Long-read

Chemical weapons and cover-ups: the Western media’s Syrian shame

Inspectors had serious doubts that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons in Douma. Why did the media ignore this?

Fraser Myers
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What should have been one of last year’s biggest news stories has gone largely unnoticed. Major Western powers – the US, the UK and France – went to war on dubious grounds. When inspectors at a supposedly neutral UN body, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), could not find evidence that justified Western powers’ actions, their work was censored and manipulated to fit the desired facts.

Here was another dodgy or ‘sexed-up’ dossier of the kind that led the West to war in Iraq. It is the kind of story you might expect newspaper editors to jump at – it is both explosive and in the public interest. But with a few honourable exceptions, the mainstream media has largely steered clear of it.

The cover-up

Two years ago, in April 2018, the US, the UK and France fired over a hundred missiles against the Syrian regime. It was alleged that Bashar al-Assad’s government had carried out a chemical-weapons attack on Douma, a suburb of Damascus, killing nearly 50 people. The airstrikes were launched a day before a planned inspection by the OPCW.

Despite the impending inspection, the Western powers said they had drawn their own conclusions that the Assad regime had carried out a chemical-weapons attack. The White House said that regime helicopters were seen dropping barrel bombs on Douma. Remnants of the bombs were said to look like ‘chlorine barrel bombs from past attacks’. In addition, video footage of the victims showed them to have symptoms of chlorine and sarin poisoning.

President Donald Trump put it more starkly in a tweet:

‘Many dead, including women and children, in mindless CHEMICAL attack in Syria. Area of atrocity is in lockdown and encircled by Syrian Army, making it completely inaccessible to outside world. President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price to pay.’

The OPCW’s fact-finding mission appeared to corroborate this version of events. Its final report said that there were ‘reasonable grounds’ to find that chlorine gas was used in Douma. But dissenting scientists at the OPCW objected that the reports that were eventually published differed sharply from their original findings. Unable to resolve the issues internally, OPCW whistleblowers used leaks to get out their side of the story.

In May 2019, an unpublished report by Ian Henderson was leaked – though not by Henderson himself. Henderson is a ballistics expert who headed the fact-finding mission’s engineering subteam, which visited the Douma site. One of Henderson’s key claims – supported by all but one of his team members – was that two cylinders that the Syrian opposition claimed contained chlorine were more likely to have been placed manually rather than dropped from the air. This is significant because only Assad’s forces had the air capacity to pull off the attack from the air as alleged.

Henderson was sent to Douma as part of the fact-finding mission, but in July 2018, the OPCW announced a new ‘core’ team, which in Henderson’s words, ‘essentially resulted in the dismissal of all of the inspectors who had been on the team deployed to locations in Douma and had been following up with their findings and analysis’. Only one of the core members of this team was deployed to Douma, the rest were deployed to Turkey. In a statement to the UN in January 2020, Henderson said: ‘The findings in the final FFM [fact-finding mission] report were contradictory, were a complete turnaround with what the team had understood collectively during and after the Douma deployments.’

In November 2019, Jonathan Steele, former chief correspondent for Guardian, interviewed an OPCW whistleblower for Counterpunch magazine. Alex (a pseudonym) told Steele that there had been heated internal arguments over the levels of chlorinated organic chemicals (COCs) present at the site of the alleged attack. Alex explained that earlier, unpublished versions of the OPCW’s report essentially said that ‘the levels of COCs found were no higher than you would expect in any household environment’. But these findings were excluded from the OPCW’s final report.

A week later, a leaked email from an OPCW inspector was seen by Peter Hitchens at the Mail on Sunday. After it was published on Wikileaks, Reuters also verified that the email was genuine. It alleged that the final report had not only redacted ‘crucial facts’, but that other evidence had ‘morphed into something quite different to what was initially drafted’. The final OPCW report was ‘highly misleading’ and at times ‘inaccurate’. ‘This redacted version no longer reflects the work of the [fact-finding] team’, was the inspector’s conclusion.

Since then, even more evidence has emerged showing internal dissent at the OPCW and a cover-up. As Peter Hitchens has reported, when Ian Henderson learned that his findings would not be included in the final OPCW report, he lodged a copy in a secure registry called the Documents Registry Archive (DRA). But emails from a senior OPCW official called for this to be covered up. ‘Please get this document out of DRA… And please remove all traces, if any, of its delivery / storage / whatever in DRA’, the official wrote. According to an internal memo seen by the Mail on Sunday, ‘as many as 20 OPCW staff have expressed private doubts about the suppression of information or the manipulation of evidence’.

And yet the story of the cover-up has been largely ignored in the mainstream media. Though every national outlet covered the ‘official’ (that is, edited) version of events, few covered any of the leaks that cast doubt on it. Peter Hitchens, Jonathan Steele and the Independent’s Robert Fisk are among the few ‘mainstream’ journalists to have taken the leaks seriously – and Steele’s account was published on the radical US website Counterpunch, not in the mainstream press. Aside from that, it has largely fallen to alternative media, such as the Grayzone, to cover the story in detail.

The media

One journalist tried and failed to get his outlet to cover the story. Tareq Haddad was a journalist at Newsweek. He trained at the Press Association, then worked at the Hull Daily Mail and the IB Times, before joining Newsweek in September 2019.

Haddad had a great deal of experience covering the Syrian war. After Turkey invaded Syria, he was investigating allegations that Turkey had used white phosphorus in an attack on a northern Syrian city. White phosphorus is a skin-burning chemical, but its use is not generally regarded as a war crime. It was during that investigation that he came across the story about the OPCW.

Haddad pitched the story. It had already been verified at this stage. ‘We had the WikiLeaks releases and then the story by Peter Hitchens’, he told me. ‘I was kind of going back and forth with my editors trying to get justification for why they would not want it. They did not give me any valid reasons in that time’, he said. After around 10 days, Haddad resigned.

The Douma story was an exceptional case, Haddad told me. ‘Whenever I pitched a story, even if it was controversial, and if my evidence for the story that I wanted to write was solid – which it was in this case – I would still usually be able to have had the story printed in one way or another’, he said.

Although Peter Hitchens was able to publish his findings in the Mail on Sunday, he also noted the lack of wider interest in the story on one of his blogs: ‘I contacted distinguished figures well-known to me in various parts of the British media, people of great integrity, and appealed for their help in getting the story a wider hearing. So far, I have had no success.’

I asked Peter Hitchens why he thought the vast majority of the media was so reluctant to run the story. ‘The first problem is that newspapers, broadcast organisations and news agencies don’t like admitting that they got something wrong’, he said. Back in 2018, ‘there was a huge rush to judgement’ as allegations were ‘more or less swallowed both by a lot of news organisations and by governments as well, particularly because of the harrowing nature of pictures of dead people, including children, which were shared’.

Smears and denials

‘I fear very much that if we were now back in 2003, and Iraq had been invaded, and no weapons of mass destruction had been found, I am not sure that story would have got out’, says Hitchens. ‘If it had got out, those who did cover it would have been called chemical-weapons deniers or Saddam apologists, which is the fate of those who have actually joined in covering the OPCW story’, he explains.

Hitchens has been called an ‘Assad apologist’ and a ‘denialist of war crime’ for his articles. Similarly, Haddad was accused by his former employer of pitching ‘a conspiracy theory rather than an idea for objective reporting’. ‘Anyone that opposes military aggression is very quickly smeared’, says Haddad.

Many of the smears come from third parties who deny or downplay the significance of the leaks. ‘It has been noticeable that the OPCW, which is the principal subject of the leaks and is where the sources to whom I have talked had been working, has at no stage denied anything that I have written’, Hitchens tells me. ‘They have sort of blustered vaguely about sticking to the original story. But they have not said these documents are false. They have not said that the people involved are lying.’

According to Hitchens, the lesson Western governments learnt after the debacle in Iraq was not to ‘stop making stupid wars in parts of the world where they did not know what they were doing’. Instead, governments ‘learned to defend themselves better from the attacks of the media’.

As the OPCW did little to defend itself at first, that role fell to Bellingcat, a website which specialises in ‘open source’ investigations. Belingcat’s work is often presented as ‘citizen journalism’, and is the subject of numerous puff pieces in the press. Among the funders of this ‘citizen’ journalism is the National Endowment for Democracy, a think tank which promotes Western military intervention and regime change, and which is, in its own words, ‘dependent on continued support for the White House’. This is not a disinterested party to the Douma affair.

Bellingcat accuses those who have published the leaks of misunderstanding the issue, even claiming that the redacted OPCW report incorporates the dissenting inspectors’ doubts, which it plainly does not. (Read Peter Hitchens’s full rebuttal here.) Bellingcat seems to have also devoted a large amount of resources, including a series of articles, videos and computer models, to questioning the leaks and discrediting the whistleblowers. All of it fails to address convincingly the question of a cover-up. Nevertheless, if Bellingcat’s intention was to ward journalists off the story, then it succeeded. We know from Tareq Haddad’s experience that his foreign-affairs editor at Newsweek cited one of Bellingcat’s ‘debunkings’ as a reason not to run the Douma story.

Although the OPCW cover-up didn’t much interest news editors, one story that caught their eye was the existence of a group of academics who had formed a working group on Syria, Propaganda and Media (SPM). The Times splashed this news on its front page. Inside, it devoted a double-page spread to attacking SPM members as apologists for Assad. By this stage the working group had yet to produce any actual work on the conflict. (Tara McCormack, one of the group’s members, has written about the experience for spiked.) Whatever the views of the individuals concerned on Syria, or anything else for that matter, The Times treatment acted as a warning shot to those who might challenge the government’s position on the alleged chemical attack. The SPM story provided the media with an opportunity for tubthumping denunciations of the alleged traitors and saboteurs in our midst.

Propaganda and a failure of skepticism

Journalism during wartime has always been beset with problems. Sources can be murky and information is hard to verify. Propaganda and misinformation are rife. The Syrian conflict has been particularly vulnerable to this.

Back in 2011, a blogger, calling himself ‘A Gay Girl in Damascus’, who claimed to have been caught up in the revolution, managed to hoax several major media outlets, including the Guardian and CNN. When she was ‘abducted’ by the Syrian regime, thousands demanded her release. In the end, the ‘gay girl’ turned out to be Tom McMaster, a middle-aged man from Atlanta, Georgia. A frivolous – and ultimately harmless – example, but nevertheless it illustrates the willingness of many in the media to go along with certain sources, especially if they affirm a pre-existing narrative about the conflict.

Peter Hitchens warns that there are now all kinds of ‘open source’ bodies reporting on the Syrian conflict, which are taken as good coin by journalists. These are not hoaxers, of course, but they are often not the neutral observers their titles make them out to be. He gives the example of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Its reports on the conflict are regularly referenced by the news media, and even by newswires like AP and AFP. ‘As far as I know it was run from a second-hand clothes shop in the English Midlands. But these things are treated with authority and you have to wonder how that happens’, says Hitchens. The Coventry-based ‘Syrian’ observatory has even taken funding from the UK Foreign Office for its media work.

A recent investigation by Middle East Eye found that the British government has played a huge propaganda role in the Syrian conflict. It has given contracts to communications companies which run press offices and give media training to opposition spokespeople. Most of this propaganda effort was geared towards the Syrians themselves, but the UK government also played a role in moulding the story in the UK press. Opposition voices were often vetted and briefed by British handlers before they could speak to journalists.

Hitchens tells me there has been a ‘failure of scepticism’ and an ‘enormous amount of conformism’ when it comes to reporting on the Syrian conflict, and in the media and society more broadly. ‘What most people are afraid of… is of being outed as a nonconformist, as some sort of weirdo’, he says. ‘Well, this does not bother me. I was still brought up in the days when it was actually considered admirable to stand against the tide. Not just in theory, but in practice.’

Hitchens readily admits that he used to be a ‘warmonger’. ‘I was a tremendous enthusiast for the Cold War’, he says. But there has been a political shift, especially as the establishment has gone from being largely conservative to largely liberal. And liberal-leaning papers like Guardian, which once might have been the natural home for revelations like the Douma leaks, end up defending the wars waged by a liberal establishment. As Hitchens puts it:

‘The patriots have become the anti-war troublemakers, and the anti-war troublemakers have become the authoritarian warmongers… What this really reveals is a complete reversal and inversion of British politics. The left used to be the exposers of untruth and the publishers of the Pentagon Papers, but this tradition has gone. Now you find probably the most conservative columnist in British journalism doing what lefties used to do in the 1960s.’

A willingness to be sceptical and to challenge conformism ought be the bare minimum of what we should expect from the media – even if it means causing trouble. The unwillingness to tell the OPCW story speaks to a far broader journalistic failure.

Fraser Myers is a staff writer at spiked.

Picture by: Getty.

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Comments

Igor Bundy

19th July 2020 at 1:43 am

The times also had a front page cover of a starving child. Without mentioning that child was that of a Syrian army soldier and was a prisoner and purposely starved to death.

dom torato

13th July 2020 at 7:25 am

Free speech is under attack from all sides – from illiberal laws, from a stifling climate of conformity, and from a powerful HERE► Read More

dom torato

13th July 2020 at 7:08 am

Newsweek cited one of Bellingcat’s ‘debunkings’ as a reason not to run the Douma story HERE► Read More

jacquline fariendess fariendess

12th July 2020 at 1:14 pm

Iv always supported Assad. Im also a Zionist.William Hague should be tared and feathered and run out of town on a rail. HERE► Click For Full Detail.

Andrew Levens

12th July 2020 at 12:25 pm

This confirms that where MSM are concerned, the truth takes second place where they don’t like the person concerned, whether Assad or Cummings. Thank you Spiked for being a voice in the wilderness.

dom torato

12th July 2020 at 8:05 am

Iv always supported Assad. Im also a Zionist.William Hague should be tared and feathered and run out of town on a rail. HERE► Read More

dom torato

12th July 2020 at 7:53 am

which once might have been the natural home for revelations like the Douma leaks, end up defending the wars waged by a liberal establishment HERE► Read More

Dominic Straiton

10th July 2020 at 10:19 pm

Iv always supported Assad. Im also a Zionist.William Hague should be tared and feathered and run out of town on a rail.

nick hunt

10th July 2020 at 7:28 pm

If only Sp_ked would list those words its ‘moderators’ refuse, so to save us all so much work…

nick hunt

10th July 2020 at 7:08 pm

So when the White House said that ‘regime helicopters were seen dropping barrel bombs on Douma’, how can we know they weren’t repeating exactly the bogus intelligence and media eports criticised by the article? Isn’t this evidenc that Trump was duped as intended, with the hope that the US would intervene yet again on behalf of the Islamist plot to take over Syria? Those of us who already know that believing the MSM is a lost cause read the many independent reports of falsified chemical weapon attacks on defenceless kids intended to gain precisely such a reaction. Fortunately, Trump was smart and suspicious enough to take the minimum action necessary and has continued to fulfil his promise to withdraw US troops from endless foreign wars.

Steven Haworth

10th July 2020 at 2:51 pm

Myers concludes from 10 minutes reading of Peter Hitchens’ blog posts that the Syrian government never killed anyone at Douma. And probably Ghouta and Khan Sheikhoun too?

Hitchens is a total ignoramus who distorts information, believes that coronavirus can permeate walls and sees himself on a divine mission to expose conspiracies. Just reading his blog posts you get the sense this is not someone of a sober mind. The reason no-one wants his “stories” is because he’s an idiot, it’s that’s simple. (Try asking him where Khan Sheikhoun is.)

Compared to his ramblings the Bellingcat responses to the non-affair of the “leaks” were meticulously argued and sourced. I doubt Fraser even looked at them.

I suspect this article is a product of the recent attention Hitchens got for his coronavirus contrarianism. Someone asked him: what other subject do you have uninformed opinions about? Shame on Spiked for publishing this rubbish. Fine friends you’re going to make.

nick hunt

10th July 2020 at 7:17 pm

Hitchens didn’t write all the independent reports showing how chemical attacks in Syria were false flags intended to trick further western intervention on behalf of the Islamists trying to remove Assad (Iand eliminate all those Christians still enjoying his protection). You can easily confirm that claim with a little searching. Your highly unpleasant character assassination of Hitchens ignores all this and smears an astute critic of leftists and their endless attacks on people’s character. That is prejudice, not argument.

Igor Bundy

19th July 2020 at 1:46 am

You sure are a funny guy..

Ali Houston

10th July 2020 at 9:47 am

You don’t mention the work done by Vanessa Beeley and the UK Column News. Neither do you mention the ‘Integrity Initiative’ and the way they behaved during reporting of these incidents.

Those of us who knew instinctively this was all bollocks and said so, in more polite language, in the comments sections under the line, had our comments removed before they’d even hit the ground. There was one day when both my comments in the Spectator and the Telegraph were being edited, to be full of ridiculous typos, then bots were piling in telling me I was a Russian troll, because I couldn’t write proper English. I responded by giving all my biographical details and life history of as many of my English ancestors as I knew and still it went on, like nothing I’d ever seen before.

At the Spectator no comments critical of the Govt. response to the supposed chemical attack were allowed. There were only half a dozen of us fighting it, anyway, the rest were all war mongers, but all our comments were deleted except the very moderate ones of one commenter, so it looked as if they were not biased. Everyone else’s went. I know exactly how mad this sounds, but until it happens to you, you think you live in a free country with freedom of speech and criticism of the state allowed, on the whole. It seems this is not the case.

The concerted effort, I think by the security services to remove any criticism by ordinary people shows at best, they knew they had been fooled, and at worst and probably more likely that they had deliberately set this hoax up to try and escalate our involvement.

Jim Lawrie

10th July 2020 at 11:36 am

I’ve had the same experience on various sites with evidence based posts on the Chinese economy.

nick hunt

10th July 2020 at 7:27 pm

Critics of anthing l_eftist are routinely censored and/or banned and deleted from most UK fora. Even sites like C_nservativeHome ban those who point out their obviously anti-conservative agenda, and their fora mostly contain sneering leftist tr olls and bi gots pretending to be right-wing. Spiked also has this problem, but is still one of the few places for sincere debate rather than l_eftist h ate. I also recommend ConservativeWoman.

nick hunt

10th July 2020 at 7:25 pm

Critics of anthing leftist are routinely censored and/or banned and deleted from most UK fora. Even sites like ConservativeHome ban those who point out their obviously anti-conservative agenda, and their fora mostly contain sneering leftist trolls and bigots pretending to be right-wing. Spiked also has many leftist bigots and trolls, but is still one of the better places for sincere debate rather than leftist hate. I also recommend ConservativeWoman.

Igor Bundy

19th July 2020 at 1:50 am

Even mainstream puppet media like al jazzera cant fix everything, one of the clips they showed was a soldier who was hiding behind a car during a demonstrations a few months into the terrorist invasion, the reporter asks the soldier how many people he had shot, his answer was he shot no one but that the protesters killed many of his men. And the reporter shouts, You were ordered to shoot unarmed protesters?? Thats why al jazzera is banned in Syria after broadcasting it, if you know Arabic you can hear the entire exchange. Just like CH4 smell test for chlorine gas attack. Wonder if she will smell test for covid19 as well.. Remember the sarin proof slippers of the white helmet terrorists?

jmNZ

10th July 2020 at 8:54 am

There appears to be a cabal at the Foreign Office or Security services driving this new attempt at totalitarianism. If BoJo & Cummings are going to get anywhere they need to root out this cancer. It is of note that most of the cabal’s actions are funneled through the BBC: they have learnt the lesson of Goebbels: control the narrative and repeat lies often enough for them to be perceived as truth.

Mor Vir

10th July 2020 at 9:01 am

The government is behind the propaganda not the BBC. It is a pattern with Western governments. You have presented no evidence that Boris is against it. It is nothing to do with Goebbels, it is contemporary Western liberal capitalist states that we are talking about. Your state, your government, your PM.

Neil John

10th July 2020 at 2:12 pm

As with most of these things the strings are being pulled by those hidden in the darkened cervices of the state’s apparatus, the elected government cannot win against such people, as they are supported by the powerful international Military-Industrial complex, without risking blood loss on their own side, as Dr David Kelly’s ‘apparent’ suicide illustrated. The BBC and others know that to deviate from the ‘approved’ narrative will likewise endanger them too. Having watched the ‘white hell-mets’ contrived propaganda videos the inconsistencies were clear, who founded them, funds them and ultimately stands to benefit from the removal of Assad is one of the keys to this whole mess…

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