Lies behind the U.S. invasion of Syria

The gas attack that never happened

UN inspectors in Syria in 2013
UN inspectors in Syria in 2013. | Photo: Associated Press

By Fighting Words Staff

The US-led intervention in Syria (2011 – present) was premised on the notion that President Bashar Al Assad is a monstrous dictator who murders his own people with chemical weapons. One of the most serious alleged chemical attacks was in the city of Douma in April 2018. That attack was said to have killed up to 49 people, with cylinders of chlorine gas dropped from Syrian helicopters. In response, the US, France and Britain launched missile attacks on the Syrian capital, only a week later, before an investigation into the matter had even taken place. Two weeks after that, the UN’s Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) sent an 8-person fact-finding mission into Douma, but those scientists found information that contradicted the Western narrative. Their findings were suppressed and omitted from the final report released by the OPCW. A series of leaks published by Wikileaks over the past several months has revealed them, along with a spate of internal memos and emails from inside the OPCW, exposing cover-ups and frustrations throughout the investigation process. Taken in their entirety, the leaked documents strongly suggest the Douma chemical attack was a hoax, and that the integrity of the OPCW and the UN has been compromised.

The first leak came out in May 2019, from Ian Henderson, a ballistic expert who was part of the original fact-finding mission in Douma. Among the many inconsistencies and findings which cast doubt upon the gas attack narrative, his most noteworthy relates to the site of an alleged gas canister landing. Henderson reported that the hole in the roof, which was supposedly caused by the canister, was far too large to have been done so, and that the cylinder itself wasn’t dented or creased in a way that would indicate a hard impact with the roof. He concluded that the hole was likely caused by a separate explosive, due to the nature of the wreckage of the concrete, and that the cylinder was likely placed there by hand. These findings, which contradict the story that they were dropped on the rebel-held city by Syrian helicopters were included in an original document drawn up by the entire team of fact-finding scientists, but were omitted from the final report released by the OPCW.

A second member of the fact-finding mission, who adopted the pseudonym ‘Alex’ out of concern for his safety, came forward and spoke at a panel hosted by the Courage Foundation in November 2019. He revealed that air samples from the attack site, which should have shown higher levels of chlorine, actually showed lower levels, and that hair and blood samples from alleged victims showed no signs of a chlorine attack. Alex’s findings were also removed from the final report from the OPCW. Video footage that circulated in the days after the attack showing alleged victims, coughing and pouring water over their faces, have been challenged by OPCW scientists in a leaked email, which says that the symptoms shown in the footage don’t appear to be from chlorine gas attacks. This claim had previously been made by other sources such as a BBC reporter and Russian state TV, but were vehemently dismissed by mainstream news sources.

The third OPCW leak came on November 23 2019, when Wikileaks published an email sent by one of the fact-finding scientists to senior officials in the OPCW, and other members of the fact-finding team. The author of the email expressed grave concerns about intentional bias in the final report, and stated that many facts were omitted, edited, recontextualized, or “morphed into something quite different,” in order to draw a predetermined conclusion. He highlights that scientists weren’t given access to the location for several weeks after the alleged attack, and that rebel forces had gained access to the location during that time. When scientists did arrive on the scene, he says they found physical evidence was missing and bodies of alleged victims weren’t available to be examined.

On December 14 2019, Wikileaks released the full original report submitted by the team of scientists, along with the public report released by the OPCW, for cross-comparison purposes. MIT physicist and professor of National Security Policy Theodore Postol analyzed those documents, and in interviews with Aaron Mate on The Grayzone, he reported that the level of professionalism and careful analysis in the original reporting was extremely high. He found the final OPCW report, on the other hand, to be rife with self-contradictory information, full of mistakes, and packed with irrelevant diagrams, seemingly designed to be confusing and intimidating to non-experts.

The last leaked document, and possibly the most damning, was an email from Sebastian Braha, Chief of Cabinet at OPCW, to Ian Henderson and other OPCW members. In it, he explicitly orders that Henderson’s report should be removed from the OPCW’s internal Document Registry Archive (DRA). Braha writes, “please remove all traces, if any, of its delivery/storage/whatever in DRA.”

Ted Postol recently told the Grayzone that he and other colleagues wrote a letter to a Princeton science journal, about another earlier alleged chemical attack in Syria – the Khan Shaykhun attack of April 2017. Postol and his colleagues said they had found the OPCW’s final report about that attack to be just as dubious as its report on Douma, and written a letter expressing those worrying doubts. That letter, although initially approved for publication in the Princeton science journal, has now been pulled from publication. This trend points toward an ongoing series of fabrications and cover-ups by the UN, the OPCW and various publications. As a consequence, it has become necessary to ask which justifications for the U.S. military intervention into Syria are valid, if any.

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