Current and former staff members of the OPCW have denounced the organization’s IIT report alleging Syrian government sarin use at Ltamenah, criticizing its reliance on rumor, hearsay, “scientifically flawed” claims and the influence of unqualified, secret “experts” aligned with the Western-backed opposition.
By OPCW Insiders
Editor’s note: On April 8, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons released a report by its newly formed Investigation and Identification Team, a unit ostensibly established to identify alleged perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks in Syria. The IIT investigation examined three alleged incidents in the Syrian town of Ltamenah in March 2017. It concluded “that there are reasonable grounds to believe” that the Syrian army committed a sarin attack in two of the incidents, and a chlorine attack in the third.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo praised the IIT probe, calling it “the latest in a large and growing body of evidence that the Assad regime uses chemical weapons attacks in Syria as part of a deliberate campaign of violence against the Syrian people. The United States shares the OPCW’s conclusions.”
But missing from Pompeo’s remarks and the ensuing U.S. media coverage across the spectrum is the crisis of credibility consuming the OPCW and its senior leadership. The IIT report’s tenuous conclusion “that there are reasonable grounds to believe” the official version of events closely resembles the conclusion of an earlier OPCW report that is now the subject of major controversy and derision. A series of leaks show that OPCW leaders suppressed the findings of inspectors who probed another much more consequential alleged Syrian chemical attack, in the city of Douma in April 2018, which triggered US airstrikes.
The evidence collected in Douma undermined allegations of Syrian government guilt and strongly suggested a staged event by the armed opposition. Leaked internal OPCW emails and documents show that the Douma investigators protested the censorship of their findings, setting off an unfolding cover-up scandal that has called the OPCW’s impartiality into question.
The Grayzone has published a series of leaks from the OPCW’s Douma scandal, and plans to reveal new material that further undermines the official story. The article below reveals how the dissension within the OPCW ranks extends well beyond the Douma investigation.
Here, OPCW insiders offer a withering critique of the IIT report, blasting it as another hyper-politicized piece of bunk. The Grayzone can verify that the authors represent the view of, at minimum, a small group of current and former OPCW officials who took part in its drafting and review.
– Max Blumenthal and Aaron Maté, The Grayzone
We have read the first Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) April 2020 report on alleged chemical attacks at Ltamenah. We observe that, as expected, the IIT has been loyal to its raison d’être. This has gone on for too long now. What makes it worse is the IIT’s narrative has been presented to the world as a product of many peoples’ work.
In fact, a number of impartial and principled professionals no longer wish to be associated with the politically motivated reports being issued by the OPCW FFM and now the IIT. Many consider this work and these reports to be procedurally and scientifically flawed. Some of us believe they should not be seen as representing the work of OPCW inspectors at all.
The recent publication of the IIT report into alleged chemical attacks at Ltamenah on March 24, 25 and 30 2017, has highlighted again the misuse of the OPCW by influential state parties to further their political and foreign affairs objectives. It was very clear to us during the creation and setup of the IIT that its intent was not to investigate alleged incidents of chemical attacks in Syria. Instead, the team was created simply to find the Syrian government guilty of chemical attacks. Its credibility was therefore compromised from its inception, and anyone who still thinks differently is either uninformed or naïve. This first report of the IIT has clearly reinforced this fact.
First, it appears that the IIT investigation has conveniently glossed over the glaring technical weaknesses in the FFM reports. Perhaps the best example of this, in one of the Ltamenah FFM reports, is the reporting by alleged witnesses claiming that the supposed munitions crater contained a “black bubbling liquid” that caused a burning sensation on the skin, and that it persisted in the crater for days. Many of the reported medical symptoms, too, had nothing to do with the possible presence of a nerve agent as alleged. Similarly flawed, and unchallenged by the IIT, is the complete lack of understanding of physics and material properties in the acceptance of the alleged behavior of a chlorine cylinder.
But seeing as the IIT investigation was essentially an extension of the FFM reports, we take upon ourselves a responsibility to remind you of the technical weakness and the superficial reasoning that compromise the conclusions of the IIT report.
What follows is a summary of the most obvious and detrimental flaws in the report:
The question of motive
Before we go any further, let us admit we don’t understand the minds of the Syrian leadership. Let’s assume that they were willing to risk everything, including perhaps their own survival, to escalate back to the “red line” of alleged chemical weapons usage; to deliberately provide a reason for Western intervention and a justification for regime change. Then let’s say they took this wild risk by using sarin, a “real” chemical weapon that had been declared in their stockpile, for the first time since their accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention. They did this by supposedly dropping a couple of sarin bombs on fields; agricultural lands in the middle of nowhere.
Perhaps, for some reason we cannot comprehend, they were deliberately thumbing their nose at Western powers. They didn’t use sarin during the desperate times when they had their backs to the wall and were close to being overrun by opposition groups; but for some reason chose a time when they were back in control. And, since September 2015, they had been receiving critical military support from the Russian Federation. So they dropped chemical bombs despite a situation where, as a Russian officer reportedly explained to inspectors, his military command was working directly with the Syrians. As he commented, “Do you think we would be stupid enough to be sharing and coordinating airspace with the Syrians while they deploy chemical weapons from their aircraft in violation of an international treaty that is very important to us?”
The question of motive figures squarely within the realm of criminal investigation. Though this is not the usual line of work for OPCW inspectors, surely this questioning of motive must have been one of the fundamental starting points for the IIT investigation?
Secondly, these March 2017 alleged chemical attacks (and, it would later turn out, another sarin incident at Khan Sheikhoun on April 4), happened shortly after the first high-profile OPCW inspections at the secretive military research facilities, the Scientific Studies and Research Centre (SSRC) facilities in Barzeh and Jamrayah. Around this time, in the SSRC inspections and the work towards resolving issues described by the OPCW Declarations Assessment Team as “inconsistencies” in declarations submitted by the Syrians, delegations were aware the Syrians were putting in a substantial effort to clear up the headache of what they called “the chemical dossier.”
Were they engaged in this hard work so that they could then drop a couple of sarin bombs to then guarantee they would galvanize the world against them? One finds this hard to believe.
Opposition middlemen and the mishandling of evidence
These issues have been debated ad nauseam, but the message appears to have fallen on deaf ears. Surely it must be well understood by all readers now, that the foundation for the whole case is terminally fragile when no so-called “fact-finder or investigator” has even been to the alleged incident site. That’s right, not one member of the IIT conducted a field investigation. Literally everything in the case has been provided by the sworn enemies of the Syrian government.
The opposition forces have brought all the so-called “evidence” for these allegations of chemical attacks, often in response to requests and guidance from the FFM, piecemeal over a period of months and years, to hand over to the FFM and IIT. This handover has generally been at a safe location in Turkey.
The middlemen, representing some so-called NGOs that have been known to coordinate and coach the opposition groups and OPCW inspectors throughout the follow-up on these incidents, have reportedly been a couple of well-known British military figureheads. The narratives, the witness accounts, the soil samples, the metal fragments, the photographs and videos; every item of so-called “evidence” had been provided by those who have everything to gain by implicating their enemies in a chemical attack.
So, to declare in the FFM reports that chain-of-custody on material and samples was strictly maintained “after receipt of the items” is quite simply laughable, and perhaps this meaningless excuse should better remain unsaid in the future. It does little for the scientific reputation of the OPCW. One may argue that this is not the fault of the FFM or IIT, but it nonetheless puts them in a very weak position, where they need to start suggesting “factual findings” on the basis of circumstantial piecing-together and attempted corroboration of the narratives and items presented by the opposition forces.
If the bar for IIT findings hadn’t been set so conspicuously low, that of reporting “there are reasonable grounds to believe” that there had been a chemical attack, surely the whole case would have been dismissed at the start?
Where do the IIT’s experts come from?
The OPCW has always operated on the principles of “equitable geographic distribution”. This however does not apparently apply to missions where the outcomes are more important to the key Western delegations. We see the composition of the IIT appears to reflect this bias, in that most of the investigators and analysts are of Western/NATO background.
But this is not the main point here. There appears to be a hidden, more devious and sinister modus operandi at play. Neither the FFM (fact finding mission), the JIM (joint investigation mission), or the IIT have been self-contained in terms of military, scientific and/or engineering expertise.
The IIT is basically comprised of investigators without any background or expertise in chemistry, chemical weapons processes or technology, weapons systems or ballistics. They are therefore completely reliant upon their “approved” list of experts, who are called upon to provide all the technical analysis required by the IIT. One may innocently ask; where do these experts come from?
Very obviously, they represent the same Western and NATO intelligence agencies, units, institutes, laboratories and individuals that have already become so heavily invested in “proving” the complicity of the Syrian government. Their professional reputations are not at stake if they provide dubious advice, because they remain nameless, faceless “experts.” Therefore their findings are never subjected to any peer review. One could argue that their insider reputation (within the FFM, JIM and IIT fold) is mainly enhanced by continuing to provide the desired goods to the OPCW.
This one-sided array of experts is in itself perhaps sufficient to invalidate the working and conclusions of the IIT.
Behind-the-scenes “experts” and the staging argument
We have noted that the IIT has lent some credence to the question of “staging” in their first report. Or so they appear to have done, with some convincing-sounding arguments about how and why they consider it unlikely that the alleged chemical attacks had been staged. Upon closer examination, however, it is clear that the IIT report raises the topic of staging with the express purpose of dismissing it, again relying upon their battery of behind-the-scenes “experts”. This represents another one of the more flawed scientific arguments in the IIT report.
Not much can be said about considerations of staging in the witness accounts and reports of medical treatment at hospitals, as these are essentially story-lines that cannot be properly corroborated anyway, seeing as medical records were not available. The main focus of the staging discussion, particularly in the cases of alleged use of sarin, thus relates to the items brought by opposition forces to hand over to the FFM in Turkey. These are the soil and gravel samples and metal fragments that were used, with advice from the IIT’s selected “experts”, to confirm their belief that the Syrian Arab Air Force had dropped M4000 aerial bombs containing sarin.
Never mind that taking seriously the handing over to the FFM of “evidence” by opposition forces – with some items delivered almost a year after the alleged incident – is somewhat dubious. Let’s consider the staging possibilities.
Firstly, in evaluating the results of analysis on soil samples and metal fragments, the IIT reported the “sarin in question is consistent with the sarin of the stockpile and the production processes of the Syrian Arab Republic. In particular, the IIT concluded that the chemical profile (i.e., a collection of chemicals) of the sarin used in Ltamenah on March 24 and 30, 2017 strongly correlates to the chemical profile expected for sarin produced through a binary reaction in which the key binary component (DF) is manufactured via routes, as well as by using precursors and raw materials, pursued by the Syrian Arab Republic in its sarin programme.”
This, if intended to support the assertion that Syrian sarin was implicated, or that staging by the use of “spiking” chemicals was unlikely, is bordering on ludicrous. What possible reason could there be for the staging organizers, supporters (or advisors) to provide anything other than chemical samples carefully prepared by using the same precursors and sarin synthesis pathway as the well-known Syrian method? That chemistry has for many years been no secret; it is universally known and (apart from the use of hexamine as the acid scavenger) one of the “standard” ways of making sarin. That immediately defeats the “chemical marker” argument presented by the IIT. It is quite staggering that this argument has been taken seriously by any qualified or competent scientists.
Similarly, in the provision of metal fragments, there may well have been some work involved in sourcing the right bits and pieces to create a convincing scene. There are chopped-up M4000 aerial bomb graveyards in a few locations in Syria, as a result of their destruction of unfilled chemical munitions, part of the procedures required after they acceded to the Convention in late 2013. There is also the possibility of some bits and pieces of “leftovers,” perhaps also from exploded or non-functioning “repurposed” M4000 bombs. (The Syrians had explained that some empty M4000 bombs, normally designed for chemical use, had prior to accession been taken away from the chemical arsenal, to be filled with high explosive for use as conventional munitions).
An inconvenience that would have precluded the placement of larger parts, is that (assuming no intact and undeclared bombs were still around) the bomb bodies had each been cut into three segments and the stirrers were cut up as part of the destruction of chemical weapons verified during the UN-OPCW Joint Mission. This may be the explanation why in all three cases (Ltamenah 24 and 30 March 2017, and Khan Sheikhoun 4 April 2017) the only metal fragments in question were small scattered odds and ends.
So what happened to the main remaining parts of the bombs in such cases? In other words, were the scattered bits and pieces, representing a tiny part of the whole M4000 aerial bomb, all that were available for strategic placement by the opposition forces (because that was all that was given to them) – and thus all that was recovered despite their apparent diligence in scouting the area?
It is well known that the relatively small burster charge on this type of munition does not shatter or vaporise the entire object (as appears to be suggested by the IIT experts), and would not be expected to leave just a few isolated smallish fragments that are assessed as “could have come from a M4000 aerial bomb”. That certainly smacks of staging; seemingly effective but limited by the materials at hand.
One could argue that the IIT’s entire logic of staging is somewhat self-defeating, particularly it’s reasoning around the effort required and the lack of propaganda “publicity” for the opposition forces (again, a line of argument raised by the IIT in their report). If the staging was done by or on behalf of the opposition forces, supported (as has been alleged) by Western agents, in order to provide a justification and perhaps prompt Western intervention, one would expect that the outcome that has been achieved with the IIT report has therefore been successful for both parties. To recognize this, one only has to consider some of the renewed calls in the media for military intervention in Syria in the wake of the IIT report.
And if, as alleged – and, it seems, proven – Western NGOs and intelligence personnel were operating in Syria, surely they would have provided the appropriate level of technical expertise to ensure the staging was successful? For example, looking at some other questionable “compelling evidence”, selecting or describing the type of crater required, and providing a fuse that had the appearance of having functioned “normally,” as of course this would all be reflected in the guidance, briefings and coordination provided to the opposition forces to give to the FFM.
One could even argue that the staging had elements of a self-contained loop, with the same (or similar) Western/NATO experts being involved in setting up the scenario as those providing later assessments for the IIT. Is that not a worthwhile endeavor in furthering the foreign policy agenda? It appears to have worked.
Hearsay, rumor and information
We found one rather disturbing comment, delivered almost as an aside, in the IIT report: “The IIT obtained information that, in March 2017, Shayrat airbase was used to store chemical weapons. The IIT further obtained information that former members of the previously designated Branch 450, a component of the Syrian Arab Republic’s chemical weapons programme responsible for storage, mixing, and filling of chemical weapons, including sarin, were present in Shayrat airbase in late March 2017.”
This passage is reminiscent of many previous throwaway accusations made at the political level. It would be staggering, if true, that chemical weapons were being stored at Al-Shayrat. Indeed, it could have been seen as close to a smoking gun.
But what level of credibility can we ascribe to such a comment? Did it come from US, British or French intelligence services? Or was it the product of a throwaway “report” provided by an OPCW delegate in The Hague? Is it “incontrovertible evidence” in the same way the supposedly clear evidence of proof of the now-discredited allegation of the Douma chemical attack was? We should perhaps take that comment of the IIT “obtaining information” as ranking alongside the credibility of similar intelligence reports leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
A flawed report is met with no scientific challenge
The glaring weaknesses in the FFM and IIT’s methodology are clear; the political bias, compromised “evidence”, lack of transparency, singular reliance upon only one side of the story (the groups opposed to the Syrian government), and the flawed arguments on why staging would be “too difficult” for the opposition forces; leads us to serious doubts about the conclusions in the IIT report.
Perhaps to the credit of the IIT members who argued against more definitive, stronger language in their report, what the IIT produced was the desired Western opinion about what could have happened. Weak language stating that “there are reasonable grounds to believe” the official story, it could be argued, actually implies a 50/50 case in which there are similarly reasonable grounds “not to believe” it.
Perhaps, more accurately, it suggests that the IIT thought “it’s not outside the realms of possibility” that things occurred as suggested in the report, rather than the possibility that the incident had been staged. But if the staging was considered unlikely, doesn’t it rank aside the unlikelihood, due to lack of motive, of the Syrians galvanizing the world against them (and angering their Russian supporters) by dropping sarin bombs onto farmland? At the end of the day, we must be clear that this is little more than an expression of a one-sided opinion.
Unfortunately, lesser-informed elements encompassing practically all mainstream media outlets have interpreted the conclusion – the opinion – as fact. True professionals prefer to stick to facts, so please don’t count us in. It is most unfortunate that the eagerness of the Western governments, NGOs, commentators, and the complicity of the mainstream media, has ensured that this flawed report is met with no scientific challenge whatsoever. Such is the momentum of the prevailing Syria narrative that most of these aforementioned elements, being sufficiently delighted, have not bothered to read it.
We know there are many competent experts in forensics, chemistry and ballistics who would find the conclusions in the IIT report to be questionable. The methodology and science of the Ltamenah IIT investigation should rather have been trusted to a panel of unbiased, impartial, internationally recognised scientists, investigators and weapons specialists, who would issue their assessment of the alleged chemical attacks in a transparent manner. And, for the first time, the organization could have publicized the names and professional reputations of the “experts” behind their findings.
The Grayzone is an online news website dedicated to original investigative journalism, news, and analysis, edited by award-winning journalist Max Blumenthal.