In the long-running nightmare of the Syrian civil war, the attack at Douma was a déjà vu atrocity with big consequences in Washington. On April 7, 2018, a working-class neighborhood in Greater Damascus suffered a chemical attack that killed at least 43 people. Six days later, US President Donald Trump ordered a cruise-missile attack on a research center and a facility that had allegedly been used for the production of sarin.
The Douma attack, Trump declared, represented “a significant escalation in a pattern of chemical weapons use by that very terrible regime,” alleging inaccurately that sarin gas had been used. Trump’s retaliation won him rare bipartisan praise in Washington and the news media.
Ever since, Western critics and Russian media have charged that the Douma attack was actually a “false flag” operation, orchestrated by anti-regime forces, to provoke and justify US intervention in Syria’s civil war.
Now the critics cite a leaked e-mail and testimony of a current inspector from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to make their case. An OPCW inspector, speaking pseudonymously as “Alex,” says the agency’s March 1, 2019, report on the Douma attack was “seriously misleading.” In conjunction with a complaint of an OPCW analyst last spring, Alex’s claim opens the possibility that the OPCW made a mistake in attributing the attack to President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
The Douma attack cannot be assessed in isolation. There is little doubt that the Assad government is responsible for most of the reported chemical attacks in Syria, whether by chlorine or sarin gas. In April 2018, Human Rights Watch found that in 85 confirmed chemical attacks, investigators found that the Syrian government was responsible for more than 50. Four were attributed to non-government forces. The perpetrators of the remainder could not be determined. The false-flag allegation has only been raised in a handful of cases.
The Douma debate echoes a similar debate about a sarin gas attack in August 2013 that killed at least 200 people in Ghouta, the same municipality that encompasses Douma. The Ghouta attack that famously crossed former US president Barack Obama’s “red line” and led to calls for a US attack on Assad, which Obama declined to order. Some Western critics originally claimed, along with Russian state media, that Ghouta was a false-flag operation designed to bring the United States into the civil war. That debate has petered out, as the evidence has accumulated to support the conclusion of a UN investigation that the Syrian government was responsible.
The Douma debate matters because Syria matters. Despite Trump’s orders, US troops have not fully withdrawn from Syria. Most of the Democratic candidates for the US presidency blasted Trump for his Syria policy. The lone exception is Representative Tulsi Gabbard, the most vocal critic of US foreign wars in the Democratic field. Her website expresses skepticism about the official story on Douma but does not endorse any theory. Critics have smeared Gabbard as a Russian agent, a claim for which there is no evidence.
The false-flag allegation cannot be dismissed as mere Russian propaganda. In my coverage of chemical attacks, Russian intelligence services, and CIA false flag operations, I’ve learned not to rule out any claims just because one or more governments dispute them. Nor do I reject the claims of Gabbard and other critics because they oppose US intervention in the Syrian conflict. I oppose it too. But like Louis Proyect at CounterPunch, I do not see any proof that Douma was a false-flag incident.
The debate, as conducted within the binary dictates of social media, is simplistic. Just because the official story may be flawed doesn’t mean that any alternative theory must be right. While the OPCW’s findings are now open to question, the critics’ explanation of the Douma attack is in no way proven.
The OPCW whistleblowers neither say they agree with nor provide any evidence – much less proof – of the critics’ alternative scenario: that the Douma attack was a “managed massacre” perpetrated by anti-regime rebels and supported by the United States.
The OPCW’s finding of a Syrian government attack, while contested, remains more credible than the “managed massacre” scenario, which is not merely improbable, but preposterous. The complexities of the Douma evidence defy the social-media binary.
The war crime finding
There is little dispute that on April 7, 2018, an apartment building near Martyr’s Square in Douma, a poor suburb of Damascus, was attacked at around 7:30pm local time, resulting in multiple deaths, apparently from asphyxiation.
“Casualty levels ranging from 40 to 70 deaths, including large numbers of children … were reported,” said the OPCW’s March 1, 2019, report. Most of them were “seen in videos and photos strewn on the floor of multiple levels of an apartment building and in front of the same building. Additionally, several witnesses reported seeing decedents in the basement of the building, on multiple floors of the building, on the streets and inside the basements of several buildings within the same area.” One UN team reported “cases of death by exposure to a toxic chemical” but did not actually examine the bodies, so the claim was not confirmed.
The OPCW fact-finding team, which arrived on the scene two weeks later, concluded that a missile weighing several hundred kilograms had penetrated the roof of the building and landed in a top-floor apartment, releasing some kind chlorinated chemical. According to the Working Group on Syria, 35 people were found dead, including 18 on the first floor and 10 on the second.
The OPCW report concluded:
“All the information gathered by the FFM [fact-finding mission] – witnesses’ testimonies, environmental and biomedical samples analysis results, toxicological and ballistic analyses from experts, additional digital information from witnesses – provide reasonable grounds that the use of a toxic chemical as a weapon took place. This toxic chemical contained reactive chlorine.”
The OPCW report endorsed the widely reported story that Douma was the site of a chemical attack and the Assad government was responsible.
It turns out, however, that the OPCW’s claim about “all the information” is not accurate.
Two OPCW employees have come forward to dispute aspects of the report.
In May, Ian Henderson, an OPCW analyst who reviewed the work of the fact-finding team, disputed the conclusions about the angle at which a missile had hit the building. He raised the possibility that the missile had been placed on the top floor of the building where dozens were found dead.
(In June, I wrote about Henderson’s complaint.)
The second OPCW whistleblower, acting under the pseudonym Alex, has made public a June 22, 2018, e-mail that he sent to a senior OPCW official named Bob Fairweather (a marvelous moniker for a UN bureaucrat).
The report “seriously misrepresents” the facts, Alex said. “Crucial facts” had been distorted, he said. (WikiLeaks has posted the e-mail, which you can read here.)
Alex’s e-mail adds detail and credibility to Henderson’s claims. At the very least, the OPCW’s public report did not accurately convey the private differences of opinion among the OPCW staff. These differences are not insignificant, according to Dr José Bustani, the first director general of the OPCW. After Alex gave testimony at a conference in Brussels on November 23, Bustani said:
“The convincing evidence of irregular behavior in the OPCW investigation of the alleged Douma chemical attack confirms doubts and suspicions I already had. I could make no sense of what I was reading in the international press. Even official reports of investigations seemed incoherent at best. The picture is certainly clearer now, although very disturbing.”
The complaint of “misleading edits” was heard on November 25 at the OPCW’s annual meeting. The OPCW declined to comment.
So if the Douma attack was not launched by the Syrian government, who did it?
The most detailed answer comes from the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media, a British-based group of researchers who dispute narratives of Western media and governments. They hypothesize the attack was “a managed massacre of captives, with a chemical attack staged by placing gas cylinders at the site and possibly opening them to release chlorine.”
The problem with this scenario is that whistleblower Alex argues that there is insufficient evidence to say the victims died of chlorine poisoning. If Alex is correct, as the critics say, the 40-plus victims were not killed by chlorine. So how did they die?
The Working Group offers no explanation, only a link to a website called Monitor on Massacre Marketing, which posits that “the killers and stagers, who brought the victims to this abandoned home from another, nearby location where they were gassed, largely upside down.”
This scenario is wholly imagined by someone who has perhaps seen too many horror movies. It depends on ignorance of the attack site and the belief that the putative authors of a false-flag operation – supposedly an al-Qaeda-linked militia in retreat from a ferocious Syrian government attack – could kill dozens of people known to their neighbors by means unknown and transport the corpses through an urban war zone, and then lug a several-hundred-kilogram projectile up to the roof – all without detection by anyone.
There is no eyewitness testimony to support such a scenario. In a word, the “managed massacre” theory is preposterous.
So what explains the dissent of the OPCW whistleblowers? That’s a good question without a good answer.
Could the victims have been killed by a chemical agent unknown to OPCW experts? That seems unlikely. Could Alex be mistaken about the levels of chlorine found at the scene? That seems possible, though unlikely given his expertise. The doubts of qualified observers like former OPCW chief Bustani need to be addressed. The “false flag” theory is not a credible explanation based on the available evidence.
This article was produced by the Deep State, a project of the Independent Media Institute, which provided it to Asia Times.