The international chemical weapons watchdog said on Friday that two investigations into alleged attacks in Syria could not establish whether or not chemicals were used. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) released Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) reports on two alleged attacks, one in Saraqib, Syria, on August 1, 2016, and one in Aleppo, Syria, on November 24, 2018.
The Saraqib incident was an alleged chlorine attack blamed on the Syrian government. The FFM report cited open source material that said around 30 people had been affected and exhibited symptoms, including breathing difficulties and coughing. These sources also “indicated the presence of a substance with an odor similar to that of chlorine.”
Media reports from the day of the alleged attack quoted the Syrian Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, a group of first responders that operate in opposition-held parts of Syria and receive funding from Western governments, including the United States. The White Helmets are also cited in the FFM report, and often cooperate with the OPCW’s investigations.
The FFM could not access the site of the alleged attack in Saraqib and ultimately concluded that the analysis of all available data “did not allow the FFM to establish whether or not chemicals were used as a weapon in the incident that took place in Saraqib.”
The November 2018 incident in Aleppo was an alleged chlorine attack that the Syrian government blamed on opposition forces. According to documents examined by the FFM, between 79 to 125 people were exposed to “an unidentifiable substance around the same time and area, developing
signs and symptoms of a respiratory nature.” None of the victims suffered “debilitating effects and no fatalities occurred.” This information was consistent with interviews the FFM conducted.
Media reports from that day cited Syrian state media and the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and said around 100 people were injured in a “toxic gas attack.”
Despite visiting hospitals and testing samples, the FFM also concluded that the data analyzed for the Aleppo attack “did not allow the FFM to establish whether or not chemicals were used as a weapon.”
The OPCW has been quietly facing an internal crisis over an FFM investigation into a chemical attack that allegedly took place in April 2018 in Douma, Syria. The report concluded there were “reasonable grounds” to believe a chemical attack occurred in Douma and that the chemical was likely “molecular chlorine.”
The report did not attribute guilt, but the Syrian government was assumed responsible since chlorine canisters were allegedly dropped from helicopters, and the government was the only party with aircraft in the fighting. The US, UK, and France responded to the attack before an investigation began with airstrikes against Syrian government targets.
Since the final Douma FFM report was released, a trove of leaked documents have surfaced. The leaks, along with whistleblower testimony, suggests the OPCW suppressed evidence and ignored the findings of senior inspectors to fit the narrative that the Syrian government carried out a chemical attack in Douma.
On Tuesday, the UN Security Council held an Arria-Formula Meeting on chemical weapons attacks in Syria. The council heard testimony from Ian Henderson, a former OPCW inspector who has spoken out about the Douma investigation. The council also heard testimony from Grayzone journalist Aaron Mate who summarized the Douma scandal, and Ted Postol, an MIT professor. Postol raised issues with an OPCW report on an alleged chemical attack in Khan Shaykhun, Syria, in 2017.
Earlier this year, the OPCW released the first report from its Investigation and Identification Team (IIT), a unit of the organization established to identify the perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks inside Syria. The report found “reasonable grounds” to conclude the Syrian government was responsible for three chemical attacks in Ltamenah, Syria, at the end of March 2017.
The Grayzone published a letter from a group of anonymous “current and former staff members of the OPCW” that criticized the first IIT report and said it was “scientifically flawed.” More IIT reports are expected to be released on the 2017 Khan Shaykhun incident and the 2018 Douma Incident.