MIT rocket scientist Theodore Postol has accused the OPCW leadership of overseeing “compromised reporting” and ignoring evidence that challenged claims that the Syrian government carried out a chemical attack in Douma.
Facing a growing controversy, the head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has offered his most extensive comments to date on a leaked internal assessment that challenged allegations that the Syrian government carried out a chemical weapons attack in the city of Douma in April 2018.
But the remarks from OPCW chief Fernando Arias have done little to address concerns that his UN-backed watchdog suppressed the document and published a flawed report that ignored countervailing data.
In an exclusive interview with The Grayzone, the award-winning rocket scientist and MIT professor emeritus Theodore Postol accused Arias of badly mischaracterizing the document in order to paper over his organization’s errors.
According to Postol, the OPCW appeared so determined to attribute blame to the Syrian government that it overlooked clear evidence the incident was staged.
In the end, Postol said, the OPCW produced “a product of compromised reporting of the inspection and analysis process by upper level OPCW management.”
Serious questions surrounding the Douma gas attack
The unfolding scandal relates to an incident that took place in Douma, a suburb of Syrian capital Damascus that had been occupied for years by a Saudi-backed extremist militia called Jaysh al-Islam.
As Syrian forces moved in to retake the area in April 2018, opposition activists linked to Jaysh al-Islam accused the Syrian government of dropping gas cylinders on a shelter and killing at least 43 people.
This allegation prompted the United States, France, and Britain to bomb three sites in Syria one week later.
An OPCW investigation later concluded that the cylinders in Douma were likely dropped by from the air, a finding that effectively pinned blame on the Syrian military, the only warring party with aircraft.
But a leaked engineering assessment revealed that an expert with the OPCW Fact Finding Mission (FFM) had in fact challenged that conclusion.
The leaked document, authored by Ian Henderson, found that the “dimensions, characteristics and appearance of the cylinders and the surrounding scene of the incidents were inconsistent with what would have been expected in the case of either cylinder having been delivered from an aircraft.”
Accordingly, Henderson wrote, there is “a higher probability that both cylinders were manually placed at those two locations rather than being delivered from aircraft.” Henderson’s conclusion suggests that the attack was in fact staged on the ground.
Henderson’s work was excluded from the OPCW’s final report to the UN Security Council on March 1, 2019. It remained unknown until it was leaked to a group of UK-based academics known as the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media (WGSPM) in May.
After initially attempting to downplay the document’s significance and refusing to address the issue publicly, the OPCW is now on the defensive.
OPCW chief: ‘Reasonable grounds’ for believing the official story on Douma
In newly revealed comments to OPCW member states on May 28th, the organization’s director-general, Fernando Arias, confirmed that he had ordered an investigation into the leak. But Arias did not appear concerned with the implications of Ian Henderson’s buried finding – only the fact that it was publicly disclosed without permission.
“When further evidence appeared that the document drafted by the staff member had been shared outside this framework,” Arias said, “I considered I had sufficient information to authorize the initiation of an investigation to clarify the situation.”
Arias also confirmed that Henderson was an OPCW staff member who was on the ground in Syria at the time of the investigation. Without naming him, Arias said that Henderson was a “liaison officer at our Command Post Office in Damascus” who was “temporarily assisting… with information collection at some sites in Douma.”
Henderson is, in fact, a veteran OPCW official who is listed on internal documents as a staff expert dating back to 1998, one year after the organization’s founding. In past investigations, he has served as OPCW Inspection Team Leader.
Notably, while Henderson was initially misidentified as being a non-member of the FFM, Arias not only confirmed that he was a member, but also that the OCPW relied on “external experts” for a crucial part of its investigation.
According to Arias, ballistics data from the scene was “analysed by three external experts commissioned by the FFM, and working independently from one another. In the end, while using different methods and instruments, they all reached the same conclusions that can be found in the FFM final report.”
Seeking to address why Henderson’s findings were excluded from the final report, Arias claimed that his assessment “pointed at possible attribution,” and was therefore “outside of the mandate of the FFM [Fact-Finding Mission] with regard to the formulation of its findings.” Under OPCW guidelines, the FFM is prevented from assigning blame to parties involved in chemical attacks.
But the obvious inference of the OPCW’s published conclusion was to blame the Syrian government – an act of attribution – since the Syrian military (or its Russian ally) was the only warring party in Douma with aircraft.
Arias added that he issued instructions for Henderson’s work to be submitted to the Investigation and Identification Team, a body within the OPCW that has yet to become operational.
Ultimately, Arias said, “I stand by the impartial and professional conclusions of the FFM … that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the use of a toxic chemical as a weapon took place in Douma on 7 April 2018.”
Expert: OPCW’s initial report ‘bear[s] no relationship to what was observed at the scene’
After reviewing Arias’ comments, Postol told The Grayzone that the OPCW chief had “mischaracterized the contents” of Henderson’s assessment.
“Unlike the claims made by Ambassador Arias, the leaked internal OPCW engineering completely undermined the findings of his report to the UN Security Council about two alleged chlorine cylinder attacks on April 7, 2018 in Douma, Syria,” Postol said.
“The leaked document provided unambiguous contradictory data from the UN Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) and supporting technical analysis that explicitly showed that the attacks were instead staged.”
Postol punched holes in Arias’ excuse for excluding Henderson’s findings. “The leaked OPCW report did not, as mischaracterized by Ambassador Arias, assign attribution to these attacks,” the MIT professor emeritus explained.
“The leaked OPCW document merely showed that the evidence was unambiguous that someone had placed the chlorine cylinders at the alleged locations in the hope of making it appear like the cylinders had been dropped from an aircraft.”
Postol argued that the OPCW’s “calculations produced as proof for the conclusions” in its report “bear no relationship to what was observed at the scene and both the observed data from the scene and the calculations bear no relationship to the reported findings.”
The prominent scientist was especially withering in his assessment of the OPCW’s published report on Douma, describing it as “a product of compromised reporting of the inspection and analysis process by upper level OPCW management.”
On-the-ground reporters and Syrian witnesses echo Henderson’s OPCW conclusions
OPCW investigator Ian Henderson’s findings dovetail with overlooked field reports that raised serious doubts about Western claims of a chemical attack by the Syrian government.
Robert Fisk, the veteran correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent, spoke to a doctor in Douma who said the victims he treated suffered from dust and dirt inhalation, not toxic gas exposure. The doctor said he witnessed a member of the US and UK-funded White Helmets operation start a panic among Douma residents by shouting, “Gas!”
Riam Dalati, a BBC producer who has covered Syria extensively, claimed in February to have uncovered evidence that the attack “was staged.” Dalati was referring to harrowing images from the Douma hospital showing doctors and White Helmets workers treating young victims of alleged chemical attack.
Strangely, the reporter made his Twitter account private six hours after his initial tweet, and never mentioned the issue again.
These reports were supported by testimony by staff at the hospital where Douma victims were treated and by some of the supposed victims themselves.
For example, an 11-year-old boy named Hassan Diab said he never experienced a chemical attack, but was rushed to a hospital and hosed down with cold water on camera.
Ahmad Kashoi, an emergency ward administrator at the hospital, echoed Diab’s account, recalling how opposition activists doused people with water even though, “No one has died. No one suffered from chemical exposure.”
Because these testimonies and many more like them were delivered in Brussels at a press conference organized by the Russian government, Western states and their attack dogs in the media attempted to discredit them with baseless claims of coercion.
The Intercept’s Robert Mackey took the lead on attempts to take down the Syrian testimonies, suggesting that because Diab had been initially interviewed by Russian state broadcasters on or near Syrian military facilities, he had been held under duress. Yet Mackey produced no evidence to support his insinuation that the testimonies were coerced.
Since the release of Henderson’s dissenting OPCW report, the Intercept pundit has all but ignored the inconvenient issues it raised.
Mackey’s silence is characteristic of Western media’s treatment of the report across the board. The near-uniform silence is glaring in light of the document’s implications: a chemical attack appears to have been staged by extremist insurgents to trigger Western military intervention in Syria, and the world’s top chemical watchdog publishing flawed data to retroactively lend credibility to that violent outcome.
With the OPCW facing a growing fallout, it may be more difficult for Henderson’s stunning dissent to remain out of the public eye for much longer.
Aaron Maté is a journalist and producer. He is contributor to The Nation magazine and former host/producer for The Real News and Democracy Now!. Aaron has also presented and produced for Vice, AJ+, and Al Jazeera.