After Bashar al-Assad’s alleged use of chlorine gas against the civilian inhabitants of the Damascus suburb of Douma on 7 April 2018, in which 43 people were said to have been killed, few had much doubt that the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which represents 193 member states around the world, that Assad was guilty of a war crime. The OPCW said that testimony, environmental and biomedical samples and toxicological and ballistic analyses provided “reasonable grounds” that “the use of a toxic chemical had taken place” in Douma which contained “reactive chlorine”. The OPCW’s report was splashed across headlines around the world
The US, Britain and France, which launched missile attacks on Syrian military sites in retaliation for Douma – before any investigation had taken place – thought themselves justified.
Then, in mid-May 2019, came news of a confidential report by OPCW South African ballistics inspector Ian Henderson – a document which the organisation excluded from its final report – which took issue with the organisation’s conclusions. Canisters supposedly containing chlorine gas may not have been dropped by Syrian helicopters, it suggested, and could have been placed at the site of the attack by unknown hands. At first, senior OPCW officials contented themselves by merely acknowledging the Henderson report’s existence a few days after it appeared without making any comment on its contents. The BBC had reported in full on the OPCW’s final report on the use of chlorine gas, but never mentioned the subsequent Henderson story.
In a report from Peter Hitchens, former Telegraph columnist and from Jonathan Steele, a former senior foreign correspondent for The Guardian – suggests that the OPCW suppressed or failed to publish, or simply preferred to ignore, the conclusions of up to 20 other members of its staff who became so upset at what they regarded as the misleading conclusions of the final report that they officially sought to have it changed in order to represent the truth. The new details suggest that other evidence left unpublished by the OPCW were not just from leaked emails, but given by an OPCW inspector – a colleague of Henderson – who was one of a team of eight to visit Douma and who appeared at a briefing in Brussels last month to explain his original findings to a group of disarmament, legal, medical and intelligence personnel. The inspector stated that “most of the Douma team” felt the two reports on the incident (the OPCW had also published an interim report in 2018) were “scientifically impoverished, procedurally irregular and possibly fraudulent”.
The OPCW report’s claim that “various chlorinated organic chemicals (COCs) were found” in Douma but were “no higher than you would expect in any household environment”, a point which he says was omitted from both OPCW reports. These omissions were “deliberate and irregular”.
A British diplomat who was OPCW’s chef de cabinet invited several members of the drafting team to his office, where they found three US officials who told them that the Syrian regime had conducted a gas attack and that two cylinders found in one building contained 170 kilograms of chlorine. The inspectors regarded this as unacceptable pressure and a violation of the OPCW’s principles of “independence and impartiality”.
WikiLeaks released an apparent account of a meeting held by OPCW toxicologists and pharmacists “all specialists in CW (Chemical Warfare)”, according to the document. The meeting is dated 6 June 2018 and says that “the experts were conclusive in their statements that there is no correlation between symptoms [of the victims] and chlorine exposure.” They stated that “the onset of excessive frothing, as a result of pulmonary edema observed in photos and reported by witnesses would not occur in the short time period between the reported occurrence of the alleged incident and the time the videos were recorded”.