UK Journalist Given Access to Douma to Deny Chemical Attacks

Bodies of victims of April 7 chemical attacks on Douma

UPDATE 1530 GMT: CBS News has cast more doubt over Assad regime propaganda and the account of The Independent’s Robert Fisk denying the April 7 chemical attacks.

The American outlet was able to reach the site of one of the attacks, speaking to a neighbor of the residence: “All of a sudden some gas spread around us. We couldn’t breathe, it smelled like chlorine.”

The neighbor, Nasr Hanan, is the brother of Hamzeh, seen in video lifeless and foaming at the mouth. He told CBS how his brother had tried to wash-off the chemicals, and showed the journalists the resting place of the missile which reportedly contained the agent.


Despite the “security issues” cited by Assad regime officials to block inspectors’ access to the sites of the April 7 chemical attacks on Douma near Syria’s capital Damascus (see Syria Daily), a British journalist has been escorted to the town to give a pro-regime account denying that the attacks ever occurred.

Robert Fisk of The Independent spoke with a local doctor — according to local pro-opposition activists and opposition sites, one of several who were taken by the Russians and threatened with arrest if they did present accounts denying any chemical attacks.

The doctor, identified as “Dr Rahaibani”, gave Fisk the story of people in basements affected not by chemicals, but by “huge dust clouds” from pro-Assad shelling:

People began to arrive here suffering from hypoxia, oxygen loss. Then someone at the door, a “White Helmet”, shouted “Gas!”, and a panic began. People started throwing water over each other. Yes, the video was filmed here, it is genuine, but what you see are people suffering from hypoxia – not gas poisoning.”

Fisk’s article does not mention the reports that doctors were detained.

Nor did he apparently inquire of the doctor about an apparent flaw in the account: some of the victims of the attacks were not in basements, but above ground in a residential building.

While the British reporter visited the “wrecked offices” of the White Helmets civil defense organization, he does not mention that offices were wrecked by pro-Assad bombing just before the chemical attacks on April 7.

Having been escorted throughout his stay in Douma by regime officials and presented with his witnesses, Fisk ponders — but without apparently considering the obvious answer:

How could it be that Douma refugees who had reached camps in Turkey were already describing a gas attack which no-one in Douma today seemed to recall?

Journalist Richard Hall, a former editor at The Independent, critiques Fisk’s journalism:

Hall continues:

Fisk seems perplexed why victims of the attack did not hang around in Douma when the government took over the area. And doesn’t seriously deal with the fact that those who stayed behind might not be able to speak freely.

Fisk is among a handful of journalists given regular access by Syrian government. He and others are shepherded in on minded trips when it is useful for the government. Journalists who do make it in and write something that counters the government narrative are not allowed back.

Fisk notes in his piece that he was granted access to the site before chemical weapons inspectors. As were a number of other journalists who — let’s be generous here — toe the government line. That feels like an attempt to muddy the waters ahead of an independent investigation.

A Swedish reporter was also able to get an interview from a survivor which challenges the Assad regime’s narrative:

We were sitting in the basement when it happened. The [missile] hit the house at 7 pm. We ran out while the women and children ran inside. They didn’t know the house had been struck from above and was totally filled with gas.

Those who ran inside died immediately. I ran out completely dizzy….Everybody died. My wife, my brothers, my mother. Everybody died.

Women and children sat in here, and boys & men sat there. Suddenly there was a sound as if the valve of a gas tube was opened.

It’s very difficult to explain. I can’t explain. I don’t know what I should say. The situation makes me cry. Children & toddlers, around 25 children.

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Scott Lucas is Professor of International Politics at the University of Birmingham and editor-in-chief of EA WorldView. He is a specialist in US and British foreign policy and international relations, especially the Middle East and Iran. Formerly he worked as a journalist in the US, writing for newspapers including the Guardian and The Independent and was an essayist for The New Statesman before he founded EA WorldView in November 2008.

43 COMMENTS

    • Where has opposing opinions been censored? Evidence please.

      There are a couple of posters who repeatedly post the same lies about Mattis or OPCW almost on a daily bases. That is spam, and not opinion.

      Waiting for evidence.

      • Not inherently. But based on the relative track records, frankly, yes.

        Actually, though I vehemently disagree with their worldview, their approach to PR is remarkably BS-free. Compared to the current Russian state, and the Syrian state since Assad, they are gospels of truth.

    • From the article: “I first drove into Douma as part of an escorted convoy of journalists.”

      Fisk then says he set off on his own, but does not address the question of Douma as a controlled area with likely constraints on what will be told to a foreign journalist — see the Daily entry today on the pledge that residents must sign.

      • Fisk has only won the Press Awards Foreign Reporter of the Year seven times.

        Other awards he’s won

        1991 Jacob’s Award for coverage of the Gulf War on RTÉ Radio 1
        1999 Orwell Prize for journalism
        2001 David Watt Prize for an investigation of the 1915 Armenian Genocide by the Ottoman Empire
        2002 Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism
        2003 Open University honorary doctorate
        2004 University of St Andrews honorary degree
        2004 Carleton University honorary degree
        2006 Ghent University honorary degree Political and Social Sciences
        2006 American University of Beirut honorary degree
        2006 Queen’s University Belfast honorary degree
        2006 Lannan Cultural Freedom Prize worth $350,000
        2008 University of Kent honorary degree
        2008 Trinity College Dublin honorary doctorate
        2009 College Historical Society’s Gold Medal for Outstanding Contribution to Public Discourse
        2009 Liverpool Hope University honorary degree
        2011 International Prize at the Amalfi Coast Media Awards, Italy

        • Yes, it’s a pity to see a once-excellent journalist (whom I greatly admired) turned into a microphone for one of the regimes that he once challenged with his reporting.

  1. Russia shows OPCW how White Helmets staged provocation in Syria: http://tass.com/politics/1000185

    “We handed out corresponding materials demonstrating that what happened in Douma on April 7 was well-orchestrated. A representative of the Russian defense ministry made a very important statement. Facts were given to show how the White Helmets, this pseudo-humanitarian non-government organization, work off the money they receive from Western sponsors, first of all, from the United States and Great Britain, to stage various sorts of provocations.”

    • That’s a remarkably uninformed statement, given the difficulties of obtaining environmental sample from chemical attack sites.

      • In their last report, the OPCW clearly stated that they did take environemtnal samples: “Based on its analysis of biomedical specimens, interviews, and supplementary material submitted during the interview process, as well as analysis of environmental samples, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Fact-Finding Mission found that a large number of people, some of whom died, were exposed to sarin or a sarin-like substance at Khan Shaykhun on 4 April 2017………Samples taken from the crater and its surroundings were found by the Fact-Finding Mission to contain sarin.”

        Presumably, the OPCW can inspect and take samples from the remnants of the “barrel bomb” used in the alleged attack.

        • Yes, in Khan Sheikhoun, locals were able to get samples to the OPCW. In the 2013 East Ghouta/West Ghouta case, however, it was difficult to get soil samples — as was the case with other attacks in 2013-2014.

          And the chances of getting samples in this case have reportedly been compromised by the Russian personnel.

  2. “Having been escorted throughout his stay in Douma by regime officials and presented with his witnesses”. Fisk states that he was brought to Douma by officials, had a talk from a general, but then drifted away and “walked across this town quite freely yesterday without soldier, policeman or minder to haunt my footsteps, just two Syrian friends, a camera and a notebook”.

    Do you have specific evidence that he was lying when he wrote this?

      • When Syrians say what we want or expect to hear, then we believe them; and when they do not (even in similar circumstances to the CBS interviewees) then we must ask they were coerced?

        People talked to Fisk about Jaish al-Islam fighters embedding themselves in their homes and about executions. Is that *really* so unthinkable as to necessitate some sort of polot? And concerning the gas attack most people neither denied nor accepted it – ignorance surely being both non-partisan and probable.

        A Manichean approach to Syria is disingenuous and damaging.

  3. Editor: Did the CBS news crew receive permission from Damascus to visit Douma? If they did, then the Syrian government is untroubled by reports about the alleged use of chlorine or whatever and is not trying to control or limit the flow of information. It also shows that locals are not afraid to voice their views.

    • Looks like the regime either lost control or miscalculated on this one…. Sometimes news management doesn’t work with good, responsible journalists.

  4. After visiting Douma, western media begin to question ‘gas attack’ narrative: https://www.rt.com/news/424421-western-media-douma-attack-narrative/

    “Some of [the victims] suffered from asthma and pulmonary inflammation. They received routine treatment and some were even sent home,” Jaber told AFP. “They showed no symptoms of a chemical attack. But some foreigners entered while we were in a state of chaos and sprinkled people with water, and some of them were even filming it.”

    “A report aired by the German RTL Group-owned channel n-tv says it’s unclear whether the attack took place at all, given that most of the locals told them on camera they didn’t smell any chemicals at all, one local told them he remembers a “weird smell” and was fine after a glass of water, and one man, who didn’t want to show his face, insisted there was a “smell of chlorine.”

    “They were filming us, and then a man came in and started screaming that this was a chemical attack…People got scared and started spraying each other with water and using inhalers. Doctors told us that there was no chemical poisoning.”

    The OPCW has now entered Douma to investigate the allegations: https://news.sky.com/story/opcw-chemical-weapons-investigators-enter-douma-11334938

    • Interesting how the crack journalists at RT missed the Swedish and CBS reports….

      Or maybe best to play it safe and stick to the script.

  5. Fisk is a journalist with the courage to risk his life to engage in truthful investigation in Syria at the alleged site of the attack. You are spouting opinions to fit preconceived facts from a cozy desk somewhere. Sorry, its not so simple with Syria… not all black and white. There is no way to whitewash the fact that “the moderate rebels” that occupied Douma were Islamist extremists- the same one’s we’re fighting in other regions.

    And, You do know that Syria is about gas pipelines and the international players interested in controlling them?

    • Matt, tell us about gas pipelines – I am all ears. Are you saying it is easier to pass a gas pipeline though war torn Syria that has been partitioned and Turkey, than to pass it through Iraq and Turkey? Or through Saudi Arabia, Israel? Or through Saudi Arabia, Egypt? On what basis?

      Or are you saying that Qatar wants to build a pipeline to Tartus and then liquefy the gas in Tartus and ship that to Europe? But Qatar already has a huge LNG capacity in Qatar.

      What makes you think it is cheaper to build a pipeline to Tartus, and an LNG plant in Tartus, compared to just shipping gas from an existing LNG plant through the suez canal straight to Rotterdam or Germany? Why not build a pipeline from Qatar or Australia to China?

      With LNG technology, gas pipelines make no sense anymore. 95% of Middle East oil is shipped by tankers and not pipelined.

      • Note: To get to Syria, the pipeline must travel through Saudi Arabia and Iraq (or Jordan) before getting to war torn Syria! There are already oil pipelines from Iraq to Turkey. So it makes no sense to have a gas pipeline go from Iraq to Syria in a completely new route, and then to Turkey, when the pipeline can go directly from Iraq to Turkey on an existing route, and join the existing gas pipeline from Iran to Turkey or the future Russian gas pipeline to Turkey.

        Syria makes absolutely no economic, political, or security sense. Never did.

        • Did you read the comments from the Paul Cochrane article you are referencing? That’s a start. Yes, some pipeline deals have fallen through… pipelines are still very efficient for gas/oil transfer- we’re building plenty in the US and Canada. There are also newer and larger finds of gas in the Eastern Mediterranean… not to mention Israeli occupied Golan Heights…

          • The pipelines in Canada and US are a necessity because there are no shipping lanes. No ships can dock in Alberta and no ships can take the oil from western Canada through the Panama canal. And Canada has no LNG facility. So comparing Qatar and Europe to America/Canada does not work.

            Why would gas finds in the Eastern Mediterranean have to go through Syria. What do those have to do with Syria? Offshore wells will either go to Turkish port or will go to Europe directly. No need to go Syria when it can go to Cyprus/Turkey.

        • So it makes no sense to have a gas pipeline go from Iraq to Syria in a completely new route, and then to Turkey, when the pipeline can go directly from Iraq to Turkey on an existing route, and join the existing gas pipeline from Iran to Turkey or the future Russian gas pipeline to Turkey.

          The Saudis don’t control Iraq – Iran does, so why would the Gulf States want to empower Iran? They whole point of the exercise is to have a competing pipeline not to cooperate with Iraq and Russia

          • But you want Qatar/Saudi to cooperate with Syria which are owned by Iran and Russia? LMAO Iraq is a much more stable place and not war torn. Has stable government and has US bases. Nobody needs the shithole of Syria run by chemical Nazi. You are delusional to the limit.

            • But you want Qatar/Saudi to cooperate with Syria which are owned by Iran and Russia?

              Sure I would love to see the Middle East all cooperating. The point is that Saudi Arabia do not want to cooperate with Iran in spite of repeated attempts by Iran to improve relations.
              LMAO Iraq is a much more stable place and not war torn.

              Much more than what? It is a failed state and an utter mess since the US set fire to it. The government is a shamble. It’s majority Shiite and certainly is not pro Saudi. Syria is a geostatic hub.

    • You would be in a stronger position with ad hominems if you avoided sweeping, incorrect generalizations in your comment.

  6. Look, there are anti-Assad Syrians reading this along with Syrians that were brutally treated by “moderate rebels” or “radical Islamists” (take your pick) placed into their country by the West to wreak havoc. The original secular opponents demanding modest reforms in Syria are now long gone- they were usurped by extremists. The West has watched (well, they performed air support and covert opps) mostly while radicals occupied towns and Assad/Russian forces removed them one by one. More than anything my heart goes out to the 10 million displaced & traumatized Syrians and to the 500,000 men, women, and children that died horrible deaths from any number of modern war weapons and blockade.

    There are also Saudis reading this that have started their own genocide of Yemen backed by the US and Israel. They have been given the onus by the West to be the Sunni Muslim masters of the Middle East… and they are happy to destroy the Shia Iran/Syria rivalry.

    The West (EU/US) and Israel have been pushing for regime change for a decade in Syria, and all their reporting reflects this bias. All the BBC and Guardian, and CNN and NYT and WaPo articles that pull shit out of the air with no evidence should be alarming to anybody. Al Jazerra is a Sunni/KSA/Qatar propaganda machine as well. The judgments about the alleged chemical attack in Douma were made hours after the UK mercenary group, White Helmets, reported a “chemical attack.” Hours after that, Israel carried out an air strike… to avenge 70 dead Syrians?

    This conflict is about (1) Energy interests in EU/US/Israel/Russia; (2) Israeli national security; and (3) a centuries old Shia/Sunni conflict.

    So, pick your side. But for the love of God, be honest about your bias and who you represent. Especially when it comes to the question of chemical attacks… understand the basic science and strategic/tactical implications that make these kind of weapons insane to use by any military force.

    • CW are meant to attack civilian populations/ rebellions, and not so much a military weapon. You start with the wrong premise and reach the wrong conclusion. It is a very effective weapon to terrorize the population so they do not uprise against the fascist state. Assad is not planning to use CW against Israel or Turkey or the US.

      • CW would never be used by an occupying force in an urban setting, or preceding a military occupation in an urban setting. The only tactical use would be as Saddam is alleged to have done to the Iranians in the Iran/Iraq war and to the Kurds after the US abandoned them following the first gulf war… in an OPEN desert setting on an advancing army where, depending on wind, and precipitation, and runoff considerations in waterways- with no chance of blow back/contamination it could potentially provide a tactical benefit.

        The real strategic use is to demonize an enemy and garner sympathy and outrage to justify a questionable military action. Which, in the case of Syria, many CW attacks precede aggression/support from Israel or the US. It’s commonly called “the pretext for war,” and a part of any aggressive military strategy. Without blame, pretext, and a demonic “monster” as an enemy people in free societies will not support war.

        Far from taking retaliation on Syrians in rebel held areas, Assad and Russia have peaceably evacuated Syrian citizens that preferred the northern provinces and brought medical and humanitarian aid to the rest of the people of Eastern Ghouta. The civilians that were killed were hiding in the basements of buildings controlled by ISIS/al-Nusra terrorists whom many were not Syrians…. The only way out for these forces in a surrounded city was to call in for air cover… Robert Fisk explains exactly what happened that day in the hospital- Government forces were shelling militant forces and Syrian women and children were collateral damage- survivors presented with asphyxiation and dust inhalation, which is why they were hosed down and treated with oxygen. A cover-up or a lie? It’s possible, but the narrative in the mainstream Western Media is pure conjecture, and represents the viewpoint of Syria/Russia’s adversaries.

      • It is a very effective weapon to terrorize the population so they do not uprise against the fascist state.

        It was not the populations that were rising up against Assad, it was foreign backed jihadists.

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