How the OPCW’s investigation of the Douma incident was nobbled*

Paul McKeigue, David Miller, Jake Mason, Piers Robinson Members of Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media — Off-Guardian Aug 16, 2019

One of the alleged victims of chemical weapons poisoning, Hassan Diab, shown in Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the alleged chemical attack. Click to see the full-size image

The creation in 2014 of a new mechanism – the Fact-Finding Mission in Syria (FFM) – to investigate alleged chemical attacks allowed the OPCW to bypass the procedures laid down in the Chemical Weapons Convention for investigations of alleged use, and to set its own rules for these investigations.

The roles of the Director-General and the newly appointed director of the Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) are mostly ceremonial. The effective boss of the OPCW is the Chief of Cabinet Sébastien Braha, a French diplomat, and the Principal Investigator of the IIT is Elise Coté, a Canadian diplomat. Although these individuals have obvious conflicts of interest in relation to Syria, the OPCW lacks any procedure for managing such situations.

The Technical Secretariat’s excuse for suppression of the Engineering Assessment – that evidence that the cylinders were manually placed rather than dropped from the air is outside of the mandate and methodology of the FFM – is fallacious and contradicts OPCW’s published reports on the Douma incident.

It was already clear from open-source evidence, as we pointed out in an earlier briefing note, that the Interim and Final Reports of the FFM on the Douma incident had been nobbled. Our sources have now filled in some of the details of this process. Specifically:

  • By mid-June 2018 there would have been ample time to draft an interim report that summarized the analysis of witness testimony, open-source images, on-site inspections and lab results. We have learned that the original draft of the interim report, which had noted inconsistencies in the evidence of a chemical attack, was revised by a process that was not transparent to FFM team members to become the published Interim Report released on 6 July 2018 that included only the laboratory results.
  • After the release of the Interim Report, the investigation proceeded in secrecy with all FFM team members who had deployed to Douma excluded. It was nominally led by Sami Barrek who as FFM Team Leader had left Damascus before the on-site inspections began. These FFM team members do not know who wrote the document that was released as the “Final Report of the FFM”.
  • We have learned from multiple sources that the second stage of the investigation involved consultation with Len Phillips, the previous leader of FFM Team Alpha who worked in the OPCW during this period as a self-employed consultant.

From examination of three earlier FFM reports on incidents in 2015 or 2017 where Phillips was the Team Leader, it is clear that these reports also excluded or ignored evidence that these alleged chemical attacks had been staged. Specifically:

  • The FFM report on the alleged chlorine attacks in Idlib between 16 March and 20 May 2015 omitted the crucial fact, later noted by the Joint Investigative Mechanism, that the refrigerant canisters allegedly used as components of chemical munitions could not have been repurposed.
  • The FFM report on the alleged sarin attack in Khan Sheikhoun on 4 April 2017 omitted the information, later noted by the Joint Investigative Mechanism which had access to the same records, that the recorded hospital admission times of at least 100 patients were too early for them to have reached hospital if they had become casualties at the time the attack was alleged to have occurred.
  • The FFM investigation of the alleged chlorine attack in Ltamenah on 25 March 2017, reported on 13 June 2018, led it to discover a previously unrecorded sarin attack nearby the day before, and to prompt the White Helmets to provide, eleven months later, munition parts that tested positive for intact sarin. The report failed to explain or even comment on how intact sarin could have persisted for so long in the open.

This indicates that the suppression of the Engineering Assessment of the Douma incident was not an isolated aberration. In this context it is relevant that the opposition-linked NGOs on which the FFM has relied for evidence since 2014 have dubious provenance, and at least some of them have been set up under UK tutelage.

The credibility of the OPCW cannot be restored simply by finding some way to reverse what were purported to be the findings of the FFM on the Douma incident, but only by an independent re-examination of all its previous investigations of alleged chemical attacks in Syria, and a radical reform of its governance and procedures.

To resolve the discrepancy between the conclusions of the internal Engineering Assessment and those of the Final Report, a first step would be to make public the assessments of the external engineering experts on whom the Final Report relied. The engineering assessments were based on observations of the cylinders and measurements at the locations where they were found.

As the cylinders, tagged and sealed by the OPCW inspectors, are in the custody of the Syrian government, it is feasible to undertake an independent study to determine whether the conclusions of earlier engineering assessments can be replicated. For such a study to be credible, it would have to be undertaken by a panel independent of OPCW, in accordance with methods for reproducible research.

This is the Summary of a long work first published by Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media earlier this year, to read the full report click here.

*The term ‘nobbled’ is used here to describe illegal or unfair interference. The term was originally used to describe actions designed to prevent a horse from winning a race.

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