Bodies of victims in a building after a chlorine attack, Douma, Syria, April 7, 2018
UPDATE, JUNE 12: The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has implicitly criticized the Russian-backed campaign to undermine its inspection of chemical attacks.
OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias, speaking on a panel in Slovakia, said, “We are attacked with misinformation [and] with proxies that produced reports to undermine an official report of the fact-finding mission about investigations in Syria.”
Arias did not directly refer to the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda, and Media — the pro-Assad group of UK academics with no expertise in either Syria or chemical weapons — or the Russians. Instead, he appealed:
I ask you, civil society, to believe in what we do. We work for the protection of the international community. We have top inspectors. We have top skills at the service of the international community and anything you can do to help the organization to reinforce its legitimacy will be in the benefit of peace and security in the world.
Arias’s comments followed discussion on topics such as the attempt to obscure Russian responsibility for the nerve agent attack in Salisbury, England in March 2018 and cyber-attacks on the OPCW.
The Director General explained that Ian Henderson — the author of the dissenting memorandum used by Russia and circulated by the Working Group — was a staff consultant for the OPCW Fact Finding Mission. He indicated that the memo was “considered but was not fit for the conclusion” of the FFM’s report.
Arias added that the Henderson assessment, which went beyond the FFM’s mandate by considering an airdrop of the chlorine cylinder, will be submitted to the Investigations and Identification Team — which can consider aerial delivery as part of an attribution of responsibility.
Watch from 1:40.09:
In a statement, made on May 28 to the OPCW’s State members and posted by the OPCW today, Arias explained that Henderson was “a liaison officer at our Command Post Office in Damascus” in April 2018: “He was tasked with temporarily assisting the FFM with information collection at some sites in Douma.”
Arias did not explain if Henderson had any authority to assemble his “engineering sub-team” at two European universities, or to produce the dissenting assessment — the revision of which was dated February 27, only two days before the release of the FFM’s Final Report.
Instead, he reiterated that Henderson’s memo “pointed at possible attribution, which is outside of the mandate of the FFM”.
The Director-General said he learned in March 2019 — two months before the Working Group was given Henderson’s assessment — that the document “could have been disclosed outside of the Secretariat”.
On April 23, Russia issued a statement, challenging the FFM, which echoed much of Henderson’s language.
Arias noted that the FFM’s report was based on assessments of experts in three countries and concluded:
I would like to reiterate that I stand by the impartial and professional conclusions of the FFM that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the use of a toxic chemical as a weapon took place in Douma on 7 April 2018.
He confirmed that the Assad regime is refusing any follow-up by the Investigations and Identification Team, denying visas and access to information held by Damascus.
ORIGINAL ENTRY, MAY 13: A new document has drawn attention to the chlorine attack on an opposition area near Syria’s capital Damascus on April 7, 2018.
The attack on Douma, the last remaining opposition city in the East Ghouta area, brought the surrender of rebels the following day and the forced transfer of about 50,000 people to northern Syria.
Dozens of people — opposition activists say about 50 — were killed in a building in which chlorine was released from a cylinder which lodged in the roof. Another cylinder broke through the roof of a nearby building, landing in a bedroom, but did not discharge its contents.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons concluded in a report on March 1 that there were “reasonable grounds that the use of a toxic chemical as a weapon took place”.
The OPCW did not have the mandate to assign responsibility. However, its report — based on its team and consultation with “independent experts in toxicology, ballistics, structural engineering, and metallurgy” — indicated that the cylinders were dropped (“impacted”) on the roofs, although it did not say whether this was from an Assad regime helicopter or from a mortar.
The New Document
The new document is an “Executive Summary”, circulated as a “draft for internal review” and marked “OPCW Sensitive”, dated February 27, 2019 — two days before the OPCW published its report. A handwritten notation in the top right corner reads, “Final Version — for comments (TM only)”, presumably a reference to the OPCW’s Team Members for the Douma investigation.
The “Executive Summary” is in the name of Ian Henderson. He has no title in the document. A an OPCW Scientific Advisory Board report in February 2018 identified him as an “OPCW Inspection Team Leader, but he signs the document in a personal capacity. While invoking an “FFM [Fact Finding Mission] engineering sub-team”, no such group is defined in the memorandum.
Henderson’s summary claims to challenges the official report. He claims that he could not model a scenario where the cylinder that caused the Douma fatalities did not break through the building roof, if it was dropped by a helicopter or other aircraft. Henderson makes the same claim for the second cylinder, even though it did penetrate into the building.
Henderson asserts that “the alternative hypothesis” provides the only explanation for both cylinders. Without providing any evidence, he asserts, “There is a higher probability that both cylinders were manually placed at those two locations rather than being delivered by aircraft.”
Henderson does not venture to explain why dozens of people were killed, if a cylinder was simply placed in a roof or in a bedroom. Alternatively, he does not explain why he goes beyond the mandate of the OPCW Fact Finding Mission: as it cannot assign blame, the report only considers if a chemical weapons was used and not — as in the focus of Henderson’s dissent — the method of delivery.
The Pro-Assad Working Group and the Document
Henderson’s challenge is complicated by the channel for his document, the “Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media”.
The Group was formed in 2017 by UK-based academics including Piers Robinson, Tim Hayward, David Miller, and Paul McKeigue. None has expertise regarding Syria or chemical weapons, but they have devoted much of their work to denying the Assad regime’s responsibility in any attacks.
Members of the Group tried to sweep away the April 2017 sarin attack on Khan Sheikhoun in northwest Syria — an assault later attributed to the regime by the OPCW. But its initial paper had no connection to Syria: it was a denial of Russian State responsibility for the March 2018 nerve agent attack in Salisbury, England, targeting former spy Sergey Skripal.
Throughout the past year the Group has tried to undermine any report pointing to the Assad regime’s culpability for Douma. It posted after the OPCW’s interim report of June 2018 and after the final report, on both occasions putting out a series of unsupported speculations and conspiracy theories.
The Group claims that it obtained the document from “OPCW staff members” who “communicated” with it. It does not name the members, but a clue comes from a tweet by David Miller that one person (not “members”) contacted him on May 10:
Can the person who sent me an anonymous letter please get in touch – David.email@example.com
— David Miller (@Tracking_Power) May 10, 2019
The Group does not confine itself to a summary of Henderson’s document. Instead, it spirals into a repetition of its conspiracy theories.
“The staging of the Douma incident entailed mass murder of at least 35 civilians to provide the bodies,” the Group asserts with no evidence, blaming White Helmets rescuers for the killings.
The Group then turns its fire on the OPCW: “[Those] who have suppressed the evidence of staging are, unwittingly or otherwise, colluding with mass murder.”
Explaining the Report and the Dissent
So can we reconcile Henderson’s document and the OPCW final report?
The Fact Finding Mission offers an explanation, even for those with basic scientific knowledge. In Annex 6 (page 56), the inspectors explain why the deadly cylinder, despite its velocity, lodged in the roof without breaking through:
Observing the damage on the roof above the crater, the experts were able to provide an explanation of the cylinder not penetrating completely through the aperture. It canbe seen that there was a large impact on the roof and walls above the balcony. The impact would decrease the velocity of the falling cylinder and changed its trajectory while hitting the concrete floor of the balcony causing a hole in it, but without sufficient energy to fall through it.
Henderson argues against this conclusion, without referring to the roof damage observed by the experts. Instead, he contends that the deformation of part of the cylinder but not of the rest is not consistent with an “intermediate impact”.
More importantly, any argument by Henderson can be set aside at this point because it is not germane to the specific terms of reference of the FFM, which is not concerned with delivery by aircraft.
That duty lies with the OPCW’s new Investigations and Identification Team, which does have the authority to assign blame.
The IIT was established in June 2018 after OPCW member states — overruling objections by Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime — reinstated a body which can attribute responsibility.
That will likely entail consideration of an airdrop, as only the regime has the capacity for such an attack. But Moscow is already signalling that it will try to block the deployment of the IIT.
For now, the OPCW is not directly responding to the document. Instead, according to the Group, the OPCW press office said Henderson “has never been a member of the FFM [Fact-Finding Mission]”, indicating that he had a consultant’s role
The OPCW also comments that Henderson’s “engineering sub-team was not part of the FFM’s investigation”. An official said the FFM’s report was based on analysis from experts working in three different countries.