Complot theory or international scandal? New document triggers controversy about Douma gas attack

Last year around 45 Syrian citizens died in a gas attack in the Syrian city of Douma.  In response the US and its allies carried out retaliations.  However, this month a new leak paints a very different story.  A newly leaked document comes to the conclusion that the gas cylinders that were found at the site were not dropped by the Syrian air force.  Some now claim that this is proof that rebels staged the gas attack themselves.  In a bid to get at the truth VRT's Vranckx programme spoke with experts who know this dossier through and through.

7 April 2018.  Dreadful images appear on YouTube that evening.  Crying children are doused with water from a hosepipe at a hospital A&E in a bid to get rid of the remains of a gas attack.  Children cry, men shout, women pray.  A couple of streets away thirty bodies are piled up in a block of flats.  There is foam on their lips and nostrils and their eyes are open wide.  It looks like the scene from a badly shot movie.  Above a gas cylinder is found.  The report is clear: these innocent citizens are the victim of an Assad gas attack.

The OPCW, the international watchdog on the ban on the use of chemical weapons, attends the scene.  A year later the findings are published in an official report: 106 pages: "In all probability" chlorine gas was used as a weapon in Douma in 2018. 

A new leak

Mid May 2019 a new internal document suddenly appears: the Engineering Assessment of two cylinders at the Douma incident. The leaked document is 16 pages long, part of the OPCW investigation and signed by Ian Henderson, the team leader at this organisation.  Britain's Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media are the new whistle-blowers. At first glance this is an academic working party with ties to renowned universities, but the group's coverage is limited to the pro-Russian and pro-Assad sphere of influence.

"It looks like this document is authentic" confirms chemical arms expert Jean Pascal Zanders.  The internal document shows a version that conflicts with the official account.  It's Henderson's interpretation that damage to the building and the location of the cylinders isn't consistent with an air attack.  His hypothesis: the cylinders were placed here.

The leak seems to confirm Russian and Syrian reports immediately after the attack that insinuated that the rebels were the guilty party.  But how reliable is this document?

The truth as a victim.

"The difficulty in such cases is that we can no longer attend the scene" says Rudi Vranckx.  Since January 2012 when the VRT reporter barely escaped a grenade attack the Syrian government no longer allows Vranckx into the country.  "For years we filed applications.  Sometimes we could report illegally from Syrian Kurdistan and rebel areas, but Assad is keen to keep us out despite the fact that we wish to report from all sides."

Vranckx is not alone: few independent journalists and researchers are able to work on location.  This makes it difficult to get to the truth.  "In wars lies and propaganda reign supreme.  Just think of the disinformation with regard to the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003.  Lies were used to defend the US invasion - something we highlighted and criticised at the time.  There's nothing that we would rather do than investigate this incident thoroughly and independently."

Our anonymous experts agree: it's not difficult to produce chlorine.  The ingredients are used for many everyday items. Chlorine itself isn't illegal.  Turning this substance into a lethal weapon is dreadfully difficult.  Use too much and this results in a fire.  Use too little and nothing will happen.  We believe that the high number of victims forms crucial evidence that points to Assad.   

Death descends from the heavens

A week after the presumed gas attack a research team working for the OPCW, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, arrives in Damascus.  A week long, due to "security reasons", they are not given permission from the Syrian and Russian army to travel to the locations in Douma.  When they are able to journey to the city the victims have long been buried.  The flats are under lock and key.  Despite these setbacks the team is able to question 39 witnesses including 11 victims and 4 doctors.  Several witnesses saw a yellowish green smoke, experienced acute breathing difficulties and smelled a strong chorine odour.  Several witnesses spoke of yellow cylinders that were found at the location.

The OPCW analysis says the damage to the block of flats is consistent with an air attack using two gas cylinders.  Samples taken show that chlorine was used.  The research team also finds TNT.  It's an explosive that only works after a big bang like the impact of an air strike.

Identical facts, a different conclusion.

The official story and the leaked documents conflict with one another.  Chemical weapons expert Jean Pascal Zander says this is nothing out of the ordinary: "When the OPCW investigation team return home experts in different fields examine the evidence collected.  Henderson's sub report was the only element that brought conflicting conclusions to light."

In a procedure like this the experts then compare their findings.  They go in search of elements that overlap and together work on a report about everything that is not in doubt and about which absolute certainty exists. Elements where doubt remains are removed. "This the normal way of operating and nothing different happened here” says Zanders.  He notes that intelligence services treat similar situations in the same way."

Meanwhile the Syrian and Russian regimes get directly involved in the squabbling with the OPCW.  Both countries send the organisation a list of questions and remarks.  In the OPCW answer we read that three independent ballistic investigations come to the conclusion that gas cylinders were dropped from the heavens.  The OPCW provides clarification: international experts from different countries examined different scenarios and used different methodologies to come up with comprehensive results.

Strikingly in the official response to Syria and Russia no mention is made of the minority report filed by Henderson. 

Helicopters with a prehistory

Bellingcat, the New York Times and Forensic Architecture make their own analysis on the basis of the pictures made by the rescue workers at the scene.  Their main source is Russian TV that only days after the incident claimed that the attack had been entirely staged.  In the background the investigators discover scores of elements that help them to make progress.  Between the rubble they identify the coating that is used on cylinders when they are deployed during helicopter air strikes.  They reconstructed the trajectory followed by the cylinders that were found and discover that the cylinder makes an imprint that corresponds exactly with the destroyed grill on a balcony.  Their analysis: the cylinder was dropped from the air and this can only have been carried out by the regime.

On the evening of the incident the cylinder is still as white as a sheet.  Days later it has reverted to its original yellow colour.  Crazy?  Not really.  These ice crystals are the result of the gas that is freed from a tank that is under pressure.  When the layer of ice is in contact with chlorine, the cylinder's metal corrodes.  This too is clearly visible on the pictures that are shown on TV in the days after the attack.

Bellingcat examines air traffic on the day.  Plane spotters report the departure of two Mi-8 Hip-helicopters from Dumayr Airbase bound for the Douma area.  It has long been known that the Syrian air force uses this type of helicopter during attacks using barrel bombs and chemical weapons.  Just before the attack two Hip helicopters are seen to circle Douma. 

Next crime scene: Idlib?

"This isn't an isolated incident" says Rudi Vranckx.  Several chemical attacks were confirmed and claimed thousands of lives.  In addition the Syrian regime uses more controversial and illegal weapons and tactics.  But IS and jihadist rebel groups in the region have violated international law too. "In this tangle we recognise a strategy.  The battle for Douma has been raging for months.  Just like during other conquests by the Syrian army reports of chemical weapons surface during the end game."

"The pattern is clear" says Zanders.  "The Syrian army surrounds towns and villages that are in rebel hands.  These areas are targeted by air strikes and an offer is made to evacuate the area.  Units that refuse are attacked using chorine gas in an attempt to wear them down psychologically.  In this way Assad piles up victory after victor.  The use of chemical weapons is always risky and always illegal."

In the meantime little more is heard about the use of chemical weapons in Syria.  Accusations about smaller chlorine attacks haven't led to new investigations.  Our experts do not believe this silence will continue for long.  They are waiting for the last battle for Idlib.  "Idlib will be the next crime scene" they all agree.

Crimes of War, Mists of War

The conflict in Syria has claimed more than a half a million lives.  People died as a result of strikes and shelling, from hunger, disease and injuries. "Nobody talks about that" says Zanders.  "In comparison between 4,000 and 5,000 people died in chemical attacks.  The response to that has been a lot fiercer both from ordinary people as from international politicians.

Research conducted by the Global Public Policy Institute showed that chemical weapons were deployed on 336 occasions during the Syrian conflict.  It's a major violation of international law.  98% of attacks are thought to have been carried out by the regime.  In over 90% of cases chlorine gas was used.  Both Zanders and our source in this investigation recognise this as the pattern.

"The pattern is clear" says Zanders.  "The Syrian army surrounds towns and villages that are in rebel hands.  These areas are targeted by air strikes and an offer is made to evacuate the area.  Units that refuse are attacked using chorine gas in an attempt to wear them down psychologically.  In this way Assad piles up victory after victor.  The use of chemical weapons is always risky and always illegal."

In the meantime little more is heard about the use of chemical weapons in Syria.  Accusations about smaller chlorine attacks haven't led to new investigations.  Our experts do not believe this silence will continue for long.  They are waiting for the last battle for Idlib.  "Idlib will be the next crime scene" they all agree.

Whereas until now the OPCW investigation team only analyses if and how chemical attacks happened, a newly established team has received an international mandate to identify the guilty.  The decision was taken in June 2018 following a vote on the international convention on chemical weapons.

In a reaction to the OPCW Syria says it does not recognise the new "Investigation and Identification Team".  This week it told the organisation that the team leader Santiago Oñato Laborde would not be receiving a visa.  

Rudi Vranckx says it's high time for action.  "We need a new war tribunal.  We should not only search for the truth behind the many chemical attacks.  It's time for an international court that investigates all the war crimes of the various parties."