Bodies of victims in a building after a chlorine attack, Douma, Syria, April 7, 2018

The Assad regime is trying to block further investigation of a deadly chlorine attack near Syria’s capital Damascus in April 2018, preventing any attribution of blame.

Residents and rescue workers said 43 people were killed when a cylinder dropped by a regime helicopter struck a building in Douma in the East Ghouta area and lodged in a roof balcony.

Other regime chlorine attacks since 2014 have not been as lethal, but on this occasion the toxic gas funneled down the building, suffocating people who were moving up from a basement where they had been hiding.

The assault helped force a surrender the next day in Douma, the last remaining opposition area in East Ghouta, after a two-month Russian-regime offensive that killed and wounded thousands of civilians and years of siege.

On March 1, 2019, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons concluded that there were “reasonable grounds” that chlorine had been released. Inspectors effectively found that a regime helicopter carried out the assault, but did not have a mandate to assign blame.

The OPCW is now seeking to send an Investigations and Identification Team to Douma for studies that would consider responsibility. The head is Santiago Oñate Laborde, a lawyer who was Mexico’s representative at the OPCW and a legal adviser to the organization.

Blocking the Investigation

But the regime is refusing to issue a visa to the head of the IIT. Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad has written the OPCW announcing that the regime does not recognize the investigating team.

The OPCW has written back, asking the regime to reconsider and offering to hold discussions in The Hague in the Netherlands instead of Damascus.

Russia and the regime have waged a campaign since autumn 2017 to undermine the OPCW, after it concluded that the Assad regime was responsible for a nerve agent attack in April 2017 that killed about 90 people and wounded hundreds in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in northwest Syria.

Moscow vetoed the extension of the mandate for the OPCW’s Joint Investigative Mechanism, established in 2015 with the authority to assign blame.

But in June 2018, a special session of OPCW state members overrode Russian, Iranian, and regime objections and voted by a large majority that “whenever a chemical weapons use occurs on the territory of a state party, those who were the perpetrators, organizers, sponsors or otherwise involved should be identified”.

Russia continued its effort to prevent the establishment of the team, but it is now almost ready to begin work.

Stepping Up Propaganda

Facing the prospect of the IIT, Russia has escalated the propaganda campaign against the OPCW. Two weeks ago, Moscow presented a draft resolution to the UN Security Council accusing the inspectors of politicization. A diplomat noted, “What it’s really about of course is the Russians trying to strangle OPCW.”

Days before the introduction of the resolution, an unknown source fed a document to a UK-based, pro-regime “Working Group”, hoping to undermine the OPCW’s final report on the Douma attack.

The assessment by Ian Henderson, a consultant and former OPCW staffer, claimed the likelihood that the chlorine canister — and a second that broke through the roof of another building but failed to realize its chemicals — was placed by opposition groups, rather than dropped by the regime helicopter.

The claim has been widely pushed by Russian State outlets and by pro-Assad activists, despite questions about Henderson’s computer model and findings and whether any other expert supported the assessment.

An OPCW official said three teams of experts from three countries produced the conclusions that led to the organization’s final report. He/she said that Henderson’s document can be submitted to the IIT for consideration.