 March 2015 and 20 May 2015 likely involved the use of one or more toxic chemicals — probably containing the element chlorine — as a weapon.

In relation to the alleged attack on 16 March 2015 in Sarmin, the Leadership Panel of the Joint Investigative Mechanism (Gamba, Neritani and Schanze) concluded that

There is sufficient information for the Leadership Panel to conclude that the incident at impact location #2 was caused by an SAAF helicopter dropping a device which hit the house and was followed by the release of a toxic substance, which match the characteristics of chlorine, that was fatal to all six occupants.

The Sarmin incident is examined in more detail in the Appendix.

The FFM used open-source material from the internet as “supporting information”, but the methods for selection and analysis of this material were not described. Witnesses were identified and transported to “Country X” (presumably Turkey) by an NGO named the “Chemical Violations Documentation Center of Syria” (CVDCS). The FFM also received environmental samples and fragments of alleged munitions “collected by witnesses and/or representatives of the fCVDCS”. Some of those interviewed by the FFM team were White Helmets. The CVDCS met OPCW in The Hague and in Brussels. The FFM explains why CVDCS was chosen as the provider of witnesses:-

While there were several different NGOs with access to potential interviewees, only one, the Chemical Violations Documentation Center of Syria, appeared to have access to the means of arranging their transport from the Idlib Governorate and their accommodation in Country X.

The CVDCS is described on its website as “an office within Same Justice” which was founded as a not-for-profit association in Brussels on 7 April 2015. No accounts for this organization are available on the Belgian business register. The domain names and were registered (on 11 March 2015 and 8 August 2015 respectively) by Hasan Addaher (sometimes transliterated as Hassan Aldaher), one of the founders of Same Justice who is also the co-ordinator of a pro-opposition organization. As the FFM reports from 2015 onwards relied critically on Same Justice / CVDCS to provide interviewees and samples, we might have expected them to scrutinise this organization: how did it spring into existence in 2015, with an office in Brussels and a network on the ground in opposition-held Idlib able to collect samples, identify witnesses, and arrange for their transport and accommodation in Turkey?

7.3 March 2017 to February 2018: chlorine cylinders

Two later Fact-Finding Mission reports investigated alleged chlorine attacks in 2017 and 2018 in which the alleged munitions were ordinary gas cylinders, sometimes in a metal sleeve with fins. Environmental samples provided from both incidents showed chlorinated organic compounds and sarin degradation products. Possible explanations for these findings are discussed in the Appendix.

For these investigations witnesses were identified through NGOs including CVDCS and the White Helmets. Samples were provided by the White Helmets, for whom the FFM uses the name “Syria Civil Defense” though Syria has a civil defence directorate responsible for firefighting and rescue. The reliance on the White Helmets for provision of evidence raises additional concerns. In many of the alleged chemical attacks from 2015 onwards, images showed that people dressed as White Helmets were present at the alleged attack sites or were filming the victims. To decide between the alternative hypotheses of a chemical attack or a staged incident, the FFM was relying on evidence provided by those who would be implicated if the hypothesis of a staged incident was true.

The FFM determined that chlorine, released from cylinders through mechanical impact, was likely used as a chemical weapon on 4 February 2018 in the Al Talil neighbourhood of Saraqib

  • Report of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission in Syria regarding alleged incidents in Ltamenah on 24 and 25 March 2017 dated 13 June 2018. The FFM attributed the sarin degradation products to secondary contamination from a previously unreported sarin attack the day before in which two munitions had allegedly fallen on agricultural land outside the town. The FFM concluded that “sarin was very likely used as a chemical weapon in the south of Ltamenah on 24 March 2017” and that “chlorine was very likely used as a chemical weapon at Ltamenah Hospital and the surrounding area on 25 March 2017”.

Witnesses of the alleged incident on 25 March 2017 reported that a gas cylinder dropped from the air had pierced the roof of the Ltamenah cave hospital, causing the death of a doctor. One of the witnesses interviewed by the FFM was described as a physician working at a nearby hospital that had treated victims of this attack. This individual is not identified, but the list of links included in the FFM’s report includes direct and indirect links to a tweet uploaded on 25 March by the struck-off former doctor Shajul Islam from a hospital that is purportedly treating patients from this attack, stating that “we think it’s sarin” and “our doctor Ali Darwish has been killed from treating the patients from this gas attack”. There is no indication that the FFM undertook any background checks on witnesses.

8 Appendix

8.1 The alleged attack in Sarmin on 16 March 2015

The alleged attack in Sarmin is the most widely-publicized of the alleged chlorine attacks. Excerpts from a video recorded in the emergency room of the Sarmin hospital were shown to a closed meeting of the UN Security Council on 17 April 2015, addressed by the doctor in charge of the hospital.

8.1.1 Alleged munition: a permanganate barrel bomb

From the alleged site of this and other attacks, plastic drink bottles containing potassium permanganate and ruptured gas canisters labelled R22 (a non-toxic hydrochlorofluorocarbon refrigerant) were allegedly recovered. Potassium permanganate reacts with hydrogen chloride to produce chlorine. The FFM report obliquely suggested that this reaction (commonly used as a convenient way to prepare small quantities of chlorine in a laboratory) could have been used in a munition.

The samples and their analysis indicate the presence of potassium permanganate and a chlorine/chloride-containing chemical The vapour pressure of R22 is similar enough to that of certain other industrial chemicals, inter alia chlorine, anhydrous hydrogen chloride, and anhydrous ammonia, such that the refilling of R22 containers with other chemicals for use in an improvised bomb would be feasible Given the oxidising nature of potassium permanganate, it is conceivable that it might be used to oxidise a chlorine containing compound, resulting in the production of Cl2.


The FFM’s reconstruction of the alleged permanganate barrel bomb: Figure 23, Annex 2 page 83 in the report


Though the leader of FFM Team Alpha is a chemical engineer, the FFM did not comment on the feasibility of such a device being used as a weapon. The plausibility of this device is open to question:-

  • If for some reason it was intended to use chlorine as a weapon delivered by air, it would be simpler to drop cylinders of chlorine than to construct a device to produce chlorine by a chemical reaction at the point of impact.
  • There is no mechanism for the potassium permanganate and hydrogen chloride to mix before the device is detonated. Binary chemical munitions are designed to mix the precursors in flight or before launch.
  • Although the FFM had suggested that refilling of R22 canisters with other chemicals for use in an improvised bomb would be feasible, the Joint Investigative Mechanism’s report noted that these canisters are disposable and that “their repurposing or refilling would require technical modification of the valve”. No such valve modifications were reported by the FFM, which had been provided with canisters allegedly used in these munitions.

8.1.2 Alleged delivery

The device, reported to have an “approximate diameter of 1 metre to 1.5 metres”, was alleged to have been dropped from a helicopter at about 11 pm and to have fallen down a ventilation shaft 1.5 metres wide from the roof of an apartment building to the basement apartment where the victims lived. A satellite image shows the ventilation shaft occupying less than 2% of the roof area of the building. Gamba, Neritani and Schanze accepted this story, adding “improbable as it may sound”. The head of the Russian delegation to the UN General Assembly was more sceptical:

Allegedly, in 2015, in the area of Sarmin town the Syrian government air force helicopter flying at a high altitude at night dropped a barrel with chlorine, which fell exactly into the ventilation shaft of an apartment building, almost of the same diameter. The [JIM] report recognizes that it “sounds improbable” and nevertheless the responsibility has been put on the government of Syria in spite of any common sense and the laws of ballistics.

Although western and Russian officials have stated that the Syrian air force does not have the capability to conduct air strikes at night, and the Syrian government had informed the Joint Investigative Mechanism that there had been no Syrian air force flights over Sarmin on 16 March 2015, Gamba, Neritani and Schanze stated that

the Mechanism obtained information from other sources, which corroborate witness statements of SAAF helicopter flights on the date and time of the incident.

Although the Joint Investigative Mechanism’s report devotes more than 2500 words to “Methodological considerations” and “Methods of work”, no information about these “other sources” is given.

8.1.3 Hospital images

Two videos were recorded in a hospital emergency room over a time span of about five minutes: one bearing the logo of the the White Helmets and the other a logo that includes the flag of the Nusra Front (the Syrian affiliate of al-Qaeda). These showed one adult and two children apparently already dead, and one boy about one year old who stopped breathing when he was laid on a trolley. No respiratory support was provided to this child. Others have commented on the inappropriate medical treatment of this child.

The children seen in the videos have no signs of chlorine exposure: no red eyes and no signs of having coughed mucus or blood. The one-year old boy seen in the emergency room and in a previous video can be assessed on the limited evidence of these videos to have a reduced level of consciousness (does not open eyes, does not vocalize, and motor response to handling is minimal). This is consistent with an overdose of a drug such as an opiate causing respiratory depression, rather than chlorine exposure, as the cause of death. The doctor who addressed the UN Security Council described having personally attempted to save these children, but is not seen in these videos.

8.2 Suggestions that chlorine and sarin might be used as a mixture

As noted above, several government and non-government sources had suggested that chlorine and sarin might have been used in combination in Douma.

An unexplained finding in the Report of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission regarding an alleged incident in Saraqib on 4 February 2018 was that the environmental samples contained not only chlorinated organic molecules, as would be expected if chlorine had been released, but also unchlorinated diisopropyl methylphosphonate (an impurity in sarin) and isopropyl methylphosphonate (the main breakdown product of sarin). The FFM’s only comment on these findings was this paragraph:-

The FFM also noted the presence of chemicals that can neither be explained as occurring naturally in the environment nor as being related to chlorine. Furthermore, some of the medical signs and symptoms reported were different to those that would be expected from exposure to pure chlorine. There was insufficient information and evidence to enable the FFM to draw any further conclusions on these chemicals at this stage.

Chlorinated organic molecules and sarin degradation products had been found also in samples from the alleged chemical attack on the Ltamenah cave hospital on 25 March 2017. The FFM attributed this to cross-contamination of the hospital by casualties from an alleged attack the day before in which two sarin-containing munitions were allegedly dropped on agricultural land outside the town. Environmental samples from the alleged incident on 24 March 2017 were not received by the FFM team until eleven months later, after the White Helmets had been prompted to provide them:

Based on information supplied during interviews, the FFM identified munition parts that were of potential interest in relation to the alleged incident of 24 March 2017 and arranged for their collection by an NGO. As a result, further environmental samples and remnants of alleged munition parts were received by the FFM team on 19 February 2018.

Surprisingly, despite the delay in obtaining these samples, they were found to contain intact sarin as well as sarin degradation products. The FFM does not comment on this. As no reports or images of the incident on 24 March appeared at the time, sceptics might doubt that it happened. A possible motive for fabricating the story of a sarin attack on 24 March 2017 could have been to provide an explanation for the anomalous finding of sarin degradation products in the samples provided in April 2017 from the alleged chlorine attack on 25 March.

In interviews on the BBC and RT. the journalist Seymour Hersh indicated that he had seen a US intelligence report that expressed scepticism about the alleged use of chlorine as a weapon in Syria and noted that a mixture of chlorine and sarin would not work because the sarin would be chlorinated

All I can tell you is that the American intelligence community report – I wish I could flash it here – but the American intelligence community has been very clear that there’s no evidence that the Russians, that the Syrians, the regime used a chlorine weapon because there is no such thing … They [the US Army Chemical Corps] tested, in the Fifties, they tested chlorine with nerve agent to see how – whether the chlorine would soup it up. In fact what the chlorine did is it grabbed all the hydrogen molecules and diminished it. There’s just no way you can use sarin and chlorine, as was written about all the time.

This report by Martin Chulov indicates that his source was aware that sarin cannot be mixed with chlorine.

“We’re looking at the possibility that there were separate canisters inside the cylinder,” said one regional official. “[The contents] cannot be mixed, because that would be volatile and unstable, but they can be combined. That’s a working theory – that they were in the same cylinder but kept separately. The point of detonation dispersed them together.”

No such cylinders with separate canisters have been reported from any of the alleged chemical attacks. We can find no published studies of the effect of dry chlorine on organophosphate nerve agents. If the conditions for chlorination (which include exposure to light or presence of impurities that could act as catalysts) were sufficiently favourable for other organic molecules to undergo chlorination, we might expect that sarin or its breakdown products would undergo chlorination. If the sources quoted above are correct, the finding of chlorinated organic molecules and unchlorinated sarin breakdown products in the same samples suggests that the sarin breakdown products may have been added later. This casts further doubt on the integrity of the process by which these samples were provided to the Fact-Finding Mission.



Posted in chemical weapons, conspiracy, disinformation, guest blog, OPCW, propaganda, Russia, Syria, Syrian opposition, UK Government, Uncategorized, war, White Helmets | 47 Comments

Cynthia McKinney: To my new friends in the UK

Cynthia McKinney, renowned American politician, activist and academic, is currently visiting the UK.  She has today shared some reflections on politics and media in UK via a public post on Facebook. Her words speak eloquently and powerfully, so I wanted to share them here too.



To my new friends in the UK. Elleanne Green, Ian Jenkins, Piers Robinson, Vanessa Beeley, Sheila Coombes, Patrick Henningsen, Gilad Atzmon, Tim Hayward, and more!

What I’ve learned about politics over the last few days:

I would like to thank the organizations and individuals responsible for my invitations to join truthtellers and activists and fellow debaters in the UK. And in the process of getting to know some of you for the first time, here’s what I’ve learned.

It is clear that your country has been hijacked in very much the same way that the U.S. has been, also. Hijacked by a war mongering Cabal bent on dragging us all into interminable wars that benefit no one–absolutely no one–but them. And because you, the people who ultimately are their victims in the U.K., dared to strike back in two decisive and unexpected ways–BREXIT and Jeremy Corbyn–these warmongerers know that your spirit is not yet dead. That your hunger for sovereignty and unique identity is still alive. Thus, what are they to do? Snuff out every bit of truthtelling and dissent from their “party line.” Because we all know that if people stop and think about what is happening in the world, without the filter of war propaganda, hardly anyone will want to maim and kill other people who only want to live their lives just like we want to live ours! So, the truthtellers are spitefully targeted for comments on social media while the warmongers continue their killing and seek to expel Corbyn supporters from the Labour Party. Why?

Does this sound like people who are strong or does it sound more like people who recognize that their arguments are weak?

It is also clear that the mainstream media are complicit in the war crimes committed–past, present. That includes even your flagship media like the BBC that showed its willingness to lie by omission and cover up the truth about major events like 9/11 and its ensuing wars.

It is now, at this very moment, that all peace-loving people should continue our activism–despite the threats, intimidation, friends leaving us, our organizations imploding. You might look around at the political landscape that you once thought was verdant and recognize now that it’s filled with detritus and think that you have nothing. I can’t blame you if you do.

But also realize this, the nothing that you think you have, well, the warmongers want to take that, too.

And why? The answer is simple. Because you don’t want to go on killing the planet and humanity–and they do.

This is the epic struggle of our time. Do “We the people” define who we are and our face to the world? Or do we allow a very small group of non-representative individuals run our countries for themselves and their families as they have done already to smaller countries for generations?

We are more powerful than we realize: And while they might have all the money and we scrape by, we are rich beyond our dreams. Because we have for free what they have to buy: We have lives that are full of meaning; We know who we are and why we exist. And with all of the immense power and control that they have, they still are afraid of a few words spoken at small events. Why?

Brute force does have its limits.

At times like this, I think about Nina Simone’s song. Listen to it. Love its spirit. Remain determined. Ours is a global struggle for humanity and the Earth and, as Nina says, we have our brains and we have life.

Play Nina now; and gain strength from all those peace and justice warriors who preceded us. Our journey is important.


Posted in BBC, constitutional politics, global justice, guest blog, human rights, journalism, media, Uncategorized, war | 6 Comments

Briefing Note: Update on the Salisbury poisonings

The following briefing note is developed by academics researching the use of chemical and biological weapons during the 2011-present war in Syria. The note reflects work in progress. However, the substantive questions raised need answering, especially given the seriousness of the political situation in the Middle East and UK-Russian relations. The authors welcome comments and corrections.

Authors: Professor Paul McKeigue (University of Edinburgh), Professor David Miller (University of Bath) and Professor Piers Robinson (University of Sheffield)

For correspondence: ; Working Group on Syria, Media and Propaganda (

Key points

  • The Skripals were exposed to a phosphoroamidofluoridate compound named A-234, of high purity indicating that it was most likely prepared for research purposes.
  • A-234 or similar compounds have been synthesized at bench scale by national chemical defence labs in Russia and the US in the 1990s, and more recently in Iran and Czechia. A small quantity of A-234 from a Russian state lab was used in the murder of Ivan Kivelidi and Zara Ismailova in 1995.
  • No data on the toxicity of A-234 are available in the public domain. The police statement that the Skripals were exposed through contact with their front door is implausible as there are no known nerve agents that cause onset of symptoms delayed by several hours, and it is improbable that absorption through the skin would cause both individuals to collapse later at exactly the same time.
  • Although Russia is one of several countries that have synthesized A-234 or similar compounds, there is no evidence other than Vil Mirzayanov’s story that these compounds were ever developed (implying industrial-scale production and testing of munitions) for military use. Mirzayanov’s credibility as an independent whistleblower is undermined by his role in a Tatar separatist movement during 2008-2009, backed by the US State Department.
  • There are multiple indications that the UK is hiding information:-
    • the withholding of the identity of the compound as A-234. For example, the UK statement to the OSCE12 April 2018 states only that ‘ the name and structure of that identified toxic chemical is contained in the fall classified report to States Parties’. See also this briefing. The Chief Executive of Porton Down, in his statement 3 April,referred to the compound only as ‘Novichok’.
    • the withholding of information about its toxicity
    • the issue of a Defence Media Security Advisory notice on the identity of Skripal’s   MI6 handler and the attempt to conceal or deny his role in Orbis Business Intelligence.
    • the sequestration of Yulia Skripal.
  • The UK government’s case against Russia, stated in a letter to NATO, is based on asserting that “only Russia has the technical means, operational experience and motive for the attack on the Skripals”. Each of these points is open to question:-
    • Technical means: it is not seriously disputed that compounds such as A-234 can be produced at bench scale in any modern chemistry lab.
    • Operational experience: it is alleged that Russia has a track record of state-sponsored assassination, but this is not enough to support the assertion that “only Russia” could have enough experience to attempt unsuccessfully to assassinate two unprotected individuals.
    • Motive: No other attempted assassinations of defectors from Russian intelligence services have been recorded. Even if such an assassination campaign had been ordered, the Russian state would have good reasons not to initiate it in the first half of 2018.   In contrast there are obvious possible motives (outlined below) for other actors to have taken steps to silence Sergei Skripal at this time.

What was the agent used?

An early report that the hospital was dealing with poisoning caused by an opiate such as fentanyl was most likely based on the initial working diagnosis. Signs of organophosphate poisoning – constricted pupils, vomiting, reduced consciousness and reduced breathing – could easily be mistaken for opiate overdose, usually a more likely diagnosis.   OPCW has stated that the BZ detected by the Swiss Federal Institute for Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Protection in one of the samples sent by OPCW was not from Salisbury but was in a control sample.

The Russian ambassador reported that on 12 March the Foreign Secretary had told him that the nerve agent used against Mr and Ms Skripal had been identified as A-234.   The OPCW report issued on 12 April did not identify the agent but stated that they had confirmed the identification made by the UK and that this identification had been included in the confidential report provided to “States parties”. On 14 April the Russian Foreign Minister stated that A-234 had been reported by the Swiss Federal Institute for Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Protection that was one of the four accredited labs used by OPCW to analyse the Salisbury samples.

Based on public reports, a ChemSpider record for A-234 has been created which assigns it the IUPAC name ethyl [(1E)-1-(diethylamino)ethylidene] phosphoramidofluoridate. Its predicted vapour pressure is very low indicating that it is predicted to be non-volatile. No information on its stability is available.   The OPCW director Uzumcu stated in a newspaper interview that the agent “seems to be very persistent,” and “not affected by weather conditions”. This was confirmed the next day by an OPCW press statement that: “the chemical substance found was of high purity, persistent and resistant to weather conditions”. Ian Boyd, the chief scientific adviser at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, was reported to have stated: “The chemical does not degrade quickly. You can assume it is not much different now from the day it was distributed”.   No experimental studies of the stability of A-234 have been reported.

Who could have produced A-234 in bench-scale quantities?

It is no longer seriously disputed that, as noted in our earlier briefing, any well equipped university lab can synthesize and purify such chemicals at bench scale. OPCW reported that the agent (presumably A-234) was of high purity with “almost complete absence of impurities”.   This suggests that it was from a batch that had been synthesized for research, rather than for assassination purposes where it would be unnecessary to purify the agent.

Uzumcu stated in an interview with the New York Times that he had been told by UK officials that 50-100 grams of the agent was used.

“For research activities or protection you would need, for instance, five to 10 grams or so, but even in Salisbury it looks like they may have used more than that. Without knowing the exact quantity, I am told it may be 50, 100 grams or so, which goes beyond research activities for protection”

OPCW quickly contradicted this in a statement that “OPCW would not be able to estimate or determine the amount of the nerve agent that was used in Salisbury on 4 March 2018. The quantity should probably be characterized in milligrams”.

Who has studied A-234 or similar compounds?

Bench-scale research on the toxicity of agents that might be used in chemical warfare is entirely legitimate under the Chemical Weapons Convention, and does not have to be declared to OPCW.


Since our last briefing note, more material from the investigation of the Kivelidi poisoning has been published by Novaya Gazeta, updating the earlier article published on 22 March. The second article includes an image of the mass spectrometry profile of the sample recovered from the telephone handset, which matches that submitted by Edgewood to the NIST98 mass spectrometry database. The Russian experts who commented on the original result appear not to have had access to the mass spectrometry profile of A-234, and to have incorrectly reconstructed the structure from a best guess, based on the mass-charge ratios of the fragments, as something like the GV agent (both agents have molecular mass 224 daltons, and a 58-dalton fragment).   This establishes that Russia had synthesized this compound at bench scale by the mid 1990s, but does not confirm that it was ever developed for military use as alleged by Mirzayanov.


A 1997 newspaper article refers to a secret US army intelligence report referring to Russian development of A-232 and its “ethyl analog” A-234, indicating that the designation of these compounds and their structures was known to the US by this time. As noted in our last briefing note, the Edgewood lab submitted a mass spectrometry profile for A-234 to the public database NIST98, which was current from 1998 to 2001.

A patent application submitted by a US government lab in 2008 mentions “Novichoks”, but examination shows that the structures given for these compounds were the dihaloformaldoxime structures previously published as supposed “Novichoks”, not the phosphoramidofluoridates published by Mirzayanov later in 2008.   This does not indicate that the applicants were studying these compounds – most likely they included them to make their patent as broad as possible.

Iran and Czechia

A study from Iran published in 2016 reported synthesis for research purposes of a compound similar to A-234, differing from it only by the presence of methyl instead of ethyl groups. In an interview with Czech television, President Zeman stated that in November 2017 the related compound designated A-230 was studied at the Brno Military Research Institute.

Other labs

The director of Porton Down has declined to comment on whether Porton Down has stocks of A-234 for research purposes. The OPCW labs that identified A-234 in the specimens from Salisbury were most likely matching it against a mass spectrometry profile in OPCW’s Central Analytical Database.

What is known of the toxicity of A-234?

No data on the toxicity of A-234 are available in the public domain. The printout of the entry in the NIST 98 database appears to cross-reference an entry in the database RTECS (Registry of Toxic Effects of Chemical Substances) but no entry for this compound now exists in RTECS.

Why was the structure of A-234 revealed?

The structure of A-234 was revealed in a book by Vil S Mirzayanov in 2008, some 13 years after he had emigrated to the US with the story of a secret programme to develop chemical weapons of a class named “Novichoks”. During 2008-2009 the US government, with an active part for the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was encouraging the development of a separatist movement in Tatarstan. As part of this, Mirzayanov was declared head of a Tatar government-in-exile in December 2008.   The publication of his book may thus have been part of an effort to build up Mirzayanov’s status as a dissident. His role in this operation may explain why subsequent discussion of his book by OPCW delegates was closely monitored (and discouraged) by the US State Department.   Mirzayanov’s involvement in this operation undermines his credibility as an independent whistleblower.

When and where were the Skripals exposed to A-234?

A summary of the different versions on which journalists were apparently briefed by security sources was given by the Russian embassy:-

– The Skripals could be sprayed with poison by attackers in the street (Daily Mail, 6 March, source: “Anti-terror police”).

– The nerve agent could be planted in one of the personal items in Yulia Skripal’s suitcase before she left Moscow for London. According to this theory the toxin was impregnated in an item of clothing or cosmetics or else in a gift that was opened in the house of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, meaning Yulia Skripal was deliberately targeted to get at her father (The Telegraph, 15 March, source: “Senior sources in the intelligence agencies”).

– The nerve agent could be planted in the air conditioner of the car of Skripals (Daily Mail, 19 March, source: “Security expert Philip Ingram”).

– The Skripals could be poisoned through buckwheat that Yulia Skripal had asked her friend to buy and bring for her father, because she had forgotten to pick up the grocery gifts herself (The Sun, 1 April, source: “British investigators”).

On 28 March the police announced that “at this point in our investigation, we believe the Skripals first came into contact with the nerve agent from their front door”.

Although it is possible that a nerve agent could be prepared in a formulation that would be absorbed only slowly through the skin, it is implausible that two individuals exposed through contact with the front door would have received doses that caused them to collapse suddenly and so nearly simultaneously that neither had time to call for help, at least three hours later.   It is more likely that they were attacked shortly before they were found collapsed on the park bench.

Sergei Skripal’s link with Orbis: possible motive for murder

In the first few days after the poisoning there were media reports that Sergei Skripal had been in regular contact with his MI6 handler, whose Linked-In profile had stated that he was a consultant for Orbis Business Intelligence. On 7 March this profile was deleted and a Defence and Security Media Advisory Notice was issued to caution journalists against disclosing the identity of this consultant. However at Skripal’s trial in 2007 his MI6 handler had been identified as Pablo Miller, and the link between Skripal and Miller had been described in detail by Russian opposition media on 6 March.

This link between Skripal and Orbis may be relevant to the dossier compiled by Christopher Steele, the founder of Orbis, containing derogatory information on Donald Trump’s alleged ties to Russia. This dossier had been used by the FBI to apply for a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court order authorizing surveillance of Trump’s campaign. By early 2018 the unravelling of this story was creating serious difficulties for Steele and for those he had worked with. These difficulties included a referral for criminal investigation by two US Senators, a libel case in the US against the publisher of the dossier which had led to a court ruling that Steele should be questioned in an English court, and a libel case in England against Orbis and Steele.   It is not difficult to postulate a situation in which the potential for damage to US-UK relations could have provided a motive for actors on both sides of the Atlantic to ensure that Sergei Skripal would not be available to give evidence.

The UK government’s position

This was summarized in a letter from the National Security Adviser, Sir Mark Sedwill to the NATO Secretary-General on 13 April 2018.   Sedwill’s letter made several assertions that were substantiated only by “intelligence”:

  • By 1993, when Russia signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, it is likely that some Novichoks had passed acceptance testing, allowing their use by the Russian military
  • Russia further developed some Novichoks after ratifying the convention
  • During the 2000s, Russia commenced a programme to test means of delivering chemical warfare agents and to train personnel from special units in the use of these weapons. This programme subsequently included investigation of ways of delivering nerve agents, including by application to door handles.
  • In the mid-2000s, President Putin was closely involved in the Russian chemical weapons programme
  • Within the last decade Russia has produced and stockpiled small quantities of Novichoks

Appearing before the House of Commons Defence Committee on 1 May, Sedwill (11:39) extolled the government’s reaction to the Salisbury incident as “an example of the Fusion Doctrine in practice”. The Fusion Doctrine brings other government departments under the National Security Council with “the introduction of senior officials as senior responsible owners to deliver each of the NSC’s priorities”.

Sedwill’s involvement in the preparation of the now widely discredited dossier ‘Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction, released in September 2002, calls into question his credibility in making these uncorroborated assertions.   The UK government’s case as set out by Sedwill is based on asserting that “only Russia has the technical means, operational experience and motive for the attack on the Skripals”. Each of these points is open to serious criticism:-

  • Technical means: it is not seriously disputed that A-234 can be produced at bench scale in any organic chemistry lab.
  • Operational experience: it is alleged that Russia has a track record of state-sponsored assassination, but this does not support the assertion that only Russia has the operational experience for such an assassination. On the contrary, the failure of the assassination attempt, against two unprotected individuals, suggests that the perpetrators lacked the operational experience and competence that one would expect of state-directed assassins.
  • Motive: no other attempted assassinations of defectors from Russian intelligence services have been recorded. If the Russian state had decided to begin assassinating these defectors, it is unlikely that they would have chosen to start in March 2018, just before the presidential election and three months before the FIFA World Cup.   However, as noted above, it is possible to identify motives for other actors to silence Sergei Skripal at this time.


We thank Professor Rudy Richardson of the University of Michigan for advice on the toxicology of nerve agents.


Posted in chemical weapons, guest blog, OPCW, Russia, UK Government, Uncategorized, war | 17 Comments

How The Media Reveal Inconvenient Truth About Syria

The truth is sometimes revealed through words, but more often through deeds.

The Times and several other papers recently carried alarming stories about “Apologists for Assad” to be found in social media, in independent journalism, and even in universities. Passive consumers of corporate media communications may have taken the papers’ word for it and been perturbed. The more alert, however, will have taken this conspicuous flagging of certain journalists, tweeters and academics to be a strategic communication: “these are people you must not listen to and definitely not think of emulating!” 

The response from the critically aware has been spectacularly resistant – not least on Twitter, which, ironically, was the main source of the “evidence” used in the coordinated smear campaign. The fact of a campaign, and a coordinated one, appeared obvious. Perhaps a rush to launch the attacks all at once was due to an unexpectedly quick unravelling of the authorized narrative in Syria. As the Syrian Arab Army brought Douma back under government control, the liberated citizens were bringing horrendous stories about conditions of life under the UK-sponsored “moderate rebels”, speaking of terror, humiliation, deprivation, rape, murder and forced labour. These stories, if verified, would severely undermine the mainstream narrative. As would the discovery of exceedingly inconvenient facts relating to the alleged chemical attack that recently served as justification for the F-UK-US bombing raid.

So it is that those of us who strive to get a fair hearing for the inconvenient testimonies are branded “Apologists for Assad”.

Whoever devised the smear campaign perhaps underestimated the public’s instincts of fairness and its appetite for truth. They are also up against a strong streak of decency that runs even through parts of the establishment. Thus in the same week as the attacks on us we could also hear dissenting voices from sections of society that would be especially surprising hotbeds of “Assad Apologism” (whatever that even is). They include lords of the realm, generals and admirals of Her Majesty’s armed forces, United Kingdom ambassadors, Church of England clergy, Westminster politicians, academics from world-leading universities, and even celebrities on mainstream media (apparently including The Great British Bake Off).

The smear campaign also didn’t seem to have effective personnel for the job. The poor hacks who were dispatched to rummage through people’s old twitter feeds and contrive loose chains of supposedly incriminating association seem hardly to have had their hearts in it. Understandably, perhaps, given how far outside their sphere of competence it is to engage with the careful, detailed and often highly sophisticated presentations of serious independent investigators.

Then there was downright idiocy. Riding on the bandwagon of Russophobia is an opportunistic assortment of self-styled sleuths, deploying sometimes hilarious methods of “Russian bot” identification. This has led to the fingering of the now celebrated Ian Shilling, for instance, and the already greatly celebrated Syrian chemist in Australia who goes by the handle @Partisangirl.

Hilarity aside, the campaign has revealed how serious the situation is. To listen to Ian and Mimi is to learn what ideas get equated with Russian propaganda today. I find it chilling that to share such ideas is to be regarded as an enemy in an information war with Russia –  a war that even Lord West was publicly recommended to be mindful of by a BBC interviewer last week (who warns him about his loose talk here, from 04:30).

Such a mass mobilisation of controlled information should be no less worrying than the mobilisation of armed force. It is what generates the atmosphere of acquiescence required to get a military war going.

By coordinating their concerted smear campaign, those with centralised power over information have literally revealed what they don’t want revealed. Nobody reading their words will be much the wiser about the alleged problem of “Assad Apologists”, but anyone reflecting on the mere fact of this extraordinary campaign will know that they are pointing out with neon light the people who must not be listened to and certainly not emulated.

So anybody who likes to take the media’s word at face value will not want to click any of the links below. For everybody else, they constitute a collective declaration of solidarity with what we all hold dear.

[Personal thanks go the authors and speakers linked below, but also to those many people who have shown support, whether in public or in private, and including, of course, fellow members of the Syria, Propaganda and Media working group and international advisory board. Thank you all!]

Update 28 April 2018 – There are now 37 links below, so, when I get a chance, I shall aim to provide a review of them so people can read selectively on particular themes that have emerged. A noticeable development over this first fortnight is that whereas the earlier items tended to be fairly direct responses to the specific attacks on academics, the articles and interviews appearing later have tended to involve increasing reflection on wider issues too. (Meanwhile, also in the course of this fortnight, the initial media story of the Douma chemical attack pretty much unravelled, with alleged victims appearing with doctors at The Hague to testify to their good health and an absence of chemical weapons symptoms. The corporate media have now gone rather quiet about Douma, as they already had about the Skripals.)

Standing together

Christopher Black, ‘Operation Barbarossa II Update: The Battle Will be Everywhere’ (New Eastern Outlook, 27 April 2018)

Carrie Lavender, ‘War Propaganda Is Exposed When Pearson Sharp Goes to Syria & Tells the Truth’ (27 April 2018)

Hala Jaber, ‘The Orchestrated Smear Campaign Against Journalists Reporting on Syria’ (Faultlines, 26 April 2018)

C.J. Hopkins, ‘‘The League of Assad-Loving Conspiracy Theorists’ (Counterpunch, 26 April 2018)

MediaLens, ‘Douma: Part 2 – ‘It Just Doesn’t Ring True’ (26 April 2018)

The Listening Post, ‘How the media covered the Syria strikes’ (Al Jazeera, 21 April 2018) 8 minute video report

John Wright and Tara McCormack, ‘McCarthyism in Our Time: Witchhunting the Witchhunters’, (25 April 2018) [30 mins radio recording]

MediaLens, ‘Douma: Part 1 – Deception In Plain Sight’ (25 April 2018)

Caitlin Johnstone, ‘Never Let Anyone Call You Crazy For Doubting Establishment War Narratives’ (25 April 2018)

Elijah J. Magnier, ‘Syrian Dirty War Backfires on International Media’ (25 April 2018); or, in French,  La sale guerre syrienne éclabousse les médias internationaux (25 April 2018)

Max Blumenthal, ‘Syria Controversy: Don’t Believe the Official Narrative’ (Truthdig, 23 April 2018)

Caitlin Johnstone, ‘MSM Is Frantically Attacking Dissenting Syria Narratives, And It Looks Really Bad’ (23 April 2018)

Mark GB Blog, ‘How did the media sink this low?’ (23 April)

[‘Massive mass media attacks on people who do not accept the official truth about Syria’] ‘Mahniti napadi masmedija na osobe koje ne prihvaćaju službenu istinu o Siriji’ (Balkan Express, 23 April 2018)

Craig Murray, ‘Index on Disgrace’ (22 April 2018)

‘The emergence of a Christian United Front against the war in Syria’, Voltaire Network (22 April 2018) [and the prior statement by Patriarchs since endorsed by Pope Francis]

Moon of Alabama, ‘The Media War On Truthful Reporting And Legitimate Opinions – A Documentary’ (21 April 2018)

Patrick Cockburn, ‘We should be sceptical of far-away governments who claim to know what is happening on the ground in Syria’ (The Independent, 20 April 2018)

Lissa Johnson, ‘SICK OF DYING (PART 2): Why The Skripal Poisoning, Foreign Interference Legislation And Legality Of US Interventions Are The Business Of Health Professionals’ (New Matilda, Australia, 20 April 2018)

Claire Connelly, ‘When the press attacks – the Times’ & BBC’s war on truth’, (Renegade Inc, 20 April 2018)

Caitlin Johnstone, ‘What Are “Assad Apologists”? Are They Like Those “Saddam Apologists” Of 2002?’ (Medium 20 April 2018)

Julie Hyland, ‘Murdoch’s Times witch-hunts academics for questioning UK government’s Syria lies’ (World Socialist Web Site, 19 April 2018)

Hala Jaber, ‘In my entire career, spanning more than three decades of professional journalism, I have never seen MSM resolve to such ugly smear campaigns…’ (Twitter thread, 19 April 2018)

Open Letter to The Times on Assad and Academic Freedom, (not published by The Times, signed by twenty academics unconnected to those attacked by The Times, 18 April 2018)

Phil Hammond, Syria: stop asking questions (OpenDemocracy 17 April 2018)

Academic Freedom? — ‘Syria Working Group’ Attacked By The Times (posted in Intel Today 16 April 2018)

Gavin Ashenden, ‘Syria, censorship and ‘The t/Times’ (14 April 2018)


Reference, links and discussion page, from ACLOS:

‘April 2018 attack on dissent’ (A Closer Look On Syria)


The academics respond in first person:

Tara McCormack, interviewed on BBC Newsnight (25 April 2018)

Tim Hayward, ‘Academic Freedom And Setting An Example’ (20 April 2018)

Tara McCormack, ‘Syria, The Times, and Free Speech‘, (Spiked, 19 April 2018)

‘”Assad Apologists”: media attacks academics over dissenting posts’, RT news video, with Tara MacCormack (18 April 2018)

Piers Robinson, ‘UK Academics Questioning Western Foreign Policy in Syria’ (Sputnik, 17 April 2018)

Piers Robinson, International mainstream media ‘failing’ audiences (Newstalk ZB, New Zealand – audio – 17 April 2018)

Piers Robinson, The smear attack on a small group of academics shows they have the government concerned (Sputnik – audio – 16 April 2018)

Louis Allday, Twitter thread (14 April 2018)

Tim Hayward, ‘Attacked by The Times’ (14 April 2018)



Nadiya Hussain, vilified for criticising Theresa May over air strikes on Syria


Posted in disinformation, journalism, media, propaganda, Russia, UK Government, Uncategorized, war | 23 Comments

A Staged Chemical Attack In Douma? A note on the evidence so far

This week has seen the release of interviews with doctors and children (here and here) who appeared in the video, widely circulated in the Western media, that showed a distressing scene in a clinic in Douma. In that scene, doctors were allegedly treating victims of a chemical attack. However, their own witness testimony now points to a staging of the scene.

But should we trust that testimony?

An article published yesterday in The Intercept (Robert Mackey, ‘Russia sows doubts over chemical attack in Syria, aided by pro-Trump cable channel’) states a meaningful challenge:

There was no way of knowing if any of the medical personnel who spoke to the reporters in the presence of government minders had been coerced into making those statements by threats from Assad’s secret police, the mukhabarat, to harm their families — as the head of the largest medical relief agency in Syria told The Guardian they were.

Certainly, the bona fides of the witnesses and their statements are quite properly a matter for rigorous evaluation. (In the case of young children, I am somewhat unsure exactly what tests of veracity are needed or ethically appropriate,[1] but I entirely accept the general principle of treating witness statements with due caution.)

The rest of Mackey’s article, however, pursues quite other themes. And since the loose construction of the article could allow a hasty reader an impression that its other material somehow challenges the witness evidence of staging at the clinic, I shall just point out that it does not.

In particular, what could be misleading to the unwary is the significance of this separate point made in The Intercept:[2]

Two enterprising reporters, Seth Doane of CBS News and Stefan Borg of TV4 Sweden, slipped away from their government minders and managed to find the building where the attack took place and interview a man who said he had survived the attack but lost his wife, mother, and brothers to gas.

We need to be clear that this refers to a different question, namely, what happened at a place where deaths occurred. It has no necessary connection to anything that living witnesses at the clinic have said. In fact, I believe, the onus would be on someone who wants to claim the two sets of evidence are linked to establish the link. (Incidentally, in assuming the veracity of the testimony from the man interviewed at the house, Mackey rather relaxes his earlier standards of rigorous scepticism, since he does not ask whether this witness may have had some inducement, whether what he says is entirely reliable, or whether he is even exactly who he is presented as being. However I shall set aside these questions too, and with all due respect to the bereaved.)

There is a simple point to make. The question of what caused the deaths of people found at a house, and the question of what caused the children to be inside the clinic at the time of filming, are two distinct questions. The truth of any statement related to one has no necessary bearing on the truth of any statement related to the other. The evidence from doctors and patients at the clinic does not eliminate the possibility of the use of chemicals elsewhere, by some as yet to be established party.[3] It does, however, tend to weigh in favour of the hypothesis that the scene at the clinic was staged.


[1] The article also suggests there could be reasons for questioning the veracity of the boy’s testimony. I make no objection to rigorously testing the veracity of the statement on the video, within ethical bounds. I do think there could be ethical objections to the suggestion, attributed by The Intercept to Maria Zakharova, the Russian foreign ministry’s spokesperson, ‘that the boy should be brought to the United Nations to testify.’ [Update: Having checked the attribution, I think Zakharova was simply making a rhetorical point about whose testimony would be worth hearing.]

[2] While not wishing to be rude, I do feel that much of the article is presented in rather prejudicial terms. When it comes to assessing credibility of evidence it makes reference, for instance, to ‘[u]nfounded conspiracy theories about the White Helmets, concocted by Syrian and Russian state media’, where the link to ‘conspiracy theories’ takes you to Bellingcat, itself a Western funded ‘think tank’ with a very clear information mission.

The article also mentions, darkly, ‘Sharp has not explained how he managed to convince the Syrian government to give him a visa to report in the country’. I don’t claim to know the answer, and don’t normally expect such information to be part of a report! But presumably Sharp got it in much the way that the other journalists, whose work the article cites, did. (In fact, I could name half a dozen friends there at the same time who had also managed it, including Alison Banfield and Mike Raddie from BSNews.)

[3] The Intercept piece cites a report from Associated Press, which includes this:

‘The AP visited a two-room underground shelter where Khaled Mahmoud Nuseir said 47 people were killed, including his pregnant wife and two daughters, 18-month-old Qamar and 2 1/2-year-old Nour. A strange smell lingered, nine days after the attack.

Nuseir, 25, said he ran from the shelter to a nearby clinic and fainted. After he was revived, he returned to the shelter and found his wife and daughters dead, with foam coming from their mouths.

He and two other residents accused the rebel Army of Islam of carrying out the attack. As they spoke, government troops were not far away but out of earshot. Nuseir said a gas cylinder was found leaking the poison gas, adding that he didn’t think it was dropped from the air because it still looked intact.

Separately, the AP spoke to a medic who was among those who later were evacuated to northern Syria. Ahmed Abed al-Nafaa said helicopters were flying before the attack and when he reached the site, people were screaming “chlorine.” He said he tried to enter the shelter but was overcome by a strong smell of chlorine and his comrades pulled him out.

The accounts contradict what the Syrian government and Russia have reported: that there was no gas attack in Douma.’




Posted in chemical weapons, disinformation, journalism, media, Syria, Uncategorized, war | 5 Comments

Academic Freedom And Setting An Example

This post is based on a letter I wrote in reply to someone who has known me as a teacher. I have responded to her as one concerned citizen to another, but with her student experience in mind. We agreed it would be an idea to make the response available to anyone else who shared similar concerns. 

On Saturday 14 April 2018, The Times newspaper took the extraordinary – and I think unprecedented – step of publishing, on its front page, in its leader column, and in a further two-page spread, a sustained attack on what it denounces as “Apologists for Assad working in universities”.

You might wonder why The Times was doing this, and also perhaps why now. But first you might like to know: am I an Apologist for Assad? Simple answer: “No, and nor are any others in the group that is being attacked”.[1] Still, you may wonder, “what about these tweets that have been mentioned?” Well, one was misreported[2] and one was misinterpreted,[3] but it is true that a certain hashtag appeared in a brief cluster of tweets a year ago, like this one from 17 April 2017: ‘More questions need to be asked about alleged evidence of sarin in #SyriaHoax debate’.

The tweets do seem to be the sum total of evidence presented for alleged apologism. The tweets, I would further point out, are a personal matter. No allegations concern any of the group’s professional activities of research work or teaching. They do not even touch on my quite numerous personal blogposts on Syria. (So one might seriously wonder how on earth a handful of obscure year-old tweets of mine came to be more important for The Times to share with its readership on 14 April 2018 than the fact that France, US and UK were in the process of bombing Syria.)

As for the hashtag #syriahoax, as you see from the example above, this, for me, was intended to highlight a topic, a question, a debate.[4]

As The Times is clearly aware, the question is topical again, a year on. If you have seen the recent video and images from Douma circulating in the Western media, you could be forgiven for regarding as an established fact that, on 7 April 2018, President Assad of Syria had committed an appalling war crime by using a chemical weapon against his own people.[5] The press and TV news channels suggested that Theresa May and presidents Trump and Macron had sufficient evidence to justify bombing Syria. To ask questions about this would make you, at least according to The Times, a ‘useful idiot’ echoing Russian propaganda.

When a group of respected academics starts to affirm it reasonable to ask questions, and even sets about doing so – as the working group has – we find ourselves branded as “Apologists for Assad!” 

But it is not only academics asking questions.

Lord Alan West, former First Sea Lord of the Royal Navy, this week expressed deep scepticism about the alleged chemical attack in Douma. Would that make him an “Apologist for Assad”? Well, the BBC interviewer did appear to caution him about expressing such scepticism in public. (Perhaps it’s worth reflecting why a journalist is seeking to discourage a member of the House of Lords asking questions? Aren’t journalists supposed to be interested in asking questions?)

Major-General Jonathan Shaw, a former chief of the British armed forces was actually interrupted by his Sky News interviewer when he began to articulate scepticism(Was this interruption really due to a glitch in the scheduling?)

A key point that both those senior military figures made was that while Assad had a strong reason not to throw away his advantageous military position by bringing the wrath of NATO down upon him, the armed militant groups in control of Douma had a very strong motive to accomplish exactly that.

Scepticism has been heard in public from others too. They include former weapons inspectors, former ambassadors, established journalists, filmmakers, US senators, and even Fox News’s Carlson Tucker.[6]

But if the ‘rebels’ had a motive, is there any evidence they had the means and opportunity to be responsible for the event in Douma? Independent journalists like Vanessa Beeley, who, as I write, is on the ground in Douma, have uncovered potentially significant evidence, but since she is also criticised in The Times, I don’t just now want to occasion any accusation of being a ‘useful idiot’ by citing her evidence. (I do happen to have great respect for her, however, so this bracketing is simply for the present purpose.) It is now not just independent journalists who are presenting evidence. With Douma back under the control of government, several more mainstream correspondents have been interviewing witnesses on the ground. Numerous citizens who live around the site of the alleged bombing have been telling them they were aware of no gas attack.[7] Doctors interviewed at the clinic say they had no patients presenting with symptoms of a chemical attack. The patients were suffering from breathing difficulties due to the thick dust of living in sheltered quarters, they say, exacerbated by the impact of an explosion. The doctors telling us this have apparently been identified by name and position,[8] and some of them are identifiable on screen in the official media video of the event.

It is not only doctors from the official video that can now be heard. In this interview, a little boy, clearly recognizable from that video, explains how he and other kids (who were in perfect health) had been herded from outside into the hospital whereupon they started having water splashed over them. They had no clue what was going on, he says. You can watch the child as he now recounts this and decide what you think for yourself.[9]

Yet maybe all of this evidence of a possible fake has somehow been constructed as part of an elaborate propaganda exercise? That would be a reasonable question to ask. But is it any less reasonable to ask questions about the mainstream Western media’s account of the evidence? That is all I have ever tried to do, as have the others who belong to the working group on Syria, Propaganda and Media (SPM). To ask questions about what we are being told is not to ‘apologise’ for anyone.

I shall sign off with a personal thought. Students in higher education have a special opportunity, and encouragement, to think critically about the world and its ways. Their confidence in doing so could be compromised by having the reputation of their teachers called into question. So I want to emphasise that SPM members, notwithstanding the attempt to smear them, face no allegation of having failed their students, nor their research community, nor their institutions.[10] The Times appears to have wanted to make an example of SPM group members for challenging the version of contemporary history the paper is ready to authorise. The group members, by contrast, want to set an example, by trying to ensure that the record of contemporary knowledge is as faithful as one might hope in a democratic society. After all, if academics don’t do that, will anyone? If we – the profession with the greatest freedom of thought and expression – are intimidated into restricting our attention to ‘authorised’ questions, what kind of society do you think we are heading for?


Syrian Students, Tishreen University, Lattakia (15 April 2018 )


[1] The working group’s current membership:

Louis Allday (PhD candidate, SOAS University of London)

Professor Emeritus Oliver Boyd-Barrett (Bowling Green State University, United States of America)

Dr T.J. Coles (Plymouth Institute for Peace Research)

Professor Tim Hayward (University of Edinburgh)

Divya Jha (PhD candidate, Communication, Media and Journalism research group, University of Sheffield)

Adam Larson (Independent Researcher)

Jake Mason (PhD candidate, Communication, Media and Journalism research group, University of Sheffield)

Dr Tara McCormack (University of Leicester)

Professor Paul McKeigue (University of Edinburgh)

Professor David Miller (University of Bath)

Professor Piers Robinson (University of Sheffield) Working Group Convenor

Simone Rudolphi (Sunderland, MA student)

Dr Greg Simons (Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Uppsala University)

Dr Florian Zollmann (Newcastle University)

The International advisory Board (currently under development):

Christopher C.Black (International criminal lawyer)

Dr David Blackall  (University of Wollongong, Australia)

Dr Nathan Coombs (University of Edinburgh)

Dr Christopher Davidson (Durham University, United Kingdom)

Professor Philip Hammond (London South Bank University)

Professor Richard Jackson (University of Otago, New Zealand)

Professor Richard Keeble (University of Lincoln)

Jan Oberg Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research

Dr Sonia Mansour Robaey (Independent Researcher)

Professor Mark Crispin Miller (New York University)

Dr Sami Ramadani (Retired Academic)

[2] I explained this in my initial response posted on the day The Times attack occurred:

‘I don’t think The Times article has been scrupulously fair on its front page when it refers to some claims I retweeted, because it fails to mention that they were being quoted as the reference for the following words of my own:

“Witness statements from civilians and officials in Ghouta raise very disturbing questions about the conduct of ‘rebel’ factions who had been in control. Questions also concern who and what has been supported by UK FCO.”

I have not claimed to verify the witness statements that prompted the questions, but since the witnesses are due a degree of respect, I believe, those questions arising from them can reasonably be aired, without prejudice to the question of their truth.’

[3] This tweet, from a year ago, was given an unintended interpretation by the journalist who contacted me, so I simply deleted it, as is my practice when unclarity is pointed out to me. (The tweet had received 23 engagements, including any at The Times office, when I deleted it. Those who engaged at the time, I presume, being followers of my account, would have been unlikely to mistake my intention.)

[4] More generally, I have never made claims to knowledge about controversial events in Syria. I have just tried to assess the basis of claims – the evidence, assumptions, methods, and so on – that appear in reports of events. That is something academics do, and I do it in my blogposts as a concerned citizen. It all started when I found myself unsure, as explained in this link, ‘Who to believe about Syria?

[5] I am aware that it will be said “not only in Douma!” It will be said he has a record of such allegations being made against him. That is true, but similar questions apply to all of them, and meanwhile we have a specific incident at hand that has been used as a specific justification for bombing Syria. (For extensive discussion of critical questions concerning all of the allegations over the years, see the comprehensive resource A Closer Look On Syria.)

[6] For a list of sceptics who have been heard in the mainstream media, along with other relevant materials, see my blog post Chemical Attack in Douma: a false pretext for escalating war against Syria? As new reports are coming in daily just now, I am updating it regularly.

[7] See for instance the interviews in this video published 18 April 2018:

‘OAN’S Pearson Sharp refutes MSM reports of alleged Syrian chemical attack’. For more, see the ongoing updates on my post ‘Chemical Attack in Douma: a false pretext for escalating war against Syria?



[10] Because I am speaking only for myself here, I have not mentioned some other aspects of The Times’ coverage that affect others of the group. We are currently taking advice on them.


Posted in chemical weapons, disinformation, human rights, journalism, media, propaganda, Syria, Uncategorized, war | 23 Comments

Attacked By The Times

Today I find myself on the front page of The Times, as one of the members of the recently formed academic working group on Syria, Propaganda and Media.

Members of the working group have so far published just one item, a research note on the poisoning of the Skripals in Salisbury. Although still work in progress, the piece, Update to briefing note “Doubts about Novichoks” has been well-received by academics and serious commentators. It has been singled out by Cornell University’s Professor of Organic Chemistry, David B Collum, as the most definitive work on the novichok nerve agent scandal.

According to the Times, the group is “spreading pro-Assad disinformation”. In fact, the group is scrupulous in its analysis and presentation of information, which stands always open to correction, as any academic work in progress does. The group is not “pro-Assad”.

Speaking for myself, I am simply “pro-” getting at the truth. If I make a mistake, I always stand to be corrected and endeavour to learn from the correction. So, in response to criticism of one of my posts last year, for instance, I took it down and re-wrote it. Twitter is an area in which I am on a learning curve, since misunderstandings so easily arise when thoughts are compressed into a few words that are easily taken out of context. Certainly, now that my twitter feed has been brought to wider public attention, I do invite any reader to point out anything there that needs correcting.

Incidentally, I don’t think The Times article has been scrupulously fair on its front page when it refers to some claims I retweeted, because it fails to mention that they were being quoted as the reference for the following words of my own:

“Witness statements from civilians and officials in Ghouta raise very disturbing questions about the conduct of ‘rebel’ factions who had been in control. Questions also concern who and what has been supported by UK FCO.”

I have not claimed to verify the witness statements that prompted the questions, but since the witnesses are due a degree of respect, I believe, those questions arising from them can reasonably be aired, without prejudice to the question of their truth.

A question thoughtful readers will likely be asking is why The Times has gone the trouble it has to give such prominence to a small group of critical academics.

In the early hours of this morning, as I looked at the front page prepared by The Times, news was coming in of the military attack taking place in Syria. That attack – whose legality under international law, I believe, stands to be clarified – was “justified” on the basis of exactly the kind of claims that the academic working group is subjecting to critical assessment. Such claims have been questioned by many people, including senior British military figures. The fact that people who aim to provide support to the questioning are attacked in a major news outlet is itself a matter of concern.



Front page of The Times on the morning US and UK forces were bombing in Syria.


Posted in Uncategorized | 41 Comments