By Paul McKeigue, David Miller, Piers Robinson
Members of Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media
In our Briefing note on the Final Report of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission on the Douma incident, we noted that the FFM had sought assessments in October 2018 from unidentified engineering experts on the “the trajectory and damage to the cylinders found at Locations 2 and 4”. The Final Report provided no explanation for why the FFM had not sought engineering assessments in April 2018, when the experts could have inspected the sites with cylinders in position, rather than six months later when inspection of the sites with cylinders in position was no longer possible and the assessments had to rely on images and measurements obtained by others. We raised this as an obvious anomaly.
OPCW staff members have communicated with the Working Group. We have learned that an investigation was undertaken by an engineering sub-team of the FFM, beginning with on-site inspections in April-May 2018, followed by a detailed engineering analysis including collaboration on computer modelling studies with two European universities. The report of this investigation was excluded from the published Final Report of the Fact-Finding Mission, which referred only to assessments sought from unidentified “engineering experts” commissioned in October 2018 and obtained in December 2018.
A copy of a 15-page Executive Summary of this report with the title “Engineering Assessment of two cylinders observed at the Douma incident” has been passed to us and we have posted it here. Please download and share this document via your own server if you link to it, so as not to overload our server.
We are studying this document, and encourage others with relevant expertise to contribute. We provide some initial comments below:
The conclusion of the Engineering Assessment is unequivocal: the alternative hypothesis that the cylinders were manually placed in position is “the only plausible explanation for observations at the scene”.
Our last Briefing Note listed two other key findings:
- It is no longer seriously disputed that the hospital scene was staged: there are multiple eyewitness reports supported by video evidence
- The case fatality rate of 100%, with no attempt by the victims to escape, is unlike any recorded chlorine attack.
Taken together, these findings establish beyond reasonable doubt that the alleged chemical attack in Douma on 7 April 2018 was staged.
This raises the question of where and how did the 35 victims seen in the images recorded at location 2 die? The images show signs of acute inhalation injury with blood and mucus flowing from the nose and mouth of most victims. Even though faces had apparently been washed to remove most of the mucus, yellow staining of the skin remained.
A few weeks before the release of the Final Report, two journalists appeared to suggest that there had been an earlier chemical attack somewhere else in Douma, perhaps attempting to prepare a fallback position in case the Final Report were to indicate that the scenes at Location 2 and 4 had been staged. This is to say the least an implausible explanation of the staging at Locations 2 and 4 – why move the bodies of the victims to Location 2 for a staged scene, rather than show the real chemical attack scene if there was one?
As emphasized above, in a real chemical attack with chlorine or any other irritant gas, most victims would try to escape and non-fatal cases requiring prolonged hospital treatment would far outnumber fatal cases. The images of the victims seen at Location 2 show that they were evidently exposed to an irritant gas but were unable to escape. A careful examination of these images leaves little doubt that the victims were murdered as captives. The staining of the victims’ faces by mucus flowing from their noses and mouths shows in at least some cases the mucus flowed up their faces towards the eyes. This implies that they were hung upside down while exposed to the agent. Bizarrely, the eyes of most victims appear to have been masked so that the eyes were not affected by gas or mucus. In a few victims there are visible strap marks suggesting that the eyes were protected by something like swimming goggles. A possible motive for masking the eyes may have been to make it less obvious that the victims had suffered prolonged exposure to an irritant gas.
We conclude that the staging of the Douma incident entailed mass murder of at least 35 civilians to provide the bodies at Location 2.It follows from this that people dressed as White Helmets and endorsed by the leadership of that organization had a key role in this murder.
We note that the Douma incident was the first alleged chemical attack in Syria where OPCW investigators were able to carry out an unimpeded on-site inspection. Since 2014, OPCW Fact-Finding Missions investigating alleged chemical attacks in opposition-held territory have relied for evidence on witnesses and materials collected by opposition-linked NGOs of doubtful provenance, including the CBRN Task Force, the Chemical Violations Documentation Centre Syria, and the White Helmets. Even for the investigation of the Ghouta incident in 2013, the OPCW-WHO mission was able to visit the the alleged attack sites for only a few hours, and was under the close supervision of the armed opposition. For those who until now have been prepared to accept the findings of OPCW Fact-Finding Missions that did not include on-site inspections, the finding that the Douma incident was staged, based on a careful on-site inspection, should cast doubt on the findings of these earlier Missions.
In our last Briefing Note, we concluded by asserting that “It is doubtful whether [OPCW’s] reputation as an impartial monitor of compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention can be restored without radical reform of its governance and working practices”. The new information we have removes all doubt that the organization has been hijacked at the top by France, UK and the US. We have no doubt that most OPCW staff continue to do their jobs professionally, and that some who are uneasy about the direction that the organization has taken nevertheless wish to protect its reputation. However what is at stake here is more than the reputation of the organization: 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 cover-up of evidence that the Douma incident was staged is not merely misconduct. As the staging of the Douma incident entailed mass murder of civilians, those in OPCW who have suppressed the evidence of staging are, unwittingly or otherwise, colluding with mass murder. We think that in most jurisdictions the legal duty to disclose the cover-up of such a crime would override any confidentiality agreement with an employer. We would welcome legal opinions on this, given publicly, by those with relevant expertise. OPCW employees have to sign a strict confidentiality agreement, and face instant dismissal and loss of pension rights if they breach this agreement. We would welcome any initiative to set up a legal defence fund for OPCW staff members who come forward publicly as whistleblowers.
We thank the OPCW staff members who have communicated with us at considerable personal risk. We undertake to protect the identities of any sources who communicate with us. Emails to our protonmail addresses, if sent from another protonmail account (free to set up), are secure. We thank also the other open-source investigators and journalists who publicly questioned the official line on the Douma incident and thus created the climate for OPCW staff members to come forward.