Home Foreign Policy “No Nerve Agents” In Douma: OPCW Report Demolishes White House Sarin Narrative

“No Nerve Agents” In Douma: OPCW Report Demolishes White House Sarin Narrative

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A preliminary report published Friday by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) found no traces of any nerve agent at the site of a suspected chemical attack in the Syrian city of Douma. The OPCW report states this unambiguously as follows:

“No organophosphorous nerve agents or their degradation products were detected in the environmental samples or in the plasma samples taken from alleged casualties.”

Compare the newly published official OPCW findings with the 5-page White House assessment released on April 13th, just days after the alleged attack. Now contradicted by the new OPCW findingsthe White House asserted that sarin was used at Douma,

A significant body of information points to the regime using chlorine in its bombardment of Duma, while some additional information points to the regime also using the nerve agent sarin.

Yes, a real headline: CNN screenshot of coverage of the alleged chemical attack in April 2018 which we discussed here.

Firebrand British MP George Galloway responded as follows moments after the OPCW’s findings were made public:

Was that, was that the news? What about Douma? The chemical weapons attack? The nerve agent bombs that rained down on Douma that took us to the brink of World War 3?

The OPCW have just reported, well two hours ago… There was no nerve gas attack on Douma. There was no nerve agent deployed on Douma. We were taken to World War 3’s brink on a crock. A crock of vile propaganda. Ring any bells?

No Nerve Agents, Concludes OPCW Report

The April 7th alleged chemical attack, widely blamed by Western countries and the media on Assad’s forces, resulted in massive US-led retaliatory airstrikes mostly concentrated on suspected chemical production facilities in Damascus.

Though at the time both UN and OPCW officials urged caution in the rush to blame “animal Assad” for “using nerve agents” as many world headlines breathlessly concluded a mere moments after videos purporting to show scores of chemical attack victims first surfaced (and though CW experts themselves warned that not a single neutral observer was on the ground to verify such claims when it happened),the latest OPCW report flatly contradicts the narrative that quickly solidified in the mainstream.

Nerve agents like sarin were quickly associated in headlines with unverified allegations of a chlorine attack, for example in the following major UK headline a day after the incident: Syrian government accused of using nerve agents as death toll from Douma ‘chemical weapons attack’ rises.

Like dozens of others, the story uncritically promoted the following:

The pro-opposition Ghouta Media Centre alleged that a helicopter had dropped a barrel bomb containing sarin, and another organisation claimed that a hospital had been hit by a chlorine bomb

With images of women and children foaming from the mouth and nose circulating on social media, the death toll from Saturday evening’s attack on the town was said to have risen to at least 49, with some observers saying more than 150 people have been killed.

This as the White House said it had “very high confidence” the Syrian government carried out the attack, basing its assessment, as MSNBC reported at the time, in part on the following“blood and urine samples obtained by the U.S. from victims of the chemical strike tested positive for chlorine gas and a nerve agent.” 

The 5-page White House assessment released on April 13th asserted that sarin was used at Douma, something now contradicted by the OPCW:

A significant body of information points to the regime using chlorine in its bombardment of Duma, while some additional information points to the regime also using the nerve agent sarin.

Media Headlines Debunked

Throughout April and subsequent months, journalists and pundits continued to connect the suffering of victims in Douma with the deadly sarin nerve agent, as one NPR piece with the emotionally gripping headline, Syrian 7-Year-Old: ‘I Want To Be A Doctor So I Can Help In A Chemical Attack’, suggested: “The U.S. says it’s highly confident that evidence points to the use of chlorine and possibly a nerve agent, perhaps sarin.”

The White House began building its case against Assad upon this mysterious blood and urine “data”, ultimately leading to President Trump unleashing over 100 tomahawk missiles on Damascus, was nowhere to be found in the OPCW’s findings released Friday.

Here’s CNN reporting in the days after events at Douma:

But again, Friday’s OPCW preliminary report, which unlike most others among its assessments included a verified full OPCW chain of custody for most samples as its investigators actually studied the site (notably, the April 2017 Khan Sheikhoun alleged CW attack site was never visited by investigators), reads as follows:

OPCW designated labs conducted analysis of prioritised samples. The results show that no organophosphorous nerve agents or their degradation products were detected in the environmental samples or in the plasma samples taken from alleged casualties. Along with explosive residues, various chlorinated organic chemicals were found in samples from two sites, for which there is full chain of custody. Work by the team to establish the significance of these results is on-going. The FFM team will continue its work to draw final conclusions.

“Chlorinated Organic Chemicals” But No Chlorine Confirmation

Interestingly, headlines are now making much of the mention of “various chlorinated organic chemicals” — with Reuters for example emphasizing, Chemical weapons agency finds ‘chlorinated’ chemicals in Syria’s Douma.

The word “chlorine” is only used twice in the OPCW interim report, both in characterizations of social media and does not contain any declaration “confirming” chlorine allegations, in spite of current media reports wrongly suggesting the OPCW has found victims at Douma that died from chlorine exposure.

Apparently both Reuters and the BBC were forced to quickly correct their reporting of Friday’s OPCW document, as both initially claimed that OPCW investigators confirmed chlorine used at Douma, whereas the document reads various chlorinated organic chemicals were found in samples from two sites (Reuters issued the following correctionCorrects to “various chlorinated organic chemicals” instead of chlorine; and the BBC changed its headline from “chlorine gas” to “possible chlorine”).

This subtle distinction is significant as Moon of Alabama blog explains:

The “various chlorinated organic chemicals” are unsurprising. Chlorine is widely used for water purification and cleaning and “chlorinated organic chemicals” will be found in any household.

In the technical notes of the OPCW report note that one of its laboratory found “Dichloroacetic acid”, “trichloroacetic acid”, “chloral hydrate”, “trichlorophenol” and “chlorphenol” in some of the samples its fact finding mission took at the claimed incident sites. These are all substances that are no surprise in any upbuild environment and especially within any home. Dichloroacetic acid” is for example “a trace product of the chlorination of drinking water”. Chloral hydrate is likewise “a minor side-product of the chlorination of water when organic residues such as humic acids are present”. The other substances are also not uncommon and of various household uses.

And importantly, the interim report does not include indications of quantities or concentrations in which these common substances were found, making it impossible to conclude further whether they were part of a chemical attack or were weaponized.

Instead, listed repeatedly throughout the technical notes of samples taken is “No chemicals relevant to CWC [Chemical Weapons Convention] have been found.”

The OPCW report for example, concludes of a separate alleged chemical attack site in the same report“the FFM [Fact-Finding Mission] cannot confidently determine whether or not a specific chemical was used as a weapon in the incidents that took place in the neighbourhood of Al-Hamadaniyah and in the area of Karm al-Tarrab.”

“Non-persistant, irritating substance”

The report did have this interesting line, however“The FFM noted that the persons affected in the reported incidents may, in some instances, have been exposed to some type of non-persistent, irritating substance.”

This appears consistent with sources we highlighted in Famed War Reporter Robert Fisk Reaches Syrian ‘Chemical Attack’ Site, Concludes “They Were Not Gassed” — sources which suggested, as one doctor interviewed by Robert Fisk in Douma testified, that “the patients… were overcome not by gas but by oxygen starvation” due to conventional weapons landing on or near an underground shelter in which civilians were hiding.

Fisk identified the doctor by name — Dr. Assim Rahaibani — which is notable given the fact that all early reporting from Douma typically relied on “unnamed doctors” and anonymous opposition sources for early claims of a chlorine gas attack (which had quickly morphed into an unverified “mixed” chlorine-and-sarin attack).

Fisk detailed the Syrian doctor’s testimony for The Independent. The doctor was adamant in his emphasis that civilians were suffocating en masse, and were not gassed:

“I was with my family in the basement of my home three hundred metres from here on the night but all the doctors know what happened. There was a lot of shelling [by government forces] and aircraft were always over Douma at night–but on this night, there was wind and huge dust clouds began to come into the basements and cellars where people lived. 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.”

Major pro-rebel outlet said ‘mass asphyxiation’ after shelter collapse

The doctor’s testimony was consistent with that of the well-known Syrian opposition group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR)which initially reported based on its own pro-rebel sourcing that heavy government bombardment of Douma city resulted in the collapse of homes and underground shelters, causing civilians in hiding to suffocate.

According to SOHR, which has long been a key go-to source for mainstream media over the course of the war, “70 of them [women and children] have suffered suffocation as a result of the demolition of home basements over them due to the heavy and intense shelling.”

Though outlets from The Guardian to The Washington Post to The New York Times had quoted SOHR on a near daily basis throughout the pior six years of war, the anti-Assad opposition outlet’s reporting of mass asphyxiation due to collapse of shelters remained notably absent from the same publications.

Though the mass asphyxiation theory is speculation at this point (we weren’t there and neither were the hundreds of journalists claiming while writing from hundreds or thousands of miles outside Syria that “Assad gassed his own people”), it will be interesting to see what the future full and complete OPCW report includes.

But at least at this still somewhat early point in what will likely be a continued lengthy investigation, we have absolute scientific confirmation from the OPCW that the White House once again lied us into bombing yet another Middle East country based on spurious “nerve agent” claims. 

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