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Syria, where chemical weapons watchdogs become weaponised

December 23, 2019 at 11:30 am

Civil defence crews and locals conduct search and rescue operations around wreckage of buildings after air strikes carried out by the Assad Regime hit Idlib, Syria on 21 December 2019 [Hüseyin Fazıl / Anadolu Agency]

When it comes to commercially-controlled media coverage of the conflict in Syria, there has always been scepticism expressed by those who refused to wholly buy into the propaganda against the government in Damascus, it has been all too common to dismiss those holding such views as being conspiracy theorists or “Assadists”. This is not just the case when it comes to disputing just how popular and widespread the opposition or proponents of “regime-change” are in the country, but controversially the allegations of chemical weapons usage by the government headed by President Bashar Al-Assad against its own people.

Yet up until recently, these were largely treated as fact or at least with “high confidence” that the government was responsible, but following a leaked engineering assessment from within that the supposedly apolitical and impartial Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) suppressed and doctored reports relating to the alleged chemical attack in Douma on 7 April last year, it now seems more reasonable than ever to not only query the integrity of the OPCW as its findings have been used to justify Western military action but indeed earlier allegations made against the Syrian state such as the notorious Ghouta incident of August 2013.

READ: Assad accuses chemical watchdog of giving in to US demands

Douma was, after all, the only site the OPCW’s inspectors actually visited, with allegations from the so-called White Helmets (Syrian Civil Defence) and US-funded “non-political” Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) accepted as credible by the OPCW. Subsequently this led the US, France and the UK to justify punitive military strikes against facilities inside Syria assessed by these nations as having been involved in chemical weapons-related activities before the OPCW initiated any on-site investigation.

The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) came into force in 1997 after years of negotiations and discussions among the international community which sought to comprehensively prohibit the development and deployment of chemical weapons following its widespread use during the First World War and subsequently against Iran during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. The OPCW became the international body tasked with implementing the CWC. Today there are 193 member states, including Syria. Interestingly Israel is yet to ratify the CWC despite signing the treaty – Tel Aviv is as secretive about its chemical weapons stockpiles as it with its nuclear ones. The three non-signatory states to the CWC are Egypt, North Korea and South Sudan.

However, there is now mounting evidence after further leaks, to suggest that the OPCW is a tool Western powers are using to weaponise their policies of attempting to overthrow governments that stand in the way of their geopolitical interests, in this case Syria. The potential for this has been exacerbated with the OPCW now being mandated with “attribution mechanisms” in which they can identify not only if a chemical weapons attack occurred, but who was responsible for carrying it out.

READ: US accuses Russia of helping Syria cover up chemical weapons use

The problem with this, as information provided by whistleblowers revealed, OPCW scientists, analysts and technicians found compelling evidence that the Syrian government was not guilty of the Douma incident, yet the OPCW management suppressed these concerns and instead replaced reports with those from “external experts” which “did not reflect the views of the team members that deployed to [Syria]”. The leaks also suggest the OPCW possessed scientifically credible evidence showing the victims of the alleged attack had symptoms not consistent with chemical gas exposure. Furthermore, columnist Peter Hitchens of the Daily Mail (which has thus far been an anomaly in Western mainstream coverage of the OPCW scandal) recently revealed that a “senior official” in the OPCW “demanded the ‘removal of all traces’ of a document which undermined claims that gas cylinders had been dropped from the air – a key element of the ‘evidence’ that the Syrian regime was responsible”. Meanwhile Theodore Postol, professor of science, technology, and international security at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) endorses the conclusion that the chemical gas “attacks were staged”.

One Newsweek journalist, Tareq Haddad resigned earlier this month in protest over his editors’ refusal to publish his coverage of the OPCW manipulations. A spokesperson for Newsweek said of Haddad’s plans of publishing his information, “The writer pitched a conspiracy theory rather than an idea for objective reporting. Newsweek editors rejected the pitch.”

READ: Chemical watchdog defends Syria’s Douma attack report

It is also worth reminding ourselves also of the Ghouta incident on 21 August 2013, which would occur just days after UN weapons inspectors landed in Damascus to begin their probe into alleged use of chemical weapons, an article in the Atlantic posted on the same day of the attack, described it as being “odd timing” from Al-Assad’s perspective, should the attack be attributed to the government. It may have been hoped by some opposition elements that President Obama’s “red line” would have been crossed.

Further doubts over the Douma incident lie in the fact that the Syrian government has been making progress in recapturing territory with assistance from Russia and allies affiliated with Iran, thus from a strategic point of view, deploying sarin or chlorine gas defies logic.

In reference to the initial leaked engineering assessment document, the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media (WGSPM), which is made up of academics who are critical of mainstream coverage on Syria and who received the document directly from one of the OPCW dissidents, described the organisation in its suppression and manipulation of evidence as being “hijacked at the top by France, UK and the US”. And that “the staged incident in Douma provoked a missile attack by the US, UK and France on 14 April 2018 that could have led to all-out war.”

The WGSPM further adds that OPCW staff who “have suppressed the evidence of staging are, unwittingly or otherwise, colluding with mass murder.” The WGSPM has been accused of recruiting a blogger suspected of disseminating Russian disinformation about the war in Syria.

The 2013 Nobel Peace Prize winning OPCW has yet to eliminate Israel’s undeclared, unaccounted chemical weapons stockpile. If they don’t exist, then the inspectors should be allowed in to verify this, just as they were invited by Al-Assad. This of course won’t happen any time soon.

READ: US Senate approves new sanctions on Syria, Iran, Russia over war crimes

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.