BBC caught out promoting fake news about OPCW report
The Organisation for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) reports no evidence of banned chemical weapons use by the Syrian government in Douma last April. This conflicts with the strong claims of NATO states and most of the mainstream media at the time. It also shows that the illegal missile attacks by France, UK and USA (FUKUS) on Syria at the time (see The “heart of the Syrian chemical weapons programme” destroyed?) were completely unjustified.
While the NATO governments involved have yet to respond to the OPCW report (let alone make apologies for their actions) many mainstream media outlets seem determined to continue promoting fake news when it comes to Syria. Some major news outlets have completely misrepresented the OPCW findings.
OPCW has problems but got this one right
I have commented on some earlier OPCW reports on Syria and have found them unconvincing, biased or relying only on terrorist sources (see Another shonky OPCW chemical incident report on Syria and Chemical weapons use in Syria UN report flawed by political bias).
However, this one is a bit different. It is an interim report on the alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma, Syria, last April. This incident got a lot of publicity with France, UK and USA declaring they had evidence which proved there had been an attack using sarin. This alliance (FUKUS) was sufficiently confident with their “intelligence” to order an illegal missile attack on several sites in Syria. (see The “heart of the Syrian chemical weapons programme” destroyed?)
This interim report is also different because the area of alleged attack was soon liberated by Syria and Syria, together with Russian Military Police and the UN Office for Project Services, was able to stabilise the area and enable inspectors from the OPCW to take samples and interview people in the buildings which had allegedly been attacked. A big difference to earlier reports which had relied only on “open sources,” and the testimony and samples provided by the White Helmets – a group affiliated with the jihadists and which actively campaigns against the Syrian states and has a history of false reporting.
While this is only an interim report some conclusions are clear (paragraph 2.5 in Summary):
“No organophosphorus nerve agents or their degradation products were detected, either in the environmental samples or in plasma samples from the alleged casualties.”
I have yet to see any response from NATO governments, particularly those comprising the FUKUS attack group. A sharp contrast to their vociferous accusations at the time of the alleged incident.
However, it appears that much of the mainstream media, and some of the sources it relies on, will draw unwarranted conclusions from this interim report to support their narrative. For example, Al Jazeera claims Interim OPCW report finds proof of chlorine used in Syria’s Douma.
That is an outright lie. It did not give any such proof or even make that claim.
Again an outright lie – the report found nothing of the sort.
Reuters are going with Chemical weapons agency finds ‘chlorinated’ chemicals in Syria’s Douma. Mind you this headline is a “correction” – “(Corrects to “various chlorinated organic chemicals” instead of chlorine).” Technically correct but misleading.
Sky news is claiming Chemical attack confirmed in deadly Douma strikes, but OPCW finds no evidence of sarin. Again wrong. No evidence of sarin but also no evidence presented of any chemical attack at all.
ABC also misrepresented the OPCW report claiming Chlorine used in Syria’s Douma, no trace of nerve agent, Interim OPCW report finds.
The NZ Herald was more neutral in their report Watchdog reports on alleged Syria attack behind airstrikes.
On the other hand the Xinhua Chinese news agency correctly reported Various chlorinated organic chemicals found in samples from Douma attack sites: OPCW, and RT correctly reported Nerve agents not found in samples from Syria’s Douma – interim OPCW report saying (in its second sentence ““Various chlorinated organic chemicals were found in samples” from two locations in the Damascus suburb of Douma.”
And I get the impression most of the “alternative” media sources I see on social media are reporting the OPCW findings correctly. So what was that about “Fake News” and the strong recommendations we get to wear blinkers so that we do not see alternative news sources?
Bellingcat also misrepresents findings
Eliot Higgins, who runs the Bellingcat organisation which provides “open source” information often used by western governments and media, also misrepresents the OPCW report. His organisation is responsible for initiating the story that the MH17 flight was shot down in eastern Ukraine by a Russian BUK unit especially imported for the occasion (and exported immediately afterwards). Bellingcat is also responsible for many of the claims of chemical weapons used by the Syrian government.
What is the basis for misleading reports of chlorine use
The OPCW report mentions chlorine only twice – in this paragraph describing the original open source and media reporting of the alleged incident (paragraph 3.1 in Background):
So, no evidence of chlorine use found by the OPCW team. Those making this claim will point, in justification, to the fact that “chlorinated organic chemicals” were found at a few of the examined sites (paragraph 2.5 in Summary):
“Various chlorinated organic chemicals were found in samples from Locations 2 and 4, along with residues of explosive.”
Many of the commenters I have seen on social media who resort to this to prove their claims of chlorine use seem not to understand the chemical differences involved or to argue that traces of any chlorinated organic chemicals must mean chlorine had been present.
Surprisingly, the OPCW did not draw any conclusions from the presence of these chemicals and are still attempting to establish their significance. I would have thought their job was to show if the trace levels found were at all unusual for environmental samples.
As a chemist, I do not find the OPCW detection of traces of these chemicals at all surprising. For example, the report mentions the presence of “dichloroacetic acid, trichloroacetic acid” in samples of concrete debris, wood fragments, a water tank wood support, and some clothing. But these chemicals are common in drinking water and even groundwater (see the Background document for development of WHO Guidelines for Drinking-water Quality, Dichloroacetic Acid in Drinking-water ). Some of the chemicals found are common chlorinated compounds in treated wood (e.g. bornyl chloride and 2,4,6-trichlorophenol as mentioned in a footnote to Annex 3 of the OPCW interim report).
So, in fact, the identified chlorinated organic chemicals are what one may expect from such samples or especially samples taken from areas where explosives have been used.
This OPCW report is still of dubious scientific quality
I find a lot wrong with this OPCW report – but first the positive.
It followed (mostly) the OPCW guidelines for on-site inspection and sampling.
This is a sharp contrast with the earlier OPCW reports on Syria where investigators relied on samples and testimony from jihadi affiliated groups like the White Helmets and their associates. This was possible because Douma had just been liberated and the Syrian Government and Russian Armed Forces made an immediate request for the OPCW to send their own observers to check media claims. (Although, given their willingness to trust jihadi-linked groups based in a terrorist-controlled area it does seem strange that the OPCW was unwilling to send their investigators to those areas and rely on terrorist guarantees for security in past investigations. Although, I am being sarcastic. Even in the case of Douma the OPCW team, was concerned about attacks from suicide bombers which seem to operate freely in the terrorist-held areas).
But have they learned?
In paragraph 5.1 describing their activities and timeline the OPCW say:
“Following reports in the media of the alleged incident on 7 April 2018, the Information Cell of the Secretariat immediately informed the FFM team and initiated a search of open-source information to assess the credibility of the allegation. The major sources comprised news media, blogs, and the websites of various non-governmental organisations. The assessment by the Information Cell was that the credibility of the allegation was high. Based on this information, the Director-General initiated an on-site investigation.”
Will the OPCW learn from this specific incident? In previous reports they stopped at “The assessment by the Information Cell was that the credibility of the allegation was high” – and they would have this time of the Syrian, Russian and UN military had not provided them the security they required for onsite inspections.
The OPCW assessment was that the credibility of the jihadi-connected groups was “high.” Their own inspections showed they were mistaken. Will they be more careful with such claims in the future?
This question is important as NATO countries at the UN Security Council earlier this year effectively prevented adoption of mandatory on site inspections for UN-related chemical weapons investigations. At the OPCW the NATO countries have also pushed through a policy enabling the OPCW to go beyond its investigatory role and carry out a political role of apportioning blame.
The science is shonky
I find it incredible that the report should simply list identification of traces of chlorinated organic chemicals without either providing some sort of indication of the concentrations involved or comparing levels with measurements from control samples – taken from areas outside the alleged attack area. This is a basic scientific mistake.
Those who wish to claim that the presence of chlorinated organics “proves” chlorine was used in this area could well be right. But only if the concentrations of these chemicals were much higher than normal for environmental samples.
I really can’t help thinking that this shoddy reporting of the science is a political trick enabling the report to be misrepresented. The OPCW is, after all, an international body and subject to the same sort of political manoeuvring we have come to expect from all such international bodies.
Interviews in country X!
The report states (paragraph 8.17:
“The FFM team interviewed a total of 34 individuals; 13 of these interviews were
conducted in Damascus and the remainder in Country X. Analysis of the testimonies is ongoing.”
Two issues for me here:
1: 13 interviews in Damascus – where most witness could have been found and 21 interviews in “Country x?” What this means is that more people from the defeated jihadi groups and their families were interviewed than those remaining in Douma who may have been less motivated to lie.
2: Country X! really? This is meant to be an intelligent report – not a spy thriller. There is absolutely no reason to be so coy about the location of the people interviewed. This is just childish.
I should note that the defeated “rebels”/terrorists and their families were given the opportunity to be transported to Idlib (still in terrorist hands). This has been a common feature of settlement agreements as areas are liberated. Of course, many choose to stay – even those who had been actively fighting with the militants. There is usually a provision for fighters to formalise their citizenship and even join the Syrian Army.
Many of the “rebel” fighters and members of affiliated organisations travel from Idlib into neighbouring Turkey – and further on. Why is the OPCW afraid to reveal the location of their interviewees in Turkey or other countries? Are they concerned this might reflect on the reliability of their testimony?
The warehouse and chemical production facility.
The Syrian government also asked the OPCW to investigate a chemical production facility and warehouse they had found deign liberation of East Ghouta and Douma. They believe these had been sued by terrorists to manufacture chemical contain weapons. (Similar facilities had been found in East Aleppo where terrorists appeared to be adding chemicals to projectiles used in their “hell cannons.”
Only one paragraph was devoted to this inspection – paragraph 8.16: Warehouse and facility suspected of producing chemical weapons:
“At the warehouse and the facility suspected by the authorities of the Syrian Arab Republic of producing chemical weapons in Douma, information was gathered to assess whether these facilities were associated with the production of chemical weapons or toxic chemicals that could be used as weapons. From the information gathered during the two on-site visits to these locations, there was no indication of either facility being involved in the production of chemical warfare agents or toxic chemicals for use as weapons.”
That is all – no details. No inventory of chemicals held at the sites. No sign of what the warehouse and production facility was actually used for.
Now, I can accost the Syrians may have been completely wrong in their suspicions about these sites – after all that assessment was made by military officers on the ground in the heat of battle, not chemical weapons experts. But I find the lack of information frustrating, even suspicious.
Were any cylinders of chlorine present at these sites. After all, if politically motivated commenters and media wish to misinterpret the presence of normal traces of chlorinated organic chemicals in collected samples why should they not also be forced to consider stocks of chlorine held in terrorist controlled areas -even if their declared use was innocent.
At last, an OPCW report on Syria actually based on factual evidence, the samples and interviews collected by the OPCW on site. A great advance over earlier reports based on “evidence” from terrorist-connected sources and social media or “open sources.”
But I wish the OPCW was more serious in reporting their scientific findings. Reporting traces of chlorinated organic chemicals without any indication of concentrations and comparison with normal environmental samples is shoddy work laying their information wide open for misrepresentation and distortion. Given the current geopolitical struggles and the way international organisations can be manipulated, I can’t help feeling this shoddy reporting was possibly intentional.
Despite these weaknesses, I think this report shows what is possible. It does show that the military action taken by FUKUS last April was not only illegal it was either based on poor intelligence and, more likely, based on claims these governments knew to be false. It is always good to see such blatant political and military hypocrisy exposed.
However, the weaknesses in the report show that more must be done to improve the scientific quality of OPCW work and reduce political influence on that work. This aspect is important because the recent changes giving OPCW a role in apportioning blame for alleged attacks open up that organisation to being so politicised it will lose all credibility.