The Scandal Behind The OPCW’s Report Doctoring In Douma

Above photo: From Global Research.

In 1997, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was established to oversee the implementation of the provisions of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The CWC aims to achieve “a world free of chemical weapons and the threat of their use, and in which chemistry is used for peace, progress, and prosperity”[1]. The “Our Approach” segment of their mission statement notes the principles which the OPCW follow, being the centrality of the Convention’s multilateral character and the equal application of the provisions to the CWC by all parties. They further note that this work is done with integrity and is “guided and supported by the internal vision of our organization”. That internal vision is led by numerous platitudes regarding topics ranging from “acknowledg[ing] each others’ contributions” and making “decisions with integrity and transparency” to communicating “in ways that foster cooperation, clarity and committed action” and ensuring “relevant information is fully shared and disseminated to all who need it… build[ing] a climate of trust and support”[2].

The OPCW is an international governmental organization composed of 193 signatory countries. Its website emphasizes that 98% of the global population lives under the CWC while 97% of the chemical weapons stockpiles reported have been verifiably destroyed. In September of 2013, a month after the Ghouta chemical attack, the Syrian government formally joined the CWC. In December of the same year, the OPCW was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts to eliminate chemical weapons. The Syrian chemical weapons disposal project was overseen by both the OPCW and the United Nations (UN) in a Joint Mission that concluded on September 30, 2014, announcing that approximately 96% of Syria’s chemical weapons has been destroyed and that OPCW would finish the disposal project[3]. Approximately 18-months later, the OPCW delivered a press release acknowledging that a final 75 cylinders of hydrogen fluoride has been destroyed, allegedly the last of the Syrian weapons materials. For the next year, both the Syrian government and opposition rebel groups were accused of using chemical weapons against one another’s respective forces as well as innocent civilians[4].

A significant event in the timeline of the Syria Civil War was the Douma chemical attack of April 2018, expected to have killed between 41-49 people. Douma is a district of Eastern Ghouta in the capital of Damascus, which at the time was controlled by Saudi-backed jihadists. A week after the event the U.S., UK and France launched retaliatory strikes against Syria blaming President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian Arab Air Force. Since the Summer of 2019, the OPCW has been cloaked in controversy after publishing an interim report regarding the Douma incident which provoked a whistleblower to accuse the organization of doctoring and obfuscating the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission’s (FFM) assessment. A leaked document titled “Engineering Assessment of Two Cylinders Observed at the Douma Incident” authored by Ian Henderson with a headline titled “UNCLASSIFIED – OPCW Sensitive: Do not circulate” was drafted for internal review. Its concluding notation explicitly states “observations at the scene of the two locations… suggests that there is a higher probability that both cylinders were manually placed at those two locations than being delivered from aircraft”[5].

This article will analyze both OPCW publications, the unpublished Henderson report, “Meeting Minutes” from a toxicologist consultation, a memorandum sent to the Director General of the OPCW, an email to the Director of the Office of Strategy and Policy at OPCW, and an email to the Chief of Cabinet at the OPCW. WikiLeaks has been imperative in this research, and I recommend those interested in this controversy utilize the resource as there is further information relevant to the Douma incident which have been left out of this piece. Covered first is an explanation of the process for review by the OPCW, followed by the OPCW report’s findings and each whistleblower’s remarks to particular officials. A subsequent conclusionary analysis will be offered and a potential explanation as to why the OPCW report differs from what FFM researchers had concluded for the Douma report.

The Process for Review and Complications with Assigning Blame

When accusations are made that an attack prohibited by the CWC has occurred, countries involved may request assistance from the OPCW[6]. Article 10 of the CWC designed the procedure for requesting and receiving assistance. A request is either submitted by a party involved in a conflict where a chemical attack is alleged, or by request to the Director-General of the OPCW by a country which has been the recipient of a chemical attack. The investigation of alleged use is conducted to establish facts related to the alleged use, and provide a basis with regard to (or not to) take further action to assist the requesting party[7]. In May of 2014, the OPCW established a Fact Finding Mission in Syria to respond to “persistent allegations of chemical weapons use”[8]. A year later, the UN and OPCW established the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), which was tasked with assigning blame for chemical attacks.

Despite its mission being reaffirmed a year later (2016), in 2017 Russia utilized its veto power on the UN Security Council and rejected JIM’s mandate extension in Syria. This was Russia’s ninth veto regarding Syria since it joined the war on behalf of Assad’s government[9]. As a result of Russia’s protection of Syria, in 2018 the United Kingdom requested a special OPCW session where attending members passed a mandate requiring the OPCW to establish a new body to assign blame in the case of chemical attack accusations in Syria. By November of the same year, the Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) was established to continue JIM’s purpose[10]. However, the IIT construction remains in flux as funding for its establishment has been granted but the positions to fill those seats have not.

OPCW Reports Regarding the Douma Incident

On July 6, 2018, an interim report of the OPCW FFM in Syria was published for the sake of institutional transparency. The Douma assault took place on April 7, 2018, and an OPCW dispatch team arrived in Damascus on April 15, 2018. The first site visit took place on April 21, after security concerns were addressed. Over a span of ten days, two OPCW teams visited five sites (two sites of alleged chemical attacks, a hospital, a warehouse suspected by the Syrian government of producing chemical weapons, and locations of interviews). In Douma, the FFM collected environmental samples and data, and interviewed witnesses. OPCW designated laboratories conducted tests on the samples and found no nerve agents or degradation products on their samples, but did find chlorinated organic chemicals[11]. At Locations 2 and 4, the FFM team found two industrial gas cylinders, one at Location 2 on a top-floor patio, and another at Location 4 on the bed of a top floor apartment[12].

The final report findings indicated that a substance or combination of substances containing a reactive chlorine atom was in contact with the samples collected from both Locations 2 and 4. At Location 4, there were visible signs of metal corrosion in the apartment bedroom where the cylinder was found. At Location 2, there were corroded objects as well, though the FFM team could not say with certainty that the corrosion was related to the chlorine or natural factors. Still, the report notes that each Location was in contact with either molecular chlorine or hypochlorous acid, meaning there were reasonable grounds to indicate that molecular chlorine was present around each cylinder[13] . At Location 4, the cylinder fell through the ceiling of the bedroom in a corner, and the expert assessment allegedly concluded that the cylinder must have had an altered trajectory which caused the cylinder to bounce on top of the bed where the experts found it. Attached below is an image regarding this from the OPCW report:

The conclusions of the final report regarding the alleged use of toxic chemicals as a weapon provide reasonable grounds to believe that the use of chemical warfare did take place[14] . The chemicals reported contained reactive chlorine, and was therefore likely molecular chlorine. Given that the airstrike was conducted by the Syrian Arab Air Force, the understanding is that the Syrian Arab Air Force managed the chemical attack.

Leaked Report Authored by Ian Henderson

Henderson’s internal document begins by recognizing the difficulty in developing a hypothesis for what was alleged to have occurred without prejudging the situation and possibly misinterpreting the facts. Regarding Location 2, the first hypothesis is that the cylinder used for the storage of liquefied chlorine was dropped from an aircraft and fell onto the reinforced concrete roof. The cylinder impacted the roof and formed a crater, fracturing the cylinder and discharging the contents. Hypothesis two is that the cylinder used for the storage of liquefied chlorine was in the possession of persons who placed it on the terrace next to a pre-existing crater[15]. The first of Location 4’s three hypotheses is that the cylinder used for the storage of liquefied chlorine was dropped from an aircraft onto the reinforced concrete roof of the bedroom. The cylinder penetrated through the roof (forming the crater observed in the roof) and deflected laterally to end up on the bed, in the position observed. The valve remained intact and the contents remained in the vessel. The second hypothesis is the same as the first, but with consideration to the likelihood that the first persons at the scene placed the cylinder on the bed, rather than it bouncing. The third hypothesis is that the cylinder used for the storage of liquefied chlorine was already deformed and placed on the bed. The crater in the roof was created by unspecified means, either prior to or after the cylinder was placed on the bed[16].

The methodology to test the hypotheses from Location 2 focused on the impact of a vessel landing at an approximate 20 degree angle for the results to resemble the observation at the site. The simulation further addressed the question of what height the vessel was dropped from to create similar damage patterns to the observed cylinder. The study then expanded to account for the influence of the steel reinforced bars in the concrete slabs, having experts establish a model which represented all three mechanisms. After the simulations were run, test results were compared to the observations. The Location 4 study had to account for the cylinder falling through the resultant crater and then landing on the bed. The cylinder appeared to have damages consistent with a vessel having “flat/horizontal impact with a horizontal surface”[17]. The study included measurements taken of the crater in the roof, the cylinder, bedroom walls and objects of furniture, all used to establish a scale drawing of the deformed cylinder and to reconstruct its pre-deformed dimensions. A 3-D model was then generated to examine the range of possible configurations upon impact so to assess the possible dynamics of the lateral movement of the cylinder which assumedly landed the cylinder onto the bed[18].

Regarding Location 2, all explored possibilities could not simulate a situation in which the cylinder was brought to a complete stop by the concrete. Further simulations also demonstrated that the alleged impact event leading to the observed vessel deformation and concrete damage were not compatible. When experts were brought to assess the appearance of the crater observed at Location 2, their view was that the damage to the concrete was more consistent with mortar or rocket artillery than the impact from a falling object of the cylinder’s size. As for Location 4, both pre- and post-deformation cylinder models could not create a possible set of circumstances whereby the cylinder passed through the crater with the valve still intact and the vessel fins deformed in such a manner. Similarly, the bounce could not be recreated to place the object in the same conditions as observed. Thus, neither Location’s observations could be recreated, leading Henderson to conclude his report by suggesting “there is a higher probability that the cylinders were manually placed at those two locations rather than being delivered form an aircraft”[19].

Redacted Toxicology Report

Members of the OPCW met with four toxicologists who specialized in chemical weapons to solicit their expert opinions regarding the alleged chemical attack in Douma. The toxicologists were tasked with responding to two focal inquiries by OPCW members: could the team exhume the suspected victims to test for chlorine exposure, and are the symptoms observed consistent with chlorine or reactive chlorinated gas exposure?

According to the toxicologists, there is little value in exhuming the subjects due to the climate, the conditions of their remains and the time passed since the incident. Regarding the latter inquiry, the chief expert proposed two possible scenarios: either this was a real chemical attack or it was a propaganda exercise[20]. After analyzing open source videos and photographs, the toxicologists were “conclusive in their statements that there was no correlation between [the] symptoms [observed] and chlorine exposure”, further noting the irregularity of the excessive frothing in such a short time lapse from the alleged incident[21]. The overall message of the meeting was that the conditions observed were not consistent with chlorine exposure, and that no other chemical agents could be identified with the observed symptoms. The “Meeting Minutes” conclude by recognizing this information to have been communicated to the Chief of Cabinet at the OPCW.

Memorandum to Fernando Arias, Director General of the OPCW

On March 14, 2019, a memorandum was sent through the Director of Inspectorate to Fernando Arias, Director General of the OPCW, raising concerns regarding the finalized report. The author of this piece is unidentified, however they claim in the piece to have worked in Douma for several weeks on behalf of the OPCW and to be an expert in metallurgy, chemical engineering, artillery and Defense Research and Development. The author notes that approximately 20 inspectors have raised concerns over the final report, and further bemoans that of the “FFM core team” who produced the final report, only one had been in Douma (a paramedic) with the FFM inspectors[22]. The author continues in their piece by expressing that they were being excluded from the work they were tasked to complete, and that the FFM report was written and published in secrecy without their ability to review the official findings. Once published, many of the FFM members felt that the finalized report failed to properly capture the findings on the ground[23]. It is likely the author was Henderson, as subsequently leaked emails between he and OPCW Inspector Boban Cekovic contain many of the same complaints and phrases[24].

Email to Veronika Stromsikova

On December 14, WikiLeaks released an internal email by a member of the FFM to Veronika Stromsikova, the Director of the Office of Strategy and Policy at the OPCW, sent May 20, 2019. The email begins by noting that a near three weeks in time has passed since the author contacted Stromsikova and received no reply. The author brings attention to the fact that OPCW officials have knowingly disseminated “falsehoods” about the character of Henderson, especially regarding their denial that Henderson was part of the FFM team. Actions which clearly contrast  the OPCW’s declaration of “acknowledg[ing] each others’ contributions”[25]. The author continues by noting that Henderson was deployed to four different locations, one of which was recognized by the OPCW to be “high risk”, all for “no other purpose than to determine what happened in Douma”.[26] The author further request a meeting with the Director General of the OPCW and recognizes that the continued bureaucratic excuses as to why the Director General can not be contacted by members of the FFM “can only be viewed as a deliberate attempt to hide from the truth”[27].

Email to Robert Fairweather

On November 23, 2019, WikiLeaks published an email sent by a member of the OPCW FFM expressing their concern over the OPCW’s intention to release a redacted version of the report which they allegedly co-authored[28] . The email, sent June 22, 2018, was directed to then Chief of Cabinet at the OPCW Robert Fairweather (addressed as Bob)[29]. The author explains that they were worried about “how much [the redacted FFM report] misrepresents the facts”. An example is offered regarding the conclusion paragraphs that state there was “sufficient evidence” gathered to determine that chlorine (or a chlorine-containing chemical) was released from the cylinders.

The author explains that samples collected from Locations 2 and 4 were in contact with one or more chemicals that contained a reactive chlorine atom, found in numerous chemicals, including “sodium hypochlorite, a major ingredient of household chlorine-based bleach”[30]. The author also argues against the redacted report’s stated belief that the chlorine was released by the cylinders at each site, and debates the report’s text regarding “high levels of various chlorinated organic derivatives”, arguing that in most cases chlorine was found in trace quantities of 1-2 parts per billion[31]. The author further notes the removal of the original report’s “extensive sections regarding the placement of the cylinders at both locations”, which were redacted from the final report. Also omitted were the hypotheses listed above and the bibliography of peer-reviewed scientific literature. In conclusion, the author requests the final version include the original report, fearing that the redacted version discredited both the FFM and the OPCW.

A subsequent meeting with Fairweather took place on July 4, where members of the report drafting team were invited to the Chief’s office only to be confronted by three U.S. officials who failed to identify which organizations of the government they represented. The U.S. officials asserted that the Assad regime was indeed the culprit and that the two chlorine tanks were part of a chemical assault conducted by the Syria Arab Air Force[32]. This pressuring from another country’s government clearly calls into question the impartiality of the OPCW.

Conclusions

In 2002, the George Bush administration had been pressuring the removal of then-Director General of the OPCW Jose Bustani. It is alleged that in March of that same year, Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs John Bolton threatened Bustani’s children. The encounter has been verified by Bustani’s son-in-law, two former OPCW colleagues and then-Special Assistant to the Director-General for External Relations[33]. The understanding at the time was that Bustani had been negotiating with Saddam Hussain to join the CWC. If Iraq was to sign onto the CWC, it could have made for peace rather than war. Instead, by the end of July 2002, the OPCW adopted new Director-General Rogelio Pfirter (who agreed to take a passive role in Iraq’s chemical weapons accusation), diplomatic talks between the OPCW and Iraq stopped and the U.S.-led Iraq War resulted in the deaths of 151,000-1,000,000 people and the plundering of a nation. It then took 7 years for Iraq to sign on to the CWC and a total of 16 years for Iraq’s chemical weapons stockpile to be destroyed[34].

As this is an ongoing controversy, all other discussion regarding the Douma incident, the OPCW report and subsequent alleged doctoring is speculation. It is important to contextualize where international political arrangements have brought Syria, however. At the time of the alleged chemical attack, Douma was under the control of the Saudi-backed rebel faction Jaysh al-Islam and the Syrian Arab Armed Forces were in the process of reclaiming the county’s capital. Much of the information regarding Syria that is disseminated to the West is from opposition sources, who are often financed handsomely by Gulf monarchies and business elites interested in continuing the pillage of Syria by financing groups similar-to-and-including Jaysh al-Islam. Beyond rebel factions, there is a network of non-governmental organizations and lobbyist groups which also reap the rewards of imperial conquest against the Syrian populace. Thus, the multifaceted attack against Syria requires a particular nuance for those truly interested in establishing an understanding of the players and events taking place within the country.

The allegations of doctoring a report by a body which is recognized to be a neutral international governmental organization solely instituted to uphold the CWC are severe. Whether the event was a propaganda effort by opposition organizations or Western interests is a significant piece in this cause célèbre, but should not envelop the OPCW’s manipulation of research and suppression of internal objection. The undemocratic infrastructure of the OPCW must be called into question and immediate reforms are necessary to restore any semblance of legitimacy to the Organization’s command and authority. Moreover, there should be no country influencing OPCW decisions. In the case of Douma, this point is emphasized due to U.S. interference in the Syrian War[35].

It is evident that the OPCW cannot hold itself to the internal vision which is guided simply by the liberal platitudes of ‘integrity’, ‘transparency’, ‘clarity’ and ‘building a climate of trust and support’ while suppressing dissent from those ‘contributing’ to the official FFM directives. As such, it would be negligent to once again grant the Organization a mandate for assigning blame, which OPCW state members have attempted to do with the IIT. Until there are official explanations, alterations and resignations within the ranks of the OPCW, the authority of the politicized organization regarding international affairs should be dismissed as it is clear today that the body is nothing more than an arm of global imperialism.

[1] OPCW. 2019. Mission: A world free of chemical weapons. Retrieved from https://www.opcw.org/about-us/mission

[2] OPCW. 2019. Our Values: The OPCW’s Internal Vision. Retrieved from https://www.opcw.org/work-us/our-internal-vision

[3] OPCW-UN Mission. 2019. Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons – UN Joint Mission. Retrieved from https://opcw.unmissions.org/

[4] Kimball, D. & Davenport, K. (March, 2019). Timeline of Syrian Chemical Weapons Activity, 2012-2019. Retrieved from https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/Timeline-of-Syrian-Chemical-Weapons-Activity#2014

[5] Henderson, I. (February, 2019). Engineering Assessment of Two Cylinders Observed at the Douma Incident – Executive Summary. Retrieved from http://syriapropagandamedia.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Engineering-assessment-of-two-cylinders-observed-at-the-Douma-incident-27-February-2019-1.pdf

[6] OPCW. 2019. Our Work: Responding to the Use of Chemical Weapons. Retrieved from https://www.opcw.org/our-work/responding-use-chemical-weapons

[7] Ibid.

[8] OPCW. 2019. Fact Finding Mission. Retrieved from https://www.opcw.org/fact-finding-mission

[9] AFP at the United Nations. 2017. Russia uses veto to end UN investigation of Syria chemical attacks. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/24/russia-uses-veto-end-un-investigation-chemical-attacks

[10] Sanders-Zakre, A. 2019. OPCW Confirms Chlorine Use. It’s Time to Blame Assad. Retrieved from https://www.armscontrol.org/blog/2019-03-12/opcw-confirms-chlorine-use-%E2%80%99s-time-assign-blame

[11] OPCW. Note the Technical Secretariat. Interim-Report of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission in Syria Regarding the Incident of Alleged Use of Toxic Chemicals as Weapons in Douma, Syrian Arab Republic, on 7 April 2018. Retrieved from https://www.opcw.org/sites/default/files/documents/S_series/2018/en/s-1645-2018_e_.pdf

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Henderson, I. (February, 2019). Engineering Assessment of Two Cylinders Observed at the Douma Incident – Executive Summary. Retrieved from http://syriapropagandamedia.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Engineering-assessment-of-two-cylinders-observed-at-the-Douma-incident-27-February-2019-1.pdf

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Note the similarity in these hypotheses with Henderson’s report, and that the possibility of the event being a propaganda effort are not considered in the official OPCW final report.

[21] WikiLeaks. 2019. Actual Toxicology Meeting Redacted, 2018. Retrieved from https://wikileaks.org/opcw-douma/document/actual_toxicology_meeting_redacted/actual_toxicology_meeting_redacted.pdf

[22] WikiLeaks. DG Memo. Retrieved from https://wikileaks.org/opcw-douma/document/DG-memo1/DG-memo1.pdf

[23] Ibid.

[24] Henderson’s email to Cekovic mentions his expertise in metallurgy, chemical engineering and R&D development, as well as the complaint regarding the paramedic being the only member of the FFM team to participate in the core team’s FFM report for the OPCW. Retrieved from https://wikileaks.org/opcw-douma/document/removal_of_engineering_report_februar_2018/removal_of_engineering_report_februar_2018.pdf. Also found attached to this link is a demand by Chief of Cabinet to the Director General Sebastian Braha to remove the “all traces” of the FFM engineering report by Henderson from the OPCW Document Registry Archive.

[25] OPCW. 2019. Our Values: The OPCW’s Internal Vision. Retrieved from https://www.opcw.org/work-us/our-internal-vision

[26] WikiLeaks. 2019. May-20-2019-email raising concerns. Retrieved from https://wikileaks.org/opcw-douma/document/May-20-2019-email_raising_concerns/May-20-2019-email_raising_concerns.pdf

[27] Ibid.

[28] WikiLeaks. 2019. OPCW Douma Docs. Retrieved from https://wikileaks.org/opcw-douma/

[29] Wikileaks. 2018. Subject: Grave concern about the ‘redacted’ Douma report. Retrieved from https://wikileaks.org/opcw-douma/document/Internal-OPCW-E-Mail/Internal-OPCW-E-Mail.pdf

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Steele, J. 2019. The OPCW and Douma: Chemical Weapons Watchdog Accused of Evidence-Tampering by Its Own Inspectors. Retrieved from https://www.counterpunch.org/2019/11/15/the-opcw-and-douma-chemical-weapons-watchdog-accused-of-evidence-tampering-by-its-own-inspectors/

[33] Hasan, M. March 2018. “We Know Where Your Kids Live”: How John Bolton Once Threatened an International Official. Retrieved from https://theintercept.com/2018/03/29/john-bolton-trump-bush-bustani-kids-opcw/

[34] OPCW. 2018. OPCW Director-General Congratulates Iraq on Complete Destruction of Chemical Weapons Remnants. Retrieved from https://www.opcw.org/media-centre/news/2018/03/opcw-director-general-congratulates-iraq-complete-destruction-chemical

[35] Days after the alleged chemical attack on Douma, the U.S. Air Force and Navy attacked three locations that were operated by the Syrian Government.