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The Syrian government has been blamed for the 2018 Saraqib chemical attack, but this time around India isn't buying it

The Syrian government has been blamed for the 2018 Saraqib chemical attack, but this time around India isn't buying it
Damascus again finds itself the subject of international opprobrium after being found guilty of a chemical attack, and ostracised from the OPCW. However, New Delhi's rejection of the report suggests the West's influence is waning.

On April 21, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) announced it would remove Syria’s “rights and privileges” within the association with immediate effect. 

The move was precipitated by 87 OPCW member states voting in favor of a proposal by 46 countries – led by London, Paris, and Washington – to strip Damascus of its voting powers in the assembly, and bar the country’s representatives from holding any offices within the organisation.

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It’s the first time a member state has been sanctioned in such a manner in its 24-year history, and follows just over a week after the OPCW released the findings of its second Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) probe of an alleged chemical attack in Saraqib, Syria in February 2018. The team concluded that a Syrian Air Force helicopter had dropped “at least” one cylinder containing chlorine over the city, dispersing the contents over a wide area. 

The report’s headline claims were dutifully amplified without critique by the mainstream media, but this time not all were convinced. At an informal meeting of United Nations Security Council members, convened by Moscow and Beijing on April 16, four days after the IIT findings were released, India’s deputy permanent representative K. Nagaraj Naidu had some stern words for the OPCW. 

He stated that New Delhi had always stressed the necessity of “impartial, credible and objective” investigations into the use of chemical weapons, which “scrupulously” follow Chemical Weapons Convention procedures and provisions to reach “evidence-based conclusions,” scathingly adding, “the current report falls short of these expectations.” 

The veteran diplomat didn’t articulate India’s specific reservations about the findings, but said it was necessary to “draw lessons” from events such as Colin Powell’s infamous February 2003 UNSC speech, when he claimed Washington possessed “irrefutable and undeniable” evidence Iraq had weapons of mass destruction capable of targeting the West. 

In any event, one doesn’t require a degree in chemistry to see the IIT report is far from “impartial, credible and objective” on its own terms. 

First and foremost, the OPCW claims IIT findings were derived from a “comprehensive review” of a mountain of evidence, including eyewitness and victim interviews, analysis of samples collected at the site, and even examination of satellite imagery. But it simultaneously concedes the probe “relied” on a May 2018 OPCW Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) investigation of the incident, which reached the same conclusions as the IIT. 

Relying on the FFM report is inherently problematic, given mission investigators didn’t actually visit the site of the attack, and all the samples reviewed were provided by the highly controversial White Helmets. This means there was no chain of custody for this vital physical evidence, in breach of long-standing OPCW protocol, which states such a paper trail is “100% critical.”

“The OPCW would never get involved in testing samples that our own inspectors don’t gather in the field, because we need to maintain chain of custody of samples from the field to the lab to ensure their integrity,” an OPCW spokesperson said in April 2013.

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Interestingly, a table in the FFM report comparing samples taken from two cylinders said to have delivered the chlorine payload, indicated chlorine-related chemicals were found by investigators but also showed many chemicals detected were related to the nerve agent sarin, which jihadist forces in Syria are known to have used. 

The FFM report and its IIT successor nonetheless both conclude there are “reasonable grounds” to believe the chemical used in the attack was chlorine, the latter claiming “sarin-related compounds” represented a negligible part of the “chemical signature” identified in the samples. However, they also note that specialists the team consulted “agreed that it would be difficult to fill a cylinder to be used as a weapon with both sarin and chlorine.”  

The IIT is said to have explored “the possibility of cross-contamination during the sampling process, or at a later stage in the handling of the samples themselves,” their findings “leaving the possibility that contamination occurred before sampling or after the samples were taken, but before they were secured by the OPCW in sealed packaging.” 

“The latter scenario would still not fully explain why only by-products and one degradation product of sarin, rather than sarin itself, were identified,”  the particularly incongruous passage notes. “In any event, since the FFM did not make findings related to the use of sarin in Saraqib...the IIT refrained from pursuing this aspect of the incident further. Some uncertainties in respect of the possible use of sarin in the same area remain.”

No doubt due to recent allegations of rebel forces having staged “false flag” chemical attacks in Syria in order to precipitate Western intervention, the IIT report specifically explored this scenario. Investigators obtained and analyzed “various household chlorine-based products commonly used in the Syrian Arab Republic and readily available on the market,”  which identified six specific chemicals, “the presence of which in samples from the Saraqib incident could be indicative of intentional – or even accidental – dispersal of these chlorine-based products in the area in question.”

No trace of the six chemicals could be found in the samples, which the IIT contends entirely refutes suggestions of staging. However, which six chemicals were found by the team isn’t stated, nor is how and why their absence rules out a “false flag” operation explained.

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The White Helmets were even more fundamental to the FFM investigation than merely providing the samples. They also put investigators in touch with witnesses who reinforced the chlorine attack narrative, several of whom conspicuously stated that the smell around the affected area was a “pungent odour” similar to “household cleaning products, though stronger.”

The White Helmets were likewise central to the OPCW’s investigation of several other alleged chemical strikes in Syria, including an April 2018 incident in Douma. Leaked internal OPCW documents reveal that two FFM teams were sent to investigate the incident, with one heading to the site itself, and the other to Turkey. 

Witness interviews conducted in the separate countries diverged so sharply that a 116-page draft interim report prepared in June 2018 specifically referred to “two broad and distinct narratives” – one in which a chemical attack happened, one in which no such event occurred. 

Yet the report released to the public was trimmed to just 34 pages, with all ballistic, forensic and witness evidence gathered by the Douma FFM, which completely dispelled the notion of a chemical attack, and pointed directly or indirectly to a staged incident, removed. Instead, based on the White Helmets-provided evidence alone, the OPCW claimed there was “sufficient evidence” to conclude chlorine had been unleashed on the rebel-occupied city from cylinders dropped from a government helicopter. An eerie echo of its Saraqib probe indeed. 

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This selective editing was quite so misleading, it prompted an OPCW investigator who’d visited Douma to write privately to the organisation's director general, expressing their “gravest concern” at the degree to which the findings “misrepresents the facts.” It wasn’t until November 2019, 18 months after the report was released, that their chilling words were leaked online.

“The original report discusses in detail the inconsistency between the victims' symptoms, as reported by witnesses and seen in video recordings. Omitting this section...has a serious negative impact on the report as [it] is inextricably linked to the chemical agent identified,” they wrote. “The confidence in the identity of the chlorine or any choking agent is drawn into question precisely because of the inconsistency with reported and observed symptoms. The inconsistency was not only noted by the FFM team but strongly supported by three toxicologists with expertise in exposure to [chemical weapon] agents.”

It’s anyone’s guess whether similarly grave concerns have been expressed internally about the evidently equally suspect Saraqib FFM probe, although in this case no investigator actually went to the city to conduct an “impartial, credible and objective” on-the-ground inspection. The very countries that proposed Syria’s OPCW censure are no doubt relieved – and the OPCW itself is extremely unlikely to make such an egregious mistake ever again.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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