Assad’s 2018 chemical massacre in Douma: Why conspiracy claims make no sense

Images from OPCW report of the fact-finding mission regarding the incident of alleged use of toxic chemicals as a weapon in Douma

by Michael Karadjis

Abstract: Vast numbers of responses to the conspiracy theories absolving the Assad regime of responsibility for the 2018 chemical massacre in Douma have been penned, some of which this article will list for reference. However, this article is not a repeat of this detective work; rather, the core of it is an examination of the absurdity of these assertions, precisely from the point of view of the questions of “who gains” and casus belli that these conspiracists evoke.

On April 7, 2018, the Assad regime launched a chemical attack, dropping chlorine canisters, on the besieged town of Douma, the last remaining part of the opposition-held East Ghouta region which had been under a month-long massive attack by the regime, during which it had reconquered the rest of the region.

The day after the attack, Douma itself surrendered. The regime had now virtually completed its reconquest of all parts of the southern and eastern regions of working-class outer-Damascus, which had been in opposition hands for over 5 years; the only exception was the Yarmouk Palestinian camp, which the regime reconquered in May, but the opposition had already lost Yarmouk to ISIS (despite fierce resistance) in 2015 in any case.

Forty-three bodies were reportedly discovered, and filmed, in one of the apartment blocks onto which the chlorine had been allegedly dropped; however, the Syrian regime and its Russian backers did not allow inspectors from the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to enter the area to carry out inspections until 2 weeks later, during which time the bodies were buried.

When they finally were allowed in, the OPCW inspectors found two “yellow industrial cylinders dedicated for pressurised gas” (which likely contained the chlorine) in the top levels of two apartment blocks, as well as the craters in the roof which they had crashed through. One was apparently intact; the building where the other had released its load is where most of the 43 bodies were reportedly found.

The OPCW released its full report in March 2019, which concluded there were “reasonable grounds” to believe that chlorine had been used, and was the most likely cause of death; that it was likely it came from the spent canister; and though the brief of the OPCW did not include assigning blame, the report did imply that the most likely way the chlorine got into the building was through the crater in the roof above; though it said nothing about aircraft, this is the only possible way it could crash through a roof. As only the regime has aircraft, it therefore implied the regime was responsible.

Yet since that time, the OPCW has been subject to a concerted propaganda campaign, led by the Russian state, which claims the OPCW is guilty of a “cover-up” of alternative explanations, and that either chlorine was not used, or if it was, it was used by the opposition, or even that the rebels merely planted the chlorine canisters in the building, and just killed the civilians themselves, in an elaborate plot to provoke western intervention against Assad.

The claims about “cover-up” are based on the testimony of two former employees of the OPCW. First, Ian Henderson, who was not part of the OPCW investigating team, but a liaison officer between the team and Damascus, sent a memo to the OPCW in March 2019, just before it released its report, claiming that the chlorine canisters could not have been dropped by helicopters, based on an “engineering report” that he had carried out (the OPCW claims he carried out this investigation outside his brief as OPCW employee). Two months later, the fact that the OPCW had not included this in its report was leaked to the world media as a “scandal.”

The OPCW claims it could not do this (apart from it being so late), because attributing blame for the incident was outside its brief. This is because Russia had blocked attributing blame from the OPCW’s investigation; the report makes no mention of helicopters.

Second, “Alex” (subsequently found to be Brendan Whelan), who was a member of OPCW team between April and August 2018, spoke out in October 2019. “Alex” had been a member of the team collecting evidence, but left before the real analysis began. He claimed his alternative view of events (he did not believe the evidence showed chlorine had been used) had been suppressed, and objected to some formulations in the interim report. The final report does modify its language slightly, arguably taking into account some of the objections, but still rejects them overall, with further evidence not yet available before “Alex” had quit.

Other than the constellation of conspiracist media sources led by the Russian state, the “cover-up” story was taken up by, among others, right-wing British journalist Peter Hitchens in the rubbishy tabloid Mail on Sunday; by a group of allegedly “anti-imperialist” leftists in an outfit named ‘Grayzone’ (otherwise known as ‘Red-Brown-Zone’); by far-right Trump-man in Fox News Tucker Carlson; by embedded journalist (for the Syrian military) Robert Fisk in The Independent; by long-term pro-Assad propagandists like Vanessa Beeley, a regular guest at Assad’s throne who writes for the conspiracist site 21st Century Wire.

Just why we should believe two disgruntled former employees of the OPCW over the research of the majority of the professionals in the organisation, and why this majority would decide to collectively engage in a cover-up, is anybody’s guess.

For those who want to understand more of the ins and outs of this ongoing saga, I can only strongly recommend the following sources:

Episode 11 of the BBC’s MayDay series – Canister on the bed: What really happened in the Douma massacre?

Scott Lucas – Denying Syria’s Chemical Attacks, Attacking the Inspectors — The Douma Case,

Bellingcat – Unpublished OPCW Douma Correspondence Casts Further Doubt on Claims of ‘Doctored’ Report

Bellingcat, The OPCW Douma Leaks Part 1: We Need To Talk About “Alex”

Now, if anyone is actually interested in this issue – and the fate of the victims of Assad’s decade of massacres – chemical and otherwise – then you need to listen, watch and read these sources, especially the first. Then draw your conclusions. If you don’t first do this, then your only interest is conspiracy-mongering.

Some other useful reads:

Life and Death in Douma. Part 1: The Russian narrative, for an excellent dissection of the propaganda unleashed by the Russian state allied journalists, and others like Robert Fisk, who was allowed in long before the OPCW was, to “interview” people in front of his Assad regime handlers.

The ‘Useful Idiots’: How These British Academics Helped Russia Deny War Crimes At The UN, good overall run-down by Chris York

Brian Whitaker, Leaked OPCW documents: what they really show about the Douma investigation,

James Harkin, What Happened in Douma? Searching for Facts in the Fog of Syria’s Propaganda War,

Nafeez Ahmed, State Propaganda in Syria: From War Crimes to Pipelines, London: International State Crime Initiative, Queen Mary University of London, 2018,

Casus belli?

However, while my conclusion from all this material is the OPCW report is a fair summary of what occurred, I prefer to look at the overall context than obsess with the detective work.

After all, casus belli is at the heart of the conspiracist argument; they ask, why would Assad want to “risk western intervention” by launching a chemical attack, when he was already winning in East Ghouta? Wouldn’t it be more in the interests of the rebels to stage a “false-flag” attack, get the regime blamed, and thus bring in western intervention to save them?

But why would this be necessary, if, as the far-right/alt-left coalition believe, the US has forever been dying to launch a war on Syria and carry out “regime-change”? After all, even if it were shown that the OPCW was mistaken and that Assad did not really launch that particular chlorine attack killing 43 people, it would not alter the fact that his regime has killed hundreds of thousands of people using every conceivable type of “conventional” WMD for a decade.

In other words, why would the US or rebels need to concoct stories of chemical attacks? Wouldn’t the US already have enough political ammunition with years of Assad levelling entire cities, dropping barrel bombs, cluster bombs, bombing schools, hundreds of hospitals, markets, firing ballistic missiles at apartment blocks and so on?

No? Oh, OK, all this is bad, but the US, for some pacifistic, law-abiding reason, only drew the red-line against chemical weapons, not all the rest. So “the lie about chemical weapons is whipped up to give the US the excuse to bomb Syria.”

Oh? What then of the 30,000 US strikes on ISIS, Nusra/HTS, Ahrar al-Sham, sometimes other Islamists or even mainstream rebels, killing, according to Airwars, anywhere from 6250 to 9,600 civilians, levelling the city of Raqqa? Is all this not “the US bombing Syria?”

Of course, none of this has ever been of any interest whatsoever to the western “anti”-war movement, let alone the far-right/alt-left coalition; for them, it only becomes dangerous US aggression if the US hits some Assad-regime installation for a few minutes a couple of times in 8 years, killing no-one and doing zero damage to Assad’s war machine.

But OK, let’s have it their way, only bombing Assad is bad, as opposed to bombing Syria, which is of no consequence.

So, in that case, if US agents in the media or inside the OPCW or wherever go to all the trouble to concoct a chemical weapons conspiracy hatched by the rebels, just because the US is so desperate to attack Assad but can somehow never find the excuse, then having concocted the excuse, wouldn’t the US perhaps use the opportunity to actually do some damage to Assad’s war machine, rather than hit three buildings in 45 minutes?

The context of the Douma attack

Let’s look at the context of the allegedly “false flag” Assad chemical weapons attack on Ghouta in April 2018.

In March 2018, the regime launched its final campaign to subjugate the long-time rebel-held, working-class East Ghouta region of outer Damascus, at the cost of some 1700 lives in four-weeks, in one of the most relentless episodes of terror bombing in the war. Far from using this horror as an excuse to “make war on Syria” as feverish imaginations believe the US wanted to do forever, throughout this month-long massacre the silence from the US and other western governments was deafening. During this month, top US and Russian generals held high-level discussions twice, where the topic of Ghouta was apparently not even mentioned. The conversation, which focused on Syria, reportedly demonstrated “a clear mutual interest to maintain the military lines of communication.” Defense James Mattis stressed the importance of cooperation with Russia, but noted sadly that issues such as Ukraine and Crimea suggested the Kremlin had other ideas. The Kremlin’s role at the very moment in pulverising Ghouta was not even considered worthy of note.

On March 29, weeks into Assad’s horror bombing of Ghouta, US president Trump announced that “We’re knocking the hell out of ISIS, we’re coming out of Syria very soon. Let the other people take care of it now” – “other people” being the Assad regime. Ghouta? Trump had probably never heard of it. It is true that the Pentagon pushed back on Trump’s rapid withdrawal idea, but not because they thought the US should do anything about Assad or the horrors of Ghouta, but rather simply that “we will continue to support the SDF as they continue to fight against ISIS.”

By early April, Assad had been completely victorious over almost all of the Ghouta region, but one militia, Jaysh al-Islam, was holding out in the suburb of Douma. This is where Assad’s “alleged” chlorine massacre took place. The very next day, Douma surrendered – which seems a reasonable answer to those who ask “what did Assad have to gain?” He gained immediate total victory. Apparently, to the conspiracists, the rebels had gone to all the trouble of concocting a false-flag operation to blame Assad and bring about western intervention, but then didn’t even wait a day for this intervention!

Confronted with yet another rude violation of the US “red-line” against only chemical weapons, despite Trump’s gift to the ungrateful Assad of extreme indifference to the month of slaughter and the announcement that the US was leaving Syria to Assad, Trump decided he needed to launch a “credibility” strike. The casualty-free strike hit three buildings allegedly associated with chemical weapons’ research or storage, with zero impact on Assad’s war machine. It then abruptly stopped. “Mission accomplished” declared Trump after 45 minutes.

Really, US imperialism, allegedly determined come what may to “make war on Syria”, to carry out “regime change” against Assad, helped the rebels concoct a false flag chemical attack in order perform this mere hiccup following Assad’s month-long slaughter of 1700 people?

And getting back to “why would Assad risk a US attack” etc – maybe because he rightly figured the worst would be a rap around the knuckles, a reasonable price to pay for rapid victory and the psychological terror created by chemical weapons attacks. After all, he already had the experience of such a pinprick strike a year earlier.

The Khan Sheikhoun sarin attack in 2017

Douma, of course, this was not the first such incident; the conspiracist set believe all Assad’s chemical attacks have been “false-flags” to bring about this elusive “western intervention”, from the massive sarin attack on East Ghouta in 2013, which killed 1400 people, resulting in, well, nothing, to the sarin attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in northern Syria in April 2017. The Berlin-based Global Public Policy Institute found the Assad regime responsible for 98 percent 336 chemical attacks in Syria; perhaps all of these were mere “false-flags”, which resulted in … zero western intervention.

It is well-worth looking at the case of Khan Sheikhoun, which took place in April 2017, exactly a year before the Douma massacre we have been discussing. The OPCW also later determined that the Assad regime had launched the sarin attack there.

Given the fact the US reacted by bombing Assad’s Shariyat airbase – the first US strike on Assad after nearly 8000 US strikes on Syria at that point, all on non-Assad and anti-Assad forces – does this signify that this was perhaps a “false-flag” operation?

Not even remotely. Again, let’s look at context and casus belli arguments.

In the weeks before Assad’s chemical massacre in Khan Sheikhoun, three prominent US leaders made Trump’s pro-Assad position clear. Trump’s UN representative Nikki Haley announced that the US was “no longer” focused on removing Assad “the way the previous administration was”; State Secretary Rex Tillerson used Assad’s words, declaring that the “longer term status of president Assad will be decided by the Syrian people”; and White House spokesman Sean Spicer declared that “with respect to Assad, there is a political reality that we have to accept.”

When Assad took all this encouragement to mean that even sarin could be legitimised, the US had little choice but to strike Assad for the sake of imperial “credibility.” The US back-down on its “red line” in 2013 was exchanged with getting Assad to remove all his sarin. He could use every other type of horrific weaponry in the four intervening years, and the US could not care less, as long as he stayed off chemical weapons. In demonstrating that he had kept some sarin and was even willing to use it, Assad forced the US to launch a credibility strike, despite the very clear intentions of the Trump regime stated just days earlier.

To soften the blow, Trump warned Putin, who warned Assad, so that planes could be moved from the base in time. According to the Russians, some half a dozen out-of-service warplanes were hit. By the following day, the base was again in use bombing Syrians, and Khan Sheikhoun was again being bombed – just not with sarin.

Really? So rebels concocted a “false-flag” attack, the US presumably cajoled and pressured the OPCW to later issue a report falsely blaming Assad, and in response the US launched a pinprick strike whose impact, if any, lasted less than a day? Don’t be silly.

If you want to see bloody US intervention, you just had to look in the same region a few weeks earlier. From any human viewpoint, a comparison between the US bombing of a mosque in a rebel-held region of Aleppo in March 2017 which killed 57 worshippers, and the US strike on the Sharyat airbase a few weeks later, which killed no-one, highlights what a mundane event the second was. The Trump regime never issued any apology for the mosque massacre (claiming anti-Assad HTS “terrorists” might have been using it), and it was welcomed by Trump’s Russian mates. Meanwhile, the number of civilians killed by US bombing of ISIS-held regions in Iraq and Syria in Trump’s first six months was higher than the number killed in Obama’s eight years, yet the conspiracists will tell you the US was supporting ISIS, and/or HTS, and/or the rebels, against Assad!

The follow-up by clarified further that this was a one-off. Tillerson stressed the strike was entirely about sarin and warned “I would not in any way attempt to extrapolate that to a change in our policy or posture relative to our military activities in Syria today.” Trump stressed that he launched the strike only because Assad used chemical weapons “which they agreed not to use under the Obama administration, but they violated it.” Defence Secretary Mattis stressed that “our military policy in Syria has not changed. Our priority remains the defeat of ISIS.”

National Security Advisor McMaster clarified that he had no concern that the base was being used again the next day, because harming Assad’s “operations from the airfield” was “not the objective” of the strike; and that the US goal, far from “regime-change” (ignore the absurd “regime change” title of the article, which McMaster simply states was up to the Russians), was merely defeating ISIS while also desiring “a significant change in the nature of the Assad regime and its behavior in particular” (note: not a change in the nature of the regime, but specifically of the Assad regime!).

How did the chlorine get there?

While I believe this has established the inherent absurdity of the idea that either Douma or Khan Sheikhoun were conspiracies from the point of view of context and the casus belli argument, there are other ways of demonstrating the impossibility of the conspiracist argument.

In particular, going back to Douma, if the chlorine canisters found in the top section of the buildings were not dropped from the sky, how did they get there? The best take-down I have seen of this issue was that penned by Louis Proyect, in this article on the Douma issue. It is so to the point that I will quote a significant chunk of it here, one more aspect for doubters to consider:

  • Procuring chlorine tanks might have been relatively easy, but how could Jaish el-Islam construct the fins, harness, axis, and wheels that are necessary for both loading into and then dropping them from helicopters? If you are going to frame Assad, you’d better be in a position to replicate the weapon he has been using for at least five years. Would Henderson and Alex argue that the pictures of the two weaponized chlorine tanks seen in the OPCW report were photoshopped? If not, how do you construct the fins, harness, axis and wheels from scratch? Did Jaish el-Islam make them in a machine shop? As someone with a night school diploma in lathe and milling machine from my days colonizing industry, I can tell you that this is not an easy task during constant bombardment and electrical blackouts.
  • The Jaish el-Islam had to use a pneumatic drill or sledgehammers to create large holes in concrete ceilings or find apartments that had them already. If the apartment already had a hole, what accounted for the rubble on the floor beneath it? And what about the attention such tools would draw during a heavy-duty penetration of concrete ceilings? The racket would be enough to awaken the dead. Furthermore, what would their neighbors make of them hauling 300-pound chlorine tanks to the building and up the stairs? Clunkety-clunkety-clunk. Anybody spotting them would figure out that they were up to no good, especially since Douma tenement buildings were not likely to have rooftop swimming pools in need of sterilization.
  • To make sure that the forty to fifty people who were to become sacrificial lambs in this unlikely false flag operation, the Jaish el-Islam had to prevent them from fleeing from the bottom floors, where they had taken refuge. But what if they tried to flee the minute chlorine gas was detected? If anybody escaped, wouldn’t they finger Jaish el-Islam? How would Jaish el-Islam not lose all support immediately?

A note on Jaysh al-Islam

A further point on this militia. Unlike other parts of East Ghouta controlled by more mainstream rebel groups, Jaysh al-Islam, the group in control of Douma, had a particularly bad reputation among other rebels and oppositionists, for running a highly authoritarian regime. For example, it is widely believed responsible for the disappearance, since late 2013, of the Douma Four revolutionary activists.

However, thousands of locals joined the ranks of this militia simply in order to defend the local people from reconquest by the far more repressive and murderous Assad regime. That had nothing to do with Jaysh al-Islam as such; as one civil activist in Douma, who is hostile to JaI, explained: “All the young people join Jaysh el-Islam. This is not out of ideological belief or because they like Alloush, but because they need to fight and not wait around.” On the contrary, it was the partial continuation, in extremely adverse conditions, of some semblance of the popular revolutionary traditions and institutions established in 2002-2003, very often in conflict with the JaI regime itself, that people fought to defend.

As revolutionary activist Firas Abdullah (who remained there for the entire duration of the siege) put it after fleeing Assad’s reconquest: “the dictatorship is one, but it has several colours.” JaI’s repressive rule, in other words, was nurtured precisely by years of Assadist siege, bombing and starvation. But the connection goes further: it was Assad who released Zoran Alloush, JaI’s founder, along with 1000 or so other jihadists, from his dungeons in mid-2011, at the very time he was arresting and jailing thousands of democratic activists, including from Douma. The vacuum of leadership created by Assad’s mass arrests was taken up by people like Alloush.

Yet it is precisely these origins of hard-Islamist currents like JaI – in the Iraqi jihad against the US occupation – that makes any connection between the West and JaI, as implied by these pro-Assad conspiracy theories, inherently unlikely. Indeed, US Defence Secretary John Kerry classified JaI (and Ahrar al-Sham) as “terrorist” groups. While the US did lightly arm various “vetted” rebel groups under Obama – never enough to even hold the line against Assad, but in order to politically co-opt them – no US arms ever went in the direction of JaI. If conspiracists want to claim they did, it is up to them to find the paper trail; they won’t. Whatever limited aid came over the southern Jordanian border in Obama years went to the FSA’s Southern Front, of which JaI was never a member, and in any case was geographically cut off from. In any case, in 2017 Trump ended all military aid to all rebels, and even cut off all aid to democratic councils and civil society in opposition territory. Long before 2018, therefore, the US leadership openly saw all rebels as an enemy, not only JaI.

Moreover, this worked both ways: the idea that JaI would try to bring about western intervention goes against the very grain of this group. Following Assad’s far more mass-murderous chemical attack East Ghouta in 2013, JaI responded to Obama’s alleged threat to strike Assad with this statement:

“What matters to us is the question of: Who will America target its strike against? And why choose this particular time? The Assad regime has used chemical weapons dozens of times and the U.S. did not move a finger. Have they experienced a sudden awakening of conscience or do they feel that the jihadists are on the cusp of achieving a final victory, which will allow them to seize control over the country? This has driven the U.S. to act in the last 15 minutes to deliver the final blow to this tottering regime so it can present itself as a key player and impose its crew which it has been preparing for months to govern Syria.”

No, the anti-western Jaysh al-Islam did not drag massive chlorine canisters up many flights of stairs and break holes in the roof to bring in a US intervention they were opposed to and then surrender to Assad the next day anyway; the entire scenario is nuts.

Briefly on the White Helmets “controversy”

I put controversy in quotation marks because it is only a “controversy” to a particularly hardened wing of alt-left/hard-right wingnuts. I mean, really, one would expect Assadists and conspiracists to slander military formations of the Syrian opposition and even political and civil leaders, but the obsession they have with volunteer first-responders, who put themselves in acute danger – many have died in action – to rescue civilians from the rubble of bombed-out buildings, to save thousands of lives, is a particularly oddball phenomenon.

The spectacle of comfortable, White academics, “journalists” and propagandists living in the West, many seeing themselves as “left-wing” while slandering and spitting on those brown folk dying in the line of fire, is so obscene that it should be self-defeating. Yet living in this anti-solidaristic era, where “left anti-imperialist” is often little more than a badge of honour in the “market-place” of ideas and image, we see thousands of followers line up to join in the obscenity. Whatever gives you a rise I guess, guys.

This White Helmets “controversy” is not the issue of this essay, so what, if any, connection does it have with the chemical attacks controversy? Nothing, necessarily, except that these are two cheap targets of the conspiracist set. However, one connection they attempt to make is the assertion that the White Helmets have been key informants in the “staging” of these “false-flag” attacks.

One allegation is that it was the White Helmets who had filmed the initial Douma footage of those killed in the chemical attack. Yet the footage was originally released by another opposition media centre; as Nafeez Ahmed, in a valuable piece taking on a great deal of this propaganda, explains, the White Helmets “had not even been present at the scene of the incident in the immediate aftermath” (p. 31). He also responds to Scott Ritter, the former UN investigator of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction; Ritter criticised the OPCW’s assessment that sarin had been used in the Khan Sheikhoun attack, for allegedly relying on “none other than the White Helmets” to gain samples (p. 39), since the regime had blocked the OPCW from accessing the site. As Ahmed demonstrates, samples were gained from other sources, including the regime, from which the OPCW established the use of sarin.

Other than recommending several of the vast number of responses to sick the anti-White Helmets propaganda (try this and this and this, especially the first, the full BBC series), my final point will again be from the perspective of, “what does all this aim to achieve anyway?” Whether the claim is that the White Helmets are mere actors not rescuing anyone, or that they do rescue people, but use the footage of their deeds to create propaganda against the regime (because, I suppose, it is not self-evident that bombing the civilian sites from which the White Helmets rescue these people is a war crime?) – really, why would this be necessary?

Anyone with eyes, ears and brains has been able to watch an entire decades-worth of footage or read thousands of accounts by journalists, human rights activists, NGOs, Syrian civil activists, refugees, international organisations and so on to know that the Assad regime has been committing massive crimes against humanity on a daily basis, and has been responsible for well over 90 percent of all killings and war crimes in that country.

For example, according to a UN Human Rights Commission report in 2017:

“Government and pro-Government forces continue to attack civilian objects including hospitals, schools and water stations. A Syrian Air Force attack on a complex of schools in Haas (Idlib), amounting to war crimes, is a painful reminder that instead of serving as sanctuaries for children, schools are ruthlessly bombed and children’s lives senselessly robbed from them. Government and pro-Government forces continue to use prohibited weapons including cluster munitions, incendiary weapons and weaponised chlorine canisters on civilian-inhabited areas, further illustrating their complete disregard for civilian life and international law.”

Or, as the UN Commission of Inquiry on the war in Syria put it, the regime is guilty of the crime of “extermination.”

White Helmets “propaganda” against the regime would, in other words, be entirely superfluous; making the anti-White Helmets propaganda as mindless as it is malignant.

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