Russian troops in Douma, Syria, April 16, 2018, days after a suspected Assad regime chlorine attack that killed 43 people
Russia has tried once more to undermine inspections of chemical attacks in Syria.
Moscow hosted an event at the United Nations on Monday, hoping to cast doubt on the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
The OPCW and the UN have found the Assad regime culpable for 33 attacks with sarin or chlorine since they were authorized to investigate in 2014. The attacks include the sarin assault on Khan Sheikhoun in northwest Syria in April 2017, killing about 90 people and wounding hundreds.
The Russian effort — supported by pro-Assad activists, bloggers, and academics — hopes to prevent an OPCW inquiry from blaming the Assad regime for the chlorine attack on Douma in East Ghouta, near Damascus, in April 2018.
The OPCW’s Fact Finding Mission found in March 2019 that there were “reasonable grounds” to conclude that chlorine was used, the day before a Russian-regime offensive forced the surrender of Douma, the last city holding out in East Ghouta.
A building was struck by a cylinder which released the chlorine, killing 43 people who had been sheltering in the basement.
The OPCW’s Investigations and Identification Team, empowered in June 2018 by almost all nation-state members over the objections of Russia and the Assad regime, is now examining whether blame can be attributed.
The Henderson Show
On Monday, Russia featured a video appearance by Ian Henderson, the OPCW liaison in Damascus at the time of the Douma killings.
Henderson was permitted by the Fact Finding Mission to go to the attack site in Douma. He subsequently wrote a personal report claiming that the chlorine cylinder could not have been dropped by an Assad regime helicopter.
OPCW officials told Henderson that the report was outside the Fact Finding Mission’s mandate, which does not consider responsibility for an attack. Instead, it would be submitted to the IIT in the attribution phase of the investigation.
In May, Henderson or an intermediary e-mailed his report to the “Working Group on Syria, Propaganda, and Media”, a group of academics — none of whom have experience on Syria or on chemical weapons — who have pushed the line that the Assad regime has not carried out any chemical attacks in the 106-month conflict.
Henderson and a second OPCW dissenter — “Alex”, a Damascus-based staffer who identified sites in Douma for inspection — have been promoted by Moscow as proof that the OPCW inspections are illegitimate because of politics. WikiLeaks, thorugh its Courage Foundation, hosted an event in October for “Alex” to push the line, even though he was overruled by the rest of the FFM and left the OPCW at least six months before the completion of the March 2019 report. It is likely that Henderson was interviewed by columnist Peter Hitchens, a fervent ally of Russia’s views on the OPCW.
Russia State outlet RT headlines Henderson’s personal view that the FFM findings were “contradictory” and “a complete turnaround” for a supposed collective view. Despite the lack of evidence that anyone other than “Alex” supports Henderson, RT insists that “several” FFM members had “serious misgivings that a chemical attack had occurred”.
RT further exaggerates the show by falsely describing it as a UN Security Council meeting, rather than a presentation to which representatives of Council members were invited. It says an “NGO” was also involved, failing to mention that the organization is a Russian State-supported outlet for Moscow’s propaganda line.
Thomas Phipps of the UK delegation to the UN noted:
Four Russians and one Syrian make up the ‘expert’ panel at Russia’s #UNSC Arria meeting on #Syria Chemical Weapons. Four are diplomats and one an academic whose credentials are unclear. These are not impartial actors without an agenda. pic.twitter.com/y2PSv4QYOw
— Thomas Phipps🇬🇧🇺🇳 (@thomasphipps) January 20, 2020
Russia has stepped up attempts to undermine the OPCW since the October 2017 report, of the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism, which found regime forces carried out the Khan Sheikhoun sarin attack.
Weeks later, Moscow used a Security Council veto to prevent extension of the JIM’s mandate. However, the OPCW’s Conference of State Parties authorized the Investigations and Identification Team eight months later, reviving the prospect of attribution for deadly attacks.
Without naming Russia, OPCW Fernando Arias has chided the propaganda assault on the organization’s inspectors. He said in November that the IIT report on Douma will be complete “in a few months”.
Days later, Russia failed to halt the IIT at a session of the Conference of State Parties.