(May 23, 2019) — The State Department said Tuesday that the Syrian government may have used chemical weapons during recent fighting in Idlib. The State Department warned that the United States and its allies would respond quickly and appropriately if it is determined that chemical weapons have been used.
This all comes as new questions are being raised about an alleged chemical weapons attack in the city of Douma last year. The Syrian government was accused of dropping two gas cylinders on the city, killing dozens of people. The US and allies responded by carrying out airstrikes.
But a newly leaked internal document from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons reveals there were conflicting views within the organization as to what happened. The leaked document suggests the cylinders were “manually placed” on the ground and were not dropped from the air. We speak to journalist Brian Whitaker, former Middle East editor at The Guardian.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to Syria. The State Department said Tuesday that the Syrian government may have used chemical weapons during recent fighting in Idlib. The State Department warned that the United States and its allies would respond quickly and appropriately if it’s determined that chemical weapons have been used.
This all comes as new questions are being raised about an alleged chemical weapons attack in the city of Douma last year. The Syrian government was accused of dropping two gas cylinders on the city, killing dozens of people. The US and allies responded by carrying out airstrikes. But a newly leaked internal document from the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons reveals there were conflicting views within the organization as to what happened. The leaked document suggests the cylinders were “manually placed” on the ground and were not dropped from the air.
AMY GOODMAN: This has led some observers to conclude that the chemical attack might have been staged by Syrian rebels. The leaked document appears to contradict the official OPC findings on what happened in Douma. In its official report, the organization said it had found, quote, “reasonable grounds that the use of a toxic chemical as a weapon” has taken place on April 7, 2018.
We go to London right now, where we’re joined by journalist Brian Whitaker, who has been closely following this story, former Middle East editor at The Guardian, now runs the website Al-Bab.com, which covers Arab politics and society.
Brian, thanks for joining us. Talk about the significance of the document that has surfaced, who wrote that document, and what it means for the conclusions of the organization, for the OPCW.
BRIAN WHITAKER: Yes. Well, back in March, the OPCW’s official fact-finding mission published its report, which, as you said earlier, was the one that suggested the chemical—the cylinders had been dropped from the sky, and that implied the regime was responsible.
Now, what we had last week was a document written by a man called Ian Henderson, who, as far as I understand it, was working for the OPCW. He had some involvement with the fact-finding mission. But according to the OPCW, he wasn’t actually a member of it. Now, it appears that at some point, probably late last year, he was allowed by the OPCW to do some work basically to carry out his own assessment of what he thought might have happened. And he had some assistance—again, it’s not very clear how much—from a group called the engineering sub-team.
So, this document was then leaked last week. It was written—what we have, that was leaked, was a final—it’s marked “final draft.” And it’s dated February the 27th, which, interestingly, was just two days before the official report was published. We don’t know exactly what status this document has.
One thing that some people say is that once the data had all been gathered from the Douma investigation, there were internal discussions and assessments within the OPCW to draw a sort of collective view of what had happened. And it may be that Mr. Henderson’s document was part of that, although he was taking a very different view of the situation from the one that appeared in the report eventually.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Brian, could you respond to what some observers have inferred from this document—namely, that the chemical weapons attack in Douma last year may have been staged by the rebels? Has there been any precedent for that kind of staging by the rebels anywhere in Syria? And can this reasonably be inferred from that document, the leaked document?
BRIAN WHITAKER: Well, first of all, the first really serious chemical attack in Syria was in 2013, and that involved sarin in Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus. Now, at that point, the Russians and various supporters of the Syrian regime started claiming false flags, you know, that the rebels were pretending to carry out chemical attacks and blaming the regime.
What we have in connection with this latest one is that the fact-finding mission called on a number of international experts. They said there were three different expert analyses, done by three teams in three different countries, and they worked independently. And the purpose of this exercise really was to examine the cylinders, look at the damage on them, look at the surrounding damage to the concrete roofs, and try to draw some conclusions about how the cylinders arrived there, with complicated calculations like how fast it would be falling if it was dropped from the sky, and doing computer simulations and things like that. So, it’s all—it’s a very technical sort of business.
Now, Mr. Henderson’s report seems to have done something similar. There’s not very much detail about how he did it, but it seems that he contacted a couple of universities, who gave guidance on how to do computer modeling. And the report kind of implies that the modeling was done internally by Henderson and perhaps other people, but it’s not absolutely clear.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask if—
BRIAN WHITAKER: So, basically, it’s— It’s basically very—it’s a very technical area, so it’s very difficult for outsiders to judge, particularly as neither the official report nor Mr. Henderson’s goes into any real detail about how they arrived at their calculations.
AMY GOODMAN: So, do you think the disagreement revealed in the OPCW report, the OPCWleaked Douma document, should impact the way we look at the new claims of a chemical attack in Idlib? You have the State Department saying they’re going to respond swiftly. What about this?
BRIAN WHITAKER: Well, these claims are always around with every reported chemical attack, so that is nothing new. What’s the interesting thing about the attack that the State Department was talking about, last Sunday, although the reports are very sketchy, what they said was that some chemical shells were used and that four rebel fighters were injured.
Now, although chemical weapons are banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention, so that is a crime to use chemical weapons in that way, the fact that it only injured four people makes it rather difficult to justify any sort of a swift and strong response from the United States, as the statement put it.
AMY GOODMAN: Right, “quickly and appropriately,” I think they said. . . .
BRIAN WHITAKER: No, there were two statements. One came from the State Department, and the American ambassador at the U.N. said something a couple of days earlier. So, there were two slightly different phrases, but the general idea is it will be a strong and swift response.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Brian, in your view, do you think the OPCW would suppress information for political reasons from its reports, this Douma report in particular? And second, what do you think explains the fact that very few media have covered this internal document at all, including your former—The Guardian, where you worked for many years?
BRIAN WHITAKER: Well, first of all, I think it’s rather a complicated story. But I think it—what we don’t really know—you know, the people who say, “OK, this report came out. It’s not referred to in the official report that was published by the OPCW. So the question is why.” And some people obviously suspect there was some kind of political motive behind the omission.
What we don’t know is whether that’s true or whether there were other reasons which could be much more simple, like some of the research done by the experts for the FFM, the fact-finding mission, actually refuted some of the evidence that Henderson’s document produced. So, we don’t know really what went on behind the scenes. And, unfortunately, the OPCW doesn’t really want to say very much about it. I sent them some questions last week, and I know a number of other journalists did, and what we got was a statement just generally saying that they had considered all of the available information and that they will have an inquiry into how the document was leaked. So, that doesn’t really get us very far, I’m afraid.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you for being with us, Brian Whitaker, former Middle East editor for The Guardian, now runs the website Al-Bab.com, which covers Arab politics and society. We’ll link to your piece, ”OPCW and the Leaked Douma Document: What We Know So Far.” Of course, OPCW stands for Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
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