In a long-awaited report, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has blamed the Syrian regime’s air force for a chemical attack in 2018 that killed at least 43 people in Douma, near Damascus. The international watchdog’s findings are not a surprise — it had previously reached the same conclusion about two other attacks involving the same substance. Yet the report is highly significant nonetheless, because the OPCW’s efforts to investigate the Douma attack became the subject of a persistent disinformation campaign orchestrated by Russia and fueled by self-styled “anti-imperialist” activists in the West. The new 139-page report by the OPCW’s Investigation and Identification Team (IIT), released on Jan. 27, 2023, is a relentless demolition of these conspiracy theories surrounding the attack.
The essence of the disinformation campaign was a refusal by its purveyors to accept that the Bashar al-Assad regime was conducting chemical warfare in Syria. Instead, they claimed all such attacks were “staged” by rebels to frame the regime and trigger a Western intervention. There was never any evidence for this, but it became the deniers’ standard response to reports of chemical attacks. The main reason the Douma attack in particular became a cause celebre for the deniers is it was one of only two chemical attacks (out of a total of over 300) that did in fact result in punitive airstrikes by Western powers. In addition, for the deniers, the emergence of two dissenters from within the OPCW and a series of leaked documents kept the issue alive longer than might otherwise have been expected. Meanwhile, Russia’s attempts to shield its Syrian ally led to political divisions in the OPCW, which threatened to undermine the global prohibition against chemical weapons.
The OPCW’s Douma investigation began with the dispatch of a Fact-Finding Mission (FFM), which took samples for analysis, interviewed witnesses and gathered other evidence. This FFM found what it called “reasonable grounds” for believing a toxic chemical — “likely” to have been chlorine — was used as a weapon. The problem, though, was holding anyone accountable. The FFM’s role was limited to determining whether or not a chemical attack had taken place; its brief did not extend to investigating who might have been responsible. That task had been assigned to the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) — a separate body created in 2015 by the U.N. Security Council for the purpose of identifying culprits.
The JIM began reviewing a list of chemical attacks previously confirmed by the FFM. By the end of 2017, it had reached conclusions about five of them, attributing two sulfur mustard attacks to Islamic State fighters and blaming Syrian government forces for one Sarin nerve agent attack, as well as two others involving chlorine. For Russia, such findings were inconvenient, so it alleged the JIM had become a tool against the Syrian government and used its Security Council veto to bring an end to its mandate.
Russia’s shutdown of the JIM prompted calls from the U.N. secretary-general and others to create a replacement. The result was the aforementioned Investigation and Identification Team, or IIT, established under OPCW auspices. Russia opposed its creation but was outvoted at a special meeting of OPCW member states. The IIT began looking into nine cases in Syria and, before last month’s report on Douma, had identified the perpetrator in four cases: two Sarin attacks and two chlorine attacks, all of which it attributed to Syrian government forces. [Continue reading…]